“I know your deeds,” says Jesus to the churches. He exhorts the Ephesians to do the deeds they did at first (Rev. 2:5), he rebukes the Sardisians for having incomplete deeds (Rev. 3:2), and he promises to reward the Thyatirans according to their deeds (Rev. 2:23).
Clearly our deeds or works matter to Jesus. But what sort of deeds is Jesus referring to?
The preacher of law says, “Jesus is referring to our law-keeping performance. We must keep the commands to please the Lord.”
A similar interpretation is offered by the preacher of works. “Jesus is saying we need to work out our salvation, do the deeds that prove our repentance, and pursue the spiritual disciplines.”
Yet both interpretations raise uncomfortable questions: How many deeds are needed to qualify? What if I neglect to keep all the commands? Worse, both interpretations do nothing but promote dead works and pride.
What are dead works?
We can distinguish dead works from faith works. Dead works of the flesh lead to death, while faith works release abundant life. The former relies on self; the latter leans on the Spirit.
Living under any form of law is a dead work because the law is not of faith, and its purpose is to minister death (2 Cor. 3:7, Gal. 3:12). To insist we must keep the law of the old covenant or the commands of the new is to preach dead works. Such a message will inflame sin, minister condemnation, and leave you wretched.
Any works done to prove our salvation or complete our sanctification are also dead works because they reveal unbelief in the finished work of the cross. You don’t have to finish what Jesus started for you are complete in Christ (Col. 2:10). In him you are as saved and sanctified as you ever will be. Since the Author and Finisher of our faith has perfected us (Heb. 10:14), there is nothing you can do to improve upon what he has done.
Repenting from dead works and having faith in God is one of the elementary teachings about Christ (Heb. 6:1), yet many haven’t grasped it. They’re trying to keep the law or make themselves holy, and they are exhausting themselves. Their dead works are killing them. They have forgotten that in the kingdom, all is grace, and “if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works, otherwise grace is no longer grace” (Rom. 11:6).
Every believer has deeds of one sort or another. We should not be impressed that the Revelation churches had deeds but we should ask, what sort of deeds did they have? Were they engaged in dead works or faith works?
What are faith works?
Faith works are what lovers do. The word love appears four times in the seven letters and on three of those occasions, Jesus is referring to his love. To the Ephesians, Philadelphians, and Laodiceans, Jesus spoke of his love, but the Thyatirans were known for their love. “I know your love,” said Jesus. And since the word for love is the divine agape, it wasn’t really their love but God’s love shining through them. This was a church that knew the love of God and was actively sharing that love with others.
What deeds matter to Jesus?
The only work that counts is faith expressing itself through love (Gal. 5:6). But note that it is not our love, faith and service that impresses the Lord. Rather, we become commendable when we are impressed by his love, faith, and service. Jesus commended the Pergamenes for not denying his faith, and it’s a similar story in his letter to the Thyatirans. “I smell agape love,” Jesus is saying. “You have received the love of my Father, you are giving it away, and that’s a wonderful thing.”
Some might say, “Love is a verb. We reveal our love by what we do.” But the scriptures declare that agape love is a noun. Indeed, love is a Person, for God is love (1 John 4:8). Love is not something to manufacture but receive, and those who receive the wild and uncontainable love of God can’t help but give it away.
Giving away what God has given us is how we change the world.
This is a radical revelation for many, yet this is how the early church lived. The Book of Acts is not a record of manmade accomplishments; it’s a collection of stories about people who co-labored with God to do the impossible. In a few short years these believers changed the world. They left a legacy showing us what can happen when we trust in the goodness of the Lord.
Extracted from Paul Ellis’s new book, Letters from Jesus: Finding Good News in Christ’s Letters to the Churches.