For the proclamation of the Gospel and the edification of the Body of Christ
Returning to Christ
The Lord's letter to the church in Ephesus reveals the beginning of declension.
When you look at the book of Acts and see all the glory of the first century Church - a church that even up to today we still long for and admire- it is difficult to accept that this church, much to our surprise, began to decay at the end of the first century. And John, the only living apostle, survivor of the Twelve, had to witness this decline. God wanted to preserve him until that time, not only so that he could reflect on that decline, but above all so that he could show us the way back.
John, who was probably the youngest of the apostles, was nevertheless the last to be raised up by God to speak. Before him, Peter and especially Paul were the ones who spoke. But these two had now gone, having given their lives up for Christ. Many things had happened and had changed during this time. John was almost a hundred years old, and that is when he was raised up to speak.
According to the testimony of the apostolic fathers, John established himself at Ephesus at the death of Paul. From there he would have written his three letters during the years 85-95 AD. It is therefore the letters of John and his Revelation that give the most accurate account of the decline. His letters show that at this point in the history of the church, false teachers appeared in the churches, the spirit of the antichrist had already arisen in the world and Greek philosophy with its rationalism was replacing the divine revelation.
But John's great contribution to the totality of the divine revelation is not so much that God left him alive to see the beginning of the decline of the church of the first century, but that, faced with this fact, he reveals the solution to the problem. But he not only presents us with the way to return to normality, but also, in the glorious Revelation of Jesus Christ, he saw and prophesied the complete restoration of the church. "... I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband" (Rev. 21: 2 . ).
The Revelation of John contains seven letters from the Lord Jesus Christ to seven churches in Asia: Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia and Laodicea. It is striking that, of the seven churches, only two do not receive a reproach from the Lord. The remaining five do not have the divine approval. This confirms the situation of decay already experienced by the churches at the end of the first century.
Ephesus, the first letter
Ephesus is a first century church selected by the Holy Spirit as an example for all churches from that time on. In addition, the fact that the message to Ephesus is presented first would indicate that this is the starting point of the decline of the church. The church of the first century began to decline when it lost its first love. In this sense, Laodicea represents the final state into which a church can fall that has lost its first love: leaving Christ outside of it.
If the spiritual state of Ephesus represents in general terms the reality of the entire first-century church, then we can say that the first love in the church began to be lost by the end of the first century. That leads us to wonder if first love has been part of our church experience, or is rather a truth that has yet to be restored.
Undoubtedly, from the Reformation onwards, the Lord began His work of restoration. Justification by faith, divine healing, baptism in the Holy Spirit, ministries and others are truths that the Lord has restored for his church. But can we say with the same clarity that first love has also been restored? The answer to this question will, of course, depend on what we mean by "first love."
The quality of the church of Ephesus
What kind of church was Ephesus when the Lord had to reproach her for the loss of her first love? If we did not have the Scriptures, it would seem to us that Ephesus might have been a worldly, cold church. We would think that after the Lord had said to them: "I know your works" we would find something like this : "I know your jealousy, your division, your carnality, your sexual sins, etc.". But is this what we find? No. What we find is a description that is so impressive, that it seems to be the model of spirituality to which every church aspires and should aspire.
The works of this church are: I know "your hard work and your perseverance, and that you cannot tolerate wicked men, that you have tested those who call themselves apostles and are not, and have found them to be liars. You have suffered, you have been persevering, you've worked hard for my name's sake and have not grown weary. " You also have this: "that you hate the deeds of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate." In this description there are no signs of worldliness; here there is maturity, holiness, stability. All of these are qualities worthy of imitation, recommendable for the church at all times.
Now, if this is the church which the Lord reproaches for having lost its first love, what remains for us? Do you realize that losing your first love is not as evident as we may have thought? It is not so simple; on the contrary, it is something profound. I do not think even the Ephesian church was aware of its true state. Only He who walks in the midst of the seven golden candlesticks, our blessed Lord Jesus Christ, could see it and reveal it.
If today we are not this kind of church like Ephesus was, the question is: will first love for us be something we have lost or something we never had? Today the Lord of the Church also says to us: "I know your works". Do you think that He would say something like He said to Ephesus? And if it is not so, then has first love really been our experience?
The loss of first love, something serious
On the other hand, the Lord's letter to this church reveals that the loss of first love, in spite of all the other virtues, is not something minor, but of grave seriousness. "Remember therefore from where you have fallen, and repent and do the first works, because if you do not repent, I will soon come to you and remove your lampstand from its place." Against such an exhortation Ephesus cannot say: "What is one defect among so many virtues? Otherwise, who can be perfect? "
The loss of first love is of such gravity that, if not corrected, it will lead, sooner or later, to the disappearance of the church. In the eyes of God, for this church there remains no choice but to repent; otherwise the lampstand will be removed from its place.
According to chapter 1 of Revelation, the seven candlesticks are the seven churches. Therefore, what the Lord meant to say to the church at Ephesus is that their loss of the Lord's vision - if they did not repent - would make them lose the essence of the church. In other words, they would cease to be a church. They would probably continue to exist as something else, but not as the church of Christ.
The loss of first love meant a fall. "Remember from where you have fallen." You used to be at the top; today you are in the valley. But what, in short, was the problem? What is first love?
The Revelation of Jesus Christ
Firstly, the way in which the Lord presents Himself to each church corresponds to its need. That is, His revelation to that specific church not only uncovers the problem or the sin behind it, but provides the solution. So then, how does He present Himself to the church in Ephesus? As "he who holds the seven stars in his right hand" and as "the one who walks among the seven golden candlesticks." This last sentence means that only the Lord Jesus Christ truly knew the state of the churches. But the expression "walking in the middle" also indicates that Jesus Christ is the centre. Therefore, the loss of first love would be related to the fact that he was no longer the centre of the church. More precisely, that love for Christ had ceased to be the central and fundamental motivation of the church.
First love is the fruit of the tree of life
Secondly, in the final promise of the letter, the Lord promises the overcomer, that is, the one who repents and returns to the first works, that He will give him "to eat of the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God". Why this promise? Because the tree of life represents living by the divine life. If the church of Ephesus had left its first love, that is, the love of Christ, it means that what had ultimately left this church was the element of living by the tree of life; because the life of God is expressed essentially in love.
But we are not talking here of any love, but of the love of Christ, of divine love. The church at Ephesus had stopped eating from the tree of life, and in doing so had ceased to live in first love. First love is the love that we owe to the One who is ‘first’, who is Christ. But it is impossible to manifest that love without the tree of life. That love is not our own fruit, it is not fruit that we can produce, but it is the fruit of the Spirit.
Life is the fruit of fellowship with Christ
How did the church of Ephesus stop eating from the tree of life? There is only one answer: it left its fellowship with the Lord Jesus Christ, it left its dependence on Him. When it first began, this church had depended only on God for its salvation. And when it was just beginning to walk, since it knew nothing and lived in a holy ignorance, its dependence on the Lord was total.
But now this church was forty years old. In time she had learned to do things, learned to walk alone, she knew how to preach, she knew how to evangelize, she knew how to pray. The dependence on the Lord became relative, and by ceasing to live by the divine life through first love, she had to begin to keep herself going by her own strength, and the central motivation for doing what she was doing, since it was no longer first love, became duty, responsibility and obligation.
Therefore, although the works of this church were outwardly perfect, they had a deadly underlying rift, which, if not corrected quickly, would bring total ruin. The question is: If our service to the Lord is not based on love for Him, how long will our duty, responsibility, obligation or any other motivation sustain us?
The church of Thessalonica
In this sense, it is interesting to compare this forty year-old church with that of Thessalonica, for example, which was about six months old when the apostle Paul wrote his first letter. In 1 Thessalonians chapter 1 verse 3, Paul says: "Remembering unceasingly before our God and Father your work of faith, labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ." It is interesting to note that Paul mentions the same three things that were at Ephesus: work, labour, and perseverance. But here the emphasis is on faith, love and hope.
The Thessalonians do not simply have works, but works of their faith; they do not have only labour, but the labour of their love; not only do they have perseverance, but perseverance in hope. This becomes even clearer when we look at the letter that Paul himself wrote to the Ephesians. The church of Ephesus was about 8 years old when Paul wrote to them. At Ephesians 1:15 Paul says, "For this reason I also, having heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for all the saints ... that He may enlighten the eyes of your mind so that you may know what is the hope of his calling...".
Here the emphasis is so much on faith that works are not mentioned-they are implicit-, love is mentioned but not work, and mention is made of hope but not steadfastness. But 32 years later there are only works, labour and perseverance. There is no mention of faith, love or hope. The word love in verse 3 (from Revelation 2) is not in the Greek text.
The first works
The key, then, for the church at Ephesus, was not only to remember from where it had fallen and to repent, but especially to return to doing the first works, in which it made fellowship with the Head of the church its principal activity and priority. They not only had fellowship with the Lord, but this was their first work. When the woman of the "Song of Songs" discovers the cause of her 'blackness', she says: "Look not upon me because I am black, because the sun has looked upon me. My mother's sons were angry with me; they set me to keep the vineyards; and my own vineyard I have not kept"(1: 6).
The problem is that we have been busy with the work of the vines and neglected our own vineyard. And what is our vineyard that we should never have neglected and which explains our blackness? That vineyard is Christ; our personal relationship with Him. There is no problem in tending the vines of the Lord's work so long as we do not neglect the Lord of the work. He is our priority. The Lord is not only my vineyard, but the first vineyard.
In this regard, it is striking that the main obstacle we have towards seeking the Lord together is the practical impossibility of getting together. Our agendas are so busy and we are so full of activities that we literally do not have time for fellowship with the Lord of the work. Do we realize the gravity of what is happening to us? What the Lord Jesus Christ said to the church of Ephesus is something that we also need to hear.
The fact that Ephesus is in the first place - a church which is reproached for having abandoned her first love - is to make it clear to all of us that the decline began the day she began to give up her first love. If there was no verse 4, (which records this reproach), this would be an extraordinary letter. The epistle to the Ephesians, written by Paul, is also extraordinary, written to a church to whom he is able to speak of the depths of the Lord, of the riches of full understanding.
But, forty years later, God uses John to speak to this church. Not even the church in Ephesus could examine itself and notice this deficiency, because everything seemed so perfect. But the eye of God sees what we do not see, sees the heart, and detects a fault. Something had begun to decay, which still had no great effect; but the day that the church began to lose that, was the day that their fall began. That is the importance of the fact that Ephesus is in the first place. The Lord is telling us that this is how the ruin of the church begins - when we begin to give up our first love.