Last weekend we began a series examining the letters sent to the seven churches in Asia, recorded in Revelation chapters 2 and 3. The first church addressed was Ephesus. With so much ground to cover, I’m uploading what follows for those of you who may want to dig in a little more.
My key contention last weekend was that the Ephesian church is commended from her commitment to the truth, but challenged to love. While I consider this challenge to be a challenge to love others, I am fully aware that loving Jesus deeply enables us to love others profoundly. As John himself says, “Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen” [1 John 4:20]. In that sense, there’s a reason the text can be interpreted two ways.
When it comes to the church in Ephesus the New Testament recounts what happens when a passionate band of believers feels called to reach a global city at the center of world culture. When John wrote his letter to the church in Ephesus, the city was the most significant city in Asia, and probably the Roman Empire’s wealthiest province. With the Empire’s estimated GDP being around $20 billion sestertii annually, with well-developed tax, social, and religious systems, [Worth Jr, Roman Culture, p.13-19], and lifespans averaging nearly 60 years, [Worth Jr, Roman Culture, p. 8] we get the picture of a highly functional and mobile empire with the city of Ephesus a figurehead.
Ephesus was a cosmopolitan city, with different cultural groups, languages, and religions. The population of Ephesus was estimated to be about 250,000 people. With the River Cayster flowing into the harbor of Ephesus, the city was a magnet for trade. But there was a problem. The River Cayster would deposit silt making it difficult for large ships to reach the harbor. In the opening centuries, generous stipends from the Emperor paid for dredging that removed silt and kept the harbor open to ships. It took a lot of hard work to keep that harbor open. Once the Imperial treasury could not afford to dredge the harbor, it gradually filled with silt and became unusable. Without the waterway, Ephesus lost its commercial value and its standing as a global city.
Towards the end of the first century, however, Ephesus surpassed Pergamum as the key city in Roman Asia. All empires need glue to unite widely different groups. What English is today, the shared language of Greek was back then. The empire promoted shared customs and in Asia, Rome glorified Greek customs and cultures. By far the biggest unifying factor, however, was religion. In Ephesus, religion was the means of inclusion and the common glue that held a sectarian city together.
At the heart of the city of Ephesus was the temple of Artemis. Artemis was the twin of Apollo, a virgin huntress. Artemis is the goddess and protector whose fame is legendary and whose worship was said to be global. Her temple was to the Asian world, what Jerusalem was to the Jews, and Rome to the Catholics. Her fame spread because in 29BC the worship of Artemis was joined with the Roman Imperial Cult or Emperor worship and part of the temple of Artemis was dedicated to Emperor worship.
When the Romans took over Asia, they did not oust the existing power structures and religious systems. Instead, they absorbed it into their own system, encouraging local modification rather than abolishment. This permitted the development of a cooperative attitude between Rome and Asia rather than an antagonistic one. The tie-up between Artemis and the Imperial Cult showed loyalty between Ephesus and Rome.
The temple of Artemis was considered one of the seven ancient wonders of the world. There were 23 different categories of employees working at the temple. It owned 77,000 acres of quality farmland in the surrounding region. It owned sacred pools from the River Cayster where fish were sold. Every year, there was a month-long festival called The Artemisia. Overlapping the months of March and April, the population in Ephesus grew from 250,000 to over 1 million. There were celebrations, parades, and contests in her honor. The statue of Artemis and 29 other gods would be paraded through the city to the Great Theater where Paul was nearly lynched.
You don’t understand ancient Ephesus until you understand the importance of Artemis. She was central to everything the city did. She was considered the protector of women, and the protector of the criminally accused. Her temple provided welfare for the needy and offered opportunities for people to connect socially. The temple was the center of innovation hosting conventions for new inventions and developing art. Everything revolved around Artemis. With Rome offering a lot of religious liberty, conflict only arose when private loyalties had a negative impact on official business, and the stability of the empire in Asia that Artemis worship protected [Worth Jr, Roman Culture, 23].
Yet, right from the beginning Christians were challenging her significance. The Christian faith demanded exclusive loyalty to one God in a way that made life difficult for Christians since they were unable to participate in the pagan religious practices which unified this sectarian city.
The intersection of mobility, religion, and mission is where the relationship of Christianity and the city of Ephesus is forged. The background outlined in Acts 18-20 is critical for understanding the words of Jesus in Revelation 2.
Acts 19 begins by noting Paul’s arrival in Ephesus. He’s preceded there by Priscilla, Aquila, and Apollos. At this stage, note that Acts 18 and 19 set the scene within the context of correcting inadequate teaching. “Paul entered the synagogue and spoke boldly there for three months, arguing persuasively about the kingdom of God. But some of them became obstinate; they refused to believe and publicly maligned the Way. So Paul left them. He took the disciples with him and had discussions daily in the lecture hall of Tyrannus. This went on for two years, so that all the Jews and Greeks who lived in the province of Asia heard the word of the Lord” [8-10].
Verse 9 tells us that he took the lecture hall of Tyrannus. The Western textual variants add a little more detail. They tell us that Paul took the hall between 11am and 4pm. These details are important. In Ephesus back then, more people would be asleep at 1pm than they would at 1am. This is the Asian version of a siesta. The ministry is growing, and Paul takes the hall for three reasons. First, its cost. It would cost less to rent at that time of day. Second, its size. For a growing ministry more people could fit in. Third, the time. More people would be free that time of day.
Verses 11 and 12 paint the picture of a vibrant ministry.
Verses 13-16 show that Paul was having so much traction that Jews started using the name of Jesus.
Verse 17 is where things get interesting. We read, “When this became known to the Jews and Greeks living in Ephesus, they were all seized with fear, and the name of the Lord Jesus was held in high honor. Many of those who believed now came and openly confessed what they had done. A number who had practiced sorcery brought their scrolls together and burned them publicly. When they calculated the value of the scrolls, the total came to fifty thousand drachmas. In this way the word of the Lord spread widely and grew in power.” [17-20] A drachma was about a day’s wage back then—so we are talking about 50,000 days of work.
That’s a lot of money!
Now drop down to verse 23 because this is where the scene is really set for the letter in Revelation.
“About that time there arose a great disturbance about the Way. A silversmith named Demetrius, who made silver shrines of Artemis, brought in a lot of business for the craftsmen there. He called them together, along with the workers in related trades, and said: “You know, my friends, that we receive a good income from this business. And you see and hear how this fellow Paul has convinced and led astray large numbers of people here in Ephesus, and practically, the whole province of Asia. He says that gods made by human hands are no gods at all. There is danger not only that our trade will lose its good name, but also that the temple of the great goddess Artemis will be discredited; and the goddess herself, who is worshiped throughout the province of Asia and the world, will be robbed of her divine majesty.” When they heard this, they were furious and began shouting: “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!” Soon the whole city was in an uproar. The people seized Gaius and Aristarchus, Paul’s traveling companions from Macedonia, and all of them rushed into the theater together. Paul wanted to appear before the crowd, but the disciples would not let him. Even some of the officials of the province, friends of Paul, sent him a message begging him not to venture into the theater. The assembly was in confusion: Some were shouting one thing, some another. Most of the people did not even know why they were there. The Jews in the crowd pushed Alexander to the front, and they shouted instructions to him. He motioned for silence in order to make a defense before the people. But when they realized he was a Jew, they all shouted in unison for about two hours: “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!” The city clerk quieted the crowd and said: “Fellow Ephesians, doesn’t all the world know that the city of Ephesus is the guardian of the temple of the great Artemis and of her image, which fell from heaven? Therefore, since these facts are undeniable, you ought to calm down and not do anything rash. You have brought these men here, though they have neither robbed temples nor blasphemed our goddess. If, then, Demetrius and his fellow craftsmen have a grievance against anybody, the courts are open and there are proconsuls. They can press charges. If there is anything further you want to bring up, it must be settled in a legal assembly. As it is, we are in danger of being charged with rioting because of what happened today. In that case, we would not be able to account for this commotion, since there is no reason for it.” After he had said this, he dismissed the assembly.” [23-41]
The passage starts with Demetrius, whom we are told was a silversmith, bringing workers from other trades with him. We could think of them as unions, but they are more accurately called organized guilds, because a guild usually had owners, freedmen, and slaves within their ranks. In Ephesus, there were guilds for architects, fishermen, bankers, bakers, basket-makers, carpenters, cobblers, hemp-makers, linen-weavers, silver-smiths, slave-traders, wine-makers, and wool-dealers. There were a lot of groups in ancient Ephesus and the common unifying factor for the empire was religion—in Ephesus that was the worship of Artemis.
That’s why verse 35 is important. The city clerk calls Ephesus the guardian of the temple. That is actually one Greek word, ‘neōkoros.’ Koros is from koreo meaning to sweep. The sweeper of the temple is more literal. The Jewish historian Josephus used the same word to call Israel the temple-keeper of God. The idea stresses service. The term shows how these folks understand their role. They were dedicated to serving the religious movement of Artemis. He also says that “her image fell from heaven” which we think means that her image was shaped from a meteorite.
In verse 27, we read their fear, “There is danger not only that our trade will lose its good name, but also that the temple of the great goddess Artemis will be discredited; and the goddess herself, who is worshiped throughout the province of Asia and the world, will be robbed of her divine majesty.”
Demetrius’ concern was legitimate. The battle between Christianity and the religion of Artemis and the Imperial Cult was a battle between a religious system that incorporated everything into itself and a religion that rejected every god but its own.
That’s the significance of the opening words of Revelation 2. “These are the words of him who holds the seven stars in his right hand and walks among the seven golden lampstands.” In these words, Jesus is presented as the real Caesar. He is presented as the one who holds all power and authority. He’s the one against whom no power can stand. This is a truth made numerous times in the letters to the churches (2:8, 10, 12, 16, 22, 24, 26-27; 3:1).
Let me bring this home to us.
We’re living in a period of heightened concern and alarm. On the one hand, this brief survey of Ephesus and the early years of Christianity in the city should remind us of how good we have it. As we continue the series, we’ll see that nothing we are experiencing compares to the challenges these early Asian believers faced.
On the other hand, this brief survey of Ephesus reveals that we face similar challenges in proclaiming an exclusive faith in a culture that is often unwilling to accept our message. If the pressure we face ever ramps up, the challenge Jesus gave to the Ephesian church will become our challenge, too. It’s easy, when opposed, to become hyper-vigilant to the point that our relationships are characterized more by suspicion than what, in my message, I called a ‘sacred trust.’ While that’s understandable, it’s neither helpful for the mission of Christ, nor healthy for us.
If you want to hear more on that, head over to centralholland.org and hear the message.
May we have ears to hear what the Spirit is saying to us.