First Love


A dogwood tree blooms in Suffolk, Va.

09/30/2018 message at Liberty Spring Christian Church

“To the angel of the church in Ephesus write: The One who holds the seven stars in His right hand, the One who walks among the seven golden lampstands, says this: ‘I know your deeds and your toil and perseverance, and that you cannot tolerate evil men, and you put to the test those who call themselves apostles, and they are not, and you found them to be false; and you have perseverance and have endured for My name’s sake, and have not grown weary. ‘But I have this against you, that you have left your first love. ‘Therefore remember from where you have fallen, and repent and do the deeds you did at first; or else I am coming to you and will remove your lampstand out of its place—unless you repent. ‘Yet this you do have, that you hate the deeds of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate. ‘He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To him who overcomes, I will grant to eat of the tree of life which is in the Paradise of God.” (Revelation 2:1-7)

As many of you know, when I married Annette, I married into a ready-made family. She had two grown daughters, and she already had three grandchildren.

Clearly one of us is a little older than the other, even if most people tend to think it looks the other way around.

Anyway, the day we married, I became a grandpa without having any children of my own. I like to say I’m a grandpa who never changed a diaper, which is a great way to do handle the diaper situation, at least from my perspective.

At the time of our wedding, I was not very close to Annette’s daughters, and the truth is they didn’t much care for me. As you can imagine, that caused a fair bit of friction between my new wife and I.

I could never get past their faults, and Annette could never get past the fact that they were her daughters, whom she simply loved. I suspect that her daughters had a hard time getting past my own faults and wondered why on earth Annette loved me in spite of them.

But then something happened, especially with the daughter who most disliked me, the one with whom I so often clashed. Thinking back on it this week, I realized it happened right around the time that I began to follow Jesus.

I began to love the daughters Annette loved, and I did it simply because she loved them. They had not changed, but God had changed my heart toward them. Now I have wonderful relationships with both of her daughters. And they love me, too.

As I was thinking this week about how to present this message today, it occurred to me that what happened between Annette’s daughters and me is similar to our calling in Christ. We who love Jesus are called to love the people He loves, simply because He loves them.

Sometimes that’s easy. It’s easy for us to love the people who are kind to us, the people who help us, the people who lift us up and are on our side. Loving our neighbor is easy when our neighbor is the kind of person who brings us casseroles and picks up our mail for us when we’re out of town.

But the love that Jesus calls us to show — the love He modeled for us on the cross when He asked His Father to “forgive them, for they know not what they do” — goes much deeper than loving the lovable people.

We are called to love one another, to love our neighbors, and to love even our enemies – simply because Jesus loves them.

Today, we’re going to talk about a church that forgot how to do that.

Paul had planted the church in Ephesus in about 55 AD, and he wrote the letter that we call Ephesians to them about eight years later. In it, he commends the Ephesians for their love for one another.

Look at what he says in Ephesians 1:

For this reason I too, having heard of the faith in the Lord Jesus which exists among you and your love for all the saints, do not cease giving thanks for you, while making mention of you in my prayers; (Ephesians 1:15-16).

Paul says he has heard of the love they have for their brothers and sisters in Christ. But something happened between that time and the time of John’s writing of the Book of Revelation, 30 or so years later, something that caused Jesus to tell John through the Holy Spirit that the church had left its first love.

A bit of background about Ephesus will be helpful for our understanding of the situation.

When Paul visited this city, it was one of the most important cities in Western Asia.

Ephesus was a major port town and the gateway to Asia for travelers and traders from Rome and other parts of Europe. There was a theater with 25,000 seats, and the temple to the Greek goddess Artemis there was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world.

The pagan worship included exorcism of demons, practice in the arts of magic, Gnostic sects like the Nicolaitans and a thriving trade in the making of idols.

All that might sound very foreign to our ears, but I think there are some easy comparisons to our own culture.

They had a big theater, and we have huge arenas for entertainment, too.

They had a temple to Artemis, and we have temples built for the idols of our society, too. We call them the NY Stock Exchange, Wall Street, Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Fenway Park, Lambeau Field, the Hollywood Walk of Fame and the like.

They had the Gnostics and Nicolaitans. We have New Age spiritualism and brands of so-called Christianity that distort the Gospel into a formula for material gain, a prescription for personal success and a path to social liberation for groups that have been historically marginalized.

Sometimes, the more things change, the more distressingly the same they tend to stay.

So, just as we do, the Ephesian church struggled to keep its morals and doctrine pure, even in the face of a culture that was constantly drawing people away from the true faith.

and they, having become callous, have given themselves over to sensuality for the practice of every kind of impurity with greediness. (Ephesians 4:19)

Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience. Therefore do not be partakers with them; (Ephesians 5:6-7)

Remember, the letter to the Ephesians was written eight years or so after Paul had visited the city and founded the church.

Here’s what he said when he left there after his first visit, and we find this in the Book of Acts:

“I know that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves men will arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after them. (Acts 20:29-30)

In fact, he was concerned enough about those who might come in and try to attack the flock that he left Timothy there to help counter the false teaching that he knew already was taking place.

He warned them then about the dangers those wolves presented to the church, and I think there was even a bit of a hint about the possible trouble the church could get into when fighting back.

Fulfilling its mission to be light unto the dark world, the church at Ephesus would surely have attracted the attention of the pagan culture in which it was located.

And just as surely, there would have been some within that culture – perhaps even some who called themselves Christian – who would have sought to advance their own worldly agendas by adulterating the Gospel message.

Of course, we know that this still happens. Perhaps we’ve even witnessed it with our very eyes when people have attempted use their positions of influence to turn the church into a campaign office for one political party or the other. Or when they have used it to press social agendas.

Others on the national and international stages have earned millions of dollars by twisting the Gospel message into something about personal prosperity.

Paul’s had a harsh term for those who would pollute the clear living water of Jesus Christ with false doctrine, with false gods and with false promises. He calls them “savage wolves.”

Wolves are very good at isolating sheep from the flock. And as Paul warned the Ephesians, the wolves in the church tend to come right in among the sheep, drawing disciples after them with words that sound attractive but ultimately lead to death.

As a church, we must be vigilant to not allow wolves access to this sheepfold, and as individual believers, we must be careful not to be swept up by perverse and divisive teaching and leadership, no matter how it’s dolled up to look pretty.

There is absolutely no Biblical backing for trying to divide a church where there are no false teachers present.

The church in Ephesus recognized the dangerous culture in which it existed. It understood and heeded Paul’s warnings.

And in our passage in Revelation today, Jesus says through the Holy Spirit that they had held out against the threats; they had identified the wolves and put them out of the fellowship.

So what was the problem?

Well, let’s take a quick look through the passage, and I believe we’ll see the trap the Ephesians fell into. Given their situation, it may have been a hard trap to avoid, but failing to avoid it had serious consequences, as we shall see.

Verse 1: “To the angel of the church in Ephesus write: The One who holds the seven stars in His right hand, the One who walks camong the seven golden lampstands, says this:

Let’s first identify those named in Verse 1: The angel of the church is its messenger, the pastor. Jesus is “The One.” The seven stars are the seven pastors of seven of the churches in Asia at the time John wrote Revelation. Each of the lampstands is one of the churches.

A church that had left its first love needed to be reminded that Jesus holds fast to those who are His own. He reminded them – and He reminds us – that He is close by and can see our deeds, our work for Him.

Jesus is in Heaven, but he is ever present and ever aware of the status of His church – and His churches. He knows what is right in them and what is wrong. He knows what they need.

Matthew Henry said Jesus walks in the midst of His churches on earth, taking pleasure in them as a man does when he walks in his garden. I like that. He has planted us, and He is intently interested in our fruitfulness.

Verses 2-3: ‘I know your deeds and your toil and perseverance, and that you cannot tolerate evil men, and you put to the test those who call themselves apostles, and they are not, and you found them to be false; and you have perseverance and have endured for My name’s sake, and have not grown weary.

Note the things for which the Ephesians are commended: for their deeds, for their toil and for their perseverance in the name of Jesus. They have not tolerated evil men, and they have maintained doctrinal purity by ferreting out false teachers. In fact, they had spent a generation doing this.

Verse 4: ‘But I have this against you, that you have left your first love.

They had spent a generation fighting false teachers, wolves in the sheepfold. Perhaps in that time they had grown cynical and untrusting. If you’ve spent 30 years uncovering wolves in sheep’s clothing, you might actually expect to be a little skeptical and suspicious in your dealings with people.

One commentator describes them as “people whose theology was ‘clear as ice and just as cold.’”[1] They had learned to speak the truth, but they had forgotten how to speak the truth in love.

And as they failed in their calling to love one another within the body, they were failing to show the love of Christ in their culture. Note that they didn’t stop doing good works – remember that Jesus said He knew their deeds – but they appear to have been doing these things out of a sense of obligation.

They had fallen into the trap of focusing their hearts on sound doctrine, and they had lost their most important connection with Christ – that of love.

Simply DOING the right things isn’t the point. The point is that we should be motivated to do the right things because we love Jesus and we love those whom Jesus loves, simply because He loves them.

Do we give 10 percent of our church’s contributions to missions because we have an obligation to do so, or does our love for those Jesus loves cause us to want to do things to demonstrate that love – to do things that give us a chance to tell them about Him, for instance?

We’d be giving and doing in either case, but apparently there’s a pretty big difference in the eyes of our Savior. He has a pretty strong warning in Verse 5.

Verse 5: ‘Therefore remember from where you have fallen, and repent and do the deeds you did at first; or else I am coming to you and will remove your lampstand out of its place—unless you repent.

Remember, repent and return are the marching orders Jesus gives here.

Remember how well you loved before. Repent for turning from that love and for your loveless attitudes. And return to doing the things you did in love.

“If I give all my possessions to feed the poor, and if I surrender my body to be burned, but do not have love, it profits me nothing.” (1 Corinthians 13:3)

Failing to remember, repent and return would be a very bad thing. Jesus has promised that he will build His universal church, but He does not promise us that any one church will be permanent.

The damage that a loveless church can do to His name is great enough that He gives a dire warning here: Remember, repent and return, or I will remove your candlestick.

So what happened in Ephesus?

Here’s a paragraph about the church and the city it called home from a 1902 book, The Life and Work of Paul:

“Its candlestick has been for centuries removed out of his place; the squalid Mohammedan village which is nearest to its site does not count one Christian in its insignificant population; its temple is a mass of shapeless ruins; its harbor is a reedy pool; the bittern booms amid its pestilent and stagnant marshes; and malaria and oblivion reign supreme over the place where the wealth of ancient civilization gathered around the scenes of its grossest superstitions and its most degraded sins.”

The church at Ephesus is long gone, and so is Ephesus itself.

There is a lesson here about the leavening quality of the church in culture. The failing, loveless church in Ephesus failed to serve as a lighthouse in the stormy seas of its culture, and an entire society was smashed on the rocks there.

Our church is important to us. But it is even more important to our community, even if neither the community nor we understand, appreciate or recognize that importance.

Moving toward the conclusion of this letter to the church in Ephesus, I want to skip over the verse about the Nicolaitans, because nobody knows for sure who they were, and describing the debate would be a distraction from today’s message.

But I do want to make this point: It is possible to hate what Jesus hates without loving what He loves. And when we hate the things Jesus hates without loving the people He loves, we have missed the most important part of what we’re called to do as Christians and as a church.

Finally, in Verse 7, we see an encouragement from Jesus, speaking through the Holy Spirit, and it’s very similar to the encouragement with which Paul concluded his letter to the Ephesians.

Verse 7: ‘He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To him who overcomes, I will grant to eat of the tree of life which is in the Paradise of God.’

“He who has ears, Listen!” And now, note the plural “churches” to which this verse is addressed. This is a message to Ephesus, but it is also a message to us.

The word rendered “overcomes” here literally means “conquers.” Remember that this is spiritual warfare.

The enemy would love for us to be great theologians who have our doctrine down cold and our love just as cold.

The enemy would be quite pleased for us to be faithful churchgoers whose hearts have become calloused while fighting the wolves and whose pews here have been well shined by our sitting in them.

Now I’m surely not opposed to you being in church, but we’re not called to ONLY be Christians in church. We’re called to GO and make disciples out of love for our Savior.

We are called to love one another and to love the lost world. It is no coincidence that those are the same people Jesus loves.

We are called to persevere in the fight against the wolves, but that fight must not result in our love growing cold for the people whom Jesus loves.

“Walk in love, just as Christ also loved you and gave Himself up for us.” That’s what Paul told the Ephesian church. Nobody fought harder against false teachers than he did, and nobody could ever accuse him of pulling his punches in that fight.

But he never let the fight turn him bitter; he never let it make him cynical; and he especially never let it destroy his ability to show love – either to fellow believers or to the lost.

The promise for those who overcome — for those who love Christ with what Paul calls an “incorruptible love” — is that they will eat of the Tree of Life in heaven.

Understand that this is a promise for all who follow Christ, but the reminder here is that God, in His gracious love for us, has provided for our salvation both now and to eternity.

The Ephesian church understood the commands to do good works and to keep its doctrine pure. The problem was that it was missing the love that would have made those things something other than rote legalism.

Jesus continues to walk among the lampstands today, and He still knows the deeds — and more importantly, the hearts — of His churches.

May this church be so overwhelmed by the beauty of His grace that its own deeds are utterly infused with His love. And no matter what battles we are fighting, may we ever be careful to love the people Jesus loves.

[1] Kendell H. Easley, Revelation, vol. 12, Holman New Testament Commentary (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1998), 35.

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