KEY THOT: In describing Christ’s mission, Paul declares it simply as this: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost” (v.15). And he says this is deserving of full acceptance—in other words, a church that claims to be a disciple-making church must focus on Christ's saving mission because it is only through this mission that we can truly glorify the Father: “To the King of ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen” (v.17).
Why is this so? Because when we focus on Jesus’ saving mission, we see lives like Paul, a former persecutor and blasphemer and the foremost sinner, being transformed by the power of the gospel so that "the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus" (v.14). In fact, Paul asserts that "that in me, as the foremost (sinner), Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life” (v.16). In other words, we witness Christ’s “perfect patience” when we see the gospel’s power to turn scoffers and skeptics into seekers and saints.
But if a church is not focused on seeking and saving the lost, the church has lost its purpose for existing. The church may still be faithful in carrying out many other programs and ministries, but if they have nothing to do with seeking and saving the lost, God's glory is diminished.
I think when Jesus rebuked the most faithful and zealous church in Ephesus in Revelation 2:2-4 for losing their "first love", it wasn't that the church has become lazy: "I know your deeds, your hard work and your perseverance. I know that you cannot tolerate wicked men, that you have tested those who claim to be apostles but are not, and have found them false. You have persevered and have endured hardships for my name, and have not grown weary. Yet I hold this against you: You have forsaken your first love."
Different bible scholars have interpreted this "first love" in different ways--usually as love for God or love for fellow-believers. But from the description Jesus gives of this church, it seems they are anything but unenthusiastic. They are hard-working, zealous for orthodoxy and persevering. So what is missing?
If we probe further, we realize firstly Jesus' revelation to the church at Ephesus is as one "walking among seven golden lampstands" (Rev. 2:1). And when Jesus asks the church to repent, he says, "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 2:5).
So, the "first love" that the Ephesian believers have forsaken apparently refers to something that they have left undone which they did at the beginning. The reference to removing their "lampstand" suggests that it has to with their witness as light in darkness--pushing back the boundary of darkness through the active proclamation of the gospel. The letter was written to a second generation believers who have lost this first love, despite the fact that they remain zealous for doctrinal orthodoxy. And Jesus calls them to repentance or risk the removal of their lampstand, which is their reason for existing. From history, we know the Ephesian church has all but disappeared. And Turkey where Ephesus used to be has become a Islamic nation.
If we lose our first love for the lost, we miss the whole point of why God calls us together in the first place, If the Head of the Church, his Body, is here to seek and save the lost, how can the Church, his Body, be anything but missional? When the Body is no longer aligned with the Head, the Church would be like a headless chicken, full of activity, but missing the point.
In fact, all churches planted in pagan societies like Singapore came into being because their pioneers were missional; we cannot start a church if we don't seek and save the lost for there are no ready Christians around to start with. But as time progresses, the church grows and it then becomes very busy. It starts to shift from being missional to being pastoral: the first love is lost and the church turns inward. And when that happens, the church is in danger of losing not only its "first love" but also its "lampstand."
In the parable of the lost sheep (Luke 15:3-7), Jesus emphasizes this outsider-priority when he said that if there is 1 lost sheep among 100 sheep, the true shepherd will leave the 99 safe and secured flock in the pen to go after the one lost sheep. It’s never about number—if it is, then Jesus would have asked us to take care of 99, and not "waste time" going after the one lost sheep.
For God, every lost sheep is a son or daughter that has not yet come home and like all fathers, his heart remains broken until they have returned home. When a church is no longer missional but spends all its time, money and energy creating programs to meet the "needs" of the flock in the fold, it has turned inward unto itself. It has become narcissistic and consumeristic and is simply “playing church” (Pastor Edmund Chan, IDMC conference, 2016).
Father, may You continue to make Your church a missional community, always focusing on Your mission to seek and save that which was lost so that You may receive all glory and honour. Amen.