The letters to the seven churches of Asia provide a full picture of the church. Though each of these congregations face unique circumstances and challenges in comparison with one another, they are not unique in comparison to other churches down through the centuries. There have been churches like Pergamos or Smyrna or Laodicea since the Lord dictated these letters and, I am certain, there continue to be churches like them today. I have found this to be particularly true in the letter sent to the church at Ephesus. The Lord says to Ephesus:
I know your works, your labor, your patience, and that you cannot bear those who are evil. And you have tested those who say they are apostles and are not, and have found them liars; and you have persevered and have patience, and have labored for My name’s sake and have not become weary. Nevertheless I have this against you, that you have left your first love. Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent and do the first works, or else I will come to you quickly and remove your lampstand from its place–unless you repent. But this you have, that you hate the deeds of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate (Revelation 2:2-6).
The Lord’s commendations portray Ephesus as an active and vibrant congregation. Like the Thessalonians whose works of faith, labor of love, and patience of hope were fondly remembered by Paul, the Lord recognizes the works, labor, and patience of Ephesus. The Ephesians were committed to both truth and morality. They would not suffer evil people or accept false teaching. Those masquerading as apostles were detected and rejected. Jesus reiterates their patience and adds that they had persevered. Both qualities imply a tried and true faith. The phrase “for My name’s sake” occurs nine times in the New Testament. In the other eight passages, Jesus connects it with sacrifice for the kingdom and enduring persecution. The faith of Ephesus was a living, genuine faith purified by fiery trials.
“Nevertheless,” the Lord says in verse four, “I have this against you, that you have left your first love.” Brethren and expositors have long debated what exactly the Lord means. Many conclude that Ephesus abandoned her love for Jesus since we are to love the Lord above all others. However, the praise of Jesus weighs against this conclusion. Is disobedience to the Lord’s commands a problem at Ephesus? Had the congregation fallen victim to apostasy? Did she recant when her faith was put to the test? On the contrary, Ephesus appears to love the truth and have a genuine faith in Jesus. If this analysis is true, what love had Ephesus abandoned?
The same apostle to whom Jesus dictated the letter to Ephesus writes in his second epistle:
I rejoiced greatly that I have found some of your children walking in truth, as we received commandment from the Father. And now I plead with you, lady, not as though I wrote a new commandment to you, but that which we have had from the beginning: that we love one another. This is love, that we walk according to His commandments. This is the commandment, that as you have heard from the beginning, you should walk in it (2 John 1:4-6).
John reminds us of the Lord’s teachings in John 12:34-35. Jesus says the world would know His disciples by their love for one another. The Lord calls this a new command because our love for one another is measured against the sacrificial love He showed toward us. John acknowledges that he has found brethren in this congregation walking according to truth, but he feels compelled to remind them of the command that “we have had from the beginning.” Our love for our brethren is our first love. John found some members of this congregation walking in truth, but John pleads with them to walk in love toward one another. Is it possible to walk in truth and fail to love our brethren? Yes. When we fail to love our brethren, we have left our first love.
Before Paul describes Christian love in 1 Corinthians 13, he warns us that admirable gifts and achievements and ideals are meaningless in the absence of love: “And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing” (verse 2). Did you notice the final item in Paul’s list? A faith that can move mountains. Can one possess such a faith without love? Yes. What does it profit, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but does not have love? Paul says his or her faith is meaningless.
The problem at Ephesus was a lack of love for one another. She believed the truth, loved the truth, defended the truth, and confessed the truth before men. But in the midst of her trials, the love of the congregation had grown cold.
The trouble at Ephesus was much like the trouble with the first century Pharisees. However, what made Ephesus Pharisaical was not her care for doing what is right. Jesus taught, “Whoever therefore breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:19). According to Jesus, greatness in the kingdom is attained by one who carefully follows the will of God and encourages others to do the same. The failure of the Pharisees was that they followed the law closely but neglected the weightier matters. “These [weightier matters] you ought to have done, without leaving the others (tithing mint, anise, and cumin) undone,” says the Lord in Matthew 23:23. The righteousness that surpasses the scribes and Pharisees incorporates a close observation of God’s will with justice, mercy, etc. As we will see, the solution for Ephesus demanded that they return to a weightier matter.
Though the situation in Ephesus was dire, it was not without hope. Jesus tells them to remember the love they had for one another at first. Think back to when you were first born into the family of God and rekindle your commitment toward your brethren. Once they remembered, Jesus commands them to repent and do the first works. Like faith in God, love for one another is expressed in deeds and not in words only. Jesus calls the Ephesians back to a living love, a love of sacrifice and ministry to their fellow believers, a love where selfish interests are secondary to the well-being of the brethren and the edification of the church. If they failed to correct their ways, the consequences were severe: they would no longer be a faithful congregation in His eyes. Christ would no longer commune with the Ephesian church.
My dear brethren, I ask you: how many congregations have failed to learn from Ephesus? How many meetinghouses where the truth was taught and where people of faith gathered are now abandoned because the first love was abandoned? My brethren, we can believe the truth, closely follow the truth, teach the truth, defend the truth, or die for the truth and still lose our souls because we do not love our brethren. Let us not neglect the weightier matters by remembering the command we have heard from the beginning. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.