“Your First Love”
February 7, 2010
Regain the outward focus of your first love.
I. Endurance is commendable but can be self-focused (Revelation 2:1-4)
II. Regain the outward focus of your first love (Revelation 2:5-7)
Matthew West is a songwriter who made several independent albums, then signed a contract with Sparrow Records. In 2007 he had concerts booked and an album in the works. Then he lost his voice. The doctor’s report wasn't good: he had a vascular polyp and hemorrhaged blood vessels on his vocal chords. His only chance at singing again was 2 months of total silence and surgery.
The concerts were canceled, the new album postponed, and Matthew's only form of communication became a dry erase board. Things got dark and West says he was in an uncertain place. His faith, however, didn't allow him to stay there for long. He turned to writing in journals and praying, determined to get closer to God. The silence forced him to grow as a man and a Christian.
The album he had put on hold, took on new life as songs he’d already written took on deeper meanings. In the end the album was a success and one song, "The Motions," led to a campaign called "No More Going through the Motions." A blogger named Kim Jones writes “For me, that campaign and song caused me to look around me at the people I see in life. It appears that "going through the motions" is a matter of course. It is almost like there is some book (that nobody even remembers reading) that tells us what a "good ________" should act like. We mindlessly strive to be that good ________ on the surface, never really connecting or understanding what it is we're trying to become.” In other words, we’re just going through the motions.
This is not a new phenomenon. In the book of Revelation Jesus writes letters to seven churches, representative, I believe, of the church around the world and across the ages. He addresses the needs of these churches, and the first concern he expresses to the first church is about going through the motions. He calls them to repent, and to regain their first love. And I believe many of us need to hear the same call, to regain the outward focus of our first love for Christ, in our marriages, in our parenting, at church and as a church in our communities. We need to regain the outward focus of our first love.
I. Endurance is commendable but can be self-focused (Revelation 2:1-4)
Let’s read the text of this letter from Jesus to a church, to the church, to our church. Revelation 2:1-7 To the angel of the church in Ephesus write: These are the words of him who holds the seven stars in his right hand and walks among the seven golden lampstands: I know your deeds, your hard work and your perseverance. I know that you cannot tolerate wicked men, that you have tested those who claim to be apostles but are not, and have found them false.
3You have persevered and have endured hardships for my name, and have not grown weary. 4Yet I hold this against you: You have forsaken your first love. 5Remember the height from which 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. 6But you have this in your favor: You hate the practices of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate. 7He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To him who overcomes, I will give the right to eat from the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God.
These letters in Revelation follow a set pattern. This letter has all the elements. So today, while we talk about the letter we’re going to unfold that pattern that we’ll see in each of the subsequent letters. It begins, simply enough, with the ‘to’ and ‘from’ parts of the letter: ‘To the angel of the church in Ephesus.’
I mentioned last week that I believe the angels of these churches symbolize or personify the prevailing spirit or ethos of each church. This makes sense of the fact that the content of the letters speaks directly to church community as a whole. Here the church in Ephesus is addressed. Ephesus was the most prominent city in Asia Minor under the Roman Empire, with an early and important church served by Paul, Timothy and the apostle John.
So the church in Ephesus receives a letter from ‘him who holds the seven stars in his right hand and walks among the seven golden lampstands.’ The ‘from’ portion of each letter describes Jesus, mostly using images from chapter 1. Here the image is of authority and personal interest. He holds the seven stars, the angels, messengers, hearts of the seven churches in his hand; he can do with them what he likes. He walks among the seven lampstands: he observes and takes interest in them; it’s important to him how they’re doing.
So Jesus speaks to the church: stop and think about that. I’ve listened to the book of Revelation a number of times recently, and I’ve been struck in these chapters by this fact that this is Jesus speaking; these are his very words. The audio version I’m using is well done enough that it reinforces that truth for me. These are the personal thoughts of the one who rose to reign.
In verses 2 and 3 Jesus commends this church. This is the third component of each of these seven letters. Yet these verses also lead to the ‘going through the motions’ attitude of the Ephesians: “I know your deeds, your hard work and your perseverance.” There’s nothing wrong with deeds, hard work. Scripture never says so, and I don’t believe so, though the whole world tells me and my family ‘you’ve got to slow down.’ Show me that in Scripture. Rest, yes; you’ve got to rest. But stop working? Stop persevering? No. I don’t see it.
The rest of verse 2 commends another thing our culture doesn’t find commendable: “I know that you cannot tolerate wicked men, that you have tested those who claim to be apostles but are not, and found them false.” Jesus commends intolerance; our culture calls it the only sin. Jesus commends truth: these so called messengers of God have been tested by the Gospel truth and found false. Our culture denies truth and embraces a subjective reality.
Remember, Jesus is writing to the church in Ephesus: they’d been taught to do this. Before Paul was imprisoned and taken to Rome he had met with and warned the Ephesian elders about just this kind of thing: “I know that after I leave, savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock. 30Even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them. 31So be on your guard! Remember that for three years I never stopped warning each of you night and day with tears.”
Jesus says the Ephesians did this: defended the church by defending the truth. No matter how many times this has been done badly, hypocritically, with lack of compassion, enmity or poor judgment we have no excuse to stop defending the truth. No matter how popular a preacher T D Jakes is, if he won’t affirm the doctrine of the Trinity, he’s a heretic. Everything I see tells me he sees the Trinity not as three persons, but three manifestations of one person. Yet in our culture, it’s considered distasteful and unimportant to point that out.
So Jesus commends defense of the truth, and more. Verse 3: “You have persevered and have endured hardships for my name, and have not grown weary.” One of these words, persevered is used in verse 2, and implies patience under trial. He adds the word ‘endured,’ which implies bearing up under hardships, holding up a great weight. In this, Jesus says, you have not grown weary. Although I expect anyone who bears great weight for a long time will grow weary in some sense, these people have not succumbed to weariness.
Again, this is a commendation. We tend to think someone bearing a great weight of work or difficulty, especially at work, or at church, will be commended if they back off, use common sense, take care of themselves. But that idea isn’t real common in Scripture. It appears occasionally, as in Jethro’s counsel to Moses, but the norm is to call people to persevere and endure under trials, difficulties and responsibilities that weigh on them.
Still I do think this affirmation has ‘yeah, but.’ It’s not ‘yeah, but you’re working too hard.’ Rather, Jesus is going to call this church back to doing the things they did at first with the passion they had at first. So the ‘yeah, but’ here is ‘yeah, but don’t let this endurance be only going through the motions.’
Kim Jones interviewed Matthew West and they talked about ways believers settle for going through the motions. In marriage, West says “I’m guilty of going through the motions. Comfort is dangerous with your spouse. I remember, after a couple years of marriage, I stepped on a scale and I was heavier than I’d ever been. What happened to the guy counting the days to his wedding and wearing out the treadmill? He got comfortable. He got married. He got the girl. He didn’t have to impress. Comfort makes us lazy. Lazy is never good. Lazy in love can be the death sentence for a marriage."
In parenting: “My parents were the best example of how to be in the mix with your kids. There were days I wondered if my buddies wanted to come and hang at my house just to be around my dad. So many kids today don’t even know their dad, and many more split time between two parents that wear their parenthood like a bothersome burden, who resent the fact that the children they brought into the world want their attention! Going through the motions with our kids can leave a huge void they will not soon get over.”
In faith: “I have struggled over the years to stay fresh in my faith. At a certain point, I think I mastered the art of looking, talking, and acting like a "good" Christian. I learned how to put up a front, make everyone around me think I had it all together, even if my heart was not in it. The thing is, dressing up, going to church, dropping a twenty in the offering plate, those things are all well and good, but that doesn't make you a Christian. God is way more concerned with the condition of our hearts than our outward appearance."
II. Regain the outward focus of your first love (Revelation 2:5-7)
Going through the motions is the opposite of what Jesus desires. It’s what he rebukes in the Ephesian church. Verse 4: “Yet I hold this against you: You have forsaken your first love. 5Remember the height from which 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.” Rebuk is the next characteristic of most of these letters. Like a loving parent he commends what is good, but doesn’t gloss over things that are wrong or lacking.
Here he literally says ‘love, the first, you’ve abandoned it.’ This ‘love’ is agape, the unconditional love that characterizes God and is supposed to characterize believers. Sadly, there is a very real danger that zeal for doctrine and purity will deaden love for God and others. We all know the stories and stereotypes of those so zealous for truth they completely lose touch with mercy, caring, and compassion. But this isn’t the only thing in a believer’s life that can threaten first love: there are the many kinds of ‘going through the motions’ that imitate badly the behaviors and attitudes of real love, first love.
Let’s pause a moment and figure out Biblically the essential elements of this first love. When Jesus was asked about the greatest commandments, he said ‘love for God and love for others.’ There is no doubt these two all-encompassing loves are first or primary loves, to which the Ephesians were called. There has to be a sense in which they were just going through the motions in loving God; maybe not even going through the motions in loving others.
But if Jesus was speaking about love in the ways he had taught it to John, then first love must also embrace Jesus’ words ‘As I have loved you, so you should love one another.’ John will later explain exactly what this implies: “This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. 10This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. 11Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.”
Finally, notice that the sin-paying sacrifice of Jesus calls us to this love. Both his love for us and our love for him compel us. 2 Corinthians 5:14 “For the love of Christ compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died. 15And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again.” First love is love for Jesus lived out in passionate and compassionate love for others. That’s why my key sentence is ‘Regain the outward focus of your first love.’ His love for us compels us to love him and others.
Jesus says “Remember the height from which you have fallen!” Their first love had been notable. When Paul wrote to the Ephesians many years earlier he said “ever since I heard about your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for all the saints, 16I have not stopped giving thanks for you.” Their love for one another had been remarkable – but oh how far they’ve fallen. “Repent, and do the things you did at first.” How many times has it been said: love is an action verb. He doesn’t say ‘feel the things you felt at first.’ That’s not what love is all about, despite what our culture would say. He says ‘do the things you did at first: express love in action, behavior, attitude and speech.
Matthew West talks about applying this truth in his marriage: "The book, The Five Love Languages has been a big learning experience. It really helped me understand how to communicate love to my wife. It has a lot to do with choosing not to be selfish. For example, early in marriage, I thought I was God’s gift to my wife because I could write her a beautiful love song and surely she would get weak in the knees and know she is loved. Then I began to dig in and find out what says “I Love You” to her, how to really say it. It turns out I’m really attractive when I vacuum without being asked to!"
So, in our families, Matthew West says “A lot of times, I see people completely neglect their families, then say, 'Man, I don’t know what’s wrong. I can’t figure out why my family is a mess…' Families don’t fall apart overnight; it’s a gradual decay. The irony is, I tend to treat the ones who matter most to me with the least amount of care. It’s like I know my family isn’t going anywhere, so I can afford to go through the motions with them. That’s the lie that leads to our families falling apart. Treat those most important to you accordingly. Don’t take them, or the time you spend with them for granted.”
In our daily walk: “The church is often criticized for being inauthentic, less than genuine. When a Christian is content to simply go through the motions in their faith, they confirm the criticism of the world. So how do you “practice what you preach?” It’s a personal choice, choosing daily to break free from the motions in your life and faith. Go on a missions trip. Read your Bible even when you don’t feel like it. Get involved at your church. Volunteer your time at a homeless shelter. The bottom line is, you can’t say one thing and do another very long. It catches up with you. People will eventually see the real you. And God always sees the real you. It’s not about being perfect. It’s about offering God your whole life, and asking him to help you.”
So this is a call to regain the outward focus of your first love – not by igniting your feelings, but by doing what you did at first, taking the actions that show love, having the attitudes that love creates. This is the way to recover the passion of that love. I’ve told the story many times about the woman who told her counselor she no longer loved her husband and wanted a divorce. This wise counselor said ‘Well if you really hate your husband you ought to do something to get back at him.” To this she wholeheartedly agreed. So he said “Go home and act like you love him: cook his favorite foods, wear his favorite clothes, avoid the things that irritate him; pamper him outrageously. After you’ve got him thoroughly hooked, then tell him you want the divorce.
After several weeks the wife hadn’t called back, so the counselor called her and said “Well, are you ready to give it to this guy?” She said “Oh, no; doing all this for him reminded me how much I really love him.” Do what you did at first and there is a good chance you’ll feel what you felt at first.
Jesus closes with an exhortation to hear what is said and a promise to those who do. Verse 7: “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To him who overcomes, I will give the right to eat from the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God.” The last two sections of each letter, which are frequently, as here, in the reverse order are the promise to those who obey, and an exhortation to listen to this word from the Holy Spirit.
The word ‘overcomes’ is from the Greek root nike, meaning victorious. So Jesus is saying to us as Christians what Nike is saying to us as athletes: hang in there, finish the race, and receive the reward.
In many of these letters it’s easy to see how the commendation or the rebuke fits with this promise. Not so easy in this case. But we can say that eating from the tree of life and living in the paradise of God take us back to the un-fallen world where relationships were good, not hurtful; where there was no going through the motions. Jesus is promising a return to those pre-fall conditions both in our love for others and our love for God. Holding on to first love will ultimately lead to this restored and perfect state of love.
You and I are called to repent of just going through the motions, in your family, in your marriage, in church life, or in your life at work and in the community. Rather, regain the outward focus of your first love, when love for God and love for others motivated your attitudes, behavior and words.
This is the message God brought to Matthew West in his months of silence. The song that captured that for him was called ‘The Motions.’
Obviously, God did give him his voice back. And it’s interesting that the title of the album that includes that song was picked before he lost his voice. It’s called, ‘Something to Say.’ Regain the outward focus of your first love.