The Ephesian Church had a problem.
Jesus tells them in plain words: “Yet I hold this against you: you have forsaken your first love. Remember the height from which you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first. If you do not repent I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place.” (Rev. 2:4-5)
Read this verse through a legalistic lens and you’ll end up feeling condemned.
Plus, you’ll be trying hard to love God more because your interpretation of this verse will sound like: “The Ephesian Church had a problem, it didn’t love God enough. Thus, it has fallen and needs to repent of this lack of love for God and if it doesn’t repent it will lose it’s lampstand.”
Does that sound like a familiar interpretation to you? If so, it’s time to see this verse through a grace lens!
Return to your first love
I once translated a well-known preacher in the Netherlands who shared on “not forsaking your first love.” To get people to respond to the preaching he said:
Remember your first love. Remember how much you loved Jesus when you first met Him and go back to that. Love Him like you used to.
Droves of people came forward to “repent and return to their first love.”
This doesn’t make sense at all. Take marriage as an example. What if someone told me, “Bas, you need to get back to loving Michelle the way you did when you first met her.”
Yes, at the start of our relationship we loved each other with all our hearts. But since then our love has matured and grown way beyond where we’ve started. Why? We’ve been through stuff, good and bad…We’ve traveled to 26 countries to share the Gospel…Struggled with different issues…We get falsely accused…Lost loved ones.
To go back to our first love would not be a step forward, it would be a massive step backwards!
It’s the same with Jesus. I love Jesus more now than when we first met. He and I have been through stuff. We’ve faced adversities and seen victories. We’ve fought sickness and death. We’ve seen hundreds of people set free from dead religious works. We’ve seen the oppressed delivered.
In the meantime I keep discovering more and more about His outrageous love and grace. I love Him more now then ever. And there’s no way I want to go back to loving Jesus like in the beginning.
Can you see that’s not what is meant with “returning to your first love?”
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At the time, I thought this preacher gave a noble, even a Biblical, challenge to the people. But if you listen carefully to the application that is made you’ll be able to discern that this a guilt-producing, works-based interpretation of “forsaking your first love.”
The traditional application of Revelation 2:4-5 sounds like this:
Are you like the people in the Ephesian Church? You don’t love God enough, do you? You need to change and love God more. If you don’t increase in your love for God, He’ll need to remove your lampstand; that is removing your ministry or job, put cancer on you, take your money or spouse away or break you in some other way to get your attention. And the only way to avoid God removing your lampstand is to love Him more.
Sometimes it’s not said in these exact words, but often in a subtle form it comes down to what I just described.
Ok, how do we then interpret this verse using a grace lens instead of a legalistic lens?
What is our first love?
The real problem with the Ephesians was that, even though they worked hard, they were not working out of a revelation of God’s love for them.
They had forgotten that they were beloved sons of God (Eph. 1:6). They were a busy church but their works were based on their love for God, rather than His love for them.
Paul prayed that the Ephesians would know the love of God (Eph. 3:18). Notice, he doesn’t pray that they would love God more, but that they would know more about God’s love for them. That’s a BIG difference.
God doesn’t love us because we love Him, but rather we love Him because He loved us first (1 John 4:19).
Only when we understand how much God loves us, we are capable of loving Him back. God is always the initiator and we are always the responder to His ways.
Our greatest need is not to love God more, but to understand how much God loves us! It’s the understanding of how much He loves us that inspires the same response back.
Our love for God is a response to His love for us. It’s not something we initiate or drum up. There’s no human sweat involved.
So if we only love in response to Him, what then is our first love? It’s not our love for Him, that comes second. Our first love is understanding His love for us.
Forsaking our first love
Forsaking our first love, therefore, is to forget we are loved. We can still be doing a lot, but if is not rooted and grounded in His love for us it smells like a steaming heap of dung; also called self-effort (Phil. 3:8). Why?
Because if you put the DO before the WHO you get poo-poo 🙂
When that’s the case, like the Ephesians, we can be known for our works, but not His.
The way to forget and forsake our first love is to go back under the law. The Ephesians may have started out with grace but they are now trying to attain their goal by human effort.
They are now trying to serve and love God through will-power instead of being energized and animated by God’s love and letting it overflow to others.
Paul once told the Ephesians that they were seated with Christ in heavenly places but by the time of John’s revelation it seems they had forgotten this. They’re no longer resting, they are striving.
In a sense they have fallen from that seat of heavenly rest to a place of earthly works. Instead of serving God out of a revelation of His love for them, they had fallen from a great height of grace into dead religious works.
In short, the hard working Ephesians had become religious.
Repent and do the things you did at first
Jesus calls them to repent so that they’ll do the things they did at first. To repent means to change the way you think.
They needed to change their thinking so they’ll get back into the place of serving and loving God not based on their achieving things for God, but based on their receiving of His love for them.
What they needed to do is what they did at first which is to trust in the love of God for them not in their love for Him.
Without a revelation of God’s unconditional love you can do good works, but they are not necessarily Christ’s works.
- Putting a bandage on a sick person is a good work, healing them is a work of Christ.
- Feeding a homeless man is a good work, praying for him and seeing a supernatural job and house appear is a work of Christ.
- Counselling is a good work, transformation through the preaching of the Word and seeing people released from addiction and depressions is the work of Christ.
- Leadership training is a good work, bearing fruit is the work of Christ.
You can only do the works of Christ with a revelation of the love of God so that it’s His love compelling and enabling you to help others.
We are called to reveal Christ not our human efforts.
We need to repent from thinking that we can accomplish lasting fruit in our own strength.
If we’ve fallen from grace into works we need to be reminded to return to our first love: His love for us!
Lampstand removed: lose relevance
If not then the lampstand will be taken. The lampstand refers to the church itself (Rev. 1:20).
Jesus’ warning applies to any church that tries to mix human effort with divine grace. The lampstand was the light in the church.
If a whole church forgets the love of God for them, it will lose it’s light and relevance.
Not because God wants to remove, destroy or punish a church like that, but because you cannot put new wine in old wineskins. You cannot put the new wine of the love of God in a wineskin of human performance without something breaking and losing it’s function.
To sum up
Our first love means to understand God’s love for us. Forsaking our first love is to forget that we are loved.
If that happens we fall from that seat of heavenly rest to a place of earthly works and cease to be shining lights of God’s grace.
God’s goodness will lead us to repentance (that is to change the way we think) so that we don’t forsake our first love by not forgetting how much God loves us.
So what’s the lesson for us today?