“First Love” – Revelation 2:1-7

by Roger McCay
11 April 2021
Sermon Passage: Revelation 2:1-7
Link to Audio Version

When you are at war, losing sight of the reason you fight can end up in a swamp of futility. Soldiers desperately need meaning for why they sacrifice, to give them reasons to go on, to not let up, to keep the standard, to stay the course, and to fight. Meaning is the fuel for their strength and determination.

Downrange, in Iraq, many of the troops, at least of the ones I was with, were not really sold on the whole reason we were there. Political explanations, patriotic slogans or ideals didn’t really butter their bread. Yet, despite this, they did their duty. They soldiered-up, deployed to a hostile region, and did their mission (no matter how hard). They endured great difficulties, and many were wounded or killed. But they stayed true and accomplished their mission.

So, if not sold on the rhetoric, how did they overcome? Well, while they were professionals, it certainly wasn’t the pay. And while hatred for the enemy’s actions provided a powerful motivator, at times, it couldn’t sustain. A sense of duty was part of it, but duty requires meaning to fuel it. To put it simply, in the end, what sustained most was love. Love provided meaning, a reason to go on—love for family or friends and neighbors back home, of course. And, as the war dragged on, it really came down to love for their brothers and sisters with whom they toiled. Fueled by love, they would patiently endure and do whatever it took to get their buddy home.

Christians are soldiers in a holy war (2 Tim. 2:3-4; Eph. 6:10-13). The Lord calls us to patiently endure, faithful to his Word and Name. He calls us to conquer, to overcome difficulties, trials, and whatever the enemy throws at us. And he tells us that patient endurance is futile without love.

In many ways this is the point of the passage today. The Ephesian church is acknowledged for their work, having a zeal for doctrine and the Lord’s name. They were zealous for the truth, but, as that truth was not infused with their first love, Jesus was coming to take them down—to end their church as a church. If they didn’t remember their first love, and repent, taking up the works of love infused truth, all their work would end up as nothing.

So, the Lord dictated the letter to John, addressed to the angel of the church in Ephesus, which starts in Rev. 2:1. The “angel” addressed, in each letter to the churches, was the messenger of the Lord’s Word for each church, the pastor, the preacher, himself an elder. And while the letter was addressed to the pastor, it was in a “for the attention of” sense, as the letter was also for the other presbyters, the other elders who were jointly responsible as the church’s shepherds. Through them, the letter was ultimately for the church, to be read aloud to them. Thus the church was to heed the Lord’s message, and the elders were to shepherd the church towards faithful obedience. The chain of applicability doesn’t end there, either. The Lord promises to bless all who read and heed the messages to the seven churches (Rev. 1:3, 2:7, etc.).

In a pattern of reiterating aspects of the Lord’s description (given in ch. 1), the letter to Ephesus is from “him who holds the seven stars in his right hand, who walks among the seven golden lampstands.” This highlights the Lord’s sovereign rule, control, protection, and care for his church. He’s got the leadership in hand, and he is among his churches. He is not a distant Lord. He knows them. He tends to them. The Lord is with his people.

In the case of the church in Ephesus, we know quite a bit about them from Acts and the epistles to the Ephesians and Timothy. The church was made up of both ethnic Jews and Gentiles, worshipping together in house churches (perhaps even gathering together in larger spaces such as the Hall of Tyrannus), and the elders presided over them. Revelation was written just a few years after the events recorded towards the end of Acts. And you may remember Paul’s address to the Ephesian elders in Acts 20. Many of those elders were likely still ministering when they received this letter from John. We also know (with some degree of certainty) the very name of the particular angel addressed in 2:1—Timothy. Along these lines, Eusebius, the fourth-century church historian, claimed Timothy was “the first to receive the episcopate of the parish in Ephesus.”[1] In a way, too, this abbreviated epistle, in Rev. 2:1-7, makes for an interesting comparison to Paul’s address in Acts 20 and the epistles to Timothy. According to church tradition, John also had spent quite a bit of time in Ephesus, and he returned there to continue his apostolic ministry after his exile.

Ephesus was one of the four most important cities in the Roman Empire, with a quarter of a million citizens. It’s seaport contributed to it being a leader in commerce. The proconsul for the province also kept his seat there, making it a leader in government. Completing the trifecta, Ephesus was a leader in religion, hosting a number of religions. The temple of the cult of Artemis, there, was one of the seven wonders of the world, hosting over a thousand temple prostitutes. The emperor cult was also going strong, boasting a temple to Caesar Augustus in the city. And the current emperor (Nero) demanded worship and was worshipped in Ephesus, as shown in inscriptions found there, calling him “Almighty God” and “Savior.”[2] The Jews likewise had a synagogue in Ephesus.

Thus the church of Jesus Christ in Ephesus was located in a mix of cosmopolitan complexity, which provided a cornucopia of pressures and temptations. These assaults were coming from every direction, any of which could lead them astray. But they were hanging in there, even suffering tribulations for their stand for the truth of Jesus Christ.

Now, before we go into the Lord’s acknowledgments, let’s first take a look at his rebuke, (the major emphasis of the passage, according to its literary structure).[3] Verses 4-5:

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.

Now, you might be scratching your head over v. 4. What was “the love you had at first,” which is better translated as “your first love” (KJV, NASB, and NIV)? What was the church in Ephesus’ first love? And, for that matter, what is the church of the Lord Jesus’ Christ’s first love? The letter just assumes the Ephesians would know what Jesus means. It’s not spelled out directly, but that’s the nature of the Apocalypse. Perhaps, when it was read and heard, they immediately knew the reference through the prompting of the Spirit. And, perhaps, it was even something they already knew deep down to be true. However it might have been, for them and us, this is no minor identification. How we come down on the identity of the abandoned “first love” is important, as it effects how we understand and apply the Lord’s Words. Thankfully, clues to the answer are found in the identity of the Church, in the larger context of Revelation, which finds harmony with the immediate context of vv. 1-7.

A major theme, if not the major theme of Revelation, is judgment on Jerusalem and apostate Judaism, with all the ramifications of such judgment (Rev. 1:7). Jerusalem is portrayed as the great harlot in later chapters of Revelation, the Lord’s former bride whom he divorces, judges, and punishes, to be replaced by the heavenly Jerusalem, who is the church, the bride of Christ. Those ideas may be new to you, so just put them in your rucksack for now. We’ll explore them, as we continue on in our journey through the Apocalypse. The point is that the church is the bride of Christ, an important emphasis in Revelation. So, who is the bride of Christ’s first love? The bridegroom. Jesus, of course.

The thrust of vv. 4-5 is found in the statement, “Remember therefore from where you have fallen.” Notice how on each side of this statement is a statement of firsts: “you have abandoned the love you had at first” and “repent, and do the works you did at first.” The first love and first works are tied together, from which the church at Ephesus had, at that point, fallen. So, what is a way Jesus ties these two together with himself? How about “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (Jn. 14:15).

Consider for a moment this line of thought. Love infused truth finds its perfect balance in Jesus Christ—who is truth; who is love (Jn. 14:6; 1 Jn. 4:16). He is the embodiment of love infused truth. Love infused truth has conquered and will conquer.

Jesus manifests his power in our works through grace and love, through the work of the Spirit. This is the power of love infused truth. The works of the Lord’s people are sanctified as holy, shining bright in the world, as the Spirit of God shines in us. Without love infused truth (Jesus manifesting his power through grace and love) … without love infused truth, the bride’s works are emptied of holy substance and they take on another character.

The love of the bride for the bridegroom, Jesus, involves keeping his commandments. And Jesus commands us to love God and love one another. This encompasses all we do, as we follow Jesus. Jesus is the way. Thus, when we are grounded in his love infused truth, he leads us, his bride, on the path of victory in the holy war, giving substance and meaning to our patiently enduring the attacks on doctrine and our allegiance to Christ.

If love for the bridegroom fades, the holy flame that infuses the work, of whichever church, shrinks to an ember, to ultimately go out. Without a flame, that church’s lampstand has lost its use, so the Lord removes it. The Lord’s coming in judgment on Jerusalem, involving the city and the Temple’s destruction, would provide a dramatic illustration of that truth. Like he was about to permanently remove the lampstand of apostate Judaism, churches are not immune from a similar end (Rom. 11:21). And similar to how Judaism has lingered on, so can a church that has had its lampstand removed. It’s just now no longer a true church of the living God, the Almighty.

With that said, it puts into perspective why the works of the church in Ephesus, works that the Lord acknowledges, are not enough to keep their lampstand in place. Verses 2-3:

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.

Jesus, who is among his churches, knows what they are doing. For Ephesus, Jesus was saying he knew their deeds, deeds done in allegiance to his name. He knew that it’d been a hard work, a work to the point of weariness. They’d not been lax or lazy. They’d been at it, day after day, consistently. Jesus knew their patient endurance, in which John was their partner (Rev. 1:9), and to which they were called during those times of tribulation.

Paul had warned the elders, in Acts 20:29-30, about some of their troubles, against which they’d have to be diligent:

29 I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; 30 and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them.[4]

And Paul’s words were on the money. These fierce wolves had risen up, and the church had to endure people with evil agendas, those who had infiltrated the church, and those who had gotten big heads and tried to gather people around them for their own egos and gain. False apostles, people claiming an authority that was not theirs, were bringing in false doctrines along the lines of a burgeoning cultish movement within the church (e.g. 1 Tim. 1:3-7; 2 Tim. 3:1-9 and contra. to Paul’s selfless work described in Acts 20:33). It was a battle of allegiance—faithfulness to the Lord and his Word, or following another.

A particular thorn is called out, the Nicolaitans, a heretical faction of which we only know from Revelation, whose works, the church, in harmony with Christ, hated. The name of this faction says they were following Νικολαος’ teachings, a name which means “conqueror of the people” in Greek. Later, John will call out the group of heretics plaguing Pergamum, in Rev. 2:14, who “hold to the teaching of Balaam,” a name in Hebrew that also means “conqueror of the people.” John seems to be referring to the same group, as they are theological equivalents, having infiltrated the church, seeking to corrupt it from within with false teaching. The call to “conquer,” to “overcome,” in v. 7, then, is in direct opposition to the very name of these heretical groups battling against God’s people. Even more, the Jezebel faction in the church of Thyatira was spreading the same false doctrines as the Nicolaitans and the Balaamites.[5] So, John gives us quite a few clues as to what the churches were up against, and this battle was not just isolated in Ephesus.

As for the nature of the false teachings plaguing Ephesus, the Lord hones in on the Nicolaitans. From what we can gather in Rev. 2-3, they seem to have been advocating “a heresy seeking to seduce God’s people into idolatry and fornication.”[6] Paul’s warnings in Acts, the events in Ephesus recorded by Luke, and Paul’s letters to Timothy also give us a general picture of others. Those included attacks on Jesus’ Name (likely his nature, his person)—things John addressed in 1 John. There were the Judaizers, whom Paul warned against. And we could delve into all these at length. But the point John is making here is that the church, for the sake of the Lord’s name, did their duty and fought against all these attacks on the purity of the gospel and the Lord’s Word.

The Ephesians had a tremendous advantage in this area, as they were well-versed in doctrine. They had had the benefit of some of the greatest teachers in the history of the church. The Apostle Paul spent years among them preaching and teaching. The Apostle John. And they had Timothy, among others. Paul, in his epistle to the Ephesians, did not mention one single doctrinal error that needed correction. They were on point. So, operating according to the doctrine they had been taught, the leadership took action and engaged the wolves among the sheep. They argued for the truth, refuting their false teachings. And this wasn’t just a friendly debate. It was war. They refused to tolerate the false teachers, these evil people, and cast them out of the church. They protected the flock by defending against the evil influences that would lead the flock astray from the path of righteousness, just as Paul had encouraged them to do (Acts 20:28, 31). They had worked diligently to proclaim and defend the gospel and the Lord’s Word—sound doctrine (2 Tim. 3:16; 4:1-5). This was good.

Yet, something was lacking. They had forgotten their first love. All their efforts, their patient endurance, their toil, were for nothing if they were not infused with love—love infused truth, love for Jesus Christ, love in their actions towards their brothers and sisters, as they did their duties for the church. Without love, their labors were just labors and not the light they were supposed to be. Perhaps pride had manifested, as they defeated all comers with their great knowledge of the truth. Perhaps they showed no love whatsoever, as they crushed people with doctrine. “Love your enemies” was one of Jesus’ commands, after all. Perhaps they not only hated the works, but they also hated the people. Perhaps their scourge of evildoers was so sweeping that it not only pushed out the evildoers (who sought to lead the flock astray), but they also caught up and crushed confused sheep (who desperately needed love and correction)—sheep who just needed to be helped back on the path, and not given the boot into the wilds. These are all dangers of those who get caught up with zeal for doctrine, especially if they do it without love.

You may remember the Lord’s battles with the scribes and the Pharisees. Well, the Lord has no interest in replacing Pharisees with a new set of Pharisees—zealous, but whitewashed tombs.

Brethren, Jesus tells us that we must remember our first love. We must keep him in the forefront of our mind, as we do our due diligence in the church, when it comes to doctrine for the sake of his name. It is important that we take a stand for doctrine, but our arguments for sound doctrine must always be done with love infused truth. That is a powerful weapon in our arsenal, as the Lord himself works in such a defense of his Word.

For our church, here at MPC, in present times, this is not an immediate issue. But it could become one, and I know it has been one in the past. Brothers and sisters, we must stay alert and on guard. We must be ever ready to battle. And with that said, if and when folks come into the church who might have ideas that are different, how will you engage them? With love? If they have some different ideas, are you going to crush them right off and run them out? Or are you going to converse with them in humble love? Are you going to be a resounding gong and clanging symbol (1 Cor. 13), or will you be a tune of beauty in harmony with love infused truth? If their ideas are false, which do you think is more likely to win them to the truth? And what if they have a truth that you need to hear? Expressed love can overcome obstacles to truth.

A serious issue I’ve seen lately, something some of you have probably seen, is the zeal for doctrine that many keyboard warriors display online, supposedly in the name of Christ. You see them crushing people, dragging their name through the mud, trying them online over some doctrinal difference (without any sort of attempt at biblical discipline), posting arguments with triumphant pride (sometimes, with a voice that comes across as faux-humility), accusing people, attacking people. Love for self is evident, and love for Christ and others seems far away. “I’m going to crush you with my brain as I tap on my keyboard.” It’s out there scattered through all sorts of blogs and social media. Don’t fall into that trap. Be cautious of the wolves and be cautious of those who’ve lost their first love. And don’t become one of them. Infuse your discussions with love, if you engage them. Loving in such a way does not mean being passive and weak. It means standing strong and confident in the Lord. It means being a light for the Kingdom of God. It’s keeping in mind it’s not about you. It’s about Jesus—love infused truth.

It is right and good that we guard the doctrines of the Lord, engaging false teachers. When we don’t, teachings grounded in the culture can rise up within and bring corruption, having misled the flock. We’ve seen this among some denominations around us, and we’ve seen it raise its head in our own denomination, and we’ve battled. Tragically, we’ve witnessed some denominations let the world’s agenda become their agenda, straying from the teachings of Scripture, even warping Scripture to try to meet their secular, social agendas. Such agendas lead to the promotion of idolatry of various kinds and perversions that are so dominant in our culture—much like they were in Ephesus. They push for the church to embrace the world’s agenda over the Lord’s, which is a push for allegiance to the world rather than allegiance to Christ.

It is right and good that we fight against this, but we must never lose sight of our first love. It is important that we keep the Lord’s words in mind, as we engage in doctrinal arguments. Otherwise our labors become futile, and we risk becoming a church that is not a lampstand. We need to be alert to the danger of abandoning our first love, as we work in his name. If you, or I, or we succumb, let us repent. Jesus forgives.  And let us move on, engaging those who would corrupt the Lord’s Word. Let us battle for the Lord, in humility and love infused truth.

And as we battle, always remember that the Lord has overcome the world (John 16:33), and it is in his power we overcome, we conquer (Ps. 23:4; 1 Cor. 10:13; 1 John 5:1-5). The Spirit’s promise is that so conquering, in Christ, we will eat of the Tree of Life in God’s paradise, living eternally in glory (Rev. 1:7 & 22:2). Even now, in Christ Jesus, we eat of the tree of life, receiving the blessings and benefits of salvation—a foretaste of the blessing of eternal life we have in Christ that awaits us in the end.

Brethren, fellow soldiers of Christ, doctrine and allegiance to the Lord (primed with love infused truth) is powerful. In our love for Christ, holding fast to his promise with faith, and for the sake of his name, we find the motivation and strength to patiently endure, to overcome, to conquer. Let us embrace our first love, as we battle on against those who would assail us, who would corrupt the teachings of the Lord’s Word and lead his people astray. Let our words and actions be humble but firm, unrelenting and filled with the love of Christ. In the power of love infused truth, in Jesus Christ, we will conquer the evil that would assail us, both individually and corporately as the bride of Christ. Since patient endurance grounded in love infused truth conquers, Christians must remember our first love.


[1] Eusebius of Caesaria, “The Church History of Eusebius,” in Eusebius: Church History, Life of Constantine the Great, and Oration in Praise of Constantine, ed. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, trans. Arthur Cushman McGiffert, vol. 1, A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, Second Series (New York: Christian Literature Company, 1890), 136; Hist. Eccl. 3.4.6.

[2] Cf. Stephen S. Smalley, The Revelation to John: A Commentary on the Greek Text of the Apocalypse (London: SPCK, 2005), 59; and also Kenneth L. Gentry Jr., The Beast of Revelation, Second Edition (Fountain Inn, SC: Victorious Hope Publishing, 2002), 81.

[3] Rev. 2:1-7 makes up a chiasm with vv. 4-5 at the center of the chiasm, emphasizing it’s importance: A (v.1a) B (v. 1b) C (vv. 2-3) D (v. 4-5) C’ (v.6) B’ (v. 7a) A’ (v. 7b). Verses 4-5 is D, and is itself a chiasm (a) But I have this against you, (b) that you have abandoned the love you had at first. (c) Remember therefore from where you have fallen; (b’) repent, and do the works you did at first. (a’) If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent.

[4] Rev. 2:2-3 make up an ABCB’A’ chiasm, with “C” being “but have tested those who call themselves apostles and are not, and found them to be false.”

[5] Cf. David Chilton, The Days of Vengeance: An Exposition of the Book of Revelation (Fort Worth, TX: Dominion Press, 1990), 97-98.

[6] Chilton, 98.