"Remembering Our First Love"
(Delivered Sunday, May 23, 1999 at Bethany Bible Church. All Scripture is taken from The New American Standard Version , unless otherwise indicated).
The last book of the New Testament, The Book of Revelation, has captured the imagination of many Christians throughout the centuries. And sadly, many Christians throughout the centuries have allowed themselves to be captured by their imaginations as they've studied it. The Anglican Bishop J.C. Ryle wrote that "much of the discredit which has fallen on prophetical study has arisen from the fact that many students instead of expounding prophecy have turned prophets themselves."1 Handling the book of Revelation in this way has led many to feel that it's too mysterious and symbolic to be understood in a meaningful way.
But as we enter into a new section of this remarkable letter, we're immediately reminded that its primary purpose is practical. Many of the New Testament books were written with the pattern of first laying a doctrinal and theological foundation, and then giving the practical instructions that are implied by that foundation. Here, however, we find that the very first thing that happens in this marvelous revelation from Jesus is that He issues a series of practical instructions directly to seven of His churches - churches identified by the ancient cities Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia and Laodicea.
It was in this context that the Apostle John was given a vision of the resurrected Lord Jesus Christ in all His heavenly glory; and it was too much for John to take. John says,
When I saw Him, I fell at His feet like a dead man. And He placed His right hand on me, saying, "Do not be afraid; I am the first and the last, and the living One; and I was dead, and behold, I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of death and of Hades. Therefore write the things which you have seen, and the things which are, and the things which will take place after these things. As for the mystery of the seven stars which you saw in My right hand, and the seven golden lampstands: the seven stars are the angels of the seven churches, and the seven lampstands are the seven churches (vv 17-20).
Jesus commanded John to write what He was shown, and send it to the seven churches that where in Asia Minor. And you'll notice that Jesus gave John specific instructions - to write "the things which you have seen" (which pertained to the things He had just been shown with respect to the glorified Lord Himself, as was described in the first chapter), "the things which are" (which pertained to the specific contents of the letters to the seven churches found in Chapters 2-3), "and the things which will take place after these things" (which pertained to the description of events surrounding the coming of the Lord, as described for us in Chapters 4-22).
In this one verse (1:19), we're given the outline of the whole book of Revelation. And so, as we enter a new section of the letter - "the things which are" - we immediately enter very practical teaching from our Lord Jesus for the church.
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Each of the letters to the seven churches ends with a common statement: "He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches". This sort of statement is found in common at the end of each letter; and it serves as a reminder that, though these letters where written to seven actual, literal, individual churches in existence in John's day, they were intended as a word of instruction to all the churches. The Lord's instruction in these letters was meant to be heeded by all His churches throughout the centuries - including ours. These seven individual churches present us with seven types of churches that have characterized churches for the past twenty centuries. The things contained in these letters have always had practical relevance to congregations of believers throughout the history of the Church; and they will until Jesus returns. The first letter we find is one written to the church in the city of Ephesus.
Ephesus was a significant city in the days of John. For one thing, it had the distinction within the Roman empire of being a "free city". This meant that it was politically free, for the most part, to be self-governing. It was, in fact, a city in which the emperor would often come to try legal cases of importance to the whole empire. It was also a commercially prosperous city, because three major trade routes converged on it. It had a huge stadium, a large market place, and a theater built on a mountain side that overlooked the harbor - a theater that could seat as many as 25,000 people!
But the great pride of the city was the Temple of Artemis (sometimes called Diana). It was 425 feet long, 220 feet wide and 60 feet high; and is recognized as one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. It was a marvelous piece of architecture, with 127 marble pillars, 36 of which were overlaid with gold and jewels. It housed the statue of the Diana - an ugly, black, squat little representation of a fertility goddess, but nevertheless held in reverence by the citizens of the city because they believed that the image fell down from heaven.
Much of the economy of the city centered on the worship of Diana. The manufacture of idols and the employment of temple prostitutes brought money into the city from around the world. In addition, the temple itself was recognized as place where anyone who was being prosecuted for a crime could find safe asylum; and so, in addition to its characteristic immorality, it was also haven for all sorts of criminals and trouble-makers.
In the providence of God, a church of believers was established in this city. And as the city was important, so was this congregation. Did you know that the church in Ephesus was the recipient of perhaps as many as eight New Testament letters? Ephesians (though not clearly written to the people of this church; because the phrase "at Ephesus" doesn't appear in the original Greek in Ephesians 1:1) came to bear the name of this city, and was no doubt read by the people of this church; and 1 and 2 Timothy were written to its pastor; and because John ministered for many years in Ephesis, its believed that the Gospel of John, and his first, second and third letters were all written to this church - in addition to this letter now before us. What's more, Paul wrote 1 Corinthians from Ephesus.
This was a church that was dear to the Lord's heart; and so, He commanded that words of instruction be sent to it. He dictated the following to John:
"To the angel of the church in Ephesus write: The One who holds the seven stars in His right hand, the One who walks among the seven golden lampstands, says this: 'I know your deeds and your toil and perseverance, and that you cannot endure evil men, and you put to the test those who call themselves apostles, and they are not, and you found them to be false; and you have perseverance and have endured for My name's sake, and have not grown weary. But I have this against you, that you have left your first love. Therefore remember from where you have fallen, and repent and do the deeds you did at first; or else I am coming to you and will remove your lampstand out of its place - unless you repent. Yet this you do have, that you hate the deeds of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To him who overcomes, I will grant to eat of the tree of life, which is in the Paradise of God" (Revelation 2:1-7).
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I have often wondered what a letter from Jesus would say if He wrote to our church. Would it have words of commendation? I hope so. Would it have words of rebuke and correction? I really have no doubt that it would. But what would He say?
May I suggest to you that, in a sense, He has written such a letter to us? This letter - which concludes with the statement, "He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches" - is, in very fact, a letter that contains instructions for our church. In it, Jesus is warning us of the danger of a church like ours starting off strong in its passionate love and deep appreciation for the grace of Jesus Christ toward us, being motivated and working hard out of that love, then progressively neglecting that love while remaining hard at work. Jesus is warning us that, if we fall into such a pattern and allow our 'first love' for Christ to cool and become left behind by us, we lose our effectiveness as His witness to the world. Such a situation is unacceptable to Him; and He will step in and do something about it.
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Notice first of all that, even though it may have lost this all-important, essential element of its 'first love', from all outward appearances . . .
I. A CHURCH CAN BE FAITHFUL IN EVERYTHING ELSE IT DOES FOR THE LORD JESUS (vv. 1-3, 6).
Take a close look at how marvelous this ancient church in Ephesus was. I think that any one of us would be honored to be a member of such a church. In fact, Jesus Himself says He knew of all its outstanding qualities. He doesn't seem to have any words of condemnation for the many fine things this church did - only for what it had forsaken.
First, He knew their deeds. Many church growth specialists speak of the 20/80 ratio in church ministry - that typically, 20% of the people in a church are doing 80% of the work, and the remaining 80% of the people are involved in only the remaining 20% of the work. Such wasn't the case in the church in Ephesus. It wasn't a church full of passive Christians, but was a church that got things done. It was recognized by the Lord Himself as a very active and busy church.
Second, He knew their toil. Jesus used a word that refers to hard, toilsome, bothersome work that would make one sweat. They not only got things done; but they got things done that were hard and burdensome to do; things that weren't any fun to do; things that demanded much from them.
Third, He knew their perseverance. Paul wrote some of his most definitive words on spiritual warfare to the church in Ephesus (Eph. 6:10-20); and perhaps this gives us a clue to some of the adversities it went up against. It was a church that faced trials and struggles and hardships; and yet it endured. Its people didn't lose heart or quit or give up. It was a tough church with the tenacity to stick to it even though faced with obstacles and opposition.
Fourth, Jesus commended it for being a church that hated sin. Jesus said He knew this about them: "that you cannot endure evil men." As you look down to verse 6, you see that Jesus commended it as a church that hated the deeds of group called the Nicolaitans - a heretical group that advocated immoral behavior2 and that had sought to influence the church in Ephesus. So Jesus says to them that they had this going for them: "that you hate the deeds of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate." He didn't commend them because they hated the Nicolaitans; but that they hated the deeds of the Nicolaitans.
It may not be 'politically correct' in the eyes of the world; but sometimes, a church is marked with honor from Christ by the things it hates. This was a church that was "intolerant" toward sin. It hated the things it should hate - the things that Jesus hated. It did not tolerate the sort of things from which the Savior died to set men and women free. It did not endure the things that it should not endure.
Fifth, He knew of their faithfulness to the truth. Some men apparently gained access to this church claiming to be 'apostles' - men who would come in among them and propose to be teaching truth from God. The apostle Paul once warned the church in Ephesus that such false teachers would attempt to creep into the church. He told a gathering of Ephesian pastors back in Acts 20:28-31;
Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood. I know that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves men will arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after them. Therefore be on the alert, remembering that night and day for a period of three years I did not cease to admonish each one with tears (Acts 20:28-31).
And now we see that, in Jesus' words to the church in Ephesus, it happened just as they'd been warned. But these Ephesian Christians had put those supposed apostles to the test when it came to their teaching - and they found that they weren't sent from God at all. Jesus knew that these were false apostles because He plainly said 'they are not'; and when the church at Ephesus tested these teachers in respect to the doctrines of the faith, they knew them to be false apostles as well.
Finally, He knew of their faithfulness in suffering persecution. He said, "You have perseverance and have endured for my name's sake . . ." Earlier, Jesus warned His disciples, "You will be hated by all because of My name" (Matthew 10:22; 24:9); and it had happened to the Ephesians just as Jesus had said. It was for the name of Jesus that they suffered. And yet, as Jesus said, "You have not grown weary." They didn't lose heart because of their claim to Jesus and His claim on them. They didn't give up - even under the fiery trials of persecution.
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What a fine church! What a steadfast church! What an impact such a church would have on a culture like ours!! When I read of this church and its good and commendable qualities, I long for our church to be like it. And in many ways it is! I only long for it to be more so; don't you?
And yet, with all these wonderful things going for it, it received a shockingly strong word of disapproval from the Master. He said, "I have this against you, that you have left your first love." Because of their having "left" or "forsaken" or "abandoned" their first love3 - in spite of all the other wonderful things it was doing - the church in Ephesus received a stern warning from Jesus to either repent or suffer loss. If it failed to repent of the sin of neglecting its first love, Jesus warned that He Himself would come to them and personally "remove" their "lampstand out of its place." These leads us to our second point; that a church may have everything else going for it . . .
II. BUT IF THE BELIEVERS IN IT LEAVE THEIR 'FIRST LOVE', IT LOSES ITS USEFULNESS TO THE LORD (v. 4).
What was this all-important "first love" that the Ephesian church had left? In answering that question, I believe that we need to go back to Acts 19, and look at the time when the Gospel of Jesus Christ first came to the city of Ephesus.
When we look at that passage, we read of the "extraordinary miracles" that God was performing through the Apostle Paul there. The Bible says that, as the news was spreading about the miraculous things God was doing, and of the Gospel of Jesus that Paul was preaching,
. . . fear fell upon them all and the name of the Lord Jesus was being magnified. Many also of those who had believed kept coming, confessing and disclosing their practices. And many of those who practiced magic brought their books together and began burning them in the sight of all; and they counted up the price of them and found it fifty thousand pieces of silver. So the word of the Lord was growing mightily and prevailing (Acts 19:17a-20).
If you were to read this story and ask what their "first love" was, you would have to answer that it was none other than that intense, all-consuming love of the Lord Jesus for His having saved them from sin - a love so powerful, it became the driving force in all that they did - a love so powerful, it moved them to give up everything else.
Have you ever watched one of those "rescue" shows on television and seen one of those episodes in which an emergency worker saves someone's life from a fire or flood or some other disaster? Often they show a meeting between the rescuer and the man or woman they saved. That rescued person knew nothing about their rescuer before then; but as soon as they meet, the rescued person displays an immediate, powerful love for them. All they know is that they saved them; and so they deeply love them and are moved to express their thanks to them exuberantly.
It's the same with Jesus, our Rescuer from our sins. Many people admire Jesus as a great teacher, or as a religious leader, or as an example of compassion. But there's no intense love for Him in those things because they have no sense that He's saved them from anything or forgiven any of their sins. But when you realize that you are lost and condemned in sin - destined for the righteous wrath of God for your sins - and you trust Jesus sacrifice on the cross for sinners, and He saves you from your state of lostness; then you love Him deeply and long to give yourself to Him in gratitude. Jesus taught that you could tell when someone had been forgiven much by the fact that they loved much; because, as He said, ". . . He who is forgiven little, loves little" (Luke 7:47).
These Ephesians loved Jesus because He saved them marvelously from their terrible sins of immorality, greed, idolatry, sorcery and pride. In fact, they so loved Him and came to trust Him, that they abandoned everything else they used to trust in. No more magic arts! No more occultic practices! No more secret crafts! No more 'good luck' charms! No more witchcraft! From then on, they placed their full love and trust in Jesus and in Him alone - His saving grace, His power and His word exclusively! They gave their lives over to Him and served Him as the great object of their love because they had been forgiven so much!
Apparently, over time, they came to keep on sacrificing for Him; to keep on suffering for Him; to keep on toiling and laboring for Him; to keep on persevering for Him; . . . but in all this, they began to neglect Him! They were doing all the right things; but in the process, they lost that intense, exclusive love for Christ that they once had. In fact, the Revised Standard Version of the Bible translates it this way: ". . . I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first". This is intolerable for the Savior.
I remember something that Dr. John Mitchell once told us during his Spiritual Life course at Multnomah Bible College. It wasn't intended to be scholarly course; instead it was wonderful opportunity to just sit and listen to Dr. Mitchell talk about the Savior he loved so much. And one day, he told us all, "Young men and young women - Jesus doesn't want your service if He can't have you. He doesn't need your service; but He wants you." I don't think I'll ever forget those words. They're so true. Jesus doesn't want our help. He doesn't need our help. He gains nothing from our labors, and our theological correctness, and our intolerance for sin, if He doesn't have our hearts. What He wants - above all else - is to see these things spring forth as a secondary byproduct of our intense, all-consuming love for Him as our Savior.
I have known some professing Christians who are impressively active, hard-working, persevering, devoted completely and studiously to the doctrines of the faith, and who test all things against the standard of the Scriptures. They were willing to suffer for the truth, and they hate sin. Yet - and I mean this as sincerely and as kindly as I can - they seem to be going through the motions. As best I could tell, it had all come to be pretty much an external matter with them. There wasn't a whole lot in the way of an intense, passionate, personal love for Christ Himself because of His having saved them from their sins anymore. There was lots of practical action for Christ on the outside, but little passionate love for Christ on the inside. A subtile thing had happened to them over time - something that every believer is in danger of falling victim to if he or she isn't careful: "Christianity" had come to replace Christ as their first love.
The Lord Jesus had the Ephesian Christians' acts of service - and excellent acts of service they were! But He didn't have their hearts in passionate love; and that's what He wanted most from them.
And notice how seriously Jesus treats this matter! He says that things must change, "or else", He said, "I am coming to you and will remove your lampstand out of its place - unless you repent."
What is meant by the "lampstand" being removed from out of its "place"? Obviously, the direct reference is to the seven golden lampstands that stand as symbols of the seven churches. But you may remember that Jesus used the analogy of a "lampstand" once before, in His "Sermon on the Mount". He told His disciples there;
You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do men light a lamp and put it under the peck-measure, but on the lampstand; and it gives light to all who are in the house. Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven (Matthew 5:14-16).
Jesus' precious Church is His light to the world. A lampstand isn't the light; it simply holds the light up so it can shine and emit its rays throughout the house. That's important to notice. I don't believe Jesus is saying that Christian people who had left their first love would cease to be His people. Rather, I believe Jesus is warning that a church that has left its first love would lose its opportunity to bear witness to the world of Jesus Himself. A church in the midst of the world - like a lamp in the midst of a room - that will not hold up the light so that it can shine is not doing what it was made to be doing. Jesus will personally remove the church's "lampstand" from that place in which it can shine the light of the Gospel to the world, and will set it off to the side. All its hard work and fine qualities will be for nothing. Because of having left its first love, it will have lost the greatest privilege that could ever be had in this world - the privilege of being a witness in the midst of a lost world to the glorious Savior of sinners. What a tragic loss that would be!
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The possibility of our church suffering this terrible loss is a burden to me. I want our church to enjoy the awesome privilege of shining the light of the Gospel to the world! It seems to me that it doesn't much matter what else we may accomplish on earth if we haven't been His faithful witnesses. I don't want our church to lose its usefulness to the Master! I don't want our church to be removed from a place of witness - neither now or at any time in the future!
So, then, what should Christians who have left their first love do? That leads us to our final point. In the midst of this stern rebuke from Jesus to this church that was doing all the right things, but that had left its first love, Jesus tells us what to do; . . .
III. SUCH BELIEVERS MUST DO WHAT JESUS SAYS TO DO BEFORE THE CHURCH CAN BE RESTORED TO USEFULNESS AS A WITNESS FOR CHRIST (vv. 5, 7).
There are three things He calls us to. First, we must remember. "Remember therefore from where you have fallen," Jesus says. He calls us to do the hard work of remembering and recalling what it was like to have been saved from our sins and delivered out of the kingdom of darkness by His grace. He calls us to remember how much He did for us. He calls us to think back and search for that time in our life when we had allowed our love to cool; to think back to where it was we began to neglect and forsake that intensity of love for Him that we once had.
And do you know what's amazing about this? Jesus already knows when that time was. He could simply tell us. But even though He already knows, He calls us to do the work of "remembering". And unless we do, we will remain in that awful state of negligence. We will continue to do the same old things, performing the same old Christian duties, and never seeing that place where we've gone wrong, neglected Him, and left our first love - only further provoking Him to remove our lampstand from its place of witness.
This is in the form of the verb that calls for an ongoing, continual act on our part. We must continually "remember".
Second, we must repent. "Repent," Jesus says. We're to continually remember; and as we do, we're to "repent". To "repent" means to "change one's mind". In this case, the mindset is that of neglecting an intimate, personal and intense love for Jesus Himself - of not keep that love warm in our hearts through our gratitude. And to repent, in this case, would mean that we see where in our lives we allowed our love toward Him to grow cold, to recognize what sort of things we allowed in our lives to rob Him of our pure devotion and trust, and to get rid of such things and stop neglecting Him. We must change our minds - we must "repent".
Finally, we must do the deeds we did at first. The "deeds" that the Ephesians did at first involved forsaking everything else and devoting themselves strictly and exclusively to Jesus. In radical love for Him, they threw off everything else they trusted in and depended on, and they abandoned themselves to their wonderful Savior, and to Him alone. He became the great love of their hearts - even at great personal cost.
Perhaps you remember how, when you first came to understand and appreciate the forgiveness of Jesus in your life, you couldn't get enough of Him! You left the things you used to trust in and followed after Him. You wanted to tell everyone about Him. You longed to read about Him in the Bible. You were eager to gather together with other believers to worship Him and sing His praises in the deepest and most heart-felt thanks. Well; it was never His desire that any of that love would fade away. His desire was for that love to continue, and to grow deeper and stronger. His desire was for that enthusiasm for Him to only dominate our lives more and more. His desire is for us to go back and do the deeds we did at first.
I believe that our relationship with Jesus is like any other in that we will naturally and inevitably grow cold in that relationship unless we put in the effort into it. We need apply ourselves to "remembering", "repenting" and "doing the deeds we did at first." Unlike us, Jesus isn't plagued with falleness and the propensity toward sin; and so, His love for us never diminishes or grows cold. But because of sin, our love WILL grow cold if we do nothing to preserve and restore it.
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Would I be wrong in believing that Jesus would want our church to rekindle our love for Him in a new and fresh way? Would I be wrong in believing that the individual Christians in even a strong, busy, active sacrificing, persevering church have the need to stop and examine themselves, to see where they have allowed that intense love for Jesus Himself to grow cold, and to re-abandon themselves to Him again in love and thankfulness? What would happen to our church if all of us did that? How might God see fit to use us if He had complete possession of our hearts in love?
Our church has had over 104 years of continuous ministry. Am I wrong in believing that it periodically needs to renew a fresh love and devotion for Jesus? Am I wrong in believing that you and I need a restoration of that "first love"?
Jesus closes with this wonderful promise: "To Him who overcomes, I will grant to eat of the tree of life which is in the Paradise of God." The word translated "paradise" means an inclosed garden or beautiful park. It's a picturesque way of describing heaven. And in the midst of this "paradise of God" is the tree of life - the very tree that, in the garden of Eden, symbolized eternal life, and that was denied Adam and Eve after they fell in sin.
Jesus is promising that he or she who "overcomes" will be granted the privilege - at long last - to eat of that tree of life. He is promising eternal life to the one who "overcomes". John writes,
For whatever is born of God overcomes the world; and this is the victory that overcomes the world - our faith. Who is the one who overcomes the world, but he who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?" (1 John 5:4-5).
Do you believe He is who He says He is? Do you believe that He has died on the cross to forever take your sins away? Have you trusted Him completely and cast yourself upon His merciful grace by faith? And, more to the point, do you love Him because of His having first loved you and saved you?
Did you do so at one time . . . and has that love been allowed to grow cold?
There's nothing more powerful in the world - no greater light in the darkness - than a church of people in whom Jesus dwells, and who are deeply, passionately, devotedly, sacrificially in love with Him above all else - a church that's not simply going through the motions; but rather is rendering service while being completely given over to an all consuming love to Jesus.
May God make us that sort of a church! May God increase our love for the Savior.
1 J.C. Ryle, Prophecy (Ross-shire, Scotland, UK: Christian Focus Publications, 1991), p. 5.
2Eusebius writes of the heresy of the Nicolaites "of which mention is made in the revelation of John. These boasted of Nicolaus as their founder, one of those deacons who with Stephen were appointed by the apostles to minister unto the poor. Clement of Alexandria, in the third book of Stromata, relates the following respecting him, 'Having a beautiful wife, and being reproached after the ascension of our Lord, with jealously by the apostles, he conducted her into the midst of them, and permitted any one that wished to marry her. This they say was perfectly consistent with that expression of his, "that every one ought to abuse his own flesh". And thus those that adopted his heresy, following both this example and expression literally, rush headlong into fornication without shame. I have ascertained, however, that Nicolaus lived with no other woman than the one to whom he was married, but that his daughters continued in the state of virginity to advanced life; that his son also remained uncorrupt. It would appear, therefore, from these facts, that the introduction of his wife into the midst of the apostles, on account of jealousy, was rather the suppression of passion. And, therefore, abstinence from those pleasures that are so eagerly pursued, was inculcated by the expression, "we ought to abuse the flesh." For I do not think, that according to the saying of our Lord, he wished to serve two masters, the flesh and the Lord. They indeed say that Matthew thus taught to fight against and to abuse the flesh, not to give way to any thing for the sake of pleasure, and to cultivate the spirit by faith and knowledge.' But it may suffice to have said thus much concerning those who have attempted to mutilate the truth, and which again became extinct, sooner than said" (Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, chpt. XXIX.)
Eusebius then goes on to quote Clement's relation of how many of the apostles remained in a married state, against those who were setting marriage aside. It may be, then, that the original intent of Nicolaus was to present himself in a superior position over the apostles by abstaining from sexual intimacy with his wife. Paul seems to speak of such a thing in the New Testament (Col. 2:18, 21-23; 1 Tim. 4:1-5; 1 Cor. 7:1-9). But in the end, it would appear that Nicolaus' heretical teaching had the effect of encouraging immorality, as many apparently took his words literally.
3Aphi„mi is translated "to send away, dismiss, suffer to depart." It is used in reference to a man divorcing his wife in 1 Cor. 7:11. In this case, the meaning is that of "leaving", or as in Moulton's lexicon, "to relax, suffer to become less intense."
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