“The Church That Left Their First Love” (Revelation 2:1-7 sermon)

Cheryl & I are so grateful for the kids God blessed us with; but sometimes they can be a little bit stubborn. (I wonder where they got that …). Our boys ran track in high school, and one time one of them had wanted to do the 800 meter run (about a half mile); he really thought he could do well in that. But the afternoon of the race, the coach told him, no, he was going to put him in the 2-mile run. He did NOT want to run that race. So that afternoon Cheryl & I were up in the stands to cheer him on, but I see him out there just basically JOGGING that 2 miles. I could tell he wasn’t even trying. I was SO mad. I hollered at him, “Run! What are you doing?” A lady in the stands in front of me turned around and said, “It’s ok, Dad, at least he’s out there trying!” I said “NO. HE’S NOT! That’s the whole thing. If he WAS trying, I wouldn’t care how well he was doing. But he’s not even trying; he’s just going through the motions.”

No one likes to see somebody just “going through the motions;” whether it is an athlete, or an employee — or from God’s perspective, a Christian who is supposed to be serving Him. And sadly, that is just what Jesus saw in the church at Ephesus. They were doing a lot of good things, but they were not doing the most important thing. They were “The Church That Left Their First Love.”

This is the first of the seven letters Jesus had John write to seven real churches in the province of Asia (which is modern Turkey), this one to the church at Ephesus. As we saw last week, Jesus begins His message to each of these churches by saying, “I know.” He knows their situation. He knows everything they are doing, both good and bad. And He knows everything WE are doing too. Let’s look at what Jesus had to say to them — and what He has to say to us today too — through this first letter: 

I. You’re Doing Some Things Well, But …

The Lord begins the letter by listing all these things He knew that they were doing — and they were all good. He says: “I know your deeds and your toil and perseverance, and that you cannot tolerate evil men, and you put to the test those who call themselves apostles, and they are not …. And you have perseverance and have endured for My name’s sake, and have not grown weary.” He later adds in :6, “Yet this you do have, that you hate the deeds of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate.” All these things are good. There’s not a “bad” thing in them.

But notice the KIND of things Jesus says here that they were doing well:

— NOTICE the 3-fold repetition here: “your deeds and your toil and perseverance” — a three-fold description of how faithful they were at their religious works. 

— He said, “You cannot tolerate evil men”, “You put to the test those who call themselves apostles and they are not”. He comes back to some of this in :6, “You have the deeds of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate.” 

So what’s He saying? They were good workers (“deeds and toil”). They were faithful at their ministry (they had “perseverance” — which He mentions TWICE if you notice!). And they had high doctrinal and moral standards (they “put to the test those who call themselves apostles and they are not”; they “hate the deeds of the Nicolaitans” — historians do not know exactly who the “Nicolaitians” are, but in the 3rd letter, to Pergamum, the Lord talks about the false teaching and immorality of Baalam, and then says “in the same way” some hold to the teaching of the Nicolaitans — so it appears they were false teachers, who allowed immorality. But the Ephesian church was NOT taken in by the false teaching. They had high standards for their doctrine; it was all “orthodox.” It was all Biblical teaching. All this was good. He wasn’t saying they should stop any of that. He just went on to say that with all they were doing, they were missing something even more important. 

It’s like when Jesus was preaching to the Pharisess in Matthew 23. He told them in :23, “You tithe mint and dill and cummin — and have neglected the weightier provisions of the Law: justice and mercy and faithfulness; but these are the things you should have done, WITHOUT NEGLECTING THE OTHERS.” You see what Jesus said there? He said, you’re tithing “mint and dill and cumin” — every ten dill seeds they got, they tithed one of them. He said, that’s good — don’t stop it — but “justice and mercy and faithfulness” are more important. This is what I want from you, “without neglecting the others.” So He was saying, keep on doing the tithing; that’s good — but you really need to focus on the more important things: justice, mercy, and faithfulness. 

Many of the little ones in our church have been playing tee ball, learning to play baseball. It’s hilarious to watch those kids — especially in their first year. They’ll do all kinds of crazy things. You might have a kid who just hammers the ball, gets a great hit that nobody can catch — but instead of running to first base, he takes off to third base, or to the pitcher’s mound, or whatever. So the coach has to tell them: “Man, that was a great hit! Keep that up; don’t change that — but you’ve really got to learn to run straight to first base. If you don’t do that, you’re out. You can’t do anything else. 

That’s similar to what Jesus was telling the church at Ephesus here. You’re doing all these things: good religious works; high doctrinal and moral standards; and you’re faithful at it. You’re persevering in these things when many are compromising and falling away. That’s all good — but there is something BIGGER, and more important, that you’re missing. And if you don’t get that, you’re out! (Your lampstand is going to be removed!) The one thing they were missing, was more important than all the things they were doing well. 

And remember, the Lord wasn’t just speaking to the church at Ephesus. He WAS speaking to them, but through this scripture, He is also speaking to OUR church today, and to you and me personally. He can look at some of our lives today and say, just like He did to Ephesus, “I know.” I know you’re doing so many good things. You’re working hard; you have high doctrinal and moral standards. You hold to the Baptist Faith & Message. And you’re not compromising your morals like so many in our world are right now. And let me re-emphasize: these things are GOOD! DO NOT STOP DOING THEM! Do not compromise morally. Do not compromise doctrinally. Study and hold to what we believe about the Bible. Tonight in our Discovering FBC Angleton class at 5:00 we are going to be taking a “Jet Tour” of the Baptist Faith & Messsage, what we believe as Southern Baptists. That’s GOOD. We SHOULD do that. 

It’s just that to some of us — and to some of His churches in America today — and is it our church too? — He might say, with all this good, there is something missing, which is more important than any of the good things we are doing — and the same thing may be true for some of us personally as well. 

II.  The Most Important Thing Is Missing
:4 “But I have this against you, that you have left your first love”

Many have wondered over the past 2000 years: What does this really mean, that they have “left their first love”? Just what was Jesus talking about here?  We mentioned before that a good principle of scripture interpretation is to “let scripture interpret scripture.” See if you can find another place in the Bible that talks about that same thing, and let THAT help you understand what it is. So: IS there another place in the Bible that talks about someone leaving their first love?

In fact there IS: In Jeremiah 2 The word of the Lord came to Jeremiah and God told him: “Go and proclaim in the ears of Jerusalem, saying: ‘Thus says YHWH, ‘I remember concerning you the devotion of your youth, the love of your betrothals, your following Me in the wilderness through a land not sown. … Thus says the LORD, “What injustice did your fathers find in Me, that they went far from Me, and walked after emptiness and became empty?” And He said in :11, “But My people have changed their glory for that which does not profit. Be appalled, O heavens, at this, and shudder, be very desolate, declares the LORD. For My people have committed two evils: they have forsaken Me, the fountain of living waters, to hew for themselves broken cisterns that can hold no water.”

God told Israel there in Jeremiah 2: I remember your first love: “the love of your betrothals” — that’s basically their “engagement.” He says I remember that first love you had. But He says, you LEFT Me. You traded My glory for things that don’t profit. You LEFT Me, the fountain of living waters, for broken cisterns that don’t hold water. 

Jeremiah 2 helps us understand Revelation 2 perfectly. GOD is our first love. What is the Great Commandment? “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind and might.” That is THE most important thing that any person can do in life: LOVE GOD. That’s it. NOTHING is more important than that.  

And notice it is not “do things for God” that is the Great Commandment. Being busy for God is NOT the Great Commandment. Going to church is not the Great Commandment. LOVING God — with all our heart and soul and mind and might” — that is the Great Commandment. That is what God wants. 

Remember, I John 4:8 tells us: “God IS love.” Not that God is “loving.” God IS love. Love is the innate primary characteristic of God. God has always been love. Many of us saw in our Sunday School lesson this morning from John 17 where Jesus prayed to the Father just before He went to the cross and said: “Father … You loved Me before the foundation of the world.” (17:24)  Before the world was ever spoken into being, God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, LOVED each other in pure and perfect love. And God created us, not because “He needed someone to love;” He didn’t; He already had perfect love in the Trinity. But He created us to invite us to SHARE in that perfect love that He already had. Jesus said “You … loved them, even as You have loved Me.” 

So God designed us to love and be loved by Him. But sadly, starting in the Garden of Eden, mankind “left our first love” for God. Adam & Eve turned their back on God and loved the forbidden fruit, and what they thought it would do for them, more than God. They left their first love. And that was sin. And we’ve continued to sin against God like that ever since. Astoundingly, God still loved us anyway. And even though we left Him, He came to earth to die on the cross and pay for our sins, so that if we’d repent of our sins, He would bring us back into the love relationship He designed us to have with Him. But that’s what it’s all about. It’s all about love. 

And that is what God wants back from YOU, once you are saved. He saved you to bring you into this love relationship with Him. And that’s what He wants from you. He wants you to love Him, with all your heart and soul and mind and might. 

He didn’t save you just so you would “go to church.”

He didn’t save you so you might just “give Him an offering.”

He didn’t save you so you would “add some religious things” to your life.

He saved you to LOVE Him.

And if you really love Him, then all those other things will take care of themselves. Love is the key. If you have love, everything else will be there. 

Last week I read a book by Lyanda Lynn Haupt called Rare Encounters With Ordinary Birds. Mrs. Haupt is a naturalist and and Audubon Master Birder. While working with youth who were interested in birding she met a high school studnet by the name of Joshua. She was quickly impressed by the love that this young man had for birds and birding. He told her: “I want to do anything about birds — anything.” She chuckled at his enthusiasm. She said: “When he gets going about birds, he talks extremely fast, forgets to swallow, the braces get in the way, and he sort of spits.” But they went out on a boat in the freezing cold to spot some birds — and he showed up, all bedecked in a winter coat, and a face mask to protect his face from the freezing weather. Why would he do that? She wrote: “Joshua’s birding pursuits … spring from the soul, from a kind of true love: not a love of money, or material things, or enhanced social standing, but just love — love of doing a thing. And there is much to learn from such a young love.” (pp. 151-155)

That young man Joshua she described just has a LOVE for birds. And love makes all the difference. You can tell when someone just LOVES to do something, can’t you, as opposed to someone who is just “going through the motions” on a particular thing. You can tell when someone LOVES their job: they do the best they can; they go above & beyond; they spend extra time — vs. someone who is just “going through the motions;” counting the minutes until they get off. LOVE is the missing ingredient. LOVE makes all the difference. 

And that’s how it is with us and God too. Love is the key thing. If you love Him you’ll want to go to worship. If you love Him, you’ll want to give an offering. If you love Him, you’ll want to serve, and tell people about him, and all those other things. But you’ll do them first and foremost because you LOVE Him. That’s the key. That’s the most important thing. 

And THAT is what the Lord was telling the church at Ephesus that they were now missing. He told them: yes, you’re doing all this “stuff;” that’s all good. But you don’t have the one most important thing: “You’ve left your first love.” Your HEART is not in it — and more than that, your heart is not with ME!  And that makes all the difference!

I was sharing with some of my fellow GCBA pastors at our weekly breakfast a couple of weeks ago about a book I am reading, The Preacher’s Catechism, by Lewis Allen. I told them, I’m not generally a big “devotional book reader;” I think we should get our primary spiritual “food” directly from God’s word. But this is a very good book; it’s a devotional book specifically for preachers. And in the book he continually reminds us even as preachers that it’s not all about our ministry — our sermons and lessons and so on that we teach other people — but the most important thing is always our own personal walk with the Lord. A week ago Saturday night I read:  “He wants all of your heart, preacher, and unless He has that, he is satisfied by none of your ministry.” What a word! All my preaching, all my teaching, all my visiting, all my work in the church, is nothing if He doesn’t have my heart. 

The thing is, that doesn’t just apply to preachers, does it? It applies to YOU as a Christian, too. You could read it like this: “He wants all of your heart, CHRISTIAN — and unless He has that, He is satisfied by none of YOUR ministry,” either!  

Some of us might be tempted to say today:

— I go to church, what does He want?

— I give my tithe, what does He want?

— I teach my class; I do my ministry, what does He want?

He tells us here just what He wants: He wants your HEART. He wants your first love. He wants you to LOVE HIM with all your heart and all your soul and all your mind and all your strength. He doesn’t want you to merely “go through the motions” of religious service, but for you to do what you do from LOVE. Because you LOVE HIM. Because He loved you first. 

This is what Jesus is saying to the church at Ephesus — and to you and me — here in Revelation 2. It doesn’t just matter what you DO. It matters where your HEART is. If you’ve left your first love for the Lord, it doesn’t matter what else you are doing. He wants your HEART, not just your deeds. 

III. You Need To “Remember, Repent, and Do”

So Jesus tells this church at Ephesus in :5, “Therefore remember from where you have fallen, and repent and do the deeds you did at first — or else I am coming to you and will remove your lampstand out of its place — unless you repent.”

Jesus says, I am not content with the status quo here. I am not content with you just “doing your religious stuff” on Sunday, checking off the boxes, and going home and about your life to do the things that you REALLY love.  He tells them to do something about it, and He lists three things here:

— Remember 

— Repent

— And Do

— He says “Remember.” Remember how it used to be with you and God.

I think of how Psalm 42:4 says “These things I remember and I pour out my soul within me. For I used to go along with the throng and lead them to the house of God.” He said, “I used to …”. Those may be the saddest words in a person’s spiritual vocabulary: “I used to …”:

— “I used to love to sing to God.” 

— “I used to tell people about Him.” 

— “I used to love to study my Bible.” 

— “I used to be so faithful in worship I didn’t want to miss.” 

Can you remember some things like that in YOUR life today, that you “used to” do — which were signs that you loved the Lord more than you do today?  Jesus says: “Remember.” “Remember from where you have fallen.” 

— Then He says “repent.” “Repent” means a change of mind that leads to a change in direction in your life. 

In Luke 15 Jesus said the Prodigal Son who had left his father, but who was now wallowing in the pig sty, “came to himself” and realized he had been going the wrong way. So he had a change of mind, that led to a change of direction: and he said “I will arise and go to my father.” That may be the best picture of repentance in the whole Bible. He had a change of mind, that led to a change in direction. That’s what some of us need to do today with some things. God is showing you: “you used to love Me more; you used to do these things that you’re not doing now.” “Repent.” Get back to where you were. 

— Then He says, “DO.” “Do the deeds you did at first.” And as we saw, it’s not just what you “do” — you can do a lot of empty deeds that are nothing mroe than just “going through the motions;” that’s not what God wants. He’s calling you back to HIMSELF. To love HIM with all your heart and soul and mind and might — and do those things you used to do BECAUSE YOU LOVE HIM.  Get back to that love, that leads you to do anything Jesus wants you to do. Be like that young man Joshua, who said, “if it has to do with birds; I’ll do it.” Let’s have that attitude: “If it has to do with Jesus, I’ll do it!”, because I LOVE HIM. The Lord want to see that from you again. 

This is the word of the Lord, not only to Ephesus, but also to US. Jesus is not content with the way things are with many of us. Yes, many of us are doing “all the right things.” But what He said about Ephesus, He could have written about many of US: “I know your deeds, your toil, your perseverance,” your moral and spiritual standards. But just like to them, He would say you’ve left your first love for Him. And He says: “I need you to repent.” I know that’s what He’s saying to many of us: we need to repent of just “going through the motions,” with a fiery love for Him. 

Years ago I was at a denominational meeting, and the speaker asked: “If Jesus Christ were to appear to the church in America today and He had one word to say, what would that word be?” Honestly, I can’t remember what he said it was, but I remember that I disagreed with him. Because I’m pretty sure I know what the word would be: it’s the word Jesus used to the church at Ephesus here in :5, “Repent.” Significantly, He used it twice here to Ephesus: “Repent … unless you repent.”

— It’s the word He used to the church at Pergamum in :16, “Repent.” 

— It’s the word He used to the church at Thyatira in :22, “Repent.” 

— It’s the word He used to Sardis in 3:3, “repent.” 

— And it’s the word He used to the church at Laodicea in 3:19, “repent.”

That was His word to the church at Ephesus — and I’m pretty sure that’s His word to the church today too — and to many of us personally. You may be doing a lot of things right — but none of it matters, if He doesn’t have your HEART. Too many of God’s people today are just “jogging” through the race of life, just “going through the motions.” Because you’ve left your first love. And Jesus says that’s what really matters, more than anything — more than anything — more than anything else. 

“He who has an ear, let him hear, what the Spirit says to the churches.” 

About Shawn Thomas

My blog, shawnethomas.com, features the text of my sermons, book reviews, family life experiences -- as well as a brief overview of the Lifeway "Explore the Bible" lesson for Southern Baptist Sunday School teachers.
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2 Responses to “The Church That Left Their First Love” (Revelation 2:1-7 sermon)

  1. Sermon Notes says:

    This is a great sermon. Would you mind adding it to our sermon website called sermontranscripts.org? There is a button on the menu that says “submit sermons”. Or you can give us permission to add this? Thanks!

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