Let’s begin our study of Christ’s message to the Ephesian church with a review of its historical background. Ephesus was a major city located on the Aegean Sea in what is now Turkey although at the time it was part of the Roman Empire. It was a “free city” which meant that it had a degree of self-governance. It was also a religious city. Ephesus was home to the temple of Diana (Artemis), one of the 7 wonders of the ancient world. Diana was the Greek goddess of fertility.
Interestingly, Ephesus as a city gradually lost importance. It was a port city located at the mouth of the Cayster River which provided a natural harbor. However, with the passing of the years the sediment carried by the river gradually formed an expanding delta, moving the shoreline farther and farther away. In modern times the ancient Ephesian Harbor lies about five kilometers from the sea. With the silting in of the harbor, the city lost its purpose. The slow but steady change which took place in the city is, perhaps, reflective of what was spiritually taking place in the church itself—a gradual dissipation of a once fervent love. It was a church that was losing its purpose.
Jesus’ message to the Ephesian church is as follows:
“To the angel of the church of Ephesus write, ‘These things says He who holds the seven stars in His right hand, who walks in the midst of the seven golden lampstands: “I know your works, your labor, your patience, and that you cannot bear those who are evil. And you have tested those who say they are apostles and are not, and have found them liars; and you have persevered and have patience, and have labored for My name’s sake and have not become weary. Nevertheless I have this against you, that you have left your first love. Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent and do the first works, or else I will come to you quickly and remove your lampstand from its place—unless you repent. But this you 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 give to eat from the tree of life, which is in the midst of the Paradise of God.” ’ Revelation 2:1-7, NKJV
He wants our love to be so overwhelming that our thoughts are upon Him and not the distractions of the world. He desires both fervency and fullness in our devotion.
Let’s review the good things about the church in Ephesus.
- They were a very hard-working church. The believers were laboring and toiling in the work of the Lord.
- Not only so, but the Ephesian church was a steadfast church. It is one thing to strive and labor for a short period and limited goals but these Christians did not tire of serving the Lord. They continued on, enduring under trial.
- In addition, the Ephesian church sought to remain doctrinally pure. They had no place for those bringing wrong doctrine or a teaching of compromise (i.e. the Nicolaitans).
The above-mentioned qualities were highly commendable and were certainly pleasing to the Lord but sadly they were blemished by a single fault. Nevertheless, it was the most important thing. The Ephesians had left their first love.
What is first love?
The Ephesians loved Jesus. Of this, there can be no doubt. Jesus says as much in verse 3, “(you) have labored for My name’s sake.” Nevertheless, their deep, passionate love for Him had waned. Their love had become cold and indifferent.
First love is distinctive. It is a love that is absorbed with the object of the love. Famed evangelist and apologist Ravi Zacharias tells of how he and his wife were once driving near Niagara Falls on a blustery, gloomy day. They passed by a young couple who were strolling along a wet path seemingly oblivious to the cold, bleakness of the weather. Ravi remarked to his wife, “I bet they are newlyweds. They are so interested in each other that they haven’t noticed how harsh the weather is. That is how young love is.” To which his wife responded, “Would you be willing to walk like that with me?”
That is, in effect, what Jesus asks of us. He wants our love to be so overwhelming that our thoughts are upon Him and not the distractions of the world. He desires both fervency and fullness in our devotion.
First love recognizes that relationship must always precede service.
The importance of first love:
The Bible reveals that God desires an intimate, first-love type of relationship with His people. For example, God declared His inner thoughts to Jeremiah the prophet.
Moreover the word of the Lord came to me, saying, “Go and cry in the hearing of Jerusalem, saying, ‘Thus says the Lord: “I remember you, The kindness of your youth, The love of your betrothal, When you went after Me in the wilderness, In a land not sown. Israel was holiness to the Lord, The firstfruits of His increase… Jeremiah 2:1-3
First love recognizes that relationship must always precede service. This essential principle is highlighted by the account of Jesus’ arrival in Bethany.
Now it happened as they went that He entered a certain village; and a certain woman named Martha welcomed Him into her house. And she had a sister called Mary, who also sat at Jesus’ feet and heard His word. But Martha was distracted with much serving, and she approached Him and said, “Lord, do You not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Therefore tell her to help me.” And Jesus answered and said to her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and troubled about many things. But one thing is needed, and Mary has chosen that good part, which will not be taken away from her.” Luke 10:39-42
To be in Jesus’ presence, to be at His feet, and to listen to Him, that is the good part. And we must not let it be taken away.
Paul writes of the priority of love in his epistle to the Corinthians.
Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I have become sounding brass or a clanging cymbal. And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, but have not love, it profits me nothing. 1 Corinthians 13:1-3
Indicators of having left one’s first love:
How does the Christian know if he is in danger of leaving his first love? The Bible doesn’t enumerate specific signs but experience and simple reason provide some clear indications.
- Neglecting personal time with the Lord is symptomatic of waning love. Remember that first love involves being enraptured with Jesus. Anyone who loves another surely wants to spend time with him/her.
- Religious busyness without reflection on the reason for one’s toils. This is what had occurred in the Ephesian church. It is possible to become so engaged in programs and activities that the true purpose is forgotten.
- Yet a third indicator of a tepid love for Christ is when the Christian life becomes little more than duty. When the individual feels that he “has to go” to the Sunday morning meetings or when he gives to the church simply because he feels an obligation, he is leaving his first love.
Jesus calls upon them to do those works not out of a sense of obligation but rather because of their deep love for Him.
How to restore the first love:
The Lord outlines three important steps which the Ephesian Christians were to take in order to renew their zeal and passion.
- First Jesus calls upon to remember.
Remember therefore from where you have fallen…
The author of the letter to the Hebrews encourages them to do the same:
But recall the former days in which, after you were illuminated, you endured a great struggle with sufferings: partly while you were made a spectacle both by reproaches and tribulations, and partly while you became companions of those who were so treated; for you had compassion on me in my chains, and joyfully accepted the plundering of your goods, knowing that you have a better and an enduring possession for yourselves in heaven. Therefore do not cast away your confidence, which has great reward. Hebrews 10:32-35
- Next, Jesus commands the Ephesians to repent.
We need to recognize that it is a sin not to love Jesus fervently. When Jesus was asked which commandment was the most important of all He responded by saying:
“The first of all the commandments is: ‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ Mark 12:29
- Finally, Jesus instructs the Ephesians to serve Him as a result of first love.
And do the first works
From an outward appearance, the Ephesians were undoubtedly doing the same works as they had always done. But now Jesus calls upon them to do those works not out of a sense of obligation but rather because of their deep love for Him.
The great patriarch Abraham knew of the importance of returning to a “first love.” There was a time when Abraham had strayed from the Lord’s will. His faith and obedience had faltered and he had gone down into Egypt. Yet notice how the Bible describes Abraham’s restoration.
Then Abram went up from Egypt, he and his wife and all that he had, and Lot with him, to the South… And he went on his journey from the South as far as Bethel, to the place where his tent had been at the beginning, between Bethel and Ai, to the place of the altar which he had made there at first. And there Abram called on the name of the Lord. Genesis 13:1-4
Abraham returned to the place where he had been at the beginning. And there he called on the Lord.
May our first, beginning love be the same love with which we love the Lord until the very end of our sojourn on the earth.
Jim Haesemeyer (to be continued)