The First Love Lost

Series: Behold, A Throne

Sermon by David Strain on Apr 10, 2016

Revelation 2:1-7

Download Audio

Please take your copies of God’s Word and turn with me in them to the book of Revelation, chapter 2. We’ll be thinking about the message of verses 1 to 7. The book of Revelation, you will remember, opens with the remarkable vision given to John of the exalted Christ walking in the midst of the lampstands, symbolic of His presence in the midst of His Church. And He has commissioned the apostle John to write in a letter the things that he hears and sees and he is to send it to seven churches in Asia Minor. And before the body of the visions get underway, he is first of all given a series of seven messages, one for each of those churches. The seven messages were written to real congregations or groups of churches, we might call them presbyteries, in each city. They are not merely symbolic of seven stages of the churches life, say, or seven epochs of the New Testament age. No, these are what they appear to be – seven messages for seven representative churches, arranged in a way that roughly describes the great arch that would be a likely route for someone carrying the book of Revelation to each location. And so tonight, we begin with the message to the church at Ephesus. 

And the New Testament tells us a good deal about the church in the city of Ephesus. We can outline its development in a number of fairly clear stages. First, there is the church’s birth. You can read about it in Acts 19. Paul stayed there for about three years preaching every day in the hall of Tyrannus. He had such an impact, in fact, that riots broke out in Ephesus because the growth of the church there was threatening the worship of the goddess, Artemis, also known as Diana, of whose worship Ephesus was the great center. Then secondly, there are hints that we can glean from the letter of Paul to the Ephesian Christians. He had said, for example, that he had “heard of their faith in the Lord Jesus and their love toward all the saints.” This was their reputation. And his letter to them, as you will know, is Paul’s most comprehensive and systematic treatment of Christian truth. It’s full of rich doctrine and practical counsel, spoken to mature believers. Ephesus, at this stage in its life it seems, is a healthy and growing church. But then in the third place, at some point Paul finds it necessary to send Timothy to pastor the congregations in Ephesus. And his letters to Timothy, written toward the end of his life, reveal real concern for the Ephesian congregations. False teaching has begun to creep in. There was a pressing need among them for faithful leadership. It’s a church now in need of some revitalization. And so Timothy has been dispatched to bring renewal and reformation to the church. 

And now finally here in Revelation chapter 2, verses 1 to 7, a few years after Paul’s death, John also writes to the church in Ephesus and it’s clear that while there is still a good deal to commend about the church there, by now the situation has become spiritually precarious. This is a church, verse 4, that has lost its first love. And so it is called to repentance. It is warned if it does not repent Christ will remove its lampstand. And as we track the Ephesian church through the pages of the New Testament you can see what we find. There is a slow but real downward spiral. And here, as we find them in Revelation 2, they’ve lost their first love. Their zeal has grown cold. And Christ now is sounding the alarm. And the task before us tonight is to ask ourselves, with judgement day honesty as we sit under the Word together, “Has that begun to happen to us? Have we lost our first love? Are we coasting? Are you coasting as a Christian?” Committed, yes! Orthodox, yes! Diligent, yes! But your first love has grown cold. And if that is our condition, then we also need to ask another question, don’t we? We need to know now with some urgency, “Can the old flame of ardent love to Jesus Christ be rekindled? How do you get your first love back?” Revelation chapter 2, verses 1 to 7, speaks very directly in answer to that question. Before we read it together, let me ask you please to bow your heads as we pray. Let us pray!

O God, would You open our eyes to behold marvelous things in Your Word. Open our ears to hear what the Spirit says to the Church. Show us ourselves; show us our Savior. Deal with us in Your grace. Bring real renewal, reformation, and revival to Your Church in our day and begin here tonight with us, for Jesus’ sake. Amen.

Revelation chapter 2 at verses 1 to 7; page 1028 in the church Bibles:

“To the angel of the church in Ephesus write:  ‘The words of him who holds the seven stars in his right hand, who walks among the seven golden lampstands.

I know your works, your toil and your patient endurance, and how you cannot bear with those who are evil, but have tested those who call themselves apostles and are not, and found them to be false. I know you are enduring patiently and bearing up for my name’s sake, and you have not grown weary. But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first. Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent. Yet this you have:  you hate the works of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who conquers I will grant to eat of the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God.’”

Amen, and we thank God that He has spoken to us in His holy, inerrant Word.

If you grew up in church or you went to Sunday School as a child, you will probably have been taught to sing, “This little light of mine, I’m going to let it shine! This little light of mine, I’m going to let it shine, let it shine, let it shine, let it shine!” We sang that with great enthusiasm as a child in Sunday School when I was growing up. We’re supposed to shine brightly for Jesus! The image of the Church as a lampstand, with which the first chapter of the book of Revelation ends and the second chapter here now begins, gets at that same idea, doesn’t it? Jesus holds the seven stars in His right hand, walks among the seven golden lampstands, and each is to burn brightly with zeal for its Savior. But the truth is, whether we sang it sincerely or not as children it’s not always easy to let our little lights shine. There have been doubts and fears along the way, threats and oppositions, stresses, suffering, and pain to douse the flames of our fervor. Sometimes, truth be told, we have not shone brightly at all. 

And yet even as we admit that much, I’m sure you’ll also agree the objective self-evaluation is actually quite hard to do. Our egos tend to get in the way of objectivity, don’t they? And that’s part of what makes the seven letters in chapters 2 and 3 of the book of Revelation so tremendously helpful. They give us Jesus’ perfect and objective assessment of just how brightly our lights are shining after all. That’s why the one who “walks among the lampstands” in verse 2 and again in verse 3, tells us “I know, I know.” Whatever boasts we make of ourselves, Jesus knows the truth. And I want you to notice in Jesus’ assessment of the church at Ephesus in particular, three dimensions; First, the diligence that Jesus acknowledges, then the decline that Jesus exposes, and thirdly, the duty that Jesus enjoins. The diligence He acknowledges, the decline He exposes, and the duty He enjoins.

I.    The Diligence Jesus Acknowledges

First of all, the diligence Jesus acknowledges. There are actually three things here for which the Ephesians are commended. Look at the text with me! They are first of all a hardworking church. Verse 2, “I know your works, your toil.” The word “toil,” it’s really the word, “trouble.” “I know your troubles.” We sometimes talk that way, don’t we? About someone going to a great deal of trouble to do something for us. “It was a painstaking task,” we sometimes say. That’s how the Ephesian church went about serving Jesus. They took the trouble! They were painstaking in their diligent effort to do Gospel work well. This is a busy church, a serving church, a ministry church. John Stott says of them, “The church of Ephesus was a veritable beehive of industry. Their toil was famous. Every member was doing something for Christ.” A hardworking church.

A Persevering Church
Then secondly, they are also a persevering church, aren’t they? Verse 2, “I know your works, your toil, your patient endurance,” or verse 3, “I know you are enduring patiently and bearing up for my name’s sake and you have not grown weary.” Acts 19 tells us the church in Ephesus was born in the context of opposition. The church’s core group was formed when Paul was ejected from the synagogue in Ephesus for preaching Christ. And as the church grew, as we said a few moments ago, it’s message was such a challenge to the worship of Artemis and to the local economy built upon the cult of Artemis, that it resulted in a riot. Furthermore, Ephesus was a regional center for the cult of the emperor, for emperor worship. And Christian refusal to participate in the cult of the emperor would be the spark of repeated waves of persecution. So clearly, Ephesus is not an easy place to follow Jesus. And yet Jesus says of them, “You have not grown weary. You’ve been enduring patiently and you’ve not grown weary.” That’s quite a commendation, isn’t it? Growing weary in well-doing is so terribly easy, after all. But the Ephesians have stuck at it with determination and grit and courage and fortitude and patient endurance. 

An Orthodox Church
A hardworking church, a persevering church, and then thirdly they are an orthodox church. They love sound doctrine! You see that in verse 2; “You cannot bear with those who are evil but have tested those who call themselves apostles and are not and found them to be false.” Or look down at verse 6, “Yet this you have, you hate the works of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate.” And before you ask, we don’t know who the Nicolaitans were, okay? Don’t ask me! I don’t know! They do reappear in the letter to the church at Pergamum as well, so this is a sect that is spreading. Whoever they were, it’s clear they are teaching false doctrine. There were claims being made to apostolic authority, but the Ephesians are a well-taught bunch. Paul himself, when he was among them, had warned them that false teachers would come. In Acts 20 at verse 29 he told the elders of the churches in Ephesus, “After my departure, fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock. And from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things to draw away disciples after them. Therefore, be alert,” he said. And the Ephesians were alert! They were warned and well-prepared and so when false teachers arose, just as Paul said they would, they carefully examined what was being said, they scrutinized the message, and they dealt with the errors well. They were not swayed by every wind of doctrine, blown and tossed. They were a sound church, a Biblical church, a deeply orthodox church. 

That’s not a bad report card to get from the exalted Christ Himself, is it? Hardworking, patient in endurance, not growing weary, deeply committed to orthodox doctrine. And what an encouragement it must have been to the Ephesian Christians to hear that Jesus saw and acknowledged it all. “I know,” He said to them. Some of you quietly serve and rarely are given any kind of recognition for it. Some of you are content to pray and work away in the background and no one knows and no one sees what you do. There’s no acknowledgement and you wouldn’t have it any other way. But isn’t it good to hear the One who walks among the lampstands say to you nonetheless, “I know! I saw what you did. Your unacknowledged visits, your unseen giving, the meal that you brought to the widow, the quiet word of encouragement to a struggling brother or sister, your faithful prayers over years and years and years for a desperate situation, your faithfulness to Jesus in a context that constantly inflicts grievous heart wounds upon you. No one else sees it, no one else knows about it, but I know,” Jesus says. There is not a drop of sweat spent in Christ’s service that He does not see and prize and celebrate. There’s not a tear shed in His cause that He does not cherish and value. “I know,” He says to us. “I know.” The diligence that Jesus acknowledges.

II.    The Decline That Jesus Exposes

But then secondly there’s the decline that Jesus exposes. Look at verse 4. “But this I have against you, that you have abandoned the love that you had at first.” To all appearances and by any measure you might care to use, the First Presbyterian Church of Ephesus was an outstanding congregation. Remember the list of commendations now – painstaking in good works, persevering, not growing weary, orthodox lovers of sound doctrine. If you were looking for a church, it would be hard not to be drawn to this one. There’s ministry going on. They have a proven track record and the pulpit rings with Biblical truth. And yet we learn here, don’t we, that it is possible to shine with those exemplary traits and still be a church in the throes of backsliding nevertheless. The flickering flame of zeal for Jesus and His glory was beginning to grow dim. They had abandoned the love that they had at first. Not love for one another, not love for the world around them, not love for the truth abstractly considered. They had all of that; that was vital. And they had all of that. 

They were serving and they were evangelizing and they were preaching but it’s possible, do you see, to have all of that in place, to love the brothers, to love the lost, to love Bible truth, and still allow your love for Jesus Christ Himself to grow cold. It’s possible to live as though the Christian life was little more than a matter of community service plus moral decency plus an accurate memory of The Westminster Shorter Catechism. What an arid, desiccated thing that would be. The life of true Christianity is love, bright and burning, for Jesus Christ. Not that the Ephesians didn’t love Him at all, they did, but it’s like a marriage that has grown stale. They had begun to focus on tasks and truths and have neglected the person of Jesus Christ Himself – the great Bridegroom who loves His bride, the Church, and has given Himself for her. Like Martha, distracted by much serving, the Ephesians, it seems, have forgotten the one thing needful. We never stop needing to sit at Jesus’ feet!

Brothers and sisters, could it be that the same Jesus who acknowledges your many labors for His glory would also say to us tonight, “This I have against you: you have abandoned the love you had at first.” Have you lost your first love? Has the flame of your zeal, your ardor for Christ, to know Him and to make Him known, has it grown dim? I wonder if you could say with Cowper in the two stanzas of the hymn that are not included in our hymnbook in, “O For a Closer Walk with God” – “Where is the blessedness I knew when first I saw the Lord? Where is the soul refreshing view of Jesus and His Word? What peaceful hours I once enjoyed, how sweet their memory still. They’ve left an aching void the world can never fill.” Does that resonate with your experience? You’ve lost your first love! Well what can be done? Is there any way to rekindle the flame of our love for Jesus Christ now that it’s burned so low? Is there any way back for backsliders? 

III.    The Duty Jesus Enjoins

The diligence Jesus acknowledges, the decline Jesus exposes, and now thirdly and wonderfully, the duty Jesus enjoins. Look at verse 5, please. Jesus tells the Ephesians here to do three things. Right there on the surface of verse 5, the three-fold path to spiritual renewal for a church and for our lives. Three things – Remember, repent, return. That’s what we need to do if our flame is not to burn out completely and Christ is not to remove our lampstand altogether and our witness be over as a church proclaiming His glory. Here’s the antidote to backsliding - remember, repent, return. Do you see those three steps in verse 5? Look at it with me! “Remember, therefore, from where you have fallen.” Step one – remember! Don’t you remember how it was when you were alive with the joy of knowing Jesus, being with His people, longing for Sunday so that you would be under the preaching of the Word and the fellowship of the saints, to take His name on your lips? What a longing you had for it! What a high point it was for you! What an engine room in your Christian life it was, powering your service all the week long. You remember those moments of spiritual power when the presence of Christ was palpable in the preaching of the Word of God and in the praising of His name or in your secret times alone with Him as He dealt with you as you opened the Bible and began to cry out to Him and He put His finger, as the Word of God leapt from the page, He put His finger on your heart and He dealt with you in His grace? When He was sweet and satisfying and other pleasures just could not compete – do you remember? 

Remember
Awaken your appetite for spiritual renewal by bringing back to mind the heights from which you have fallen. Isn’t that the lesson of the 103rd psalm? We began our service tonight singing a setting of the 103rd psalm. “Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me! Bless His holy name! Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all His benefits; who forgives all your iniquity, who heals all your diseases, you redeems your life from the pit, who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy, who satisfies you with good so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s.” Forget not all His benefits. Remember! Remember how it was, how precious Christ was to you, when you came first to know Him. That’s step one.

Repent
Then verse 5, look at it again. Step two – remember, then repent. The word means change direction. It’s not an emotion word, although emotion always accompanies true repentance. There ought to be sorrow for sin, but Jesus isn’t calling us here to a feeling. This is a call to action! Repent, change direction. Stop and turn around! “How sane and matter-of-fact is this word of Christ,” writes John Stott. “So many of us admit to our present state but we wait for some emotional upheaval to set us right. We are like children who fall in a puddle and sit in the mud waiting for someone to pick them up. But they should get up at once! So should we, just as soon as we are conscious of falling.” And so here’s the Word of Christ to you tonight, backslider – “Get up out of the muck of your sin, right now. Take concrete and specific steps to cut it out. Change direction and begin to pursue Jesus Christ.”

Martyn Lloyd-Jones tells the story of a man in London who had professed faith in the Lord Jesus but he had drifted very far from Christian faithfulness. He had abandoned his first love, both in terms of his marriage as well as in terms of his Christian life. He had had an affair, his marriage had consequently crumbled, then his mistress left him, then his money ran out, and now he was alone and utterly miserable walking the streets of London and began to contemplate suicide. And so on this occasion, he set off to walk to Westminster Bridge to throw himself into the River Thames and end it all. When he arrived at Westminster Bridge, however, Big Ben struck six-thirty and suddenly he remembered Lloyd-Jones at Westminster Chapel and thought to himself, “Well, he must be entering the pulpit now for the evening service.” And on a whim, he set off to hear the Doctor one last time before the end. After a short walk, he arrived at the church and went up into the gallery, into the balcony, just as Lloyd-Jones began his pastoral prayer. The very first words he heard as he entered the church were these, “God, have mercy on the backslider. O God, have mercy on the backslider.” And the Lord arrested that man that night. It was the moment, the instant of a reversal for him, of repentance for him. The Lord saved him, restored him. He went on to become an elder serving in a church in London and died a victorious and triumphant death, clinging to Jesus Christ. There is an immediacy about these things! There is a “right now, this instant” to the call of King Jesus. Remember and repent! Turn back! Stop playing with your pet sin. Turn back tonight! God have mercy on the backslider! 

Return 
Remember, repent, and then the third step, verse 5, “Do the works you did at first” – return. It’s not a complicated command, really, is it? “Do the works you did at first, go back, return to your first love.” Use all the means that God has given to get close and stay close to Jesus Christ. Give up your neglect of the Bible. Be more under the preaching of the Word. Make secret prayer a priority. Sit at the Savior’s feet to listen to Him teach you. Remember, repent, and return! 

There’s a very striking example of this happening in 1844 at the second ever General Assembly of the Free Church of Scotland. The Assembly took an unusual step and appointed two whole days of its time together to focus on the spiritual life of the whole church – days of humiliation and fasting and prayer. On Tuesday, May 22, 1844, Dr. Charles Brown was appointed to preach. And he called on the Assembly to repentance and God worked mightily through that sermon. One account said, “The whole vast multitude were bowed and shaken like a forest of trees beneath a mighty wind.” Another said that the delegates to the Assembly, “Confessed in deep prostration the plagues of their own hearts and the sins of their own lives, and in one universal cry the prayer arose, ‘God be merciful to us, sinners!’ We never witnessed a scene more solemnly sublime.” And long after the sermon was done, no one moved. No one could move, as the weeping and praying continued. Finally the assembly reconvened and it resolved the following:  “With profound humiliation and in reliance on the great strength of Almighty God, solemnly to devote, dedicate, and consecrate anew themselves and their fellow laborers to the service of God and His holy purpose of glorifying His great name in saving souls through the preaching of the truth and the operation of the Holy Ghost.” Horatius Booar, the great hymn-writer, observed, he was there, and observed that, “Revival had brought the church back to her chief work. All other discussions and church arrangements had to take a lower place as men gave themselves first to the real business of the Church of Christ.” 

What was happening? The fathers and brothers of that great Assembly remembered and repented and returned and God met them in His grace and revival and renewal. The fires of their first love were fanned back again into flame and a spiritual awakening ensued. Isn’t that what we want for ourselves? That’s what I want. Isn’t that what we want for our church, for our denomination? Jesus shows us how. Remember and repent and return! The Bridegroom is calling His Church back to her first love. Let him who has ears hear what the Spirit says to the Church. Let us pray together!

O God, we confess that we have allowed the flames of our zeal to burn dangerously low. We have been busy with much serving. We are a church that prides itself on our love for the truth, on our labor in Your cause, and in our doing so, over the long haul. Yet perhaps part of our problem is we pride ourselves in these things. And we focus too much on doing and saying and not nearly enough on knowing Christ. And so we pray, O God, that by the mighty working of the Holy Spirit You would bring true, spiritual renewal to each of our lives, that You would have mercy on the backslider, and reignite the fires of our first love. For Jesus sake we pray, amen.

©2016 First Presbyterian Church.

This transcribed message has been lightly edited and formatted for the Web site. No attempt has been made, however, to alter the basic extemporaneous delivery style, or to produce a grammatically accurate, publication-ready manuscript conforming to an established style template.

Should there be questions regarding grammar or theological content, the reader should presume any website error to be with the webmaster/transcriber/editor rather than with the original speaker. For full copyright, reproduction and permission information, please visit the First Presbyterian Church Copyright, Reproduction & Permission statement.