“To the angel of the church in Ephesus write: ‘The words of him who holds the seven stars in his right hand, who walks among the seven golden lampstands. “‘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. Yet this you have: you hate the works of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who conquers I will grant to eat of the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God.’
“Man’s nature, so to speak, is a perpetual factory of idols.”
— John Calvin
I remember when I was serving at a small church in Hungary the pastor once asked me, “what are the ‘first works?'”, referring to the church of Ephesus in Revelation 2:5.
In response I gave a fairly standard answer: something along the lines of “works done out of an attitude of love, as they used to do”. He then told me why he thought this standard reply is faulty, and that Jesus was referring instead to something specific that can actually be identified in the Bible.
I think this view has something going for it, and I don’t know of it being represented anywhere else, so I thought I’ll present this view here with a few tweaks of my own. Any questions and comments would be appreciated.
The First Works = Turning Away from Idolatry?
If Jesus is rebuking the Ephesians for departing from something specific in their beginnings, we may expect to find a hint in the origin story of the Ephesian church.
Acts reports that when the Ephesians were saved, they “confess[ed] and divulg[ed] their practices. And a number of those who had practiced magic arts brought their books together and burned them in the sight of all.” (Acts 19:18-19).
Could it be that the confession and turning away from idolatry were the first works?
1. The prominence of idolatry in Ephesus
Ephesus was a city devoted to idolatry in a culture devoted to idolatry. Most prominently, the temple of Diana (Artemis), one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, was found there. The idol business was very lucrative (Acts 19:24).
The spread of the Gospel through Paul shook everything up. A silversmith, Demetrius, recognized that their business and idolatrous way of life was at stake (Acts 19:27). Demonic spirits were present (Acts 19:13), perhaps because of the abundance of demonic practices there.
So it seems that there are hints that the Ephesians repenting and destroying their idols may be the first works. At least, these are the only ‘works’ recorded in Acts that accompanied their conversion.
In any case, any other identification of the ‘works’ wouldn’t have such Scriptural support.
2. Is there any hint that the church of Ephesus struggled with idolatry?
So the Ephesians clearly repented of their idolatry. But are there hints that they may have continued to struggle with the temptation to return? I think so.
a). They still remained in Ephesus. Christians are called out of the world, but we still remain in it. Temptation abounds and Ephesus remained a very evil city. Many believe John wrote 1 John to the Ephesian church, and if so, his words in 1 John 2:15 may have an additional depth of meaning when read in this light: “Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him” (1 John 2:15). Why did John need to give this warning to the Ephesians if they weren’t in danger of returning to a love of the world?
b). If 1 John was written to the Ephesian church, it would have been read aloud to the congregation there. What were the last words that John would have wanted them to hear? 1 John 5:21, “Little children, keep yourselves from idols.” Again, why this warning if there weren’t a real threat of idolatry? Many wonder why John closed the letter on such an unexpected note, but following this thesis it’s not so surprising. If idolatry were an issue when John wrote then by the time we get to Revelation, the last written book in the NT, idolatry may have continued to become a serious problem in the church.
c). There may be additional hints found by digging into other passages associated with the Ephesian church (1-2 Timothy, Acts 20), and even parallels found in Genesis 3, since Jesus refers to the tree of life in Revelation 2:7 as the Ephesians’ reward for overcoming. I’ve just highlighted what I think are the most prominent.
3. If it’s not this, then what is it?
I’ve heard other attempts at an explanation, and they may even be more persuasive pragmatically, but it seems to me this is the most biblical answer in that it actually finds its source where the Scriptures specifically address the Ephesians. Other options seem to be based not on the text, but on what we ‘feel’ makes sense.
Well this is where you come in! If there is something faulty with this understanding I’d like to know.
I do see one problem: How could Jesus commend the church for faithfulness (Rev 2:2), and yet there be idolatry present?
However, I don’t think this is as big of a problem to my theory as it may first appear. I’m sure we all have met believers or experienced churches that appear doctrinally strong, but internally are full of moral compromise. Unfortunately, this is not impossible, or even necessarily uncommon. Also, it is not as though true believers are either morally perfect and completely free of idolatry or morally corrupt and filled with idolatrous practices. We are all somewhere in between these extremes. The Bible is full of sinners saved by grace, and when the Lord commends them , He is much more forgiving of our sin than we can be (just read Hebrews 11).
So what difference does this make?
Good doctrine & idolatry can coexist when our hearts are not aligned with our minds. True theology should always result in praise, but it may not. Many opponents of the Lord have an understanding of His Word and good doctrine, though Scripture says that a true understanding will only be possessed by believers (1 Cor 2:14; Matt 23:3, 27).
So we need to be constantly turning doctrine into praise, and we need to continually confess our sins and idolatrous motives, turning back to the Lord and destroying our idols like we first did. This turning to Christ in destroying our idols is the “first works” that we all need to keep doing!