May 12, 2017 by Sam Storms

What Was The "First Love" That The Ephesians had Abandoned?

Everyone is familiar with the indictment Jesus brings against the church in Ephesus concerning their fast fading love. “I have this against you,” said Jesus, “that you have abandoned the love you had at first” (Eph. 2:4).

There’s no agreement among scholars of Revelation as to what “love” the Ephesians had “abandoned” (ESV) or “left” (NAS). The answer depends in part on how one understands and translates the word “first”. Does it mean “first” in terms of time or chronology? That is the view embraced by the ESV, as they render it, “you have abandoned the love you had at first.” The idea would be that this is a “love” they experienced immediately after their conversion and during the early days of their Christian life. Although the ESV rendering doesn’t require it, the implication would be that the “love” they had abandoned was brotherly love, love for other Christians in the church.

Sam Storms

Sam Storms became the Lead Pastor for Preaching and Vision at Bridgeway Church in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, in 2008. He is on the Board of Directors of both Desiring God and Bethlehem College & Seminary, and also serves as a member of the Council of The Gospel Coalition.  Sam was recently elected to be Vice-President of the Evangelical Theological Society.


Others argue that this love was “first” in the sense that it is the most important love that anyone can experience, that is to say, it is that primary love for the Lord Jesus Christ that comes before or takes precedence over all other loves in terms of value. This view is suggested by the NAS which translates, “you have left your first love.” Surely, if the emphasis is on that “love” which is of preeminent importance, that “love” which must be pursued above all other loves, it is love for Jesus himself.

In his epistle to the Ephesians, written some 30 years earlier, Paul mentioned the fervency of their love for one another (1:15-16) and concluded the letter with a blessing on those “who love our Lord Jesus Christ with love incorruptible” (6:24). But now, these many years later, their zeal and passion had diminished. But which “love” had they now lost: love for one another or love for Jesus or perhaps love for both?

There are two contextual clues that may suggest the reference is primarily (but not exclusively) to “brotherly” love. First, how can it be that they’ve abandoned their love for Christ if in the immediately preceding verse (v. 3) Christ himself commends them for enduring patiently for his name’s sake? The latter words imply, if not require, the devotion and affection and love for Jesus that would inspire them to suffer for the sake of promoting and praising his name. If they didn’t fervently love Jesus, they wouldn’t have endured patiently for his name’s sake. And if their endurance wasn’t motivated by this affection, Jesus would hardly have commended them for it.

A second clue comes from what follows in v. 5. There, as a repentant antidote, so to speak, to their diminishing love, Jesus commands them to “do the works you did at first” (v. 5). This would more likely suggest that their lost love was love for one another that can be rekindled by deeds of kindness and compassion and self-sacrifice (see Romans 12:9-13; 1 John 3:11-18 and 4:7-21).

On the other hand, I’m not certain we have to choose between the two. Jesus may well have had both “loves” in view. That the decrease in love for Christ issues in a loss of love for our fellow-Christian is self-evident. In other words, I think Jesus could as easily have said to the Ephesians: “How dare you claim to love me at the same time you close your heart to a brother or sister in the body. And when you do love one another you demonstrate how much you love me [i.e., Jesus].” This is confirmed by what we read in Hebrews 6:10. There the author declares that they have shown “love” for God’s name “in serving the saints.”

What we see in the church at Ephesus, therefore, was how their desire for orthodoxy and the exclusion of error had created a climate of suspicion and mistrust in which brotherly love could no longer flourish. Their eager pursuit of truth had to some degree soured their affections one for another. It’s one thing not to “bear with those who are evil” (Rev. 2:2), but it’s another thing altogether when that intolerance carries over to your relationship with other Christ-loving Christians!

Our Lord does not leave the Ephesians and their problem without a solution. Note the three terse commands of v. 5. Before doing so, however, observe what he does not recommend: he does not suggest that they become theologically lax, tolerant of error, or indifferent toward truth! In other words, don’t try to cure one problem in a way that will create another.

So, then, here’s his counsel. First, “remember . . . from where you have fallen” (v. 5a). Here their love is pictured as a height from which they had descended. To remember is to reflect and meditate on the peak of brotherly affection they once enjoyed. Recall the former fervor and let the memory of its joys and satisfaction stir you again to mutual devotion. Second, “repent” (v. 5b). Simply put, stop . . . then start. Stop the cold-hearted disregard for one another (and for Jesus) and start cultivating that affection you formerly had. Third, “do”. In particular, do “the works you did at first” (cf. Heb. 6:10).

How important is it that the Ephesians (and we!) strive by God’s grace to cultivate and sustain a passionate affection for both Christ and Christian? I’ll let Jesus answer that question. If you don’t repent, he solemnly warns, “I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place” (Rev. 2:5).

What this means is that failure to comply will lead to the imminent termination of their influence or public witness as a body of believers (cf. 11:3-7,10; see also Mark 4:21; Lk. 8:16). The “coming” of Jesus in v. 5 is not the Second Advent at the end of history but a “coming” in preliminary judgment and discipline of this church (cf. 2:16; the Second Advent, however, is probably in view in 2:25 and 3:11). It may even be that Jesus is threatening the end of this congregation’s historical existence. I trust that such is enough to convince us all how important “love” is in the body of Christ!

This article was written by Sam Storms and originally appeared at his blog. Find it here.  

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