It is always the same: the best of churches have their issues. One might think it would have been great to have been a member of the church of Ephesus: they engaged in good works, they were doctrinally sound, and they rejected false claimants to authority in the church; what a great church they must have been. Christ however sees the church with its blemishes. He does not chide them to hurt them, but to help them. He issues this sobering word: “Nevertheless I have this against you, that you have left your first love” (Rev. 2:4). Two questions present themselves with this indictment: what does this mean and how could this happen?
First, do Christ’s words indicate that they left off loving Christ or did they leave off loving each other? Both objects are probably in view: they left off loving Christ and this produced a less-than-loving environment within the church. Jesus’ words to Peter in Jn. 21:15-17 indicate that love to Christ is the first requirement in a man of God. If the man of God properly loves Christ, it will be made manifest in the manner in which he feeds lambs, tends sheep, and feeds sheep. The same is the case with all of God’s people: our love to Christ issues forth in our love for our brothers and sisters and for those in the world. When love to Christ dries up, other expressions of love dry up as well. I am not suggesting that there was no love whatsoever in the church at Ephesus, but rather, love as the animating principle of their works, labor, and perseverance was missing.
Secondly, the text does not directly answer the “how” a church leaves their first love, but I believe one implication is clear. Churches embroiled in controversy can lose sight of the main thing. Remember that Ephesus had a problem within the leadership and it was necessary for the elders and the church to deal swiftly, vigorously, and decisively with the problem. In seeking to apply the qualifications for teaching positions within the church, and in their identifying those who were liars instead of apostles, they had left their first love. Opposing false teachers is good; engaging in God-honoring works is good; wearying perseverance in the faith is good; love to Christ, however, is best of all and must be the driving force for all these other things.
Christ calls the church in Ephesus to “remember therefore from where you have fallen” (Rev. 2:5a). They are instructed to go back to that time in their history when Christ was everything to them. They are to re-visit that time in their lives when they could not live apart from Christ. As Phillip Mauro said, “Let us go back in our thoughts again and yet again to those days of heaven on earth when we first came to the knowledge of Christ, and of His redeeming love.” Dale Ralph Davis has well said that “the greatest enemy of faith may be forgetfulness.” Do we, like the church in Ephesus, need to go back and remember when Christ first saved us? Do we need to look afresh on His life, His death, and His resurrection to promote the love that has been dwindling? The church in Ephesus needed to and I suspect many of us today need to heed the same exhortation. Jesus calls them to remembrance and to repentance. They are to change their minds concerning their loveless ways. They are to soak their works, labor, and perseverance in love to Jesus Christ. They are to engage themselves wholly and fully in observing the first great commandment. They were to manifest their repentance by doing the first works. Repentance is a mental activity with practical results.
Jesus does something that does not go over well with our delicate and sensitive modern approach to Christianity: He threatens them (Rev. 2:5). He says very clearly that if they do not remember, repent, and do, He would “come to [them] quickly and remove [their] lampstand from its place—unless [they] repent.” Christ takes love for Him seriously; so seriously that He threatens to shut them down as a church if they do not change. Let us not miss this: if we are going about all the right things but do not have love for Christ, we deserve to have our church doors shut because we have ceased to function as the Lord intended.
After threatening the church, Jesus highlights another commendable trait: “But this you have, that you hate the deeds of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate” (Rev. 2:6). Do you see what is happening: Jesus is pulling for the church! They are not done for. They are not over. The lampstand has not been removed. Remember! Repent! Do! The church in Ephesus was a lot like Jesus in hating the deeds of the Nicolaitans and therefore He is rooting for them.
He ends the letter to the church in Ephesus with a promise to those who overcome: “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To him who overcomes I will give to eat from the tree of life, which is in the midst of the Paradise of God.” Christ speaks to His church by His word and His Spirit. He holds forth precious promises to those who take His word seriously and who apply that word in their lives. Consider this promise to the church in Ephesus in light of the larger context of biblical theology. After the fall, God “drove out the man; and He placed cherubim at the east of the Garden of Eden, and a flaming sword which turned every way, to guard the way to the tree of life” (Gen. 3:24) and all in Adam are forbidden access to the tree of life. After the cross, access is granted freely to the tree of life and the Paradise of God is opened for all those who are in Christ.Jim Butler, Pastor Free Grace Baptist Church of Chilliwack