Oh what a glorious thing to remain faithful to God in all things without wavering. It is the aim of those who love him and desire to see his will fulfilled on earth as in heaven. The prayer of the saints is to remain steadfast and pure, taking every step in reverence to God. We desire God’s righteousness above all things, contending for that which He deems just and fighting against that which He deems unholy. Sometimes, however, we lose sight of this love that we have for God and that He has for us. Sometimes, even without noticing, we slowly stray into the arms of another. During these times, God calls us back into love with him
In Revelation Chapter 2, we read a message written by Jesus Christ to the church that has forsaken its love for him. The picture this letter paints is sad but beautiful. Its sadness comes from the wandering of this church away from the love of Christ. This is a sadness felt by any believer who sees a member of the brethren take this damaging road. But there is beauty in Jesus Christ calling the church back to him in correction and in love. There is beauty in God’s great passion that desires to restore that lost love.
To the angel of the church in Ephesus write: These are the words of him who holds the seven stars in his right hand and walks among the seven golden lampstands. I know your deeds, your hard work and your perseverance. I know that you cannot tolerate wicked people, that you have tested those who claim to be apostles but are not, and have found them false. You have persevered and have endured hardships for my name, and have not grown weary.
Jesus begins this letter not with a rebuke but with compassion. He remembers the good deeds of this church when it was faithful. He recognizes the hard work done in his name and for his sake. When He says, “I know your deeds,” He is confirming that there is nothing about this situation that is not revealed and evident to him. Jesus even goes on to list some of these good deeds as if He desires to show that He truly knows what has been done by the church out of love for him. Their efforts were not in vain. They successfully persevered without growing weary. Yet something has gone wrong, causing Jesus to address this church.
Yet I hold this against you: You have forsaken the love you had at first. Consider how far 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.
This seems like a contradiction. Jesus first commends the church for being steadfast and not growing tired in their work. He then tells them that they have forsaken the love they had at first. How can this group so clearly do good things that honor our Lord yet receive a rebuke for having fallen away? The way to reconcile this is to look at the specific thing being addressed by Jesus in each statement. He commends their work but rebukes their lack of love. This, in fact, is no contradiction. It is the path of the one who lives to work for God and serve him but forgets that there is a relationship to be maintained. It is the path of the one who desires to please God by doing for him but forsakes simply being with him.
Paul spoke of this very lack of love to the church in Corinth [1 Cor. 13:1-3]. In that passage, he speaks of performing wonderful works for the sake of God. He speaks of prophesying and gaining great spiritual knowledge and generously giving all he has to the poor. These are awesome acts done to honor God, but Paul counts himself as nothing if he does not have love despite doing all these good works. He can do good works and walk in the giftings of God, but a lack of love renders him no better off than the one who does no such works. That is the condition of the church addressed in the passage in Revelation above. They have worked for God but have forgotten how to love him.
I believe there are two ways to view the loss of love that Jesus has found within this church. Having forsaken “the love you had at first” can be a reference to that love which is first received or that love which is first given. We have seen this verse interpreted as “having forsaken your first love”, which begs a common question. How can God be my first love when I have spent a portion of my life loving other people and other things before falling in love with Him? But we are not speaking here of the first love we have given but the first love we have received.
1 John 4:7-8
Beloved, let us love one another, because love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.
We first must recognize that love originates with God. Outside of God and without God, there is no love. He not only has love and gives love, but He is love. He cannot operate in any other manner. Even when his wrath manifests toward the unholy and impure, that is an act of love. He can do nothing that is not righteousness and just. It is the manifestation of this love through us that shows we know him. Those who do not love cannot know God. If they knew God, they would know love and show love. By the same token, if we profess to know God and love God, we must exhibit his love.
1 John 4:19-21
We love because He first loved us. If anyone says, “I love God,” but hates his brother, he is a liar. For anyone who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God, whom he has not seen. And we have this commandment from Him: Whoever loves God must love his brother as well.
The idea of God being our first love does not mean that He is the first we have loved. It means that He is the first to love us. No one has loved us before God loved us. He chose us before the foundations of the earth were established [Eph. 1:4]. This means that He knew and loved us before we ever came into physical being. Before time existed, before creation was formed, God already had set his heart toward us in fatherly love. Yes, He is our first love because He loved us first with a love that touches our innermost spiritual and physical parts. After all, it was He who knit us together [Psalm 139:13].
To forsake our first love in God is to forsake the love we first received, the love that came before all others. This is one way that the church in Revelation 2 may have fallen. They forgot, whether out of complacency or distraction or disinterest, that God’s eternal love is the foundation of all they are, and they simply went through the motions of doing good works without maintaining a relationship with him.
Another way that they may have fallen away is by forsaking the love they first experienced with God and through God. This translation states that they “have forsaken the love [they] had at first.” This speaks of the passage of time and a change to the condition of their love over that time. In the beginning, a great love for God resided within this church. This was the love they poured out to him in response to his love for them. This was not love they received from him but love they had for him. Somehow, they let it go by the wayside and disappear from sight. They abandoned it for something else.
It may be that the love they had for God was overshadowed by the work He called them to do. It happens to us sometimes that we place our calling before the God who called us. We think that the relationship we have with God is somehow not enough or not as important as the things He might have us do. That is why Paul was so clear in stating that love is the foundation of our calling. To do for God is great, but to love him is necessary. We cannot operate out of mere duty and hope to maintain a relationship with our Lord. We must cultivate the love we first had for him.
Jesus is the bridegroom, and the church is his bride. This is a marriage. Just like in a natural marriage between a man and a woman, acts of kindness cannot take the place of genuine love. To give a gift is good, but to give of oneself is better. A bauble cannot replace time, attention and affection. This is what our God desires from us. When we first came to him we fell fast and hard. We cannot let that flame flicker, our hearts growing cold and bored over time. The love we have for God should not be diminishing but growing. Our love for him cannot be some passing fad or a singular glorious moment we remember fondly. Our love for him must be a flame that grows bigger and hotter as we go deeper with him.
Returning to our fist love is about not only the love we receive but also the love we give. God loved us first before all things, and He called us then. We cannot forsake this first love, the one that made us by hand in the most intimate of places. This first love not only created us and called us but continues to call us and draw us when we have lost our way and abandoned it. And when this great love of God was revealed to us, we responded with a great love of our own. We cannot forget that love either, for without it we are nothing regardless of the great works we accomplish. We must purposefully cultivate this relationship with God and sometimes put down our working hands and simply open our loving hearts. The Lord is calling us to return to our first love, and it is time we respond.