The City and Church of Ephesus

By Mike Mazzalongo Posted: Sun. Jun 17th 2012
This lesson examines the historical and social settings in which the church at Ephesus was established.

Here is what we've learned so far about the Ephesian letter:

  • Paul, on his second missionary journey returning from Athens in Greece, stops for a short time to teach in the city of Ephesus.
  • He leaves, promising to return in the future.
  • When he returns, he re-baptizes some men (12) who had been taught by Apollos and with these twelve the church in Ephesus is established.

In this chapter we will look at the city of Ephesus itself as well as Paul's early work there, and then begin a study of his letter to these brethren. The story of the beginning of this church is found in Acts 19.

Background: Ephesus, the City

Ephesus itself was a great city for that time. It was situated in modern day Turkey. It served as a major port for Asia Minor.

There was a street 70' wide that ran from the port through the entire city. The population at that time was approximately 300,000 people. Many streets were lined with marble, and had public baths and a theatre that held between 25,000 and 50,000 people.

The temple to the goddess Diana, regarded as one of the 7 wonders of the ancient world (100 pillars held the roof) was situated there. Diana was a fertility goddess and drew pilgrims from all over the world.

Around the temple was a community that housed artisans who made a good living making coins, statues, etc. They had a guild/union. In Ephesus the culture, religion and politics were mixed together as one entity.

8 And he entered the synagogue and continued speaking out boldly for three months, reasoning and persuading them about the kingdom of God. 9 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. 10 This took place for two years, so that all who lived in Asia heard the word of the Lord, both Jews and Greeks.

11 God was performing extraordinary miracles by the hands of Paul, 12 so that handkerchiefs or aprons were even carried from his body to the sick, and the diseases left them and the evil spirits went out. 13 But also some of the Jewish exorcists, who went from place to place, attempted to name over those who had the evil spirits the name of the Lord Jesus, saying, "I adjure you by Jesus whom Paul preaches." 14 Seven sons of one Sceva, a Jewish chief priest, were doing this. 15 And the evil spirit answered and said to them, "I recognize Jesus, and I know about Paul, but who are you?" 16 And the man, in whom was the evil spirit, leaped on them and subdued all of them and overpowered them, so that they fled out of that house naked and wounded. 17 This became known to all, both Jews and Greeks, who lived in Ephesus; and fear fell upon them all and the name of the Lord Jesus was being magnified. 18 Many also of those who had believed kept coming, confessing and disclosing their practices. 19 And many of those who practiced magic brought their books together and began burning them in the sight of everyone; and they counted up the price of them and found it fifty thousand pieces of silver. 20 So the word of the Lord was growing mightily and prevailing.
- Acts 19:8-20

Note that the growth of the church was not only confined to the city of Ephesus, but Christians from Ephesus evangelized the entire region.

The riot

21 Now after these things were finished, Paul purposed in the Spirit to go to Jerusalem after he had passed through Macedonia and Achaia, saying, "After I have been there, I must also see Rome." 22 And having sent into Macedonia two of those who ministered to him, Timothy and Erastus, he himself stayed in Asia for a while.
- Acts 19:21-22

Paul feels that the church is well established so he sends two workers ahead of him to prepare for his next trip to northern Greece and Rome, and then returning home to Jerusalem. After sending his men ahead he remained a little while longer to strengthen the church in Ephesus. This is when trouble happens.

23 About that time there occurred no small disturbance concerning the Way. 24 For a man named Demetrius, a silversmith, who made silver shrines of Artemis, was bringing no little business to the craftsmen; 25 these he gathered together with the workmen of similar trades, and said, "Men, you know that our prosperity depends upon this business. 26 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. 27 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."
28 When they heard this and were filled with rage, they began crying out, saying, "Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!" 29 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. 30 And when Paul wanted to go into the assembly, the disciples would not let him. 31 Also some of the Asiarchs who were friends of his sent to him and repeatedly urged him not to venture into the theater. 32 So then, some were shouting one thing and some another, for the assembly was in confusion and the majority did not know for what reason they had come together. 33 Some of the crowd concluded it was Alexander, since the Jews had put him forward; and having motioned with his hand, Alexander was intending to make a defense to the assembly. 34 But when they recognized that he was a Jew, a single outcry arose from them all as they shouted for about two hours, "Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!" 35 After quieting the crowd, the town clerk said, "Men of Ephesus, what man is there after all who does not know that the city of the Ephesians is guardian of the temple of the great Artemis and of the image which fell down from heaven? 36 So, since these are undeniable facts, you ought to keep calm and to do nothing rash. 37 For you have brought these men here who are neither robbers of temples nor blasphemers of our goddess. 38 So then, if Demetrius and the craftsmen who are with him have a complaint against any man, the courts are in session and proconsuls are available; let them bring charges against one another. 39 But if you want anything beyond this, it shall be settled in the lawful assembly. 40 For indeed we are in danger of being accused of a riot in connection with today's events, since there is no real cause for it, and in this connection we will be unable to account for this disorderly gathering." 41 After saying this he dismissed the assembly.
- Acts 19:23-41

The preaching of the gospel had begun to threaten the business surrounding Diana worship so the local businessmen stirred up a riot accusing Paul and his companions of civil disruption and disrespect for the local diety.

  • Artemis is the Greek word for Diana (Latin).
  • Diana was said to have fallen from the sky. In reality, it was a meteorite that fell and was eventually encased in the entrance to the temple.
  • Artemis was the sister of Apollo, daughter of Jupiter and Latona in Greek mythology.

Eventually one of the city leaders quelled the riot by pointing out that they were breaking Roman law by doing this. The riot and the threatened execution of a Roman citizen (Paul) was unlawful since Rome controlled this territory. The problem that Paul was having in Ephesus was that Christianity refused any form of syncretism (the mixture together of religions). Pagan religions were often a mixture of several belief systems; Hinduism, for example, is like this. This is why many Hindus accept Christ and simply add Him to their Hindu belief system.

A feature of true biblical Christianity is that it refuses to be mixed into any other religion and does not include the non-biblical principles of other religions into its theology, but it does adapt itself to every culture and generation (like the Church of Christ in China, Africa, etc.).

It was this refusal to allow pagan Diana worship to influence the Christian faith, and the demand that idol worshippers abandon this practice that caused all the trouble for those who were preaching Christ and His exclusive demands on His followers.

The Letter: Time / Author

After Paul left Ephesus he went north to Greece and ultimately made his way back home to Jerusalem with a final stop on the island of Miletus (an island near the coast where the city of Ephesus was located). He did this because he wanted to avoid any problems or delays in his travel plans that might arise if he stopped in Ephesus itself (Acts 20:1-38). While there he called for the elders from Ephesus to meet with him and gave them important instructions concerning their work. They, in turn, bid him a tearful farewell.

Once he returns to Jerusalem, we learn from the final chapters of Acts that Paul is imprisoned for a long period of time and ultimately goes to Rome to stand trial before Caesar.

While Paul is under house arrest in Rome (61-63 AD) he is visited by a succession of preachers and messengers from various congregations giving him various reports on the condition and progress of different congregations Paul had established or had worked with. For example, people like Epaphroditus, Timothy and Tychicus were all sent back with letters Paul had written to encourage and teach their different churches.

We have copies of four of these letters written by Paul while in Rome. He may have written more and there is evidence that he did, but four remain: Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians and Philemon.

Three of these four were written at the same time and sent by one messenger. Onesimus, a runaway slave, was converted by Paul in prison and returned to his master, Philemon, with a letter. Philemon was a member at Colossae so the letter for that church was also brought by Onesimus. Ephesus was 100 miles west of Colossae so Onesimus dropped it off on his way home. The fourth letter, to the Philippians, was delivered by Epaphroditus.

There is little doubt that Paul is the author of the letter to the Ephesians in that he names himself in the first verse, and many historical writings show that Paul was universally credited by the early church as being the author of these four epistles. In other words, this is an authentic letter from the Apostle Paul, and was recognized as such from the very beginning.

Reasons for the letter

There were many problems being faced by the 1st century church as it sought to be established and grow in a pagan society. There were the immoral influences of pagan society within the Roman Empire of that period as well as the open and active persecution of the church.

There were also the dangers of false teachers creeping into the church with uninspired teachings. For example, many teachers of that time mixed Greek philosophical thought with Christianity, or mixed Jewish law-keeping and ceremonial law with the gospel of grace, and then there was the danger of syncretism with pagan religions that were common in that time and place.

There was also the problem of getting Jewish and Gentile converts to live together in harmony as brothers and sisters in Christ. These people came from wildly different cultures and religious practices.

Most of Paul's letters deal with difficult issues: immorality and proper conduct (I Corinthians), mixing of the Greek and Jewish ideas with the gospel of Christ (Colossians), an appeal to Jewish Christians to accept their Gentile brethren in Christ (Galatians). In Ephesians Paul makes an appeal to Gentile Christians not to exclude Jewish Christians (or anyone else for that matter) from inclusion in the church. It was an appeal to those (Gentiles) who had no sentimental, cultural or historical ties to the Jewish religion. Paul encourages them to be tolerant and accepting of those whose history and relationship to a Jewish messiah was still very important!

Paul did not want to see two churches: one Jewish, one Gentile. He wanted both of these to be accommodated in one body and one body only. His defense of the Gentiles was seen in his teaching and associating with them while calling out to his Jewish brethren to accept them as full partners in Christ. His appeal (from Gentiles to Jesus) was seen in his effort to collect money from Gentile churches in order to help the Jews in Jerusalem suffering from a crippling famine (I Corinthians 16). If Christian Jews had problems accepting Gentile Christians, this gift was meant to break down resistance and suspicion.

In his letter to Ephesians (who were experiencing divisiveness between Jews and Gentiles), Paul describes a church that is big enough and loving enough to include Jewish and Gentile Christians, as well as people of different genders, viewpoints and experiences. In addition to this, Paul demonstrates in this epistle how unity and order in the church, the family, in society and in the spiritual world can be achieved through Jesus Christ, who is the head of the body of believers. It is interesting to note that Ephesians is the only letter where Paul uses the word "church" in the "universal" and not in the local congregational sense.

One commentator has called Ephesians the epistle of the church. The book of Acts describes the physical history of the church. The book of Ephesians describes its character.

Outline: Ephesians

  1. Blessings of the church – 1:1-23
  2. Universality of the church – 2:1-3:21
  3. Obligations of the church
    1. Unity – 4:1-16
    2. Righteousness – 4:17-6:9
    3. Faithfulness – 6:10-24

Ephesians, more than any other epistle, demonstrates how important and how central the church is to God's plan and His purpose for mankind.

Reading Assignment:  Ephesians 1:1-23