This is Jesus speaking: ďI have somewhat against thee, because thou hast left thy first love.Ē
How can this be? How can Jesus take the church at Ephesus to task? Look at the things they did; their labor, their works, their patience. They canít stand anybody evil among them, theyíve driven them out of the church and called them liars. Theyíve borne their persecutions with patience, labored for Christís name, not fainted in their efforts.
Look at the church at Ephesus. Jesus says about them: I have something against you, Ephesus, because you have lost your first love. And look what the penalty for losing your first love is. I will come to thee quickly and I will remove thy candlestick out of its place, except thou repent. The ecclesia at Ephesus was to be no more unless they somehow did the works they did at first. So first love, whatever it is, must be important.
And consider if you will for a moment secular first love in a modern setting. A mother says to her teenage daughter, Amy, ďwhat is that rag you have in your hand?Ē And she says, ďthatís not a rag, thatís Arnoldís shirt.Ē Arnold is that miserable little pipsqueak whose been hanging around Amy for the past few months. And she says, ďwhat are you going to do with that shirt?Ē Iím going to iron it for Arnold, because Arnoldís mother is sick and he needs his shirt ironedĒ. Until that very moment the mother probably didnít even know that Amy knew what an iron was. What is it that Amyís doing? She wants to do Arnoldís will. Sheíll not only iron his shirt, sheíll do anything else that Arnold asks her to do, and its her pleasure to seek out his will and to do it, sometimes she even fantasizes that she would lay down her life for Arnold, because Arnold is perfect. You can change the story. Arnold asks his father for the axe so he can go help Amyís father cut down a tree, because Amyís father is not very strong. First evidence of any interest in doing any of yard work has to do with somebody elseís yard, and parents sometimes despair when they see for the first time manifested perhaps in their children pure, unfeigned, selfless love, wasted on such an undeserving person as Arnold. And you can multiply these examples, that you see in young teenagers; students having their first love for their teacher. Itís not that they want the teacher to do something for them, the teacher is a noble, perfect being and they want to seek out her will and to do it. Iíve even seen teenage boys do it with automobiles, pure, selfless, unfeigned love for a new car, cleaning, polishing, painting designs on it, husbanding it, first love has to do with this pure, unadulterated adoration for something thatís considered to be perfect.
Love seeks not her own. Thatís the best definition of first love. And we have Biblical examples of first love. In the 4th chapter of Acts, after the ascension of Christ, you will recall that which happened on the day of Pentecost, imbued the early church with great enthusiasm and unfeigned love, so much so that we read in the 32nd verse: "The multitude of those that believed were at one heart, and of one soul, neither any of them all things which he possessed was his own, but they had all things in common." We were all in this together; itís us against the Roman world, against the Jewish world for our Lord, and weíre willing to share everything in common.
One great individual example of first love was Stephen. Thereís not much about Stephen in the Bible. In the 6th chapter of Acts "there arose a murmering of the Grecians against the Hebrews", that is to say the Hellenistic Jews against the orthodox Jews, if you will, "because their widows were neglected in the daily ministration. Then the 12 called a multitude of the disciples unto them and said, ďIt is not reasonable that we should leave the word of God and serve tables, wherefore brethren, look you out among you seven men of honest report, full of the holy spirit and wisdom, whom you may appoint over this business. But we will give ourselves continually to prayer and to the ministry of the word.Ē And the saying pleased the whole multitude, and they chose Stephen one of the seven." Heís the first one mentioned. Well, this is a lowly job Stephen is appointed to, heís supposed to see to it that the helpless donít suffer in the early Christian community. But Stephen was so full of this unfeigned, selfless love that he couldnít be held back, and we read "Stephen full of faith and power did great wonders and miracles among the people. Then there arose certain of the synagogue and they were not able to resist the wisdom and the spirit by which Stephen spake. They were so troubled by the power that Stephen had ďborne of his loveĒ they brought Stephen up before the council and set up false witnesses which said this man ceases not to speak blasphemous words against this holy place and the law. For we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth shall destroy this place, and shall change the customs which Moses delivered us. And all that sat at the council looked steadfastly on him and looking upon him saw his face as it had been the face of an angel." Thatís the face of Amy, in my first example, multiplied a thousand times, filled with this spirit of unfeigned love for his Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, as weíll see in a minute. And what does he do? This lowly Jew stands up before the council in the synagogue and starts up, "Men and brethren and fathers, harken, the God of glory appeared unto our father Abraham when he was in Mesopotamia, before he was dwelt in Haran, and said to him, ďGet thee out of thy country, and from thy kindred and come into the land that I shall show thee." Thatís the way the truth was preached, the same 4,000 years ago as it is today, starting with the promises to Abraham.
But thatís not my point. If youíll look at the end of that speech Stephen had to strength of character, standing before these people who had his very life in their hands, to say: "Ye stiff necked and uncircumcised in heart and ears, ye do always resist the holy spirit. As your fathers did so do ye. Which of the prophets have not your fathers persecuted? And they have slain them, which showed before the coming of the just one, of whom ye have now been the betrayers and murderers; who have received the law by the disposition of angels and have not kept it." When they heard these things they were cut to the heart, and they gnashed on him with their teeth. But he, being full of the holy spirit, looked up steadfastly unto heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing on the right hand of God, and said, "Behold, I see the heavens opened and the son of man standing on the right hand of God". Then they cried out with a loud voice, and stopped their ears, and ran upon him with one accord, and cast him out of the city and stoned him, and the witnesses laid down their clothes at a young manís feet, whose name was Saul. And they stoned Stephen who was calling upon God and saying,"Lord Jesus, receive my spirit." And he kneeled down and cried with a loud voice, "Lord, lay not this sin to their charge", and when he had said this he fell asleep. Just as the object of his love had said, "Father, forgive them for they know not what they do", so Stephen emulated him. Thatís first love. Faithful, without guile, fearless; not all things to all men, but faithful and courageous in the face of certain death.
A bumper sticker which brought this subject to my attention says ďFirst Love Lasts ForeverĒ. But first love doesnít last forever. Amy finds out that Arnold is not perfect and thereís disillusionment. Or Arnold moves away and absence does not make the heart grow fonder. Out of sight, out of mind is the human experience. Thatís a cynical statement but I think itís true, and I think itís what happens to most of us. Out of sight, out of mind. Jesus lays it out very plainly in the 13th chapter of Matthew with the Parable of the Sower. Jesus, explaining the parable to his hearers says this, by way of interpretation in the 18th verse:.". . .when anyone hears the word of the kingdom and understands it not, then comes the wicked one and catches away that which was sown in his heart. This is he which received seed by the wayside. But he that receives the seed in stony places, the same is he that hears the word, and immediately with joy receives it. Yet he has not root in himself, but endures for a while, for when tribulation or persecution arises because of the word, by and by he is offended. He also that received the seed among the thorns is he that hears the word and the care of this world, and the deceitfulness of riches, choked the word and he becomes unfruitful." Well, it says here, those who received the word in stony places couldnít stand a little trouble, tribulation or persecution. We donít have to worry about that, we donít have any trouble to stand, or havenít had any so far, at least in terms of pressure brought on us by those who are unsympathetic to our view, but the next verse is right on the money: he also that received the seed among the thorns is he that hears the word and the care of this world, the deceitfulness of riches choke the word and he becomes unfruitful. I think of myself and you can think of yourself in the same way. Here I am, 63 years old, still healthy, good wife, four lovely daughters, grandchildren, healthy and happy, comfortably fixed, can do anything I reasonably want to do, donít have to work hard anymore, what else does life have to offer? Which brings me to what my mother said about two years before she died. She had a fair amount of trouble with her teeth. She went to the dentist and the dentist fixed her teeth and said, "What Iíve done is only temporary" And my mother told me she told the dentist, "Doctor, everything in life is temporary". And thatís the way it is, everything is temporary, itís just that some things are more temporary than others, and weíre beguiled and bewitched by the present, because day after day thereís no change, itís like watching the hands on a clock, you canít see those hands move, but theyíre moving. And so, I say to myself, I ought to say to myself when I get that feeling of complacency, I say to myself, I am rich and increased with goods and have need of nothing. And knowest not that thou art wretched and miserable, and poor, and blind, and naked.
Back to Ephesus. What was wrong with Ephesus? What made their works unacceptable? How could it be that they lost their first love? My conclusion is that thereís no statement made precisely with respect to what it was that was displeasing, but I think it must be that he church at Ephesus became wise in their own conceits. Wise in their own eyes, self righteous, full of self pity, because they had to endure with patience and tribulation. And notice what they were doing, however, they werenít particularly distributing to the necessity of saints, they were finding people in the ecclesia with whom they had disagreements, and driving them out, this sort of misspent effort to have the truth, as they viewed it, in all of its pristine clarity. The Bible speaks of the deceitfulness of sin, thatís what they suffered from. Thereís a wise Frenchman named La Rochefoucauld, who lived in the 17th century, and he wrote maxims, as was popular in that day, and he says, I think that this thing we know to be true, that sin is deceitful in a very revealing way. He said, "Our virtues are most frequently but vice in disguise." We are deceived by our sins, our motives are impure, we donít realize it, and the first thing you know we are doing our will. Thereís a talk show that I find myself listening to on the radio as I drive and itís amazing to me sometimes how bright some of our citizens are and how thoughtful they are about many subjects. But itís also interesting to me to listen to people who express a vigorous point of view, and then the commentator, who is generally a well read man, will point out some irrefutable facts that refute what the caller has just said, and the caller invariably always says in effect, ďI donít care what the facts are, this is what I think.Ē And thatís the way we go through life. We are not troubled by what the facts are, we have an opinion and we find that we arrogate our opinions to the level of virtues.
In that 12th chapter of Romans, Iím going to read to you now the first verse from the New English Bible. "Therefore, my brethren, I implore you by Godís mercy, to offer your very selves to Him, a living sacrifice, dedicated and fit for His acceptance, the worship offered by mind and heart. Adapt yourselves no longer to the pattern of this present world, but let your minds be remade and your whole nature thus transformed. Then you will be able to discern the will of God, and to know what is good, acceptable and perfect." If we would return to our first love, we need to renew our minds, which is what the word repent means. Repent again, have a first love again, if you can, impossible by definition, but strive for that so that you will be able to discern the will of God. Thatís what weíre trying to do. Discern the will of God and do it. Not what we want to do, not what we think we want to do, not what other people think we ought to do. Weíre like Amy, trying to discern what the will of Arnold is, and we donít try hard enough. Weíre always imposing our will on the will of God. And what is that will? The preeminent lecture by Jesus Christ about what the will of God is is set forth in the sermon on the mount. If a man asks of you your coat, give him your cloak also. If he asks you to walk a mile, walk two miles with him. Donít judge him so you wonít be judged. Love your enemies, seek the truth and youíll find it. Sounds like a lot of work, very unpleasant work, shows you how consciences are seared. Because, Paul says, if you do this work you will rejoice in Christ. This work brings rejoicing, not heartache, but joy both now and forevermore.
Let me just read to you about how Paul describes his own first love in the third chapter of Philippians, from the New English Bible: "I can make a strong case for myself, circumcised on the 8th day, Israelite by race of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born and bred, and my attitude toward the law a Pharisee in pious zeal, a persecutor of the church, in legal rectitude faultless, but all such assets I have written off because of Christ. I would say more, I count everything sheer loss because all is far outweighed by the gain of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I did indeed lose everything I counted so much garbage for the sake of gaining Christ and finding myself incorporate in him. With no righteousness of my own, no legal rectitude, but the righteousness that comes with faith in Christ, given by God in response to faith. All I care for is to know Christ, to experience the power of his resurrection and to share his suffering in growing conformity with his death. If only I may arrive at the resurrection from the dead. It is not to be thought that I have already achieved all this. I have not yet reached perfection. But I press on, hoping to take hold of that for which Christ once took hold of me. My friends, I do not reckon myself to have got hold of it yet, all I can say is this, forgetting what is behind me and reaching out for what lies ahead, I press toward the goal to win the prize which is Godís call in Christ Jesus."