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There seem to be several interpretations of the admonition of Jesus to the church at Ephesus.

Jesus first compliments the church at Ephesus for their labor, their endurance, their not tolerating evil, their testing and rejecting false apostles, their perseverance, and that they’ve endured for Jesus’ sake and have not grown weary!

Then, he says this in literal Greek from John the Revelator:

“But I have this against you that the love of you first you have abandoned.”

See https://biblehub.com/interlinear/revelation/2.htm

Looking at how a variety of translators interpreted this verse, we read the following translations into English: https://www.biblegateway.com/verse/en/Revelation%202:4

From these translations, we see several options:

a. That they left/lost/ abandoned their first wives or their betrothed.

b. That they left/lost/abandoned the love for Jesus that they had at the beginning.

c. That they left/lost/abandoned the love they had for each other at the beginning.

d. That they left/lost/abandoned the love for the unsaved that they had at the beginning.

e. We’ll probably never know for sure in this life.

f. All of the above.

What hermeneutics principles and evidence did you apply to arrive at a defensible conclusion that’s not simply an opinion?

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  • @ Dieter I would eliminate option e) as one day we shall know. Since God does nothing , but he revealed his secret unto his prophets ( Amos 3:7) one could assume that all other of your options are viable, but not necessarily in that order. I agree with engineering mind on that . Now back to why I mentioned Amos 3, God knowing the past, present, and future may have used the book of Ephesians to give Ephesus instruction for the future. The book of Ephesians covers all of your options except e). Using Rev.2:5 spoken by Jesus himself places the focus on lack of works. Compliments to eng.mind.
    – RHPclass79
    Commented Mar 30 at 19:20
  • How about "That they no longer have the same enthusiasm or magnitude of love that they started with."? (Like the Laodiceans, but not as bad.) Commented Mar 31 at 13:39
  • @Ray Butterworth, Yes, a very reasonable hypothesis, and now we need supporting evidence. The Ephesians were complimented by Jesus on several important points. They didn't seem to be lacking in enthusiasm for labor, perseverance, rejecting false apostles, endurance, and not growing weary. So, putting myself in their place, I'm still looking for what "works" is Jesus telling me to resume?
    – Dieter
    Commented Mar 31 at 15:16
  • 1
    God's Church Through the Ages "after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 AD, discouragement and spiritual lethargy set in. The brethren had expected Christ to return … now most of Judea and Galilee lay in ruins … Christians were considered traitors … This era had left its first love, that early zeal for doing the Work. The membership began losing focus regarding those doctrines, practices, and priorities that gave them their true identity and purpose.". Commented Mar 31 at 18:02
  • 1
    My previous comment, and this one, state, but don't give hermeneutical reasons for this view: Seven Letters to Seven Churches "Ephesus was an actual congregation, composed of God’s servants, but had lost its “first love”—a common problem among those who have been Christians for some time and have lost the zeal they had when they were baptized." Commented Mar 31 at 18:04

5 Answers 5

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I don't think you can separate options b, c, and d from each other given that the Biblical nature of love is that we love others as God has loved us (1 John 3:16, 1 John 4:11). So I think those three options are all true, but primarily option b since the others stem from it.

All the churches in Revelation are receiving a sort of audit from Jesus Christ on how they are doing spiritually. The contrast presented in this passage is between how good they are doing in the works they do (which you mentioned), yet at the same time how they have missed the most important virtue of the Christian life: love. Therefore they are in danger of having their church dissolved (their lampstand removed).

I think that because Jesus' command is to "repent and do the first works", this must be a reference to them living lives of faithfulness to God, and not faithfulness to wives. The church was doing well in the realm of observable works - "you cannot bear those who are evil". This makes infidelity to wives unlikely, since that would be blatant moral evil. However, almost ironically, they are commanded to "do the first works"; in contrast to the works they are already doing, they need the first works, which would be laboring with a heart of love for God.

Another point is that when we do see immorality addressed in the other churches, it is very explicitly mentioned (for instance, Pergamos and Thyatira).

In summary, the letter seems to be pointing to the contrast between external good works and apathetic internal heart attitude - something we should seek to be convicted by. The tree of life is for those who, as the bride of Christ, will be faithful to Jesus as their first and true love.

As always, keep asking questions and test people's statements like a Berean to see if what people are saying is in the Scripture.

Roughly speaking, the hermeneutics I used are let Scripture interpret Scripture, take it literally when the context supports a literal interpretation, and make sure similar sections are interpreted using the same principles.

Scriptures are from NKJV.

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  • +1 Yes, I think you demolished the option a, "first love" as a reference to Malachi 2:14,15. You added the possibility of intentional ambiguity as a broader definition of "first love" or "love you had at first." Perhaps this abandoned love is an allusion to the duty-focused elder son in Jesus' parable of the prodigal son. But how do you know that the first love that the Ephesians abandoned was a feeling of love and not something different than a feeling. Verse 5 (ESV) reads, "Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first." What works were those?
    – Dieter
    Commented Mar 30 at 21:46
  • @RHPclass79, I take pains to try to understand how a first-century reader would understand what Jesus was saying. I take more pains to try to make sure that I'm not force-fitting a theology into a passage, but let the passage and whatever allusions I can find in other parts of the scriptures teach me, hopefully with the guidance of the Holy Spirit. I also consider the words, linguistics, context, and culture guide me. So, what Greek word for "love" did John write down in the verses under consideration?
    – Dieter
    Commented Mar 31 at 5:31
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    @Dieter It is agape. John uses it many times in 1John indicating that same love should flow through us or manifest through us. Can any conclusion be determined from the use of St.#25 agapao verse agape #26?
    – RHPclass79
    Commented Mar 31 at 6:04
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The first hermeneutic principle that sprang to mind was the biblical principle of fact, that:

"For the time is come that judgment must begin at the house of God: and if it first begins at us, what shall the end be of them that obey not the gospel of God?" 1 Peter 4:14 A.V.[emphasis mine]

That was stated some 30 years before the aged apostle John received the revelations of the outworking of that principle with the seven congregations of Christians in Asia Minor. It is highly significant that the first verse John wrote was to declare that he was being shown "things which must shortly come to pass". And, after the stupendous vision of Christ, the Alpha and Omega, standing in the midst of seven golden candlesticks, he was told that "the seven candlesticks which thou sawest are the seven churches."

That is the context, which is the other vital hermeneutic principle required to delve into more detailed understanding. But briefly going back to the first point, note how the apostle Peter referred to Proverbs 11:31, and there's also a connection to Jesus' prophetic warning about a coming time when people would cry to the mountains to fall on them, to hide them - a theme in Revelation (see Luke 23:30-31).

Now I quote from a book that begins to open up the book of Revelation with a stark warning as to interpreting meanings, before showing a principle that applies to all seven churches addressed by Christ:

"Anyone presuming to use analytical methods or systematic reasoning to open the book may as well close it immediately, and permanently, for such matters will yield nothing to this procedure... Revelation is mysterious in its utterance, divine in its nature, heavenly in its origin, and spiritual in its interpretation." The Revelation of Jesus Christ, John Metcalfe, p.41, http://www.johnmetcalfepublishingtrust.co.uk/contact_us.htm

This does not bode well for a strictly hermeneutic approach, but I will try to accommodate the request in the question as far as possible.

"It follows that in principle, these churches were representative of those conditions on which judgment was passed for the duration of the age [until Christ returns]... Any fool can take some so-called message from any one of the seven letters, applying it to 'his' church. The favourite is 'Thou hast left thy first love'. They ignore that fact that this was addressed in the second person singular to the angel, and not to the church of Ephesus at all.

Nor is this everything. For a truth of the greatest moment conveniently ignored and wilfully forgotten by these people is that there was but one church in any given location. ...however, there exists a considerable number of various denominations all clustered together in the same place - each calling themselves 'churches' - instead of that one church alone in the entire locality." (Ibid. p.61)

My answer is "b", but it would take many more quotes from that book to explain why. I have simply flagged up a cautionary way of approaching the question due to difficulties that arise from a purely hermeneutic approach - which I don't recommend.

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  • 1
    +1 Great points as usual, @Anne. Let me note that there were many more churches in Asia than just these seven. Jesus picked them for a reason. Also, Revelation is full of allusions to the Tanakh and is, after all, called "the revelation of Jesus Christ" rather than the "obscuration of Jesus Christ," so I'd expect that the Jesus communicates to his beloved bride a spiritual painting that transcends the centuries and secular intellectualism based on flawed worldviews.
    – Dieter
    Commented Mar 31 at 15:31
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    @Dieter Just to ask whether it was known as fact, in A.D.95, that there were more than those 7 assemblies of believers in Asia Minor. That was the latest year when copies would be received by each of those 7 churches. There could just have been 7 then, though more sprang up over the years. But yes, indeed, the Hebrew scriptures open up the meaning of the Revelation, to prepare Christ's 'bride' class for what is to come, to keep her faithful and pure till 'the marriage of the Lamb', still future. t.y.
    – Anne
    Commented Apr 1 at 8:47
  • Yes. Paul had written a letter to the church at Colossae (Colossians) before Revelation was written. Collossea is very close to Laodicea. Why wasn't Collossea on the list? Among others in "Asia," there's also Tarsus, Miletus, Lystra, Derbe, and others. Do you think that the seven churches chosen by Jesus for review might have been distinct types of churches?
    – Dieter
    Commented Apr 1 at 17:52
  • @Dieter That's interesting. Maybe some groups had merged, or disbanded by A.D.95? That's speculation on my part. Certainly those 7 named churches displayed particular characteristics (both good and bad) that the Lord deemed worthy of detailing, in writing, which 'speaks' to all Christians down to this day. The trouble is, different interpretations of those words abound! So, you ask a good Q!
    – Anne
    Commented Apr 2 at 12:05
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    Regarding your speculation, I found, for example, that Epiphanius, "the bishop of Colossae," was recorded present at the Council of Chalcedon (AD 451), while Kosmas, a later bishop, apparently participated in the Quinisext/Trullo Council (AD 692). So, it seems that Jesus must have had a different reason for not including Colossea in the list of these seven churches.
    – Dieter
    Commented Apr 2 at 15:17
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Hermeneutics takes into account factors that include culture, scriptures—both immediate context and allusions, linguistics, etymology, logic, scholarly tradition, and so on. Hopefully, it doesn’t involve filters of presupposition or doctrinal prejudice in any sincere quest for meaning.

In this case, the word, love, is the Greek word, agapé. This type of love is selfless, sacrificial, and unconditional. Jesus and the Apostles gave it the highest priority in the life of an authentic Christian.

The Commandment of Jesus

By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” – John 13:35 ESV

As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father's commandments and abide in his love . . . This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends. – John 15:9,10,12,13 ESV

This “greater love” was a prophetic allusion to the love that Jesus would shortly demonstrate for them at the cross.

Paul’s letter to the Ephesians

Paul wrote a letter to the church at Ephesus that provides us with some insight into their earlier commitment.

For this reason, because I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints . . . - Ephesians 1:15 ESV

So the Ephesian Christians had faith, which at the time of this letter, they expressed in their agape love for each other. Paul then encourages the Ephesian Christians to grow in the following manner . . .

I, therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. – Ephesians 4:1-3 ESV

Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you. – Ephesians 4:32 ESV

Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. – Ephesians 5:1,2 ESV

John’s letters

John, who likely authored Revelation, wrote that

By this it is evident who are the children of God, and who are the children of the devil: whoever does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor is the one who does not love his brother. For this is the message that you have heard from the beginning, that we should love one another . . . By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers. But if anyone has the world's goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God's love abide in him? Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth. . . And this is his commandment, that we believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us. – 1 John 3:10, 11, 16-18, 23 ESV

Did John really say that we should lay down our lives for our brothers? These verses also indicate what kind of deeds Jesus had in mind for the church at Ephesus to return to in Revelation 2:5a, “Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first . . .”

Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another . . . if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us . . . So we have come to know and to believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him . . . And this commandment we have from him: whoever loves God must also love his brother. – 1 John 4:11,12,16,10,21 ESV

I rejoiced greatly to find some of your children walking in the truth, just as we were commanded by the Father. And now I ask you, dear lady—not as though I were writing you a new commandment, but the one we have had from the beginning—that we love one another. And this is love, that we walk according to his commandments; this is the commandment, just as you have heard from the beginning, so that you should walk in it. For many deceivers have gone out into the world, those who do not confess the coming of Jesus Christ in the flesh. Such a one is the deceiver and the antichrist. – 2 John 1:4-7 ESV

The theme of agape love toward fellow Christians is both prominent and pervasive! It’s only too convenient to claim we love Jesus intensely, when he’s not actually present, but remember Jesus’ words in Matthew 25:35-40 ESV:

For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’

However, Jesus reports that the church at Ephesus had unfortunately abandoned (aphēkes, SG863) the love (agapēn, SG25) they previously demonstrated, which was serious enough for their lampstand to be removed, if they didn’t repent of this and return to following his previously given commandment.

Therefore, I suggest that the evidence from scripture strongly supports choice (c) and is the correct hermeneutical conclusion for what Jesus warned the church at Ephesus.

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Rev 2:4 is part of a series of NT verses that allude to the spiritual marriage of Jesus to the church. That is, the church (corporately) is often represented as the bride of Christ.

Indeed, this common theme is used as a metaphor for God’s people who are either faithful and pure, or, rebellious. These include:

  • The parable of the two adulterous sisters and their children (Eze 23)
  • The daughter of Babylon vs the daughter of Zion (Zech 2:7, 10).
  • More generally, the Old Testament uses this image of a woman to represent either faithful (Isa 62:5, Jer 2:1, 2) or unfaithful (Isa 47:1-3, Jer 2:32, Eze 16, Nah 3:4, 5) groups of people. See also Gal 4:21-31 which used Sarah and Hagar as metaphors.
  • In the book of Revelation, we have two women: Jezebel or the harlot as a symbol of Babylon (Rev 2:20, 17:1-18:24), vs, the pure woman as a symbol of God’s faithful people the bride of the Lamb (Rev 12:1-17, 19:7, 21:9).

Viewed this light, the church of "Ephesus" is portrayed as having lost their first love for Jesus which should have been their highest love and duty. hence, of the OP's options, I would select option "b".

This conclusion is essentially confirmed by recognizing the opening statement about the whole subject matter of the book of Revelation - it is a "Revelation of Jesus Christ". Thus, all seven vision on the book of Revelation is designed to teach us something about Jesus and our relationship with Him and His salvation and love for us.

Thus we must serve Jesus alone and no one else. Indeed, the church of Ephesus is commended: "I know you are enduring patiently and bearing up for my name’s sake, and you have not grown weary." (Rev 2:3)

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  • +1 for your supporting biblical references. But let me challenge you with this: how would we (or the Ephesians) know that they had lost either the love they had for Jesus at the first, for their first love who was Jesus (implying a love for someone or something else), or the love they were commanded to have for each other (John 15:9-13)? Is this love primarily a feeling, a priority, or a behavior? Does the Greek grammar suggest a preference for one of these options? Yes, I study these passages with some intensity and no slight is intended here. :-)
    – Dieter
    Commented Mar 30 at 21:04
  • verse 2:5 may well be the key. For Jesus to threaten to remove their candlestick lest they repent sounds very serious. Neglect of God's will to do the works they originally did speaks of both quenching the Holy Spirit as well as the resultant sin of omition. That would be different for each individual as per their spiritual gift.
    – RHPclass79
    Commented Mar 31 at 4:11
  • @RHPclass79, Ok, and what does Jesus tell the church at Ephesus would be the remedy? And how would this remedy re-establish the love that they had abandoned?
    – Dieter
    Commented Mar 31 at 5:24
  • @Dietet Repent- meaning first they would have to either realize they had sinned or if they were already aware they would have to return to their original priorities either way.
    – RHPclass79
    Commented Mar 31 at 5:37
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I believe it's do to technology that's moving believers out of an intimate relationship with the LORD "Love (waxing) increasingly growing cold do to smartphones etc...It's much better to spend time with the FATHER from your Spirit and Heart not from and or with Technological devices. A Vertical Relationship in the WORD. not in some Horizontal Relationship of and in the World.

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