By: D.A. Horton– “Get saved and then get to work.” This phrase is said either explicitly or implicitly in many churches. Once people place their faith in Christ, they’re often given a list of rules—works—to follow. Read the Bible. Pray. Go to church gatherings on Sundays. Volunteer. You know the drill. Get to work, and when you’re tired, work some more. But surely there’s more to following Jesus than a to-do list.
From the onset of the letter to the Ephesian church in Revelation 2, it seems that the Ephesians were doing all the right things—seeking to live in purity, rebuking false teachers, and laboring through hardship. Jesus even commended the believers for these things. Paul’s beautiful letter to the Ephesians, decades before this was written, likely laid a deep foundation for their theology and identity. They knew right from wrong, and they knew how to work hard for the Kingdom. Read Jesus’ words to the church:
Write to the angel of the church in Ephesus: Thus says the one who holds the seven stars in his right hand and who walks among the seven golden lampstands: I know your works, your labor, and your endurance, and that you cannot tolerate evil people. You have tested those who call themselves apostles and are not, and you have found them to be liars. I know that you have persevered and endured hardships for the sake of my name, and have not grown weary. But I have this against you: You have abandoned the love you had at first. Remember then how far you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. Otherwise, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent. Yet you do have this: You hate the practices of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate. Let anyone who has ears to hear listen to what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who conquers, I will give the right to eat from the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God. Revelation 2:1-7
Notice that Jesus included both compliments and rebukes. He praised them for their strong doctrine, their defense of the faith, and their good ethics. Although Jesus was sincere in these compliments, the Ephesian believers were by no means perfect. They were practically running a theological training school—let’s call it the first seminary (see Acts 19:8-10)—and they were standing firm against cultural pressures, but their love for Jesus had grown cold. They focused on the important work they were doing but forgot why they were doing it.
Read these words about Kingdom work from the Book of James:
What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but does not have works? Can such faith save him? If a brother or sister is without clothes and lacks daily food and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, stay warm, and be well fed,” but you don’t give them what the body needs, what good is it? In the same way faith, if it doesn’t have works, is dead by itself. But someone will say, “You have faith, and I have works.” Show me your faith without works, and I will show you faith by my works. You believe that God is one. Good! Even the demons believe—and they shudder. James 2:14-19
James was telling his audience that simply believing God is real doesn’t save anyone. Even Satan and his demons know God exists. James took it a step further, saying works are an integral part of showing and proving that we truly love God. Want to know whether your faith is legitimate? Compare it to the command Jesus said is the greatest:
Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength. … Love your neighbor as yourself. Mark 12:30-31
This was the question the Ephesians needed to answer. Did they love God with their hearts and souls or just with their minds and strength? Jesus would provide the answer. He was so intimately near and involved in the lives of the Ephesians that He was able to say, “I know your works, your labor, and your endurance” (Rev. 2:2). Right off the bat, we see that these brothers and sisters got to work. It would be hard to say they had no faith if we merely looked at all the shiny fruit hanging from the vine. But Jesus sees the roots too. He sees our work for what it is—good (motivated by love) and bad (motivated by performance).
This is a busy congregation; they were doing a lot of work to defend the Christian faith and to maintain external purity. They toiled through hardship and maintained their endurance—finishing the work they set out to do.
Jesus also commended the church for their good theology and willingness to remove false teachers from the congregation. Like Jesus, they hated “the practices of the Nicolaitans” (v. 6). Not much is known about the Nicolaitans, but some early Christian sources link them to sexual sin and eating meat sacrificed to idols. They were people who claimed to be Christians but abused God’s grace. Their works weren’t from faith but from their desire to indulge in sin. The Ephesians didn’t tolerate the Nicolaitans’ hypocrisy.
No doubt it can be good to recognize sins in others. In 1 Corinthians 5 Paul scolded the church for allowing someone to walk around in sin unchallenged. He even went so far as to recommend that they kick the man out of the church. The Ephesians followed Paul’s actions with the Nicolaitans. Yet theEphesians didn’t recognize their own hypocrisy. They had become programmed machines, going through the motions but disconnected from the reason they existed in the first place. They knew the right doctrine but struggled to love the God they were created to work for.
Because we’re all created in God’s image, our good deeds are truly useful only if they’re connected toHis holy character. Yes, faith without works is dead, but works without living faith in God are also worthless:
Now without faith it is impossible to please God, since the one who draws near to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him. Hebrews 11:6
Jesus pointed out that works are good as long as they’re truly motivated by faith and love. The Ephesians’ works, however, were ultimately motivated by something other than love. Yet Jesus didn’t leave the Ephesians, and He won’t leave us. As we’ll see, He provides us with grace and encouragement to love Him passionately, and He promises that we’ll live in His grace for eternity.
Excerpted from D. A. Horton, Letters of the Revelation Bible Study. © 2017 LifeWay Press. Used by permission.
D.A. Horton is an author, speaker, artist, and preacher. He currently serves as Lead Pastor of Reach Fellowship a church plant in North Long Beach, CA.