1 “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: 2 ‘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; 3 and you have perseverance and have endured for My name’s sake, and have not grown weary. 4 ‘But I have [this] against you, that you have left your first love. 5 ‘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. 6 ‘Yet this you do have, that you hate the deeds of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate. 7 ‘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.’ (Rev 2:1-7 NASB)
My dear friend Dax Swanson, pastor of Grace Church Bellingham, is beginning a series on Ephesians, so I’m going to take a little detour and follow along. He started the series by pointing out that what we really need in the church is more gospel astonishment, and started off with the passage in Revelation 2 with Jesus’ message to the church at Ephesus. You can view his sermons and see them live-streamed on Sunday mornings at http://www.gracebellingham.org/ . It’s well worth the time, Dax always delivers the goods!
Losing Gospel Astonishment
Here is something amazing: God knows their deeds, which are laudable. They toil, they persevere, they are intolerant of evil, they don’t fall for false apostles. They are tireless in these efforts. But Jesus is looking deeper, for something more.
They had lost their gospel astonishment. They had left their first love! So we see that love is not in these wonderful tireless deeds. Jesus says this is a grave error – he will “remove their lampstand” if they do not repent. I don’t know exactly what removing their lampstand actually means, but it doesn’t sound good at all. Whatever it is, we would like our lampstand to remain, right?
But This Isn’t Us, Right?
This is such a prescient and timely message for us now. It is so commonplace now for the Christian experience to be reduced to the exact formula that the Ephesians had settled upon. Progressive sanctification is all about toil, perseverance, resisting evil, and somehow being intolerant of error. It sounds great. But it is lacking a key ingredient: love! This first love, the excitement at being a sinner accepted and justified and redeemed by a great savior! We sink so easily into the neglect of so great a salvation! (Hebrews 2:2,3) I would posit that this is the great great sin of the American church. Christianity is not about how well we serve Christ, it is about how well Christ serves us.
And this is why Jesus is so stern in this message to the Ephesians! If a sinner seeking mercy comes to an Ephesian gathering, what will they encounter? Will they encounter a great mercy and lavish grace? Will they encounter people who love because God first loved them? Will they be welcomed as sinners? Will they encounter a people moved beyond words by so great a salvation? Will they find gospel astonishment? Or rather would they be exhorted to toil, to persevere, to be intolerant towards evil? As rightly judging themselves evil, would such a newcomer not rightly be turned away, never to encounter the great love of Christ for sinners? In a sense, if Christ came again, would He find faith in our midst, or duty?
What Shall We Do?
So is this an edict to repent of our lovelessness and to love God more? Perhaps, but how is this accomplished? There is an important clue in this text: they are to return to their “first love,” in Greek their πρώτην ἀφῆκας (proto agape). What is this first love?
Wouldn’t this be the love and joy you had when you were an unbelieving sinner welcomed into the arms of a loving savior? Wouldn’t this imply an unworthy penitent coming with nothing to offer but belief in the great love of a marvelous savior? Where shall we go to learn of this proto agape, this first love? How can we rekindle our romance with our redeemer?
How to Return to Our First Love?
Welcome to the book of Ephesians! There is not a single imperative to toil more, to do better, to persevere, to resist false apostles, in the first three chapters. Not one. Half the book is pure unadulterated proclamation of grace. It is Paul, so excited and full of joy that he can hardly breathe in to to pause from bubbling over with revelation, telling them who they are in Christ. You cannot jump to Chapter 4-6 and say “walk in a manner worthy of the calling” without having bathed in the exquisite waters of Ephesians 1-3. How indeed can you walk in a manner worthy of the calling if you have no interest in the calling?
It’s like a kid dutifully learning math vs. Newton and Leibniz excitedly uncovering the mysteries of calculus for the first time. The kid hates it, it isn’t a first love. Can you imagine what it was like to actually invent CALCULUS? It must have been electric. They had the first love of the thing.
If we turn our Christian faith into a dutiful service, we lose its essential element:
10 In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son [to be] the propitiation for our sins. (1Jo 4:10 NASB)
Christianity is not here to force us to serve and toil and resist evil. Those are great things and the savior says so to the Ephesians. But the essence of Christianity is the love which Christ has for us! In this is love – He has loved us with a great and sacrificial love. This is the great theme of the book of Ephesians – what God has done for us.
18 [I pray that] the eyes of your heart may be enlightened, so that you will know what is the hope of His calling, what are the riches of the glory of His inheritance in the saints, 19 and what is the surpassing greatness of His power toward us who believe. (Eph 1:18-19 NASB)