This message is a fitting introduction to a series on the nature of the church. In these verses, the Lord Jesus Christ is speaking to the church and he is speaking to us.
John the Apostle knew Jesus well. He walked, travelled, and served with Jesus for three years. He sat next to Jesus at the Last Supper. He ate breakfast with him after the resurrection. But now Christ has ascended into heaven. The Father has glorified the Son and given him the name that is above every name.
John is in prison on the island of Patmos. He is given a vision, a revelation of Jesus Christ. John sees his glory and says, "When I saw him I fell at his feet as though dead." Then Christ puts his hand on John and says, "Do not be afraid. I am the First and the Last. I am the Living One; I was dead, and behold I am alive for ever and ever" (Revelation 1:17-18).
Christ speaks to his church
Notice what Christ says to this church in the first five verses of this passage. First, the risen Christ speaks to his church in verse 1: "To the angel of the church in Ephesus write." We know a lot about the church at Ephesus. It was a privileged church that had been greatly blessed. The church at Ephesus was planted by the Apostle Paul and it began with a great outpouring of the Holy Spirit. You can read the story in Acts 19.
There is evidence that John had strong links with this church. Timothy later served as its pastor—Paul tells him to "stay … in Ephesus" in 1 Timothy 1). When Paul says farewell to the Ephesians elders in Acts 20, he weeps and so do they, because they know they won't see each other again. The Letter to the Ephesians was also written to this church. It was a marvelous church, privileged and blessed in every way.
Then Christ speaks to the leaders: "These are the words of him who holds the seven stars in his hands." This seems to be a reference to the leaders of the church. This is a wonderful assurance to elders, board members, missionaries and pastors—those who share the privilege and carry the responsibility of leadership: Christ holds you in his right hand.
Notice Christ also walks among the churches in Revelation 2:1: "The words of him who … walks among the seven golden lampstands." This is a reference to the churches. Christ is walking among his churches. Do you understand what that means for us? Though Christ is exalted in heaven, he is not remote from his people. Christ is present; he is here.
The Lord walked through the Garden of Eden in the cool of the day (Genesis 3:8). He took an interest in Adam and Eve; he took pleasure in their work, and enjoyed conversation with them. That is how it is with Christ and his church. He is here with us. He is actively engaged in all that is going on, and he knows everything about us.
Christ warns his church
Then in Revelation 2:5 Christ says, "If you do not repent I will come to you and remove your lampstand." So what is Christ saying to us here? Let's begin with the big picture. Christ commends the church for many things: they were serving, discerning, and persevering (2:2-3). Then there is a critique: "I hold this against you: You have forsaken your first love" (2:4).
You might take this to mean that there are good and bad in all churches, and Christ sees both. And when you give someone a critique, it's always a good idea to say the nice things first: There are a lot of good things here, but there is room for improvement.
That approach is problematic. Christ's next statement blows that understanding out of the water: "If you do not repent, I will come to you and remove your lampstand." This is not a church that is doing well, but still has a little room for improvement. Unless there is a radical change, this church's light is about to go out! This is a church on life support.
Christ's statement to Ephesus warns us that healthy-looking churches can actually be on the verge of losing their light.
Ephesus was a serving church, full of energy. In verse 2 Jesus says, "I know your deeds, your hard work, and your perseverance." If we were to bring in a consultant and have him do an assessment, this church would do well on a health report:
80 percent of the members are serving in a ministry
90 percent of last year's volunteers are still serving
All the people are busy, engaged, committed, and active.
"I know all about that," says Christ.
Secondly, it was a discerning church, marked by orthodoxy. Verse 2 says, "You have tested those who claim to be apostles but are not, and have found them false." Here is a church with depth and discernment. The elders of this church exercised discipline. The leaders were faithful, bold, and courageous. Jesus says, "I know this," as he walks among the lampstands.
Third, it was a persevering church, known for stability. Jesus says, "You have persevered, and have endured hardships for my name, and have not grown weary" (see Revelation 2:3). The tenacity of these believers is remarkable. Others have become weary in ministry but not you. Others gave up when the going got tough, but not you. You have stayed faithful. You have kept going. "I know all this," says Christ.
Christ walks in this church and this is what he sees: You serve, pouring your energy into ministry. You discern. You have a marvelous statement of faith. You are orthodox, holding to truth when others are seduced by error. You persevere, sticking at it when others gave up.
Then Christ says, "Yet, I hold this against you …." (Revelation 2:4). What is it that was so destructive, so cancerous in a church, so corrosive that a church known for serving, discerning, and persevering—a ministry marked by energy, orthodoxy, and stability—would be on the way to losing its light?
Christ gives a charge to his church
Here is the specific way that Jesus charged his church with unfaithfulness: "I hold this against you: You have forsaken your first love" (Revelation 2:4). What is he saying? The entire message to this church turns on this one phrase, so we really need to grasp it. There are three ways in which these words have been understood.
1. No longer a loving church?
Some read this as brotherly love. Here is a church that is big on truth, but it needs more emphasis on love. There may be situations where that is true, but I don't think it is what Christ is saying here. He is not speaking about love in general, but about "your first love."
The first love of a Christian, the first love of the church, has to be our love for the Lord. Christ said, "The most important [command is to] … Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength. The second is this: 'Love your neighbor as yourself'" (Mark 12:30-31). So when Christ speaks of our "first love," not our "second love," he must be talking about our love for God rather than our love for one another.
2. Lost your earliest love?
"Remember the excitement you had when you were first a Christian? You have lost that and you need to get it back." I've heard this preached many times, but is Christ really saying that you need to somehow recapture the enthusiasm of your first years as a Christian, to go back to where you were 20 years ago? Surely not.
In a healthy marriage, love deepens over time. It matures. The earliest love is rarely the best love. True love doesn't look backwards. I don't think that Christ is calling the church to somehow recapture the enthusiasm of their early years. Besides, Christ does not say, "You have lost your earlier love." He says, "You have forsaken your first love."
Who is the first love of the church? The church is the bride of Christ, and her first love is the Bridegroom. When Christ says you have forsaken your first love, he is saying: You have forsaken me!
3. You have forsaken Christ
Forsaking your "first love" means you have forsaken Christ in all the busyness of life. Christ is no longer front and center of who you are and what you are about. Your life has become about something else.
Christ says to this church, "Your ministry is thriving. Your statement of faith is sound. Your commitment to hard work is exemplary. You are a serving, discerning, and persevering church. But you are no longer a Christ-centered church, and unless you re-center your ministry on me," the living Christ is saying: The light will go out!
Can you picture this church? Bustling with life and energy, remaining orthodox in its statement of faith, overcoming all kinds of difficulties and obstacles, having a marvelous history and great leaders, but Jesus Christ is no longer front and center. It is as if Jesus is saying: I know your enterprise in ministry. I know you are engaging the culture. I know your passion for families, students, and music. I have this against you. You are no longer supremely about me!"
Brothers and sisters, it is possible to serve with great energy and to no longer be about Christ. It is possible to have profound theological insight and to no longer be about Christ. It is possible to persevere through great difficulties and to no longer be about Christ. "I hold this against you: You have forsaken your first love."
Has this happened to you? You have been working hard. You hold the truth. You have kept going through all kinds of pressures, all kinds of difficulties, but somehow in the middle of it, you have lost your living, loving communion with Christ.
How does this happen? It is very striking that Christ says nothing to suggest gross sin or a hidden scandal in this church. Christ speaks about these things to other churches, but not here. I suspect what happened is what happens in many marriages: Life gets full and the person you love gets taken for granted.
Conversation that once was a joining of hearts diminishes to the level of who's taking the van to pick up the kids. Affection gets crowded out. One day you say to your spouse, "I committed my life to being with you. Now I hardly see you, and when I do your mind is somewhere else!"
How to keep your first love
What can we do about this? How can we guard against it? How can we make sure that we are about Christ, and our love for him doesn't become about ourselves? How can we make sure that in serving Christ we do not forsake him? Christ uses three key words in this passage—remember, repent, and return.
First, he says, "Remember the height from which you have fallen" (Revelation 2:5). There was a time when these Christians had a more intense living union with Christ. That may be true for some of us but not necessarily for all of us. So, let me ask you this question: Was there a time when you loved Christ more than you love him now?
Some of you will look back and remember when there was a sweetness and a stronger love for Christ. Others may never have had a strong love for Christ. You were brought up in church. You always had some kind of belief. You're involved in serving, but there isn't some great spiritual height in your past to remember.
How do you know where you are on loving Christ? How are we to measure ourselves? What is the height from which these believers have fallen? The best way to measure yourself is not against your past experience but against the Scriptures. What does the height of love for Christ look like?
Here's the height of love to Christ, measure yourself against it, "Though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy" (1 Peter 1:8).
He's not talking theory. What do you know of this? Does anything in your experience relate to this? Have you ever walked on heights like these in love for Christ? Other Christians have, why not you?
Perhaps you are thinking, I often come to worship. I have been involved in serving, but I do not know what it is to love Christ like that. There's more for me to discover here. There's more for me to experience in this deadened soul of mine. There's something wrong with me.
If God brings you there today, it will be the beginning of your recovery. The greatest danger is to become unaware of our position and comfortable in the shallows of life.
The second word is repent: "Remember the height from which you have fallen. Repent …." It would be easy to get the idea that repenting is something you do after a moral failure or after a secret indulgence is exposed. But Jesus says here: "Repent of your cold heart towards me!"
Love the Lord with all your heart, soul, mind and strength. This is the first commandment, the first thing that God asks of you. How are you doing in loving God with all your abilities, with all your affections, and with all your resources?
Maybe you will want to come to Jesus Christ with me today and say, "Lord Jesus, I have a big sin to confess today. My love for you is so weak. In all the activities of life, in all that I'm doing, I have been losing sight of you. I am sorry."
If the Holy Spirit is stirring this in your heart today, I don't want you to beat yourself up for it; I want you to thank God for it! Any desire in your heart to love Christ more is the work of the Holy Spirit. Bernard of Clairvaux said,
The heart is hard only when it does not know it is hard. A man is hardened only when he does not know he is hardened. When we are concerned about our coldness, it is because of the yearning God has put there.
If God puts that yearning in your heart today, thank him for it.
The third key word is return, which is expressed in verse 5: "Do the things you did at first" (Revelation 2:5). What does that mean? What did these believers do at first? Christ already said, "I know your deeds, your hard work, and your perseverance." So, activity is not the problem and work is not the answer. The problem is that these believers have forsaken their first love, and Christ says, "Do what you did at first."
What's the first thing you did as a Christian? As God regenerates your soul, what is the first evidence of new life in Christ? You embraced Christ. You came to Christ. You treasured him and found your joy in him. That's what these Christians had fallen from. They were doing good work, but Christ says, "Return to me." Paul puts it this way: "Just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live in him" (Colossians 2:6).
Here are four practical suggestions for rekindling your love for Christ:
First, exercise faith in coming to Christ. We love an unseen Christ, so faith has to be involved. Imagine a limousine with a chauffeur driving. The chauffeur is a driver who gets you where you want to go, and faith is the chauffeur who takes love where love wants to go. Love lingers where faith brings her. But love can't linger where faith hasn't gone.
It is in the nature of love to linger. Faith says, "Let's go there." Love says, "Let's stay there." To cultivate love, you must exercise faith. Draw near to him in faith so that you may walk with him in love.
Second, open your heart in conversation with Christ. Talk with Christ about something that really matters to you. In a marriage, when things aren't going well, things get superficial. You stop talking about things that really matter. If the person you love does not know what you're thinking and feeling, you are not loving them well. Loving Christ involves opening your life up to him. Tell him what's going on in your mind and in your heart. Whatever it is, bring it to him.
Third, take an interest in what matters to Christ. The person who never opens their heart does not love well, but the opposite is also true. The person who only ever talks about himself does not love well either.
If you are to love Christ, you must not only talk about what is important to you, you must also take an interest in what matters to him. You have a great opportunity to do that this month. Christ loves the church; she is his bride. Take this opportunity to share the passion of Jesus Christ. Learn to love what Christ loves.
Fourth, seize opportunities for communion with Christ. One of these opportunities is before us right now. We are going to share communion. Why is it called communion? Because Christ invites us to have communion with him. We come to the table. We take the bread and the cup. Christ is here. The risen Christ meets us at the table where we think about the cross.
What we do at the table shows how to cultivate fellowship with Christ throughout the week. Think much about your Savior's cross. One writer says,
Deal much and closely with a crucified Savior … Dwell upon this amazing fact; drink into this precious truth; muse upon it, ponder it, search into it, pray over it, until your heart is melted down and broken and overwhelmed with God's wondrous love to you, in the gift of Jesus.
The Son of God loved you and gave himself for you. This is love, not that you loved God, but that he loved you and sent his Son to be the propitiation for you!
Colin Smith is pastor of The Orchard Evangelical Free Church in Arlington Heights, Illinois.