by John O. Reid (1930-2016)
One of the primary instructions God gives us through Joel's prophecy—along with a command to fast—is, "Rend your heart, and not your garments" (Joel 2:13). In thinking about this, I was not sure how to "rend" my heart. We all know how to fast—what attitude to have and what to ask of God—but with all the numbing experiences we had endured over the last decade, I felt ill-equipped to understand how to rend my heart.
It then occurred to me that God left us an example of a church that paralleled what we have gone through. I felt sure that in that example is a solution we can all apply to help us become what God desires of us. That example is the church at Ephesus, the congregation Jesus Christ uses to typify the attitudes and experiences of the first-century church (Revelation 2:1-7).
In the first century, the city of Ephesus had an environment very similar to our own in modern-day America. It was the crossroads of civilization, politically known as "the Supreme Metropolis of Asia." The Roman governor of the region lived there, and it was the religious center for the worship of the fertility goddess known by the Greeks as Artemis and by the Romans as Diana. Her temple on the outskirts of the city was one of the seven wonders of the world.
Economically, Ephesus was a giant among first-century cities. With its strategic location, it was the chief commercial center of western Asia Minor. Its harbor brought ships from around the Mediterranean, and its two major roads gave ready access to other cities along the coast and inland. Diana's temple, considered sacrosanct throughout the Roman world, became the primary banking institution in Asia Minor.
Morally, however, the city was bankrupt. Just as our nation is inundated with perversion and pornography, Ephesus was controlled by the educated prostitutes affiliated with Diana worship. Part of the cult of Diana was the use of ritual prostitution whereby the devotee became "joined" with the goddess through her priestesses, ensuring her favor throughout the year.
One philosopher, commenting on the moral climate in Ephesus, wrote that the inhabitants of the city were fit only to be drowned. He said that the reason he could never smile or laugh was because he lived amidst such terrible uncleanness.
It was to members of His church who lived among such prosperity and depravity that Christ addresses His first letter among seven in Revelation 2 and 3.
The Ephesians' Works
After identifying Himself to the Ephesians, Jesus begins His letter by informing the church that He knew their works, both collectively and individually (Revelation 2:2-3). He knew their attitudes, thoughts, desires, goals—everything about them! He knew their hearts better than they did, just as He knows ours today.
He tells them He was aware of everything they had gone through—how they had endured much persecution, suffering and agony because of apostasy and intolerance. He knew of their fortitude in standing for the truth and what a labor it was to persevere, though they never gave in to weariness.
He then mentions how they had rejected false leaders and their subversions. They would not listen to those who tried to pervert the truth and change doctrine, and they stood fast in opposing them once they found such to be liars. He knew how hard they tried to keep the laws and principles of the truth the true apostles had taught them.
In this description, as well as from the history of the first-century church from the book of Acts and the epistles of the apostles, we see a church that had fallen apart despite the strenuous efforts of some members to hang on to the truth. It was a church that had let something vital slip out of its grasp amidst the mounting trials and persecutions of the times.
Christ brings to their attention that they had lost their first love, the ardent desire to please God (verse 4). Their focus had shifted from where it should have been to the problems and the events happening around them. The strife generated by angry words, bad attitudes, friends and family leaving their fellowship and teachings being changed took its toll on everyone. The byproducts that such turmoil produced were mistrust and suspicion.
Humanly, we might think that God would consider the Ephesians' efforts to hang on to the truth against the apostasy as sufficient, but it is obvious that He does not. For our eternal good, He expects more of us. However, He does not leave us without guidance about how to recapture what we have lost.
Why is first love so important to God? First love is the purest kind of spiritual love we as humans can demonstrate. It is a love that truly shows one's heart is completely given to God. Notice how God speaks of love in Jeremiah 2:1-3:
Moreover the word of the Lord came to me, saying, "Go and cry in the hearing of Jerusalem, saying, ‘Thus says the Lord, "I remember you, the kindness of your youth, the love of your betrothal, when you went after Me in the wilderness, in a land that was not sown. Israel was holiness to the Lord, the firstfruits of His increase."'"
What does first love produce? Paul answers in II Thessalonians 1:3:
We are bound to thank God always for you, brethren, as it is fitting, because your faith grows exceedingly, and the love of every one of you all abounds toward each other.
He also writes in Hebrews 6:10,
For God is not unjust to forget your work and labor of love which you have shown toward His name, in that you have ministered to the saints, and do minister.
True love of God always promotes love of the brethren and love toward fellow man.
Revelation 2:5 instructs us to remember from where we have fallen, to repent and to do the works we did when we had our first love. We have three commands here: remember, repent and do. If we fail to follow through on these, God says very bluntly, "I will come to you quickly and remove your lampstand from its place." This is serious!
Individually, then, we must compare our present attitudes, efforts, zeal and love to what they were when we were first converted. We should have no trouble doing this because, for most of us, our first months or years in the church are still vivid in our minds. We probably all had similar experiences.
We expressed our first love by diligently obeying all we learned. We took great pains to study, fast, pray and meditate regularly, giving up valuable time we had once used for our recreation or entertainment. We stood up for the Sabbath and argued with the school system and our employers over Christmas, Easter and Halloween. We tithed carefully, and the holy days, especially the Feast of Tabernacles, were such a thrill!
We hungered for God's Word and could never get enough of the Bible and the church's literature. We had faith in the ministers God sent to us, seeing them as helpers of our joy. We really worked to overcome every little sin we found, not wanting to disappoint God in the least matter. We had supreme faith in God's purpose, both for mankind as a whole and for us as individuals. We were very serious about our calling.
We would have done none of these things before being called. Our first love was a wonderful thing to behold—true devotion and dedication to God, manifested by zealously bending every effort to conform to His will. We outwardly loved God and trusted Him. He was always in our thoughts.
Some people in this world get a kind of first love for a political party, a team or a cause. But our first love came upon us because God opened our minds and revealed Himself to us, and what we saw we recognized as truly awesome and wondrous. When we learned that such a magnificent Being wanted us to be members of His Family forever, we caught the vision! This opened our minds to new thoughts, new ideas, new horizons—and so we were filled with first love.
Years may have passed. The "newness" of God's way has worn off. Friends, family and ministers have let us down. So much has changed in our lives and in the church that those heady days seem impossible to recapture. But God commands us that we must remember what it was like and return to them in spirit, in attitude and in works because God has not let us down nor has His purpose changed.
Paul tells Timothy to "stir up the gift of God which is in you" (II Timothy 1:6), and in a sense, this is what Christ reminds us to do in His brief message to the Ephesian church. We have to stir ourselves to rekindle our love for God and the brethren and serve them in humility and kindness.
Once we regain this godly love, we will probably notice that it is somewhat different from what we had just after conversion. Most of us have had many years of experience and growth in the meantime. This will tend to produce a more seasoned, mature "first love," which is exactly what God wants. We will be able to pursue godliness with the zeal of youth and the wisdom of maturity.
Though I was not quite sure of the steps I needed to take to rend my heart, I learned that at least one of the first steps is to remember our first love. This puts us in the frame of mind that we need to throw ourselves on God's mercy and diligently act to reestablish an intimate relationship with Him.