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!