In the first century, Ephesus was one of the leading cities of its day. On the commercial side, its large inland harbor was the main point of entrance for all sea traffic to the Roman province of Asia Minor. On the cultural side, it was the home of the magnificent temple of Diana, considered to be one of the wonders of the ancient world. The amphitheater in the city could hold 25,000 people. Ephesus was therefore a prosperous but idolatrous place. Apart from the records of general history, we have a number of key Bible references that provide background information on the work of God that developed there.
It was through the grace of God and by the power of the gospel that many lives were transformed in Ephesus. Luke, in Acts 18-19, graphically portrays the early days of gospel advance in the city – there was much blessing but also opposition, particularly from the business community. The city merchants were losing out on their sales of silver shrines to Diana as new believers publicly renounced their involvement with the occult and idolatry. No doubt, many of these believers suffered because of their faith in Christ. In Acts 20 we have a record of the last meeting Paul had with the elders of the Ephesian church. His poignant words mingled with tears summed up his ministry among them and his hopes for them. He also warned them of challenges to come. Timothy also would serve the believers in the city and Paul would write to encourage him in the challenges he faced.
In his prison letter written to the Ephesian Christians, Paul had much to say of their blessings in Christ. He also extolled the greatness of God’s love (Eph 2:4), the costliness of Christ’s love (Eph 5:2), and the testimony of the believers’ love (Eph 1:15). A generation later, the local church at Ephesus received another divine communication in letter form. It is this last one that must now command our attention.
The Lord presented Himself in a twofold way: as One who holds the seven stars in His hand, and as One who walks in the midst of the seven lampstands. The stars are identified as the angels of the churches to whom the letters were sent (Rev 1:20). They represent those men in each assembly who were responsible to care for and guide the flock. Christ Himself is omnipotent and omniscient, both upholding and overseeing His people in every age.
Christ had perfect knowledge of the condition of the local church. Nothing had missed His gaze. On the positive side, He commended their industry in the work of God. They were diligent in service and patient in facing the difficulties that came their way. They had labored to the point of exhaustion but had never given up. Furthermore, having been careful to weigh up the claims and teaching of those who declared that they too were apostles, the Ephesian church had soundly rejected them. In harmony with the mind of their Master, they had also taken a firm stand against those known as Nicolaitans who were marked by evil deeds.
However, this otherwise spotless record was marred by a significant omission that the Lord could not overlook. They were suffering from a serious heart condition that only the Lord could diagnose (1Sa 16:7). He stated it tersely and precisely: they had left their first love. Gradually, and perhaps almost imperceptibly, the believers had grown careless and allowed their affections for Christ to cool. Instead of living close to Christ, their intimate fellowship with Him had been displaced. In such circumstances the danger was that they would follow after the outward appearance of orthodoxy out of a sense of duty, but neglect the essential inward motivation of love. They also risked becoming proud and judgmental, as often happens when believers take their eyes off Christ and start to focus on their own perceived virtues and the faults of others. Christ was no longer preeminent. This was offensive to the Lord.
Christ called upon them to remember, repent, and return to their first works. They were to reflect upon how it once was. Repentance in Scripture involves a change of mind that produces a change of direction; inevitably we must go back to where things started going wrong. The first works were those deeds that had been motivated by the first love. Christ’s warning sounded stern and uncompromising, but it showed how seriously He regarded the matter of loveless service. They had fallen, and were in danger of losing their right to exist as a testimony to His Name. If they did not repent, He would come quickly and remove the testimony.
Apart from warning them, the Lord appealed to them by issuing a promise to those who would pay close attention to His call and rise above the current conditions in the church. They would enjoy eternal life and the blessedness of fellowship, partaking of “the tree of life” in “the paradise of God” (cf. Rev 22:2). These words remind us of the Garden of Eden in which there were two important trees: the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and the tree of life. Adam and Eve’s fall into sin and disobedience by partaking of the first tree meant that they were excluded from partaking of the second tree. They were cast out of the garden, and an angel with a flaming sword barred the way back into it. Sin had brought both spiritual and physical death, and fellowship with God had been broken.
An Application for Today
What of our own first love? Have we allowed ourselves to slip away from it? Was there a former day when we were more devoted to our Lord, more obedient to His word, and more zealous in His service? And what of the condition of our hearts? Have we become comfortable with mediocrity, contenting ourselves with a superficial brand of Christianity that is displacing Christ in our affections? Orthodoxy in doctrine and busyness in service are not enough. Indeed, any service – even a generous deed of kindness or a heroic act of courage – is invalidated when love is missing (1Co 13:3). Our Lord is the unchanging Christ, just as worthy now of our wholehearted devotion as when we first came to know Him. His love led Him to give His all for us. He deserves our first, our best, our all.