It’s good to remember that when you look at something, and want to improve it, fix it, or make it better somehow, it’s helpful to break the larger entity into it’s smallest component. In this case, the Church world wide can only be improved and made better as a whole if every individual Bible-believing Christian church in the world would examine itself and make itself better. Paul knew this, as it was usually correction, instruction, and encouragement that he used as he penned his epistles to the various churches.
It doesn’t stop there. Each individual Bible-believing church needs to be broken down to its smallest unit…the individuals within the church. The responsibility for the improvement of the worldwide Church trickles all the way down to us, but the benefits of getting things right in our own lives trickles all the way back up through the local church and beyond. So, as we look at the church at Ephesus, we will be focusing on what their problem was and seeing how it directly translates to individuals within the millions of churches worldwide. In other words…God implored the church at Ephesus to get it right, and He also implores us to do the thing.
God addresses the church at Ephesus in Revelation 2:1-8. God sung their praises in verses 1-3, but gets to the heart of the matter in verse 4, “Nevertheless I have somewhat against thee, because thou hast left thy first love.” But God doesn’t let them crash and burn and tells them a few things that should help them focus back on their first love. In verse 5 God tells them, “Remember therefore from whence thou art fallen, and repent, and do the first works; or else I will come unto thee quickly, and will remove thy candlestick out of his place, except thou repent.”
So, what is this first love? What are the first works they are supposed to resume after repenting from falling away from them? Well, to get some insight into these things, let’s go back to the Book of Acts when the church was first established in chapter eighteen. The Apostle Paul spent three months ministering and teaching there. We see the church grow from it’s inception to a time in chapter 20 when Paul delivers a message to the church that is the essence of what the first love and the first works are of the Ephesians’ church that was spoken of in Revelation 2.
Some have suggested that the sermon Paul preached to the church at Ephesus in Acts 20 is the only recorded sermon Paul preached to Christians. If so, it’s unique and obviously important and worth studying. This particular message complimented Jesus’ teachings about the first and second greatest commandments. Remember, the greatest commandment is to love God with all your heart, soul, and mind. The second greatest commandment is to love your neighbor as yourself. Then Jesus said that all the law, coupled with everything the prophets stood for, was bound up in those two commandments (Matthew 22:36-40). So, what else could possibly be the focus of the church, other than God and people?
When the church at Ephesus began, no doubt it was on fire. I’m sure everyone in the church was excited and shared that enthusiasm and put their heart and soul into the building and working of the church. And while Ephesus was a young and growing church, Paul laid out his message that would act as a compass to keep them going in the direction that the church needed to be headed if it were to be effective for God. His sermon was four points.
First, Paul explains to the Ephesians’ church that prior to his coming to the church for a visit, Paul was “serving the Lord with all humility of mind, and with many tears, and temptations, which befell me by the lying in wait of the Jews” (Acts 20:19). Like any good speaker who fills a church’s pulpit, he exhorted the church at Ephesus to make service to God a priority as they moved forward in their growth, but to serve with humility, enduring heartaches and disappointments, and to resist the urges to quit. Paul had already suffered trials and tribulations at the hands of his closest kin (Jews), but he kept on keeping on. He knew there would come a time when things wouldn’t come so easy for the church at Ephesus and for that, he needed to encourage them and warn them.
Second, in Acts 20:20 Paul reminds them, “And how I kept back nothing that was profitable unto you, but have shewed you, and have taught you publickly, and from house to house.” Not only did Paul want to teach the church that service to God was a priority, but also the service to the brethren was another priority the church needed to involve itself in. If Christians needed to be taught something, he taught them, and kept back nothing. He taught the church, through example, that teaching and instruction was to happen not only in corporate settings, but, if need be, individualized teachings one-on-one in the homes of individual church members was to be expected. This was done out of a love for others and a desire to see them grow in the faith. Paul knew it would be hard to get along and love the heathens if they couldn’t demonstrate love towards each other first. And what better display of love and self-sacrifice than to give of your time and talents to make another person better?
The third point in Paul’s sermon has to do with evangelism. “Testifying both to the Jews, and also to the Greeks, repentance towards God, and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ” (Acts 20:21). This aspect of church life is easier if the church has a love for God and a love for each other. The church at Ephesus was exhorted by Paul to continue in efforts to win souls. This, of course, was the essence of the Great Commission Jesus gave in Matthew 28:19-20, “Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost; teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world. Amen.”
Finally, in his fourth point, Paul reminds the church that it’s about God and not them. Before Paul leaves, he puts the previous three points into perspective and practical application for them. He says, And now, behold, I go bound in the Spirit to Jerusalem, not knowing the things that shall befall me there: save that the Holy Ghost witnesseth in every city, saying that bonds and afflictions abide me” (Acts 20:22-23). Because Paul loved God, He was willing to serve Him by conviction to go to Jerusalem, all the while trusting God, though he truly had no idea what awaited him there. And why was Paul willing to go there? Because there were Christians in Jerusalem who needed instructions and there were scores of unsaved Jews who needed evangelizing. Paul knew it wasn’t about him. Paul knew he didn’t get saved to hold on to the proverbial “Get out of Hell Free” card. No, Paul knew he was bought with a price and he was to honor God with his life (First Corinthians 6:20).
I have no doubt that once Paul left Ephesus, the church flourished and thrived and did all those things Paul preached to them that day. So what happened? What’s Revelation 2:4-5 all about? What’s the first love? What’s the first works? There are many suggestions, but here’s the one I like. The first love is two-fold…God and others. Remember the two greatest commandments in Matthew 22:36-40. The first works are four-fold…service to God, serving the brethren, evangelism, and lastly, the practical everyday application of those works. That is the explanation that I think makes the most sense regarding the first love and the first works that the Church at Ephesus abandoned and left.
If you look at the timeline, the church at Ephesus was birthed about 45AD. John wrote Revelation about 95AD. So, in the span of about 50 years, God reveals to us a decline in that church’s focus. In Revelation 2:2-3, God commends the church for the good that it’s doing, but perhaps it wasn’t to the degree God expected. Or, maybe the things they were being commended for were good things, but they had done them to the neglect of the first works signifying the departure from their first love. In either case, it wasn’t up to God’s standards and expectations. That happened within a span of about a generation or so.
Now, remember that the responsibility for the worldwide Christian church’s success trickles down to the individual churches and their individual members. With some putting the average lifespan of service for a Christian at about 6-7 years, it’s no wonder our churches are failing. We, as individuals, are the most basic entity of the church. We need to evaluate our lives in light of Paul’s sermon in Acts 20. Are we serving God to our fullest? Are we involved at least in attending church? Are we involved in ministries and discipleship? Are we involved in service to others in some other way? Are the brethren in our church more of a priority than our own selves? Do we even have a thought of how we could help with evangelism, tract passing, or any other outreach to the unsaved community? Are we existing in the church only to get out of it what it can give us without making any effort to give back to God something from our lives for what He’s given us? If you’re not able to do these first works, than you need to evaluate whether or not you’ve left your first love…God and people.
Many years ago, I abandoned God and people and lived only for myself. I lived like that for many years while I was doing my best Prodigal Son imitation. But since recommitting in 2003, I have desired to make forward progress. I’ve had ebb and flow in my recommitment, but progress has, and is still being made today, seven years later. But I know there is still huge opportunity for improvement. Yes, I love God, but I’m not at the point where Paul was to trust God and leave the consequences to Him. I still test the waters and weigh a pros-and-cons list before venturing into some area of service, whether it’s teaching discipleship groups, or giving more of my time in service to the church. I’m cautious, but as my faith in God increases, it’s getting a little easier to trust Him and experience the excitement that comes with going with God on unknown adventures.
I can say, in all honesty, that I do love the brethren in my own church and others. I get great joy in finding opportunities to be a blessing to others. From the “lowliest” in the church to the “most prominent,” I want the same for each, and I strive to the best of my ability to treat and interact with everyone the same way. But my biggest struggle has always been with evangelism. I remember when I first got saved, I had such an excitement to tell everyone, and the more I learned as I started attending a Bible-believing church, the more I got excited and wanted to share this new-found knowledge. I find myself now, still having excitement towards the things of God, but only now it’s turned inward and it’s intellectual in nature. I like studying and debating strong meat, which is beneficial for me, and those I teach, but it’s not beneficial for those who are in need of evangelizing. So, last year I had two people God really laid on my heart to share the gospel with. One has since passed away, and the other family is open to hearing about the gospel. Both those times I stepped out in faith, facing ridicule, and did it.
I say all that not to come across as bragging, because I have nothing to brag about. But like the church at Ephesus, and like my life, you have areas you struggle with. For a while now, I’ve had something in my heart telling me exciting things are coming my way for the next year. Not because I deserve them, but because I want them. And what I want is for God to improve me in these areas that Paul implored the Ephesians to focus on, so that He can use me more effectively, and with that, I’ll experience many exciting things.
So, for 2013, if you’ve left your first love and therefore have not been doing the first works you once were involved in, RECOMMIT. If you’ve already recommitted, don’t be satisfied with the good you’re doing. God wasn’t satisfied with only the good the Ephesians were doing (Revelation 2:2-3), but He really wanted them to get better (Revelation 2:4-5). God didn’t threaten to remove His blessing on their church immediately, but He did warn them that if they cared not for the warnings He gave them, that they would lose His power and influence in their lives (signified by the removal of the candlestick).
Remember…first love…God and people. Remember…first works… service to God, serving the brethren, evangelism, and lastly, the practical everyday application of those works. May the new year, 2013, find us moving forward with a heart for God and people, and a desire to do all and be all for God, our brethren, and the lost world.