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8) When Doctrine Isn't Enough (2:4-5)

There’s never an excuse for bad theology. We must continually strive to refine our thoughts and bring them into ever increasing conformity to God’s Word. But there comes a time when doctrine isn’t enough!


Stop! Before we go forward with another word, please do not draw unwarranted conclusions from that statement. Don’t think for a moment that simply because there is more to being a Christian than right thinking that being a Christian is possible with less than right thinking. When I say there comes a time when doctrine isn’t enough, that in no way justifies theological laxity, compromise, or the embracing of anti-intellectualism, as if the mind did not matter.


What I’m saying is that Christianity necessarily entails both orthodox belief and obedient behavior. It’s inconceivable to me that anyone would suggest that it only matters what we believe or, conversely, that it only matters how we behave. The two are inseparably wedded in the purposes of God and each withers in the absence of the other.


Having said that, and it was critically important that I say it, we can now proceed to observe that our Lord’s notable commendation of the Ephesians is coupled with an equally incisive complaint: “But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first” (Rev. 2:4).


There’s no agreement among scholars of Revelation as to what “love” the Ephesians had “abandoned” (ESV) or “left” (NAS). The answer depends in part on how one understands and translates the word “first”. Does it mean “first” in terms of time or chronology? That is the view embraced by the ESV, as they render it, “you have abandoned the love you had at first.” The idea would be that this is a “love” they experienced immediately after their conversion and during the early days of their Christian life. Although the ESV rendering doesn’t require it, the implication would be that the “love” they had abandoned was brotherly love, love for other Christians in the church.


Others argue that this love was “first” in the sense that it is the most important love that anyone can experience, that is to say, it is that primary love for the Lord Jesus Christ that comes before or takes precedence over all other loves in terms of value. This view is suggested by the NAS which translates, “you have left your first love.” Surely, if the emphasis is on that “love” which is of preeminent importance, that “love” which must be pursued above all other loves, it is love for Jesus himself.


In his epistle to the Ephesians, written some 30 years earlier, Paul mentioned the fervency of their love for one another (1:15-16) and concluded the letter with a blessing on those “who love our Lord Jesus Christ with love incorruptible” (6:24). But now, notes Grant Osborne, “they had lost the first flush of enthusiasm and excitement in their Christian life and had settled into a cold orthodoxy with more surface strength than depth. The second generation of the church had probably failed to maintain the fervor of the first” (115). But which “love” had they now lost: love for one another or love for Jesus or perhaps love for both?


There are two contextual clues that I believe indicate the reference is primarily (but not exclusively) to “brotherly” love. First, how can it be that they’ve abandoned their love for Christ if in the immediately preceding verse (v. 3) Christ himself commends them for enduring patiently for his name’s sake? The latter words imply, if not require, the devotion and affection and love for Jesus that would inspire them to suffer for the sake of promoting and praising his name. If they didn’t fervently love Jesus, they wouldn’t have endured patiently for his name’s sake. And if their endurance wasn’t motivated by this affection, Jesus would hardly have commended them for it.


A second clue comes from what follows in v. 5. There, as a repentant antidote, so to speak, to their diminishing love, Jesus commands them to “do the works you did at first” (v. 5). This would more likely suggest that their lost love was love for one another that can be rekindled by deeds of kindness and compassion and self-sacrifice. See Romans 12:9-13 for an example of Christian brotherly love expressed in concrete deeds of service. This is especially made clear in 1 John 3:11-18 and 4:7-21.


On the other hand, I’m not certain we have to choose between the two. Jesus may well have had both “loves” in view. That the decrease in love for Christ issues in a loss of love for our fellow-Christian is self-evident. Beasley-Murray put it this way:


“Where love for God wanes, love for man diminishes, and where love for man is soured, love for God degenerates into religious formalism, and both constitute a denial of the revelation of God in Christ. If the price paid by the Ephesians for the preservation of true Christianity was the loss of love, the price was too high, for Christianity without love is a perverted faith” (75).


In other words, I think Jesus could as easily have said to the Ephesians: “How dare you claim to love me at the same time you close your heart to a brother or sister in the body. And when you do love one another you demonstrate how much you love the One [i.e., me, Jesus] who gave himself for them” (see Hebrews 6:10).


What we see in the church at Ephesus, therefore, was how their desire for orthodoxy and the exclusion of error had created a climate of suspicion and mistrust in which brotherly love could no longer flourish. Their eager pursuit of truth had to some degree soured their affections one for another. It’s one thing not to “bear with those who are evil” (Rev. 2:2), but it’s another thing altogether when that intolerance carries over to your relationship with other Christ-loving Christians!


Our Lord does not leave the Ephesians and their problem without a solution. Note the three terse commands of v. 5. Before doing so, however, observe what he does not recommend: he does not suggest that they become theologically lax, tolerant of error, or indifferent toward truth! In other words, don’t try to cure one problem in a way that will create another.


So, then, here’s his counsel. First, “remember . . . from where you have fallen” (v. 5a). Here their love is pictured as a height from which they had descended. To remember is to reflect and meditate on the peak of brotherly affection they once enjoyed. Recall the former fervor and let the memory of its joys and satisfaction stir you again to mutual devotion. Second, “repent” (v. 5b). Simply put, stop . . . then start. Stop the cold-hearted disregard for one another (and for Jesus) and start cultivating that affection you formerly had. Third, “do”. In particular, do “the works you did at first” (cf. Heb. 6:10).


How important is it that the Ephesians strive by God’s grace to cultivate and sustain a passionate affection for both Christ and Christian? I’ll let Jesus answer that question. If you don’t repent, he solemnly warns, “I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place” (Rev. 2:5).


What this means is that failure to comply will lead to the imminent termination of their influence or public witness (cf. 11:3-7,10; see also Mark 4:21; Lk. 8:16) as a body of believers. The “coming” of Jesus in v. 5 is not the Second Advent at the end of history but a “coming” in preliminary judgment and discipline of this church (cf. 2:16; the Second Advent, however, is probably in view in 2:25 and 3:11). It may even be that Jesus is threatening the end of this congregation’s historical existence. I trust that such is enough to convince us all how important “love” is in the body of Christ!


Doctrinal precision is absolutely necessary. But it isn’t enough. May God grant us grace to love others with no less fervor than we love the truth.