Note, if you will, the conclusion of each of Paul’s thirteen epistles. With only minor variations, each one concludes with an unmitigated benediction concerning grace, such as we read in the Epistle to the Romans: “The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all. Amen” (16:24). The lone exception is Paul’s letter to the church at Ephesus, which closes with a conditional benediction: “Grace be with all them that love our Lord Jesus Christ in sincerity. Amen” (6:24).
This exception is particularly striking given the nature of the church at Ephesus in relation to the other churches that Paul addressed. In virtually every case (e.g., Rome, Corinth, Galatia, Colosse, and Thessalonica), Paul had to correct issues of doctrine or matters of practice. Even in the letters addressed to individuals (Timothy, Philemon) Paul had to deal with potential personal errors or weaknesses, yet these letters, too, ended with unconditional benedictions.
The Ephesian epistle itself is remarkably free of any hint of trouble or error requiring correction by the apostle. Why, then, the striking difference in the benediction to the Ephesians? Has Paul just this one time become bored with his usual benediction and decided on a change of pace? No, quite the contrary, he is the faithful minister of the Lord. His qualified benediction presages the very failure that we read concerning this church. Paul’s benediction serves as an exhortation to the Ephesians to love the Lord in sincerity (i.e., “genuinely,” “incorruptibly”). Only some thirty years later, the Apostle John laments the fact that the Ephesians have failed in the very thing about which Paul had cautioned them: “Nevertheless I have somewhat against thee, because thou hast left thy first love” (Rev. 2:4). As someone has observed, the Ephesians had remained separated from error and false doctrine but they had left their separation to Christ, their first love. And the church did not long survive that loss.
Sound doctrine is essential: there is no substitute for it. But the same must be said of sincere love for the Lord as well: there is no substitute for it. Sound doctrine alone will not long sustain a church; it must be fortified by wholehearted love and devotion to the Person of Christ. On some level, doctrinal soundness can be sustained at the intellectual level. The Ephesians had not failed in this department (“I know . . . thou hast tried them which say they are apostles, and are not, and hast found them liars” [Rev. 2:2]). But unless or until that knowledge of doctrine reaches beyond the mind to the will, where submission and obedience evince genuine love, a person or church in such state is in danger of dying.
No exhortation of the Lord is careless, haphazard, or casual. Though outwardly a strong church, God knew the state of the Ephesians and what lay in their future. Hence, Paul’s unique benediction to them to love the Lord in sincerity long before the great need for that exhortation became evident to anyone.
Similarly, you and I may not fully realize what lies yet undisclosed in our hearts, but the Lord does. His Word, His Spirit, and His ministers, in particular, are given to expose our sin and weakness. May we not slough off the gracious exhortations of those ministries but carefully and faithfully examine our lives in the light that they shed upon us and constantly stoke the fire of love that the Lord desires us to have. As the extinction of the Ephesian church testifies, there is no substitute for loving the Lord.
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