That is to love God, to do what He requires of us, and to love one another
ONE of the most interesting Christian communities in the New Testament is the Christian church in Ephesus. We first encounter the Ephesian church in Acts 19 where we read that the apostle Paul made the church the centre for evangelism for three years. It clearly flourished.
We read in Revelation 2:1-7 that this church was bold in witness and testimony. At that time, Rome was at its zenith and the Roman emperor, Domitian, convinced himself that he was divine. Domitian launched a cult of emperor worship and had a statue of himself erected in the imperial temple. The church was prepared to stand up to the considerable societal pressures of the day by refusing to have anything to do with this cult. This uncompromising stand cost the Christian community dearly.
Christian traders and artisans had to withdraw from trade and professional guilds because of the guilds’ association with the new cult. The business and economic prospects of Christians suffered as a result. The community was ostracised. The authorities’ suspicions and resentment of Christians built up quickly. In time, this served as a convenient basis for widespread persecution on an unprecedented scale. Notwithstanding the cost, the Christians persevered.
Meanwhile, false apostles and religious leaders attempted to move the church towards a more accommodating stance in relation to pagan beliefs and rituals. In arguments which would not be unfamiliar today, the secular intelligentsia had argued that the church should be more “politically sensitive” — after all, a more flexible doctrinal position would have enlarged their constituency of supporters.
Again the Ephesian church was prepared to be unpopular. It refused to compromise and, instead, unequivocally exposed these false prophets and teachers. There was certainly no shortage of courage and conviction. Jesus acknowledged as much when He said of this church that “you have persevered and have endured hardships for my name, and have not grown weary” (Revelation 2:3).
A stinging indictment
Nevertheless, readers of Revelation 2 would not have missed our Lord’s stinging reproach of this same church in the very next verse: “Yet I hold this against you: You have forsaken your first love” (Revelation 2:4). Our Lord was so serious in driving this point that He warned in verse 5: “If you do not repent, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place.” Having the lampstand removed in the context of this passage is equivalent to snuffing out the church’s existence.
By any standards, this was an astounding indictment. Here was a church which could justifiably claim all the hallmarks of bold Christian witness in terms of persecution and service — all the stuff which would immortalise any church in a churches’ hall of fame — yet our Lord unflinchingly rebuked it for forsaking its “first love”! What is this “first love” which weighs so importantly in God’s view of a church? And if we hold that a church is but a body of Christians, we can pose that question at the individual level as well: “What should be a Christian’s first love?”
The expression “first love” is a short-hand reference to the raison d’etre of our faith. It clearly recalls the terms by which Jesus explained the thrust of God’s commandments: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind … Love your neighbour as yourself” (Matthew 22:37). To love God is to be directed by the will of God, that is, to do what God requires.
And what God requires of us is encapsulated in another frequently cited verse in Micah 6:8: “And what does God require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”
God wants us to walk with Him. To walk with Him means to spend time with Him: time for Him to speak to us and for us to appreciate His blessings. It also means taking time to allow Him to use our lives to bless others: time to lift up a friend or loved one who is downtrodden, time to visit and pray for someone who is sick and time to share our blessings.
Even in church work do not be crowded with ‘busyness’
Back to basics
In our time when churches in the West tend to swing excessively towards doctrinal liberalism — to
the extent, for example, of removing gender from any reference to God — the importance of pursuing sound doctrine and public witness cannot be over-emphasised. Similarly no one can seriously dispute that a New Testament church born of Christ must develop the character to withstand persecution and hardships.
Nevertheless, it is clear from this letter that in God’s order of things, these attainments by themselves are second to the fundamental command that God’s people must above all love Him and love one another.
How does a church, or indeed, a Christian lose his first love? A common situation seems to be when we allow ourselves to be so busy that we forgot what we are busy for. It is easy to slip into a life where every moment is scheduled for something, and nothing is left for us to just be alone with God. This can happen even when the things we are busy with are wholesome and holy.
We need to remind ourselves that the church was not bought with Christ’s blood just so that it could be busy — whether this busyness stems from a pre-occupation with false prophets (as in the case of the Ephesian church) or a church building project (as in many churches today). The church is redeemed for God Himself, to restore the relationship between God and man which was broken when Adam fell.
We sometimes think of the worth of a church in terms of the “corporate trappings” associated with a church. It is easy to convince ourselves that the health of a church is determined by the size of its congregation, the size of its budget, the size of its missions programme, the size of its cell group network, and so on. If John is here today, I think he would say: “Yes this is all great stuff, but what are you doing this for?” If the honest answer is that we do these just to prove that we are a better church than the church down the road or another church in our Methodist conference, then we had better think again!
Similarly, at the individual level, we need to be careful not to allow our lives to be crowded with “busyness” even in the course of church work if, in so doing, we sacrifice our compassion for the people whom God has placed around each one of us. Thus, if our busyness with church meetings and programmes caused us to ignore someone who has a real spiritual or physical need, we need God’s help to know how to determine our priorities.
An even more serious problem exists when pre-occupation with being respectable within the church crowd leads us to be uncomfortable to minister to people who are different. For example, if I were to encounter a publicly disgraced person or a convict, would I who profess to give my all to God be equally compassionate to this person even though I do not condone what he has done?
The return route
How does a church or a Christian reclaim his first love? The remedy prescribed in verse 5 is intensely practical and straightforward. The verse simply states that we are to “remember”, that is, to recall a time when love and fellowship prevailed throughout the community. By remembering, we appreciate how far we may have veered from spiritual reality. This awareness triggers true repentance and leads us to seek God’s help to reclaim this first love.
We should not make the mistake of imagining that the command for us to love is for God’s benefit. God, like any loving Father, relishes close interaction with us and delights in our worship. However, because we are now in God’s family through Jesus, our very spiritual character is built up when we remember our first love.
This process recharges our spiritual batteries. As God talks to us and allows us to distribute His blessings to others, we learn to love and to grow in faith and discernment. We learn to take on increasingly the likeness of Christ. Thus in John 13:35, Jesus said: “By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”
May God continue to remind us that the first cut of our time and consciousness belongs to Him and that everything else flows from the first love He taught us when we received Christ as our Saviour. — The Beacon.
SEEK GOD’S HELP
‘How does a church or a Christian reclaim his first love? … We are to “remember” … to recall a time when love and fellowship prevailed throughout the community. By remembering, we appreciate how far we may have veered from spiritual reality. This awareness triggers true repentance and leads us to seek God’s help to reclaim this first love.’
Chow Kok Fong is a member of Paya Lebar Methodist Church.