1“To the angel of the church in Ephesus write: These are the words of him who holds the seven stars in his right hand, who walks among the seven golden lampstands:
2“I know your works, your toil and your patient endurance. I know that you cannot tolerate evildoers; you have tested those who claim to be apostles but are not, and have found them to be false. 3I also know that you are enduring patiently and bearing up for the sake of my name, and that you have not grown weary. 4But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first. 5Remember then from what you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent. 6Yet this is to your credit: you hate the works of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate. 7Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches. To everyone who conquers, I will give permission to eat from the tree of life that is in the paradise of God.”
This section in Revelation ought to be read at two levels: (1) the historical level of Jesus addressing the actual church in Ephesus and (2) the trans-historical level of Jesus addressing churches across time and space. This second level reading is supported by verse 7, "... what the Spirit is saying to the churches."
All the addresses to the seven churches have certain common features, including a word of commendation and a word of warning. The commendation is noteworthy for the church in Ephesus. The church had done a lot of good things, not all of which were easy. They've worked hard, showed great endurance and patience, rejected evildoers, suffered for Jesus' name, and not gotten weary. If any of us or our church had heard these words of approval from Jesus, we would have been rightly proud (in a good way).
But then comes a stinger. A word from Jesus that definitely leaves an Ouch: "you have abandoned the love you had at first." The love the church of Ephesus had for Jesus and for others is now no longer alive or vital. Perhaps not completely dead but sufficiently insufficient that Jesus condemns the Ephesian church for their great fall from their first love.
Which goes to say, that you can do a whole lot of great things without loving the Lord and others. Doing good without loving God is possible. Suffering for good without suffering in love is possible. You might look spiritual from all your great works, but the Spirit of love can be missing.
1 Corinthians 13:1-3 says basically the same thing.
If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.
Without the motivation of love for our actions, from God's point of view, the actions are deficient. These actions are "nothing" according to 1 Corinthians 13. A harsh truth that's difficult to hear about our actions.
One of the reasons why we prefer outward actions is that they are seen. Actions are clear to everyone's eyes. Motivation, on the other hand, is more difficult to see, unless you're God. Then actions and motivations are open to clear view. Nothing is not seen. Everything is evident. God cannot help but see our hands and our hearts. In 1 Samuel 16:7, YHWH reminds Samuel: "But the Lord said to Samuel, “Do not consider his appearance or his height, for I have rejected him. The Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.”
We are judged -- commended and chastised -- according to both our actions and motivations. When right motivations give rise to right actions, when loving motivations give rise to loving actions, when good, loving motivations are correctly aligned to good, loving actions, then things are wonderfully connected and we are rightly praised by God. When motivation and action are misaligned, we are deservedly blamed and corrected. The correction from the Lord itself is an expression of love (Prov. 3:12), "because the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and he chastens everyone he accepts as his son” (Heb. 12:6).
Since the Lord looks at the heart and also sees our hands, let us be integrated in our actions and motivations, undivided, living out our lives with a purity of heart, which Soren Kierkegaard reminds us is "to will one thing," the one thing of loving God.
Let's pray: Lord Jesus, the Alpha and Omega of Revelation, we come before you with an honest nakedness of our actions and motivations. May you search our hearts and see if there are any anxious or divided thoughts (Psalm 139:23). Establish us in a wholehearted devotion to you alone. May we take in the words said to Solomon in 1 Chronicles 28:9, "And you, my son Solomon, acknowledge the God of your father, and serve him with wholehearted devotion and with a willing mind, for the Lord searches every heart and understands every desire and every thought. If you seek him, he will be found by you; but if you forsake him, he will reject you forever." By the fear of the Lord and the love of the Lord, keep us in line with you. When we're doing well, we'll hear your words of commendation; when we're not doing well, we'll hear your words of love in the form of correction. May we be open to hearing your words from your mouth which are always full of love and words that are for us and not against us. We thank you. In Your name, Amen.