More and more, I am made to feel that Christ does not have His proper place among the children of God. He is not their object. It is either a doctrine, a dogma, a party, or an experience—something besides Christ. Of course, this is not true everywhere, for there are some parts of the world where Christians are undergoing severe persecution, and then it can truly be said (as it was of the assembly in Smyrna) "thou art rich" (Rev. 2: 9). God’s people flourish spiritually in times of trial for they are drawn closer to the Lord. However, in the English–speaking world, things are ailing and seem to be in the grip of a spiral of inexorable decline. Activity continues just as much as it ever did (perhaps more so), but revival (whether evangelical or ecclesiastical) remains as stubbornly elusive as ever. With all this in mind, it will be good to turn to the Scriptures for instruction, and, more particularly, to the Lord’s address to the assembly at Ephesus in Revelation 2. Why Ephesus? Because (as we shall see) what went wrong in that assembly lies at the root of every subsequent defect in Christendom. They had left their first love: "I know thy works ... But I have against thee, that thou hast left thy first love" (Rev. 2: 2, 4).
I must stress at the outset that the message to Ephesus, though spoken by He "that holds the seven stars in his right hand" and "who walks in the midst of the seven golden lamps" (Rev. 2: 1) is also "what the Spirit says" (v7). What the Lord Jesus said, the Holy Spirit said—the Lord objectively to John, and the Spirit subjectively through John, for he was "in [the] Spirit" (Rev. 1: 10), when the Lord commanded him to write what he had seen. It was all "the word of God, and the testimony of Jesus Christ, all things that he saw" (v2). We need to remember this oneness, because we live in days when the Bible is often set aside in favour of a supposed ‘voice of the Spirit’—as if the latter could ever be separated from what is written. There is no solution to the present crisis outside of the Scriptures.
Some have thought that Ephesus stands at the head of the seven assemblies addressed in Revelation 2 and 3 because it was the chief or metropolitan assembly of Asia. Certainly, the city of Ephesus was the capital of the province then known as Asia, but this fact has no bearing on the matter before us. Scripture never suggests that one assembly is more important than another—if Jerusalem early on appeared to have special status it was only because the apostles were there. Indeed, the Assembly is one, and the local representations of it exist merely because of the practical impossibility of every one of God’s people being gathered together in a single place. The real reason why Ephesus stands at the head of the assemblies addressed here is of another nature. It is to be found, not in any external supremacy over the rest, but in its original spiritual eminency as the local company to which the truth as to the Assembly had been first committed—and this, not as to its order upon earth, but as to its heavenly character. The Ephesians had been addressed by Paul, as now at a much later date they are by the Lord Himself—and it is in comparing the tenor of these two epistles that we find the significance of it being Ephesus with which the series of addresses begins, rather than any of the other assemblies. The epistle to the Ephesians is that which carries us up to the height of Christian position, quickened with Christ, raised up together, and seated together in heavenly places in Christ Jesus (see Eph. 2: 5, 6). It is there that the saints are presented as reconciled in one body to God by the cross, and built together for a habitation of God by the Spirit (see vs. 16, 22). Again, it is in Ephesians that we read of Christ’s love for His assembly (see Eph. 5: 25), and that He is the head of that assembly and we are its members (see vs. 23, 30). These are the truths of which the Ephesian saints were counted worthy to be the first recipients, and the apostle could write to them in this way as "faithful in Christ Jesus" (Eph. 1: 1), communicating to them what he could not elsewhere (see 1 Cor. 3: 1, 2; Heb. 5: 11–14). We would not be at all surprised if Corinth headed a list of assemblies whose downward trend ended in Laodicea, but when we see Ephesus there, we are forced to conclude that being the custodian of the highest truth is no preservation against a serious fall. When he left them for the final time, Paul warned the Ephesian elders that "that there will come in amongst you after my departure grievous wolves, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves shall rise up men speaking perverted things to draw away the disciples after them" (Acts 20: 29, 30). The apostle was there for three years, and for all of that time, "Night and day" he "ceased not admonishing each one [of you] with tears" (v31). It was extraordinary behaviour but prescient. Years afterwards, the Lord Himself would issue a solemn rebuke to that assembly—an assembly privileged with heavenly light like no other—and threaten to remove its lamp (see Rev. 2: 5), taking away its place as a trustworthy witness for the Lord. Today, things have progressed even further, for that assembly itself is entirely gone, and even the city is a ruin. These are sobering facts and we should not delude ourselves that they have no bearing on the Lord’s people today. If such a thing happened to Ephesus, then clearly it could happen anywhere.
What the Lord Commends
Yet before we consider what was wrong at Ephesus, we must observe what was right, and they were not lacking in things that the Lord could commend: "I know thy works and [thy] labour, and thine endurance, and that thou canst not bear evil [men]; and thou hast tried them who say that themselves [are] apostles and are not, and hast found them liars; and endurest, and hast borne for my name’s sake, and hast not wearied" (Rev. 2: 2, 3). This is a veritable catalogue of positive works—and quite in accord with the truth that the believer has been created in Christ Jesus for "good works, which God has before prepared that we should walk in them" (Eph. 2: 10). A faith without works is dead. Nor is there any suggestion that there was some fault in the actions to which they committed themselves. "I know thy works" is commendation clearly. But not only had they works, they had laboured. Do you think there are really many today of whom it could be said that they labour? To labour is to work with energy—or, as another version gives it, to "toil". How many of us could be honest with ourselves and say that we toil for Christ? Paul could speak of being "utterly spent" (2 Cor. 12: 15) for the souls of those who might even love him less for doing so! Yet not only had the Ephesian saints toiled, but they were also marked by "endurance" (Rev. 2: 2). Many, like the Galatians, begin well but in the face of unforeseen difficulties give way. It is the mark of a divine work that it endures. Human energy quickly spends itself, but genuine faith draws upon a store that never decreases. Thus, it was true faith that worked in these Ephesian saints. Still, even the best of endurance is liable to degenerate over time into a creeping toleration of evil. We find evil on every hand, and if we are not careful this frequent contact with it is apt to dull the spiritual sense. God tells us to "take forth the precious from the vile" (Jer. 15: 19), but we learn to tolerate the vile because of the precious and become liberal where we have no right. Yet this form of decay had not occurred with the Ephesians saints for they are praised for their godly intolerance: "thou canst not bear evil [men]" (Rev. 2: 2). Indeed, where there was the very highest assumption in religious matters, they did not fear to test it: "thou hast tried them who say that themselves [are] apostles and are not, and hast found them liars" (v2). Best of all, there was true fidelity to Christ: "and endurest, and hast borne for my name’s sake, and hast not wearied" (v3, my emphasis). Now a great deal of what is described as ‘service’ today is not based on pure motives. Such was not the case here. Furthermore, the words "endurest", "borne" and "not wearied" are indicative of a high level of committal. All this is noteworthy. Indeed, in the judgment of most, it would probably have been accounted an exceptional assembly—but in the Lord’s eyes it teetered over an abyss. How so?
What the Lord Rebukes
Despite all that has been said in the way of commendation (and, I repeat, there was a great deal to commend), what follows sours it all. There was something missing in Ephesus that only the Lord could notice. How much meaning is attached to that little word but: "but I have against thee, that thou hast left thy first love" (v4). Here then is the problem that ruined the account. Certainly, the Lord returns to commending them again a short while later in their hate for "the works of the Nicolaitanes, which I also hate" (v6), but nothing can outweigh the shame of their fatal flaw. Christ "loved the assembly" (Eph. 5: 25) and proved it by delivering Himself up for it, and yet it seemed that here in Ephesus they had waned in their affection for Him. How He must have felt it! Nor is it ‘somewhat against thee’ as in the Authorised Version—as if it were only a little problem. There is no somewhat. In the Lord’s eyes it was a grievous blot. Solemn thing for the Lord to be against His people, and to have to tell them so! How dreadful a dishonour to Christ to lose one’s first love! It is as if He was more at first sight than He proved to be on longer acquaintance! Is not here the very germ of final apostasy? I do not, of course, mean that the Lord will allow any of His redeemed to be lost out of His hand, for "God [is] faithful, by whom ye have been called into [the] fellowship of his Son Jesus Christ our Lord" (1 Cor. 1: 9) and this faithfulness of God is our security since "the gifts and the calling of God [are] not subject to repentance" (Rom. 11: 29). Nor only so, for if we are born of God, we have that within us which cannot allow us to become what we were before for "whoever has been begotten of God does not practise sin, because his seed abides in him, and he cannot sin, because he has been begotten of God" (1 John 3: 9). Yet while this is true on the one side as a child of God viewed in his new nature, on the other side, it is no less a fact that the old nature remains in the believer. We still have that which lusts against the Spirit, and only if we "walk in [the] Spirit" shall we in "no way fulfil flesh’s lust" (Gal. 5: 16). This is what makes this scene such a battlefield for us. We are capable, on the one hand, of enjoying all the joys of heaven—and yet capable, on the other, of being attracted by that which lies under the power of the wicked one, the eye thus affecting the heart. Day by day we are solicited by that which lies before us and from which there is no easy escape. Our danger here is that dulling of the spiritual sense in which the dust of the way settles upon the lens by which faith sees her eternal possessions. How critical then it is to be maintained in that affection for Christ in which He is the one object before our souls!
For Me to Live is Christ
The declension that was insidiously working at Ephesus was collective, but the remedy as always must work in the individual: "to him that overcomes, I will give to him to eat of the tree of life which is in the paradise of God" (Rev. 2: 7, my emphasis). The tree of life in Eden speaks of dependent life, which could have been ministered to Adam by means of its fruit (see Gen. 3: 22). Innocent as he was, there would have been no continuance apart from it. God would thus remind the overcomer in Ephesus of the necessity of a life of constant communion with Christ if he is to be preserved in first love. Ephesus had love for Christ, and no genuine believer can lose his love for the Lord, but first love—that fervent committal so fundamental to our walk down here—can be left behind, even as service continues. Only by daily occupation with the Lord can we be maintained in life towards Him. Jesus said "I am the bread of life and "He that eats my flesh and drinks my blood has life eternal" (John 6: 35; 54, my emphasis).
Unbelief says that it is impossible to be maintained in the first flush of affection, but Scripture provides a prominent example in Paul of one who, from the day of his conversion, seemed never to lose the vitality with which he had begun. There is of course a tendency to gaze in awe and wonder at the apostle, feeling that what was true of him is utterly beyond us, and not really meant to apply to us at all. However, he himself tells us on many occasions to "Be my imitators, even as I also [am] of Christ" (1 Cor. 11: 1; see also 1 Cor. 4: 16; 1 Thess. 1: 6; 2 Thess. 3: 7, 9). We are also told to "Remember your leaders who have spoken to you the word of God; and considering the issue of their conversation, imitate their faith" (Heb. 13: 7)—and Paul, who, more than any other, sets out the distinctive tenets of the Christian faith, must certainly be accounted such a leader par excellence.
What is the test of first love? It is the complete satisfaction of the heart with its object. It is this that gives a peculiar character to the life that is lived: "I count also all things to be loss on account of the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord, on account of whom I have suffered the loss of all, and count them to be filth, that I may gain Christ" (Phil. 3: 8). A little earlier in the same epistle Paul speaks of his earnest desire that "Christ shall be magnified in my body whether by life or by death" (Phil. 1: 20). We are severely tested by a Scripture such as this. Notice that the apostle does not say ‘That I may magnify Christ’, for he speaks in the passive voice, and the instrument is forgotten. It was not Paul or his body that was to be magnified, but his Lord. It is like the lens in a telescope by which some distant star in the heavens is magnified. It does not make the star any greater, but it manifests in some degree the greatness of the star. The telescope and the lens are forgotten and the star fills the vision. Paul wished the same for Christ in his body. This was no theoretical concept on the part of the apostle for he was writing from a Roman prison, his trial yet before him—it might be life and liberty, or it might be execution. To Paul it did not matter which, "whether by life or by death" (v20). I fear there is very little of that spirit among us, and too much of "all seek their own things, not the things of Jesus Christ" (Phil. 2: 21). That is why life here is so often accounted precious to us, and if we can bear to think of death, often the most elevated attitude we have is that it will be to escape the trials and anxieties of this wilderness path and to be reunited with those who have gone before. Such thoughts never seemed to have crossed the mind of the apostle. The attraction, whether in life or in death, was Christ and Christ alone. Christ was his only object, Christ filled his vision and Christ was all in all to him.
Remember, Repent and Do
We have had the Ephesian problem laid out in bald terms, and also an exemplar placed before our eyes. What then is the remedy demanded by the Lord for this lack of first love and what is the route by which the individual overcomer must travel in ordered to be restored to his Lord? The instruction is threefold: "remember therefore whence thou art fallen, and repent, and do the first works: but if not, I am coming to thee, and I will remove thy lamp out of its place, except thou shalt repent" (Rev. 2: 5, my emphasis). First of all, "remember therefore whence thou art fallen" (my emphasis). Too busy in life to reflect? Too busy in supposed service to Christ and His people to pause a while? Too proud even to entertain the thought that something might not be right? How vital is an honest dealing with oneself! Ephesus had a reputation to maintain of being peculiarly blessed of the Lord—but what value is reputation? The divine assessment was that they had "fallen" and that was all that mattered. They needed to see where they were now, and where they had once been. If they carried on oblivious, then could expect one last and final divine visitation—not of blessing, not of His presence in their midst, but "I am coming to thee, and I will remove thy lamp out of its place" (v5). And yet it was not sufficient only to remember—for many are prepared to admit that things were better in the past while ignoring the moral question that inevitably rises with such recollection. God insists on there being repentance. We might think such a word a bit strong in the context—surely it was only a question of a lack of affection? This only shows how far removed from His thoughts are our thoughts. The Lord has loved us and given Himself for us and to deny Him our full–hearted devotion is to rob God. It is a sin of a very severe character, and it needs to be repented of. Failure to do so has very serious consequences. Finally, we are to prove our repentance by doing the first works. These might look very similar to those which the Spirit of God describes in v2 ("I know thy works and [thy] labour, and thine endurance" etc.) but with this vital difference: first works flow from first love. It is a question of pure motives. The Almighty God does not need our works but He values the spring that lies behind them.
The lesson "of the assembly in Ephesus" (Rev. 2: 1) is a solemn one, and no lover of Christ can fail to be sobered by it. The Spirit of God has seen fit to preserve the epistle for our day, and we do well to heed its message. As is well–known, the seven assemblies also have a dispensational aspect, and the apostolic age (which Ephesus typifies) was followed by that of Smyrna—a season of severe persecution. It may be that Christians in the English–speaking parts of the world require such a shake–up to restore them to first love. "He that has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the assemblies" (Rev. 2: 7).