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 Ephesus - What is "First Love"?

Revelation 2:4

John Hoole February 12, 2006


Revelation 2:1-5 NKJV

1 "To the angel of the church of Ephesus write, 'These things says He who holds the seven stars in His right hand, who walks in the midst of the seven golden lampstands:
2 "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;
3 and you have persevered and have patience, and have labored for My name's sake and have not become weary.
4 Nevertheless I have this against you, that you have left your first love.
5 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."

The Lord abruptly changes the tone of this letter, beginning with verse 4. The Master puts his finger on the one glaring deficiency in this church. And, notwithstanding His many commendation, this one deficiency threatened to ruin everything else.

Revelation 2:4 NKJV

4 Nevertheless I have this against you, that you have left your first love.

Before dissecting what this is saying to us, notice the word "you." Its usage here must be counted as both singular and plural. The whole church had left their first love but they did it one by one.

It always hurts when someone has something against you. But when Christ does, that is serious. Something was missing. This church had left their first love. Amid the Ephesians' many ministries, and their tenacious stand for truth, their love for Christ had grown cold.

The more busy they became, the further they drifted away from simple devotion to Christ. This became:

o labor without love,

o doctrine without devotion,

o teaching without tenderness,

o activity without affection.

And it was so serious that it endangered the church's very existence.

As I said last week, we all have had times when our love for Christ and our brothers and sisters in the body, has been less than what it once was and less than it should be.

I think it is significant that of all the sins Jesus points out in these seven churches - adultery - Covetousness - Luke warmness - False teachings - allowing Jezebels to be in authority - Dead Worship - Spiritual Blindness, the first sin, I believe, grieves him most. That is, a loss of affection for Him.

In Psalm 41:9, (ASV) we read,

Yea, mine own familiar friend, in whom I trusted, which did eat of my bread, hath lifted up his heel against me.

Can you identify with David's words? Quite often the people in your life who are able to wound you most easily are those who you love the most. And that is true in the body of Christ as well. We who should love Christ most, are those who wound him most easily. As I read again through Paul's letter to the Ephesians, I am amazed at the gospel these people heard and lived. In fact, the apostle Paul compliments them at length.

He addresses them in Ephesians 1:1-5 as,

"…the faithful in Christ Jesus…blessed…with all spiritual blessings in heavenly places in Christ…chose…before the foundations of the world…predestinated…unto the adoption of children by Jesus Christ to himself, according to the good pleasure of his will.

The apostle Paul adds that they are a forgiven people, having the revelation of the mystery of Christ and being "...sealed with that Holy Spirit of promise" (Ephesians 1:13).

He further prays they would have, "…the spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of him: the eyes of your understanding being enlightened; that ye may know…the exceeding greatness of his power to us-ward who believe…" (Ephesians 1:17-19).

These Christians at Ephesus had been made alive, "...quickened…with Christ…who hath raised us up together, and made us sit together in heavenly places in Christ Jesus." (Ephesians 2:5-6)

Paul called them Christ's "workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works…and are made near by the blood of Christ" (Ephesians 2:13). He says that by God's grace, they are "...growing unto a holy temple in the Lord…through the Spirit." (Ephesians 2:21-22)

What a description of a blessed, holy people! And now, in the book of Revelation, Jesus also compliments the Ephesian Christians. He tells them, "I know your works, and your labor and your patience" (Revelation 2:2). In other words: "I know all the good things going on in your lives."

Jesus continues to compliment them, pointing out...how..."You cannot bear them which are evil - you have tried them which say they are apostles and are not, and have found them liars..." Jesus is saying "You are rooted and grounded in sound teaching. And so you haven't been tossed about by all the latest teachings of the flesh. You are able to rightly judge false teachers and false prophets. And you expose them as liars, for the benefit of everyone among you. I commend you for all of this." (verse 2-3). "and I commend you also for this as well - You hate the deeds of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate" (Verse 6).

It quickly becomes evident in this passage that the Ephesians are not just a bunch of novices or lukewarm saints. No, Jesus is examining the hearts of a people who are well-grounded in the truth, and who work to prove it in their lives, by sacrificing, laboring and standing up for truth.

He continues, "and yet, somehow in all your labors, you have allowed your first love to wither. Your affection for me is dying." Something was terribly amiss - a cancer was destroying the body of Christ in this city.

Last week, I said there were two things that should be considered here:

1. What is this thing called "first love?"
2. Who/What is the object of this first love?

Last week, we addressed at some length, the second question. I believe the object of our first love must be Christ Himself. All others flow from that love, namely, our love for other believers, our love for his soon return, and our love for the lost. All of these flow out of a love for Him.

Today, we are going to address question #1. What is this thing called "first love"? I will ask you to help me define it in a few minutes.

Christ always loves to say all the good He can of His people. The faults which he sees in them do not by any means blind His eyes to their good qualities. Nor on the other hand, could their good things shut His eyes to their evil. "Nevertheless, I have this against you; You have left your first love."

To answer "What is 'first love'?", I believe we first have to answer "what is love?" There are multiple expressions of love - some good, some bad. Love is one of the most often used, misapplied, and misunderstood words in the English language. Its usage is nearly limitless. People say they love everything from peanut butter to pork rinds - from fireworks to Ferraris. We see love talked about and depicted on television. It is described in books and magazines. It is talked about on campuses, in the tavern and on the dance floor. But so often, what is being depicted, described and talked about is a far cry from what the Bible calls authentic, genuine love.

The range of how the word "love" is used is so broad and flexible as to render the word almost meaningless in our day - for when a word is used to mean almost anything, it actually comes to mean almost nothing.

The Greek language has four distinct words for love. And whenever one of them is used (as opposed to another), the reason for the choice of which word is used is almost always significant.

EROS - refers to sexual or sensual love. Usually it was used to depict or describe physical love. This word does not appear in the New Testament at all, not because the N.T. despises or rejects physical love, but because by N.T. times, this word had come to be connected with lust rather than with true love. Unfortunately, this word has been eternally prostituted and perverted by the sordid minds of unregenerate men and women. From this word we get our words "erotic" and "erogenous."

STORGE - refers to family love. This is the love that a father and mother have for their children and visa versa. This word is also not in the New Testament.

PHILEO, PHILIA - refers to strong affection. From it we get our words "philanthropy" - meaning a love for mankind, or Philharmonic - a love for music, or Philadelphia - city of brotherly love. This is a fraternal love, found even amongst pagan peoples. It refers to friendships.

AGAPE - refers to divine love. It has the narrowest of definition, but the widest application. This love cannot be exhibited without God. This kind of love is one in which we find no variableness. It loves even when the object of the love is hateful or unlovely. You might say that it is love for no reason at all.

Sometimes "Agape" love has been defined as being the "way God loves." While it is true that "agape" is divine love, and only comes from God it is not true to say it is the only way God loves. God also experiences and shows "Phileo" love. Let me give you some examples:

John 5:20 (NAS)

20 "For the Father loves (Phileo) the Son, and shows Him all things.

The word for "loves" here is not "agape" but phileo.

He also loves believers in the same personal way.

John 16:27 (NIV)

27 No, the Father himself loves (phileo) you because you have loved (pephilekato) me and have believed that I came from God.

John 20:2 (NIV)

2 So she came running to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one Jesus loved (ephile), and said, "They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don't know where they have laid Him.

In each of these Scriptures, the word translated "love" is from the Greek word 'phileo'.

WHAT IS IT THAT MAKES AGAPE LOVE SO SUPERIOR TO ANY OTHER? WHAT IS THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN THEM?

Human beings with filial love may lay down their lives for their friends and family. But our Lord in Heaven, the Source of divine 'agape' love, laid down His life for His enemies.

Romans 5:6-8 NIV

6 You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly.
7 Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man, though for a good man someone might possibly dare to die.
8 But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

In a sense, divine love defies description. No definition encompasses all the avenues love may take. And because love cannot be packaged or bottled, many people today are pursuing a myth rather than seeking the love described in the Bible. This kind of love is what is to be exhibited in the lives of the followers of Christ. It is a love that goes beyond the circle of friends we each have to include even our enemies and those who wish us harm.

Now, let's return to our definition of "first love." I have taken you through this description of love in the Bible, because it is "agape" love that is described as "first love."

IF "AGAPE" LOVE IS ROOTED IN CHARACTER OF GOD ALONE, HOW DO WE EVER RECEIVE THAT KIND OF LOVE, SO WE CAN EXHIBIT IT AS WELL?

To answer this question, I want to take you on a short side trip. It is my hope that we can build a foundation that we can build upon to understand what "first love" is. Let me continue by asking you another question.

WHAT IS THE HIGHEST COMPLIMENT THAT CAN BE PAID TO A CHRISTIAN?

1 Timothy 4:8 (NKJV)

8 For bodily exercise profits a little: but godliness is profitable unto all things, having promise of the life that now is, and of that which is to come.

There is no higher compliment given to a Christian than to call him or her a godly person. They might be a conscientious parent, a zealous church worker, a dynamic spokesperson for Christ, or a talented Christian leader. But NONE of these things really matter if, at the same time, they are not a godly person.

Paul admonished Timothy, his son in the Lord, to exercise himself unto godliness (1 Timothy 4:7), and to follow after godliness (1 Timothy 6:11).

In speaking about the end-times and the nearness of Christ's return, Peter says, in 2 Peter 3:11, (NAS)

11 Since all these things are to be destroyed in this way (speaking of the earth), what sort of people ought you to be in holy conduct and godliness,

SO, WHAT IS GODLINESS? WHAT DO YOU THINK OF WHEN YOU THINK OF GODLINESS? OR WHAT DOES IT TAKE TO BE GODLY?

Whatever godliness is, I think you would have to agree that it cannot be confused with how a person looks, as hard as it is for us to get beyond that. We often judge a person by what they look like. Nor can godliness be confused with what a person owns or drives. As tough as it is for us to be completely free of envy and critical thoughts, it is imperative that we remind ourselves that "God does not look on the outward appearance, but looks on the heart" (1 Samuel 16:7).

Therefore, whatever we may say godliness is, it is not skin deep. It is something below the surface of life deep down in the realm of our attitudes - specifically, one's attitude toward God Himself.

For the next several moments I would like to employ a different example than usually would be used to describe the subject of godliness.

LIST AS MANY OF THE ATTRIBUTES OF GOD THAT YOU CAN THINK OF.

1. A Spirit
2. Creative
3. Compassionate
4. Love
5. Omnipresent
6. Omnipotent
7. Omniscient
8. Unchangeable - immutable - consistent all in His actions
9. Sovereign - Self-sufficient, - Self-existent
10. Holy
11. Righteous
12. Just
13. Good (always)
14. Merciful
15. Eternal
16. Infinite - free from limits and space

ARE THERE SOME OF THESE ATTRIBUTES OF GOD THAT ARE DIFFERENT THAN OTHERS?

Some theologians would categorize these attributes of God into two major groups.

1. His MORAL attributes - like: love, compassion, holy, merciful, good.

2. His NON-MORAL attributes - like: spirit, omnipotent, sovereign, infinite

That is a very good and proper way to categorize them. But I would like to suggest a slightly different categorization of the attributes of God.

Most all of us have heard of communicable and incommunicable diseases - right? IN THIS SENSE, WHAT IS MEANT BY THE WORD "COMMUNICABLE"? It means that it can be passed from one person to another. In other words, it is "catching."

I think God's attributes can be classified into groups, using these same two word - COMMUNICABLE AND INCOMMUNICABLE ATTRIBUTES (i.e., those personal attributes of Himself which he shares with us and those he does not).

Into incommunicable attributes - those which are not shared - we could put qualities or character traits of God that show just how different - vastly different - He is from we, His creatures.

WHAT ATTRIBUTES OF GOD WOULD FIT THIS CATEGORY?

Into this list would be such attributes as:

1. His unchangeable character (Immutability). This means He is entirely consistent in His actions. He never deviates. He doesn't change The fact that there are in Him no elements that can conflict. Unlike you and me, He cannot be torn different ways by divergent thoughts and desires.

2. He is infinite. He is not bound by time and space. In this you would find his omnipresence.

3. His Sovereignty. He answers to no one. He is above all. He is self-sufficient and self-existent.

These are the qualities which belong to God and Him alone. And because we are man or woman, and not God, our characters do not and cannot share in any of them. We do not have these qualities.

Into the category of COMMUNICABLE attributes of God, you would find those qualities that can be transferred from God to mankind. They can be transferred because God deemed it be so.

WHAT ATTRIBUTES OF GOD FIT INTO THIS CATEGORY?

Some of these qualities were given to us when He created us. For instance:

o We are spiritual beings like He is.

o We have been given the freedom of choice, like He has.

o We will live forever. We are eternal beings. (different from Christ in that we have not always existed)

For Adam and Eve, these qualities were given them when God created them. For us, these attributes become ours when we are born. And these attributes are shared with everyone, whether a believer or not.

And then there is another set of communicable attributes and qualities which He passes to us either when we ask Him for them, or when He bestows them upon us as we seek to grow in Him. Most of these communicable attributes are associated with God's moral character and nature (i.e., Love, compassion, goodness, holiness, righteousness, mercifulness, patience, etc.) As we grow in the Lord, these qualities become more and more a part of our own life and character. Or as Romans 8:29 says, we are conformed to the image of God's Son.

I have used this example of the Attributes of God, because I believe that all of the communicable attributes of God, which He shares with us later than at birth, can be summarized in one word - GODLINESS. Godliness is the sum of all those qualities which He bestows upon us - those qualities of His life which He has chosen to share with us. And isn't that what "godliness" means? God-likeness." And how better can we become like our God, than to have him share with us His own character traits. Godliness is a reflection of God's character within us!

Our godly character is a reflection of the extent to which God's character has been reproduced in us. As we mentioned a minute ago, the Father desires that all His children reflect the image of His Son. Unlike those attributes which God gives us at birth, the qualities that make up "godliness" are not given at birth. Neither are they automatically given to a person when they become a Christian. This is why we are admonished to "grow in grace" in our Christian walk.

I have taken you through this fairly lengthy excursion to make sure we understand that "agape" love has its source only in God. We don't have this kind of love by natural means. It comes to us only because He has desired to share it with us. And, also, we cannot exhibit it ourselves without having a very close relationship with our Lord.

So, to the Ephesians and to us, Christ admonishes; "return to your first "agape". Now, let me try to define what "first love" is.

HOW WOULD YOU DEFINE "FIRST LOVE"? WHAT IS IT?

The word "first" can have at least two meaning:

1. It can be first in relation to the chronology of time. In the case of our relationship with Christ, this meaning of first love would be speaking of what we felt and experienced when we first came to know Christ as our Savior.

2. It can also mean first in relation to our priorities. In the case of our relationship with Christ, "first love" means putting Him first in every area of our lives - where everything we do is related to putting Christ first.

In trying to define "first love," I struggle a little with point #1 above. I struggle with it because it somewhat reduces our first love for Christ to a list of emotions and feelings. And yet, love often manifests itself through feelings and emotions. And you even see emotions in Christ when he laments over Jerusalem and says, "How often I wanted to gather your children together..." (Matthew 23:37). And He wept at the death of Lazarus. (John 11:35). And the very next verse says "Then the Jews said, 'See how He loved him.' "

Let me present to you 7 biblical figures who, I believe, exhibited "first love." And I will give each exhibit a descriptive word. We see "first love" exhibited in:

1. Comforting Love, like Jacob.

"First love" made him think 7 years seemed as nothing to gain his bride.

2. Overflowing Love, like David.

"First love" exhibited itself in the life of a young shepherd, where, out on the lonely hillside, he composed many songs of praise.

3. Sacrificing Love, like Mary Magdalene. (Luke 7)

"First love" showed itself in the breaking of an alabaster box of ointment for Jesus.

4. Assuring Love, like the woman caught in adultery at Christ's feet.

She showed "first love" in that she loved much because much had been forgiven her.

5. Focusing Love, like Mary of Bethany.

She showed first love" by sitting at Jesus' feet, not wanting to miss anything He might say.

6. Enduring Love, like the apostle Paul.

He showed "first love" when, on many occasions, he states how he longed for Christ to return.

7. Hungering Love, like the Berean Christians.

"First love" showed itself in their insatiable desire to read God's Word.

When answering the question, "What is first love?," most of the time the answer is, it is the love you felt for Jesus when you first came to know him. It is that wonderful sense of discovery that He loves you. So much so, that He literally died for you. And now you stand delivered, free from your sins. Your heart went out to Him in gratitude and thanksgiving. You had eyes for no one but Him.

Watch a couple who have fallen in love. Note how they have eyes only for each other. See how spacey they become. Talk to them and they don't even hear you. They are thinking only of the wonder of each other. That's the way it was for many Christian when they first came to the Lord. Our gratitude for His saving grace flows out in emotional thanksgiving. From that point on their family and their home is different. They have been forgiven their sins. Their love of Christ seems almost incredible to them.

John Newton wrote the song, Amazing Grace. Many of you know that before he experienced that amazing grace, he was a slave trader, living in the mid-1700s.

Another short poem he wrote goes like this:

In evil long I took delight,
Unawed by shame or fear,
Until a new object met my sight,
And stopped my wild career.

He saw that Jesus had forgiven him, and he could not believe it. It seemed too wonderful to him.

Amazing love, how can it be,
That Thou My God should die for me!

Under the impact of this "new love" the new Christian eagerly takes on various ministries. It is a delight to serve, to sing, to help, to reach out to others. It seems the least he can do for such a wonderful Lord.

That is first love. But gradually there comes an almost imperceptible shift of focus. We get busy, and what we do for Christ begins to loom more and more important. Gradually our position, our status, the longing for approval by others, begins to take first place. We go on doing the same things but not from the same drive or motives. And we very slowly drift into leaving our "first love".

But, I still wonder if this is what "first love" signifies. Some, like myself, have a difficult time remembering what it was like and how I felt when I first came to Jesus.

At four years of age, I don't remember any particular emotions or feelings of that initial encounter with Jesus. Whatever my feelings at that moment, I can assure you that my love was immature and lacked wisdom and experience. My relationship with Jesus grew over time. I don't know if I want to go back to where I was when I first found Christ. The exception to that statement is, each of us, including myself, need to come to Christ as a child - with complete trust and no reservations.

One thing I did know at 4-years of age. I wanted never to hurt Jesus by willfully sinning against Him I may have been young, but somehow I knew that I wanted Jesus to have 1st place in my life. Everything I did was not just to please myself, but Jesus.

So, I am wondering if another aspect of "first love" is this: First love is exhibited when Christ is given first place in everything we do.

The Ephesian church appears to be clinging to all the works of the early church, but have lost their passionate love for Christ that motivated it.

I see in the church in America, Christians living their lives as if to say "Christ isn't coming in the near future. I will have time to repent." When I see this, I tremble at the words of Jesus, where He calls him an evil servant who says, 'My Lord delays His coming." (Matthew 24:48)

The church that has kept her "first love" has reason for a cry to erupt in them, "Even so Lord Jesus, come quickly" (Revelation 22:20).

"First Love" is the first mark of a true and living church. Indeed, I believe I can accurately say, "it is not a living church at all unless it is a loving church."

Can we say these words of Samuel Rutherford?

"Oh, my Lord, if there were a broad hell betwixt me and thee, if I could not get at thee except by wading through it, I would not think twice, but I would plunge through it all, if I might embrace thee and call thee mine."

It is that love - that sometimes reckless, uninhibited, unrestrained love, that each of us need to return to. I know that I need to.

   
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