“But I have this against thee, that thou didst leave thy first love.” Revelations 2:4 ERV
These were the words of the risen and glorified Christ to the church in Ephesus. What is striking about this letter is that it is addressed to the sort of church that by worldly standards deserved a gold medal for Christian effort and achievement.
If we were to make a list of the qualities of a perfect church, then the Ephesian church had many important ones:
“I know your works, your toil and your patient endurance, and how you cannot bear with those who are evil, but have tested those who call themselves apostles and are not, and found them to be false. I know you are enduring patiently and bearing up for my name’s sake, and you have not grown weary” (Revelations 2:2-3 ESV).
Obviously the church members had high moral and spiritual standards. They were willing to work hard and put up with hardships and suffering for the gospel. They possessed spiritual discernment and kept themselves separate from the corruption of this world. They were patient, a quality that God values highly because He invests much training in our lives to help us acquire it.
“But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first.” (Revelations 2:2-4 ESV)
Different translations bring out the shades of meaning implied in their offence against Christ – they had ‘departed from’ or ‘left’ or ‘abandoned’ or ‘forsaken’ their first love. Weymouth translation puts it bluntly – ‘you no longer love Me’. ‘You no longer love Me or each other (NLT)’.
They did good works as a matter of form, but to Christ the underlying motives were more important. As we serve Christ we must examine our motives. Do we feel compelled to do a perfect job because we are perfectionists, who despise shoddy work, and insist on high standards? Is our goal to impress people in the world? Or can we truthfully say, with Paul, that “the love of Christ constrains me” (2 Corinthians 5:14) ?
Jesus noticed every positive trait in the Ephesian church, and appreciated their efforts, but He was still grieved. And why? Was the Lord too fastidious, inflexible and difficult to please? No, not at all. His yoke is easy and His burden is light (Matthew 11:30). He sympathises with our weaknesses (Hebrews 4:15) and is compassionate when we fail, for He remembers our frame – that we are dust (Psalms 103:13-14). He understands the extent of our ability and won’t push us beyond what we can bear.
Christ was grieved because the Ephesian church had forsaken Him – their first love. He was, literally, cast out from their midst. They no longer craved His presence, but had grown separate and self sufficient. Sadly, very much like some married couples, who over the years grow apart and become as strangers to each other – despite building a home and raising children together. Love was absent.
They were certainly not driven by material gain, but spiritual ‘job satisfaction’ and worldly applause meant more to them than the love of Christ. They had become a club of spiritual high achievers, who saw no need for a deep intimacy with Him. They no longer loved Jesus or one another. Love had ceased to be their motive.
“Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent” (Revelations 2:5 ESV).
Paul warned us that on the Final Day, our works will be tested by fire – and what we build with ‘wood, hay and stubble’, will be reduced to ashes (1 Corinthians 3:12). We ourselves will be saved, but also suffer a loss of reward. Love is Christ’s gold standard. Without love, our works “profiteth us nothing”. When we walk in love and serve in love, then our works will be received – like the widow’s mite – and the fire will only purify and not destroy what we have built.
What does it mean to love Jesus? Let us look at examples of people who loved Him:
The apostle John and some of the women following Jesus stayed at the foot of His cross after He had been condemned and crucified by the authorities. Being close to Jesus meant more to them than the immediate danger to their own lives. John the Baptist made it clear to his disciples that it was his joy – rather than his duty – to reveal Christ, the heavenly Bridegroom, to the world; so that the world might receive Him. He sought no personal benefit or worldly acclaim.
“The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice. Therefore this joy of mine is now complete. He must increase, but I must decrease” John 3:26-30 ESV
Mary of Bethany broke her alabaster jar of very expensive perfume to anoint Jesus. Mary Magdalene lingered by Christ’s empty tomb, even after the others had left, because she could not bear to leave without some news of Him. A little boy who gave up his lunch for the feeding of a multitude.
These are people who love, give lavishly from their limited resources; and wait when others have left. Others serve sacrificially, offering their mite and expecting nothing in return. Still others preach or witness faithfully, though their words go unheeded in their churches and their homes. Many serve lovingly and pour all their efforts into a seemingly minor or unrecognised task. Women who spent hours interceding for friends and family. Some spent a lifetime serving a sick or disabled relative. People who go unnoticed in churches, and win few earthly rewards or recognition. Their lives and personalities became invisible, that Christ might be lifted up, and so that souls may be saved or edified. In their lives they decrease, so Christ may increase.
“Jesus, help us to love You again as we loved You when we first came to know You. Forgive us for the coldness of heart and indifference that may have crept into our lives. Fill us once again with a deep hunger and thirst for You. Let us do all our work out of love for God and one another. Help us forget ourselves as we serve You”