Introduction: Do you remember the love you had for your spouse on your wedding day? The anticipation! The excitement! You were so thrilled (and perhaps a little nervous) as you were hours or moments away from starting your life together. Love seemed to be unending. The newness and freshness of newly married life created in your mind an unending joy. As years go by and responsibilities, family and life begin to crowd your heart, what is the one thing that should never happen: love growing cold. God used this illustration of newly married life to rebuke the Old Testament people of God, Israel, in Jeremiah 2:2: “Go and proclaim in the ears of Jerusalem, saying, ‘Thus says the Lord, “I remember concerning you the devotion of your youth, The love of your betrothals, Your following after Me in the wilderness, Through a land not sown." The sad story of Jeremiah 2 is that not only had Israel's love for her Husband, Jehovah God, grown cold, but that love was nowhere to be found.
As you come to Revelation 2:1-7, you find the Lord Jesus Christ speaking to the New Testament people of God, His bride, the church, represented by the church at Ephesus. Ephesus was renowned for its doctrinal precision and intolerance for false teachers. The city of Ephesus was the largest city of Asia Minor, numbering at least 250,000 in number, making it in the words of one commentator the "New York City of its day." The church there was a church of the city that resisted the rank paganism and immorality centralized in the Ephesians' worship of the pagan goddess Artemis (Diana). The church was even effective in rooting out false teachers that attempted to infiltrate the church. (Revelation 2:2,6) However she had lost the one thing that led to Christ's rebuke: she lost or let go her first love. Why is Jesus Christ issuing forth this sharp rebuke?
As you explore each of the letters to the seven churches, Jesus commends two of them and rebukes five of them to express one common theme: "What He wants his church at large to be." Thus in today's post we want to understand the fact the Jesus Christ wants a loving church.
Meet a church in love with Jesus Christ
In order to see the tragic loss of Ephesus' first love, we have to journey back to the beginnings of this church. The church at Ephesus is mentioned nearly 20 times in the New Testament, and is the direct recipient of one Epistle, the church to which young Pastor Timothy was told to shepherd in 1 and 2 Timothy and the place which the Apostle John himself had exercised considerable influence. Paul wrote at least one of his letters from Ephesus and the church itself may very well had been the mother church of the other six churches addressed in Revelation 2-3. Like a whirlwind romance, the people of God at Ephesus were chosen, called and convicted by the Spirit of God and begin to meet in Acts 18. Early missionaries such as Priscilla and Aquilla and wonderful Bible teachers such as Apollos established the then young church on solid footing.
As a young bride desperately wanting to see her fiance, Ephesus could not get enough of Jesus Christ. Their love for Him naturally stirred them up to love one another. The Apostle Paul would end up leading and preaching to the Ephesians for three years. (Acts 20:31). When the day of his departure came, the Ephesians Elders expressed such intense love for him. Acts 20:37-38 records the following touching scene: "And they began to weep aloud and embraced Paul, and repeatedly kissed him, 38 grieving especially over the word which he had spoken, that they would not see his face again. And they were accompanying him to the ship."
The next snapshot we get of the Ephesian Christians occurs nearly five years later in the Book of Ephesians. How well are they doing in being a loving church? According to Ephesians 1:15, quite well: "For this reason I too, having heard of the faith in the Lord Jesus which exists among you and your love for all the saints."
Following the letter to the Ephesians, we forward another two and four years respectively in the letters of 1 & 2 Timothy. The tone of the message to Timothy and to the church at Ephesus in those two letters can be summarized in 1 Timothy 1:5 - "But the goal of our instruction is love from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith." Overall, from the early days of Paul's three year ministry in Acts through the letters to Timothy, the church at Ephesus was about the business of love and the truth because she was told to do so and did so quite well. By the time you reach the end of 2 Timothy, Ephesus is a ten year old church, thriving in the midst of a pagan culture and leading the pack of seven churches in Asia Minor.
Does that sound like the beginnings of your relationship with Christ? Are you still passionately in love with the One Whom saved you and called your name at salvation? Following your salvation experience, do you recall what it was like the day of your baptism? You were a new convert and were getting ready to do the first major step of obedience for your Master. Everything was new: a new Bible, a new pastor, new friends, new peace. When you came into that baptism tank you went in a willing Christian and when you came out your were an obedient Christian, ready to serve Christ in the church of which you were now a member. Whether we are talking about churches or Christians, that idea of "first love" should characterize not only the beginning of faith with Christ, but should characterize the course of the Christian life and church life.
The church in love lost its first love
Roughly thirty years span between the close of 2 Timothy to that of Jesus words to Ephesus in Revelation 2:1-7. After introducing Himself as "One who hold the seven stars in His right hand and the One who walks among the seven golden lampstands" in 2:1, Jesus commends Ephesus for six activities or attitudes that would mark any church as being strong. Now we won't take the time to go through all of those traits, because Ephesus' leaving of her first love seems to cancel out any prior achievements. As Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 13:2 "If I have the gift of prophecy, and know all mysteries and all knowledge; and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing."
What is "first love"?
When Jesus states that the Ephesians had lost their "first love" in Revelation 2:4, to what is He referring? The Greek word for "first" is the same word we find in Jesus' reference to the greatest and "foremost" commandment in Matthew 22:37-38, namely "to love the Lord your God will all of your heart, soul, mind and strength." Love for God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit is the "First" or "foremost" love. Other "loves" are associated with love for God: love for people or one's neighbor (Matthew 22:39); love for the scriptures (John 14:15, 21); loving to pray (1 Timothy 2:1-3) and love for Christ's second coming. (2 Timothy 4:8) Your love for the Lord Jesus Christ is foremost and really must be the fuel for the other four major activities just mentioned if the Christian and the church is to be a delight and not a drudgery.
Losing your first love is a scary thing
The scary thing for a church or a Christian is that although it is impossible to have love for God without holding to the truth of His Word, one can dogmatically hold to the truth and not have love. Many of you, I'm sure, have known people who have a Christianity of the head but no love in the heart. They know all the answers but lack affection. Much like Samson in Judges 16:20 who was not aware that the Lord had departed from Him when he rose up to defend against the Philistines, churches and Christians can be strong in programs, strong in numbers and even strong in preaching and teaching and yet be unaware of the neglect of first love. The late Dr. John Walvoord wrote concerning the church at Ephesus: Though they had not departed completely from love for God, their love had no longer any fervency, depth or meaning it once had had in the church." 1 Dr. John MacArthur states the matter even better: "They had sunk to the place where they were carrying out their Christian responsibilities with diminishing love for their Lord and others.2
How can the loss of first love take place? What does Jesus command both the Ephesians and us to do when such a tragedy has taken place? Find out tomorrow....
1. John Walvoord. "The Revelation of Jesus Christ, a Commentary". Moody 1966. Page 55
2. John MacArthur. The MacArthur New Testament Commentary. Moody. 1999. Page 62