Sound Doctrine Without Love

There are two sorts of church groups in our day. One expends love to stand for sound doctrine. The other expends sound doctrine stand for love. In John’s Revelation, he addresses both types of churches. First, he addresses the church that defends sound doctrine at the expense of love. Is it important to stand for sound doctrine? What does it mean to love others as we stand for sound, biblical doctrines?

Revelation 2:1-7

To the angel of the church in Ephesus write:

The One who holds the seven stars in His right hand, the One who walks among the seven golden lampstands, says this: “I know your deeds and your toil and perseverance, and that you cannot tolerate evil men, and you put to the test those who call themselves apostles, and they are not, and you found them to be false; and you have perseverance and have endured for My name’s sake, and have not grown weary.

But I have this against you, that you have left your first love. Therefore remember from where you have fallen, and repent and do the deeds you did at first; or else I am coming to you and will remove your lampstand out of its place—unless you repent. Yet this you do have, that you hate the deeds of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To him who overcomes, I will grant to eat of the tree of life which is in the Paradise of God.”

The commendation (v. 1-3)

To the angel of the church in Ephesus write:

John’s first admonition is for the church at Ephesus and for the whole church (Cf. 1:4). John addresses his admonition to the angel of the Ephesian church. The Greek word, αγγελος, means “messenger”—here most likely referring to the pastor-teacher of the local church.

The One who holds the seven stars in His right hand, the One who walks among the seven golden lampstands, says this: “I know your deeds and your toil and perseverance, and that you cannot tolerate evil men, and you put to the test those who call themselves apostles, and they are not, and you found them to be false; and you have perseverance and have endured for My name’s sake, and have not grown weary.

Jesus, who holds the messengers in His right hand and walks among His local churches speaks through the apostle to and through the pastor-teacher to the congregation. Christ, through John, commends the Ephesian church for doing good deeds, toiling to teach sound doctrine, and enduring against false teachers in the current tribulation (Cf. 1:9) for Christ’s name’s sake. Christ desires His church toil in and defend sound doctrine for His name’s sake. Christ desires that we put false teachers to the test and not compromise or grow weary in defending His word against the onslaught of false information and misappropriation. Jesus commends churches that do this well.

The indictment (v. 4-6)

But I have this against you, that you have left your first love. Therefore remember from where you have fallen, and repent and do the deeds you did at first; or else I am coming to you and will remove your lampstand out of its place—unless you repent. Yet this you do have, that you hate the deeds of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate.

Christ, through John, then chastises the local church because the people left their first love. John explained his view on love in 1 John 4:1-21, which he wrote when he was in Ephesus not long before being exiled to Patmos if we accept the late date for John’s Revelation.

Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world. By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God; and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God; this is the spirit of the antichrist, of which you have heard that it is coming, and now it is already in the world. You are from God, little children, and have overcome them; because greater is He who is in you than he who is in the world. They are from the world; therefore they speak as from the world, and the world listens to them. We are from God; he who knows God listens to us; he who is not from God does not listen to us. By this we know the spirit of truth and the spirit of error.

Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God; and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. The one who does not love does not know God, for God is love. By this the love of God was manifested in us, that God has sent His only begotten Son into the world so that we might live through Him. In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins.

Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has seen God at any time; if we love one another, God abides in us, and His love is perfected in us. By this we know that we abide in Him and He in us, because He has given us of His Spirit. We have seen and testify that the Father has sent the Son to be the Savior of the world. Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him, and he in God. We have come to know and have believed the love which God has for us. God is love, and the one who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him. By this, love is perfected with us, so that we may have confidence in the day of judgment; because as He is, so also are we in this world.

There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear, because fear involves punishment, and the one who fears is not perfected in love.

We love, because He first loved us. If someone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for the one who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen. And this commandment we have from Him, that the one who loves God should love his brother also.

Whoever believes that Jesus is the Christ is born of God, and whoever loves the Father loves the child born of Him. By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and observe His commandments. For this is the love of God, that we keep His commandments; and His commandments are not burdensome. For whatever is born of God overcomes the world; and this is the victory that has overcome the world—our faith. (1 John 4:1-5:4).

John’s definition of love opposes the sort of works-righteousness that can be central when doctrine is idolized. Love is not that we loved God but that He loved us in Christ. The more a person knows God, the more he or she loves because God first loved us. Sound doctrine leads to proper love. Loving one another explicitly means observing God’s commandments. Love does not simply refer to a general niceness, charity, or affection. Love is just judgment according to God’s Law (Cf. Leviticus 19:9-18). Christ is instructing the church to not allow doctrine to keep her from judging justly. Really, it’s an easy trap to fall into. The deeds Christ calls the church to are just judgments, not dogmatism. This isn’t a works-based righteousness because this love is worked out in the person as a result of regeneration; We love because God first loved us. We don’t do these deeds in order to gain God’s love; He first loved us by justly judging Christ in our place (Cf. Romans 5:8). If there is no repentance and return to just judgment, Christ will remove the local church’s identity as a church—yes, even though they stood for sound doctrine.

There are many local churches today that forsake love, just judgment, to defend doctrine and practice, whether sound or not. If Christ speaks this strongly against churches with sound doctrine for forsaking just judgment, how much so for any local church that forsakes love in order to defend its dogmas (sound or unsound)? Perhaps we need to spend some time in repentance.

John  commends his home church for hating, yes hating, the deeds of the Nicolaitans, a group that turned the church away from Christ by promoting the types of works contrary to love or just judgment. About 90 years after John wrote his Revelation, if we accept a late date, Irenaeus will still be battling the Nicolaitan heresy. He will describe the Nicolaitan teaching as a renewed form of Gnosticism; He will defend both the humanity and divinity of Christ against them from the Bible’s Johannine literature and insist that since Jesus Christ is the eternal Word of God incarnate, one cannot know or love Christ without knowing sound biblical doctrine. John was making the same point concerning sound doctrine and love in 1 John 4-5. About 100 years after John writes Revelation, Clement of Alexandria will describe the Nicolaitans as ascetic self-mutilators. Christ also hates the works-centered deeds of the Nicolaitans. There are things that Christ passionately hates. When we love Christ, we hate the things He hates—particularly unsound doctrine and works-based religion. One cannot love without also hating. Love and hate are two sides of the same coin, two sections in the same orchestra, and two pictures in the same mural. John’s mention of the Nicolaitans is internal evidence supporting the later date (c. AD 98).

The promise (v. 7)

He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To him who overcomes, I will grant to eat of the tree of life which is in the Paradise of God.”

John acknowledges and instructs those who have been given ears to hear will hear and, again, identifies the whole church, not only Ephesus, as the audience of this first admonition. To the one who overcomes (Cf. 1 John 5:1-4), Christ will grant to eat fruit of the Tree of Life in God’s paradise. What does it mean for anyone to overcome according to John?

Whoever believes that Jesus is the Christ is born of God, and whoever loves the Father loves the child born of Him. By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and observe His commandments. For this is the love of God, that we keep His commandments; and His commandments are not burdensome. For whatever is born of God overcomes the world; and this is the victory that has overcome the world—our faith (1 John 5:1-4).

If we are being sanctified and coming to keep God’s commandments in a way that is not burdensome, we know that we have overcome the world and the works-based ways of the world. This is done through faith, that is God working out our sanctification, not works. John pulls the literal tree from Genesis 2:9 and 3:22, making it a symbol to represent the gift of everlasting life to those who overcome according to John’s definition in 1 John 5:1-4.

Do we hate doctrine that is opposed to Christ’s Gospel of grace? Do we love others, or has our staunch defense of biblical doctrine caused us to neglect loving one another in a biblical sense?

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