In this section of scripture, Jesus starts off with strong praise for the church in Ephesus. He mentions that he knows their works. In modern terms, that would relate to what we call programs. This church had plans in place to do great things and was doing them. He says He knows their toil, this is more of common labor. In modern terms, you could think of this as servant evangelism or community service.
He lifts them up for their perseverance and the fact that they do not grow weary. This is huge for the time that they lived. In Rome near the close of the century, you were required by law to proclaim Caesar as Lord, but the Christians refused to do that and instead declared Jesus as Lord. Jesus praises them for not wavering from that position.
He also praises them for testing those that came to them claiming to be apostles. This is very important for all churches in any age. False teachers will prey on the flock as wolves and Satan is seeking and searching for whom he can devour. As a church, we should test all that come among us to see if they are of Christ, or of Satan (c.f. 2 John 7-11, and 1 Corinthians 11:12-15). Along these lines, Jesus lifts them up for hating the works of the Nicolaitans who appear to teach idolatry and immorality.
This church is far from perfect, though, and Jesus points out one thing he has against them, that is that they left their first love. Notice that it is not “lost” their first love, rather its “left” their first love. This means they did the leaving, and it was not taken from them. By the time of the writing of Revelation, the church would have likely been on its third generation of Christians. What likely happened is over the years the energy and focus of the first generation was fading. At one time they did things because they loved Christ, but now they do them because that is what the church does. They had become more about the doing and not the love that drove that doing originally.
As any good leader would, Jesus also gives them the correction for this problem. He tells them to: Remember, Repent, and Return. It is important to note that first verb, remember, is in a continuous tense. He is telling them to go back and focus on their first love, namely him. This is not something they should ever stop doing. Repent is in the aorist tense, which means it is a one-time action. Once you repent of a sin, you never have to return to it. He wants them to return to the way the church once was, and once again do things out of the love of Christ, and not the love of doing.
He warns them if they do not do this, he will remove their lampstand. This is a clear warning that he will remove the church if they do not shape up. Eventually, that does happen, and there is only ruins there now, but it appears that for a while they did heed his warning as they do survive a good while longer.
Finally, he tells them if they overcome they will be rewarded. The word overcome is also in the continuous tense, meaning, “keep overcoming.” If they stay true to their Christianity, the will have a great reward in heaven. Overcoming and perseverance are two key words in Revelation. You overcome by persevering in the faith, and that yields rewards in heaven, and avoidance of wrath here on earth.
Ephesus shows what in today’s age could be any given successful church that is doing great things. This church may have a great food pantry and wonderful clothing ministry. It might have people working among the homeless every week and sending youth groups to help with hospice care. From external appearances, it is a happening and alive church that is accomplishing great things.
All of that is meaningless to Christ if they have left their first love. If that successful church stops doing things based on the love of Christ, then Christ will remove their lampstand.
As individuals, we drive the church. If we as church members do not love Christ, then by definition the church does not love Christ. It is up to us, as members of the body of Christ, to do things out of our love of Christ, and not out of our love of programs and ministries. When we lose sight of our first love, we risk the same fate warned about here. If you are heading down that road, then follow the corrective action given by Jesus here. Remember why you are a Christian and who died for you, repent of your sins and return to the love of Christ.