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Regaining Your First Love
by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson
We can drift, drift in the current, and drift far away before we know it.
When you read Jesus' Letters to the Seven Churches in Revelation 2 and 3, you sense this drift. Once shining beacons of the gospel of Christ in Asia, they are dimmer now.
These churches seem to have been planted by Paul's disciples during the years of his remarkable ministry at Ephesus, AD 52-55. By the time John writes Revelation about 95 AD, some of these churches are large and seemingly prosperous, but not all is at it seems.
The Church at Laodicea, for example, perceives itself as rich and prosperous, but Jesus exposes it as lukewarm -- "wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked" (Revelation 3:17b). The Church at Smyrna has the reputation of being alive, but Jesus tells them, "You are dead" (Revelation 3:1b).
The Church at Ephesus
The pride of the Asian churches is Ephesus, founded in the capital city of the province by the Apostle Paul himself. Here Paul spent three years teaching and discipling. It is a large church, made up of dozens of house churches scattered throughout the great city. The Apostle John ministered here too.
In Jesus' letter to the Church at Ephesus, he commends it for its works, its toil, its patient endurance. It is an orthodox church, recognizing false apostles and exposing them. It has rejected the heretical doctrine of the Nicolaitans, a group that advocates sexual immorality and close association with idol worship. The church stands strong in right teaching.
But then Jesus pronounces this terrible assessment:
"Yet I hold this
You have forsaken your first love.
Remember the height from which 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." (Revelation 2:4-5, NIV)
Forsaken Your First Love (Revelation 2:4)
What does it mean, "You have forsaken your first love"? To properly interpret this verse we need to examine two words:
- "Love" is agapē, the self-giving love that Jesus and the apostles taught. This love is expressed in two ways: first, towards God, then, towards fellow human beings (Mark 12:28-31). They are linked, but love for God takes priority.
- "Abandoned" (ESV, NRSV), "forsaken" (NIV), "left" (KJV) is aphiēmi, "to move away, with implication of causing a separation, leave, depart from," to "give up, abandon."
You've moved away from your love for me, Jesus is saying. You've departed. Even though you haven't formally renounced your love for me, you've seemed to give it up. You've allowed religious activity, patient good works, to take the place of the white-hot love you had for me when you first became my disciple.
When I write these words I feel like weeping. How disappointing for Jesus to see us begin so well and then gradually drift from personal devotion to him, while becoming diligent at the outward forms of our religion. We go through the motions of faith and worship and caring for the needy in our communities, but our heart is somehow stunted, suppressed, quiet towards God. How very sad!
Jesus says to the Ephesians,
"I hold this against you...."
Could Jesus hold this against us? If so, it is terrifying!
Substituting Ministry for Love
Jesus doesn't fault the Ephesians for lack of good works, works of ministry to the community. Indeed, they are industrious, patient, enduring.
Rather, the Ephesians' plight reminds me of the familiar story of Mary and Martha, Lazarus's sisters, who live in Bethany, a village near to Jerusalem.
"As they went on their way, Jesus entered a village. And a woman named Martha welcomed him into her house. And she had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord's feet and listened to his teaching. But Martha was distracted with much serving. And she went up to him and said, 'Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me.' But the Lord answered her, 'Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her.'" (Luke 10:38-42, ESV)
For Martha, ministry has become a substitute for spending time with Jesus, focused on him alone. And so she complains about her do-nothing sister Mary who is "so heavenly minded that she is no earthly good." But Jesus commends Mary for prioritizing "the one thing [that] is necessary" -- sitting at Jesus' feet, listening -- the "better part."
Many is the pastor who is so busy trying to keep up with the ministry, that he or she neglects time alone with Jesus, because "there is only so much time in the day." When we prioritize ministry over time with Jesus (and I've been guilty of that), we choose the poorer portion, we have prioritized something that is not essential. What is necessary, essential, irreplaceable, is time at Jesus' feet in prayer, praise, reading the Word, listening, meditation. Ministry follows that.
Jesus himself sets the example for us. After healing all the sick in Capernaum at Peter's doorstep, the next morning, Jesus is no where to be found. Crowds of people are milling around carrying sick relatives, wanting his attention, demanding healing. When the disciples finally find Jesus, he is in a lonely place praying. He has been talking with the Father (Mark 1:35-38). The priority is this: Father first, then ministry.
Without this time with Jesus, we gradually become dry. So dry! Where once we couldn't get enough of Him, now we are too busy in good works to notice him. We have lost our first love. The first step back to him is recognizing our dryness for what it is.
"As a deer pants for flowing streams,
so pants my soul for you, O God.
My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.
When shall I come and appear before God?" (Psalm 42:1-2)
"O God, you are my God;
earnestly I seek you;
my soul thirsts for you;
my flesh faints for you,
as in a dry and weary land
where there is no water." (Psalm 63:1)
If you don't find a way to refill the well, you'll go dry.
Jesus Calls You Back to Him
Fortunately for us, Jesus loves us and understands us and calls us back to him. Hosea talks about the times when Israel had forsaken Yahweh for other lovers, but then God speaks:
"I am now going to allure
I will lead her into the desert and speak tenderly to her.
There I will give her back her vineyards,
and will make the Valley of Achor a door of hope.
There she will sing as in the days of her youth,
as in the day she came up out of Egypt." (Hosea 2:14-15)
Jesus invites you from your labors to return to his rest.
"Come to me, all you who are
weary and burdened,
and I will give you rest.
Take my yoke upon you and learn from me,
for I am gentle and humble in heart,
and you will find rest for your souls.
For my yoke is easy and my burden is light." (Matthew 11:28-30)
Jesus offers you rest for your soul, if you will just come and sit at his feet again as in days past, when you first met him.
"The Spirit and the bride say, 'Come!'
And let him who hears say, 'Come!'
Whoever is thirsty, let him come;
and whoever wishes, let him take the free gift of the water of life." (Revelation 22:17)
Is Abandoning Your First Love a Sin?
An old gospel hymn, often used as an invitation, goes like this:
"Come home, come home,
Ye who are weary come home
Earnestly, tenderly Jesus is calling,
Calling, 'O sinner come home.'"
I'm not a sinner, you protest faintly. I'm not sinning! I've been faithful in your service!
The Greatest Commandment, you know, is not about faithful service. It calls us to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength (Matthew 22:35-40). To neglect this love is the most insidious, easily-disguised, and basic sort of sin there is!
Jesus calls to the Church at Ephesus: "Repent" (Revelation 2:5). Come now. Confess to him that you have forsaken your first love and put other things in his place. Weep before him, as he wraps his arms around you, and draws you in close.
Then, my friend, I encourage you to set aside time every morning for him alone. That is one of the tangible (and enjoyable) fruits of your repentance. Ten minutes, twenty. Singing, listening, reading, praying. Nurture the neglected relationship, tend the flame until the love burns bright again.
Come home, calls Jesus. It is time to come to me with your heart as you did in the beginning. It is time, my beloved child, to come home. It is time.
Father, we are wayward children. Thank you for receiving us back into your arms. Renew in us our first love, and let that flame burn bright in us. Thank you for your mercy and grace and your free salvation. In Jesus' name, we pray. Amen.
If this article has touched your heart, I encourage you to read a companion article that will guide you into a place of spiritual fitness in your return to intimacy with Jesus. "Gym Training for Spiritual Fitness"(www.joyfulheart.com/maturity/exercising-spiritually.htm)
Nancy, I am a retired pastor, but have an active Bible study website, JesusWalk.com. I am writing an article about how easy it is for us to drift away from God, and would like to use your photo "And another one" of a red leaf drifting on the surface of the water, to accompany the article on my website. I can't pay, but I could attribute the photo as follows: "Photo: © 2008, Nancy Rose. All rights reserved. Used by Permission." I would size it to about 350x220 pixels. Would that be okay? Ralph F. Wilson.
 Irenaeus, Against Heresies, xxx, 1, 2. Church tradition tells us that after Mary's death, John, the Beloved Disciple, moves to Ephesus and ministers among the churches of Asia. Following a time of exile on the Isle of Patmos, John lives in Ephesus until at least 98 AD.
 Revelation 2:14.
 The Greek takes "first" as an adjective of "love" -- your "first love" (NIV, KJV), or to spell it out a bit more, "the love you had at first" (ESV, NRSV). Protos, "pertaining to being first in a sequence," of time, "first, earliest, earlier" (BDAG 892, 1aα).
 Aphiēmi, BDAG 15, 3b.
 "Needed" (NIV), "necessary" (ESV), "needful" (KJV), "need" (NRSV), is chreia, "necessity, need," that is,. to supply what is absolutely necessary for life (Thayer, 670, 1). here, "that which should happen or be supplied because it is needed, need, what should be" (BDAG 1088, 1).
 "Good portion" (ESV), "good part" (KJV), "what is better" (NIV), "the better part" (NRSV) is two words: the adjective agathos, "pertaining to meeting a high standard of worth and merit, good" (BDAG 4, 2aβ), and the noun meris, "share, portion" (BDAG 632, 2), "the better part" (BDAG 4, 2aβ).
 "Allure" is pātâ, "entice, persuade." Sometimes it carries the idea of "seduce" (TWOT #1853).
 Chorus to "Softly and Tenderly" (1880), words by Will Lamartine Thompson (1847-1909).
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