Revelation 2:1-7, “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.’”
Profile of Ephesus: Though the origins of this Hellenistic city situated on the western coast of Turkey date back to the 10th century BC, the city reached notoriety when Augustus issued a formal decree making Ephesus the capital of Asia Minor in 27 BC. As a result of becoming the seat of the Roman Governor and the center of commerce and banking for the entire region (Ephesus noted a prominent port and sat at the crossroads of four major Roman highways) the city almost immediately entered an era of prosperity. By the middle first-century Ephesus was known as the “Backbone of the Roman Empire” with Greek historian Strabo saying Ephesus was “second in importance and size only to Rome.” The city was so influential that it served as the lifeblood for the entire region.
The city of Ephesus was famed for three archeological achievements:
1. She boast an open air theater capable of holding up to 25,000 spectators.
2. She had one of the largest libraries in the world making her a center for learning.
3. She was the location of the famous Temple of Artemis (Diana in Roman mythology) which one of the “Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.” Recent archeological digs reveal this temple was an astounding 450 ft long, 225 ft wide, 60 ft high, with more than 127 columns supporting its ornate roof (Note: That’s 4x the size of the Parthenon).
Because Diana was the goddess of childbirth and women, Ephesus was also a religious center. Aside from the grotesque practice of temple prostitution, the worship of Diana was steeped in mysticism and the occult filling the city with unspeakable immorality.
And yet, Ephesus also proved to be fertile ground for the Gospel. Though Paul visited Ephesus at the end of his second missionary journey alongside Aquila and Priscilla (Acts 18), he would return in his third spending some three years ministering there (Acts 19). Not only was a church (made up of mostly Gentiles) founded and shepherded by Paul (he would teach daily from “the school of Tyrannus”), but we’re told “the name of Jesus was magnified” (Acts 19:17) and “the word of the Lord grew mightily and prevailed.” (Acts 19:30)
The impact of this church was so pervasive that a man named Demetrius eventually stirred up a riot claiming that “not only was their trade (selling silver shrines of Diana) in danger of falling into disrepute, but also the temple of the great goddess Diana ran the risk of being despised and her magnificence destroyed.” (Act 19:27) The radicle impact of the Gospel in the city Ephesus was so tangible it was hitting Satan in the pocket book!
Following the arrival of Paul, the message of the Gospel, and the formation of this church, Ephesus and the area around her would never be the same. Not only did the church continue to grow, but from her twelve other churches were planted in the surrounding region.
This Ephesian church was a theological titan. In a sweet moment Paul would spend with the Ephesian elders in Miletus he would attest that he had “not shunned to declare to them the whole counsel of God.” (Act 20:27) Their doctrinal acumen would be evidenced by the weighty substance of a letter Paul would write to them from a Roman cell 10 years later.
Beyond Paul’s teaching ministry this Ephesian church would be later pastored by Timothy and then by none other than the Apostle John (who it’s likely the substance of 1, 2 & 3 John had been intended for). In the case of this particular letter written by Jesus it would come 40 years after the church was established and some 30 years after Paul’s Epistle.
While it’s impossible to place these seven letters into a rigid sequential order based solely on dating, scholars agree these seven do sequentially represent loose periods and movements of church history with Ephesus representing the Post-Apostolic Church.
Historically, as the church began to transition away from its founding generation several things are noteworthy: First, like the early followers of Jesus, the generations to follow were also devoted to the things of Christ. In a Roman world largely hostile to Christians these saints were serious followers of Jesus. They lived and died for the name of Christ!
Secondly, as demonstrated by the writings of Clement of Rome and the Didache, the Post-Apostolic Church was also doctrinally sound. While there were still heretical influences percolating within the church, during this period they were largely relegated to the fringes. One can imagine this outlook was largely the byproduct of the constant admonitions of men like Paul, John, and Peter to guard against the false teachers they knew were coming.
And yet, according to some of the writings of the early church leaders, during this period the church was quickly transitioning from grace to legalism. Because these Christians feared many of the wicked tendencies of the world and the negative influences of their culture might corrupt the church, the early church fathers began to erected moral-walls in order to insulate the church from these creeping, sinful influences.
And while the motivation for all of this had been a desire to remain holy, the sad reality is that holiness was no longer seen as a result of the transformative power of God’s grace, but rather as something achieved through personal performance and the limiting of liberty.
Ignatius (3rd Bishop of Antioch and a student of the Apostle John) wrote, “Experience proves that in this life peace and satisfaction are had, not by the listless but by those who are fervent in God's service. And rightly so. For in their effort to overcome themselves and to rid themselves of self-love, they rid themselves of the roots of all passion and unrest.”
Jesus begins by saying, “I know (to have full knowledge of)…
Your works… “Ergon” - that which one undertakes to do…
Your labor…“Kopos” - intense labor with trouble and toil, to the point of exhaustion…
Your patience… “Hypomonê” - not swerved from his purpose, steadfast endurance…
And perseverance… “Bastazô” - to bear what is burdensome…
That you have labored for My name’s sake and have not become weary.”
These saints served faithfully and took their calling seriously! While their world was incredibly immortal and hostile to the followers of Jesus, these Christians were working hard to fulfill the work Jesus had given them. Outwardly this church was active and impressive. There was a genuine determination to reach their world no matter the cost!
Aside from this Jesus commends the fact they “cannot bear those who are evil…” Though seeking to reach a corrupt culture these saints refused moral compromise! This church was able to influence their world without allowing the world to negatively influence them because they refused to support (“bear”) those of a bad nature (“those who are evil”).
These church leaders were not afraid of exerting discipline in the presence of sin knowing that a healthy body requires a healthy immune system. The stakes were simply to high to allow nonsensical, sinful behavior to spread throughout the church.
Jesus also says, “You have tested those who say they are apostles and are not, and have found them liars.” This church and been founded upon the truth of Scripture, but they were Berean in that they “tested” or “made trial of” those claiming to have authority (“apostles”).
Beyond this these saints were serious about protecting the flock of God willing to publicly call these teachers “liars” if they were found to be perverting the Gospel. Specifically, Jesus commends them for “hating the deed of the Nicolaitans, which He also hated.” This Greek word “nikolaitês” is a compound word “niko” meaning “to conquer” and “laites” meaning “the people.” Many scholars believe the “Nicolaitans” were an early group seeking to exert authority over the people by claiming the need for a priestly intermediary. If this is the case it would explain why Jesus used such strong language saying He “hated their deeds” for no man has the right to come between Jesus and His bride or kids!
Though this church was doing all the right things Jesus diagnoses a heart condition! He continues, “Nevertheless I have this against you, that you have left your first love…” In order to understand what it was these believers “left” you need to first unpack what Jesus means when he says “first love.”
In the Greek “prôtos” means “first in rank” and the word “agapê” being a feminine noun signifies “love or affection.” In most instances “agapê” is used to refer to the covenant love of God for mankind which yields a reciprocated love back to Him. Twelve times in the New Testament you will find “agapê” used in the phrase the “love of God.”
Contrary to what most Bible commentators say I do not believe in referring to “their first love” Jesus was addressing a feeling that had diminished, an excitement this church no longer possessed, or a romance that with time had slowly wained. I do not believe, as one pastor said, the problem was that their “home had become a house.”
Please understand when it comes to the Christian experience “first love” or “agapê love” was never a love I possessed for God, but rather a love He demonstrated towards me! As Paul would write to the Romans, “But God demonstrates His own love (agapê) toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8)
So how is it that we “leave our first love?” We “leave our first love” the moment the motivation for doing anything related to the Christian life (Bible study, worship, prayer, service) becomes anything other than the natural response of Jesus’ love for me!
You see the problem was not that this church no longer loved Jesus… The problem was that they had grown to see their work as a way they could demonstrate their love for Jesus as opposed to their work being a natural response of the love Jesus had already demonstrated towards them… His “agapê” love! The issue Jesus is addressing was not a diminished feeling or a waining passion… It was a warped motivation.
Which explains why, after listing all of the wonderful things this church was doing, Jesus said, “Nevertheless, I have this against you…” What He’s saying is that “in spite of all of the good things happening in this church the one thing missing trumps it all!” Jesus is telling them that He cared more about the motivation behind their work than the work itself.
Notice this was not something they lost on accident, but something they left by intent! And you know I have found, in the context of our spiritual lives, “leaving your first love” is actually much easier to do than you might have thought.
Understand, there is a dangerous byproduct when the motivation of our Christian service shifts from being a natural response of His love for me to the way I demonstrate my love for Him… Our works supplant His grace as the basis of God’s favor and our holiness.
Because their church culture stressed demonstrating love for Jesus as opposed to enjoying Jesus’ love for them, it became easy to then focus more upon the work they did and the sacrifices they made for Christ than the work He did and the sacrifice He made for them.
Holiness had become the a result of pious living and not the byproduct of His amazing grace. The sufficiency of Jesus’ work was being replaced with the sufficiency of their own merit. In a sense Jesus tells them that because they were exchanging the Gospel of Grace for the Anti-Gospel of Legalism this church was choosing to leave their “first love.” Note: I call it the Anti-Gospel because any position that demands I have to do something to earn God’s favor is diametrically opposed to the good news (Gospel) that Jesus has already done something to earn that favor for me!
Since the Anti-Gospel of Legalism heralds personal achievements over sin in place of the Gospel of Grace which preaches His victory over sin, legalism creates a moral structure and a church culture that demands more laws to obey, liberties to forgo, things to be sacrificed, and works to do instead of a personal relationship founded on Jesus’ “first love” for me.
In light of this heart condition Jesus pleads with them to “remember from where they had fallen,” He exhorts them to “repent,” before finally admonishing them to “do the first works.” Obviously the key to understanding Jesus’ counsel hinges upon what He means by “the first works.” Let me explain how most pastor’s apply this passage…
“If you’ve left your ‘first love’ and you’re not feeling it for Jesus like you used to, then you need to get back to doing the things you were doing when you first got saved… ‘the first works.’ Just like a married couple who’s flame for one another has dimmed, the key to rectifying this stagnation is to re-stimulate the relationship… You need to re-ignite that passion you’ve lost with Jesus by getting back to work. Christian, don’t be a lazy wife! Return to your ‘first love’ and ‘do the first works’ by committing to read through your whole Bible over the coming year, get back to worshipping God in your car by singing along with that angel Chris Tomlin, start rising before the sun to spend time in prayer… You need to get back to serving others and start making church attendance a renewed priority. Friend, the best way to fix this problem is to recreate the early days of the relationship.”
And yet, there is a fundamental problem with this approach… Aside from the fact this church was already doing everything one could possibly do, it’s a foundational reality of the Gospel that it’s impossible to transform a heart through outward activity!
Sadly, by presenting things to do in order to fix a relationship with Jesus this perspective becomes guilty of the very thing Jesus was trying to address in the first place!
It’s not an accident that Jesus opens His letter by introducing Himself as “He who holds the seven stars in His right hand, who walks in the midst of the seven golden lampstands…” Beyond the fact that Jesus is reminding them as to His ultimate authority over the church (“He holds the seven stars in His right hand”), this detail that He “walks in the midst of the seven golden lampstands” is interesting for it speaks more of His presence than His person.
Understand… The only way to effectively change the heart and readjust our motivations is to return our focus onto the person, love, and grace of Jesus. You see what this church needed more than anything else if they were to return to their “first love” was a renewed awareness of and dependency on the presence of Jesus.
May I ask… What was your “first work” when it came to your relationship with Jesus? What did you “do” when you first encountered Christ? Answer: You humbly came to the cross, placed your faith in His sacrifice, accepted His forgiveness, received His blessed favor, and died to yourself so that you could live through Him.
With this in mind consider Jesus’ counsel… He first pleads with them to “remember from where they have fallen.” In order to address their heart condition Jesus wants them to “remember” the beginning… The context of how their relationship began! Which interestingly enough had nothing fundamentally to do with them and everything to do with Him. He wants them to remember the moment they first encountered and experienced the “first love” - His love being demonstrated to them (independent of them) by His amazing grace!
Jesus then commands them to “repent” of the Anti-Gospel of Legalism. In order to return to their “first love…” In order to get back to the point where God’s love for them was the preeminent thing - the motivating reality… They needed to reject and turn away from the notion that their works played any part in God’s lasting favor or their personal holiness.
And yet, repentance is not just a “turning from” but also a “turning to” which is why Jesus ultimately tells them to get back “to doing the first works.” They could “remember from where they had fallen,” and even “repent” of their legalism, but it would all be for nought if they failed “to do the first works” by returning to the cross - the place of His grace… the basis of His favor… the motivator of behavior… the origins of holiness… the essence of “first love!”
1 John 4:9-10, “In this the love of God was manifested toward us, that God has sent His only begotten Son into the world, that we might live through Him. In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins.”
Jesus warns this church that if they refused to do these things he would “come quickly and remove their lampstand from its place.” Because legalism fosters such a distortion of the Gospel Jesus was willing to shut down the church rather than allow it to continue.
And yet, Jesus also promises that if this church overcame this root of legalism by returning to the essence of the Gospel… their “first love…” a dependance on His grace alone… they’d experience from God renewed life and fruitfulness. He said, “To him who overcomes I will give to eat from the tree of life, which is in the midst of the Paradise of God.”
For starters, modeling the outward appearance of this church is not a bad thing. Oh, that we’d also be a church impacting our community. That we’d be recognized by Jesus as a serving church. That we’d possess a heart to study His Word and the boldness to speak the truth and call out the lie! That we’d love what Jesus loves and hate what He hates!
Oh, that we’d be a church distinct from but that also appeals to our culture. That it would be said of us that while we were a magnet for the downtrodden we also boldly resisted that which is evil. That in our witness “Jesus was magnified” and “His word grew mightily.”
And yet, we should also take to heart Jesus’ criticism that when any aspect of our Christian experience is motivated by anything other than His love we are in danger of “leaving our first love” and beginning the dangerous tailspin from grace into legalism.
Don’t misunderstand work in and of itself is not a bad thing. In actuality work was something God designed specifically for man’s enjoyment. If you go all the way back to the beginning of the human experience you will see that Adam enjoyed his work (caring for the Garden) because if flowed from his relationship with God. It was God-given and God-motivated!
And yet, following the fall when Adam’s work no longer flowed from his relationship with God, we see how very quickly work morphed into labor and toil! Genesis 3:17-19, “God said, ‘Cursed is the ground for your sake; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life.’”
And it’s here I see an interesting manifestation of God’s grace for anytime an aspect of our Christian life no longer flows from our relationship with Jesus one thing is certain to happen… God will curse the work and it will no longer be enjoyable.
You see, what many Christians call “getting burned out” in their service, or when their Bible study turns stale, time in prayer ritualistic, worship unenthusiastic, or church experience regimented (when the work turns into labor and is no longer enjoyable as it once was)… may in actually be God actively and deliberately cursing the work as a warning that you’ve “left your first love” and your motivations are no longer a reciprocation of His love.
This is why it’s so important we always remain cognitive of and reliant on the presence of Jesus… That we abide at the foot of the cross and hold fast the banner of His grace… That we seek to do nothing more than “the first works” whereby all other Christian work shall flow!
This morning may “he who has an ear hear what the Spirit says to the churches.” We have a choice what type of church we want to be and you have a choice why type of relationship with Jesus you want to have. You can labor in legalism seeking to earn a favor you’ve already been given all the while dying a slow, unenjoyable death or you can abide in grace and experience the life and fruitfulness that flows only from a relationship with Jesus.