“The love you had at first”: An Interpretation of Ephesus

A word on the church in Ephesus, a church which became righteous at the expense of love. The prophetic epistle to the church reads:

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 (Revelation 2:2-5).

A recent sermon I heard interpreted God (who here speaks through John) to be commending the Ephesians for their works, but offering a warning; fair enough, but this sermon claimed that it was zeal that the church had lost, rather than love. Let us dissent and also illuminate a case of love lost by way of a closer reading.

First, the works which God knows: these acts are the acts of the obediently righteous, that is, acts which are fundamentally exclusionary. They may be analyzed thusly:

bearing up

bearing not with those who are evil
testing false apostles
hating the works of the Nicolaitans

These acts are of two functions. Function A) represents resistance against pressure from those who are [interpreted to be] outside. Function B) represents the exclusion of those who claim to be inside but who are [interpreted to be] really outside. These are the negative, repulsive acts paradigmatic of obedience. Love is not present in these acts, for its function is positive; it does not repulse, but rather reunites. In this lies the critique: we could say that the Ephesians have achieved the righteousness of the Pharisees while losing the righteousness of Jesus Christ.

The ESV “abandoned” is the NKJV “left.” The Greek aphiemi carries the meaning of to send [or be sent] away, to leave, and thence to leave alone, to give up, to permit or allow: to let go. In historical phonetics, aphesis signifies the gradual disappearance of an unstressed initial vowel sound in a given word. It is doubtful the Ephesians would send away their love; they are too self-conscious to do such a thing. But when obedience subsumes love, when love comes to be confirmed in a kind of hate, even the hatred of the works of the Nicolaitans, the hatred of evil, love is exalted in the same movement by which it is given up, left alone. In the word of Christian ethics, love becomes a mere cumbersome phoneme hanging on, a troublesome reminder of lack before the great need to be right(eous). It is elided, tucked underneath into the etymology of obedience: “See, we love because we have buried it within our obedience.”

(The tripping “k” in the Middle English knif is aphetized that the speaker may more efficiently speak of that with which one cuts and divides and whittles away: knif (k-nēf) becomes knife (nīf), and no one, not even the reader who can see quite plainly that “k” which receives no sound, stressed or unstressed, can tell that anything has ever been different. The “k,” after all, is still there, a part of the written word.)

Does God truly commend the Ephesians for their negative perfection, their obedience-sans-love? In each of the messages to the Asian churches, this voice does not explicitly commend, but rather knows. “I know your works” begins each letter, as strictly for the Ephesians, which is interpreted as a commendation, as for the Sardians, who “have the reputation of being alive, but [are] dead” (3:1b). Of the Greek words available to signify ways of knowing, eido may here signify a mental perception; rather than knowledge from personal experience (ginosko), from proximity (epistamai), or from direct sensation (suniemi), God, as it were, “can just see them now,” “can imagine in his mind’s eye” the works of the churches. This is not the result of how we might imagine (how we might eido-know) the manner in which God knows, for is this not the God who “walks among” the churches in the same breath as he claims to know their works? We would no doubt claim that when God says “I know” anything, it is to say epistamai, “I stand upon” the thing-in-itself; this knowledge befits our idea of the power, the omnipres(ci)ence, the violence of the divine knowing. But the knowledge of God in his messages to these poor churches betrays a play, an ambiguity, and yet an altogether more incisive way of knowing: God need not inhabit the space of the known to effectively know it. “I can tell what your works are,” he seems to say, with a mere glance at our person. This knowledge of the Ephesians’ lack of love, the fact of its absence, of its having been given up for something more expedient, is perhaps not an inductive but, as it were, a deductive knowledge. This is hardly commendation; it is closer to prediction (and is it not, after all, a prediction, a revelation, an apocalipsis of times to come?).

The impulse to assign this love to something like zeal, an energy (a quantity? a quality?) which need only be replenished and which has nothing to do with love, is symptomatic of an ethos which has already elided love, an ethos which feels threatened, deeply threatened, by the call of love, by the claim of the Other. Love as a freely giving, transgressive, reuniting act with the Other must instead be scrubbed, replaced with all kinds of qualification and all kinds of substitute. When we (fail to) see the words tēn agapēn sou tēn protēn and (instead) seize upon the NKJV phrase “first love” in order to understand, to see as if in our mind’s eye and know that it must mean something like zeal or excitement and not, rather, that agape-love you had at the beginning, then language too has been made a victim of obedience, repulsed as one who is interpreted to be outside. In such a movement as this we can see no less than the very lynching of the Innocent Victim. Was it not a kind of zeal which killed him? But even zeal, without love, is sorely in deficit.

This essay follows in thought from another, longer essay I wrote about the relation between love, justice and the Other.


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