No comments yet

Message Notes: Dear Church-The Church in Ephesus

Dear Church

Week 1: The Church in Ephesus

Pastor Rick Henderson                September 23-24, 2023

Imagine getting a text message from your boss in which he isn’t mean, but he is unedited in his evaluation of your work performance. You’re scrolling through this text, trying to process some difficult feedback. Are you with me? We’re pretending this is real. You’re trying to process some difficult feedback, and then you see it. This is a group text! Your boss included all your coworkers in this very personal message. Are you showing up to work on Monday?

On some level, to some degree, that’s what it must have been like for the first people who received the letter of Revelation. When we think of the book of Revelation, we may think of strange imagery, end-of-the-world, the kind of stuff in dystopian movies. The very first people to ever read it were a collection of seven churches that received Revelation as a personal message from Jesus to them.

If you’ve never read Revelation before and you start now, you might get the impression that the author ate one too many marijuana brownies before writing it. It’s a unique category of writing called apocalyptic literature. It is full of extraordinary imagery. We are going to engage almost 0% of that imagery. But let me just say this, while there are things in the book of Revelation that may be confusing to you, the purpose of the book is pretty clear.

  • Jesus is God and King.
  • It gives encouragement and instruction to Jesus’ followers on how to live for Jesus’ kingdom while living in countries and cultures that oppose the kingship of Jesus.
  • Jesus is sovereign over all of history, and we will reign forever with him in the life to come.
  • Be faithful. Don’t be afraid.

This incredibly important message, which is a personal message from Jesus to seven different churches, is packaged in a group text. They all read what Jesus had to say to them and to the other churches. Why would Jesus do it that way? Why not commission seven distinct, personalized letters, sent separately, instead of combining them into one letter that everyone shared? Maybe this will help.

The better we understand Jesus’ message to OTHER churches, the better we’ll understand his message to OURchurch.

The letters taken together serve as a kind of Church 101. We get to see Jesus’ heart for his church. The dominant New Testament imagery for the church is a bride. Jesus sees his church as his bride. We need to know his heart for his bride. We’re going to read with that mindset.

Over these next 7 weeks, we are going to focus on Revelation chapters 2 and 3, which are the specific letters to 7 different churches. These were real churches, that all existed in the first century. These are literal churches, not symbolic churches representing different time periods in history.


Grab a bible and find this passage. Even if you’re not familiar with how the Bible is laid out, this should be very easy to find. It’s the very last book. Today, we kick off the series by looking at the letter from Jesus to the church at Ephesus. That letter officially begins in Chapter 2, but there are some verses at the end of Chapter 1 that we need first.


When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead.

The context is that the man who wrote this, John, had a vision. That doesn’t mean that he was imagining or pretending. It’s better understood as Jesus pulling back the curtain that separates our world from heaven so that he could see reality as it truly is. That’s scary. If you had an experience like that, you’d fall out too.

Then he placed his right hand on me and said: “Do not be afraid. I am the First and the Last. I am the Living One; I was dead, and now look, I am alive for ever and ever! And I hold the keys of death and Hades.

I’m the first and the last. That means Jesus is God. He’s the boss. He’s the authority. Then we’re reminded of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Why is that important? The resurrection of Jesus is the ultimate fear-buster and grief healer!

The worst thing that could ever happen, happened; and it turned out okay. In fact, all reasons for fear were defeated by the resurrection. We may have to walk some hard roads. But every hard road ends at the same place—VICTORY. No matter what we read next, we need to read it through this filter. Jesus is God and King. The resurrection defeats every fear and heals every cause of grief.

“Write, therefore, what you have seen, what is now and what will take place later. The mystery of the seven stars that you saw in my right hand and of the seven golden lampstands is this: The seven stars are the angels of the seven churches, and the seven lampstands are the seven churches.

What are going to read has some symbolism. Good news. We’re given a cheat code to understand the symbolism.


  • Star = Angel of the church

Does that mean an actual, heavenly being kind of angel? Biblical scholars are divided. The word literally means messenger. Maybe it means something like a guardian angel that watches over our church. Maybe it means the pastor, who is the point leader of the church, or the person responsible for teaching. There’s room for disagreement, and you’re allowed to say, “I don’t know.” Regardless of which interpretation you go with—it doesn’t affect how we interpret the message to each church. Don’t let a lack of clarity about this derail you.

  • Lampstand = church

That one is simple. Let’s keep reading.

“To the angel of the church in Ephesus write: These are the words of him who holds the seven stars in his right hand and walks among the seven golden lampstands.

Jesus is walking among the lampstands; he’s walking among the churches. No matter what kind of road we are walking, he’s walking with us. Everything that we are walking through as a church, Jesus is walking with us. He hasn’t forgotten us. He hasn’t abandoned us. He is with us and for us. We should be encouraged. Every church should be encouraged.

I know your deeds, your hard work and your perseverance. I know that you cannot tolerate wicked people, that you have tested those who claim to be apostles but are not, and have found them false. You have persevered and have endured hardships for my name, and have not grown weary. Yet I hold this against you: You have forsaken the love you had at first. Consider how far you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first. If you do not repent, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place.

What does lampstand mean? Church. What’s at stake is losing the church in Ephesus. Let that settle on us. Christians can be the reason that a city doesn’t have a church. Whoa!

But you have this in your favor: You hate the practices of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate. Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who is victorious, I will give the right to eat from the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God.

The church at Ephesus had an amazing beginning and an incredible run of faithfulness. This church gets a lot of attention in the New Testament.


  • Acts 19: Account of the start and early years of the church.
  • Ephesians: Ongoing teaching for the church.
  • 1 & 2 Timothy: Encouragement to their pastor and teaching for the church.
  • Revelation 2: Message to the next generation of the church.

If you were to take time to read these passages, you would discover a compelling story of radical change. In Acts 19 you’ll read that there were professional sorcerers who left their old way of life to follow Jesus. And when they did, they burned their sorcery scrolls. When they calculated the worth of the scrolls, it came to 50,000 drachmas. That was the equivalent of 136 years’ worth of salary or wages.

This church launched with people throwing away the equivalent of 136 years' worth of salary so they could have Jesus instead. They were that wowed by Jesus. They were that compelled by the love of Jesus. They gave up a fortune because they treasured Jesus more. There were times they faced intense persecution. And they endured with faith and perseverance and an unflinching devotion to truth.

REVELATION 2:2-3 I know your deeds, your hard work and your perseverance. I know that you cannot tolerate wicked people, that you have tested those who claim to be apostles but are not, and have found them false.

They are smart. They know their theology and doctrine. Holiness is important to them. They have the ability to spot truth from error. And they will not suffer frauds. They’ve got former sorcerers on the elder board. These dudes can spot a false teacher a mile away. You’re not going to fool this church, and you’re certainly not going to intimidate them.

You have persevered and have endured hardships for my name, and have not grown weary.

They are tough. They are strong. They are not afraid. Sign me up! I want to be a part of that church.

REVELATION 2:4-5 Yet I hold this against you: You have forsaken the love you had at first. Consider how far you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first.

How does this happen to a church? A pastor who I believe has keen insight into this is Crawford Loritts. He’s not just insightful. Every time I listen to him, I feel like I’m hearing from a man who has been in the presence of God.

Some of us love what we do for Jesus more than we love Jesus…Christian performance apart from the centrality of Jesus will always mean legalism. We are so arrogant sometimes and proud about how right we are. We worship our theology rather than the giver of our theology. –Crawford Loritts

This message from Jesus was a showstopper. It is a stop what we are doing, don’t take another step before doing whatever it is we’ve got to do to come to terms with this message from Jesus. While this was Jesus’ message to one specific church, he saw fit to make sure it was read and considered by every church. What was true of that church may not be true of our church. But we should be honest with ourselves. We are just as vulnerable to losing our first love as they were.

I really want to make sure that you all hear this from me. I’m not suggesting that we should read this and assume it’s true of us. I’m not suggesting that we read this and take it as a condemnation of Autumn Ridge Church. I am suggesting that reading this is a good, loving, and helpful caution for our church and every church. What does a church of forsaken love look like?


  • They are impressed with themselves.

This is a church that thinks they’re special. They’re convinced of how exceptional they are. They know they’re a notch above other churches.

  • Rules > Wisdom

This happens when people elevate certainty over clarity. One of the reasons that we’re vulnerable to this is that we are suckers for defining the good people and the bad people by who does and doesn’t follow our favorite rules. The whole point of the Christian life isn’t rules, but humbly and joyfully submitting ourselves to the one who rules.

  • Knowing theology and Scripture has become an end instead of a means.

A church of forsaken love reduces the Bible to a text book, when they’d be better served to read it the way lovers read letters from each other. We read, and we study to better know Jesus. Knowing the Bible and knowing theology is so good, but it’s not an end unto itself. It’s only good in that it serves our pursuit of Jesus, our understanding of him, so that we are fully prepared for the life we have in him and with him. A church of forsaken love has turned the Bible and theology into an idol.

  • They have excuses for why they don’t really have to love certain kinds of people.

It’s no coincidence that the people whom they don’t have to love are people who are different from them. It’s the people they think are wrong. It’s the people they don’t understand. It’s the people who take an effort to love. Jesus was pretty clear. If we only love the people who are easy to love—that’s not a virtue. That’s not something to be proud of.

  • They are better at building walls than bridges.

Because they are convinced of how much they know, they don’t see the need to invest themselves in understanding. They may love a lot of good things, but this church is harsh.

  • They are quick to fight.

The problem here isn’t courage or a willingness to oppose error, sin, and injustice. The problem is that they treat people like the enemy. And people are not our enemies. Our enemy is not against flesh and blood.

So, what is a church like this to do?

REVELATION 2:5-7 Consider how far you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first.

Have the guts to be honest and collapse on Jesus.

If you do not repent, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place.

I don’t know what the time frame is. No one is more patient than Jesus. And yet, his patience comes to an end. He will disband and remove an unloving church because an unloving church is detrimental to the movement of the gospel.

But you have this in your favor: You hate the practices of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate.

Can we make sure we see that they aren’t commended for hating the Nicolaitans. They are commended for hating the practices of the Nicolaitans. Big difference. If you are wondering who the Nicolaitans were, nobody knows. Whoever they were attempting to infiltrate the church. Whoever they were, they had wrong beliefs and bad behavior. It is right and good and even loving to have no love for wrong beliefs and bad behavior.

Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who is victorious, I will give the right to eat from the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God.

I love the encouragement at the end. If you want to better understand these references, read the last two chapters of Revelation, 21 and 22. God’s people will be united with him in heaven. We will share perfect, unblemished eternal life. Of course, we would repent. Of course, we would turn to the one who loves us so generously and gives us true life.

Will you zoom in on these words? Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches. This line is going to show up in all 7 letters to all 7 churches. This line is about creating a decision point. What are we going to do with what we’ve heard? This is the foundation of our series thesis.

SERIES THESIS: KNOWING the truth doesn’t change anything. SUBMITTING to the truth changes everything.

We all know there is a big gap between knowing the truth and submitting to the truth. In the same way, we all know there is a big difference between having a gym membership and going to the gym. The rest of what we’re going to talk about is all about closing that gap. To do that, we must understand two important concepts. From one angle, they look like the exact same thing, but in reality, they are worlds apart from each other.

There’s a big difference between, but only a short trip from, DISCERNMENT to JUDGMENT.

No language is perfect. Words like these can have deep nuance and multiple definitions. First, let’s talk about what we mean by discernment and then we’ll talk about judgment.


This is not good.

A discerning person or a discerning church can identify wrong beliefs or bad behavior. They can say this is error, this is sin, this is evil, this is an injustice. We’ve got to do that. But what’s going on under the hood? We need to look at what’s driving. This is the framework that supports discernment.

  • It violates love for you.
  • It violates love for others (including me).
  • It violates love for Jesus.

In another lifetime, I was a pastor to high school students. In a culture that has convinced teenagers that’s always wrong to say someone is wrong, how do you plant this in their hearts? I asked them to imagine going to a party. A good friend is their ride to and from the party. You didn’t know there was going to be drinking, but your ride got a bit wasted, and now wants to drive you home. Are you going to let them drive you home?

Of course, they said, “no.” Not only would you not ride with them, you’d do everything you can to keep them from driving. Not because you’re condemning, you’d do that because you’re loving. A discerning person or a discerning church sometimes has to say:

  • I can’t join you.
  • And I’ll even stand against you and work against you.
  • But it’s all driven and motivated by love for you, for others, and ultimately my love for Jesus.

This is truth and grace in action. This is what Jesus did for us. He humbly served us, placed himself in a lowly position to the extreme—all the way to the cross. We were the ones in the wrong. And yet, he stepped into our mess with us so that we could brought into new life and paradise with him. This is the way of the gospel, to be people of discernment.

That’s discernment. This is what we mean by judgment. You could even say judgmentalism if that’s helpful for you.


This is not good.

On the outside, it looks exactly like discernment. So, why does it feel so different? If we could look under the hood, we’d find this.

  • I’m above you.
  • I’m afraid of you.
  • I don’t love you.

Discerning churches have a posture of humility and love. Judgmental churches have a posture of superiority, fear, and lovelessness. At first glance, discernment and judgment can look identical. But the impact and the outcomes are miles apart.

Discernment PUSHES us closer, and judgment PULLS us apart.

Whatever is driven by love will push us into greater unity. Whatever is driven by pride and fear will tear us apart. Which do we want? Would we rather be pushed together in greater unity, even if we don’t always agree with each other, or do we prefer to be pulled apart? I’m going to put you on the spot. I’m taking a survey in real time.

  • Raise your hand if you think being pushed together in greater unity is better.
  • Raise your hand if you think being pulled apart is better.

Since we want to be a church of discernment instead of judgment, let’s practice discernment together right now.


What’s not good?

Let’s talk about things that Autumn Ridge Church is vulnerable to?

  • Rumors and racial tension

Like every church over the past few years, our church has had to navigate all kinds of change. This is a year in which we’re walking through some changes. Add to that that we are a large church. When you blend all of that together, you get a context in which rumors can take hold. Just like your garden at home is perfectly designed to grow both flowers and weeds, the conditions of our context are perfect for growing communication and trust or rumors.

And if we’re honest, we’ve got some weeds growing in our garden. I’m suggesting that because we love Jesus and because we love each other, we would be a church that says, rumors are something that’s not good. Rumors only spread fear, anger, and misinformation.

Let’s be a church that has conversations. If you hear a rumor and it troubles you. If you’ve got concerns or are hearing reports of things that sound wrong to you, what should you do? Love requires that we have a conversation with the people who are actually involved. When it comes to conversations, emails are great for requesting and scheduling a conversation. Email is not great for having a conversation.

This is why we do congregational meetings. We’re going to have our next one in November. We’re going to talk about missions. We’re even going to talk about changes that have been made. I hope you’ll be there. We want to answer your questions. Our staff, our pastors, and our elders are available to you. A pastor, or a pastor and elder, would even be happy to meet with you and any group of people you want to invite. We love doing that. Rumors kill our ability to love each other. Conversations nurture our ability to love each other.

What about this second one, racial tensions? Whenever race and ethnicity come up it often feels radioactive. I don’t think it should. It is our vision, we aspire to be a church of all cultures. We are well on our way. Every continent but Antarctica is represented each weekend at Autumn Ridge. That’s awesome. I would love it if someone whose never been to Autumn Ridge asked a question like, “Is it a white church, or a black church, or a Hispanic church?” It would be so good if the person answering that question had to say, “I get the question. It’s a meaningful question. But it truly is a church of all cultures, and it can’t be defined by one majority culture.”

That’s probably not the answer yet. Maybe one day it will be. In the past 20 years, we’ve seen the number of multicultural churches in America grow from 7% to 22% of evangelical churches. That number has plateaued. We’re stuck and maybe even seeing a decline in the number of multi-cultural churches. That doesn’t tell me that churches are bad or even racist. You know what that tells me? It tells me that what we’re doing doesn’t come naturally. Since it doesn’t come naturally, we must be intentional.

Recently I read about a study that has some helpful information. The survey asked a question:

Which is a bigger problem?

  • Seeing racism where it does not exist.
    • White Evangelicals (72%), White Mainline Protestants (54%), White Catholics (60%)
  • Not seeing racism where it does exist.
    • Black Protestants (88%)

Why do I share this? Because I really want to make it awkward. I’m not accusing anyone of being wrong, racist, or dumb. Here it is. People from different cultures and different ethnicities see the same thing from different angles. We could choose to figure out who is more right and who is more wrong. Or we could embrace the perspective that says that our vantage point is limited, and we are incomplete without each other.

This is one thread in a much larger tapestry of racial harmony. This doesn’t even come close to capturing the big picture. It does help to reveal a vulnerability that we have as a church. If we ever lose our first love, we’ll lose our ability to navigate this well. If we slide into judgment and away from discernment, we’ll lose our ability to walk this journey together, with love for each other.

Being a church that walks with Jesus requires gentleness, humility, understanding, and being fantastic listeners to one another. What I’m talking about doesn’t come naturally. That’s OK. It comes supernaturally. So let’s be a church that continually collapses upon Jesus. Could this be our prayer of response today?

Jesus, we are still wowed by you. And in moments where we take you for granted or become impressed with ourselves, may the Holy Spirit convict us and capture our hearts again. We want to be people of discernment, not judgment. We want to be people who are compelled by our first love. Help us have ears to hear what you want to say. Please help us to be people who are not content to know the truth, but people who joyfully submit to truth. Above all else, we want to please you. You are the only one who has the words of eternal life. Amen.