Volition: Believers discipline and history
Revelation 2:4, 5, "Nevertheless I have against you, that you have left your first [priority] love. Remember therefore from where you have fallen, and repent, and do the first works; or else I will come to you quickly, and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent."
The focus in verse 5 is recovery, and recovery isn't simply confessing your sins. Confession may get you back in fellowship but getting back in fellowship isn't the end result. The goal isn't to just get in fellowship, the goal is to stay in fellowship. The goal isn't to get the recovery of the filling of the Holy Spirit but to maintain the filling of the Holy Spirit u8nder the imperative of Galatians 5:16 to walk by means of the Spirit. We are to abide in Christ—John chapter fifteen. So confession, 1 John 1:9, simply gives us that opportunity to recover but the focus is to recover for a purpose. The focus is to recover in order to stay in fellowship, to walk by the Spirit, abide in Christ, so that we can have that time in fellowship so that the Holy Spirit can work in our life in terms of sanctification, producing maturity. But then, what if you sin? You just confess it, forget it, and move on. The idea isn't to bounce in and out like some sort of ping-pong ball, which is characteristic of an immature believer, but to stay in fellowship.
The Ephesians had fallen by the wayside in terms of their application. That seems to be the thrust here. They are commended for a number of things, which shows that they are advancing at some level or applying the truth. They are not in apostasy like several of these congregations are. They haven't completely compromised with the cosmic system around them, but they have in some sense lost that passion of priority that they once had in their spiritual growth. So the first command here is to remember where they had been in their spiritual life. This is the Greek verb MNEMONEUO [mnhmoneuw], a present active imperative here. There are three imperatives in this verse and they ink together. The first one is a present active imperative, the next two which are "repent" and "do," are aorist active imperatives. The way to remember the difference is that a present imperative emphasizes something that should be a characteristic or standard operating procedure in the Christian life. In English we think of tense as time of action because that is the primary element in tense in English, but in Greek there are two elements. There is a time of action and the kind of action. Time would be either the present time, future time, or past time. Kind of action represents ongoing action, a summary of the action, or completed action. So when you get out of the indicative mood time is irrelevant, it doesn't work at all. In Greek time has nothing to do with tense, it is all kind of action; so you have to infer from the context what the timing is. So here we have a present imperative and it indicates something that should be standard procedure in the life of the believer. We need to remember certain things.
A fascinating study is the study of the importance of memory and remembering in the Old Testament. There were many different admonitions in the Old Testament to remember certain things. History is important, not only history in the broad sense but history in terms of your life. What has the Lord done in your life? Can you look back on your life and remember certain key points in terms of your spiritual growth—answered prayer, or perhaps some crisis that you went through and as you continuously claimed promises and clung to the grace of God and you realized how true and accurate those promises were and how God sustained you. Those are the memorials that we plant down throughout our lives.
So this is what the Lord is emphasizing to these Ephesian believers. Remember something, focus on something, concentrate on something, bring something to memory. We should do this on a regular basis as a reminder of where we have been and where we are going in our own spiritual life. It is the idea of taking a personal spiritual assessment every now and then just to make sure we are not taking grace for granted, taking doctrine for granted, and we are actually going somewhere in our spiritual life.
"From where you have fallen" is an interesting phrase. The word translated "from where" is an adverb that expresses in this case a previous position, a status. They had come from a certain position; they had apparently achieved a measure of spiritual adulthood at some point, and this was a high-water mark in their spiritual growth. But for whatever reason they had fallen from that, from a reputation where they were known for love for all the saints to a position now where that was not a characteristic of them. Their personal love for God was not what it had once been, their impersonal love for all mankind was not what it had once been, and their testimony in the angelic conflict was constantly tarnished. So the adverb here identifies their previous status. Then there is a verb that is translated "have fallen." It is a little difficult to translated this right into the English. The word is PIPTO [piptw], a perfect active indicative, second person singular. So even though he is addressing the congregation which has a large number of people in it he continuously uses second person singulars to address the collective whole as a singular unit. So this reinforces the idea of a corporate testimony. The perfect active indicative indicates completed action. That means they have completed the action of falling from their previous status. The perfect tense always emphasizes the present results of a completed past action. So in this case with the prefect active indicative it is emphasizing the present status. The adverb emphasizes the previous status. The perfect tense emphasizes the present status of a past action, and that past action is their regression in their spiritual growth. They have fallen from a position of spiritual maturity to one of less maturity.
So the first thing they are commanded to do is to remember, to take a little personal inventory and make sure they are going in the right direction. For them, Christ is saying, "Remember. Look back and you will see there has been a regression."
Then the corrective is given: "Repent." This is a word that confuses a lot of people. They think it means to be sorry for their sin, to have remorse, to feel guilty, or to somehow do penance. So we have to always define what repentance means. The issue isn't how we feel about the sin. It is not remorse, it is a change. That is the ultimate goal. Confession gets us back in fellowship, but confession isn't actually the in point, there is this challenge here not just simply to get back in fellowship but to change thinking about something. That is what repentance means. It is the Greek word METANOEO [metanoew] which means to change your thinking. It is a compound word from the preposition META, meaning "after," and NOEO which has to do with thought or thinking of the mind. As an aorist active imperative it means that this is a priority.
So Jesus is telling the Ephesians to change, "and do the first works." Does He mean first in time or first in priority? In verse four where they are told that they had left their first love we saw that that verse was a first in priority or importance, meaning a mature love, not a first in time. But this verse is not a first in priority but a first in time. The reason we know that is because contextually it was preceded by the adverb "from where you have fallen." It is remembering a previous state and being told to go back to that previous state, so it involves time. It is going back to a former production level. They are told to repent, change their thinking, and then the next word is POIEO [poiew], to do or perform, "their first works," i.e. that production they had formerly at a former level of spiritual maturity. Expanded translation: "Therefore remember the former spiritual status from where you are now fallen. Change your thinking and get back to your previous spiritual life priorities [production], and perform in that area of production." They are being challenged to get with it again. They have become complacent and have regressed spiritually.
You don't have to plunge into rank carnality to regress spiritually. Spiritual life is somewhat akin to trying to drive a car up a hill. You only have two gears: forward and neutral. What happens when you slip into neutral and you're driving up a hill is you go backward. That is what happens in the spiritual life. You get complacent and slip into neutral and you will regress. You will lose ground, and the next thing you know you are having to go through some serious recovery.
There is a contrast here, there is a warning here in the middle of this verse. They are told to do three things: remember, repent, and do the first works—or else! This "or else" is a Greek idiom. Literally it means "but if not" or "if you don't do this." Then, "I will come to you quickly," and here there is an interesting combination of verbs here. "I will come" is the present active indicative of ERCHOMAI [e)rxomai], meaning to come or to go. As a present tense it really has a future orientation, and that is clear from the next verb which is a future tense. The word "quickly" is not in the modern translations. Most of the modern translations follow a theory of textual criticism which grew out of some developments in the late 19th century that the oldest MSS were the best, and so if any number of four MSS agree then that is what in a lot of modern textual criticism is followed. It doesn't matter of there are another 2500 MSS that don't have that word or have a different word, they go with what those four say. But there are a number of problems with that whole viewpoint. The word that is used here is TACHU [taxu]. It is an adverb, so it modifies a verb. Therefore it is saying how Jesus will come. The idea here could be one of two things. First of all, TACHU could mean suddenly or unexpectedly. For example, "I am going to come and the way in which I come will be quick, swift, sudden." Or it could have the idea of soon. The KJV translation did an injustice here because often it translates it, "I will come to you soon." Well, it has been 2000; Jesus didn't come "soon." It doesn't means quickly in the sense of soon or in time, it is the idea of, When I come, I will come suddenly and unexpectedly. This word is used seven times in Revelation and it is used in contexts of judgments. It is also used that same way back in Deuteronomy two or three times when the Septuagint translated the Old Testament. When God warned the Jews of judgment in terms of the five cycles of discipline He said that if they were disobedient He would come quickly. The Jewish translators translated it with a form of this adverb TACHU, meaning that it would be suddenly. The idea is that man gets so caught up in his own sin and carnality that he becomes blinded to God, he forgets that God is going to become involved and that the discipline is going to come, and so despite all the warning signs he gets hit over the head by God's discipline in an unexpected way.
So when Jesus said to the church at Ephesus that if they didn't apply these principles in the first part of the verse He would come to them suddenly and unexpectedly. The implication is that this will be in judgment, in divine discipline on the congregation: "and remove your lampstand from its place." This is the future active indicative of KINEO [kinew], meaning to move something, to cause something to be moved from its established place, or to remove it. So the warning of discipline is that the Lord will come suddenly and remove their lampstand. In other words, end the testimony of the church; they will be under divine discipline.
The question that comes to mind is, how did this happen historically? Looking at the modern ecclesiastical scene there is a whole host of churches which have compromised in a much more profound manner than the Ephesian congregation. Look at the impact of 19th century liberalism on most of the denominations. Most of them now are validating women preachers and same-sex marriages, and some of them are ordaining practicing sodomites as their bishops, and the Lord doesn't seem to be removing these churches. It is called grace before judgment! We see the same thing with the church at Ephesus. There was a period of grace before judgment. This warning was given in 95 AD and the first sudden judgment didn't come for about 60 years. In the victory over the Parthians when the soldiers in the Roman army came back and they came through Asia and the port at Ephesus they brought something with them. They brought the plague with them. It was extremely virulent and ripped through Ephesus and killed a large portion of that population. It was sudden, unexpected. Even though that didn't wipe out Ephesus completely they never held the same place in history. They did have one more shining moment in the 5th century when there was a church council held in Ephesus but the congregation of the church there never had the impact it once had. Between the fourth and seventh there were a series of earthquakes. The one that occurred in the fourth century pretty much sent whoever was left among the inhabitants scurrying for cover, and that was the end of significant habitation at Ephesus, but its final desertion didn't come until about the eighth or ninth centuries. The warning of coming suddenly is only said of the Ephesian church.
When we think about God's discipline, even if it is at a personal level in our own life or at a larger level related to a congregation, a nation, what is our response to that? What does this signify? When God is disciplining people it shows that God is intervening in history, and in one sense, depending on how we look at it, God is interfering in history. This is something that man in carnality, fallen man, rebellious man, resents; that God is a God who interferes with and is involved in history. This is just the opposite of the viewpoint of the deists that God just sort of wound up the universe like a clock and tossed it out into space, and He is off doing something else and no longer involved in the day-to-day running of the universe. This demonstrates just the opposite: that God is involved in watching, that Jesus Christ is involved in the day-to-day affairs of the local church and He continuously moves within the context of the local church, and He is involved in discipline. He is intervening personally in history.
The last statement here is a repetition of the previous command. "I will come and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent." It is not just a matter of getting back in fellowship, it is getting back in fellowship, straightening up and moving forward—recover spiritually from where you previously fell. So the conclusion would be translated, "Or else I will come to you suddenly and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you change your thinking [about your own spiritual growth]."
God's interference in our lives in terms of history, in terms of divine discipline. God is a God who is not isolated from us, He is not some absentee landlord just sitting out there, but He is intimately involved in the day-to-day affairs of man; not just the local church, but He is intimately involved in history. Jesus Christ controls history, He is moving history in a particular direction. History is the outworking of God's plan, and if history is the outworking of God's plan, then in terms of various academic disciplines and study there is nothing more important to understand than history. A Christian view of history says that history is moving in a straight line towards a resolution in the Millennial kingdom and the second coming of Christ. In other words, history goes somewhere. If history is going somewhere, what moves it along its path? In other words, what are the causative factors here? What causes things to change?
God has created all of creation, the heavens and the earth and all that is in them—all that is in them. That means all of the laws—economic laws, political laws, social laws—and everything in creation was created and instituted by God. History is ultimately controlled by God. History, though, under girds almost everything else. What is important to understand is this whole idea of causation. History and how we understand history is going to under gird how we understand law, how we understand politics, and how we understand economics. The problem is that most of us were never educated in any of this because we all grew up in a secular education system. The other problem is that most people have never been taught how to think this way.
An example. Starting with law, we are going to elect someone to Congress. Part of the reason we are going to send a representative to Congress is that they are going to pass laws. Well, what is their ultimate concept of what a law is? Does a law reflect absolute right and wrong? Where does that concept of absolute come from? Does it come from society and the people? In other words, majority determining what is right and wrong. That is a flaw in democracy. Majority doesn't determine what is right and wrong. The majority can vote and say that homosexuality is moral. That doesn't make it moral. So when you have legislation that relates to marriage, is that legislation going to be informed by a morality system of values that comes from inside creation, or is it going to come from something outside creation? This is why we have this culture war going on, because as Christians—those who hold to a basic biblical or theistic world view—we believe that God defines reality, and therefore absolutes exist not because they are derived experimentally or socially or by virtue of majority vote but because there is a God and He is not silent, He has spoken. This is why unbelievers hate the fact that Christian fundamentalists believe that the Bible is the very Word of God. They can't stand the fact that God has spoken, because of there is a God and if He speaks He speaks definitively and absolutely.
When someone is elected to Congress and they are going to decide on legislation what are their ultimate views of legislation? And if you are going to study legislation or a particular problem, what is involved in that? You have to look at the history of the problem. How are you going to put that within an overall view of history? Whether the representative to Congress has thought it through or not he is applying a philosophy of history to his analysis of the problem and a solution which is law. So even though most people don't realize it everybody is a philosopher. They either have a well thought out philosophy or a poorly thought out philosophy but everybody is a philosopher, and everybody is a theologian. Some people are bad theologians, some people are good theologians, it just depends on how well they think things through in terms of the Bible.
So there is a legislator and he has to make legislation, what is going to inform that? Well it is also going to have something to do with his view of politics, politics being defined as the social arrangements related to how man is governed, how a group of people is going to be governed, who is in authority, who has the power, who determines right and wrong. There are all kinds of different political frameworks that have been utilized down through history—monarchists, anarchists, socialists, Marxists, republicans in the classic sense of being in favor of a republic, those who hold to classic democracy, all kinds of different views. If you are going to have a political theory, have you as a believer taken the time to study the Mosaic law to understand its implications for law and government? Because God is the King and He is legislating to man through the Mosaic law how the social structure should work in Israel, and since the law is holy and perfect we know that it is a perfect model. It doesn't mean that it should be used as a governing document for any other nation but it is a perfect model for that.
If you are going to develop a biblical view of politics and government you have to do an analysis of the book of Judges. In Judges there are the extremes, almost to the border of anarchy where there is no centralized government, there are just the twelve tribes operating in autonomy, and the theme of Judges is "there was no king (no central authority) in the land, everyone did what was right in his own eyes." So we see that if we put too much emphasis on the people with no central authority it is all going to fall apart, and it is always going to fall apart because man is sinful. Then if you go to the other extreme where you have a strong central government there is warning given by God in 1 Samuel 7—a key political document, one of the most important political statements in all of Scripture—where the Jews want to have a king like all the other nations. God warned them that if they have a king he is going to draft their sons and daughters into the military and into the civil service, he is going to raise taxes, they are going to lose a lot of freedoms, if they have a king like all the other nations because that is the way it works. So if you are going to develop a view of politics or government you had better do a lot of analysis in Exodus, Judges and Samuel or you won't have a biblical view of government. As a Christian you have to operate from the framework of Scripture and not from some human philosophy.
The same thing happens when we get into economics. What is a government's framework for thinking about economics? Is economics just something happens totally within the framework of creation where we have built all of our understanding of financial laws on pure empiricism? If we have, what about God? Doesn't God get involved? What we are saying as Christians is that God interferes in creation. Ultimate causation doesn't happen in creation, and if we operate on pure empiricism or rationalism—which is what all these systems do—and we approach law and legislation and politics and government from a pure empirical or rationalistic framework, we have excluded God, because our view of history is going to be one where all causation happens within history. It is either economic or political or military, whatever it may be. But the Bible says God interferes. He interferes in our life personally because He wants us to be a mature believer. He interferes in the life of a church, and if it is growing then there will be blessing and if it is not growing there won't be blessing.
In Deuteronomy 28 and 29 we have the outline to Israel of the blessings that God would give them if they were obedient and discipline that God would bring upon them if they were disobedient. In chapter 28 God says to them, verse 1, "Now it shall come to pass, if you diligently obey the voice of the LORD your God …" What is the issue here? The issue is obedience in the spiritual realm. "… to observe carefully all his commandments which I command today…" What were those commandments. Those commandments certainly involved the civil laws that were included within the Mosaic law, but they also involved all of the ceremonial laws, all the ritual laws related to sacrifice and the spiritual life of the nation.
Verse 2, "And all these blessings shall come on you, and overtake you, if you obey the voice of the LORD your God." There is nothing here about any school of economics or socialism or Marxism. It didn't matter what the economic theory was, if they did what God told them to do then there was going to be blessing.
Verse 4, "Blessed shall be the fruit of your body, and the produce of your ground, and the increase of your herd…" In an agricultural society this is economic prosperity. When was the last time you picked up Economics 101 and saw that a major positive factor on whether or not you were going to have economic prosperity is your relationship to God? What the Bible is saying is, God interferes because ultimate causation is not inside creation. They are in relation to obedience to God. But what matters is God's plan and purposes for human history, and those revolve around two things in history. One is His plan and purposes for Israel—the Abrahamic covenant: "Those who bless Israel I will bless; those who curse Israel I will curse." It doesn't matter how good your economic or political theory is, if you are anti-Semitic it is not going to work, God is going to judge you. On the other hand it doesn't matter how sloppy you may be, if you are obedient to the Lord and Christians are growing to spiritual maturity, God is going to bless you. This is the factor that we have to be careful of when we are looking at the events around us in history. The ultimate issue has to do with the spiritual life of the believer. With these seven churches in Asia, when they failed, there was judgment on that part of the world.
1) We have to realize that first of all believers are the products of their own decisions. That is those three imperatives: remember, repent and do. It goes back to the first divine institution which is individual responsibility. A divine institution is for believer and unbeliever alike but it is intensified in he life of a believer. A local church is a product of the individual decisions made by the people in it.
2) As goes the believer, so goes the nation. When there are believers advancing to spiritual maturity God is going to bless and prosper the nation.
3) Believers who fail to take every thought captive for Christ—Christianity isn't just about the spiritual life, it affects how we think about law, economics, literature, music, visual arts, dramatic arts, everything—and opt for superficial, self-oriented shallow theologies (which is where we are in our nation), doom their nation to failure. That is what was happening in Ephesus. These believers had reached a high-water mark in their spiritual maturity but they had regressed. They had opted for compromise in their spiritual life to just maintain a low level of spirituality. Most Christians get satisfied if they just get a little bit of maturity. Very few Christians have a vision for getting out of high school and going to university as a spiritually mature adult. They just want to stay in their diapers, and when they do that they doom their nation to destruction.
The challenge for us individually from Revelation 2:5 is that this is incumbent on every believer. We have to remember continuously: Don't become complacent in your spiritual life; don't fall into the trap of thinking it is just information (I know a lot of doctrine), it is putting it into practice, advancing to spiritual maturity, thinking consistently about everything in your life and pushing yourself to learn, to grow, to expand in your understanding of the impact of the Word of God on everything in your life.