Forsaking Your First Love: What Was the Ephesians’ Problem? (Rev 2:1-7)

UPDATE: This is an old article. An updated and expanded commentary on this passage can be found in Paul’s book Letters from Jesus.

Camilla and I are celebrating our 11th wedding anniversary today. We were married on Easter Monday in 1999 and because Easter moves every year, this is our first anniversary to fall on an Easter Monday. So it’s an extra special day. By the grace of God it has been 11 years of heaven on earth. Every year has been better than the last.

So what’s all this about forsaking our first love?

In Revelations 2:4, Jesus accuses the Ephesian church of forsaking their first love. Sometimes this verse is used by preachers and songwriters to promote our love for God. “Remember your first love. Remember how much you loved Jesus at the beginning and go back to that. Love him like you used to.”

I totally don’t get that.

Imagine if someone said that to me about my love for Camilla. “Remember how you loved her in that first year and go back to that.” Sure, we loved each other with all our hearts. But since then our capacity for love has grown. Our hearts have gotten bigger and we love each other more deeply. Why? Because we’ve been through stuff. We’ve had babies together. We’ve faced death together. To go back to our first love would be a step backwards.

It’s the same with Jesus. I know and love Jesus more now than I ever did. We’ve been through some stuff, he and I. We’ve walked on the water and chased off demons together. We’ve been to the mountain-top and the valley floor. We’ve faced death together. He has always known me completely but each year I learn more about him and his limitless love for me.

Do you understand me when I say that every year Jesus just gets bigger and better!

For Jesus to say to the Ephesians that they had forsaken their first love, that they needed to repent and do the things they did at first, tells us that there was something seriously wrong with this church.

What went wrong in Ephesus?

For those who equate “love” with “works”, it’s obvious that the Ephesians had lost their zeal. Perhaps their prayer meetings were lifeless. Perhaps they went about their works of service without any real enthusiasm. Sadly it’s not hard to find churches like this today.

The usual remedy is that churches like this need to straighten up and fly right. They need to confess their sin of apathy, repent and get busy for Jesus. If they don’t, bad things are going to happen. Lampstands will be removed. Preach a message like this and the church will soon be back out on the street witnessing as if their lives depended on it. They will be zealous, but joyless. They will be earnest, but fruitless. And in a year or two they will be worn out and lifeless once again.

No, the real problem with the Ephesians was that they had lost something of their understanding of God’s love for them. They had forgotten that they were beloved sons of God. They were a busy church but their works were based on their love for God, rather than His love for them.

Do you know the love of God?

In writing to the Ephesians Paul prayed that they would know the love of Christ (Eph 3:18). He did not pray that they would grow in their love for Christ. Some people think we are filled with the nature of God to the degree that we love God but that’s not what Paul said. He said we’re filled to the degree to which we know the love of Christ.

John, the beloved disciple, was at one time a member of the Ephesian church and he was famous for reminding people of the Father’s lavish love toward us. “Love comes from God” (1 Jn 4:7). “Real love isn’t our love for God, but his love for us” (1 Jn 4:10). Our love flows out of, and is a response to, his love. He is our love-source.

In Revelations 2:4 Jesus says to the Ephesians, “You have left your protos agape” or your foremost or primary love. What is the source of our protos agape? It is a revelation of Christ’s love for us.

Why do I say the Ephesians had become religious? Because Jesus commends their hard work but then says they’re not doing the things they did at first. So they’re working hard but to some extent is the wrong sort of work.

From this we can conclude that the Ephesians were a hard-working, non-loving church. That sounds a lot like a church that’s coming back under the law. They may have started out with grace but they are now trying to attain their goal by human effort.

Paul once told the Ephesians that they were seated with Christ in heavenly places but by the time of John’s revelation it seems they had forgotten this. They’re no longer resting, they are striving. In a sense they have fallen from that seat of heavenly rest to a place of earthly works. They have fallen from a great height of grace. They have become known for their works, not His. Like the Galatians they have perverted the gospel and are no longer living by faith. Like the Laodiceans they have mixed law with grace and ended up in a lukewarm muddle.

What’s the solution? Like the Galatians and the Laodiceans, they need to repent. That is, they need to change their way of thinking. They need to change their theology. They need to do what they did at first which was presumably trust in the goodness and love of God as revealed in Jesus Christ.

What is the lesson for us?

We are called to be shining exhibits of God’s grace not tarnished testimonies of human effort. Like the Ephesians we need to do the work of God which is to “believe in the one he has sent” (Jn 6:29). Faith in God is not displayed in human effort but in Holy Spirit power. We are called to reveal Christ not ourselves.

A church that is walking in the revelation of God’s awesome grace will be seeing the the captives freed and the dead raised. The poor may be getting food parcels, but they’ll also be getting the good news preached to them and it will be setting them free. The sick may be getting hospital visits but they’ll also be getting healed by believers who believe that they have authority to heal in Jesus’ name.

Jesus warned he would remove the Ephesians’ lampstand from its place. The lampstand refers to the church itself (Rev 1:20). Jesus’ warning applies to any church that tries to mix human effort with Divine grace. You cannot put the new wine of grace in a wineskin of human performance without something breaking. Eventually something will have to give.

It may be that the Ephesian church was in danger of fading into irrelevance. But I like to imagine that in this church there were some nobodies who still knew the love of Christ and who were troubled by the increasing emphasis on performance and manipulation. If the church didn’t corporately repent, perhaps these nobodies went their own way and started a new church in some other location and leaving the somebodies to their religious works. If so, the lampstand would have literally moved from its place.

A healthy church, like a healthy marriage, is one that remembers its protos agape. It stands on the bedrock of Christ’s love for us. If your church (or your marriage) is not like that, then I pray what Paul prayed:

I pray that you may have your roots and foundation in love, so that you, together with all God’s people, may have the power to understand how broad and long, how high and deep, is Christ’s love. Yes, may you come to know his love – although it can never be fully known – and so be completely filled with the very nature of God. (Eph 3:17-19, GNB)


Postscript: If you’re wondering how we celebrated our anniversary, we’ve just returned from a very stiff 4 hour hike up and down some muddy hills. The perfect day!

35 Comments on Forsaking Your First Love: What Was the Ephesians’ Problem? (Rev 2:1-7)

  1. Catherine Wood // April 5, 2010 at 11:10 pm // Reply

    Hey Paul & Camilla, congratulations on 11 years of marriage. Thanks for the insight of not wanting to go back ‘to our first love’ of Christ but to be in a place where we are more in love and in awe of him because of what he has brought us through over the years. Good stuff.

  2. Richard Khaw // July 5, 2011 at 11:08 pm // Reply

    I believe with all my heart that actually there is no ‘gospel of grace’. It is THE gospel,there is no other,as Paul assets in Galatians. A couple of questions still niggle at me;perhaps you can share your take on them:
    1.why Jesus taught His disciples,in the Lord’s Prayer,to ‘forgive our sins’. Is he teaching them to keep confessing their sins?Are we to do the same.?
    2. What actually happened to Ananias and Sapphira? Weren’t they in the post-crucifixion age of grace?
    Thank you

    • Dear Richard,
      I agree with you that the gospel of grace is the gospel. Still, the label “the gospel of God’s grace” comes straight from Paul (Acts 20:24). I have written a short post comparing the different gospel labels if you’re interested.
      1. Jesus had two ministries that were distinguished by the cross. In the first He preached law to those born under law (you weren’t). The Sermon on the Mount is vintage law. Do we need to forgive to be forgiven? Thanks be to God we absolutely, 100% do not. We live under grace and we forgive as Christ forgave us Col 3:13. You can read more about that here.
      2. Who killed Ananias and Sapphira? The Bible doesn’t say yet most people are quick to blame God. If God were punishing them for their sins then I guess the cross wasn’t the once-for-all-time sin sacrifice Hebrews says it was. I have written a little about this here. My friend Ryan Rhoades has written a longer post here.

    • Ananias means “Yahweh is gracious” in hebrew. Sapphira means “beautiful”. I believe that God has been gracious to Ananias and Sapphira just like Abraham and Sarah. Despite of grace being shown to them, they “lied to the Holy Spirit” and instead wanted to have a position in the church by putting God’s love for them aside and replacing it with the love for money.

      • I believe, Ananias and Safira were not believers, but unbelievers trying to pretend and get some place in the Church.

      • I agree. What we can do is to Pray for everybody, pray without ceasing that we may all stay strong in our faith in Him. Prayer is the key to heaven and faith unlocks the door. May the grace of God be with us all.

    • Don Taylor // April 21, 2015 at 7:41 pm // Reply

      Martin what i gather about studying the difference of the people that lived in the kingdom of Heaven (the Jews) vs. what Paul preached Grace , the Apostles preached the Laws of Moses to keep,Ananias and Safira were living the Laws plus Jesus name as the Messiah and at that time they could still be stoned for working on the Sabbath for instance, and by reading Galatians 1:1 through Galatians 2:9 with a pencil and paper to count the years that the 12 Apostles believed that Jesus was murdered and had no Idea of the Mystery of the Gospel given to Paul for Appox 20 Years after Jesus death as salvation, which is read in Galatians 2:9 ” Perceived (understood ) the grace (Jesus death burial and resurrection as salvation ) given to me (Paul ) . God allowed the 12 to be ignorant of this fact until it was to start to make two men one Ephesians 2:11-18 and later the 12 preached grace as they understood it ,So Ananias and Safira was living the Old Law at the time of there Death.

  3. Wow….how awesome is God. The Lord gave me a picture about this five years ago when I was first saved. I didn’t know the Bible and didn’t know God could speak to me through pictures. I put the vision away and tried to forget it (because I didn’t know what to do with it being a new Christain I thought i had to do what the more mature people said)…and after about 6 months it did go away. Here I am 5 years later and the Lord brings this back to me so strong. I prayed into it for revelation and what He was trying to show me. I was immediately lead to this site…..and wow the revelation I have received is overwhelming. I know what God is speaking to me about this now and more along the lines of what to pray! O Lord how we need to know your love….America needs a baptism of the love of God. Thanks for the post

  4. It’s been months since this topic have had comments but I believe that when you talk about the grace of God which is the good news; which is God’s love in the person of Jesus, it will never get old. I do hope that there be more people, more church who would spread the good news like this. I’m tired of hearing people talk about morality but no relating it to the love of God. I’m tired of hearing people boasting about their love for God and forgetting about what we believers should really fix our eyes on.. Jesus.. the love of Christ.. the unconditional love for us.. how greatly He loves us all apart from our works. This blog speaks some part of it. Thank you for this message and I hope that we all continue to grow deeper in the love of God. Nothing can separate us from the love of God.

  5. Sometimes age has the opposite effect. I’ve been a Christian for about 23 years and have sat under law-mixed-with-grace teaching for about 22 years of that. Can you understand why I no longer can bear being taught the law and long for more and more grace teachings! I have come to the end of my own works and finally realised how useless they are! Praise God for His matchless grace and Son!

  6. Paul the post you write about pure grace is so life giving. I can’t stop feeding on it. When Jesus mention “difficult is the way which leads to life” in Matthew 7:14 I believe he was not referring to himself but referring to law based religion that makes the way difficult. You did not enter in yourselves, and those who were entering in you hindered.” (Luke 11:52 NKJV)

    The posts you are writing are removing hindrances for people that want to know Christ. It’s making the way easy!  Your response to people who attack or Challenge this gospel of grace is as good as the post itself. This is encouraging to see this, it is a win win situation. God puts a fire in us to proclaim grace and when we are attacked the word of grace increases! one last thing I just want to complement on Your posts. They are so deep it’s like a ocean that never ends. One teaching linked to another I really like that. Also it’s so simple a child can understand it. Be blessed brother! 

  7. Derick Manilong // February 5, 2013 at 10:23 pm // Reply

    God blessed you, I am so blessed with your post on the gospel of grace , I love Jesus more and more.

  8. The word of God is alive.

  9. Errol Pietersen // March 9, 2013 at 7:11 am // Reply

    Hi.If there is a first love then there must be a second love.So i think the church was busy with their second love in every way possible.might be that they begin to preach more about their second love more than their first love.God is a jealous God.Now who then could their second love be?thx.Br Errol.

  10. Paul I really appreciate you man! Grace has taken my life by storm yet has only scratched the surface of what it’s going to turn me into. I know of Nee, Prince, Wommack and now you but who else has awesome commentary and teaching on unmerited favor and grace? Thx again, Seth Marshall

  11. Came across this blog doing some Bible study. And even though it is a few years old I thank you for the post. I hadn’t really been able to put my finger on what I was seeing in my own church. Isn”t it amazing that centuries ago an old man in a cave could tell us about ourselves through the timeless teachings of the Holy Spirit? Got to love Revelation. God bless you for the way you explained it. I think I will put down my silver polish now and pray instead to shine through God”s grace. Oh and hug my husband who I love more now since we too have been through some “stuff”. God bless.

  12. Errol Pietersen // October 11, 2013 at 7:32 am // Reply

    Hi.I think that there are more been preach about husband and wife,on how to run their marriage,then about the marriage between Christ and the Church.All day long on the Christian Radios you hear about divorce and adultery within the members of the church.There are millions of books sold about marriage problems.Nowadays everybody goes for marriage counciling.This problem has taken over of what the church is actually suppose to do.The church should focus on how to strenghten the marriage bond with Christ.And it can only be done with the help of the Holy Spirit.People should go and see professional marriage councilers outside the church.They should not bring their partners problems to the church.Thx.

  13. Kintu George William // August 11, 2014 at 9:39 am // Reply

    Wow,what a reveration!

  14. That’s not it at all. The church had forgotten their love of Truth. Their first love was for honoring Jesus. They sadly stopped carrying on the real light and spreading the truth and instead created their own doctrines. For example, look at how many churches don’t preach or teach about salvation. You must repent, be baptised in Jesus’ name, and be filled with the Holy Ghost. — the only way out was ever done in the new testament. 99% of churches have deviated from this first love. This is reality. Your message is inspirational but unfortunately not on par with that scripture.
    I’m an apostolic Christian who still believes the whole Bible. Congrats on your marriage! Blessings!

    • I sense a strong connection with you Thomas, the thoughts you shared here, I have lived through.
      You may have moved on since some time has passed. . . But, I’ll be presumptuous and suggest that you proclaim the “response to the Gospel” as the Gospel itself. You preach Acts 2:38 as the Gospel, but Acts 2:17-36 is the gospel. I learned that without the revelation of the love that took Jesus to the cross I misrepresented the gospel as “repent, be baptised, and receive the Holy Spirit”.
      Without a coal from the altar of Gods accepted sacrifice we light a strange fire. To say this another way, if our energy, our motivation, our purpose, to have people filled with the Holy Spirit is ahead of the knowledge of our Fathers great love for us, then our Gospel is a strange gospel; another gospel. It’s a fire spawned of self-effort; self-reliance and kept burning by inward looking exclusive religious sects which place themselves above the body of Christ; an organ living in rejection of the greater body.
      The lampstand is to be lit from the altar of Gods’ accepted sacrifice, not from something we deem acceptable. The lampstand lights the world so that we can see things we can’t see, do things we can’t do, and speak words that are the Fathers words (see Isaiah 11:2, cor 12:7).
      The gifts of the Spirit are limited by the knowledge and gratitude of the Love expressed by Jesus towards us, Faith to move in the Gifts of the Spirit come after receiving that love.

      • I love this post Paul, made me smile as I read it. I am in my 60’s and for 35+ years I have tried to love God and ‘be good’. Got to the point where I actually said to a friend, that I would not want to share with anyone the Gospel that I believed, it was too hard and why would I want someone else to be as miserable as me.
        Six years ago I started to hear the msg of the Gospel of Grace. Just prior to this I had decided to give it one more red hot go at getting back to God (even though I was in church and doing all the christian stuff). During my prayer time I was quoting Ps 51….in tears and brokenness, begging God not to cast me away, and renew in me a right spirit, restore His joy in me. Anyway, the past 6 years have been a roller coaster ride…some great highs, and some awful lows. Just hearing all my sins, past, present and future were forgiven, seemed too good to be true, but it has settled in my heart as truth. Not having to confess my failures to God every day before I could actually talk to Him…amazing…freeing, life giving. But then I started to get tired again. Isaiah 30:15, ‘In quietness and confidence shall be your strength, in rest and returning you shall be saved’….seemed to be important to me, asking God to explain it to me…knowing I didn’t have a handle on quietness, confidence, rest…and no clue about ‘returning’ apart from in the legalistic sense. I believe that ‘returning’ means to go back to His love for us….to live there, bask in His love.
        A heavenly Father, all sins forgiven, an open heaven, the gift of righteousness are just amazing truths, but… knowing God’s love for you individually, seems to be the glue that holds it all together.
        Richard I so appreciate reading your replies, this one today has blessed me again.

      • Thanks Leanne. I have found that resting is one of the hardest things to do. Just the other day a problem came up and I immediately defaulted to flesh-mode. I literally said to myself, “I didn’t pray enough,” as though the weight of my prayers would’ve impressed God! Thankfully, I saw my folly straight away and repented. I cast my care aside and returned to the place of trust and rest. Of course, it all worked out fine after that.

      • Hey, Leanne! I got to the same point as you and wouldn’t share the gospel with anyone because I didn’t want anyone to become as miserable as I had become in trying to live by my faith instead of trusting in His infinite , all-sufficient grace. I wasn’t totally freed til October 2015 when I believe God directed me to Paul’s site. I will never forget that day for the rest of my life. But like Paul said to you, it’s easy to find ourselves interjecting ourselves and our abilities or foibles instead of trusting in Him and His merits and character . But I’ve found that freedom is SO sweet when we return to totally
        trusting in Him. Thanks for sharing Leanne and Paul : ) Such an encouragement to me you both are.

      • Thanks Paul and Don, appreciate your comments and encouragement. I have been thinking a lot about God’s love for me/us in the past year, it has been a major comfort to me. ‘Defaulting to flesh mode’… will keep that in mind. Yes, resting is tough to do.
        Blessed, happy Christmas everyone.

  15. Thank you for writing this 5 years ago…I have been on a journey that begun with love and has still a long way to go. My whole structure of religion has been shaken the more I meditate on Christ’s commands. And it all comes down to love…the loving of God that comes by allowing ourselves to be loved by the great I AM, to fill us completely, to heal our wounds, to shine in our gaps…then, and only then can we truly love our neighbor and to make choices that reflect the spirit of God in our every move. So, I still must make choices to receive/accept this love, to be still as all the forces around us push me away from His voice and into “good” distractions. The “good” works vs mercy ministries, the “good” behavior vs heart wrenching authentic desire to be, the “good” appearance vs integrity of actions and motives. Thank you for reminding me that it is not about me doing more, but taking the time to receive more in His presence so I can be exactly what I was made for – a battery of His love that needs recharging so it can be useful to bring life- 😀

  16. Hey, Paul! Happy 17th Anniversary to you and Camilla! Just saw this post this morning. It makes so much sense now. It really IS our comprehension of HIS love for us that will change and deepen OUR love for Him. Now I’m wondering if so many revivals in the past haven’t lasted because they were DOING for Him and ran out of steam from exhaustion.
    What a cool way to begin my Sunday : )
    And you’re right. Going back to our first love for Him is actually regressing , not progressing. That never crossed my mind either. The stuff of life that each of us goes through DOES make that love for Him deeper and more mature as we begin to really understand HIS love for us.
    To think you wrote this back in 2010. And it’s just as fresh and novel on this day of April 10, 2016. Of course for you , it’s the wee hours of Monday April 11
    Hopefully, you’re sleeping soundly as I finish this : )

  17. Hi Mr Ellis, it is such a blessed revelation reading your understanding on the “First Love” in Rev2. It made me start thinking again when i first learnt that this “First Love” is not our love for HIM but JESUS’S Love for us. It seems so right with the spirit within me but i needed more concrete evidence that this is so. Thank GOD that HE had revealed this truth to you years ago and i benefitted much from your website today. Thanks again and blessed 18 anniversary to you and Camilla. 🎉🎶

  18. Courtney Cazarez // September 21, 2017 at 2:52 am // Reply

    This was very insightful and helpful. Thank you so much for sharing this!

    • You’re very welcome Courtney. You may be interested to learn that I have just finished the first draft of a book on the Letters to the Revelation Churches. In it I unpack every verse through grace-lenses. It will come out next year.

  19. Christ is central to a life of salvation. Not “works”. As we live in Him we serve in Him. Walking in Christ means walking by faith. I have faith that my life will please God. I have this faith only because Jesus Christ died in my place and bought me back from a whole world of sin. Over 10 years ago my husband and I felt compelled to leave a church group. That was painful. We have never found another. However, it feels like Christ set us free. Free from acting the part. Free from following the “rules” – of congregational worship mainly, that was a huge elephant in the room. “Going to worship” became synonymous with loving and serving God. We believe God is more interested in the 166.5 hours we live outside any “worship” service. Present your bodies a living sacrifice. God bless you. I am blessed to have found your blog.

  20. I’m gonna go about meditating that I am A beloved son of God.

  21. Kintu George William // September 22, 2019 at 2:55 pm // Reply

    Paul, thanks. This website has helped me a lot to move out of the religious emblem.
    In Uganda, mixed gospel is the order of the day. Even some of our brothers in Grace gospel circles stick to some law norms like tithes, sowing seeds of faith to move God etc. You’ve helped me to draw a line between religion and Christianity, selfishness and real love, law and Grace etc. Pastorship is now enjoyable in the Lord. Thanks again.

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