The church at Ephesus was commended by the Lord Jesus in Revelation 2:2-3 for four things. He commends them for their faithful service (2:2a), for rejecting evil men (2:2b), for exposing false apostles (2:2c), and for their steadfast endurance (2:3). We might say that the local church of Ephesus was strong both in doctrine and in service. If we were to use the analogy of a human body, their strengths were their head as well as their hands. We would call Ephesus a very healthy church. It had good biblical preaching and teaching. The church both knew and defended the word of God. Doctrinal error was nowhere to be found. This church also had strong ministries of service and were faithful in every way. And yet Jesus condemns them in the very next verse when he declares,
“But I have this against you, that you have left your first love”
What does it mean to leave one’s first love? The adjective “first” is πρῶτος (protōs) and is found 155 times in the New Testament and falls within two major categories of usage: that of sequence and that of prominence (BDAG, 892-94). Only context can tell us which use of the adjective is meant. One challenge that impacts us is what we find in Jesus’ teaching in the gospels. In Mark 12:28 Jesus is asked, “What commandment is foremost of all?” He responds in 12:29-30,
“The foremost is, ‘HEAR, O ISRAEL! THE LORD OUR GOD IS ONE LORD; AND YOU SHALL LOVE THE LORD YOUR GOD WITH ALL YOUR HEART, AND WITH ALL YOUR SOUL, AND WITH ALL YOUR MIND, AND WITH ALL YOUR STRENGTH.’ “
The term “foremost” used in in both verse 28 and 29 is πρῶτος (protōs). In addition, Jesus also employs the term love, albeit a verb. This use of πρῶτος (protōs) here falls into the category of prominence since the call is to love God with every fiber of one’s being, and to love him above all else. As a result, one could easily be prompted to say that when Jesus states to the church at Ephesus that they had left their first love, he meant that they had failed to make loving God their primary love and that doctrine and service had overtaken their love for God. And there is every possibility that this was true in Ephesus. However, the context of Revelation 2:4 likely argues for πρῶτος (protōs) being understood in a sequential manner, in particular, sequence of time. They had left the love they had when they were first saved. And why is this likely Jesus’ point? Because of what he says in the very next verse:
‘Therefore remember from where you have fallen, and repent and do the deeds you did at first; or else I am coming to you and will remove your lampstand out of its place—unless you repent (2:5).
Here Jesus calls them to repent “and do the deeds you did at first.” And yes, the term “first” is πρῶτος (protōs). It’s very possible that both categories of πρῶτος (protōs) are in play. When our love for God grows cold, it shows up in our deeds not being what they were at first. And when we find ourselves not doing the deeds we did when first saved, it is likely were are growing cold in our love for God. They are interrelated. The key is found in the command, “repent.” We are to make a change of mind and recommit ourselves to God in the way we were when newly saved.