A respected older brother once said to the writer, "Nothing can replace devotion to Christ". His words have never left me. I realised then, and in some measure realise now, that they are true.
The words of our risen Lord Jesus to the assembly at Ephesus (Rev 2.1-7) certainly confirm this. They had much to earn the Lord's commendation: hard work, endurance, intolerance of evil doctrine and practice. The Lord did not say that they had no love for Him at all. Yet He could see clearly that something vital to true Christian testimony was lacking in their activity, zeal, correctness of life, and orthodoxy of doctrine. That something was "first love" for Him, their Lord and Head of the church. Without it they could never really please Him fully, nor "do the first works". So serious a matter was this that, unless there was repentance of their sad condition, He would remove their lamp of testimony from the world altogether. History records that the assembly at Ephesus did cease to exist in later times. However, in addressing that assembly the Lord was addressing all local assemblies throughout the Christian era. He is warning us all of the danger of not acting out of the "first love" He desires.
Although we may be in local assembly fellowship we must examine ourselves in the Lord's presence to see if this exhortation applies to us today. Certainly, we are being badly affected by the current climate of materialism and immorality in the Western world. For whatever reason it may be, we are probably not as warm in our affection for the Lord and His interests as were some of our forebears. The condition of some Third World believers' hearts towards the Lord may be far better than ours, for many of them are suffering for their faith like the assembly at Smyrna. In our desire to be like the faithful and warm-hearted assembly at Philadelphia, let us be careful that we are not really more like the assembly at Ephesus, and so in danger of closure by the Lord.
We probably rarely enjoyed better ministry in these islands than we do today. Believers in other countries are eager to receive it too. And yet, many assemblies here are not flourishing. Our orthodoxy and outward correctness of doctrine will not prove enough to avoid this. Nothing but repentance and a return to "first love" will suffice to "do the first works" and so avoid the Lord's judgmental hand upon us all.
What, then, is this "first love" for which the Lord is looking? In the context of the assembly at Ephesus, to whom and about whom so much is said in the New Testament, it probably refers to the fervour of the first generation of believers who formed it in Paul's day of ministry there. Paul's epistle to the Ephesians, which represents a high point both in the teaching of redemptive truth concerning the Church universal and probably also in the assembly's spiritual condition, ends with the words, "Grace be with all them that love our Lord Jesus Christ in sincerity. Amen" (Eph 6.24). "Sincerity" here means "uncorruptness" (RV), or "incorruption" (JND); that is, not corrupted by any wrong doctrines, attitudes, or motives. Christ's bride must be pure in every way for Himself alone, for bridal affections are clearly in view.
The Song of Solomon, beautifully but challengingly, illustrates what these involve. The growth of the Shulamite's love for her beloved can be clearly traced through the book, and it illustrates the growth of a true believer's love for Christ today. She says, "My beloved is mine, and I am his" (2.16), where she thinks primarily of her own possession of her beloved, and only secondarily of his possession of her. After some testing experiences she says, "I am my beloved's, and my beloved is mine" (6.3), where she has learned to yield herself to the will of her beloved but still thinks of her part in him. Finally, she leaves herself out of the reckoning altogether as she says, "I am my beloved's, and his desire is towards me" (7.10), where she not only accepts his total lordship but also shows that she unselfishly appreciates her beloved's heart and truest longings for her. The parallel with a believer's love for Christ is obvious, and important to appreciate concerning the Ephesian saints' forsaking of their "first love" for Christ. Love for Christ will certainly include love for all His brethren and for the unsaved. So the latter aspects of love may have suffered as well as devotion to the Saviour.
Perhaps, then, it may be helpful to suggest some of the characteristics that should mark our own "first love" that will issue in "first works" and obtain our Lord's approbation.
First, simple gratitude to Christ for His great love shown to us at Calvary and for His forgiveness of our sins. Worship and service without gratitude are cold and heartless. Remember the tearful appreciation shown by the woman who had been a sinner (Lk 7.36-50). Have we ceased to love much, because we have forgotten that we have been forgiven much? Ingratitude for forgiveness implies insensitivity to sin, which destroys all genuine love for our Saviour.
Second, purity of life and transparent sincerity of motive to please Christ only. There must be no distracting rival objects in our lives to mar our allegiance to our one Master, for these are idols usurping His claims upon us. No corruptness of life or doctrine should taint our unique relationship with our heavenly bridegroom. No hypocrisy should mark us in our worship or service for Him.
Third, humility of heart and self-judgment before our Lord, remembering that we are at best only saved sinners and unprofitable servants of the Most High God and His Beloved Son. Our only boast is in Christ crucified and now glorified in heaven.
Fourth, self-sacrifice inspired by that of Christ for us. It is the least we can do to begin to repay the infinite debt of love we owe Him. It will involve denying ourselves, deliberately taking up our cross of whole-hearted discipleship to Him daily, and following Him wherever He should lead us by His Spirit through His Word. The cost of "first love" is high, but is required of us as our reasonable service for all God's mercies to us.
Fifth, warmth of affection, expressed towards both Christ Himself and towards all those whom He wants to love through us, namely, all our fellow-believers and the unsaved people living around us.
Ice-cold Christians, full only of correct doctrine and legalistic practices, are a denial of the loving spirit of our Lord. Both the Lord and others respond to genuine and obedient devotion more than anything else. "We love, because he first loved us" (1 Jn 4.19, RV).
Sixth, joy and delight in Christ. This enables us to face and overcome all suffering that may come to us, as it did to Him, in the pathway of God's will. Joyless love is unthinkable in any bride, let alone Christ's.
Seventh, complete openness of expression of our devotion to Christ at all times and in all circumstances. We cannot have "first love" if we are secret disciples.
Eighth, enthusiastic obedience in our service for Christ. Nothing should be too much for us to do for the One who loved us so much that He gave Himself for us (Gal 2.20).
Ninth, intense practicality in its expression. Jesus was prepared to do the most menial task to demonstrate to His disciples the meaning of His own "first love" for them (Jn 13.1-17). So should we for His sake.
Finally, control by the Holy Spirit and the Word of God at all times in the way we express it. No lusts of the flesh should mar our devotion to Christ. We should live a well-balanced Christian life, not marked by carnal extremes or disobedience. "First love" and implicit obedience should be married together in our daily lives.
This article is a call to all of us who are in local assembly fellowship today to consider, from the foregoing analysis of what "first love" is, whether or not we in any serious way fall short of it, and, if so, to remember perhaps better days in our Christian lives, to repent of our sins, and by God's grace once again to "do the first works". Only thus can we be sure of the Lord's blessing upon the testimonies we represent, and their long-term continuance. May our response to His rebuke not be out of a sense of mere duty or obligation, but rather out of warm responsive "first love" to Him. For Christ our heavenly Bridegroom both deserves and asks for nothing less. Will we give it to Him?