The History Of The Assembly At Ephesus

P. James Poole, 70, George Street, Croydon, Surrey, England

Our assembly has a proud history! But is it still vigorous? Yes! Patient too? Yes! And sound in the truth? Yes! Yet it may be a fallen assembly and in urgent need of repentance.

EPHESUS is unique among the Assemblies mentioned in Scripture in that it is possible to trace its history over a comparatively long period, from purely scriptural sources. Its nucleus consisted of the small number of disciples, about 12, mentioned in Acts 19. 7, whom Paul found there on his second visit to the city. His first visit, recorded in chap. 18, had been a very short one, and we have no record of any converts made on that occasion. In the meantime Apollos had been in Ephesus, and it is possible that these 12 were the fruit of his labours. There is no proof, but their ignorance of the truth of Believers’ Baptism, as distinct from that of John, would seem to indicate that they had received what teaching they had enjoyed, from Apollos. Paul expounded the Truth to them more perfectly, and they were baptised and received the Holy Ghost, speaking with tongues and prophesying.

After Paul had preached three months in the Synagogue opposition arose, and he withdrew with the disciples, “disputing daily in the school of Tyrannus” for the space of two years. His preaching was accompanied by miracle, and “all they who dwelt in Asia heard the word of the Lord Jesus, both Jews and Greeks.” The tumult organised by Demetrius, Acts 19, gives an indication of the great blessing that had attended the preaching of the Gospel. After the tumult Paul departed into Macedonia (Acts 20. 1), and from that time, as far as Scripture tells, he did not revisit Ephesus. En route to Jerusalem, however (20. 16), he sent for the Elders of the Ephesian Assembly to come to him at Miletus, to whom he discoursed as recorded in Acts 20. 18 on.

From the discourse we learn that from the very first day of his being in Asia he had been active in the work of the Gospel, and in ministering the Word to the believers; preaching the Kingdom of God, declaring all the counsel of God, and keeping back nothing that was profitable. He had also mingled warnings with the teaching. From this we can see that the Ephesian believers had enjoyed a rich and searching ministry during the three years (Acts 20. 31) the apostle was among them.

Our next link is the Epistle to the Ephesians. (That the Epistle which we know by this title was written to Ephesus, and from Rome, is the verdict of competent investigators.) It confirms one’s impression of richness and fulness, as the didactic contents of the epistle reach almost, if not quite, the very peak of Divine Revelation. It does not, however, contain much material to enable us to form an idea of the internal state of the Assembly at the time it was written. We may perhaps feel that the apostle would hardly have opened such a wealth of Truth to an assembly that was not, in general at least, worthy of it. He refers to them as the faithful in Christ Jesus (1. 1), he thanks God for their faith and love to all the saints (1. 15, 16), and closes with a benediction on all who love the Lord in sincerity. On the negative or sinister side, 4. 14 might indicate that some in the assembly were trying to introduce false doctrine, and 5. 6 might be a hint that some were even minimising the seriousness of unclean practices. The epistle’s general exhortations are such as are applicable to all churches in all ages.

Returning now briefly to the Discourse in Acts 20 (which antedates the epistle), we find that he not only reminds them of the past, but warns them of the future, and of developments which would ensue if the Elders were not watchful. Grievous wolves would beset them from without, while from within subversive elements would be manifested. The preventive of this was “God, and the word of His grace” (v. 32). As we have seen, up to the date of the epistle to the Ephesians these sinister developments appear not to have shewn themselves to any degree that we can be positive about.

The two Epistles to Timothy are the next link in this chain of history. They were written not long after the Epistle to the Ephesians. Authorities vary, but the interval was probably not more than 5 years or so, at the most. Timothy had been left behind in Ephesus by Paul when the latter went on a journey. (Incidentally, the statement of 1 Tim. 1. 3 must be accepted as fact; there is no trace of this event in the Acts.) These epistles shew that the deterioration foretold in Acts 20 had set in. Whether Timothy was left at Ephesus to repair the remissness of the local Elders, or to strengthen their hands is, I think, indeterminate, though probably the latter would be the correct view. In the Assembly there had begun to appear False Teachers and unprofitable talkers (1 Tim. 1. 3, 4), Judaisers and their “vain jangling” (w. 6, 7). There is a hint of “profane and old wives’ fables” in chap. 4. 7, and the “oppositions of science falsely so-called” in 6. 20, 21. Some had unfortunately been drawn away by this last form of error (v. 21). These all are definite indications of the downward trend, being amplified by a further reference in 2 Tim. 2. 14-16. In addition, and most sinister and grievous, though not perhaps to be specifically applied to Ephesus, is the remark in 2 Tim. 1. 15 that to Timothy’s own knowledge “all in Asia” had turned away from the Apostle.

The two Epistles to Timothy are invaluable from every point of view. Their foretellings of the state of things in the religious world in the “last days” have been only too fully justified by events. We to-day see all round us the very developments that they warn us of. But the Infant Church also was beset by every kind of enemy, and it is probable that Paul saw the beginnings of these sinister conditions in his own day. If so, 1 Tim. 4. 1 on, 2 Tim. 3. 1 on, and 2 Tim. 4. 1-4 are further indications that all was not well with Ephesus.

Between these two epistles and Rev. 2, our last link, there is a gap of about 30 years. The non-scriptural Histories of the Early Church say that the Apostle John spent some years in Ephesus after Paul’s death, and himself died there. If that was so we may be sure that Ephesus had the benefit of yet further years of faithful ministry from that venerable servant of Christ. Be that as it may, we are on quite safe and firm ground in Rev. 2, where we find in some senses a considerable improvement in the situation. False Teachers and practisers of evil deeds had alike been repudiated, and expelled from the Church or prevented from entering it. Instead of a partial heterodoxy we have strict orthodoxy; all doctrinally correct and satisfactory. In addition, “for My Name’s sake thou hast laboured and hast not fainted.” But for all that, the Church had fallen, in that she had left her first love. Her state therefore. was Orthodoxy plus FORMALITY; a sort of automatic activity, which lacked the only element that made the rest worth anything in the eyes of the Lord Jesus, namely, a true and vital love to Himself. She is threatened with removal unless she repents; a severe penalty indeed, which appears to have been imposed in the end, though Scripture is silent as to her later course. It is well known that for many centuries there has been no Church in Ephesus; indeed no Ephesus itself. Whether repentance and restoration did ensue from the Lord's words to her is not known, but this ancient Assembly stands as a warning to all assemblies from then to now, and in every place, your assembly and my assembly included.

FORMALITY. How often does this really deadly paralysis set in in the assemblies of God's people! We may rejoice (with trembling) that false teachers and evildoers are not a present disease of the assemblies at large, but who can deny that formality characterises them in too many instances? The remedy is that all the saints should be living in godliness and true holiness, and that all the men in the assemblies should be continually exercised that their contributions to the active life of the assemblies are the outcome of the inworking of the Spirit. Whatever we do frequently is bound to beget the habit of doing it, and habit, as such, is a deadly foe to spiritual efficiency. In the very nature of the Assemblies’ life and activities, the same things are being done at very frequent intervals. The greater therefore is the need that we take warning from Ephesus, that ancient Church, whose fault in the eyes of the Lord was that she had left her first love.