The First Works
“But I have this against you: You have left your first love.
So then: Remember the place from which you have fallen,
and repent and do the first works.”
This word arrived as a gut punch to the Ephesians. It can do the same when we read it today.
Before it hit, the Lord was all commendation, praising these busy Christians for their toil, endurance, and holy intolerance of evil. And after it hit, he did the same, lauding them for their hatred of the lawless works of the Nicolaitans. But in between there came a stern and urgent reproof, flashing like dark lightning in a deep blue sky. What can account for it?
When I asked myself this question a memorable poem by William Blake came to mind:
O Rose, thou are sick.
The invisible worm
That flies in the night,
In the howling storm,
Hath found out thy bed
Of crimson joy:
And his dark secret love
Doth thy life destroy.
When people looked at the Ephesian rose, all seemed to be well. These believers were abounding in the work of the Lord. What’s more,, we can see from the King’s commendations that they were doing their works in the Spirit and power of the Lord. This should give us pause: Though the Lord may be granting us fruitful labors, it may also be that a dark and dangerous love has begun to creep, worm-like, into our bed of crimson joy: into the life of love that was purchased for us by the blood of Christ.
What exactly was the nature of this invisible worm? And how was it enticing the Ephesians to leave their first love?
Perhaps we find our answers in a story about Martha and Mary (Luke 10:38ff). The Lord had come to town. Martha invited him into her home for dinner. Her sister Mary sat herself at the Lord’s feet, listening to his words. But Martha was distracted with her preparations.
Not only that, she was also angry. With an unholy boldness that shocks the observer, she came up to the Son of God himself and said, ““Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do all the serving alone? Tell her to help me!” But the Lord, wise and gentle, firmly answered, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and bothered about so many things; but only one thing is truly necessary. I’m saying this because Mary has chosen the best part, and it will not be taken from her.”
Is this not how it was with the Ephesians. Yes, their service was partly in the Spirit, but it was also partly in the flesh. It was partly motivated by a sincere love for the Lord, but now some “dark, secret love” was creeping into the sacred space. What was it? Pride, independence, selfish ambition, worldly pleasure? Whatever it was, it was causing many among them to drift away from their first love. The story in Luke suggests that they had done so by departing from the feet and living word of their Master. Their work for the Lord had somehow become an excuse to abandon their time with the Lord, which alone can keep the saints in squarely in the crimson bed.
This brings me to the “first works” which the Lord urged upon the Ephesians. Obviously they are vital. What are they?
Speaking personally, whenever I read those words I am reminded of my daily quiet time. For years I have reckoned it to be the first of the first works.
When I come to the Lord, I try to come early: If he is first in my life, he needs to be first in my day. I come alone, Bible in hand. Mary-like, I seat myself at his feet. I try to go low: to empty myself of myself, and to place myself in a posture of hearing, seeing, receiving. I want to receive his living word.
I begin by remembering the love of God: The love of my Father in choosing me, the love of my Savior in redeeming me, the love of the Spirit in calling, sanctifying, and preserving me. I speak of this love and thank them for it. In the miraculous chemistry of spiritual life, such heartfelt thanksgiving over the love of God rekindles my love for him.
Next I ask for a fresh infusion of the Lord’s light and life through the opening of his Word to my heart. Believing that it will come, I slowly read and mediate upon today’s text. When I am stricken by a word I love, I will sometimes share it in love (smart phones are a big help). Usually I simply go into my day in the strength of any quickened word, sharing it, and/or the life it has brought me, with my neighbor as opportunities arise.
Then I pray, asking above all to be led by the Holy Spirit in my prayers. I know he is leading when he brings specific needs to mind, and when I experience life, liberty, longing, and loving concern as I lay my requests before him.
Finally, I pray for guidance for my day, sometimes jotting down the errands of love that I believe the Lord has placed on my heart. When I execute those errands I again go low again, waiting upon the wisdom, beauty, and power of a ministry done in love.
All of this easily said; most assuredly it is not easily done. How swiftly the alien worms of pride, selfish ambition, haste, distraction, and preoccupation encroach upon the holy rose.
But here is good news: The Lord is committed to guarding the rose. He has given us a new heart, a holy heart; and he has told us that he will watch over it with all of his heart. He has sealed it for himself. “I am a jealous God,” says the Lord. The covenant-keeping God of the Bible has sworn: Though dark, secret loves may beckon and entice, they will not prevail.
In all of this there is his part and there is our part.
On his part there are invitations to come and sit at his feet; there are promises of life-giving openings of his Word; there are seasons of refreshing and streams in the desert; there are fruitful goings out and comings in.
But all of this is contingent on us doing our part. And the first part of our part is to meet him daily in the crimson bed. As long as I am abiding there I know that all will be well, and that the fragrance of Christ will be upon the flower of my life.
This is the first of the first works. Let us labor together to do it with all our hearts.