The first church addressed in Revelation is the church in Ephesus:
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.’ (Revelation 2:1-7 ESV)
The church in Ephesus is mentioned more in Scripture than any other church except the churches in Jerusalem and Antioch. What can we learn from this short passage written to the church of Ephesus, but also said to all churches by the Spirit.
What does Jesus say about the church in Ephesus? 1) He knows about their works, difficulty/labor, and patience. 2) He knows that they could not bear patiently with evil people (or deeds). 3) He knows that they tested those who falsely claimed to be apostles, and found them to be liars. 4) He knows that they had patience and had patiently endured because of Jesus’ name without growing weary.
Patience seems to be a continuing theme in verses 2-3 as Jesus describes the church in Ephesus. The noun “patience” is used twice and the verb “bear patiently” is used twice. Similarly, the idea of testing those who falsely claim to be apostles also demonstrate the patience of the church in Ephesus. We also see that this church works and labors tirelessly, and that they stand against evil people (or deeds) and liars.
What does Jesus have against the church in Ephesus? According to Jesus the church in Ephesus has left their “first love”. This is variously translated “first love” or “love you had at first”. The object of their love is not stated. It sometimes assumed to be Jesus himself, but that seems incomplete given the remedy in the next verse. Perhaps it is best to understand this as saying that the Ephesians were working and being patient, but they were not motivated by love – both the love of God and the love of others. It is not necessary to separate the two types of love, since according to Scripture they operate together.
Despite the Ephesians’ works and patience and standing against evil and testing false apostles, Jesus considered everything void without love. Even though the Ephesians persevered and labored and did not grow weary, Jesus was ready to remove their lampstand because they were not doing these things from love. Apparently, love is more than a good idea. Love is absolutely necessary for those who are following Jesus.
What is Jesus’ remedy? 1) They are to remember from where they have fallen. 2) They are to repent. 3) They are to do the first works, or the works they did at first.
It seems that works – even good works – do not please God if those works are not motivated by love. Also, I think the order here is very important. First, they need to recognize their problem and recognize what has changed. Only then can they repent. Then, only after repentance – having a changed heart and life – will they be able to do works as they did at first, that is, they will be able to work from a motivation of love.
Can we hear what the Spirit is saying to the churches? It seems that works are good, but that Jesus’ expects works that are motivated by love. If our works are not motivated by love – if they are motivated by a sense of duty, or fear, or pride, or money, or fame, or respect – then we must recognize our sin, repent, and allow the Spirit to create his love within us to motivate our works.
To put this into perspective: We can build our buildings, but without love they are meaningless. We can schedule our programs, but without love we have done nothing. We can teach our classes, but apart from love the teaching is nothing. We can hold weekly meetings, but if they are not motivated by love, then we have not done anything. We give money and time to the poor, but if we are not motivated by love, then we deserve to have our lampstand (church) removed. Paul said this in 1 Corinthians 13, and it is reinforced in this message to the church in Ephesus.