First Love: Priority Love for God
Revelation 2:4, "Nevertheless I have against you, that you have left your first love."
"Nevertheless" is the strong contrastive conjunction which should be translated "But." He is emphasizing a strong contrast: this is what you are doing well, but … this is what you are doing wrong. The way that this comes cross in English is that we think first in terms of time, of sequence, of first, second and third. Often this is the way this passage is preached and the way commentators often handle this phrase is handled. Where that leads is into a real trap because the interpretation then comes out to be something like, "You have left your first love," and so that first love then is that love for Jesus at the beginning of our Christian life. Where that leads nearly everybody in terms of interpretation is to say something like this: that in the previous two verses the Ephesians are commended because of their doctrinal orthodoxy and their challenging of false claims, but they are doing it without love and so there is just this dead, cold orthodoxy there and they just don't love each other. The problem is that this sets up a false dichotomy between doctrine on the one hand and doctrinal accuracy on the one hand, and love on the other hand. And these are not inconsistent in the Scripture. The Scripture never presents doctrinal accuracy as somehow antithetical to having love. But this is the spirit of the age, the ecumenical attitude; that somehow we ought to love everybody and it doesn't matter that we have these doctrinal differences: let's just sweep them under the carpet and all hold hands, and sing O How I Love Jesus! We see this over and over again, not only in ecumenical circles but it is happening more and more in evangelical churches in the last twenty years.
What we are seeing today is just a historical reply of what happened at the end of the nineteenth century when there was the influx of German rationalism and Protestant liberal theology that infected the churches to where they no longer believed in the supernatural, they were discarding the infallibility of the Scripture, the virgin birth, miracles, and all these things. This is not to say that evangelical churches are that far, but they are in much moiré subtle ways rejecting the sufficiency of Scripture. The doctrines of inerrancy and infallibility of Scripture necessarily mean the Bible is sufficient in every area of life. It is not just in matters of faith and practice—that is the big scam that is seen in some doctrinal statements: that the Bible is inspired in all matters of faith and practice. But what about history? What about economics? What about law? What about the origin of the universe? Isn't it inerrant there also? So it is not what they say that is the problem, it is what they are leaving out. We are seeing this subtle intrusion. The church is looking to psychology, to aid in helping people with their problems; they no longer believe the Bible as absolutely sufficient for every problem and difficulty we face. When it comes to establishing and planting churches the model that people are going to is sociological studies, group dynamics—let's not just do what the Bible says, emphasizing that God provides the Word and if we teach the Word those who are positive will respond. Instead, they are going for all kinds of commercial models, advertising models, marketing models, in order to promote the church. These are things the apostle Paul never knew about. The apostle John never knew about; and yet, the apostles turned the world upside down simply by teaching the truth and letting God the Holy Spirit produce the fruit. So we have to be very careful today, because what happens when methodology is wrong and when methodology rejects the sufficiency of Scripture, then before long what you believe begins to shift and to drift. Part of what happens is this rejection of the importance of keeping doctrine pure. If we understand doctrine correctly, not simply as it is used by a lot of people (abstract theology) doctrine includes application. The theology that doesn't entail good application is bad theology. Doctrine is inherently applicational, not just academic exercise, intellectual gymnastics. It is learning to think biblically, and we have to learn to think biblically so that all the issues of life flow out of our thinking.
If we look at any Greek lexicon on this word translated "first," PROTOS [prwtoj], it not only means first in sequence but it also has the idea of that which is foremost, that which is most important, and that which is of the highest priority. So when we come to this phrase there is not a juxtaposition. If we take it the other way we wonder how they could have any spirituality at all. If they had left their first love, which is any kind of orientation to Christ, then how could they be praised for any spiritual values such as endurance; but obviously they have some spiritual growth, a certain amount of spiritual maturity. But what has happened is that they have lost the priority love, that foremost, most important love which is personal love for God. They have lost the love that characterizes a mature believer. When Paul wrote to the Ephesians, in Ephesians 1:15, he said, "Therefore I also, after I heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus, and your love for all the saints." This was a mature spiritual love, based upon what Jesus said in John 13:34-35, "A new commandment I give to you, That you love one another; as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another." This love for one another isn't some sort of sentimental, emotional, superficial love; this is a love that flows out of a relationship with God. Our personal love for God precedes personal love for all mankind, and that is because our relationship with God becomes the environment within which genuine love for others develops—that impersonal love for other believers that is not based on who they are or what they do but is based on who Jesus Christ is and what was done on the cross.
So the Ephesians have lost this mature love. They are still operating in the area of the basic spiritual skills, they have grown to a measure of spiritual maturity, but they are no longer at the level of maturity that the congregation had thirty years earlier when the apostle Paul wrote.
Characteristics of a healthy church
The context of Acts chapter two is the beginning of the church, the very first day of the church age—Pentecost, approximately AD 33. Peter has just given his message and he challenges his hearers to be saved, verse 40. The response is given in v. 41: "Then they that gladly received his word were baptized: and the same day there were added to them about three thousand souls. And they continued steadfastly in the apostles' doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers." So after Peter's message there were 3000 converts. So often what happens in churches is that that is what should characterize Christianity. But this is what characterized the birth. You never look at an adult and say their characteristics should be the same as when they were born. There are different stages in the life of the church in the church age, just as there are in the life of an individual. We don't want to focus on some of those things. We can get into a real trap going to Acts and trying to call out various principles for healthy churches. We have to be very careful in what we examine and that we evaluate it in light of the mature reflections of the epistles and other things. So what we see here is that there is a response, but the thing that comes out of this is that there is an evangelistic emphasis in the early church and it goes throughout the New testament and continues. One mark of a healthy church is evangelism. There is a concern for the lost. There is a communication of the gospel, not simply in terms of the corporate evangelism from the pulpit, though even a pastor is challenged to "do the work of an evangelist." But it is not just the pastor, it is the responsibility of individual believers to communicate the gospel to people in their periphery.
"And they continued steadfastly in the apostles' doctrine." The word there translated "continued steadfastly" is the Greek word PROSKATEREO [proskaterew], which means to be faithful to someone or to something, to busy one's self with something, to be busily engaged in something, or to be devoted to something. In other words, it means making it a high priority, something that you have a passion about. We should have a passion about learning the Word. That is what this means. They were devoted continuously to the apostles' doctrine and to fellowship. If we look at the English translation the way it is punctuated makes it look like a list of four things. It is not, it is a list of two things: apostles' doctrine and fellowship. The last two things that are listed are an appositional phrase, a phrase that is inserted to explain the previous word. The word is "fellowship." This passage defines fellowship as the breaking of bread (communion) and prayer. Who are we having fellowship in the Lord's table and in prayer. It is with God. This was the priority of the early believers: doctrine and fellowship with God. That is the foundation of a healthy church. When there is a group of believers that is truly devoted to doctrine and to fellowship with God personal evangelism is going to be a natural outgrowth over the course of their spiritual growth. A desire for missions, which is part of evangelism, is also going to be a characteristic of a church that has doctrine at its heart, because they want to see the Word going out. A church should be known as a church that has a heart for missions.
So in Acts 2:42 we see that the emphasis is on doctrine and fellowship. Fellowship with God, then, becomes the environment for fellowship with other believers. This is seen in 1 John 1:3, "That which we have seen and heard we declare to you [doctrine], that you also may have fellowship with us"—there is the teaching of the Word/doctrine so that there cane be true, genuine biblical fellowship, i.e. partnership and even social life between fellow believers—"and truly our fellowship is with the Father, and with his Son Jesus Christ." That is the framework. If there is no true, genuine fellowship with God (based upon sound doctrine) there is no fellowship with other believers. If your doctrine is screwed up there is no fellowship with God and there is no fellowship with other believers, no mater how much rapport you have with other believers. It is not biblical fellowship, it is just common every-day friendship, social life.
Fellowship with God always precedes true biblical fellowship with man. In the same way we can say that personal love for God precedes love for man. Before we can learn what it means to love other believers as Christ loved us we have to learn a lot of doctrine and a lot about God and His essence, His plan and His purposes. It is only within that environment that we can truly come to have the kind of love for others that Christ had for us. We have to remember that fellowship with God doesn't replace fellowship with man, but fellowship with man operates only within that environment of true biblical fellowship with God.
One other thing that we see as we look at Acts chapter two is that because of their devotion to doctrine, because of their fellowship with God, it flowed out into true biblical fellowship, love, concern and care for one another in the body of Christ. They were involved with one another to a profound level. There was a willingness to share of who and what they were, the substance that God had provided for them, with other believers who had genuine needs because they were genuinely concerned about others in the body of Christ. This was just one evidence of many in a growing, healthy congregation—their concern for one another. It is a concern that is expressed by being friendly to one another, to pray for one another, a concern that is expressed through realizing that someone else has a significant problem or has a need in their life where you have the resources to help them, and that you are willing to do it. But these are not programs that are imposed on the congregation from the leadership.