The Apostle Paul and Ephesus

Paul is incarcerated in Rome under circumstances known today as “house arrest.” He contemplates how the Church fits into the overall plan of redemption. He knows only the Body of Christ can evangelize and thus restore the fallen human race. However, the apostle also realizes the Church must be unified and pure in order to be effective. His prayer in the first chapter of Ephesians is that the Church will have a clear and complete knowledge of God’s purpose through Jesus Christ. 

The City

Ephesus is originally built around 1100 B.C. In the first century, it is the seacoast capital of proconsular Asia with some half-million inhabitants. The metropolis encompasses over a thousand acres and has walls ten feet thick. The climate around Ephesus is mild and the land is fertile. “Ephesus” means desirable and the magnificence of the city wins her the title, “The Ornament of Asia.” Strategically situated on the main route from the East to the West, it is one of Asia’s great commercial, political, and religious centers. It becomes part of the Roman Empire in 190 B.C. and rises to a degree of splendor unsurpassed by the surrounding cities.

The importance of Ephesus is further enhanced because it is the seat of justice in Asia Minor. It is the residence of the Roman procurator. Prominent persons frequent the city and it becomes a cosmopolitan melting pot for numerous ethnicities. The city is renowned for its refinement, music, dancing, and festivals. It serves as a haven for poets, artisans, orators, magicians, philosophers, and false teachers.

Ephesus is the favorite resort for those who worship the Diana (Artimis), the goddess of fertility. Because Diana is the dominant deity, idolatry is rampant and lascivious orgies are commonplace. Her famous temple, which has taken over 200 years to build, is one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. It is a beautiful, immense, and extravagant edifice of marble. History records each of its 127 magnificent columns are donated by 127 different kings. The temple also serves as the primary financial center in Asia Minor and numerous national treasures are stored within its walls.

The Missional Strategy

Paul consistently envisions the evangelism of great commercial hubs such as Antioch, Athens, Corinth, Rome, Philippi, and Ephesus. He seeks to establish churches in cities of wealth, power, influence, talent, and education. It is in such places some of the most magnificent heathen temples are built and heavily trafficked. Paul is determined to see heathens “trade in” their false gods for the One True God. Although Ephesus is a hotbed of idolatry in Asia, Paul endeavors to make it a center of Christian influence.

The Background

At the close of Paul’s second missionary journey, the spiritual foundation for the church at Ephesus is laid. Aquila and Priscilla are traveling with him. He enters the synagogue in Ephesus to preach to the Jews. Though the Ephesians urge Paul to stay, he departs and leaves Aquila and Priscilla there (Acts 18:18-21). Apollos visits the city and ministers there as well (Acts 18:24-26). On his third missionary journey, Paul returns and finds disciples in Ephesus in need of the Holy Spirit (Acts 19:1-7). Hungry hearts prompt him to reside in the city for more than two years, his longest tenure in any city (19:8-10 & 20:3). The interest of the Ephesians in Jesus is further perpetuated by the miracles Paul performs (19:11-17).

Paul announces to the Corinthians, “I will stay in Ephesus until Pentecost for a great door of ministry is opened to me there, but there are many adversaries” (I Cor. 16:9). One such adversary is Demetrius, the head of the silversmith guild (Acts 19:23-41). Peddling small silver images of the goddess is a thriving business that enriches the local silversmiths (Acts 19:25). Patrons gather in the city from throughout the Roman Empire, believing Diana is sent from heaven (Acts 19:35). Demetrius boasts that “all of Asia and the world worship Diana” (Acts 19:27). When Paul proclaims there are no man-made gods, the sales of silver shrines is impacted and a trade riot breaks out. Allegorically, he later refers to “fighting with the wild beasts in Ephesus” (I Cor. 15:32). Paul endeavors to plant a church that will ultimately overthrow this prominent center of idolatry. Paul labors incessantly there for years, planting a church that is firmly established (Acts 20:20).

Paul’s love for this metropolis is evidenced by the fact his leaves Timothy there to pastor this church. He feels his presence will help to ensure false doctrines, such as Diana worship, will not corrupt them (I Tim. 1:3). From this strategic city the Gospel spreads into most of Asia (Acts 19:10). Paul’s affection for this congregation is evidenced by his tearful farewell address to them and their sorrowful response (20:16-38). Five years later he writes them this letter. All the reports he has received regarding the church in the meantime are favorable (Eph. 1:15-16). 

The Letter

Ephesians is perhaps the most majestic, rich, and profound of Paul’s epistles. It has been called “the Grand Canyon of Scripture” and abounds in powerful superlatives. Paul writes with extraordinary cohesiveness to the church at Ephesus while he is “a prisoner of Jesus Christ” (Eph. 3:1 & 4:1). He is suffering severe hardships (3:13) and views himself as an “ambassador in chains” (6:20). However, the epistle contains few other particulars regarding the writer or his readers. There is a marked absence of biographical references or personal greetings. There are a few allusions to false teachings, but Paul elaborates on no specific doctrinal problem. This helps explain the dynamics of the epistle, for its contents are solely for the edification of his readers. Ephesians differs from other Pauline letters, for his focus is on the universal Church rather than on issues within a local church. The interwoven theme is the unification of Believers who form a spiritual society within a secular society. Paul motivates his readers to closer unity by reminding them of Christ’s eternal purpose.

Jesus is set forth as the central Person in the universe around whom all else revolves: the enthroned Christ is pictured as Lord of the entire created order. The controlling theme of Ephesians is the relationship between the heavenly Lord Jesus and His earthly Body, the Church. In this letter, Paul explains the origin, the existence, and the purpose of the Church. Although the uniting of all things in Christ is God’s ultimate purpose for mankind, accomplishing this depends upon the cohesiveness and commitment of the Body of Christ. This can only be achieved through the love, compassion, and sacrifice of its individual members. Within His Church no barriers of nationality, race, culture, and gender should exist. Paul presents the Church as a universal fellowship that can enjoy and employ life in the fullest possible sense. The Lord Jesus needs His Church to help unify mankind by her love and consistency. All Believers are expected to train and prepare for a life of service, for only in this way can Christ be properly represented in the world.

The book divides itself into two related sections: doctrines and duties. The doctrinal portion explores the divine purpose of the Gospel message (Ch. 1-3). The remainder of the epistle examines the pragmatic purpose of Christ’s Church (Ch. 4-6). Truth (Ch. 1-3) demands responsibility (Ch. 4-6). The mission of the Body of Christ is to be His hands extended to assist in His reconciliatory efforts. Employing spiritual weapons, the Church unites to face satanic opposition. Because Christ has triumphed over all evil spiritual forces, Believers will also be victorious.

Tychicus delivers this letter (Eph. 6:21), as well as the letters to the Colossians and Philemon (Col. 4:7), to their respective destinations in Asia Minor. Ephesians is designed for general circulation among the churches of Asia Minor, including Pergamos, Thyatira, Sardis, and Smyrna. But because Ephesus is the most prominent of these cities, it is addressed to them. All three are penned around 61 A.D. during Paul’s second incarceration in Rome (Acts 28:31). In less than five years the Apostle will be beheaded in that city for the cause of Christ.

The Historical Annotation

In the book of Revelation, the church at Ephesus is listed as the first of the seven churches of Asia. The apostle John upbraids its parishioners for their lack of zeal (Rev. 2: 1-7). He predicts the glory will one day depart from Ephesus (Rev. 2: 5). His words are prophetic, for the city is conquered numerous times throughout history. Since 1405 A. D. this decimated town has passed into Turkish hands. Today its once busy streets are overgrown with weeds. One can see the crumbling remains of a stadium where 25,000 Ephesians once sat. The royal race track is now a wheat field. The ruins of the grand temple of Diana occupy an inaccessible swamp. A few huts near the site today form the small village of Ayasaluk, but no human being now lives on the original site of Ephesus. The two millenniums that have passed since the glorious days of this city prove conclusively that Christianity triumphs over idolatry.

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Points to Ponder

1. Using various resources, provide a thumbnail sketch of Ephesus in the first century. List facts about this city not found in this essay.

2.  List three of the most popular deities in Ephesus. Where does belief in these gods originate? What are some of their attributes that would appeal to idolaters in that era of history and why? 

3. The book of Ephesians is divided into two sections. List some of the doctrines found in chapters 1-3 and some of the duties required of Believers in chapters 4-6.

4. Describe the emotional moments found in Acts 20:16-38. What was the primary reason for the anguish that is expressed?

5. From Revelation 1: 2-7, summarize the remarks of the apostle John. What can be surmised regarding the spiritual condition of this city later in the first century?


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