Ever since my pastor preached Revelation 2:1-7 on New Year's Eve in 2013, this haunting phrase has been burned my mind: "You have left your first love."
Can there be any greater indictment against a believer? "You have left Christ! You have left His people! You have failed to obey the two greatest commandments, and thus are guilty of all the law!" Oh, how can a Christian leave that for which he lives?
Yet, as evidenced by the Ephesian church, and repeated thousands of times over, this is not just a hypothetical, but a reality — in history and in my heart. That is why I am thankful for the book Love or Die by Alexander Strauch. As Strauch says, "Revelation 2:4 is a wake-up call to all churches: love or die!" (Location 254). In the book, he unpacks the passage from Revelation 2 in six practical chapters, like a true teacher leading his audience to both understand and do the things the Lord commands.
I've found it instructive for my own life. I commend it to anyone who senses that their love and zeal for the Lord is not what it once was. Here are some extensive quotes from the book, as gold mined from the depths of its riches:
A Failure of Love (Location 113+)
Jesus doesn’t say, ‘You have no love.” He says, “You have abandoned the love you had at first.” Their love was not what it used to be. While they still had some measure of love because they were, for the most part, true Christians and enduring hardship for his “name’s sake” (Rev. 2:3), they no longer possessed the kind of love they had in their early years as a church. They still loved the Lord, but not like they did at first. They still loved one another, but not like before.
Their love for Christ and for one another had once motivated all they did. It brought joy, creativity, freshness, spontaneity, and energy to their life and work. But now their energy source was depleted. Their work had become mundane, mechanical, and routine, and their lives the picture of self-satisfaction. Instead of their love abounding, it had been lacking. Instead of being motivated by love from the heart, their works had become perfunctory. Even certain “works,” which sprang from their former love, vanished. For this, Jesus rebukes them and calls them to do those works again (Rev. 2:5).
A Picture of a Church Which Has Lost Her Love (Location 139+)
They still proclaim the truth, but no longer passionately love him who is the truth. They still perform good deeds, but no longer out of love, brotherhood, and compassion. They preserve the truth and witness courageously, but forget that love is the great witness to truth. It is not so much that their genuine virtues have squeezed love out, but that no amount of good works, wisdom, and discernment in matters of church discipline, patient endurance in hardship, hatred of sin, or disciplined doctrine, can ever make up for lovelessness.
From D. A. Carson, "A Church That Does All the Right Things, But…," Christianity Today(June 29, 1979): 30.
Why Is Love So Important? (Location 158+)
Why is the loss of love so serious? Why does it distress our Lord so deeply? Why is his threat of judgment so severe? Why is it a life or death issue for a local church? The answers are provided by Christ himself and those he commissioned as apostles.
First, Jesus taught that “the great and first commandment” is to love God completely, totally, and unreservedly—with all one’s heart, with all one’s soul, and with all one’s mind (Matt. 22:37-38; Mark 12:28-34). The sum of all God’s commandments and all religious service is love for God. It is the believer’s first priority. It is the reason we were created. Nothing in life is more right, more fulfilling, and more rewarding than loving God our Creator and Savior.
Second, Jesus declared the second commandment is like the first: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Matt. 22:39). Jesus makes love for God and neighbor inseparable companions. He summarized the heart of genuine religion, true inner spirituality, and all moral conduct by the double command to love God and love your neighbor. His own assessment of love is: “On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets” (Matt. 22:40), and “There is no other commandment greater than these” (Mark 12:31). Hence, Christ’s followers are to be marked not only by total devotion to God but also by sacrificial service to neighbor. This neighbor love, according to Jesus, includes loving our enemies, our persecutors, and the unlovely (Matt. 5:43-48). Before you read any further, be sure you have grasped the importance of these two commandments for living the Christian life.
Does Your Church Love? (Location 229)
So we must ask, when people visit your church, do they find a warm, friendly, and welcoming atmosphere that demonstrates love for all people? Do they sense Christlike compassion and the kind of loving family community envisioned by the New Testament writers? Do they see genuine care for one another’s needs, Christian hospitality, and unselfish generosity? Do they observe joy in the Lord, spiritual vitality, and people reaching out to minister to a suffering world?
Or does your church seem more like an impersonal gathering of people than a spiritual family? Do visitors sense unfriendliness and indifference? Do they see a proud, critical spirit, or an angry, contentious group of people?
Remember, there is always one who walks among the churches, unseen but seeing all. How do you imagine Christ might evaluate your local church body?
The Secret of the Protestants, Puritans, and Methodists (Location 435)
The secret of the early Christians, the early Protestants, Puritans and Methodists was that they were taught about the love of Christ, and they became filled with a knowledge of it. Once a man has the love of Christ in his heart you need not train him to witness; he will do it. He will know the power, the constraint, the motive; everything is already there. It is a plain lie to suggest that people who regard this knowledge of the love of Christ as the supreme thing are useless, unhealthy mystics. The servants of God who have most adorned the life and the history of the Christian Church have always been men who have realized that this is the most important thing of all, and they have spent hours in prayer seeking His face and enjoying His love. The man who knows the love of Christ in his heart can do more in one hour than the busy type of man can do in a century. God forbid that we should ever make of activity an end in itself. Let us realize that the motive must come first, and that the motive must ever be the love of Christ.
From D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, The Unsearchable Riches of Christ, 253
Pray to Love Others More (Location 494)
As believers, indwelt by the Holy Spirit, we have an immense capacity to love all people—even our enemies and those who are unlovely or disagreeable. We have the power to love as Jesus loved and to continue to abound in love throughout life. Commentator William Hendriksen states the principle well: it “is of the very essence of love ... to overflow”.
We all have to admit, however, that growth in love is a struggle. “The best believers,” writes Maurice Roberts, “find their progress slow and their attainments meager.” This is why we need to pray continually for God’s help. Paul says that the Thessalonian believers were “taught by God to love one another” (1 Thess. 4:9). He who is the source of love is also the best teacher of love, and he has given to his Spirit the unique work of inspiring and prompting love within us.
So, is your love growing and overflowing? Or is your love shrinking and dying? The more we see how inherently and perversely selfish we are, the more we recognize our need to ask God to help us to love. The more we understand God’s demands of love, the more we realize our need to pray for a heart of joyful obedience. The more we see how little love we truly have for Christ and others, the more we recognize our need to pray for more love. Ask God to be your teacher. Ask him to teach you how to grow and abound in love. Ask and keep asking!
Our battle with self-centered living demands constant confession and prayer. Prayer is one of the key means by which God works in us and accomplishes his purposes in our lives. Only by prayer and the Lord’s grace can we grow and overflow with love and have victory over self-centered living. Let these solemn words of Maurice Roberts ring in our ears and move us to pray:
Then let every Christian take up the duty of Christian love with tenfold seriousness. Our life’s work must be to call down heaven’s help upon ourselves that we may bend towards the great command to love one another.
Guard Your Love For Other (Location 835)
So when you sense your love falling to sleep, take corrective action immediately. The longer you wait, the harder it will be to awaken the spirit of love. Turn to the Scriptures and let them revive your sleepy soul. Pray for a fresh awakening of gratitude for the free grace of God and for the costly sacrifice of Christ at Calvary’s cross. Pray earnestly that the Lord would fill you anew with the first fruit of the Spirit which is love (Gal. 5:22; Eph. 5:18). Repent of any sin that dulls your love for God or his people. Stop thinking about yourself so much. Follow the great examples of those who have modeled the life of love God desires. Remind yourself of your first Christian duty to love God and neighbor. Start doing outward acts of love for others and pray that soon the desire and joy of loving others will follow.
… In order to avoid becoming like the Ephesian Christians who needed to repent of their loss of love, heed the practical advice of Jonathan Edwards:
A Christian should at all times keep a strong guard against everything that tends to overthrow or corrupt or undermine a spirit of love. That which hinders love to men, will hinder the exercise of love to God.... If love is the sum of Christianity, surely those things which overthrow love are exceedingly unbecoming [to] Christians.
Practice Love (Location 863)
Divine love bears practical fruit (Gal. 5:22). It prompts sacrificial service (Gal. 5:13), acts of kindness (1 Cor. 13:4), and strenuous labor on the behalf of the needs of others (1 Thess. 1:3). “A true love for people,” says John Stott, “leads to labour for them; otherwise it degenerates into mere sentimentality”. To refuse to practice love “in deed and in truth” would be to disobey Christ’s commands to love God, our neighbor, our fellow believers, our enemies, and all people. We must remember that the biblical commands to love require obedience and practical action on our part. They are not heavenly suggestions, but direct commands from the King.
(Picture from unsplash.com)