Divorce and Jesus: The Ruin of a Romance
Some time ago, while browsing through a leading national magazine, I came across a bit of shocking information which demanded both my attention and further investigation. As for the shocking information it was this: A well-known Hollywood actress, forty-seven years of age, well versed in signing the divorce papers, six times in all, stated these words to the London Daily Herald: “Marriage and divorce. What are they but scraps of paper. I go as I like and I do as I please.” That’s the way many people look at marriage today.
Now for my startling investigation. The divorce rate has risen 700 percent in this country and continues to rise. Now 1 divorce for every 1.8 marriages. One divorce in every 59 seconds. 50% of all teenage marriages end in divorce within 5 years. 60% of all remarriages end in divorce. Now only 1 household in 3 has a complete family – mother, father and children. One parent families are on the increase about 20 times faster than two-parent families. And what troubles me in all of this is that there is presently a steady rise in divorce among the people of God.
To be sure, the day is fast dawning when the judgment of Almighty God is going to fall upon those who have forsaken and forgotten the marriage pledge which was taken under solemn oath. In not conforming to God’s standard of morality, they will one day be asked to explain their actions before a holy and righteousness God. I want to say that no other vows taken in life are more binding than those taken in marriage.
But bringing this matter over into the spiritual realm, what about the love affair between you and Christ, the Great Lover of the soul? Let me ask you: Has your romance with Christ continued to grow and glow throughout the passing years? Or has your love faded out of existence until now there is nothing left but the memory of a once splendid experience? It is precisely at this point of spiritual unfaithfulness that we need to be awakened to the reality that one day the Heavenly Bridegroom – Jesus Christ Himself – is coming back to get His Bride, the Church. Then there is going to be a great wedding – the marriage supper of the Lamb. But what type of a marriage is it going to be when the Divine Lover finds that His Bride, made up of Christians of all generations, has permitted the flame of their love to burn out? They have taken off their wedding garment and given their love to another.
Well, I can assure you, we do not have to wait for some future day to see how Christ is going to deal with such a situation. Why? Because right before our eyes the Matchless Lover puts the Ephesian church on trial because of a broken romance. Hear again the words of His accusation: “I have somewhat against thee, because thou hast left thy first love” (Revelation 2:4). Let us seek then to know more of what happens as the risen Lord thoroughly and tenderly examines the love life of these Ephesian Christians.
Consider, to begin with, what I want to call the UNCOMPROMISING FEATURES that caused Christ to COMMEND this church. The admiration that Christ has for them is found in the words of verses 2 and 3: “I know thy works, and thy labor, and thy patience, and how thou canst not bear them who are evil; and thou hast tried them which say they are apostles, and are not, and hast found them liars; and hast borne, and hast patience, and for my name hast labored, and hast not fainted.” What a compliment by the risen Lord!
Within the Ephesian church it was not a difficult task for the Inspecting Lord to put His finger upon those things which were commendable and worthy of His praise. There was much good that could be said about these Christians. Let me mention those things that Christ admired among them, and also, He would admire among us.
For one thing, they were EFFICIENT in their SERVICE. This comes out with flashing vividness in the New Living Translation of verse 2: “I know all the things you do. I have seen your hard work.” He knows and He sees what each one of us are doing and not doing in His church. Here were members actively engaged in the work and welfare of the church. They were not slothful and sluggish in their labor, not half-hearted in their service, but with tears of sweat they pushed themselves in exhausting work. To these Christians toil, sacrifice, sweat, and prayer resulted in the enlargement of their membership and the establishment of additional churches. And because of their strenuous activity, Christ praised them for it. The God of the penetrating eye did not permit this virtue to go unnoticed.
It would do many of us well to take a lesson from these Christians who made up the Ephesian church by getting passionately involved in His work.
Another noteworthy virtue that Christ admired among these Christians was this: They were BLAMELESS in their CHARACTER. Embracing verse 3 in the Phillips translation we read these words: “I know your powers of endurance – how you have suffered for the sake of my name and have not grown weary.” William Barclay renders the word “patience” this way: “your triumphant fortitude.”
As Christ looked carefully into the soul of the congregation at Ephesus, He praised them for their spiritual faithfulness and sacred fidelity even in the midst of the terrible persecution which many of them were called upon to go through. Of course, I am sure you realize that Ephesus was a very unpopular place for a Christian to live. They were hated and detested by the worshippers of Diana. The magnificent temple of Diana, one of the seven wonders of the world, 425 feet long, 220 feet wide, and 60 feet high, with 127 pillars to hold it up, was like a magnet drawing people to this house of prostitution. While being exposed to all of this, and finding it rough and rugged to wear the name Christian, they still remained loyal to Christ. Therefore this earned for them admiration from the inspecting Lord. He did not despise it. He delighted in it. And He does the same when He finds this virtue within each of us.
Then, also, Christ commended this church because they were ORTHODOX in their DOCTRINE. Listen as Christ declares: “Thou canst not bear them who are evil; and thou hast tried them who say they are apostles, and are not, and hast found them liars” (v. 2). He goes on to say in verse 6: “But this thou hast, that thou hatest the deeds of the Nicolaitanes, which I also hate.” According to tradition the Nicolaitanes were the followers of Nicolaus of Antioch, one of the seven men chosen by the church to serve tables, who later defected from the faith through the preaching of unchristian doctrine.
God be praised that these Ephesian Christians possessed a zeal for the truth of the Gospel. They detected and detested those false prophets who corrupted the Christian faith. They took to heart the words of Paul who said: “And have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness but, rather expose them” (Ephesians 5:11). And expose them they did! If a minister failed to proclaim the truth of the Gospel, these believers stripped him of his credentials and made him surrender his ordination papers to the church. How different from today. Now if a minister preaches the truth of the Gospel, many churches require him to resign immediately.
In summing up the magnificent features which so characterize the Ephesian church, John R. W. Stott, in his book, What Christ Thinks of The Church, was right on target when he wrote: “It appeared to be a model church in every way. Its members were busy in their service, patient in their sufferings, and orthodox in their belief.” Hence, in at least this one respect – in their activity, in their fidelity, and in their orthodoxy – they received and deserved our Lord’s approval. And so it is with every church and every Christian. Let us begin today to serve the Lord, stand for the faith, and seek to live holy lives. If we would do this then one day the returning Bridegroom will commend each one of us.
Come now to my second point: Think of the UNDERLYING FAILURE that caused Christ to CRITICIZE this church. As Christ cast His holy eye over the Ephesian congregation He exposes their inner failure in these humiliating words: “Nevertheless, I have somewhat against thee, because thou hast left thy first love” (v. 4). Weymouth translates the accusation of Christ in these words: “But I hold it against you that you do not love me as you did at first.” The NLT goes a little further in its rendering: “But I have this complain against you. You don’t love Me or each other as you did at first.” Think of it – they were commended because of their strenuous labor, their steady patience, their spiritual light, but now they are criticized because they are lacking in sacred love. Not having love, in spiritual reality, they have nothing.
And yet, knowing all that we do about the Ephesian church, it seems almost incredible that such a charge could be so directly given to this group of Christians. For remember, the Ephesian church had been labeled as the mother church of all the Asian churches. About a generation before Paul had preached in this city. He stayed longer here than he did in any other place. For almost three years Paul preached and visited the people. After Paul’s departure, Timothy was left behind to become its faithful pastor. Apollos, a converted Jew, later taught there with burning zeal. Aquila and Priscilla gave this church their loyal support and promoted the Christian cause in the city. Eusebius, the early church historian, tells us that John the Apostle became an elder of the church and spent his last years in Ephesus. And it was to this church that Paul addressed these words: “Be ye, therefore, followers of God, as dear children; And walk in love, as Christ also hath loved us” (Ephesians 5:1-2).
But now the tragedy. A new generation of Christians had not taken to heart the words that Paul had given to their forefathers. Once their love knew no bounds, but now it had no beginning. Becoming so involved in their strenuous labor, their intense suffering, their tenacious zeal, they gave liberty to their love, allowing it to burn in an unsteadily fashion and permitting it to flicker as a wavering light, until finally, it went out. And when the love flame for Christ goes out, it takes the Lover of the Soul to come and rekindle it. That can happen to anyone of us if we are not careful. Doing so much work for Christ that we will end up neglecting Christ Himself.
The scene before is tragic. Here was a group of redeemed Christians who were intelligently stable, theologically sound, and theoretically strong. But somewhere within there was a heart leakage. A cold chill had penetrated over them. A spiritual coldness had taken hold of them. The inner springs of love they once had for Christ had dried up. The fire of affection for God’s dear Son had burned out. The heights of romance had grown cold. To put it in the words of Paul S. Rees: “As Christ looked at Ephesus, He saw a congregation that was outwardly impressive at the very moment that it was inwardly impoverished. In form polished, active, purring with efficiency; in spirit undernourished, anemic, decaying.”
It is interesting to note that the words “thou hast left” (v. 4) carries with it the thought “to quit” or “to forsake.” That is why the NIV renders it: “You have forsaken your first love.” The Greek sets forth how emphatic the Lord indicts them by putting the object of the verb before the verb; “thy first love thou has left.” This is the point we must keep clear in our minds. The Ephesian Christians had not lost their love, they had left it. Their love was not lacking, it was lean. No longer vibrant. No longer energetic. No longer thrilling. No longer exciting.
We should also grasp the meaning of the word “first” – “Thou has left thy first love” (v. 4). It carries with it the idea of supreme love, paramount love, a preeminent love. The word “love” comes from the word “agapa” and refers to the deepest and most dedicated love of all. It is the same love which a bridal couple express to each other when getting married: “Forsaking all others, I shall keep thee only unto me so long as we both shall live.” The Master Lover was here accusing these Christians of not exclusively giving their love to Him. Christ no longer had first place in their hearts. They had become unfaithful in their love to Him. Such a situation can happen today.
To see how dreadful a thing it is to permit your spiritual romance with Christ to become cold, try to imagine what takes place on a human level when a husband tells his wife he is no longer in love with her. Here is a broken-hearted woman whose hair is turning prematurely silver. Her face is drawn and pale; her eyes have lost their glitter through painful tears. Her husband, who is a strong, fine-appearing, prosperous business man, enters the room.
With sobbing emotion she walks toward him and says, “Darling, I must talk with you. I cannot stand this any longer. Once I was dear to you, the apple of your eye. I was more to you than business, money, or other people. Your kisses were on my lips. You were happy in my presence. You loved my company. Many were the happy hours we spent together. All that is changed now; you are cold and distant. You are indifferent to my love and desires. You don’t seem to care for my company. You never manifest your love to me. They tell me that you are giving your love to another. If this is true, it is going to kill me.”
She reaches out her pleading and begging arms about to place them around his shoulders. This fine-looking specimen of manhood throws aside these pleading, beseeching, calling hands and says, “What do you have to complain about? Didn’t I find you as a poor, factory-working girl, living in a humble hut? Didn’t I build you this beautiful house? Haven’t I furnished you with a beautiful automobile? Haven’t I bought you the very best clothes? I have given you money, diamonds, and all that a person could want.”
But all of this does not satisfy this broken-hearted wife. She would be more than willing to go back to her humble cottage, back to working at the factory, and back to her poverty if only she could be loved once again by her husband. Why? Because, my fellow Christian, marriage is worthless when love has been left to decay in the cesspool of unfaithfulness. And such is the exact situation that the Divine Lover beholds as He examines the Ephesian congregation. They had everything but love, and not having that, in spiritual reality they had nothing.
But if that be true of them, what about the believers of today? Are we any different? Do we genuinely love Christ with all of our hearts? Have we given Him preeminence within our lives? It doesn’t seem like we have! Literally millions of Christians on the average Sunday are putting everything you can imagine ahead of the church and their responsibility to it. From magazines to movies, from gardening to golf, and from television to traveling. Oh yes, we have our splendid organizations, our lofty titles, our beautiful buildings, our astronomical budgets, but I ask, Where is the supreme love we once had for the heavenly Bridegroom? The answer is: We have left it and given it to another. That hot flame of consuming love is no longer present in our romance with Christ.
Before we dismiss this point from our minds, it might do us well if we asked ourselves the question, How may first love be left? Under what circumstances does it fade? Well, if there is one thing that can chill your love for Christ it is a worldly spirit. “The world,” said Oliver Cromwell to his inquiring daughter, “is anything that cooleth thine affection toward Christ.” With this thought in mind, listen as John uses the imperative tense: “Stop loving the world, or the things that are in the world. If anyone persists in loving the world, there is no love for the Father in his heart” (I John 2:15, Williams). William Law was right when he said: “The heresy of all heresies is a worldly spirit.” I fully agree with him!
Having seen the uncompromising features that commend this group, and the underlying failure that caused Christ to criticize this church, consider in the final place the UNMISTAKABLE FORMULA that Christ offers to CORRECT a Christian who has left their first love. Listen to the correction that our Lord had for them in verse 5: “Remember, therefore, from where thou are fallen, and repent, and do the first works; or else I will come unto thee quickly, and will remove thy candlestick out of its place, except thou repent.”
Here God in Christ does not allow these Ephesian Christians to wander in the fields of lovelessness. And out of the many prescriptions that may be given to those who have left their first love, I lift up three as given by the Master-Lover to this church.
1). Christ commands them to REMEMBER: “Remember therefore from whence thou art fallen” (v. 5). It really means “Think from what a height you have fallen.” Memory is of great spiritual worth when correctly used. Looking back does not always carry with it the idea of being sinful, it might just be sensible. At one moment it can haunt the soul, but it can also hunt down the sin. Christ was not asking these Ephesian Christians to live in the past, but simply to recall it, and compare yesterday’s spiritual love peaks with those of today. It is the sting of memory.
2) Christ commands them to REPENT: “And repent…or else I will come unto thee quickly, and will remove thy candlestick out of its place, except thou repent” (v:5). So forcibly is this truth driven home to the Ephesian church that it is repeated twice.
The Lord was here interested in a change of mind among these people. He desires a reversal of actions. He calls upon them without any argument to accept the verdict of guilty. Guilty over broken vows. Guilty over spiritual apathy. Guilty over undisciplined lives. The Inspecting Lord was now demanding a real break with sin. A break causing the heart to suffer, the soul to ache, the eyes to shed tears, and the mouth to speak words of confession and repentance. This is God’s word to those of us who have allowed our love for Him to diminish into a pathetic spark instead of a powerful flame.
3) He commands them to RETURN: “And do the first works” (v. 5). Christ was here calling upon these believers to return to the place of departure from Him. He was calling for a renewal of the devotion and affection of those early days. When He was more dear to them than life itself. Back to the days when they were joyful in His presence and loved His company. Back to the days when the listened to His voice and read His precious Word.
There was no other alternative. The Ephesian Christians were warned that if they did not heed the command of Christ sudden judgment would come upon them. He declares in verse 5: “Or else I will come unto thee quickly, and will remove thy lampstand out of its place, except thou repent.” And this is exactly what He did.
The judgment of God did fall on the Ephesian Church. The story of the Ephesian church ends in remorse. The city eventually declined and disappeared from the scene. By the middle ages its testimony for Christ was obliterated and its light for Christ was removed. The church was discarded by God and rejected by Christ. Today, there is nothing left of Ephesus but a memory. Its streets are deserted and its land is uninhabited. There stands in Ephesus today only a ruined archway, a Moslem dwelling and a forbidden castle. A cult instead of a cross. The complete ruin of a city tragically fulfilled by the words of the risen Christ.
As an electric light bulb is discarded when it loses its power to give light, so it is of the church when it ceases to shine for the purpose for which it was created. When a church loses its purpose for existence it will die. But this need not happen. First love for Christ can be renewed, revived and restored. The fallen can be lifted. The backslider can be reinstated. It is at the cross that love for Christ can be rekindled to a burning flame. So writes John R. W. Stott: “The cross is the blazing fire at which our love is kindled, but we have to get near enough to it for its sparks to fall on us.”
We close with what, the ruin of a romance? God forbid! I pray, with the restoration of a romance. May a flame of love which only God can light through Jesus Christ begin to burn within our hearts.