The problem with the Ephesian church, as recorded in the book of Revelation, was that they failed to put Jesus first, and therefore did not truly love Him with their whole heart, soul and strength. They had many good things going for them in that they upheld Scriptural truth and holiness, but in reality they were a dying church. The form of Christianity that they were practicing was seriously compromised.
“Unto the angel of the church of Ephesus write; These things saith He that holdeth the seven stars in His right hand, who walketh in the midst of the seven golden candlesticks” (Revelation 2:1).
The city of Ephesus was steeped in idolatry and immorality, and it was to this heathen city that the apostle Paul brought the life-changing gospel of Jesus Christ. Sadly the church he founded there had somehow lost its way even though it appeared to be very Scriptural and spiritual to the casual observer. In :1 we find the Lord moving in this church despite the fact that it was backsliding. They were not fully devoted; nevertheless Christ still held them in His hand. The Lord does not give up on any church for there may yet be someone who would repent and start a revival! “A bruised reed shall he not break, and smoking flax shall he not quench, till he send forth judgment unto victory” (Matthew 12:20, Isaiah 42:3).
“I know thy works, and thy labour, and thy patience, and how thou canst not bear them which are evil: and thou hast tried them which say they are apostles, and are not, and hast found them liars: and hast borne, and hast patience, and for my name’s sake hast laboured, and hast not fainted … But this thou hast, that thou hatest the deeds of the Nicolaitanes, which I also hate” (Revelation 2:2-3,6).
Here was a solid, Bible-believing church. The Lord commends them for the following things:
a) They laboured for and served Him.
b) They remained faithful despite the persecution they endured.
c) They refused to compromise with the world.
d) They did not entertain false teachers.
e) They detested the clergy-class that was creeping into Christianity.
Most churches today do not come close to even this level of Christianity, and still think that the Lord honours them with His presence. It is possible to be a remarkable church and still not come up to the Lord’s requirements. There is no perfect church unless Jesus is in it.
“Nevertheless I have somewhat against thee, because thou hast left thy first love” (Revelation 2:4).
This is the one thing that made this otherwise perfect church defective; they had left their “first love”. The Lord could not tolerate this. If the situation were not quickly resolved the defect would spread like a cancer and destroy them.
The Ephesian church was on fire when it came to activity, yet their hearts were cold towards the Lord. Yes, they upheld Biblical doctrines, withstood error, and knew Christ as the Lord of the church, but there was no heart devotion, no true passion for Him. They practiced outward holiness while their hearts were far from Christ. “Forasmuch as this people draw near me with their mouth, and with their lips do honour me, but have removed their heart far from me, and their fear toward me is taught by the precept of men” (Isaiah 29:13). They religiously did all the right things without zeal for the Lord. They were very orthodox and had fooled themselves into believing that their practices made them acceptable to God.
“Remember therefore from whence thou art fallen, and repent, and do the first works; or else I will come unto thee quickly, and will remove thy candlestick out of his place, except thou repent” (Revelation 2:5).
The Lord Jesus Christ teaches the church its three “R’s”: “Remember … Repent … Remove”:
1) “Remember” – A command to think back to the wonderful experiences they had in the Lord. Were they not zealous, devoted and holy in the past? Can they not see how far they have fallen from God?
2) “Repent” – It is impossible to hide behind the commendable if our hearts are not committed to the Lord. Repentance here is not for common sins, but for the greatest sin the church could commit, that is, failing to truly honour the Lord. In this sense “repent” directly relates to a return to their “first love”.
3) “Remove” – They were in danger of becoming a Christless church if they continued to ignore their greatest need. When the Lord leaves a church, religion always fills the void. Soon, unless they repented, “Ichabod … The glory is departed” would be the true name of this church (1 Samuel 4:21).
They were spiritually sick, and the remedy prescribed by Christ could not be administered gradually, instead there had to be an immediate and decisive response to His instructions immediately. It is as though He was saying, “Choose you this day whom ye will serve” (Joshua 24:15).
“He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches; To him that overcometh will I give to eat of the tree of life, which is in the midst of the paradise of God” (Revelation 2:7).
The Lord promises them a great blessing if they would respond favourably to His call. They would enjoy the eternal fruit of everlasting life in His presence. Does this not infer that they would not share in this reward if they continued practicing defective Christianity? Did Jesus not warn them that the light would be snuffed out if they did not repent? To be overcomers the Ephesian church did not need more faith, a greater depth of holiness, or more knowledge of the word of God; no, all that was required was that they should “Love the LORD [their] God with all [their] heart, and with all [their] soul, and with all [their] might” (Deuteronomy 6:5).
Revivals, holiness movements and churches have failed at this very point. Somewhere along the way they ceased to put Christ first. Right doctrine and holy living cannot be faulted, but they mean nothing if the Lord is not the Master. “Except the LORD build the house, they labour in vain that build it: except the LORD keep the city, the watchman waketh but in vain” (Psalm 127:1). It is possible for our head to be on fire for God and our heart stone cold toward Him. As our love for God declines, so His reproof increases. Maybe the answer is not more holiness, a greater stand against error, or an increase of faith, possibly all that is needed is a return to our “first love” to bring revival. It is foolish to hide behind practical holiness if the Lord is reproving us for not loving Him from the heart. We can be as far from the Lord, with all our talk of holiness and sanctification, as the religionist and hypocrite if we continue to be defective disciples.