To the angel of the church in Ephesus write: These are the words of him who holds the seven stars in his right hand and walks among the seven golden lampstands: I know your deeds, your hard work and your perseverance. I know that you cannot tolerate wicked men, that you have tested those who claim to be apostles but are not, and have found them false. You have persevered and have endured hardships for my name, and have not grown weary. Yet I hold this against you: You have forsaken your first love. Remember the height from which you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first. If you do not repent, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place. Revelation 2.1-5.
The first message of the risen, ascended, glorified Jesus to the seven churches — shining like a constellation of stars in the darkness of pagan Asia or like the seven lamps on the Menorah in the temple (Exodus 25.31-40) — is to the church in Ephesus — a city at the mouth of the Cayster River in Ionia where it flowed into the Aegean Sea.
What a church that was! Paul had established it over a period of three years (Acts 18.19-20.1), Timothy had ministered there (1 Timothy 1.3) and (according to church history) the apostle John had settled there and written not only his gospel but all his letters about love (1 John, 2 John).
But love was precisely what Jesus now wanted to speak to the church at Ephesus about. Why? Because their love was no longer what it had been, once upon a time. And what kind of love is Jesus talking about? Is it love for Jesus himself … or love for fellow believers? Well, the answer is both, probably. Because the two have always belonged together and always will. “If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ yet hates his brother, he is a liar. For anyone who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God, whom he has not seen. And he has given us this command: Whoever loves God must also love his brother” (1 John 4.20-21).
It would seem from Jesus’ message that the Christians in Ephesus had once loved both God and their brothers and sisters with an intensity and depth that had now been lost. And now Jesus is saying that it is vital for them to get it back, for he warns them that, if they don’t, their light will go out and their star will cease to shine.
I wonder how the Ephesians reacted when they received that message? I imagine that they were shocked because they probably thought they were doing really well. Earlier in his message Jesus commends them for their “hard work and perseverance” which would suggest that they were still a congregation that was actively engaged in evangelism and witness and good works in the cosmopolitan pagan city in which they were placed — living out the Great Commission and “doing the stuff” as John Wimber would put it. But now they are being told: Doing the stuff is not enough. Without love it is worthless … or, rather, without the right sort of love.
The use of the adjective “first” would indicate they still had some sort of love for the Lord and for each other, but it was a lukewarm love. It lacked depth, it lacked passion, and — judging by Jesus’ closing words — it lacked the kind of action that should spring from the sort of love that Jesus wanted to see. Repent, he says, “and do the things you did at first”. What things? We’ve no idea, but they were presumably those over-the-top, crazy, things that people who are full of uncontainable love just do because they cannot help themselves … The sort of things that once had people saying: “See how these Christians love one another” (Tertullian). “See how these Christians love their Lord Jesus”. The love that Jesus was looking for was, as John puts it, “not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth” (1 John 3.18).
Ephesus, as a city, had a problem. It’s harbour was silting-up. Every day the sea got further away and the further away the sea got, the more the city died. (Today, Ephesus lies in ruins, 20 miles from the sea.) And that was the problem with the church in Ephesus too — its heart was silting up and its love was getting ever more distant; and the more that happened, the more it died. What a warning!
Lord Jesus, please restore in me the deep, passionate, active love for you and your people that I have known in times past; and fill our church with “first love” so that our star may shine brightly and our lamp may not go out. Amen.