In his letter to the Church of Ephesus, Christ speaks one of his most devastating words:
I know your works, your toil and your patient endurance, and how you cannot bear with those who are evil, but have tested those who call themselves apostles and are not, and found them to be false. I know you are enduring patiently and bearing up for my name’s sake, and you have not grown weary. But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first. Remember therefore from where 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. (Rev. 2:2-5, ESV)
Holiness without love is a sin, which puts the Christian at risk of Pharisaism. If the watching world will know the disciples of Christ by their love for each other (John 13:34-35), then nothing is more essential than the law of love, as the apostle Paul reminded the Church of Corinth:
If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing. (1 Cor. 13:1-3)
In Joseph L. Mangina’s commentary on Revelation, he rightly shows that love and works are not oppositional; on the contrary, love manifests itself in works.
There is a striking concentrate of “love” vocabulary in the letters to the seven churches. Christ’s love for the church, first mentioned in the opening doxology (1:5), is referred to again in the last two messages (to Philadelphia [3:9] and Laodicia [3:19]). In both of the latter two instances, the word appears on the lips of Christ himself. Within this rough bracket we find two references to the church’s love for Christ, one in our present passage (2:1-7) and then again at 2:19. The theme of love – like “grace” and “peace,” terms not often associated with Revelation – is in fact determinative for understanding the seven letters, as indeed the book as a whole. Christ loves the ekklēsía (Eph. 5:25), as God loved and loves Israel. He yearns to have that love returned. While love is not opposed to works – indeed, Rev. 2:4-5 suggests that love will express itself precisely in active form – those works will be pleasing to God only to the extent that they are offered up as acts of devotion, gestures of love to the who loves us. Our orthodoxy will not save us, our traditions will not save us, our soup kitchens and our social programs will not save us; what will save the church is Christ, whose self-giving cannot but call forth a similar response on the part of his people. Evidently the church in Ephesus once manifested this love, but its passion has cooled, with the inevitable result that it has begun to turn away from Christ toward other concerns. This is why it is urgent that they repent, turning back to “the love you had at first.”