What we learn from Revelation 2:4, and must never forget, is that an individual or a church can teach sound doctrine, be faithful to the gospel, be morally upright, and work hard, yet be lacking love and therefore, be displeasing to Christ. Love can grow cold while outward religious performance still appears to be acceptable—or even praiseworthy.
We have a tendency to trust in external religious rituals, traditions, denominational distinctions, doctrinal correctness, and moralistic rules, while we overlook the essential, foundational elements of love for God and neighbor. How easy it is to be self satisfied with external religious performance and be like the Pharisees who “tithe mint and rue and every herb, and neglect justice and the love of God” (Luke 11:42).1 External religious performance can insidiously replace true, inner faith and heartfelt love. This is an ever-present danger. It is a problem that is often difficult to identify or explain until it is too late. Yet it must be identified and corrected because love for God and neighbor lies at the very heart of genuine spiritual life. Thus, Revelation 2:4 is a wake-up call to all churches: love or die!
It is not easy, however, to restore a heart that is deficient in love. There is a physical heart condition called cardiomyopathy that weakens the heart muscle so that the heart can no longer sufficiently pump blood. If left untreated, such a condition will cause a person to become weaker and weaker and eventually die. There is a similar risk when a heart has become deficient in love. A cold heart becomes a hard heart, a heart that is resistant to change. As time passes, it becomes increasingly difficult to restore the warmth of Christian love. The progression must be stopped and the situation reversed before it’s too late.
In the church at Ephesus, a spiritual heart disease, love deficiency, was weakening the church. If the condition was not diagnosed and properly treated, the church would die. Instead of growing stronger in love, as a healthy church should, the church was becoming weaker. The Great Physician put his finger on the problem, diagnosed the condition, and prescribed the remedy.
Calling the Ephesians to action, Jesus ominously warned, “I will come to you and remove your lamp stand from its place, unless you repent” (v. 5). If they didn’t act, he would. This was no idle threat, and it demonstrates how strongly Christ feels about forsaking first love.
Although the exact meaning of Christ’s pronouncement is debated, the seriousness of the situation is clear. His words reveal the Ephesians’ sick spiritual condition. Lack of love is a life- threatening disease, one they had brought on themselves by their own neglect. If they did not repent, Jesus Christ would remove their light.
To help the church’s weakening spiritual heart condition, Jesus directs his people to do three things to avoid divine discipline. Their situation is not beyond repair, but failure to act quickly would mean disaster for the church. So Jesus prescribed a three-fold remedy: remember, repent, and do the deeds they did at first.
The first thing the Lord directs the church to do is, “Remember therefore from where you have fallen.” Jesus says they have fallen; they have backslidden; they are not what they once were spiritually.
Ironically, the church was not deceived by false teachers from without (v. 2), but was deceived by the failure of love within. The Ephesians successfully confronted one grave danger—false teaching—but had succumbed to another equally deadly danger—lack of love. This is a lesson to all churches: Sound doctrine and fervent love both must be maintained and balanced.
To help the Ephesians recognize the seriousness of their condition, Jesus admonished them to remember their early days when love motivated all that they did. They needed to recall the love they originally possessed but had forsaken.
To “remember” means to recollect past feelings and actions, but not in a passive sense. It is not sentimental daydreaming about the “good old days” with no intention to act. The present imperative command, “remember,” emphasizes an ongoing, continuous mental attitude of remembering. It requires making the effort to recall past joys, deeds, attitudes, and experiences in the life of the church in order to repeat them and act upon them.
These memories will guide the church’s present action and provide future direction. They will set the standard and will motivate change. Remembering these things will help the church see and admit its lapse of love. Remembering will lead to repenting and returning to the first acts of love. For this church, the way forward is by going back: clearly identifying what they had lost and acknowledging their fallen, sinful condition.
The imperative command “remember” is followed by another imperative command “repent.” They must sense the need to return and restore the love they once possessed. Remembering from where they had fallen would lead them to repentance.
What is repentance? D. A. Carson gives a good definition of repentance:
What is meant is not a merely intellectual change of mind or mere grief, still less doing penance, but a radical transformation of the entire person, a fundamental turnaround involving mind and action and including overtones of grief, which results in “fruit in keeping with repentance.” Of course, all this assumes that man’s actions are fundamentally off course and need radical change.2
Through repentance, the church in Ephesus would demonstrate
• that it accepts Christ’s evaluation of its fallen condition,
• that it has judged itself according to Christ’s Word to be sinful and deserving of divine discipline (1 Cor. 11:31-32), that it grieves over its loss of love and displeasure to Christ (2 Cor. 7:8-10),
• that it is turning away from sin and returning to its past life of love,
• that it will, by God’s grace, take appropriate action (2 Cor. 7:8-12).
The Ephesians could not restore their first love without repenting—the Lord would not allow it. The lesson here is that sin must always be dealt with; it can- not be ignored. Repentance is at the heart of what the Ephesian believers must do to restore their first love. If they neglected Christ’s call to repent, they would face divine judgment: “If not, I will come to you and remove your lamp stand from its place, unless you repent” (Rev. 2:5).
Do the Works You Did at First
After “remember” and “repent,” the third imperative command is “do the works you did at first.” Literally the text reads, “And do the first works.” The word first reminds us of its earlier appearance in Revelation 2:4, “you have abandoned the love you had at first.” Genuine repentance produces “fruit in keeping with repentance” (Matt. 3:8; also 2 Cor. 7:10-11). Thus, Jesus points them back to their first works, which sprang from their first love.
In the case of the Ephesians, returning to their first works means returning to their former state and eagerly seeking to reengage in the deeds of love they once had done but had abandoned. Jesus is not simply telling them to do more works—they have works (Rev. 2:2)—but to do the works they did at first. It may be that their present “toil” and “patient endurance” were largely confined to stopping false teachers, preserving sound doctrine from attack, and facing opposition from a hostile society.
As the Ephesian believers gradually abandoned their first love, they also abandoned, or greatly minimized, certain acts of love, kindness, compassion, care, hospitality, and prayer.3 Loss of love always has adverse consequences on a church’s works, conduct, attitudes, and activities. The Ephesians worked hard and endured, but there were missing elements of their work that needed to be restored.
To the church at Ephesus, it is good news that repentance secures the Lord’s forgiveness and help. Christ will “supply them with the oil of fresh love”4 for their lamp to shine bright again. He wants nothing more than their love to be revived and to grow stronger. He wants them to love like they first loved.
For us, as for the Ephesians, the fire of love can be rekindled. Lives can be rededicated to Christ. The Holy Spirit can breathe new life into prayer, Bible study, evangelism, worship, and fellowship with one another. We can more fully know and abide in the love that God has for us (1 John 4:16). We can more consistently walk in love as Christ loved us and gave Himself up for us (Eph. 5:2). Practical ways of doing that are provided in the next part of this book.
Notes – Christ’s Remedy
1 For an example of one scribe who understood the foundational truth of love for God and neighbor underpinning all external “burnt offerings and sacrifices,” see Mark 12:33-34.
2 D. A. Carson, Matthew 1–12, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1995), 99.
3 Rom. 12:9-21; 1 Tim. 5:10; 1 John 3:11-18.
4 Robert Tuck, A Homiletic Commentary (New York: Funk & Wagnalls, n.d.), 9: 451.