Unto the angel of the church of Ephesus write; These things saith he that holdeth the seven stars in his right hand, who walketh in the midst of the seven golden candlesticks; I know thy works, and thy labour and thy patience, and how thou canst not bear them which are evil: and thou hast tried them which say they are apostles, and are not, and hast found them liars: and hast borne, and hast patience, and for my name’s sake hast laboured, and hast not fainted.
Nevertheless I have somewhat against thee, because thou hast left thy first love.
Remember therefore from whence thou art fallen, and repent, and do the first works; or else I will come unto thee quickly, and will remove thy candlestick out of his place, except thou repent. But this thou hast, that thou hatest the deeds of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate. He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches; To him that overcometh will I give to eat of the tree of life, which is in the midst of the paradise of God.
The church at Ephesus loved the Lord as her first love. She loved her Husband vehemently, faithfully, and exclusively. He was truly her only love. She loved the Lord, because He loved her first (I John 4:19). Indeed, Ephesus was the first of the churches established in Asia Minor to whom He writes by the apostle John. So to her, Jesus speaks first.
The Lord deeply loved the church at Ephesus. He sent Paul to visit the city with Aquila and Priscilla at the end of his second missionary journey. It was the one place where, after he preached in the synagogue, the Jews asked him to stay. But Paul left, promising to return and leaving them in the care of his two fellow tentmakers. While he was away, the Lord sent Apollos. After Apollos left, Paul returned and stayed for three years, his longest stay anywhere. For three months he preached in the synagogue until some, hardened, spoke evil of the Way. From then on, Paul taught daily from the school of Tyrannus. The Lord also wrought special miracles by him. The result was that many believed and confessed the Lord and a church was instituted in Ephesus. So mightily grew the Word in that city, that diseases and devils fled, former sorcerers burned a fortune in books, ungodly idol peddlers started a riot, and all they that dwelt in Asia heard the Word of the Lord, both Jews and Greeks (Acts 19:10-17).
When Paul met the elders the last time, he reminded them how he had labored night and day with many tears, kept back nothing profitable, taught publicly and privately, declared the whole counsel of God, and to all he testified repentance toward God and faith toward Jesus Christ (Acts 20:17-25). He warned that wolves would enter not sparing the flock, so they must take heed to themselves and feed the flock Jesus purchased with His own blood. Paul left, commending them to God and His Word of grace (Acts 20:25-36). The Lord would build on this foundation through Tychicus, then Timothy. And He would write to her, reminding her of His love, the great mystery of their marriage, and her calling to live faithfully as His bride.
The church at Ephesus lived faithful to Christ. She loved Him not only in word but in deed. Jesus, who walked in her midst, knew: “I know thy works, and thy labor, and thy patience.” In love, she carried out her calling, laboring patiently without fainting for His name’s sake. Certainly, she did this in all their work. Officebearers and members of the church had patiently persevered as an institution to preach the gospel, serve the sacraments, administer discipline, and bring witness of the name of Christ through missionary labors and their own confession and walk to all of Asia Minor.
In particular, the Lord cites one specific example of her first love: “Thou canst not bear them which are evil. That is, she loved Him exclusively with great zeal for His righteousness and truth. Certainly, they could not bear the evil around them. And there was much evil in Ephesus. Due to many factors, including its temple (one of the seven wonders of the world), the city was an epicenter of Roman politics, commerce, science, culture, idolatry and decadence. Well it represented the world in which the church lives but must not love. Paul wrote that “the course of this world” in Ephesus was ruled by the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that works so that the children of disobedience, alienated from the life of God, fulfill the desires of the flesh, walk in the vanity of their mind, and are given over unto lasciviousness to work all uncleanness, greediness, fornication, covetousness, filthiness, and foolish talking (Eph. 2:2-3; 4:17-19; 5:3-5). But the Lord in His eternal love, had chosen some in Ephesus to be His. By His irresistible Spirit, He had united them to Himself and called them to put off the old man and put on the new man, to let not such sins be named among them, and to have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness but rather reprove them, walking circumspectly, redeeming the time (Eph. 4:22; 5:3-5; 5:11-12). This the church at Ephesus had surely done in her first love.
The church had also labored patiently without fainting to try false teachers and their doctrines. First, they “hated the deeds of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate.” The Nicolaitans were antinomians that had cast a stumbling block in the churches by advocating an indulgent, sensual lifestyle under the guise of Christian liberty (Rev. 2:14-15). When this doctrine appeared in the church of Ephesus, they examined it and declared it false, as something they hated because the Lord hated it. Secondly, they tried not only doctrines but teachers, even those claiming to be apostles, and the church had found them to be liars.
Nevertheless, the Lord declares that Ephesus had left her first love. This was no small error. Ephesus did not lose her first love. Lose does not indicate the seriousness of her actions. To lose something is an accident or carelessness; if we lose something we love, we search until we find it. Ephesus had not, like a young married woman, merely lost the emotional excitement and zeal she first had while dating her husband. Her actions were far more serious. Ephesus left her first love. Deliberately, willingly, she sought out and found other lovers, while forsaking her Husband. Her actions were the sin of an adulterous or whorish woman.
The church at Ephesus had left the Lord in her heart. The Lord indicates this when He notes she still labored patiently and could not bear them which are evil. Formally, the marriage was intact, the bed undefiled, and no physical separation or divorce papers filed. As institution, she still played the part of a faithful wife, fed the family, kept the house, and gave herself to her Husband. Church services and catechism lessons were well attended, the offices filled with qualified men who did their work, the gospel was preached, sacraments and discipline administered, false doctrines and teachers tried, the poor and sick visited, and the members still learned, confessed and obeyed the truth in their walk of life. But her heart was not in it.
The Lord, who sees the heart, knew. As He attended the worship services, listened to the preaching, prayers, and singing, observed the collections, and saw the Sabbath keeping, conversations, and activities afterwards, he noticed. As He sat in on the catechism lessons, consistory meetings, Bible study societies, and visited the sick, He saw. Bodies, hands and mouths, were there. But hearts were elsewhere, longing for other lovers. And much of it invisible to anyone else. Hearts loved self—members yearned for shorter services, fewer church functions and meetings, smaller collections, and less visiting; but more money, longer vacations, bigger houses, fancier clothing, and better transportation. Hearts loved the world— members desired more respect, recognition, and friendship with the world; less persecution, enmity, and opposition. Hearts were sick with anxiety and depression over physical, earthly matters; joyless, unenthusiastic, and unmoved by spiritual, heavenly matters. Hearts lusted for the pleasures, lifestyle, and sins from which they had been delivered; and chafed at the joys, friendships, and holiness to which they were called.
Although the church at Ephesus had left the Lord only in heart, the Lord calls her actions sin. She had fallen. Her sin was spiritual fornication. For she was married to Christ who said that even to lust after another is already to commit adultery in the heart (Matt. 5:28). Principally, her sin was that of a false church, the beginning of every actual, permanent forsaking of Christ for the world (Rev. 17). Thus, the Lord threatens that her sin warranted speedy removal of any light of His Spirit from her midst. And swift removal of His candlestick would not only be deadly, but just, for in leaving Christ, the church had spurned the only one who loved her in the world, loved her exclusively, and with a jealous love unlike any in the world. Leaving Christ, she rejected the comfort and light of His fellowship, labor of love, faithful care, and powerful protection. Leaving Christ, she would again be subject to all the miseries that fornication with other lovers brings, including tyranny and abuse, guilt, shame, and death.
But all was not lost or hopeless. Ephesus had left her first love, but the Lord had not left Ephesus. Her first love was elsewhere, but the Lord to whom she is married loved her with more vehemence and jealousy than she had for Him. He is faithful to His marriage vows. He is gracious in His marital life. His Spirit still shines in her midst. So the Lord by His Spirit not only calls out her sin, and threatens, but He calls her to repent. He does not forsake her. He does not yet remove His Word and Spirit. Being still present, He also does not call her to split into factions, or forsake the fellowship of the other six churches to go her own way. He calls her to repent, and then patiently labors to effect such repentance.
Genuine repentance is to confess and sorrow over one’s sin, to seek and find joy in the forgiving grace of Jesus Christ, and to turn from the way of sin back to the way of holiness in gratitude. To such repentance the Lord calls Ephesus when He exhorts her to “remember whence thou art fallen…and do the first works.” First, she must remember something. Essentially, she must remember the promise of Christ: “To him that overcometh will I give to eat of the tree of life, which is in the midst of the paradise of God” (Rev. 2:7). She must remember the riches, peace, blessedness, and heavenly glory promised and graciously given by her first love to the entire church, beginning with Adam and Eve, as well as the depths of hell into which she had plunged herself in the garden. She was a whore—defiled, hated, and rejected. The Lord alone had chosen, bought, cleansed, and cared for her. He had given His life for hers, died for her while she was yet ungodly, delivered her from every enemy, justified and sanctified her, lived with her, and promised her eternal, perfect, marital bliss with Him in a new creation. What could any other lover do but bring her again to death and hell? Secondly, the Lord calls the church at Ephesus to repentance not only in the heart or in words, but in deeds. He calls her to do the first works, that is, to do again whatever things she stopped doing because she had given her heart to others, and had once done in heartfelt thankfulness for the Lord’s love granting her heavenly glory from the lowest hell into which she had willingly brought herself.
This call to repent was no suggestion nor an option. Repent they must. And repent they do. For this command is delivered with the almighty power of her faithful Husband, and the candlestick still burned in the house of Ephesus with the efficacious and irresistible power and life of His Spirit. And by the power of His presence, the church at Ephesus repented—she received this rebuke of the Lord, remembered from whence she had fallen, and did again the first works in love for Christ. We know this because in the year 431, an ecumenical council of all the churches was held, fittingly, in Ephesus. There, the church universally condemned Nestorianism, the false doctrine that denied this very gospel of her first love, and upheld the truth concerning the Person and natures of Jesus Christ.
So what would Christ say after walking in the midst of your church? Is it this: I know your works, labor, and patience, and how you cannot bear them which are evil; but nevertheless you left your first love (even if it be only in your heart)? Then His word is clear, powerful, and gracious: “Remember from whence thou art fallen, and repent, and do the first works; or else I will come unto thee quickly and will remove thy candlestick out of his place…. He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches; to him that overcometh will I give to eat of the tree of life, which is in the midst of the paradise of God.”