Bishop Peter Brain ministers in Perth, WA and beyond.
Yet I hold this against you: You have forsaken your first love. Remember the height from which you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first.’ Revelation 2:4-5
In this thematic study I hope we can reflect on these awful, and unexpected words of rebuke from our Risen Lord. There are a number of contexts that we need to conside. These include: first, our Lord’s words from Matthew 24:9-14 (around 50 years earlier) with his general warning that in the last days ‘because of the increase of wickedness, the love of most will grow cold’; second, the privileged place the Ephesian church enjoyed in God’s economy, with Paul’s longest settled ministry, the remarkable public bonfire of repentance, the elder’s seaside retreat, the presence during the next 40 years of pastors like Timothy, the apostle John, Priscilla and Aquila, Tychicus and its strategic place amongst the churches in the surrounding region. (Acts 19, 20:17-38, 2 Tim 4:12-22, Rev.2-3); third, the letter we call Ephesians, with its rich teaching about God’s grace and warm-hearted encouragement to continue their sacrificial love to others, not to mention Paul’s prayers for their love to blossom, reminds us of their rich heritage.
Revelation 2:1-7 must be taken to heart if we are to be kept from a similar rebuke. The Ephesians were commended for all the things we labour and give our lives to in local church ministry. Their persevering hard work attracted our Lord’s praise but so too their distaste for unapostolic false teaching and conduct, not once, but twice (2:2,6). Furthermore they had not grown weary in their endurance (3). They were the kind of disciples we who claim to be apostolic, evangelical and faithful to our Lord aspire to be. These contexts help us understand the surprise it must have been to hear our Lord’s rebuke when read out to their church in Ephesus, not to mention the other six churches, who had no doubt benefited from and looked up to this larger church.
Since none of us wants to hear a word of rebuke from our Lord, I want to pose a few suggestive questions as to what this forsaken first love might look like and offer some passages, mainly from Ephesians, that taken to heart could keep us from hearing this devastating word when we face our Risen Lord. Could it have come because a subtle shift over the years had seen privilege move through responsible service into pride? Reputation (Rev.3:1) as with flattery (Ps.12:2-3; Prov.28:23) is not always easy for sons of Adam and daughters of Eve to handle. These passages may help: Eph.2:8-10; 4:7,8,11,12,13.
Might the cut and thrust of calling out departures from apostolic teaching and conduct become an end in itself, causing us to love the exercise of rebuke and correction more than love for our Lord and the restoration of the errant? We lose our first love of seeing sinners established in Christ. Passages to consider: our Lord’s pattern (2:5), Paul’s example (2 Tim.2:22-26) and Eph.4:15; 2:1-5; Matt.5:43-48 and 11:28.
Could our desire not to rebuke for fear of losing friends mean that we love the praise of people more than that of God? Our Lord’s rebuke gave his brothers and sisters opportunity to repent. Loving God and others must keep these two in tension. Passages to consider alongside the previous verses include: Eph. 5:3-14; 2 Tim. 3:1-5; Matt. 11:29-30.
Can our desire to work hard and persevere as faithful church members leach out of us the love we once had? The disappointments of church life can sour us and easily cause us to settle back expecting to be served rather than serve. When disappointment morphs into bitterness or resentment to others or to God we have entered fatal territory. How can this drift be addressed? How do these passages remind you of your first love in for what God has done for us individually and collectively? Eph. 1:1-2; 1:3-14; 1:15-23. Is God’s love to terminate on us? Ponder: Eph.4:1-16; 4:20-5:2 and 5:15-21.
Strengths can easily become weaknesses. A church that has enough people like us puts us in grave danger. What we think is loving may be self-indulgence. We no longer go out of our way to sacrificially love those who might not reciprocate. Is this dangerous territory? Ponder: 1 Cor. 11:17-34; 12:31-13:13.
Discipleship and controversies, like the one we are facing within our denomination, challenge us not only to be faithful to God and his revealed Word written, but to grow in love, both to God and the people we are part of, not to mention those whom we are to exhort and evangelise. Revelation 2:4-5 remind us how easy it is forsake this love even in the interests of Christlike discipleship, and of our Lord’s desire that we grow in and maintain this love until he returns. Two couplets from Ephesians may help keep our love alive. These are the exhortations about the Holy Spirit in 4:30 and 5:18, which are congregational in context but individual in our responsibility to pursue (1:14-15; 2:22). Add the example of Paul’s thanksgiving prayer for others and exhortation to continually grasp God’s extraordinary love to us in Christ (1:15-19 and 3:14-21).
Is it possible that our reading of the Bible in order to persuade others to remain committed to apostolic doctrine and conduct may replace our personal Bible reading primarily to nurture our fellowship with and love of our Father, Saviour and Spirit, where we gladly welcome their nourishment and correction for us as adopted children? Nothing is so necessary for our growth in love than hearing God speak to us, whereas nothing as potentially fatal as reading Scripture for the purpose of applying it to others. What is described so wonderfully, as the sword of the Spirit (Eph.6:17-20) can focus on the sword to correct others, rather than the Spirit’s way of growing our love for God and others (Rev. 3:20, Col. 3:14-17).
We are most at risk of forsaking our first love when we think; ‘it couldn’t happen to me or to our church or group’. To be forewarned by our Lord in the gospel and Revelation 2:4 rebuke, are a reminder of his deep love for us. In both it is clearly for our good, since he understands not only our human frailty but the pressures of decided discipleship from the world, the flesh, the devil and the church. His call to the Ephesians to repent, to ‘remember the height from which they had fallen and to do the works they did at first’, show us that his rebukes are always designed to restore us. His call to repent, by remembering and doing again what they did when they were first caught up in the experience of his love in Christ hold the key to our growth in love. The following practices have helped me in this challenge. I share them with the prayer that they may be of help to you.
Recalling simple (yet profound) truths through singing songs like Jesus loves me this I know for the Bible tells me so, or Wide, wide as the ocean, or Here is love vast as the ocean, or, How deep the Father’s love for us. Ponder: Psalm 100; Mark 14:26; Acts 16:25, Eph. 5:18-21, Rev. 4:8, 10-11, 5:8-10. Congregational hymn singing is like the hump on the camel; stored up praise to sustain us in dry times! And if this seems childish, see Luke 10:21, 18:16.
Looking for every opportunity of thanking God when we are recipients of his love, whether from his promises, provision, providences or people. Passages worth pondering: Psalms 95:2-4,100:4-5, 103:8-14, 119:67-72; 103-105. We are far more likely to love God and others when we are habitually grateful to God and one-another. Consider: Luke 17:11-19, Eph.1:15-17, Col.3:15-17, 1Thess.5:16-18, Heb.12:28-29, Rom.1:21.
Sharing in the Lord’s Supper gives us opportunity to remember and rejoice in God’s love for us. Ponder the joys of looking back to our Lord’s deep love displayed on the cross, of looking around thanking God for our brothers and sisters saved by the same grace of God we have received, of looking upwards reflecting on our loving and sympathetic High Priest and looking forward to the glorious Day of our Lord’s vindication which we will share. We are more likely to go out of our way to sacrificially love our brothers and sisters when we intentionally thank God for them around his table.
Being attentive to Bible passages that bring before us both the grandeur and obligations of God’s love are most helpful. Here are seven sets of verses that keep on encouraging and challenging me: Set 1—Matt.5:43-46; 20:28; 22:37-39; 25:31-46. Set 2—John 3:16; 13:34-35; 14:15-21; 14:23-27; 15:9-17; 19:25-27; 21:15-19. Set 3—Romans 5:1-8; 8:28-39; 12:9-13; 13:8-10. Set 4—1 John 2:3-6; 3:1-3; 3:11-20; 4:7-21. Set 5—1 Thess.1:2-5; 3:6; 3:12; 4:9-10. Set 6—1 Peter 1:22-2:3; 4:7-11; 2 Peter 1:3-11. Set 7—1 Tim. 1:12-17; 6:6-11; 6:17-19; 2 Tim. 1:7; 1:13-14; 3:1-5.
Our son’s athletic coach reminded them that “practice makes permanent, not perfect. Only perfect practice makes perfect!” If we fail to consider how we can stir up one-another to love and good deeds or are cool toward God, we don’t get better at doing it. We get worse. Coolness, selective discipleship, sullenness and carelessness easily take over from zeal, warmth, servant hearted thoughtfulness and initiative. The older I get, the harder it is for me to think more of others needs above my own. This study is for me and I trust may be of help to you. The best way not to forsake our first love is to do the opposite, actively to cherish both God and others. I Thess. 3:12 makes this plain: ‘May the Lord make your love increase and overflow for each other and for everyone else, just as ours does for you.’ Overflowing love is the only sure way for our love to increase. This should not surprise us since this is the kind of love that God has lavished on us (Eph. 1:8, 1 John 3:1).