Ephesians Study Part 3: The City of Ephesus


The last time we were together, we completed the study of Paul from the viewpoint of him as a man, and then the end of his life -- from his conversion on the road to Damascus where he personally met Jesus, until his death in Rome, probably after his second imprisonment in Rome. The outstanding characteristic of Paul was his single-minded commitment to Jesus.

The City of Ephesus:

Today I want us to learn and understand what the city of Ephesus was like -- where it was located, the environment in which the church at Ephesus was built, and ultimately the probability (or lack of probability) that the letter we're going to study was specifically written only to the church at Ephesus.

This area is called Asia Minor. Asia Minor and the Aegean region were a Greek speaking area, predominantly populated by Gentiles, but with Jewish communities and synagogues, in many of the major cities, including Ephesus.

Remember that when Paul was on his missionary journeys in this area, he usually started in each city preaching first in the synagogues.

Ephesus was a major city, located on the western shore all of the Turkish Peninsula, just across the Aegean Sea from Greece.

Outside of Rome, Ephesus was the most important city that Paul visited.   Ephesus was the capital of the Roman subdivision called Asia.  It was second only to Rome in its political power. It had primarily been colonized from Athens and was the seat of higher learning.

A number of great painters came from Ephesus. The mathematician Pythagoras also is thought to have come from Ephesus. (Remember the Pythagorean Theorem in geometry, which defines the length of the hypotenuse of a right triangle as "The square of the hypotenuse is equal to the sum of the square of the other two sides" -- or, a2 + b2 = c2.)

There were at least three great schools or universities located in Ephesus:

Ephesus was located on the river Cayster. Prior to the dominance of Ephesus in the area, Miletus was the primary trading port, but its harbor silted up over time, and Ephesus became the primary trade center.

At the time Paul established the church in Ephesus, it was a proud rich busy port, and was a rival for Alexandria down in Egypt, or Syrian Antioch to the east as major metropolitan areas. Located at the intersection of two ancient major overland routes, (the coastal route running north to Troas, and the Western route from Colossae, Laodicea and beyond) at the western edge of Asia minor (now Turkey), with easy access to the Aegean Sea, Ephesus had become a political, commercial, and religious center.  It had been on the main routes either by sea or by land from Rome to the east. Before we leave this map, note the island of Patmos. We will come back to it later this morning.

  Because of the harbor on the Cayster river which emptied into the Aegean, the city, at one time, was known as “the landing place”, and the citizens were proud of its role as a port city and a gateway to Asia. By the first century, however, the harbor was nearly filled with silt, thus causing economic decline.  Secular history tells us that in 65 A.D. there was an attempt to improve the seaway by opening up the navigation into Ephesus. But that task proved to be too great, so by the end of the first century, Ephesus was beginning to be a dying city, living on its reputation, and had become a curious meeting place of old pagan cults and the religions of Judaism and Christianity.

Today there is a small Turkish village by the name of a Ayasaluk located at the approximate site of Ephesus. The ruins of Ephesus are about 20 miles away from the coast, because the delta and river of Ephesus also silted in like that of Miletus, before Ephesus.

During Paul's time, Ephesus was the seat of an Oriental pagan cult based around an old Anatolian fertility goddess. This pagan goddess had been taken over by the Greeks under the name of Artemis, which was very parallel to the goddess Diana that the Roman pagans worshiped.

The picture of this fertility goddess was one with many breasts, and the temple was served by a host of priestesses.

A lot of the business and trade of Ephesus at the time revolved around this religious center, and the cult that practiced there. Because of this, during Paul's second visit he was basically run out of town when he started preaching against idols, because the silversmiths in the community made their living by manufacturing idols and silver shrines which were little replicas of Diana's temple.

A strong source of income for Ephesus was this great temple of Artemis, the fertility goddess.  Four times larger than the Parthenon, it is considered one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, and was spoken about throughout “all Asia and the world”.

When the merchants of Ephesus were trying to run Paul out of town, they said:

"You see and hear that not only in Ephesus, but in almost all of Asia, this Paul has persuaded and turned away a considerable number of people, saying that gods made with hands are no gods at all. Not only is there danger that this trade of ours fall into disrepute, but also that the temple of the great goddess Artemis be regarded as worthless and that she whom all of Asia and the world worship will even be dethroned from her magnificence." --Acts 19:26-27.

The temple stood outside of the city walls and faced east. Built completely of marble, it was 418 feet long [almost a football field and a half] and 230 feet wide and took 220 years to erect. There were 127 columns standing 56 feet tall. It stood in place until 262 A.D. when it was destroyed by the Goths -- German hoards from the north.   The image of the goddess stood, surrounded by curtains, in the center of the temple.

In the excavated ruins of Ephesus, they have uncovered, in addition to the temple, a great theater on the west side of Mt. Coresus. It is the largest theater that has been located in the Ancient Greek world and is estimated to have seated 50,000 people, and that was before football. The New Testament tells us in Acts 19:27- 29 that Ephesus had an immense amphitheater. After the statement from the Ephesian merchant about what a danger Paul’s teaching is to them, Luke tells us:

When they heard this and were filled with rage, they began crying out, saying, "Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!" The city was filled with the confusion, and they rushed with one accord into the theater, dragging along Gaius and Aristarchus, Paul's traveling companions from Macedonia. -- Acts 19:28-29.

The city was positioned between two mountainous ranges. The eastern ridge formed the foundation for this theater, cut out of the mountainside. Nearby was a stadium and race course, where fights between wild animals or between men and animals were held.

A great marble Street, the main street of Ephesus, ran northwest from the theater to the harbor.  The street was flanked on both sides by an elaborate colonnade.

The city's commercial life and prosperity came to depend on the thousands of tourism worshipers visiting the temple, theater, and stadium annually. No wonder the populace became alarmed, and then enraged, when told that Paul's teaching would undermine the worship of Artemis, endangering their livelihood and the city's economy.

The Church at Ephesus:

As was his custom, Paul began his ministry in Ephesus among Jews, in the synagogue.

And he entered the synagogue and continued speaking out boldly for three months, reasoning and persuading them about the kingdom of God.  When the Jewish leaders refused to listen, Paul left and taught in a rented lecture hall. 

But when some were becoming hardened and disobedient, speaking evil of the Way before the people, he withdrew from them and took away the disciples, reasoning daily in the school of Tyrannus. -- Acts 19:8-9.

 During the next two years, many Jews and Greeks came to hear the gospel and believed. At the writing of this letter from Paul, the church consisted mostly of Gentiles. The church at Ephesus flourished and became a strong spiritual community.

Paul left the Ephesus church under the care of competent elders, and later, he commissioned Timothy to minister there:  As I urged you upon my departure for Macedonia, remain on at Ephesus so that you may instruct certain men not to teach strange doctrines. -- 1 Timothy 1:3.

Scholars believe that the Apostle John wrote his letters and his gospel from Ephesus between 85 and 90 A.D., and that after John's exile on Patmos, he returned to Ephesus for his final years (100 AD). Irenaeus (120-202 AD), wrote: “afterwards, John, the disciple of the Lord, who also had leaned upon his breast, did himself publish a gospel during his residence at Ephesus and Asia.”  [Tradition has it that John continued to care for Mary the mother of Jesus there in Ephesus, in obedience to the commission Jesus gave him at the cross.  Archaeologists have found and restored the traditional house (right) in which they are believed to have lived].

In addition to having hosted these great spiritual leaders, the church at Ephesus is mentioned in the book of Revelation. God commends the believers for their “deeds,“ "hard work," and “perseverance” in Rev 2:2-3, but he warns them about forsaking their “first love” and calls them to “repent and do the things you did at first” (Revelation 2:4-5).

Certainly this was a remarkable church.  As we talked about a couple of weeks ago, Paul's first visit to Ephesus was during his second missionary trip, and he apparently only spent a few days there as he planted the new church and then proceeded on eastward from Ephesus back to Caesarea and ultimately Jerusalem, returning finally to Antioch. The new Church at Ephesus tried to get him to stay and spend more time when he was there, but he was anxious to get back to Jerusalem.

On his next missionary trip, his third, he proceeded to Ephesus and spent approximately three years there before traveling on westward into Greece and returning to the town of Miletus, which was about 30 miles away from Ephesus, and where he met with the elders from the church of Ephesus for a prayer meeting prior to returning again to Jerusalem. As we mentioned, we do not know specifically that he returned to Ephesus a third time, but the prison letters indicate that he expected to, and the pastoral letters lead us to believe that he did return again at which time he left Timothy there in Ephesus. But we do not have any details about that third visit to Ephesus.

 The earliest reference to Ephesus in the New Testament is the reference to some pious Jews from Ephesus that were at Pentecost in Acts 2:9. The fact that Paul spent so long in that area probably indicates that this was a very fertile area for the spread of the gospel, and he was successful in spreading his message throughout the area while he was based there in Ephesus. It appears that from Ephesus they established 14 key churches throughout the Turkish Peninsula.

First Corinthians was written while Paul was living in Ephesus. While there is a lot of support that toward the end of the Apostle John's life he probably lived in Ephesus, we know that Revelation was written from Patmos which is an island only 60 miles away, and tradition has it that when John died he was buried in Ephesus.

We know that Ephesus continued to be the church headquarters for the entire area for many years. There was a major Christian council held in Ephesus in 431 A.D., and then a subsequent council held in Ephesus in 449 A.D.

The Letter to the Ephesians:

Now let’s turn to the question of what this letter is and to whom it was written. We know that Paul had originally established the new church in Ephesus on his second trip when he just had a few days. We also know that he came back a short time later and spent close to three years there helping to develop the church and planting new churches in the entire vicinity. So it is clear that he had a close relationship with the people in the church at Ephesus. He knew them well and he cared for them deeply.

We also determined a couple of weeks ago that when he wrote this book it was six years later, and he was now under house arrest at Rome. He appeared not to be despondent. He indicated during his so-called prison letters that he expected to be able to return to the churches to which they were addressed.

 Most of his prison letters, as well as the pastoral letters, address particular problems or issues that some of the new churches were facing, and the letters were meant to advise them or warn them about the errors in their practice of Christianity, or false teaching that had crept in. All of the other prison letters and pastoral letters are addressed to friends and individuals in those specific churches with very personal salutations from Paul to his old friends. However in the case of the book of Ephesians that is not the case. This letter appears more like a summary of the ultimate teaching of Paul, and a statement of doctrine for the churches to use for guidance.

There are a number of reasons to believe that this letter to Ephesus was in fact not written solely to the Ephesians, but may have been a letter intended to be circulated to all of the new churches established in Asia Minor. The reasons for this conclusion are that

  1. Ephesians is the only letter where Paul does not call out special greetings to individuals by name, indicating that he wanted a special personal message passed along to them, either of encouragement or thanks for the service they had been to him when he was with them.
  2. Since this was the normal case in his letters, there is reason to believe that this letter was intended to be a general letter for circulation rather than to a single church. In addition, the earliest three copies of the book of Ephesians leave the name of the church to which it was addressed blank. This leads one to believe that perhaps the letter had been addressed to all of the churches in general, and was intended to be read from the pulpit, and when read aloud to the church congregation, the name on the local congregation would be inserted in order to make it more locally relatable.
  3. A third reason to come to this conclusion is that the book of Ephesians does not address any particular situation or false teaching or problem within the church, but deals with the general relationship of all Christians to Jesus. And since this is the only letter from Paul in which there are no corrective instructions or warnings, again it would seem perhaps more understandable if it were a general epistle of doctrine and understanding for all churches rather than just to the church at Ephesus. The fact that there are copies of the book which were in early circulation with the name of the church of Ephesus inserted in the opening of the book would also seem to be a normal situation, since the church at Ephesus was considered to sort of be the mother church or the headquarters church for the entire area, and the church from which Paul established many of the other churches.

So for these reasons, I come to the conclusion that this epistle was not written specifically to the church at Ephesus, although it gained that title in the early church because some of the manuscripts have that name inserted in the blank.

As we study through the book, see if you don't agree that it appears to be written to all Christians and to all churches, and is perhaps more reasonably understood to be a general encyclical, a letter to be circulated to all the churches as a statement of doctrine -- the bottom line of Christianity.

Next week:

We will dive into the first part of the First chapter. Specifically, we will deal with the first 14 verses of Chapter 1.