It’s the phrase I’ve returned to over and over the past three months, and—of all places—it comes from the book of Revelation. I don’t hear a lot about Revelation (unless someone’s telling me the world is ending in a few days). But I was stopped as I read a passage in Chapter 2 a few months ago, specifically the admonition Jesus, through John, gave to the church in Ephesus:
“I know your deeds, your hard work and your perseverance. I know that you cannot tolerate wicked people, that you have tested those who claim to be apostles but are not, and have found them false. You have persevered and endured hardships for my name, and have not grown weary.”
Super, right? If I’m part of the church at Ephesus, I’d be feeling pretty good about myself.
“Yeah, I am working hard,” I’d say. “Thanks for noticing, Jesus. We here have had some intense temptations to quit and give up on you, crawling back to Artemis and the old Jewish temple, especially when people have dragged off our friends. Especially when we have seen our loved ones killed. It’s terrifying, but we have held firm to our faith. Thanks, Jesus, for acknowledging how awesome we are.”
But then Jesus’ words rip the former praises away as if they were of little significance compared to what really mattered:
God Himself. The first love.
“But…Jesus,” my first-century self would reply, aghast. “We are losing work, losing friends, losing our reputations as we look like crazy people following after a poor man who ‘died’ sixty years ago… losing our very lives for you. Isn’t that enough?”
No. Frankly, no.
These Christian Ephesians did so much more than I do, but above all, God wanted loyalty to their first love: Himself.
I’m not one of those people who uses phrases that sound creepily romantic regarding the God-human relationship. I find myself dropping my voice and staring at my shoes when the song plays in church, “And I’m madly in love with you, Jesus…” It’s just…God is God. He’s not a human, and while He loves us, He’s not on par with me.
Like N.T. Wright says when John fell down in Chapter 1, terrified at the sight of Jesus who had eyes like flames of fire, feet like exquisite brass, and looked like the sun in full power:
“For some, Jesus is just a faraway figure of first-century fantasy. For others, including some of today’s enthusiastic Christians, Jesus is the one with whom we can establish a personal relationship of loving intimacy. John would agree with the second of these, but he would warn against imagining that Jesus is therefore a cozy figure, one who merely makes us feel happy inside. To see Jesus as he is would drive us not to snuggle up to him, but to fall at his feet as though we were dead (Revelations for Everyone, p7).”
But sometimes in Scripture, we get glimpses of a God who isn’t just insanely powerful, insanely knowledgeable, insanely bigger than anything we are. Sometimes, like in the Bride-Christ references, we see how God uses intimate wording to emphasize that He really, truly wants an authentic relationship with each of us. A relationship so deep and real—not between a being and a thing, or a being and institution, but a being with another Being—that a marriage metaphor would suit.
And sometimes we do, too.
So yes, stay loyal to the faith. Yes, consider the widow and the orphan and the poor and help them in their needs. Go out and evangelize to your heart’s content.
But above all, don’t forget to do the things that show your love to your first love: God.
Pray. Sing. Remember. Listen.