In the eleventh century B.C., about the time when the prophet Samuel judged Israel and Saul reigned as anointed king, colonists from Athens founded the city of Ephesus in Asia Minor. Its strategic and commercial importance marked it out as a desirable prize for the Persian, Grecian and Roman conquerors. In those successive world empires, the city became an important military centre. Situated at the mouth of the River Cayster, possessing a commodious harbour accessible to ships of moderate size and opening on to the highway across central Asia and along the Euphrates valley to Persia and India, it became the gateway to Asia and the chief city in the Roman Province of Asia Minor. The Ephesian populace were worshippers of “Diana of the Ephesians”, known as Artemis Devi, the goddess of fertility, of the woods and of the hunt. The temple of Diana, a magnificent edifice of immense size, with its ornate carvings and paintings and containing the image of the goddess, was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. The record in Acts 19 depicts the idolatrous super-stition of the Ephesians in the use of magical arts and charms and in the prevalence of occult practices.
During the time of Paul’s ministry in Ephesus, as he was establishing and edifying the Christian church there and extending God’s kingdom on earth, events of far-reaching importance were taking place in the history of the Roman Empire. The reigning Emperor, Claudius, was poisoned by his wife, the mother of Nero. Claudius was succeeded by her cruel son, Nero, who was to become notorious in his truculent and ruthless persecution of the Christians. It was under his unrighteous administration that the apostle himself suffered martyrdom for Christ’s sake.
Ephesus being a great tourist centre, visitors from Europe, Asia and Africa who came to see the splendour of the temple of Artemis took with them when they departed, as souvenirs, shrines that brought immense profits to the silversmiths. Jews, expelled from Rome by the imperial edict, found their way to the cities of Greece and Asia Minor. In Corinth Paul had lodged in the home of a Jewish couple, Aquila and Priscilla, and together they sailed from Corinth to Ephesus. There Paul left them to continue the ministry God had given them, while he, declining the invitation of the Jews who frequented the synagogue to remain, went on toward Jerusalem, Acts 18. 19-22. During his absence, an eloquent preacher from Alexandria named Apollos came to Ephesus to teach from the Jewish Scriptures “the way of the Lord”. The godly couple, Priscilla and Aquila (the order of their names in Acts 18. 18, 26, as found in the most reliable MSS), noting the deficiency in his knowledge and presentation of his message, took him and expounded to him the way of God more accurately. Thereafter Apollos continued his powerful ministry more effectively, was used in blessing to the Christians and in conviction to the unconverted Jews, and is next seen at Corinth.
Paul’s second visit to Ephesus, during the time that Apollos was at Corinth, brought him into touch with twelve pious disciples who knew only John’s baptism. On further instruction from the apostle, they believed on the Lord Jesus Christ and were baptized in His name. Those believing Jews, or perhaps Jewish proselytes, became the nucleus of the church at Ephesus.
Then followed three months evangelism in the Jewish synagogue, with no recorded conversions, and for two years after that daily discussion with both Jews and Gentiles in the schoolroom of Tyrannus. As one of those “who turned the world upside down”, Paul’s preaching would attract people from the surrounding towns and villages. It was doubtless during those two years that Philemon and other believers in the church at Colosse – a city the apostle seems never to have visited – owed their conversion to Paul’s faithful presentation of the Word of the Lord while in Ephesus. Churches sprang up in nearly all the cities of Asia Minor, and the miracles of healing wrought by the apostle were accompanied by the more outstanding miracles of the Holy Spirit in conversion. Thus momentous results followed the preaching of the Gospel and “So mightily grew the word of God and prevailed".
The fruitfulness of the gospel that Paul preached aroused the fierce opposition of the followers of the goddess of fertility, especially when books of magic, reckoned to be of great value among the votaries of Diana, were consigned to the flames. The sale of shrines declined, and in consequence riotous demonstrations broke out all over the city. Perhaps it was to that fierce howling mob that Paul referred when he wrote of fighting “with beasts at Ephesus”, i Cor. 15. 32.
The city’s chief officer, standing up amid the rabble, rebuked them for their rashness and referred them to the courts of justice or to a duly recognized assembly; his wise counsel was accepted by the citizens, and the hostility died down. It is significant that the word the officer used in two contexts – the word “ecclesia”, translated “assembly" – is the word that is always used for “the church”. In verse 39 the officer refers to a proper meeting of the city councillors. In the villages of India the “Panchayat" is the “assembly" consisting of five elders, to whom cases of disorder or violence are referred. The connotation of the same term in verse 40 is of a different character, for the assembly there consisted of rowdy artisans furious at the loss of trade. Yet in each instance, as in its use for “the church”, it signifies those called out from among their fellows for a special purpose.
The church that was thus formed at Ephesus was perhaps more highly favoured than any of the other early churches outside Jerusalem. On his second visit to the city Paul spent three years there, Acts 20. 31, thus giving the believers a longer consecutive ministry than in any other place he visited. During that period he not only taught the saints in their homes, imparting to them “all the counsel of God”, but also taught them regularly in the meetings of the church. Later, while on another itinerary, he arranged a meeting in Miletus with the elders of the assembly at Ephesus, and there reminded them of his past service among them, of their own responsibil-ities and of the warnings he had given them of the perils that would assail the flock in the future. His letter, written to them from Rome, contains the transcendental teaching concerning Christ and the Church and is nevertheless filled with salutary exhortations and counsel regarding the conduct of saints so highly privileged.
Paul’s letter to the Ephesian believers is frequently quoted in the literature of the early Christian Church. Those early writers recognized that it was addressed to the saints “at Ephesus”, but modern scholarship omits the words “at Ephesus" chiefly on the authority of the Vatican and Sinaitic manuscripts. Doubtless it was addressed in the first place to Ephesus, and there copies would be made of it for circulation among other local assemblies in Asia Minor. Evangelical scholars of the present day accept it as the letter of Paul to the church at Ephesus.
The Epistle emphasizes the heavenly character of the Church, since the believer’s Head is “in the heavenlies”. Our blessings and our foes, too, are there, and we are viewed, though still on earth as to our bodies, as spiritually seated in Him in the heavenly places, Eph. 1. 3; 2. 6; 6.12. This position of dignity and privilege should have its effect on the Christian’s walk in the world, in unmistakable contrast to that of the worldling.
A prerequisite for this is a divine equipment of energy. The Greek words – noun and verb – from which the word “energy" is derived – occur several times in the Epistle and indicate several spheres in which the effectual working of God was manifested in the church at Ephesus and among all “the faithful in Christ Jesus”. The apostle affirms that the same energy that was so effective among them when they turned to the Lord, confessing their wicked practices and burning their books of magic, was still at their disposal for their individual lives and service and for the growth of the church. That divine energy was exercised first in the fulfilment of the purpose of God’s eternal counsel, Eph. 1. 11, 12 R.V., so that those “dead in trespasses and sins .. ., children of wrath" and “sons of disobedience”, might be “to the praise of his glory”. It was manifested also in the pre-eminent place given to the Lord Jesus Christ in His resurrection, exaltation and Headship, Eph. i. 18-21. Of this, the late A.C. Rose of Madras wrote, “The standard of heavenly energy is for ever established when the Man who sank under the world’s weight of sin is raised from dishonoured death to the throne of sovereign glory. The standard abides today in every saved soul. The limitless energy of the Father emptied the grave and filled the throne".
Paul, the servant of Jesus Christ, with humble thoughts of his own power as “less than the least of all saints”, attributes the fruitfulness of his ministry in preaching “the unsearchable riches of Christ” to the power of God’s effectual working through him., Eph. 3. 7-10. God’s (elect) Church, too, owes its progress to the same divine energy which promotes the increase of the mystic Body of Christ by the edification and growth of the saints who compose it. Yet the Christian may cramp its working by unbelief, indifference or self-seeking.
When the apostle wrote his letter from his prison in Rome, the church at Ephesus was flourishing in the enjoyment of God’s effectual working among them and through them. The letter of John to the same church thirty years later, inspired and directed by the exalted Lord Himself, furnishes the reason for that church’s failure to continue in the power of that heavenly energy.
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