First Love

What makes a church a church? Is it the faithful proclamation of the Word, the correct administration of the sacraments, and the proper exercise of church discipline? Yes, but there is something even more fundamental to the existence of a church than these. There is a way to be technically correct in all three of these areas of church life and still fall short of being a viable church in the eyes of the Lord of the church.

The most fundamental aspect of the church’s being the church is love. It is obedience to the great commandment to love the Lord our God with all of our heart, mind, soul, and strength. It is obedience to the new commandment that we love one another as Christ has loved us. Only with this foundation will any church continue to exist as a church of Jesus Christ. You can’t have love without the truth, but you can have truth without love.

The church in Ephesus as addressed in Revelation 2 learned this lesson from the mouth of our Lord himself.

The apostle John was in the Spirit on the Lord’s Day (Rev 1.10). That is, he was in a worship service. Jesus revealed himself to John there on the isle of Patmos, giving him a glimpse into what happens in the worship of the church every Lord’s Day. Jesus came in the “Spirit of the day” to walk in this garden of fiery trees–the lampstands–in order to inspect the “Adams,” the angels of the churches, he left to tend and guard his garden (cp. Gen 2.15; 3.8). He gives John a message to send to each one of these Adams in the seven churches that declares his evaluation of them.

The first of these messages is to the church in Ephesus. The Ephesian church was, in many ways, a fine church. Jesus praises them for a number of fine qualities. This praise is not faint or setting them up for the big negative that is to come. They are doing many things well, and Jesus commends them for it.

The angel and congregation in Ephesus are tireless in their labor, not growing weary in well doing (Rev 2.2, 3). They have endured under a tremendous load of cultural pressure to forsake loyalty to the gospel (Rev 2.3). And they are intolerant of evil and false doctrine (Rev 2.2). They hate the same things Jesus hates: the deeds of the Nicolaitans (Rev 2.6). Jesus loves their intolerance of all things evil. They are fighting the culture wars. They are cutting off impenitent sin when it rears its head in the church. They are maintaining doctrinal purity.

But they have one potentially fatal flaw: they have forsaken their first love. This first love is not an immature infatuation. However, it does involve our deepest affections. This love is a love for God and one another that captures the deepest affections of our hearts and, therefore, dictates the choices we make. It is a covenantal commitment to God and one another in the church.

The Ephesians, to one degree or another, have become spiritual savages. They are at war all of the time. It is easy to slip into this when there are so many wars to fight. Their hatred grew, and they were good at it ... and praised by Jesus for it. Hatred of evil may have become their primary identity as pastor and church. They are good haters. But in all of their commendable hatred, they have forgotten how to be good lovers.

Maybe they have fallen from the simple joys of enjoying one another. Maybe they only know how to use doctrine as a weapon and not as instrument of healing. Maybe they are so consumed with fighting evil that they have forgotten that they are supposed to be loving and pursuing what is beautiful. Maybe in their common hatred of evil and false doctrine, they have various opinions on how these wars need to be fought, and it has put them at odds with one another.

We don’t exactly know what the particular situation was with Ephesus. They knew. When the angel of the church delivered this message, they would know exactly what he was talking about, I’m sure. But it is vague to us. Or is it? Do we hear what the Spirit is saying to the church? In what ways have we, as a church, left our first love, the fundamentals of being a church (if we have)? Jesus leaves the accusation of forsaking the first love and the admonition to remember, repent, and return to the first love open for each of his churches to figure out for themselves if and where this is true about themselves.

Not having this first love in the church is serious to Jesus. If this isn’t corrected, he will remove their lampstand. That is, the church will no longer exist. The lampstand will not be shining the light of Christ, and, therefore, will not be a faithful witness. They can have all of those other things right for which Jesus praises them, but if they don’t have love, they will be nothing.

He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.