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.’”
Let me begin with a quick profile of the city of Ephesus: Though the origins of this Hellenistic city 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. Greek historian Strabo says that 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.
In addition to boasting an open air theater capable of holding up to 25,000 spectators, Ephesus also possessed one of the world’s largest libraries making her a center for education and learning. Beyond this, Ephesus was the location of the famous Temple of Artemis (Diana in Roman mythology) - one of the “Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.”
Because Diana was the goddess of childbirth and women, the city of 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, in a twist, Ephesus 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 mostly of 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 incredible 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 of Ephesus was so tangible it was hitting Satan in the pocket book!
Following the arrival of Paul, the radical preaching 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 ministry, this church in Ephesus would be later pastored by Timothy and then the Apostle John. In the case of this particular letter written to her by Jesus, it would come 40 years after the church was established and some 30 years after Paul’s Epistle.
It’s should also be noted that most scholars see the substance of Jesus’ letter to the church of Ephesus also being specifically tailored to the Post-Apostolic Church as general. The reality is that these Ephesian believers epitomized the second-generation of Christians.
Historically, as the church began to transition away from its founding generation, several things are noteworthy: First, like the early disciples 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 heretical influences percolating around the church, during this period they were largely relegated to the fringes.
You can imagine this reality was largely the byproduct of the constant admonitions of men like Paul, John, and Peter who cautioned the church to guard against the false teachers they knew were coming. And yet, with all that being said, sadly and rather tragically, according to some of the writings of the early church leaders, it was during this period the church began making a tragic turn from the Gospel of Grace into legalism.
Because these Ephesian Christians recognized the wicked tendencies of the world around them, they feared these negative influences of culture might end up being corroding the moral fabric of their church. To combat this the early church fathers began erecting moral-walls in order to insulate the flock from these creeping, sinful influences.
And while the motivation for this had been a desire to remain holy and set apart for the purposes of God, the sad and unintended reality is that holiness was no longer being seen as the result of the transformative power of God’s grace; but instead, was seen as something achieved through personal performance and the limiting of liberty.
Ignatius (the 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.”
Notice Jesus begins his letter to this church with a list of powerful commendations. He writes, “I know” (or literally had a full knowledge of)… “Your works…” These were things they had purposed to do for Jesus. “Your labor…” Which described the intensity of their work - they labored to the point of exhaustion. “Your patience…” Which affirms these Ephesian believers were not swerved from their purpose, exhibiting a steadfast endurance. “And perseverance…” That through it all they were able to bear what was burdensome. Jesus even says, “You have labored for My name’s sake and have not become weary.”
WOW! These saints served faithfully and took their calling seriously! While their culture was incredibly immoral and hostile to the followers of Christ, these believers were working hard to fulfill the work Jesus had called them to anyway. 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. They refused to support (“bear”) those of a bad nature (“those who are evil”). The stakes were 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.” Since this church and been founded upon the truth of Scripture, they willingly “tested” or “made trial of” those claiming to have authority (“apostles”). The church leaders in Ephesus were serious about protecting the flock God had entrusted to them, willing to publicly call these teachers “liars” if they deviated from Biblical doctrine!
And yet… While this Ephesian church was clearly 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 understand what Jesus means when He uses this phrase “first love.”
In the Greek “first” or “prôtos” means “first in rank” with the word “agapê” being a feminine noun signifying “love or affection.” While this word described a marital love, in most instances “agapê” was used to refer to the covenantal love of God for mankind which by it’s very design yielded a reciprocated love back to Him. To this point you should note 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 in someway 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 author observed, 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 it was a love He demonstrated towards me! As Paul would write in Romans 5:8, “But God demonstrates His own love (agapê) toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”
So how is it that we “leave our first love?” Answer: You “leave your first love” the moment the motivation for doing anything related to the Christian life (Bible study, worship, prayer, service) becomes anything other than a natural response of Jesus’ love for you!
You see the problem wasn’t the fact this church no longer loved Jesus… The problem was that they had grown to see their work and doctrinal purity as a way they could demonstrate their love for Jesus, as opposed to these things being a natural response of the incredible love Jesus had already demonstrated towards them! The issue Jesus is addressing is 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 says, “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 trumped it all!” Jesus is telling them He cared more about the motivation behind their work than the work itself.
Notice Jesus is crystal clear this was not something they had accidentally lost… It was instead something they’d willingly left! You know I have found “leaving your first love” is actually much easier to do than you might have thought. Let me explain…
There is a dangerous byproduct when the motivation behind your Godly service shifts from being a natural response of God’s love for your to the way you demonstrate your love for Him… Your works supplant His grace as the basis of God’s favor and holiness.
Because this church culture stressed demonstrating love for Jesus as opposed to enjoying Jesus’ love for them, it became so 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 result of pious living and not the byproduct of God’s amazing grace. The sufficiency of Jesus’ work on Calvary 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 legalistic moralism they were choosing to leave their “first love.”
Because legalism fosters a moral structure and creates 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” to enjoy, Legalism is fundamentally anti-gospel! How dangerous it is when a church begins to herald personal achievements over sin in place of the true Gospel of Grace which preaches Jesus’ permanent victory over sin!
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 tragically apply this exhortation…
“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, instead of listening to Rush Limbaugh dedicated yourself to only listening to 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 your relationship with Jesus.”
And yet, there is a fundamental problem with this approach… Aside from the fact this Ephesian 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 Jesus is reminding them of 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 spoke more of His presence than His person.
Keep in mind, the only effective way to change the heart of a person and retune their motivations is to return that person’s 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 and person of Christ.
Friend, what was your “first work” when it came to your relationship with Jesus? What did you “do” when you first encountered your Savior? The answer: You heard His call, humbly came to the cross where you witnessed the incredible depths of His love, you then placed your faith in His atoning sacrifice, accepted His forgiveness, received His blessed favor, only to then die to yourself so that you might 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 with Him began! Interestingly enough this had nothing to do with them, their works, sacrifices, or faithfulness and instead had everything to do with Jesus, His work, sacrifice, and faithfulness.
You see Jesus wants these Ephesian believers to remember the very first moment they encountered and experienced the “first love!” Not their love, but His! He wants them to remember the magnitude of His love being demonstrated to them (independent of them) through the amazing grace revealed in Jesus’ willing sacrifice on the cross!
Jesus then commands them to “repent.” 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… These believers needed to reject and turn away from the notion that their works played any role in God’s lasting favor or their personal holiness.
And yet, we know that repentance is not just a “turning from,” but also a “turning to” - which is why Jesus ultimately instructs 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…”
And while this sounds confusing, don’t forget what the “first work” was as it pertains to your relationship with Jesus - what you originally did? To “do the first works” was that moment in time you first came to the cross, the place of His grace, the basis of His favor, the motivator of your behavior, the origins of holiness, the essence of God’s “first love” for you!
In 1 John 4:9-10 we read, “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 then warns this church that if they refuse to make this change He would “come quickly and remove their lampstand from its place.” Because this departure from the power of grace fosters such a distortion of the Gospel, Jesus was willing to shut down the church rather than allow it to peddle a message of legalistic moralism in place of His amazing grace.
And yet, Jesus also promises that if this church overcame this root of legalism by returning to the essence of the Gospel message… Their “first love…” A dependance on His grace alone… They’d experience from God renewed life and fruitfulness. He writes, “To him who overcomes I will give to eat from the tree of life, which is in the midst of the Paradise of God.” If you feel as if your life is fruitless, maybe the reason is that you’ve also “left your first love.”
Tonight, what is it that Jesus is saying? For starters, modeling the outward appearance of this Ephesian church isn’t a bad thing. Oh, that Calvary316 would also be known as 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 to culture and call a lie a lie! That we’d love what Jesus loves, and that we’d hate what He hates!
Oh, that Calvary316 be a church distinct from but also one that 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, you should also take to heart Jesus’ criticism that when any aspect of your Christian experience is motivated by anything other than His love you are in danger of beginning a dangerous tailspin from grace and blessing into legalism and bareness.
“Well Zach, how do I know this is happening in my life?” It’s actually rather simple… Anytime an aspect of your Christian life is no longer flowing from Jesus’ first love one thing is certain to happen… God will curse your work and it will no longer be enjoyable.
You see, what many Christians call “getting burned out” (when Bible study turns stale, time in prayer ritualistic, worship unenthusiastic, church experience regimented, and service unenjoyable - when the work turns into labor) may in actually be God actively and deliberately cursing that work as a warning you’re in the process of leaving “your first love” and the motivations driving you are no longer a reciprocation of Jesus’ grace and love.
Friend, if this is you and you find yourself this evening tired and burned out, remember Jesus and return to that place you first experienced His love. Come back to the foot of the cross (the place of “first love”) and hold fast the banner of His grace… Seek nothing more than to “do the first works” whereby all other Christian work shall flow.
And what is that “first work?” Basking in and enjoying His “first love.” As Jesus would say in John 15:13, “Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one's life for his friends.”
This evening may “he or she who has an ear hear what the Spirit is saying.” You have a choice what type of relationship with Jesus you want to have. You can labor in your legalistic works seeking to earn a blessed favor you’ve already been given - all the while dying a slow, unenjoyable death or you can choose to abide in His grace and experience the life and fruitfulness that flows only from a relationship with Jesus.
Friend, this is why the cross and more specifically the work Jesus accomplished on the cross is so worthy of your remembrance. For on that cross a great exchange took place.
As Jesus was hanging on that tree, upon His body was placed your sin, guilt, and shame. His body was broken because He endured the full wrath of God meant for you (“the wages of sin is death”). The reality of all that Jesus went through on that fateful Friday is that He was satisfying a debt you could never pay. In 2 Corinthians 5:21 we’re told “for God made Jesus who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.”
And while this sacrificial work of Jesus on the cross is in and of itself an amazing truth worthy of your remembrance, understand, if a payment for sin was all the cross had to offer, the work of atonement would have been incomplete. Yes, you would have been given a fresh start with a clean slate, but your fallen nature would have remained. Payment for past sins may have been met, but you would have remained a sinner destined to transgress again.
You see the glorious reality of the cross is that while Jesus’ body was sacrificed to pay for your past transgressions thereby effectively forgiving you of your rebellious actions against God, it is the covering of His blood spilt on Calvary that transforms you into something entirely new. As the Prophet Isaiah wrote, “By His stripes we are healed.” (Isaiah 53:5)
While in His body Jesus took upon Himself your sin, it is through His blood that Jesus extended to you His righteous standing before God. As Paul wrote in Romans 5:9 you are now “justified by His blood.” This is why both the body and the blood of Jesus are necessary for a full and complete work of atonement.
Simply put - While Jesus’ broken body was an effect sacrifice offered to deal with your past sin, His spilt blood now frees you from the payment of any future sins because it fundamentally changes who you are! It’s why Jesus said the “cup” signified a “new covenant.” You are no longer a sinner, because you’ve been imparted Jesus righteousness through His blood. What an exchange: Jesus took your sin then gave you His righteousness!
Christian, this is why the “first love” of Jesus demonstrated on the cross is a concept you should never depart from for it hammers home two realities you can never forget… (1) By Jesus body you’ve been forgiven, and (2) through His blood you’ve been changed! On Calvary you were reconciled with God and made into a son or daughter!
Since both your salvation and subsequent transformation came only through a work of Jesus on the cross, how absolutely silly it is to now think either can be furthered or fostered by any work of your flesh? This is why you need to reject legalistic moralism and never depart from the glorious realities of the cross. For Jesus’ actions on this Good Friday not only forgave you for who you once were, but they’ve changed you into who you now are!
I hope this all explains why it is that, of all things, Jesus commanded His followers throughout the centuries to “do this” (speaking of our partaking of the bread representing His body and the cup signifying His blood) “in remembrance of Me” anytime we gather together.
Knowing how easy it would be for you and I to slide into a legalistic mindset thereby robbing us of the power of grace, Jesus knew the most central truth we, as His disciples, could never ever forget is that His work on the cross was, is, and will always be more than enough!
1 Corinthians 11:23-25, “The Lord Jesus on the same night in which He was betrayed took bread; when He had given thanks, He broke it and said, ‘Take, eat; this is My body which is broken for you; do this in remembrance of Me.’ And in the same manner He also took the cup after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in My blood. This do, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of Me.’”
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