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Revelation 2:1-7 -- What Does God Mean that Some Have Left Their First Love?
Copyright © 2003, 2005 - All rights retained by author
Written by: C. W. Booth

Introduction

"I have this against you, that you have left your first love." This is certainly a sad commentary on a relationship when spoken by a husband to his wife, but how much sadder when spoken by God to His bride, the Church.

In human terms we readily grasp what is meant regarding the human aspects of the institution of marriage. We understand that the wife has become distant, weary of the bonds of unity, unwilling to persevere in the marriage, tolerant of her husband's adversaries and their attacks against him, lacking zeal on his behalf, possibly even having become unfaithful. Whatever else it means, the wife is not acting in the interest of the relationship any longer.

But is this really what the passage in Revelation means? Have we taken a human metaphor well beyond what is intended? Was the Ephesian church faithless toward God, unwilling to persevere, weary of being bound to God, all-too-willing to allow God's adversaries to have free reign with their attacks on Him and His Word? I would argue that this is a very much improper understanding of the text based less on thorough exegesis than on emotional bias and political correctness.

We will take a fresh look at the passage together, and work through the short note that was delivered to the Church at Ephesus. But first, let us look more closely at how this passage seems to be most often rendered when it is not carefully exegeted.

 

The Common Misinterpretation

Sadly, there seems to be something of a groundswell in recent years to use the letter to the Church at Ephesus to make us believe there is an unhealthy tension between truth and love. In fact, this passage is often used to attempt to demonstrate that when there is a choice to be made between pointing out error in the church and remaining silent in order to be loving, that silence should always take priority. Such an interpretation, regrettably, amounts to little more than a verbal assault against those who "stand alone" on the Scriptures, those who refuse to adopt or acquiesce to the latest doctrines; those new doctrines that are born out of poor discernment. This assault is accomplished through statements such as:

It is my hope to show that this passage, when understood as it is written, requires no such choice between truth and love. Indeed, when properly understood, this passage shows that God requires both truth and love, both at the same time, never dismissing one in favor for the other. If you seek to find a war of priorities between truth and love, this passage, when properly interpreted, will not support your quest.

 

The Textual Analysis

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.'

 

God gives the church at Ephesus praise for the following:

God never condemned the Ephesians for their discernment, their focus on biblical purity, their tenacity, their obedience of the Word, or their long-suffering faith. God considered these to be their good qualities. To use this passage to belittle adherence to doctrinal purity does unnecessary violence to this passage. There is nothing in this passage that says that doctrinal purity crowded out love, and there is not one word here that indicates that God found any fault at all with their biblical allegiance. God showed unconditional approval for their habit of judging false doctrine from the true and He had nothing but praise for their love for good theology.

Still, the Ephesians did have a church-wide flaw in their deeds ("I know your deeds and your toil"), they had "fallen" and "left their first love". The remedy? "Repent and do the deeds you did at first."

What does it mean to have left your first love? First, it is identified as a sinful thing that requires repentance. Second, the repentance must include doing the deeds you did "at first".

God defines "love" as the first and second greatest commandments; commandments so great that all the Law and all that the prophets wrote are summarized in just these two obligatory rules of conduct (Matthew 22:38-40, Romans 13:8, Galatians 5:14). First, love God with all your being. Second, love your neighbor as much as you love yourself. Love for God is most often defined in the Scriptures as "if you love Me, you will keep my commandments." (John 14:15, 2 John 1:6) Love for our neighbors is most often defined in the Scriptures as something like, "putting the needs of others ahead of our own desires" (Romans 12:10, Philippians 2:3).

Which love did the Ephesians leave behind. Love for God or love for their neighbors?

Since the Ephesians had been persevering in faith for Christís sake, we should be surprised if the deeds of love that they had stopped doing were deeds indicating they stopped loving Christ or loving God (the greatest of all commandments). It is more likely that the Ephesians stopped loving their neighbors, the second greatest commandment. In fact, it is this love for the brethren that so much characterized the deeds of the church at its birth. Consider this list of "first deeds", the earliest of the deeds of love done in the early church.

Now, brethren, we wish to make known to you the grace of God which has been given in the churches of Macedonia, that in a great ordeal of affliction their abundance of joy and their deep poverty overflowed in the wealth of their liberality. For I testify that according to their ability, and beyond their ability, they gave of their own accord, begging us with much urging for the favor of participation in the support of the saints, and this, not as we had expected, but they first gave themselves to the Lord and to us by the will of God. So we urged Titus that as he had previously made a beginning, so he would also complete in you this gracious work as well. But just as you abound in everything, in faith and utterance and knowledge and in all earnestness and in the love we inspired in you, see that you abound in this gracious work also. (2 Corinthians 8:1-7)

By this the children of God and the children of the devil are obvious: anyone who does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor the one who does not love his brother. For this is the message which you have heard from the beginning, that we should love one another; (1 John 3:10,11)

And the congregation of those who believed were of one heart and soul; and not one of them claimed that anything belonging to him was his own, but all things were common property to them. And with great power the apostles were giving testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and abundant grace was upon them all. For there was not a needy person among them, for all who were owners of land or houses would sell them and bring the proceeds of the sales and lay them at the apostlesí feet, and they would be distributed to each as any had need. (Acts 4:32-35)

Add to this list incidences like Barnabas seeking out Paul in love, even while Paul was a reviled and hated figure among the Christians at the time. In Lystra, the disciples stayed by Paulís side during the mob action, even when they thought he was dead. The Galatians cared for Paul following one of his beatings, even desiring to give him their very eyes had that been possible in their day.

The deeds of love we did when we were first saved, when our faith was young, were almost supernaturally grounded in selflessness. Watching out for the interests of others instead of our own. Giving till we had nothing left to give. It is my opinion that this is the "first love" that the Church in Ephesus had neglected, the selfless love for the brethren.

The remedy that God provides is simple. Repent. Repent; start doing again what you used to do at the first. Love the brethren by encouraging one another while it is still today, crying with one another, taking dinner from house to house, reproving one another, edifying one another with the Word, forgiving one another, and meeting the material needs of one another.

Summary

It is a horrible thing to call something "bad" when God calls it "good".

God called "good" the careful attention to biblical accuracy and theological purity that the Ephesians gave to the Word and to their doctrine. God calls this focus on theology the very "deeds" of perseverance in the faith, and He considered it praiseworthy. God bountifully issues approval that their good doctrine caused them to not become weary of combating the heresies around them and that their grasp of Scripture caused them to continue to persevere for the sake of Christís own name.

God did not want them to stop doing this "testing of the false", or as some scornfully call it today, "heresy hunting". God did not tell them to slow down on their doctrinal zeal so they might grow in the area of love. God told them to keep going strong in doctrine for this pleased God, but to also add to that behavior the deeds of love. Add to it what was missing, not stop doing what He had already called "good".

They will know we are Christians by our love. Return to your deeds of love that you first learned to do when you were saved, but do not neglect that commendable long-suffering discernment which God also found so praise-worthy. Do the one without neglecting the other.



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