The Lord Jesus said to the Church at Ephesus, “Nevertheless I have somewhat against thee, because thou hast left thy first love. 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 2:4-5).
Jesus’ threat in the above verse soon became reality. The church at Ephesus, which was located in present-day Turkey, has disappeared, and there is practically nothing left to remind us of it. In its place, the doctrine of Islam is now proclaimed where the light of the Gospel once shone, through the local church at Ephesus. Where once the “candlestick” of the Word of God once stood, today the minarets of the Islamic mosques now stand. The church had left her first love and did not return to it, and this action had fateful consequences. What does the Bible mean by first love?
What “first love” doesn’t mean
“First love” does not necessarily mean the love we had for Jesus at the beginning of our Christian lives. True love changes, but not in the sense that it decreases. Let us consider marriage as an example. At the beginning of our relationship there is the phase of “falling in love,” which later changes to the phase of “being in love.” Our emotions play a big role in our falling in love. Later this emotional love gives way to a more consistent, deeper love. In the beginning of a relationship our heart skips a beat when we open a letter or card from the one we love. We do not have the same reaction after we have been married for 20 years although we are still in love with that person. This shows us that true love is more than just a romantic feeling (young lovers often speak of having “butterflies in their stomach”!) When we have been married for a while, our love for one another does not depend on our feelings, but has become more mature and is deeper.
Falling in love is like starting the engine of a car. The engine has to be started before it will run but then it goes on running without our having to keep starting it. We are on our way and are happy that we are making progress and approaching our destination. This is symbolic of lasting love.
It is actually quite normal when a child of God does not have the same feelings as he or she did when they first started their Christian lives. This does not mean, however, that they love Jesus any less than at their conversion. We can have the first love without outbursts of emotion.
What “first love” does mean
I believe that the “first love” to which the Bible refers is the quality of our love rather than the stage of it. It is talking about whether my love for Jesus has first place in my life.
When a husband puts sports, television or his hobbies before his wife (although he is faithful to her, is still fond of her, cannot imagine life without her and devotes his remaining time to her), then he will lose his first love for his wife after a while.
When passion and love for Jesus decline, we have already lost our first love for Him. This best love cannot be substituted by perfectionism or by attempts to avoid evil thoughts and deeds. Even exposing evil for what it is, working or suffering for the Lord are to no avail. These things are good and necessary, and the Lord Himself praises them (Revelation 2:2-3), but they can take place purely out of habit and become rigid formalism and tradition.
Paul von Hindenburg (1847-1934) was highly honored on the occasion of his 50th military jubilee. He replied humbly, “The spirit is for war, the heart for the king, blood for the fatherland and praise to God.” But God wants our undivided love (Matthew 22:37). Our spirit, our heart and our blood belong to Him alone. He does not only want our praise but the undivided devotion of the whole person who turns to Him in love.
In many churches everything takes place according to biblical standards that we cannot fault. And yet there is “death in the pot” (2 Kings 4:40), because the first love for the Lord is lacking, because the structured church life has taken the place of Jesus Christ. The Lord Jesus must always have first place. Our works for Him should follow this first love for Him alone, and not vice versa. I believe that what Jesus wanted to say to the Christians in the church at Ephesus was: “For you the works in the name of the Lord had first place and true, fervent love for Jesus second place. For you the uncompromising routine has overtaken the spiritual life.”
An example of first love for Jesus
“Now it came to pass, as they went, that he entered into a certain village: and a certain woman named Martha received him into her house. And she had a sister called Mary, which also sat at Jesus’ feet, and heard his word. But Martha was cumbered about much serving, and came to him, and said, Lord, doest thou not care that my sister hath left me to serve alone? Bid her therefore that she help me. And Jesus answered and said unto her, Martha, Martha, thou art careful and troubled about many things: but one thing is needful: and Mary hath chosen that good part, which shall not be taken away from her” (Luke 10:38-42).
Martha made it her first priority to provide Jesus with the best food and drink possible, and she certainly did not do this without love. Yet the Lord admonished her. Her sister, Mary, however, received praise. We may not do the one without doing the other, but our priorities must be correct. In this case it is apparent that Mary did the better thing, which is a picture for us of “first love” for Jesus. We need to sit at His feet first, listen to His Word and recognize His will. This first love for the Son of God will not be without doing His will. Later on it was Mary who poured the precious ointment over Jesus’ feet. We read of this act of love in John 12:3, “Then took Mary a pound of ointment of spikenard, very costly, and anointed the feet of Jesus, and wiped his feet with her hair; and the house was filled with the odour of the ointment.” Mary had chosen that good part, the better, the first, “which shall not be taken away from her.”
What a contrast this is to the words of Jesus, “I have somewhat against thee, because thou hast left thy first love.” The first love was gone and so the church of Ephesus was in danger of losing her light. Who shines more in the above example, Martha or Mary?
It is clear from Jesus’ visit with Mary and Martha, and Mary’s act of love, how extraordinarily important it is to the Lord that we live with Him and through Him and work zealously for Him out of this vital union with Him. The principle is fervent first love for Jesus and then service for Him. It is very important to serve the Lord, yet so many Christians work hard for the Lord, but hardly have true fellowship with Him through studying the Bible, prayer, being still in His presence, hearing Him through the words of the Bible and worshiping Him. It is possible for us to work hard for the Lord,
yet remain indifferent as far as fellowship with Him is concerned. We should do the one and not neglect the other, otherwise we have lost our first love.
The Lord Jesus, who loved His own first, through His substitutionary suffering and death on the cross as well as through His resurrection and ascension into heaven, deserves our first love. In other words, He must have first place in our lives. He showed us in a very radical way that this first love for Him is absolutely essential when He said, “He that loveth father or mother more than me is not worthy of me: and he that loveth son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me” (Matthew 10:37).
In an address at a memorial service for Dr. D. Theodor Zahn on March 15, 1937, Professor Dr. Ulmer spoke of a dream that Dr. Zahn had had shortly before his death. He saw his wife come towards him when he went to heaven, and he cried out, “First Christ! First Christ!”
The Greek word for “first” is protos, which points less to the chronological as to the quality of love. In love, therefore, the “first love” is the “best love.” From this Greek word the words also derive for “place of honor” or “leader” or “the first” or “take first place.” The sanctuary before the Holy of Holies in the tabernacle was also called the “first tent,” i.e. “front tent.” Here the priests worked in the
immediate presence of the Lord; there was no room for anything else. We see also from this what the Lord wants; He wants us to live directly before Him and with Him and that He has first place in our hearts.
The same Greek word protos is also used to describe the prodigal son, who returned to his father in poverty and rags. The father had the best robe brought him, “But the father said to his servants, Bring forth the best robe…” (Luke 15:22). This was not just a festive robe that he had worn before he left his father’s house, but the absolute best robe.
The Lord found much to praise in the Christians in the church at Ephesus (compare Revelation 2:2-3), but Jesus Himself was no longer their first and best love. Someone once said, “The good is the enemy of the best!”
Let me say again, our best, our first, love for Jesus, must come before everything else. If we let anything else come before our first love, then it is no longer the first love, but the second, or even the third.
Does your love belong to the Lord Jesus first? Has He absolute priority in your life? Does everything else in your life come after Him? Do you really try to listen carefully when He wants to speak to you through His Word in the Bible, and have true fellowship with Him in this way? Do you love the Lord Jesus above all else, even if you have lost everything that was dear to you, when for some reason you can no longer work or cannot move? Have you learned to love Him before all else? And have you heard the admonition of Jesus to the Christians in the church at Ephesus and adjusted your life accordingly? The Lord made it clear what true discipleship is when He uttered these earnest words: “Whoever he be of you that forsaketh not all that he hath, he cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:33).
Charles Haddon Spurgeon once told the following moving story on the subject of “first love”: “We love our relatives, but in comparison with Him we could hate father, mother, brother and sister for His name’s sake. When a certain martyr was to be burned at the stake, they brought his wife and eleven children to try to make him renounce his faith. They told them to kneel down and ask their father to renounce his faith for their sake, so that he could remain alive. But kissing them all, one after the other, lingering longest over the beloved mother of his children, he said, ‘For your sakes, my dears, I would like to do something to enable me to stay longer with you, but as this concerns Christ, my Lord, I must tear myself from you.’”