What Does God Mean in Saying
That the Church Has Left Their First Love
by Tony Warren
- "Unto the angel of the church of Ephesus write; These things saith he that holdeth the seven stars in his right hand, who walketh in the midst of the seven golden candlesticks;
- I know thy works, and thy labour, and thy patience, and how thou canst not bear them which are evil: and thou hast tried them which say they are apostles, and are not, and hast found them liars:
- And hast borne, and hast patience, and for my name's sake hast laboured, and hast not fainted.
- Nevertheless I have somewhat against thee, because thou hast left thy first love."
From all the commendations that Christ gives the Messenger of the Church of Ephesus, one might conclude that it was a faithful Church that just had a tiny little problem. But this was most certainly not the case. Along with the commendations, Christ delivers to this Church a very ominous rebuke. When Christ says, "I have somewhat against thee, because thou hast left thy first love," the word "somewhat" is not in the original text. It is actually, "I have against thee, because thou hast left thy first love." And as we shall see, it is not a slight rebuke to a very faithful Church, it is an indictment, a very serious charge, carrying with it very severe consequences. People have asked how it is possible that a Church of God leaves her first love when we know that love is a matter of grace? But while it is impossible for the individual "true" believer to fall from the love of Christ, clearly (by Christ's own words) a Church as she appears in the world may be removed from her Covenant position grounded on the Rock of Christ. Indeed, Churches become apostate all the time.
As for the phrase itself (thou hast left thy first love), Theologians and Commentators are somewhat divided and have many different views on exactly what it means. Adding to the confusion is the fact that Christ partly commends this Ephesian Church that it followed the rituals of the faith, was keeping the patience of the saints and hated false doctrines and prophets. Normally that would be a cause to rejoice, but Christ still comes as a harbinger of death declaring that if they didn't repent, He would remove their Church out of its place. He would put the light out in their candlestick or lamp-stand. This illustrates the seriousness of Christ saying, "I have--against you, because you have left your first love." The question is, what is the Christian's first love, and how can it be left and yet they are still God's Covenant people? First, let us all agree that it is a "given" that our first or foremost love (in the first instance) is of course, Christ.
No love of anything or anyone can be situated ahead of our love of Christ. That's what makes Him our foremost or chief love. And we understand that He is our first love not because of anything inherent within ourselves, but because He first loved us and therefore works within us to have us will and to do (Philippians 2:13) of His good pleasure. In the second instance, our first love is not only manifested in our love for Jesus, but also in our desire to do first works, which is to bring the love of Jesus to others. This is our primary task, above all others.
- "He that loveth father or mother more than me is not worthy of me: and he that loveth son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me."
This is how we show our love for Christ is above every other love, by feeding the Lord's sheep. Because if God so loved us, we ought also to love others and desire for others in that very same principle love. When Christ commands us, love thy neighbor as thyself, that is no meaningless axiom, it is our primary work or labor of the gospel in this world. The love we have for our enemies (Luke 6:31-35) should not be carnal or worldly, but the benevolent [agape] love manifested in our desire for their salvation. The same love as Christ has for us, is our first love for one another.
- "And he said unto another, Follow me. But he said, Lord, suffer me first to go and bury my father.
- Jesus said unto him, Let the dead bury their dead: but go thou and preach the kingdom of God."
1st John 4:10-19
Because He first loved us, we have Him as our first love. Not because He is our husband and original (first) love, but in the sense that He is what we love above all (first). Indeed, the prominent characteristic of every soul that is a Christian, is love of Christ first. How that love manifests itself in our lives is the first works. What also should be a "given" is that inextricably tied together with this (Matthew 22:37-40) is love of our neighbors as ourselves. Our love for others is how the love of Christ reveals its existence within us. Remember how a scribe, perceiving Christ's knowledge, asked Him, "Which is the first commandment of all?" His reply was very profound in that He linked the first command with the second, in a portrait of love of God:
- "Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us, and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.
- Beloved, if God so loved us, we ought also to love one another.
- No man hath seen God at any time. If we love one another, God dwelleth in us, and his love is perfected in us.
- Hereby know we that we dwell in him, and he in us, because he hath given us of his Spirit.
- And we have seen and do testify that the Father sent the Son to be the Saviour of the world.
- Whosoever shall confess that Jesus is the Son of God, God dwelleth in him, and he in God.
- And we have known and believed the love that God hath to us. God is love; and he that dwelleth in love dwelleth in God, and God in him.
- Herein is our love made perfect, that we may have boldness in the day of judgment: because as he is, so are we in this world.
- There is no fear in love; but perfect love casteth out fear: because fear hath torment. He that feareth is not made perfect in love.
- We love him, because he first loved us."
The first command was to loving the Lord First (above all) with all thy heart, and the second is just like it, to love your neighbor as much as you love yourself. These two commands of love are deemed the greatest commands of all. Thus in loving Christ above all, we will inherently have the labor of love for our neighbors, desiring for them that good thing that we have. And the Scribe perceived Christ had answered truly. The point is, these two truths of love are undeniable and inseparable. This was the most important love in the Church. In other words, to love the one, would mean you love both in the two greatest commands of God.
- "And Jesus answered him, The first of all the commandments is, Hear, O Israel; The Lord our God is one Lord:
- And thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength: this is the first commandment.
- And the second is like, namely this, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. There is none other commandment greater than these."
It is only in our First Love in Christ, that we will show forth the labor of love (first works) in our hearts unto benevolent brotherly [agape] to others. It is the ministering Spirit within us, and the active cause for mankind's calling and preaching. But in Ephesus, the Christians there had ceased to have this Spirit of charity and passion of Christ for evangelism. That made them incomplete (not perfect) in the sight of our Lord, though they were doing many good works and held to many fine doctrines. Clearly God is declaring that though they are commended in these things, in some way they had still left their primary work (called first love) in Christ.
- "And the scribe said unto him, Well, Master, thou hast said the truth: for there is one God; and there is none other but he:
- And to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the soul, and with all the strength, and to love his neighbour as himself, is more than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.
- And when Jesus saw that he answered discreetly, he said unto him, Thou art not far from the kingdom of God. And no man after that durst ask him any question."
Charity or [agape] love is the bond of completeness or perfection in the Church, and it is what "above all" we should have enthusiasm for. And this seems to be what this Church at Ephesus had fallen away from as its primary work, neglecting the work of love in Christian charity for others. They were inattentive to the Christ-like desire for the good of others.
- "And above all these things put on charity, which is the bond of perfectness."
2nd Thessalonians 1:3
Agape love (Charity) is something that is very essential to Christian behaviour, because it is an evidence of Christ in them. The greatest commandments of the love of God and the love of our neighbors as ourselves, is the love of Christ that the Church of Ephesus had left. Not leaving their first love in the sense that they hated Christ or abandoned His words, or went after false doctrines. Obviously the context will not allow such an interpretation. But they left the first love in that they did not retain Christ's strong, ardent affection for sharing the gospel, as they had when they were first brought to the knowledge of the truth. That Charity representing Christ was gone, and it was replaced by a sort of stagnant, loveless theological assembly. A group with works of law and doctrine, but not of love and personal sacrifice. This is illustrated as we see Christ commending the Church at Ephesus for its works, patience, abhorrence of them which are evil, false apostles, and how for His name sake they labored and have not fainted. So Clearly, God is not using the idea of leaving their first love to show an abandonment of theology or apostasy in sound doctrines. The Ephesian Church was not faithless toward God, was not undisciplined in the Church, was not weary and failing to persevere. They had works, but they lacked first works of Charity or [agape] love. They had the patience of the saints in well doing, but demonstrated no love or Christ-like compassion for others. That they had an intolerance of them that do evil, but also an indifference to their fellow man. In other words, they had lost the first love in the Christ-like desire unto evangelism, that had so previously characterized them. The first works, the first love, the greatest commandments, is what they had taken leave of.
- "We are bound to thank God always for you, brethren, as it is meet, because that your faith groweth exceedingly, and the charity of every one of you all toward each other aboundeth;"
1st Corinthians 13:13
The greatest of these is charity or [agape], and this is their first love that they had neglected. It should be self-evident that the love of Christ is demonstrated in this world in the agape benevolent love of delivering His gospel to the poor and hungry of this world. This is a principle Christ also illustrated in the Great commission and in John chapter 21 when He three times equated "love of Him" to "feeding the sheep." Three being the number of God's purpose, evangelism or feeding the sheep is the first love that many have neglected.
- "And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity."
As Peter had previously denied Christ three times, three times now He confirmed His love of Christ, which is revealed as "feeding His sheep." Likewise, the Church's first love of Christ is manifested in our Spirit to feed the spiritually hungry. In this we show that we understand and live the love of our neighbors as ourselves. Again:
- "He saith unto him the third time, Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou me? Peter was grieved because he said unto him the third time, Lovest thou me? And he said unto him, Lord, thou knowest all things; thou knowest that I love thee. Jesus saith unto him, Feed my sheep."
It really is no mystery that every law of God hangs upon these primary commandments, nor that our first love of the Lord is intimately identified with love of our neighbor, wherein we desire for them the same good that we desire for ourselves--which ultimately is the salvation of the gospel. So while the Church at Ephesus had patience, good works and abhorrence of evil, they had neglected the greatest love in God's commandments, which is manifested in denial of self for others. And in neglecting this, they really weren't taking up their cross and following Him.
- "Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind.
- This is the first and great commandment.
- And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.
- On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets."
By all accounts this was an orthodox Church, holding to sound dogma and not fainting. Yet they didn't understand that while doctrine is all well and good, patience is all well and good, intolerance of them that are evil is all well and good, they lacked the greatest of virtues, which is love. And this is why Christ is rebuking and chastising the Church at Ephesus. It has often been said, "They will know we are Christians by our love." That is only true as it relates to proper love, as defined by God, not man. The Church's first love should always be represented in their ardent, enthusiastic devotion to the great commission. Agape, the love of Christian altruism, is the work of Christ within the heart, the power of evangelism that souls may be saved (Matthew 28:18-20) through the gospel. The Church at Ephesus should have retained that zeal for their primary task of making disciples of men. But by abandoning personal sacrifice for the gospel, the Church had deserted the trust once committed to them.
- "This is my commandment, That ye love one another, as I have loved you.
- Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.
- Ye are my friends, if ye do whatsoever I command you."
The faithful Christian is set for the defence (Plea [apologia]) of the gospel because of their love in Christ Jesus. The work of the Spirit of Christ within us is what produces the first [agape] response exemplified in the first works. But the Christians at Ephesus had lost this desire to love, and had given place to loveless orthodoxy at the expense of the good news. As a result, they are reproved of God for their careless indifference regarding their primary love. That is to say, the actionable love, the benevolent love, the efficacious love wherein their desire should have been to fervent evangelism. They worshipped, they prayed, they had patience and labors in the Church, but they lacked [agape], and neglected their great commission.
- "The one preach Christ of contention, not sincerely, supposing to add affliction to my bonds:
- But the other of love, knowing that I am set for the defence of the gospel."
This is not a declaration to Christians that they must become physically impoverished, but to sacrifice all the things of this world for the propagation of the gospel. To show [agape charity in caring for the spiritually poor (Isaiah 58:6-7; Matthew 11:5), or feeding the spiritually hungry (Matthew 4:4; 5:6; Romans 12:20), or clothing the spiritually naked (Revelation 3:17-18), or binding up the spiritually wounded (Luke 10:33-34). And this is what the Church at Ephesus lacked. They didn't sacrifice, didn't deny themselves for the cause of the gospel, they didn't do all that their neighbor might be brought into the fold. And this duty they had forsaken, was what Christ was against them for. They are admonished to repent and remember the former works that they had fallen away from. Because when a Church no longer feels the love to do the work of an evangelist, she has gutted the gospel of its power. When a Church is no longer a witness to the world, she has forsaken the great commission of Christ. When a Church no longer has the compassion or charity to feed the spiritually poor, she has left her first love. And this warning Christ gives is not empty or without efficacious action, it carries very serious consequences for the Church. A Church that leaves its first love, will have its very foundations shaken, so that it will no longer rest upon Him.
- "Then Jesus beholding him loved him, and said unto him, One thing thou lackest: go thy way, sell whatsoever thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come, take up the cross, and follow me."
The Ephesians are not chided for losing that loving feeling, or for not having that original zeal to persevere, nor for turning away from faithful doctriness, but for neglecting the deeds or work that they did at first. They are told to repent or else they would have their candlestick removed. The Candlestick is a synonym for the Church (Revelation 1:20). So we see that the messenger of Ephesus is admonished to repent and "remember," because they had obviously forgotten that the work of the Church is first and foremost about being fishers of men. They had forgotten that if we love Him in true first love, we would feed His sheep. Notice that the Lord says that the Church had "left" their first love, but that it could go back and recover what they had left behind. That's not talking about leaving and returning from loving Christ as Saviour (an impossible idea), but speaks of their works that demonstrated love of Christ. Clearly, of all the good things Christ commends them for, there was still something "essential" missing. And it was a defect in the Church that was so critical and grim, that it would knock it from its proverbial foundation, unless they repented. So Christ's solemn warning is clear, "remember from where you have fallen, and turn back to do those first works," or else. In other words, repent, and turn back to the initial or primary labors wherein you were tasked. By this we can understand that He is not referring to a boredom with Christ, or to general feelings of love that filled the Christians when they first came into contact with the gospel, nor to any declension from salvation, but rather to their first "labors." That is to say, the work wherein they were first tasked in Christ's love. And this follows harmoniously, because scripture teaches that our labor of love in Christ is to spread the gospel. If Christ is our first love, and the second commandment intimately identified with that, what is our first or primary works or labors therein? Is it not our love of preaching of the gospel of Christ?
- "Remember therefore from whence thou art fallen, and repent, and do the first works; or else I will come unto thee quickly, and will remove thy candlestick out of his place, except thou repent."
- "And the gospel must first be published among all nations."
- "And he said unto them, Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature."
The first works that Christ's servants are tasked with is the work of an evangelist. Thus the point Christ is making to the Ephesians (and of course, ultimately to us), is not that the real love of Christ had died in the hearts of true believers, but that the charitable ([agape]) attitude of the constituency of the Church had changed. In condemning them, He is showing how the Church cannot separate their "First Love" from their "First Works," because to do so is negligence, and the penalty is severe. It is the same lesson Christ was teaching in the parable of the talents (Matthew 25:24-30), where it is clear the Lord requires the gift to be multiplied, gaining interest through the preaching of the gospel. It was not to be laid up in store idle or indifferently toward its purpose. Again, that's not the love manifested in Christ, because first love and first works are inextricably tied together of the Spirit.
- "And they went forth, and preached every where, the Lord working with them, and confirming the word with signs following. Amen.
1st Corinthians 9:1
When the Apostle Paul asks are they not his work in the Lord, he is asking "have they not been converted by my labors (1st Corinthians 4:15) or ministry in evangelism?" It was because of the love of Christ in him that he worked (1st Corinthians 15:10-11) that they might become saved. This is even as the first work that God gave the New Testament Church before He ascended again into Heaven, was to go baptize and teach all nations. And He tied it to the power (Acts 1:8) that He had been given of the Father, that men might be able to do this.
- "Am I not an apostle? am I not free? have I not seen Jesus Christ our Lord? are not ye my work in the Lord?"
Here we read the first command to the New Testament Church was unto evangelism. This principle is seen throughout scripture, and is not something that is simply thrown in for good measure. Christ Himself told Peter three times, If you love me, feed my sheep. Proving "yet again" that our love for Christ is intimately bound to evangelism.
- "And Jesus came and spake unto them, saying, All power is given unto me in heaven and in earth.
- Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost:
- Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world. Amen."
Returning to Revelation 2:5, we see clear evidence of the definition of their first love--as Christ declares it "the first works" that they should repent of leaving. So love of Christ and labor of love is inseparable. God requires the Church to be a witness, not to simply stand as a sacred group or building. So taking all of these things as a whole, and in context, we see that though the Ephesians had sundry good works, had patience, had abhorrence of them that do evil and were faithful to know false prophets, Christ was against them because they had left their first love. And that is identified as the Church's first works (Philippians 4:3), which they needed to return to.
2nd Timothy 4:5
The full proof of our ministry is to be dutiful in preaching the gospel of Christ to those in need. That is the work of our first love. And the consequences of neglecting this, is to have the proverbial candlestick (Church) moved out of its place. It will have its light removed, Christ removed from its midst, if they do not return to the first work "for which it was established!" In other words, return to being "a light that the world in darkness might see." The Church was not established to be a house of selfish orthodoxy without charity. Its first work is to shed the light of Christ on the world. Which this Church at Ephesus, as well as Churches today, have apparently forgotten.
- "But watch thou in all things, endure afflictions, do the work of an evangelist, make full proof of thy ministry."
The purpose of salt is to flavor or preserve whatever it is used upon. If its lost that, what good is it as salt? It's useless for what it was intended. Likewise, a candle that is hidden under a basket where no one can benefit from its light, is useless for the purpose it was intended. Or as a Sanctuary of God, that showed no love/charity for those in trouble that it was designed to be a refuge for, has become a house that cannot hold the title of God's Sanctuary. And that is why Christ declares, I have against thee, because thou hast left thy first love. Without the love of God that we should desire for others, the gift that God has given us, our religion is vain and useless. This is the portrait that God is painting of the Ephesian Church. That it has ceased from the former first works in first love of Christ, and as a result would be removed from being a house of God if it did not repent.
- "Ye are the salt of the earth: but if the salt have lost his Saviour, wherewith shall it be salted? it is thenceforth good for nothing, but to be cast out, and to be trodden under foot of men.
- Ye are the light of the world. A city that is set on an hill cannot be hid.
- Neither do men light a candle, and put it under a bushel, but on a candlestick; and it giveth light unto all that are in the house.
- Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven."
The message to the Church of Ephesus is the first to a series of seven Churches, signifying the complete universal Church. The message here is that this Church had forgotten its mission, and if it continued on this course, the Lord would remove it out of its place. Christ is clearly teaching that the love of Him is reflected through the labor of love (first works) exhibited in evangelism. In the work of assuring that Christ's light shines forth to the world. We learn from this rebuke that other good works or labors in the Church are not surrogate for the first works. That having patience, eschewing evil and hating false teachers is no substitute for feeding the sheep. We learn that when Christians fall away to loveless religion, then there is no real Christian love in Christ there at all. Because when ostentatious, close-minded theology takes the place of true first love for Christ and its first works, you are sure to have pretentious and visceral justifications, in lieu of the Charity that the Lord first called for.
It is my view that a sound textual analysis of Revelation chapter 2 will demonstrate that the question of, "What Does God Mean that Some Have Left Their First Love," is illuminated by its descriptive title, "the first works." Clearly the first works are the Church's labor in the promulgation of the gospel to all the world. And our faith is evidenced by the love/charity we have for the spiritual captives, poor, naked and hungry of this world. It is not found in fear or in indifference or in hoarding the gospel within the walls of a building. It is found in the selflessness of evangelism. We see that there are those in the Church who believe that their only job as servant of Christ is to believe and attend Church. That's the height of selfishness. They never generally mention Christ to anyone, and go about their business not in love, but as if they are embarrassed or ashamed of speaking of Christ. Like in the parable of the talents, they hide the good news away for fear of being mocked, rejected or ostracized. And this should not be the mindset of the Church. This is not the love of Christ.
2nd Timothy 1:7-8
Personal sacrifice or self denial is a small price to pay. Christ already warned that whosoever doesn't take up his cross and follow Him, is not worthy of Him (Matthew 10:38). Christians cannot leave off from spreading the gospel for fear of reviling, persecution or disdain. They should not fall into the malaise of apathy, coldness, disinterest or detachment from their neighbors that characterizes a lack of charity or love. Because as a stagnant idle Church of God, they will become irrelevant. The Ephesian Church's love had obviously grown cold. It had departed from the former passion of witnessing for Christ that once characterized it. Though it emphasized the necessity of sound doctrine, true prophesy and diligence in the hope and work in the Church, it had neglected the necessity of the labor of love and hope for others. It had forgotten that the New Testament Church's primary job was not all about patience, testing Apostles and an intolerance for the evil, but it was the "work" of distributing the gospel to a world in need.
- "For God hath not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind.
- Be not thou therefore ashamed of the testimony of our Lord, nor of me his prisoner: but be thou partaker of the afflictions of the gospel according to the power of God;"
Where has the spirit of evangelism gone today, and why do so many Churches ignore the poor, naked and hungry that they were tasked to enrich, clothe and feed? My dear friends, do not forsake the labor of love in the first works wherein the Church was established. Return to what you first loved in the power of the Gospel to change lives. Return to the wonderment of the "good news" of God sending His only Son that sinners of the world might be saved. Return to the joy and love in being a part of implementing the Great Commission. In the power of Christ's love, let us be witnesses unto Him unto the uttermost parts of the earth. And this is the lesson I believe Christ is teaching in noting the Church of Ephesus. That we all must test ourselves and if we are found wanting, to get back to our first love and retain those disciplines and attitudes wherein there is joy in the labor of love. Return to the delight of sharing the gospel with the world, that our joy be real and substantive, rather than superficial.
The focus of Christ on the Church's recovery of the first works is an example to the universal Church down throughout time. The message 2000 years ago to the Church at Ephesus, as well as to the Church today, is that the consequences of abandonment of the first work, is a Church removed from its foundation. Meaning, it is a Church not established upon the Rock of love in Christ. Clearly as they had neglected their charter in disregarding the work of an evangelist, so we have done as much today. And this is in effect leaving our first love, as one cannot love Christ and be indifferent to feeding His sheep (John 21:17). All across this world today, Christian Churches are taking leave of the great commission, and forgetting their mission and calling in this world. Forgetting that they were "sent" rather than "reserved." It seems the only growing Churches are false Churches. Charity never fails, but sadly, Churches do. Particularly when it is replaced by worldly selfishness, self-interests and vain philosophies where entertainment and religious concepts are promoted rather than spreading the gospel. Many even look upon "evangelism" as some sort of dirty word, rather than the great commission that God Himself first gave the Church. All that is left for the faithful messenger, as Christ did at Ephesus, is to give the warning. "Remember where you use to be and repent and do the first works--before Christ comes quickly and removes your Church out of its place." Sell all that you cherish of this world and give to the poor is not a command to be monetarily indigent, but to be spiritually charitable. To have [agape love of those less fortunate is how we preserve the great commission and remain rooted in our first love! Our work in witnessing the gospel is the reflection of what is within our hearts, and will reveal if Christ is our first love. To put it succinctly, our first love is not only manifested in our love for Jesus, but also in our desire to bring the love of Jesus to others.
May the Lord who is Gracious and Righteous above all, bless the reading and hearing of His word, and grant us the wisdom to humbly receive what He has inspired written. May we be given the strength to overcome all trials and temptations that might hinder us in this honorable endeavour.
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Copyright ©2012 Tony Warren
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