Love: The First Mark of the Ideal Church (Rev. 2:1–7)


As Christians, we know who we are: sinners who need to repent. But who should we be? According to John Stott, Jesus’ letters to the seven churches describe “seven marks of the ideal church”: love, suffering, truth, holiness, sincerity, mission, and wholeheartedness.[i] Let us take a closer look at each, beginning with love.

Love is perhaps the most indiscriminately used word in the English language. The statements “I love God,” “I love my children,” and “I love crispy tacos at Taco Bell” use the same words to describe radically different affections. After all, if you love God and Taco Bell in the same way, either God means too little to you or Taco Bell too much.

The Greeks have an advantage over us English-speaking folks, for they employ four words for love: storge, philia, eros, and agape. Storge describes familial affection. Philia describes friendship. Eros describes not merely sexual (i.e., erotic) love, but any love that is directed toward an object of high value. (Love of a beautiful woman, a fast car, and crispy tacos are all erotic insofar as the lover holds them in high value—which just goes to show that erotic love is not necessarily rational. I mean, really—Taco Bell?) Finally, there is agape, a word that under Christian influence came to describe selfless love.

Jesus uses the word agape in his letter to the Ephesian church (Rev. 2:1–7, see verse 4). Unfortunately, the Ephesians have “abandoned the love you had at first.” What does this mean? Love, we might answer, has both an objective and a subjective side. Objectively, love is associated with “right beliefs” (orthodoxy) and “right deeds” (orthopraxy). “Love does no wrong to its neighbor,” Paul writes: “therefore love is the fulfilling of the law” (Rom. 13:10).

Now, in some ways, the Ephesians have the objective side of love down pat. They are, according to verses 3–4, hard working, patient, just, orthodox, and unceasing laborers for the cause of Christ. But they are still missing something, namely, the subjective side of love. As John Stott puts it, “It was no doubt at the time of their conversion that their love for [Christ] had been ardent and fresh, but now the fires had died down.”[ii]

In the eighteenth century, following on the heels of the Great Awakening, Jonathan Edwards asked, “What is the nature of true religion?” He answered, “True Religion, in great part, consists in Holy Affections.”[iii] Affections, what we might call emotions today, are the subjective side of Christian living. And the chief of our affections must be love. As Edwards put it, “The Scriptures place religion very much in the affection of love, in love to God and the Lord Jesus Christ, and love to the people of God, and to mankind.”[iv]

An ardent, on-fire love is what the Ephesians lack and need to regain. They have orthodoxy and orthopraxy. What they need is orthopathy, that is, “right passion.” And so, do we. For without such a love, we are nothing (1 Cor. 13:1–3).

 

[i] Stott, The Incomparable Christ, 177.

[ii] Stott, The Incomparable Christ, 178.

[iii] Jonathan Edwards, The Religious Affections (Carlisle, PA: 1986; original, 1746), 15, 23.

[iv] Edwards, Religious Affections, 32.

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