Every local church has its own personality, identity, distinctives, gifts, and atmosphere. These differences can be observed in the various churches of the New Testament (Acts 17:11). The one quality, however, that should beautify every believer and every church, regardless of giftedness or personality, is love. Thus the thing that should be of utmost concern to every believer and every church is this: Does a Christlike spirit of love permeate the atmosphere of our church?
The church in Ephesus was not a new church. It was a well-established church sound in doctrine and faith. The Ephesian believers, you can be sure, attended church regularly, knew their doctrine, celebrated the Lord’s Supper, rejected false teachers, did good deeds, carried out their responsibilities, lived upright lives, prayed, and sang, but they lacked love.
D. A. Carson, professor at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, wrote an article on Revelation 2:4 titled A Church that Does All the Right Things, But….Describing this kind of church, Carson writes:
They still proclaim the truth, but no longer passionately love him who is the truth. They still perform good deeds, but no longer out of love, brotherhood, and compassion. They preserve the truth and witness courageously, but forget that love is the great witness to truth. It is not so much that their genuine virtues have squeezed love out, but that no amount of good works, wisdom, and discernment in matters of church discipline, patient endurance in hardship, hatred of sin, or disciplined doctrine, can ever make up for love-lessness.4
Let me illustrate what the kind of lovelessness that so deeply offends our Lord looks like. A popular young preacher and Bible teacher visited a church to preach. He was a good teacher and you could sense his love for the Word and for people. During a time of prayer with a few believers prior to the service, he joined them, asking for God’s Spirit to speak to the people, especially the unconverted. After the service, he stood at the front door greeting each individual. It was obvious that he enjoyed talking to the people. In fact, he was the last person to leave the church. He then went to the home of the family he was staying with and had dinner with other people from the church. It was a delightful time of fun, fellowship, and profitable conversations.
Fifteen years later, the same preacher returned to the church to speak. He still preached the Word faithfully, defended sound doctrine, studied hard, kept a busy schedule, and greeted everyone in a friendly manner, but something was different. During the time of prayer before the service, he kept silent. After preaching, he rushed to the front door, but displayed only superficial pleasantries with those he greeted. Within fifteen minutes, he left the church. He no longer shared a meal with people from the church, and he insisted on staying in a hotel rather than in someone’s home.
Something had changed in this preacher’s life and ministry. While there is nothing necessarily wrong with wanting to stay at a hotel or stipulating an honorarium, in this case these were subtle indicators of a change in spirit. He didn’t pray when others did. He didn’t spend time with brothers and sisters as he once did. He left the church as soon as possible. Even his preaching seemed more scripted than heartfelt. Many who heard him may not have sensed the change, but some did. What was the difference? He had lost the love he had previously displayed. Jesus would say to this preacher, “I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first.”
Why Is Love So Important?
Why is the loss of love so serious? Why does it distress our Lord so deeply? Why is his threat of judgment so severe? Why is it a life or death issue for a local church? The answers are provided by Christ himself and those he commissioned as apostles.
First, Jesus taught that “the great and first commandment” is to love God completely, totally, and unreservedly—with all one’s heart, with all one’s soul, and with all one’s mind (Matt. 22:37-38; Mark 12:28-34). The sum of all God’s commandments and all religious service is love for God. It is the believer’s first priority. It is the reason we were created. Nothing in life is more right, more fulfilling, and more rewarding than loving God our Creator and Savior.
Second, Jesus declared the second commandment is like the first: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself ” (Matt. 22:39). Jesus makes love for God and neighbor inseparable companions. He summarized the heart of genuine religion, true inner spirituality, and all moral conduct by the double command to love God and love your neighbor. His own assessment of love is: “On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets” (Matt. 22:40), and “There is no other commandment greater than these” (Mark 12:31).
Hence, Christ’s followers are to be marked not only by total devotion to God but also by sacrificial service to neighbor. This neighbor love, according to Jesus, includes loving our enemies, our persecutors, and the unlovely (Matt. 5:43-48). Before you read any further, be sure you have grasped the importance of these two commandments for living the Christian life.
Third, true discipleship requires denying self and loving him above all others: “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. And whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me” (Matt. 10:37- 38). All other relationships, even the closest family ties, become idolatrous when Christ is not loved first and foremost.
Fourth, Jesus left his followers a new commandment: “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you…. By this all people will know that you are my disciples” (John 13:34). Jesus points to his own example of self-sacrificing love as the pattern for keeping the new commandment. In addition, he taught that it would be by this kind of self-giving love for one another that the world would identify his followers. Indeed, love “is to be the distinguishing mark of Christ’s followers.”5
And one of the scribes…asked him,
“Which commandment is the most important of all?” Jesus answered, “The most important is, ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your
heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’
The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”
And the scribe said to him, “You are right, Teacher.
You have truly said that he is one, and there is no other besides him. And to love him with all the heart and with all the understanding and with all the strength, and to love one’s neighbor as oneself, is much more than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.”
And when Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.”
No ancient or modern philosopher—Plato, Aristotle, Kant, Russell—ever taught such far-reaching ideas about love. No political figure, from Julius Caesar to Winston Churchill, has made such demands upon his followers to love. And no religious teacher, whether Buddha, Confucius, or Mohammed, ever commanded his followers to love one another as he loved them and gave his life for them. No other system of theology or philosophy says so much about the divine motivation of love (and holiness), or expresses love to the degree of Christ’s death on the cross, or makes the demands of love like the teaching of Jesus Christ and his apostles.
“The new commandment,” writes Carl Hoch, “is the sine qua non of the Christian life.”6 Sine qua non (SIHneh kwah nohn) is a Latin phrase meaning “without which nothing.” Thus the new commandment is an essential element of the Christian life and witness to the world. To neglect the new commandment would render the Christian life as “nothing”—as not Christian. In the words of the Scottish New Testament scholar John Eadie, “There is nothing so remote from Christ’s example as a hard and uncharitable disposition.”7
Fifth, John, the beloved disciple of Christ, declared that “God is love” (1 John 4:8, 16). To better understand this statement, we need to look at the Trinity. At the heart of the Christian doctrine of love is the triune nature of God.8 The ultimate model of love exists among the three Persons comprising the Godhead – God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit – who are three in one and one in three and perfect in mutual love. “All love,” asserts Kelly Kapic, “is but a reflection or shadow of intratrinitarian love.”9
There has eternally existed a dynamic social relationship between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit characterized by love (John 17:24).10 And we have been called to share in this holy community of love (John 17:26;14:21;15:9-10).
John’s magisterial proclamation that “God is love” actually supports his main appeal to love one another: “Love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love” (1 John 4:7-8). So not to love one another in the family of God is an egregious sin.
Sixth, Paul called love the “more excellent way” of living. Love is the chief virtue that should govern all we do and say in the Christian life. To drive home this rock-bottom, foundational truth with unforgettable force, Paul writes:
And I will show you a still more excellent way. If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing. (1 Cor. 12:31-13:3)
In paraphrase form, Paul is saying:
- Without love, even heavenly tongues sound annoying
- Without love, knowing it all theologically and philosophically helps no one
- Without love, powerful, risk-taking faith is worthless
- Without love, giving everything to the poor is unprofitable
- Without love, even the ultimate sacrifice of one’s life is pointless
Maurice Roberts, Scottish pastor and former editor of The Banner of Truth, captures the intense seriousness of Paul’s words when he writes,
In these familiar words we possess one of the most central principles of the Christian faith. It is this. No religious act is of any value in God’s sight if it does not accompany and flow from Christian love….
But men seldom ponder it seriously. If the implications of this one principle were consistently thought through, they would have a momentous effect upon us all….
Since nothing is of value in God’s eye if it does not flow from love, then how much need there is for us all to correct our habitual formalism!
The problem of formalism, nominalism or religious “coldness” is intensely serious, for the obvious reason that it springs from absence of love to God…. God takes special notice of the way and manner in which men think of him as they attend to his service and worship.11
Paul sums up 1 Corinthians 13, the great love chapter, with this statement: “faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.” Every Christian is to be marked by faith, hope, and love. These cardinal virtues are foundational to a regenerated life as well as to a thriving local church. Yet even among these three, Paul says, “the greatest of these is love.” So whether we are speaking of the fruit of the Spirit or of cardinal virtues, love is the greatest!12
So we must ask, when people visit your church, do they find a warm, friendly, and welcoming atmosphere that demonstrates love for all people? Do they sense Christ like compassion and the kind of loving family community envisioned by the New Testament writers? Do they see genuine care for one another’s needs, Christian hospitality, and unselfish generosity? Do they observe joy in the Lord, spiritual vitality, and people reaching out to minister to a suffering world?
Or does your church seem more like an impersonal gathering of people than a spiritual family? Do visitors sense unfriendliness and indifference? Do they see a proud, critical spirit, or an angry, contentious group of people?
Remember, there is always one who walks among the churches, unseen but seeing all. How do you imagine Christ might evaluate your local church body?
A friend of mine had to find a new church after his church had closed. He lived in a large city with many evangelical churches, so he had a wide variety of churches to choose from. He’s the kind of person who gets involved and sticks faithfully with his church family, so he wasn’t going to settle for just any church. After a long and frustrating search, he finally found a new church family.
I asked him what he had learned from visiting many different churches. He had a number of interesting observations, but I was most interested in why he decided on the church he chose. He said his decision was based on “the spirit of the church, its atmosphere.” All the churches he visited were doctrinally sound churches and some were excellent Bible teaching churches; however, something was missing. The church he chose had both good Bible teaching plus a loving, caring spirit among the people. In other words, he had found a loving church family of which he could be a part.
The church in Ephesus was sound in doctrine and faithful to the gospel, but something was missing. The spirit of the church was defective. It lacked love. So let us explore Christ’s remedy for its lack of love so we can guard against such a failure in our own churches.
Pulpit Magazine Vol. 02. No. 1 January 2013