Yesterday our sister, Sami, shared her first sermon ever at TGP. Sami has been a part of our fellowship for nearly a decade. We are both blessed and excited to have her bring God’s word to our family. If you missed it, you can listen to her sermon here.
Today, I’d like to take a moment to reflect on the “First Love” passage in Revelation 2:4. But first, it is worth considering the Ephesian church in its social context in AD 1st century.
Ephesus was an urban hub in the ancient world. With a massive temple to the goddess Diana and a population of about 55,000 people, Ephesus was a major stop for the Apostles in spreading the Gospel. It was here that new converts to Christianity destroyed their resources for magic and witchcraft, totally about $50,000.
The conversion was so impactful that the local guild of silversmiths, led by Demetrius, saw an economic recession that threatened to not only put him and other silversmiths out of business, but other trades dependent on the worship of Diana.
Later, Paul puts Timothy in charge of getting the church in order by weeding out false teachers and apostles.
This gives us a great amount of insight into the early decades of the Ephesian church. Converts were zealous enough in their love for Jesus that they gladly destroyed $50,000 worth of witchcraft resources. Their faith in Jesus was greatly impactful on their lives. Yet in their zealous love for Christianity, they tended to let people into their community who had less than Gospel motives who exerted unhealthy influence. These false teachers started bringing false doctrine into the church. Paul sent Timothy to straighten it out. By the time we get to the book of Revelation some 30 years later, Ephesus stood as a bedrock of Christian Orthodox doctrine, but at what cost? They were so vigilant about the Orthodox teaching of Christianity that they lost the humanity of the Gospel. They were more concerned about protecting the right truths/ideas, and began to neglect the core of the Gospel, which is love. So this is where we begin to see the “First Love” statement in Revelation come to life.
Revelation 2:2-5 “I know your works, your toil and your patient endurance, and how you cannot bear with those who are evil, but have tested those who call themselves apostles and are not, and found them to be false. I know you are enduring patiently and bearing up for my name’s sake, and you have not grown weary. But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first. Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent.
1. “Abandoned the Love You Had at First”
Several Bible translations produced prior to the 1980s render verse 4 as “You have abandoned your first love.” Several produced after the 1980s render verse 4 as “You have abandoned the love you had at first.” For years, I had understood “First Love” to mean Jesus himself. He was, after all, every Christian’s first love upon conversion. I even balked at the newer rendering because I had already concluded that the Ephesian church was in danger of rejecting Jesus outright.
As I studied more, I began to see a greater nuance at play regarding this “first love” warning to the Ephesians, especially when I considered the historical context above. Now I understand why newer translations render the verse “love you had at first.” The church at Ephesus had some great things going for it. They were defenders of doctrine. They held a hard line on false teaching and false teachers. They kept the teachings of Jesus and the Apostles in the purest form they could. If that is the case, then it didn’t make sense that they were abandoning Jesus as the central figure of the faith. Something else had to be at play.
When I was growing into my faith through my late teens and early twenties, I tried to devour every Bible book my elders threw at me. I also dove into C.S. Lewis books like I did to pasta. I would consume as much as I could and let my mind swirl in a thought coma of ideas, concepts, and more. So when I found myself in seminary, I found a group of people who valued ideas and concepts about the Bible and theology like I did. We would hammer out our lofty theological opinions against each other, challenging assertions and proofs, pouring over the Greek and Hebrew grammar for inconsistencies, and walking away with our conclusions.
My seminary program was typically a 4 year program. I did it in 3 and suffered burnout in the academic world. What happened? I got so caught up in the theology, the history, the languages, and a culture that valued the mind over all else, that I began to forget the reason I went there in the first place, to have a deeper understanding of the things of God. I went there to learn from the best Christian minds about my faith and my God, about truth, and about how to “study to show myself approved.”
Today, all that is being put to phenomenal use. But back then, what was the cost of ensuring I had the right mindset, the right faith, the right truths. The cost was a fledgling devotional life. During my time at seminary, I spent hours pouring over textbooks and grammar books to write papers on various Christian topics. What I didn’t spend hours doing was shoring up my personal relationship with Jesus. This in turn affected my ability to love. My zeal for loving others was shunted by walls of intellectual ideas. By the end of my seminary tenure, I was in the same danger as the Ephesian church. I had all the right doctrines, all the right words, all the right skills to interpret and understand the bible and theology. Yet I had abandoned my love of the Gospel and my love of God’s people. I was in love with ideas and not in love with people.
Years later, I was able to reflect back on that period and see the danger of forgetting to be driven by God’s love. Would I do things differently if I could? Only that I’d find people who exhibited God’s love so I could emulate it. I wouldn’t trade the education, the mental exercises, or anything else, because I see God using it here and now in ways I would have never expected. Now I am rekindling my first love by being in a loving community. And that is worth all the gold in the world.
2. Dangers of Becoming a Loveless Doctrine Defender
Through the corporate tragedy of being led astray by false teachers in their excitement to be part of anything that called itself Christian, the Ephesian church got burned by some less than noble influencers. Many think Judaizers had gained a position of influence in Ephesus. Others think some charlatans had played the church, setting up divisions among the members via social class differences and practices that damaged the church’s reputation in the community.
After getting duped by these false teachers, Timothy was sent to straighten things out, remove the bad influencers, and re-establish the true doctrines of the faith. Three decades later, the Ephesian church held to the doctrines like a lifeless relec. They were sure to adhere to the belief in Jesus’ virgin birth, miracles, resurrection, and the Apostles’ mission. What they didn’t adhere to was the love. Yet that is the very core of the Christian faith. Jesus said in John 13:35 “They will know you are my disciples by your love for one another.”
This is the very thing that Ephesus had forgotten. And the threat in Revelation was that Jesus would remove their lampstand. Their identity as a church would be removed if they didn’t recapture the kind of love they exhibited as when they first believed.
Anyone who has experienced the saving power of Jesus has had some degree of excitement at the new life offered them. The zeal that comes from confessing Jesus, the refreshing feeling of coming out of the baptismal waters, the church cheering us on as we are declared new creatures. Yet over the years, we can get bogged down in the mundane things of life. We forget the zeal, because we have a pending report due at work. We forget the refreshing waters because our baby was up most of the night, so we lost sleep and have to put in a hard days’ work while physically exhausted. We forget the cheering crowd because we cleaned the house yesterday, it’s 10am and looks like a tornado went through it.
One of the hardest things for us to do is remember the love we had at the first when years later, the novelty of the love has worn off. It’s easier and cleaner to live and let live than to be involved in the messiness of loving relationships where disappointments are exchanged, angers flare, and words of correction need to be spoken.
It’s easier for churches to adopt a new “policy” to help the leaders avoid dealing with potentially messy situations. Though some policy is necessary, an excessive amount of policies insulates people from experiencing life together in the context of Christ-honoring, loving relationships. Yet again, that is the very thing that supposed to define the Church.
3. Love is the Core of the Gospel
Though stated in numerous ways above, it’s worth repeating. Love is the Core of the Gospel. The love we have at first is a love of the newness of life. It is a love of freshly experiencing the God who loves us. It is a love that animates us to do for Jesus whatever he would ask. Love is a devotion to the well-being and betterment of another. It is considering the wants and needs of someone other than ourselves. At the peak, love is the consideration of God’s desires for us and others. Giving our energy and strength to meeting God’s desires is one of the highest expressions of love. In his word, we find that loving other believers is part and parcel with our loving God. The two things cannot be separated. We cannot love God if we will not love our brethren (1 John 4:20).
Love is the core of the Gospel. Love is what distinguishes us from those in the world. Love is the mandate to all who call themselves Christian. Recapturing the love we had at first (when we first encountered the God who loves us) will propel us into the deeper things of God and the deeper things of the kingdom of heaven. Love is the key. Love is the core. Love is the non-negotiable of Christianity.
Next week, Shannon will give her first sermon on how to love in healthy ways, because healthy love and healthy boundaries define the Gospel.
Now that we’ve contemplated on 3 Easy Things To Forget About Our First Love, I hope yesterday’s sermon and today’s blog post help you better experience our God’s