Yesterday I was in conversation with a Polish church leader who vulnerably admitted something the rest of the group could relate to easily. “In the first years of my ministry I was extremely conscious of my dependence on God and aware of the need for God to work despite my weaknesses. However, as the years passed, I noticed how my growing confidence, experience, demands and the busyness of ministry, so easily get in the way of my relationship with God.”
It is natural to assume that time will only grow a closer relationship. But we only have to observe some marriages to know that is not the case.
The Bible offers us a warning in the form of a chilling case study: Ephesus.
The First Ten Years – When we first meet the new believers in Ephesus, in Acts 19-20, we see men and women zealous for God. They were so gripped by God that they willingly burned a fortune of sinister content (19:19). What was happening in their midst, even with strong pushback against the Gospel by the local legalistic Jews, marked the entire region as the gospel spread across Asia Minor (19:10).
History confirms the impact of the gospel on the region as we can read half a century later “that the temples, which had been almost deserted, have begin to be frequented, that the established religious rites, long neglected, are being resumed, and that from everywhere sacrificial animals are coming, for which until now very few purchasers could be found.” (Pliny the Younger, governor of Bithynia, to Emperor Trajan, on how to deal with Christians.)
During Paul’s final encounter with the Ephesian elders in Acts 20, he is passionate about the gospel of God’s grace, and they are with him in that. His concern for them is not their passion, or love, or zeal, but that they might be vulnerable to false teaching.
Five years later, or so, we see Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. We read of Paul’s thanksgiving for their love toward all the saints, and his prayer that they might be given a greater spiritual knowledge of God (1:15-18). He prays again at the end of chapter 3 that they might experience the fullness of spiritual union and know the love of Christ. He still seems more concerned about their vulnerability to false teaching (4:14), while urging them to “walk in love” in their relationships with each other, knowing that they are beloved children of God and loved by Christ (5:1-2).
Just a few years later, Paul writes to Timothy in Ephesus, giving him instruction for the health of the church there. He still seems concerned about the potential impact of false teaching (see 1Tim. 1:3-11, 6:3-5), and emphasizes throughout the two letters the need for careful and effective Bible teaching (see 2Tim.4:1-5)
Thirty Years Later – As the aged Apostle John encounters the risen Christ on Patmos, he is given seven letters from Christ himself. The first is to Ephesus. The report looks good. They have become a solid church with strong discerning abilities to spot false teachers. They have become a persevering church with diligent determination to press on in the face of opposition. But one of the most chilling verses in the Bible comes next. “But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first.” (2:4)
Enduring. Discerning. Hard-working. Loveless. Ouch!
So what is Christ’s perspective on that combination? Surely a bit of maturity, a “cooling of the jets,” is okay in exchange for all the solid strength of that church? Surely Christ knows that “first love” can be highly emotional and maturity is more to do with ability to think well, determination to endure, and so on? Everyone knows a marriage will move past the initial season of infatuation?
Actually, Christ is deadly serious about the danger of this “progress.” If they would not repent and return to the zealous manifestation of love for him, then the church would lose its lampstand.
The Invitation – Each of the seven letters to the seven churches follow a pattern. They begin with a description of Christ, get into the positives and/or negatives of the church situation, and end with a call to hear the message combined with a promise to the one who overcomes. Christ, church, promise. Three main elements, and, if you look carefully, there will always be a thread of consistency throughout each letter. That is, what holds each letter together is the key to making sense of that letter.
To the church in Ephesus Christ is described as being intimate with his churches. He holds their messengers in his hand, and he walks among the churches. The church at Ephesus may look like a model church, but they have left the love relationship behind. The promise given to Ephesus anticipates future access to the tree of life, located in the paradise of God – the place where God and Adam walked together.
Love for Christ is not some emotional first flush that we can safely move past and then head on toward maturity. Of course, there may be a zeal in early married life that gives way to a more settled companionship as life grows complex. But a healthy marriage will always be marked by growing love for the other, and marred by growing coldness toward the other.
What is true for a church, is true for a marriage, is true for us and Christ. It is easy to grow cold as our focus shifts to ourselves: our growing competence, our growing experience, our growing influence, our growing busyness. It is easy to lose that love, but it is dangerous.
Pause, pray, reflect, repent. When I am old I want that twinkle in my eye and tenderness toward my wife that charactises the best of marriages. I want the same in my relationship with Christ. Don’t you?