The Church That Fell Out Of Love
In Revelation 2:1-7 we have record of the letter Jesus dictated to the apostle John concerning the church of Ephesus. Jesus describes Himself as “He who…walks in the midst of…the seven churches” (2:1 with 1:20). This affirms His presence among local churches and the fact that He knows what’s going on in His churches. As Jesus “walks in the midst of” His churches, He can accurately inspect each church and know its true condition. He sees not only the externals, but also the internal spiritual and moral condition of a church.
In verse 23 Jesus claims that the judgment on Jezebel and her followers is to be a standing lesson to “all the churches.” This indicates that the principles dealt with in these letters are to be remembered and applied by local churches of any age. But the Lord was also speaking to individuals: “He who has an ear to hear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches” (2:7). Local churches are made up of a collectivity of individuals, and it’s the individual members who determine the spiritual life of the church. So, while reading these letters, we must apply them personally as we examine our own hearts.
Jesus’ Commendation of Ephesus
Jesus commended them for being a working church: “I know your works, your labor…you…have labored for My name’s sake and have not become weary” (2:2-3). In modern terms they would be commended for their weekly Bible classes, assemblies for worship and edification, efforts in spreading the gospel, and the fact that each individual was busy in daily Bible reading, serving and teaching others.
They were also commended for their patience and perseverance: “I know…your patience…and you have persevered…” (2:2-3). When work had to be done under trying circumstances they endured with patience, they stuck with it to the end. With steadfastness they had borne up under the burdens of meeting false teachers and false doctrines. They had patiently maintained their defense of the truth.
The church at Ephesus was commended for their doctrinal soundness: “And you have tested those who say they are apostles and are not, and have found them liars” (2:2). They were not only working, but were concerned about their work being according to a “thus says the Lord.” If someone claimed to be sent by God, they were tested; the church at Ephesus would be loyal to the truth. Some 50 years before, Paul had warned the Ephesian elders that false teachers would come in from the outside and even arise from within the church (see Acts 20:28-30).
The church at Ephesus is also commended for their moral soundness; they separated themselves not only from false doctrines, but also from false and evil deeds: “But this you have, that you hate the deeds of the Nicolaitians, which I also hate…and that you cannot bear those who are evil” (2:6,2). The best we can tell from historians is that the Nicolaitans were a group of Gnostics who taught and permitted self-indulgence and immorality. You’ll note that they did not hate the Nicolaitans, but they hated their sins, their ungodly deeds.
No matter how you examine this church up to this point, you would have to conclude it is just about perfect; these virtues should be found in every local church. However, “He who searches the minds and hearts” (2:23), saw past the externals into their hearts.
Jesus’ Condemnation of Ephesus
This busy, discerning and sacrificing church suffered from “heart trouble”; they displayed works, labor, patience, and doctrinal and moral soundness, but these qualities were not motivated by a love for Christ: “Nevertheless I have this against you, that you have left your first love” (2:4). What we do for the Lord is important, but so is why we do it (see 1 Corinthains 13:1-3).
What is this “first love”? It is the devotion to Christ that so often characterizes the new believer: fervent, personal, uninhibited, excited and openly displayed; some say it is equivalent to the love of newlyweds. It is only as we love Christ fervently that we can serve Him faithfully.
We can examine the intensity of their “first love” by referring to Acts 19:18-20. Their love for Christ and His cause was such that they were willing to separate completely from their sinful practices and burn bridges behind them, even at considerable cost to themselves. But now a second or third generation church, about 50 years after their establishment, their hot zeal had simmered into cool formalism. More and more, they were just going through the motions out of a sense of duty, rather than out of love.
Is it possible that any of us have lost our first love–drifted away from the love we had early in our lives as saints? Have we “fallen out of love” for Christ and for His church? When we first became Christians never were the doors of God’s house open without our being there, but now we attend only occasionally; and we are so busy with other things, that if we can be there, we are habitually late. When we first became Christians we were “glad when they said to me, let us go into the house of the Lord” (Psalm 122:1), but now assembling for worship is burdensome to us.
When we first became Christians we would sing joyously, but now there’s no melody in our heart. We would listen attentively to the preaching and participate in the class studies with open Bibles, but now we allow our minds to wander, we may not even bring our Bible to church with us. When we first became Christians we would partake of the Lord’s Supper remembering Jesus’ great sacrifice for us on the cross, but now it is all such a bore, an unpleasant experience…”let’s hurry up and get it over with; I would rather be somewhere else.”
When we first became Christians we spent time each day studying God’s Word, but now we’re too busy; studying God’s word is the last thing on our mind. We prayed “without ceasing”, but now we pray only when trouble comes. We enjoyed being with other saints through the week, but now we have no pleasurable association with them; we could not care less about them through the week. Have we lost our first love?
Jesus’ Admonition for Correction
“First love” can be restored if we will follow the three instructions Christ gave in His admonition: “Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent and do the first works…” (2:5). First, we must remember (lit. “keep on remembering”) what we have lost and cultivate a desire to regain that close fellowship once again. Remember the love, the faith, the joy of your salvation when you first trusted and obeyed. Compare that with your present attitude; compare your former burning zeal in the Lord’s service to your present state of apathy and unconcern, and consider how much ground you have lost. A serious reflection upon our present condition, contrasted with our former position should lead us to repent–i.e., change our minds sufficient to change our conduct. And we must “do the first works”; meaning the same works we had been doing, but now motivated by love and with the original enthusiasm.
Jesus’ challenge (2:7) to the saints at Ephesus makes it clear that the individual within the church may be true to the Lord, no matter what others may do. Those with an ear for spiritual truths will hear and obey; those with ears dull of hearing will not.