1 “To the angel of the church in Ephesus write: These are the words of him who holds the seven stars in his right hand and walks among the seven golden lampstands. 2 I know your deeds, your hard work and your perseverance. I know that you cannot tolerate wicked people, that you have tested those who claim to be apostles but are not, and have found them false. 3 You have persevered and have endured hardships for my name, and have not grown weary. 4 Yet I hold this against you: You have forsaken the love you had at first. 5 Consider how far you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first. If you do not repent, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place. 6 But you have this in your favor: You hate the practices of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate. 7 Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who is victorious, I will give the right to eat from the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God.
In this first letter to the seven churches in Asia, John penned a very sobering challenge to the church at Ephesus. It is also a very puzzling letter, in that many more commendations are given them than criticisms, and yet the one criticism given is obviously a salvation issue. Forsaking our “first love” marks a very far fall from where we once were with God. Just what does it mean to forsake our first love? I’m convinced that our normal explanation isn’t close to what John had in mind.
Good Deeds Abound!
First, note how many positive things are found in this end-of-the-century church.
- Good deeds
- Hard work
- Refusal to tolerate wicked people
- Tested leaders and called the false ones out for what they were – false teachers
- Endured hardships
- Have not grown weary
- Hate the practices of the Nicolaitans (as God hates them – we cannot love what God loves without hating what he hates)
Wow – all in all, you have to admire a church like this one, do you not? It is almost shocking that only one negative thing could offset all else on that list of commendations. Whatever constitutes losing one’s first love, it must be a very, very serious matter in the eyes of God. We must therefore give special attention to discovering what it is in the context of this otherwise highly commended church.
An Explanation That Falls Short
The normal explanation given for this serious spiritual malady is often stated in the form of a question like this one. “Do you still feel the love for Jesus that you felt when you came out of the baptistery?” Of course, we can look back to the excitement we felt after being baptized, knowing (and feeling) that all of our sins were now forgiven in the blood of Christ. I am thankful for that realization and euphoric feeling. But do you have that same feeling today, perhaps decades after your acceptance of Christ? If not, have you lost your first love and thus possibly your salvation? That very thought can bring a stone-cold feeling of dread into our hearts, can’t it?
Perhaps you might be wondering just why this passage is on my mind today. It isn’t because I’m worried about being lost, not at all. It came to mind as our 53rd wedding anniversary approached, and today is that day, taking my thoughts back to January 30, 1965 on a sunny day in Shreveport, Louisiana. Four years prior to that, Theresa and I had started falling in love when we were seniors in high school. I do remember those almost overwhelming euphoric feelings of early infatuation. Whatever chemical reactions in our bodies takes place during that period of time, they were quite strong ones for both of us.
Rather scientific studies have been conducted about this infatuation period – what causes the proven chemical reactions and how long it typically lasts. The one thing shown by such studies is that this period doesn’t last indefinitely. It is a combination of two kinds of love, which can be defined well by Greek words. One is phileo, meaning a friendship type of love – you are attracted to another’s personality and character, and really enjoy being in their presence. The other is eros, the word for physical or sexual attraction. This combination constitutes romantic love, what the world generally calls “falling in love.”
The problem for those not committed to Christ’s will is that when this type of love wanes (and it most certainly will), too many people assume that they have now fallen out of love and many couples start down the road that leads to divorce. God’s plan, of course, is that the romantic love has as its foundation the most vital type of love, that of agape love – a commitment love that keeps the good of the other person as one’s top priority. When this love is the foundation of the relationship, the two aspects of romantic love can be rebuilt time and time again. Our marriage is a living testimony to that fact!
We Are All Married and Some Have Two Mates
So what does this have to do with Revelation 2 and our relationship to Christ? For starters, the church is the bride of Christ, according to Ephesians 5. Comparing our relationship with our physical mate to our relationship with our spiritual Mate can teach us a lot. I think our earliest relationship to Jesus began with something like infatuation. It was indeed a euphoric time and one we would love to have kept every minute of every day for the rest of our lives. But alas, we are not designed in a way that allows that in any relationship, even the one with Christ. Hard times come and testing comes and age comes – all of which causes all relationships to have an ebb and flow in how they affect our feelings at any particular point.
As I sit in a warm room with my dearly loved bride, looking at her cuddled up in a blanket having her time with God, my heart is full and my eyes moist. Happy Anniversary to my extraordinary wife with her beautiful big brown eyes and beautiful big heart that have totally captivated me! We have spent 57 years (counting our boyfriend/girlfriend years) of ups and downs and all-arounds, governed and kept intact by God, who is agape love by definition (1 John 4:8). Do I have that infatuation type of feeling right now? Not really, but rather something far deeper and far more precious – the mixture of all types of love seasoned by nearly six decades of being immersed in it with her. She is far more important to me today than I could have imagined 53 years ago today as I watched that stunningly beautiful bride of mine walk up that church aisle to become Mrs. Ferguson.
Are You Ready For This?
In the midst of my reminiscing and rejoicing today, I still must return to the sobering passage with which I began this article. If forsaking one’s first love is not referring to losing that emotional rush that was present at our baptism, then to what does it refer? The most logical explanation I have seen is this one from “Baker’s New Testament Commentary.” Read it very carefully, please.
When Jesus says that the Ephesians have lost their first love, he does not mean to say that the Ephesians live and work without love for God or their neighbors. He stresses the adjective first. In effect a literal translation reads, “You have left your love, the first [love].” The lush green color of springtime in the congregation has disappeared, and the fading shades that characterize an early autumn are now prevalent. To put it differently, the church that Jesus addressed no longer consisted of first-generation believers but of second- and third-generation Christians. These people lacked the enthusiasm their parents and grandparents had demonstrated. They functioned not as propagators of the faith but as caretakers and custodians. There was an obvious deficiency in evangelistic outreach as a result of a status-quo mode of thought. They loved the Lord but no longer with heart, soul, and mind.
The first generation exerted extraordinary effort so that in Ephesus “the word of the Lord spread widely and grew in power” (Acts 19:20). In later years Paul addressed an epistle to them and praised them for their faith in the Lord Jesus and their love for fellow Christians (Eph. 1:15). The children and grandchildren of these people opposed heresy and demonstrated persistence in fulfilling the needs of the church, but they fell short of genuine enthusiasm for the Lord.
Did you get the bottom line conclusion of that quoted material? A deficiency in evangelistic outreach is equated with a failure to love the Lord with heart, soul and mind. Perhaps this helps you understand better why I have written so often about what our movement of churches used to be like and what I believe it is like now. Collectively, we are doing many good things, just as the later Ephesus church did. But one thing I miss seriously is the evangelistic zeal and overall fervor the large majority of our members once had. It is not the same now, and yet Romans 12:11 still reads the same as it did 25 years ago. “Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord.” I think the commentary is spot on correct in defining the loss of first love for Christ. Am I still as zealous to see the Great Commission carried out as I was 25 years ago? Sadly, no. Are you? I doubt it, based on my observation of congregations and growth rates (or lack of same). Honestly, it is challenging to keep this level of zeal all by ourselves – we need others with us to build and maintain the synergistic fervor. I think we all need some serious repentance, don’t you?
I am zealous about my marriage, for sure. I keep investing in it in multiple ways. I am more in love with my wife now than ever and looking for better ways to keep showing it. I want to please her and make her happy. Wouldn’t it be reasonable to believe that being seriously dedicated to carrying out Christ’s Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20), for which he shed his blood, would please him and make him happy? As the byline of an old publication for which I used to write said: “Let’s stop making excuses and start making disciples!” Amen – be it so, Lord!