The Light Shines on IdolsPastor Lutzer | July 26, 2009
How the early church in Ephesus lost its first love.
Selected highlights from this sermon
The church and the Gospel have always been resisted by the culture, even in the early church at Ephesus. In this message we’ll see how idolatry tore the church in Ephesus apart—and how just thirty years after its founding, Jesus was already telling them that they’d lost their first love. Today, there is no church in the city of Ephesus.
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Today I am going to preach an unusual message in the sense that it’s going to cover an awful lot of territory, and we don’t have a lot of time to cover a lot of territory but we’re going to do it anyway, and it will be like flying over in a jet plane and watching the terrain below. What I have decided to do is to finally give you a message devoted to the question of what it is that saw as we visited the Seven Churches of Asia Minor, which are referred to in the book of Revelation with Jesus dictating a letter to John, written to the Seven Churches. We visited all of them and in my last message I mentioned some things, and I’ll be repeating a few of those things. It’s not because I’m losing it. It’s because as we get to the end of the message I just want to kind of lay it all out on the table.
I gave a message recently at a Bible conference this week and I had eleven lessons that we can learn from these churches. Yesterday afternoon I boiled these lessons down to nine, and we’re going to cover them, even if at the end of the message I just have to list them. Every one of the lessons would be deserving of a separate message, but first of all, to get into it I want to talk about Acts 19 where you have the story of the beginning of the church at Ephesus. Ephesus is today a big city, and one of the things we learned was how far the Apostle Paul had to travel. It was truly remarkable. For example, we were on a ship and we were going from Philippi to Ephesus, and it took an entire night, another entire 24-hour day, and we got there the next day, going about 15 miles an hour (one of the directors of the ship told me).
So the Apostle Paul really had much travel in his agenda, but he came to Ephesus, and today the ancient city of Ephesus is primarily ruins-ruins of temples and ruins of shops. The city is very, very interesting, and you have to walk maybe even a mile–a mile worth of ruins.
Well, what we’re going to talk about today is how the Church was founded, what Jesus had to say to the Church, and then we’re going to say some other things, and then we’ll get into the lessons. That’s the agenda for the next 30 minutes of so.
First of all, let me talk about the way in which the Church was founded. Very briefly we notice in Acts 19 that there are four different responses to the Gospel. It says in verse 8, “He entered the synagogue and for three months spoke boldly, reasoning and persuading them about the kingdom of God. But when some became stubborn and continued in unbelief, speaking evil of the Way before the congregation (The Way was an expression for the Christian faith. Jesus said, “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life.”), Paul withdrew from them and took the disciples with him, reasoning daily in the hall of Tyrannus.” We don’t know where that hall is today, but this continued for two years, and because of the people who received Christ and told others the Bible says that all of Asia heard the word of the Lord.
The one response is to reject the Gospel, and you’ll notice it says some became hardened and stubborn, and Paul says that because of that they went out and lectured at this lecture hall rather than in the synagogue. Some believed and some didn’t. That’s the rejection of the Gospel.
Let me give you a second example of how the Gospel was received. There was a misunderstanding of the Gospel. It was misunderstood. Verse 11 says, God was doing extraordinary miracles by the hands of Paul, so that even handkerchiefs or aprons that had touched his skin were carried away to the sick, and their diseases left them and the evil spirits came out of them.”
There are some faith healers today who sell you holy water or water that they have prayed over. I do not think at all that that’s what was going on here, but notice it says, “Then some of the itinerant Jewish exorcists undertook to invoke the name of the Lord Jesus over those who had evil spirits, saying, ‘I adjure you by the Jesus whom Paul proclaims.’ Seven sons of a Jewish high priest named Sceva were doing this. But the evil spirit answered them, ‘Jesus I know, and Paul I know, but who are you?’ And the man in whom was the evil spirit leaped on them, mastered all of them and overpowered them, so that they fled out of that house naked and wounded.” Wow! What a story!
Here were some exorcists and Satan might have cooperated in their exorcisms. That’s a separate story. That’s maybe why it is that Jesus said, “Many will say to me in that day, ‘We cast out demons in the name of Jesus,’ and I will tell them I never knew you.” It may well be because of the cooperation of Satan in giving the illusion of true exorcisms. These were syncretists and they were willing to use any name or any technique. It’s a marvelous and interesting story. What they thought was, “Oh, the name of Jesus works for Paul? Hey, we’ll use the name of Jesus too,” as if it was a magical charm. They didn’t understand that it is not possible to exercise the authority of Jesus unless you are under the authority of Jesus. There’s no magical word or incantation that is going to do it. Now you see in the history of the Christian Church that this has been an error. You think, for example, during the days when the Mass was in Latin. If you asked the people what was being said, the answer was that it didn’t matter because it was the act itself that was important.
I was in the Blue Mosque in Istanbul five years ago, speaking to one of the guides, who always prayed in Arabic. I asked him if he understood Arabic, and he said, “No, not at all, but all of our prayers are in Arabic.” I said, “Do you know what you are saying?” He said, “No, I don’t but I don’t have to because it’s in the act of saying it itself that has value.” And then he referred to the Latin Mass in the established church.
So, there’s always that danger of impersonalizing the Gospel by saying, “Give me the formula, give me the words, and that’s all I need.” Well, this proved that it didn’t work, didn’t it? I mean, what an amazing story. The demon said, “Paul I know, and Jesus I know, but who in the world are you?”
Now, let me ask you a question, dear saint. Is your name known among the evil hosts that Satan controls? Does he say, “Yes, I know the name of that sister because of the way in which she prays, and the way in which she can stand against Satan”? Is your name known in the spirit world because of how you stand against it?
So we have examples of the Gospel rejected, and the Gospel misinterpreted, and no wonder the Bible says that after that, fear came upon everybody and the name of the Lord was honored. I guess so. Once this story got out people began to give Jesus a second look for sure.
Now, let me give you a third response. A third response is to practice the Gospel. You’ll notice it says in verse 18, “Many of those who were now believers came, confessing and divulging their practices. And a number of those who had practiced magic arts brought their books together and burned them in the sight of all. And they counted the value of them and found it came to fifty thousand pieces of silver. So the word of the Lord continued to increase and prevail mightily.” It tells you a couple of things. It tells how much silver their things would be worth. Actually when it says books, the Greek word is a little bit ambiguous there. I think you could almost translate it paraphernalia. Maybe it was some books or manuscripts in those days. It probably also involved some of their shrines, and some of the things that they used in their occult practices, and they did the best thing. They had a bonfire and they burned them. There are missionaries who come back from the mission field and bring artifacts with them that were used in heathen worship. That’s a bad idea. It’s best to get rid of them. If you can’t burn them, throw them in the garbage.
Some of you ought to take things that you have in your homes and burn them in the garbage. There is music that should be burned in the garbage. There’s no question about it. Just yesterday somebody was telling me about some kinds of heavy metal music that is just filled with aggression, Satanism, and all kinds of things, and I say to the young people particularly who are listening to this kind of stuff, the best thing to do is to burn them, throw them away, take an ax or give the ax to somebody who has used one before and smash them to bits. Take the pornography out of your garage and burn it too. I mention that because one man told me that’s where he kept his. So whatever it is that causes you to fall back into the same sin, get rid of it. Just get rid of it. Don’t make provision for the flesh. When it comes to sin, take care of it. Somewhere I read that if you are going to jump across a chasm it is much better to do it in one long jump than in two short ones. (laughter) And when you get rid of sin, do it up right.
All right, now we have those responses. Let’s go now to another response, and that was they were enraged because of it. Verse 23 says, “There was a man by the name of Demetrius, a silversmith, who made silver shrines of Artemis, and he brought no little business to the craftsmen. These he gathered together, with the workmen in similar trades,” and basically I’ll give you a summary of his speech. He said, “We’re losing money. People who are coming to Christ aren’t buying these little shrines anymore, and Paul is saying that the gods made with hands are not gods.” Doesn’t that amuse you? Well, I would think so. I would think that if you made it with your hands it’s probably not a god, but anyway, there are people today who have idols in their homes. They would not call them idols but they are idols. They bow before them. They may kiss them. And verse 17 continues by saying, “There is the danger not only that this trade of ours may come into disrepute but also that the temple of the great goddess Artemis may be counted as nothing, and that she may even be deposed from her magnificence, she whom all Asia and the world worship.”
This was actually the great temple of Artemis or Diana, and it was famous. Now there were all kinds of other small ones, but this is the one that was central, and by the way, whole tour groups would come to worship there. That’s another reason, you see, why they were making so much money off of these idols. It was because of all the tourists that came to look and to pray, and this was one of the Seven Wonders of the World–the wonderful great temple, and so what he’s really calling into question is this. This is so interesting. First of all, he begins by talking about the fact that they are losing money, and then it gets to a matter of worship and the whole bit.
Now look at what happens next. It says, “When they heard this they were enraged and were crying out, ‘Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!’ So the city was filled with the confusion, and they rushed together into the theater, dragging with them Gaius and Aristarchus, Macedonians who were Paul’s companions in travel.” And today when you are there in the ancient ruins of the city of Ephesus you can see the theater, and this is where that happened. Now it is true that the theater that you see is one that has been reconstructed. It was rebuilt, but here’s the theater. You know, when you take these tours you are just amazed at the Bible, how that it deals with real events and real situations. The whole thing is real, and here you see the theater into which they came.
Now, there’s a verse here and I have to tell you that Darryl Worley, who used to be on staff at the Moody Church, used to say that this was one of his favorite verses. I shouldn’t tell this about him, but he said that with a smile on his face. I always say it sounds like an Independent Baptist annual meeting. You’ll notice it says in verse 32, “Now some cried out one thing, some another, for the assembly was in confusion, and most of them did not know why they had come together.” (laughter) There are some church meetings like that but all of this is happening here in the theater at Ephesus and you have this rebellion.
All right, now later on (years later) the Apostle Paul (And you’ll have to read the whole chapter to find out what he did. We don’t have time; we’re going today on a jet plane.) writes the book of Ephesians and he writes a letter to this church. It’s one of the most beautiful, deep letters in all the New Testament. He prays for them twice in that letter, and once he prays that they might know the length and the depth and the height of the love of God.
All right, now we fast-forward thirty years to Revelation 2 where it says, “To the angel of the church in Ephesus write: ‘The words of him who holds the seven stars in his right hand, who walks among the seven golden lamp-stands, I know your works, your toil and your patient endurance, and how you cannot bear with those who are evil, but have tested those who call themselves apostles and are not, but found them to be false. I know that you are enduring patiently and bearing up for my name’s sake, and you have not grown weary. But I have this against you. You have abandoned the love you had at first. Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. If not, I will come to you and remove your lamp-stand from its place, unless you repent.”
Well, as we noticed in the last message, there is no lamp-stand in Ephesus. Oh, there in the modern city there may be believers, but there is no place where you can say, “Oh, here’s a church.” Islam has snuffed out the Church in these seven different areas, not that there was a church building as such. When Jesus was writing this it was probably a house church, but the question still is this. What do we have to learn? And in order to help us I want to refer one more time to Hagia Sophia.
Hagia Sophia is the Church of Holy Wisdom in Istanbul. It was dedicated in the year 537 by Justinian, an emperor. I’d love to tell you today why an emperor got involved doing this, but we don’t have time, but you’ll know that it was by an emperor, and one of the reasons I wanted to be there (and I was there five years ago and then again recently) is because the architecture of Moody Church is patterned after Hagia Sophia. When you go inside the church you can see some of the parallels, and that Moody Church was inspired by Hagia Sophia. Our architecture is a combination of Byzantine architecture and also Romanesque. It’s really both, and so I wanted to go there, and God in his grace has given me the opportunity to be there twice.
Now it becomes a symbol for all that I am talking about. A Christian church from 537 to 1453 when Constantinople fell, it was turned into a mosque for 500 years, and since the 1920s has been a museum. All of the major churches of Constantinople (as it was called back then and is Istanbul today) have been turned into mosques.
So with that background, what I would like to do now is to give you the nine lessons.
First of all, as I begin these lessons, let me say that the Church is really important to Jesus. I told you nine lessons. I had eleven this week. One of the first was the importance of the Church to Jesus. It is He who walks among the Golden Candlesticks. He observes our worship. He goes up and down the aisle. He watched today what we gave in our offering. He watched whether or not we were singing, or whether or not we were just standing there wondering when the song was going to be over. Jesus says the Church is number one, and He walks amid the candlesticks, and He walks at Moody Church, and no matter where you are listening to this today, He walks down the aisle of your church too, and notices everything that is done. Wow!
Very quickly, the nine lessons!
Number one, the continuation of any church (congregation) can never be taken for granted. I know that some of you will want to write these lessons down, and of course, you can, but I’m also thinking of a way by which we can get them to you so that they are written out in advance with some commentary. We’ll think of a way.
First of all, then, the existence of any congregation and the continuation of it can’t be taken for granted. There were churches there and they are not there now. I understand here in America that there was a church that became a restaurant serving fried chicken and it was known in the area and people came to it, and the question was, “How did you end up selling fried chicken?” Well, the answer was “in order to supplement the budget we began to sell fried chicken and we got better at selling fried chicken than we did selling the Gospel,” so today the church sells fried chicken. Usually when a church closes it is because of the church’s neglect of a lot of different things. Sometimes it may not be. You have situations in the world today where radicals come in and they wipe out a whole congregation and shoot them in the church. If that church closes it’s not because of unfaithfulness, but usually it is because of unfaithfulness. Now you can understand why each of these lessons is one that needs explanation.
Secondly, the Church has always been an island of righteousness in a sea of paganism. Come with me to Pergamum where there was a whole complex of temples, and there’s the temple of Hadrian that we saw, and Hadrian said that “you have to worship me,” and the Christians were there, and when Jesus wrote the letter to the church at Pergamum, what did he say? He said, “I know where you dwell. You are dwelling where Satan’s seat is.”
By the way, do you know that God knows where you dwell too? God says to you today, “I know where you work. I know the people around you. I know what they are saying behind your back. I know what you are going through. I understand.” And so Jesus said that to the church at Pergamum. “You are where Satan’s seat is but you have the opportunity of representing me in the midst of Satan’s seat,” and some people think that Satan’s seat was the temple to Zeus that was there. If that’s the case, I have walked on Satan’s seat. In the 1920s German archeologists went to Pergamum. They took apart the altar to Zeus stone by stone and they reconstructed it in Berlin, and today if you go to Berlin, whatever you do, do not miss the Pergamum Museum. And there in Berlin you not only see that, but you actually see a reconstruction of the original Ishtar Gate. It’s an amazing museum to see, but the Church has always been an island of righteousness in a sea of paganism.
Third, the Church has always had resistance from the culture. You think for example of Ephesus. Here you have these makers of shrines getting mad. The Church always impacts culture, and the reason that it impacts culture is because the Church is always going to challenge the idols of its culture. Today there’s the idol of eroticism, the idol of materialism, and the idols of self-aggrandizement. We need to always challenge all of them as a Church and the world will resist that.
Let’s suppose you are a Christian businessman in Ephesus. Would you have sold those little shrines? Would you have sold them saying, “I need to make a business too. I mean they are selling them next door,” and then reason that people are going to buy them anyway. “I mean it’s not as if I’m the only seller of them. That’s the biggest trade in town when tourists come from all over the (then known) world in order to worship at the great temple. Sure, sure, I’d sell them,” we say to ourselves. Or would you say, “I refuse to sell these idols that are going to be used in worship, even if I have to shut down and trust God for my next loaf of bread?” What would you do?
Recently I was talking to a friend of mine who is involved in a court case in which three Christians under oath lied because they were representing a certain company and they probably knew that if they told the truth they would be fired from their jobs. How much does integrity mean to us? At what point are we as individuals, and we as a church, tempted to compromise with our culture? The culture is always going to put pressure on us. Always! That’s lesson number three.
Number four, even when the Church (I love this one) is in the hands of Satan; it is still in the hands of God. Jesus said to the church at Smyrna, “There are those from the synagogue of Satan who are going to persecute you, and Satan will throw you into prison for ten days.” Now let me say that if Jesus said it’s going to be ten days, it’s not going to be eleven because He is sovereign. And then Jesus said, “Be faithful unto death and I will give you the crown of life.” Wow! You see, even though they are in Satan’s hands, they are to be falsely accused and delivered over to prison and Jesus said, “You are still in my hands though because the worst that they can do to you is to kill you. Be faithful unto death and I’ll give you the crown of life.” You say, “Well if I don’t die as a martyr, can I get this special crown?” Yes, you can. It’s referred to one other place in the New Testament (in James 1:12) where it says, “Blessed is he who overcomes temptation for he will receive the crown of life.” If you are single and there is pressure on you to be sexually immoral and you continue to stand your ground and you continue to say no, or you are married and you are involved in temptation, and you say no, I’m going to keep my vows, I’m going to be committed,” the Bible says if you overcome temptation you too can receive the crown of life. It’s a special crown.
Of course, everybody who believes in Jesus has eternal life, but this is a special enjoyment of eternal life. That’s why we also can be faithful where God has planted us, but the point is this. Here’s a church thrown into the hands of the devil, but it’s still in the hands of God. It is just like when Jesus died on the cross. The Bible says wicked hands crucified Him. Okay, wicked hands crucified Him, but what does Jesus say as He looks up in His dying breath? He says, “Into thy hands I commit my spirit.” He’s still in the hands of God, even though He was given into the hands of Satan.
Let’s go on to the next one. We’re making progress. Number five: the size of a church is not as important as its character. I read the seven letters and I don’t hear Jesus say a single thing about the fact that you should be bigger and you should be growing. Now, of course, I believe that churches should be growing. We want to grow as a church. We want to grow to have a greater impact in our community and to touch more lives, but Jesus doesn’t say anything about that. All that he talks about is their relationship to him-whether or not they are morally pure, whether or not they are doctrinally sound, whether or not they are compromising with the world, and the other things. That’s all that Jesus has to say about them. Wow! That’s very unlike a lot of books that have been written about the church. They have no political power. None! Jesus said to one of the churches, “I know you are poor (and then in parenthesis), but you know you are rich.” Wow! That’s interesting. That’s the church at Smyrna, the one that is being persecuted. Jesus just throws that in.
To the church at Philadelphia he says in effect, “You don’t have a lot of might but you did keep my word.” Wow! How differently Jesus looks at the Church than in the way in which we have been schooled to look at it. So the issue is not the size of the church nearly as much as its character and its relationship to Him. That’s another lesson that we can learn.
Number six is it’s not necessary to have freedom to be faithful to the Gospel. We’re concerned about our freedoms being gobbled up. Well, yeah, they might be, but you know martyrs throughout the centuries have proven you don’t have to have freedom to be faithful. Right from the early church, you know, we obey God rather than men. If you’re going to throw us into prison, throw us into prison, but we’re not going to stop talking about Jesus. That’s all that we can say. It’s always been that way.
What if I were to tell you that more Christians died after the Reformation and were massacred because they believed that one should be baptized upon profession of faith rather than as an infant? On that issue more Christians died and were massacred than died in the persecutions of Rome. You say, “Pastor Lutzer, you can’t throw that out without explaining it.” Oh yeah, I can. It’s always been the lot of the true church to be persecuted. It’s the bloodline. Churches and individuals have always proved you do not need freedom to be faithful to the Gospel.
Number seven is Jesus knew in every church there would be those who would have ears and those who wouldn’t. You know, “Those who have ears to hear, let him hear.” Well, everybody has ears. Most people do, but they just don’t get it. In every church there are those who get it and those who don’t. There are those who let it blow past them, and those who say, “Wow! This is a letter from Jesus. We’d better obey it and we’d better listen carefully.” There are always two. And you know the statements that Jesus made about overcomers in the book of Revelation boggle your mind. “He who overcomes I will give him hidden manna,” and “He who overcomes I will give him a name that no one else knows except he and me.” Your wife won’t even know the name that Jesus gives you. It’s going to be between you and Him. I mean this is mind-boggling.
We get to Laodicea, and by the way, today Laodicea is a pile of stones. You can see the ruins of the city. We walked possibly half a mile at least in Laodicea. There is an old amphitheater there, but that’s the church, you know, that is lukewarm and most people misinterpret what Jesus said. You know I’ve heard preachers say ever since I was young something like this: “Jesus said, ‘I would that you be cold or hot, but not lukewarm,’” and so cold was referred to as a stone heart. It’s better to have a stony cold heart or to have a hot heart, which of course is best, but it’s better to have a stony cold heart than it is to be lukewarm. Of course that’s not what Jesus was saying. It doesn’t make any sense even. When you go to Laodicea you finally see it. I read about this but now I saw it with my eyes. On the one hand from Hierapolis you’ve got this aqueduct bringing hot water. On the other side you have another aqueduct coming from the other direction, which brought cold water. They used both cold and hot. They used hot for healing. They used cold for refreshment, and what Jesus was saying is, “Either be cold and refresh people, or be hot and heal people, but be one or the other. Whatever you do, do not be a combination of the two. Don’t be lukewarm.” That’s what Jesus meant, but then to that church he says, “If you overcome, I’ll grant for you to sit with me on my throne even as I overcame and sat on my Father’s throne.” You say, “Jesus, you can’t be serious.” Is overcoming worth it? Is it worth it? Think of the promises and think eternity.
We’re coming close to the end but we’re not there yet.
Number eight is the continuation of the church always depends on its message. Would you come with me one more time to Hagia Sophia, the Church of Holy Wisdom? When you now go into the balcony what you see are crosses that were a part of the original masonry and if you look carefully you’ll notice that those crosses are defaced. The crosses are chiseled out. You can still see that there were crosses there but they are defaced. Five years ago when I was with my Muslim guide (a very, very devout Muslim and we got along very well though we did have some very strong conversations), he showed them to me and he said, “No Muslim can ever pray in the presence of the cross. We can have pictures of Mary, but we cannot have the cross.” I looked at a door and I thought for a moment that it had a cross, but actually I went and rubbed it with my hand and realized that the cross had been ripped off and what I saw instead was simply the form or shadow of where the cross had been. And the issue will always be the cross.
As I mentioned last time, Evangelicals neglect the cross, and it is the cross of Jesus Christ, both preached and lived (“Whosoever is not willing to carry his cross and come after me,” Jesus said, “cannot be my disciple.”) that is the real issue. The real issue always has to do with the Gospel. The American Evangelical church is abandoning the Gospel and we forget the words of Bonhoeffer who said, “It is not before us but before the cross that the world trembles.” That is number eight.
Number nine is that we as a church have to think through how to prepare the next generation for what it will face. About five years ago there was a speaker at Moody Bible Institute, who was a convert from Islam to Christianity, and his expertise was Islamic law, and he gave a lecture to the pastors, which he wouldn’t allow to be taped, on what it would mean for America if sharia law were instituted. It was chilling. Perhaps I mentioned to you right after that lecture that I saw him in the Commons and said, “Let’s have coffee together.” We were talking of what to do, and finally in the middle of our conversation I said, “We have to prepare the next generation to be martyrs for Christ,” and he pointed his finger at me and put his finger right against my chest and said, “That’s what God has called you to do–to prepare the next generation to be martyrs for Christ.” We need to think in those terms. We need to think historically. We need to think of what the Church has gone through in previous eras, and we have to think about what is happening in the United States of America.
Now I conclude today by asking you a question. What does the cross mean to you? Can you point to a time in your life when you received Christ as Savior where you say, “This is the day I was converted, I acknowledged my sin, I prayed, and I received the Lord”? If you can’t do that, almost surely you are not saved, even though you think you might be. There is a lot of deception going on in that area. The cross of Christ alone is able to bring us to God through the forgiveness of sins, through the bridge between God and men. Jesus Christ, a redeeming God, died on the cross and it is to the cross that we cling, and it is the cross that we gladly identify with in our lives privately and publicly.
Let us pray.
If you have never trusted Christ as Savior, right now say, “Lord Jesus, I know that I am a sinner, and you died for sinners, and I receive you by faith as my sin bearer.”
Father, whatever the implications are of the cross, we ask today that you’ll help us to live it out and may we be faithful. I think of the many people who are here today at The Moody Church. Lord, multiply our numbers, not because numbers are important in terms of ministry, but because numbers represent lives, and lives represent the opportunity of more people hearing the good news of the Gospel. We don’t want to become large to be known as large. We want to become, Father, what You want us to be in Your blessed presence, and You add people to us according to Your good will and pleasure. May this be a time of dedication, we ask in Your blessed name, Amen.