Revelation 2:1-7 is an account of Jesus’ message to the church in Ephesus, the first of seven exhortations to various churches in the Roman Empire. Ephesus had some unique challenges for a Christ-follower in that it was home to the Emperor’s cult and the worship of the Greek goddess Artemis (Acts 19:23-40). Because of these influences, the Ephesian believers had developed great discernment when it came to false teachers and heresy. Christ commended them for this discernment, but He faulted them for having lost their “first love.”
The first love which characterized the Ephesians was the zeal and ardor with which they embraced their salvation as they realized they loved Christ because He first loved them (1 John 4:19) and that it was in fact His love for them that had made them “alive together with Christ.” So overwhelmed were they by the joy that came from understanding their former state—dead in trespasses and sins—and their new life in Christ, that they exhibited the fruit of that joy (Ephesians 2:1-5). Because of God’s great love for the Ephesians, they were “made alive in Christ” and that new life was exhibited in the passion of gratitude. That passion for the Savior spilled over onto one another and out to those in the culture they inhabited, corrupt as it was.
Jesus commends the Ephesians for their many good works and hard work. They tested teachers to see whether their professions were real; they endured hardship and persevered without growing weary. But they had lost their warmth and zeal for Christ, and when that happens, they began to “go through the motions” of good works, motivated not by the love of and for Christ, but by the works themselves. What was once a love relationship cooled into mere religion. Their passion for Him became little more than cold orthodoxy.
Surrounded by paganism and false teachers, the Ephesian church would have had ample opportunity to correct false doctrine and confront heretical teachers. If they did so for any reason other than love for Christ and a passion for His truth, however, they would have lost their way. Instead of pursuing Christ with the devotion they once showed, much like a bride who follows her groom “through the desert” (Jeremiah 2:2), the Ephesians were in danger of falling away from Christ completely. This is why He warns those who have “ears to hear” to prove the reality of their salvation by returning to Him and rekindling the love that had begun to cool. No doubt there were among the Ephesians those whose profession was false and whose hearing had become dulled. He warns the rest not to follow them, but to repent and return to Him with the passion they once had for Him.
We face the same challenges in the twenty-first century. There are few churches that aren’t subject to, and in danger of, a certain amount of false teaching. But Jesus calls us to speak the truth in love (Ephesians 4:15), and to not let the frustration of false teaching overpower the love of Christ in us (Ephesians 4:31-32). Our first love is the love Christ gives us for God and each other. We should be zealous for the truth, but that zeal should be tempered so that we are always “speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ” (Ephesians 4:15).