Who were the hardest working Christians in the Bible? The answer must surely be Paul and his friends, but many people will say it was the church at Ephesus. They say this because of what Jesus said in his letter to the church: “I know your deeds and toil” (Rev 2:2a).
Commentators make much of Jesus knowing the Ephesians’ deeds and toil, as though an impressed Lord was recording their labors in his scorebook. But the original word for know simply means “I see”. It’s not necessarily a commendation. In these letters, Jesus says, “I know” in regard to both good deeds (Rev. 2:19) and bad deeds (Rev. 3:1, 15).
When Jesus says, “I know” to the Ephesians, he’s saying “I care.” Because he loves us he is intimately acquainted with our lives. He knows what we’re doing. It’s a good thing that he knows, but it may not be a good thing that we’re doing, and this was the case with the Ephesians.
“I know your deeds and toil.” Many believe that Jesus was commending the Ephesians for their hard work, but the word toil means labors, extreme weariness, and beating. The Ephesians were taking a beating. They were working themselves to exhaustion. Why would the Lord commend them for that?
Jesus said, “Come to me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest” (Matt. 11:28). The Ephesians were weary and heavy-laden. They were a busy church in a busy city. They were running all sorts of programs, ministries, and activities. They met every day of the week and twice on Sunday, and they were worn out.
Contrary to popular opinion, Jesus doesn’t commend the Ephesians for working themselves into a miserable state. He does not say, “Well done you good and hard-working servants.” But nor does he rebuke them for working too hard. He simply says, “I’m aware of how hard you are working.” He’s building up to something, and it is this. “You have left your first love” (Rev 2:4).
Your first love is not your love for God; it is God’s love for you. He is the Source and the Supply of all agape love. To say the Ephesians had left their first love, is to recognize they were no longer abiding in the love of God. Like the prodigal son, they had walked away from their Father’s love.
That Jesus would speak of the Ephesians’ labor and lost love speaks volumes. These guys had too much going on. Living in the busiest city in Asia, they were burning the candle at both ends and burning themselves out in the process.
By working ourselves to distraction and by trying to earn what God freely provides, we can find ourselves far from the love of God. He certainly has not stopped love us, but we don’t feel the love. We feel beaten down, exhausted, bone-weary. Happily, there is a remedy.
Therefore remember from where you have fallen, and repent and do the deeds you did at first. (Rev 2:5)
What the Ephesians were doing (working hard) was getting in the way of what they weren’t doing (receiving from Jesus), which is why Jesus tells them to stop what they’re doing and return to what they did before. This is a message for all weary Christians: Stop what you’re doing and do what you did at first.
What deeds did we do at first?
You enjoyed Jesus. When you first entered the kingdom you may have done nothing at all except recline at his feet. “Do that,” says the Lord. “Stop trying to give to me and receive from me. Follow Mary who sat rather than Martha who stressed.”
Sadly, this is not the recommendation you will hear from those who elevate works above grace. “Doing what you did at first means praying and studying the word and evangelizing with the enthusiasm you had when you first came to Jesus.” In other words, the hard-working Ephesians need to work even harder and so do you. “Through hard work we prove our love and maintain our good standing with God.” Beware this graceless message! The mindless pursuit of religious busyness—even good works done in the name of Jesus—will distract you from the love of God. You’ll end up with toiling in the kitchen instead of reclining with Jesus in the lounge.
The takeaway, the cure, the ticket to freedom
If you are worn out from doing the Lord’s work, you can probably relate to the Ephesians. They were a hard-working bunch of believers, but they were dying on the inside. They were busy building, but their labor was in vain.
Why do we push ourselves past breaking point? It can happen because we’ve forgotten how much God loves us. We think we have to prove ourselves or come up with the goods, but none of this pressure is from the Lord.
You were made to receive your Father’s love. Lose sight of your Father’s love for you and you will lose your way. You’ll fall from the secure place of grace into the realm of dead works. You’ll become restless, insecure, and empty on the inside. You’ll try to replace his love with lesser things.
If the Ephesians could leave the love of God, anyone can. But the good news is those who wander can come home again. If you have lost your first love, Jesus shows us the way back: Remember, repent (change your thinking), and do what you did at first. Go back to the place of your first love, when Jesus was your everything. Make every effort to enter his rest and let nothing move you.
Extracted and adapted from Paul Ellis’s new book, Letters from Jesus: Finding Good News in Christ’s Letters to the Churches. Available for preorder now.