(excerpt from a recent message at Mission Hills. You can view the entire message here)

Yet I hold this against you: You have forsaken the love you had at first. 5 Consider how far you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first. If you do not repent, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place. (Revelation 2:4-5)

Now let me just say that I grew up in church and I heard this verse preached many times. And what I was always told was that the first love they had lost was their love for Jesus.

But here’s my question:  does that really make sense in this context? Keep in mind that Jesus just praised them for “enduring hardship for my name.” In other words, in spite of persecution and pressure to abandon their faith in Jesus, they had remained faithful to him. Historically, that had cost Christians in Ephesus family, jobs and relationships.  In fact, at the time these words were written, it was becoming more and more likely that their faith in Jesus was going to cost some of them their lives…yet Jesus says that they had not grown weary…so he didn’t seem to think they were in danger of abandoning their faith in spite of the risk of losing their lives. How can you reconcile all that with the idea that they no longer loved Jesus? It doesn’t make any sense to me.

But if it doesn’t mean that they had forsaken their love for Jesus, then what is he talking about? What is this first love they had forsaken? In my opinion, Jesus is saying they had forsaken their love for the lost. They had stopped caring about those who didn’t know Jesus. They had stopped worrying about the unsaved, the unreached and the unconvinced.

Now, I know that’s a very different interpretation than many of you have heard, so let me give you six reasons why I’m convinced this is what Jesus means here:

  1. Jesus identified the love for the lost as one of his own great loves. I mean, this is one of the clearest ways Jesus identified what he was all about. He said “The son of Man came to seek and save the lost.” (Luke 19:10) The Gospels are filled with parables about loving and looking for the lost. There are stories about lost coins and lost sheep, lost sons and lost daughters. Jesus made it very clear that he possessed an intense love for the lost, for those who were enslaved by darkness. And we see this throughout Scripture. When God called Abraham, he said “I will bless you…and all nations on earth will be blessed through you.” God said the Temple was to be a house of prayer for all nations. And Jesus’ greatest public display of frustration was directed towards religious leaders in Jerusalem who had turned the part of the Temple that was set aside for lost Gentiles into a market. Jesus’ love for the lost is unmistakable, so it would make perfect sense that Jesus would be very concerned about one of his churches that had stopped sharing his love for the lost.
  2. The church in Ephesus was originally famous for their love for the lost. If you read the story of when the Gospel first came to Ephesus, which you can do in Acts 19, one of the most striking features of the description is that the Christians in Ephesus were so zealous in sharing the good news with the lost that it literally transformed the economy of the city. See, Ephesus was the place to go to buy magical charms and spells and pagan idols. But the Christians in Ephesus shared the gospel so widely and so many people accepted the Gospel, that the occult merchandise industry there began to fall apart. Again, you can read about it in Acts 19, but the point is that the Christian in Ephesus were world-famous for their passion for reaching the lost. Or at least they were at first. Which leads me to #3…
  3. Jesus says they lost “the love you had at first”, not “your most important” love. Some translations say “you have lost your first love” and that is an accurate translation. The problem is that, in English that sounds a lot like “your most important love” which would obviously their love for Jesus. But if Jesus had meant to say “your most important love” or “your highest love”, there is another much clearer and more common way to say that in Greek. Instead, what he says is, literally, “the love you had at first” which is about first in time, not first in importance. In other words, Jesus is accusing them of forsaking a love they were famous for when they first became a church…which for Ephesus was their love for the lost.
  4. This makes sense of the “how far you have fallen” language. Remember, the church is the lampstand that is supposed to hold the light of the gospel up high for the world to see. When Jesus says they have fallen from a great height, the most natural way to take this is that they are no longer holding the message of the Gospel up high….they’ve stopped caring about getting the message out to the lost who so desperately need to hear it.
  5. This makes sense of the “do the things you did at first” language. Notice that Jesus doesn’t same “love me more” but rather “do the things you did at first.” Again, the church in Ephesus was famous for the way they loved the lost by sharing the Gospel with them when the church first got started in Ephesus. In fact, the word translated as “things” or “works”…do the “works you did at first”…is often used in the New Testament to speak of the “works” of evangelism or sharing the good news with the lost.
  6. This makes sense of the warning about their lampstand. Remember, the purpose of a lampstand was to hold a light up high. So what Jesus is saying is, if you don’t go back to holding the message of the Gospel up high…then you’ve stopped being a lampstand…which means you’ve stopped being a church. In other words, act like a lampstand or you won’t be a lampstand…act like a church or I won’t consider you a church anymore. He doesn’t warn them about the loss of salvation but about the loss of their status as a church. Why? Because you don’t get to enjoy the status of the church if you’re not doing the work of the church.

All of these reasons lead us to understand that Jesus isn’t saying that the church in Ephesus had stopped loving him but that they had stopped loving the lost. And, apparently, there’s no such thing as a true church that doesn’t love the lost.

What appears to have happened is what happens to so many churches over time: for many “churches”, inward attention replaces outward mission. It’s a natural drift, but we have to fight hard against it, because a church that has allowed this to happen is not actually a church. First and foremost, the local church is the way God holds up the light of the gospel for the world to see. Any so-called church that loses sight of this central purpose is in danger of losing the blessings God reserves for His churches.