“Thou Hast Left Thy First Love”

The First and Great Commandment in the Epistles

5 min

Could it be that faithful believers who are serving the Lord, doing good works, boldly proclaiming the truth, and standing firmly against error and compromise are actually neglecting their chief priority? Is it possible that in loving our churches, our families, and our communities, we may be neglecting to cultivate a love for the Lord Himself?

The answer to these questions can be found in God’s Word. Let’s take a look at the church at Ephesus. This particular church had a rich history of faithful service to the Lord Jesus Christ. In the midst of persecution during Paul’s second missionary journey, this church was born. Many faithful Christian leaders had an important hand in nurturing and encouraging the believers of Ephesus. Ephesus was a city which had a culture deeply rooted in paganism, immorality, and the superstitious cult of the goddess Diana.

Paul came to Ephesus during the latter part of his second missionary journey. (See Acts 18:18–19.) He was not able to stay there for long, but he promised that he would return after he visited Jerusalem. In his absence, Aquila and Priscilla worked to encourage new believers in the city. The couple met Apollos, an articulate Jewish preacher from Alexandria, who preached an incomplete Gospel message. Taking initiative, the humble tentmaker and his wife instructed Apollos more fully so he could powerfully proclaim the Good News of Jesus. Afterward, God worked mightily through Apollos’s preaching which resulted in the conversion of many Jews. (See Acts 18:24–28.)

Paul returned to Ephesus on his third missionary journey and spent more than two years laboring in the city. (See Acts 19:1, 10.) During this time, many notable miracles were performed. Sick people were healed. Demons were cast out. Newly converted pagans brought their books and “curious arts” of the occult to a public burning where the objects of witchcraft and idolatry were destroyed. (See Acts 19:11–19.)

The Book of Acts sums up the triumph of the Gospel in Ephesus with these words: “So mightily grew the word of God and prevailed” (Acts 19:20). Indeed, where darkness and evil prevail, the light of God’s Word grows dim, but when the practices and objects of the occult and idolatry are destroyed, the Bible impacts lives powerfully for eternity.

But this spiritual triumph was not without opposition or persecution. On one occasion, a disgusted silversmith, upon seeing his sales of the miniature statues of the goddess were declining, incited a riot in the city. During the riot, a great multitude angrily seized two of Paul’s companions and dragged them into the open-air theater, shouting “Great is Diana of the Ephesians!” The rioters shouted for two hours! As for Paul, he narrowly escaped martyrdom. (See Acts 19:22–30.)

The Ephesian church went on to become one of the finer and more mature churches in the New Testament. Paul gathered the elders of Ephesus together for a final meeting at Miletus, commending them to God and to “the word of his grace” (Acts 20:32). Later, from Rome, the apostle wrote the Ephesian church an inspired letter that has been a cornerstone of doctrine and practical encouragement throughout all the ages of Christian history.

Paul encouraged the Ephesians that, as a congregation, they were “rooted and grounded in love” (Ephesians 3:17). Love certainly was the mark of the church at Ephesus. The Ephesian Christians, recently delivered from paganism and idolatry, had a fresh and zealous love for the Lord Jesus Who had delivered them. Their love for Christ was warmed and flamed by such men as Apollos and Aquila. Timothy labored for a time in Ephesus (see I Timothy 1:3), and Tychicus was sent by Paul to minister there as well (see II Timothy 4:12). Early church tradition asserts that the Apostle John also labored for several years in the city of Ephesus, shepherding them for a time after Paul’s death.

As the years passed, however, something happened to the church at Ephesus. Persecution did not crush them. False teaching found no foothold in their church. Heresy had no place in their midst. But something was not right.

In the Book of Revelation, the Lord Jesus delivered a personal message to the church at Ephesus through His messenger, John the Apostle. The Lord commended them on many points: “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” (chapter 2:2–3).

Then, in the next sentence, Christ Jesus lays His hand upon the heart of a problem, the problem, in the church at Ephesus. “Nevertheless I have somewhat against thee, because thou hast left thy first love” (verse 4). For all their orthodoxy, good works, discernment of false teaching, and patience in tribulation, the church at Ephesus had lost that focus which is most essential in all the world. They had neglected what Jesus said was the first and greatest commandment in the Law. They had lost their first love.

The believers were not as zealous as they formerly were. They still did good works, but their efforts were no longer “rooted and grounded in love” as before when Paul had commended them many years before. The congregation’s love had grown cold, and the church at Ephesus needed a genuine, heartfelt revival.

Jesus exhorted them to repent of their backslidden condition: “Remember therefore from whence thou art fallen, and repent” (Revelation 2:5).

We all are in danger of slipping into the same heartless condition. It is so easy to allow our love for the Lord to wax cold. He has called us to love Him with all our heart, our soul, our mind, and our strength. But other matters vie for our attention. Other interests call for our consideration. Other activities draw upon our time. Many of these competing affections are not sinful and are even good, necessary, and appropriate, such as Christian service, family activities, business interests, travel, hobbies, books, and Christian fellowship.

Anything, however good it may seem, that takes precedence over or draws us away from our first love for the Lord is a misplaced priority. Jesus knows, and He calls us to repent and return to Him wholeheartedly.

Has it been a while since you have loved the Lord as you ought? Can you remember a day, perhaps in the zeal and excitement of pardoned sin, that you were more wholehearted in your love for the Lord? When were the times that you were more faithful in leading family worship than you are currently? Is there a way, as your children are growing older and life is more complicated, that you could refocus your Bible time to shed light on the struggles your family is facing at this time?

If you have left your first love, take heart! Christ is calling you to repentance. He is willing and able to breathe new life into your cold heart. He longs to stir the dying embers of your prayer life and have your prayers flame anew with strength and life! Christ is able to revive your family and impart to you many practical insights as you study His Word together. The Lord is able to revive your church as you and other like-minded believers encourage one another to walk in His ways. May God give us the grace to love our Lord Jesus more and more until the day that we see Him face-to-face!

This article is from our Matters of Life & Death teaching series.

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