Restoring Your First Love
This morning we begin a series on Rev.2,3—seven brief letters that the risen Jesus wrote to seven late-first-century Christian communities in western Turkey (MAP). Actually, Jesus dictated these letters to John (one of his 12 disciples, now an old man in exile for his faith) to be delivered to the churches he apparently oversaw.
These brief letters have the same structure. They begin with Jesus reminding them about some unique aspect of his character. Then he analyzes their spiritual condition (usually some good and some not so good). Then he counsels them on how to respond to their condition. Then he reminds them of some wonderful aspect of his eternal kingdom that they will inherit when he returns.
Why study these letters? Because they are relevant to our spiritual condition. You will see that we (as a church, a home group, and as individual followers of Jesus) face the same dangers, challenges, failures and opportunities that these churches faced. And you will see that Jesus’ counsel to them is both convicting and encouraging to us.
Let’s begin this morning with the first letter—to the Christians in Ephesus (read 2:1-7).
On the one hand, Jesus praises them for their loyalty to the truth (2:2,3,6).
Instead of caving into to societal pressure (e.g., Artemis worship) and persecution(?), they held fast to their belief in Jesus as the Lord and only way to God.
Instead of being led astray by false teachers (both from outside and from within – Acts20:29,30), they refuted and rejected them. (This is a very important priority, and we’ll investigate it more carefully in 2 weeks.)
On the other hand, he rebukes them for “forsaking their first love” (2:4).
“First love” refers both to the love they had when they first met Jesus, and to the first priority that this love should have. The heart-beat of healthy Christianity is love—experiencing the amazing love of God when you receive Christ, and responding with grateful and enthusiastic appreciation to God and generously giving his love to one another and to those who don’t know Christ (1Jn.4:9-11,16-19). The rest of this teaching won’t make any sense to you if you have never experienced God’s love by receiving his forgiveness through Christ. This is what touches off a revolution of love in your heart. You can begin this today...
Those of us who have been introduced into this lifestyle of love should never get bored with it! Our appreciation of God’s amazing love should continue to deepen, and our response of grateful praise and giving his love away to others should become the joyful priority of our lives. But something happened to the Ephesian Christians. They remained loyal to the truth about Jesus, but they allowed their love for him and others to leak away. Like a married couple who remain committed to marriage but have long since lost intimacy and settled for parallel lives, they remained loyal to Christianity but this “love life” was a distant memory. Maybe their loyalty to the truth had become a rationalization for their lost love (“Of course we’re committed to Christ—we’ve paid the price for our commitment!”). This is a common problem!
This is perhaps the biggest problem with “fundamentalist” Christians and churches. They are loyal to the Bible as God’s Word and they stand against falsehood in society and the church—but they are often cold and harsh. I remember as a young Christian going to churches and/or interacting with Christians like this. We shared the same commitment to the truth, but they weren’t excited about being forgiven. They would argue about minor points of doctrine, but there was no humble appreciation when they prayed. We shared the same understanding that people apart from Christ were lost, but instead of reaching out to such people with God’s love, they withdrew inside their Christian ghettoes and condemned them. What a horrible misrepresentation of Jesus and what it looks like to follow him! To this day, I think this is the biggest obstacle to reaching others for Christ.
This is also a common problem for seminarians—which is why some people refer to “seminary” as “cemetery.” I fell into this spiritual sickness the first year I went to seminary. The theological knowledge was so stimulating that I neglected the “love” part of my Christian life—and I became a prayerless, cold-hearted Bible answer man who loved to argue and debate, but my gratitude to God and compassion for people dried up. This passage saved my spiritual life!
May I speak frankly? I think many of us in Xenos have become like the Ephesian Christians. I say “many”—not “all.” Many of you are new Christians and excited about Christ. And many of you (especially many home group leaders) are models of this life of love. But many of us are committed to the Bible as God’s Word, we reject our culture’s religious relativism, we know how to spot and refute false teachers—but the spiritual fire of love for God and others has died way down. Many of us know how to explain salvation by grace through faith, but we are no longer humbled by/excited about it. Many of us are still pretty consistent at Bible studies, but we no longer look forward to them with eager anticipation. Many of us identify ourselves as Christians when asked, but we are no longer eager to share Jesus’ love with people who don’t know him. It’s like we’re on “auto-pilot”—affirming the right things, going through the motions, but knowing Christ’s love and giving his love to others is no longer our consuming passion. We mentally assent that living all-in for Christ is right, but we have become increasingly aversive to/defensive around/critical of those who are really living this way and calling us to live this way (maybe you’re feeling this right now!). I am gravely concerned that scores (maybe hundreds) of us have settled into “playing church”— institutionalized, routinized religionists whose hearts no longer blaze with the love of Christ.
Notice that Jesus says “You have left your first love.” This is the language of marriage betrayal. No, it’s not blatant like adultery—that’s one reason why it’s so easy to rationalize. But is still volitional. To allow your passion for Christ to fade, to drift away from a lifestyle of loving him and others is still a betrayal.
Just like me when I found myself (5 years into our marriage) living a distant, parallel life with my wife—not because I went out on her, but because of hundreds of choices to omit investing in my marriage. I thank God that I had friends who sat me down and told me my marriage was in serious trouble, and that I was largely at fault!
In the same way, Jesus says that this condition is a betrayal of him. And it’s so serious that unless we turn it around, he will remove our lampstand (read 2:5b). This doesn’t mean that individual Christians will lose their salvation, but it whatever this means, it’s not good! It probably means that churches that remain in this condition become spiritually impotent to draw others to Christ, and then they ultimately die out. Hundreds of “believing” churches suffer this fate every year in America, and we are not exempt from this fate! We need to turn this around, because the longer a church is in this state, the more difficult it is to turn around.
What do we do about this? The spiritual health of churches changes only as the individual members change. If we want our church to be vibrant and healthy and attractive to those who are seeking God, the most important thing we can do is to keep our own spiritual passion strong. If you’ve lost it, then recover it! Satan may tell you that you can’t recover it, or that you’ve lost it for so long that it would take you years to recover it. But that is a lie. You can restore your first love very quickly. The Holy Spirit longs to re-ignite his fire in your heart, and he will do this if you respond to Jesus’ counsel in 2:5a. It consists of three simple commands: remember, repent, and do.
“Remember the height from which you have fallen.” The first step is to think long and hard about what it was like when you had this passion. Don’t focus on the external details (how young you were, where you lived, your schedule, etc.)—focus on the joy you felt to be forgiven, the privilege it was to talk to pour your heart out to God, the excitement you felt when you heard a teaching or read the Bible, the thrill you felt when God used you to share your faith, etc. Think about what you were rescued from—what it was like to be lost and lonely and the painful emptiness of life without God’s love. If you have a journal/diary from this period, read it. Listen to teachings or read books that fired your heart back then. Let the difference between your past spiritual fervor and you present spiritual apathy really sink in. This is not morbid nostalgia—wishing you were back in a different place and time as an escape from reality. This is healthy remembering of the spiritual passion and reality that God wants to restore to you today. This kind of remembering way will increase your longing for spiritual reality and motivate you to take the next step...
“Repent.” This means to turn around—to change your attitude and direction. It means admitting to yourself and God that you have betrayed him by allowing your spiritual passion to grow cold and/or be seduced. (It may mean admitting that you have allowed your affections to be seduced by unworthy things like TV, hobbies, career advancement, etc.) It means telling God that you want your love to be restored no matter what it takes. It means telling this to another passionate Christian friend. (If you admit this to other cold-hearted Christians, they may assure you you’re fine.)
“Do the things you did at first.” Remembering and repenting must be accompanied by actually taking action, doing the things that originally cultivated your spiritual passion. It’s not enough for a married couple to remember and repent—they have to start doing the things that restore intimacy and joy to their marriage (spending more time together; initiating loving words and caring deeds; being more open with one another; etc.). In the same way, restoring your first love involves spending consistent quality time with Christ—reading his Word as his love letter to you, thanking him for your salvation, sharing your thoughts and feelings with him throughout the day, etc. (You must be willing to change your schedule and drop other things to make sufficient time for this.) It also involves asking him to show you how he wants you to initiate love toward others (Christians and non-Christians) each day—and then obeying him when he shows you. It involves asking him to correct you when you begin to drift into selfishness or rebellion or bitterness or idolatry—and responding to his correction. And it involves forming accountable friendships with others who want the same kind of life (Heb.10:25; WORKER TEAMS).
Early church leaders’ writings tell us that the Ephesian Christians heeded Jesus’ warning and regained their spiritual fervor.
What about you? Is Jesus speaking to you through these words? If he is, don’t leave this room without resolving to restore your first love! Every time you realize this and fail to take action, it gets easier to rationalize. Pray with me right now. Start “doing” this week.
Copyright 2007 Gary DeLashmutt