A popular TV drama follows different generations of a family in different times. It's fascinating to see the history of relationships, the roots of conflict, and underlying issues that keep surfacing over the years.
We find a similar story in the New Testament, as we follow the progress of the believers at Ephesus. The apostle Paul visited there, stayed for a few years, and later wrote epistles to the congregation and its pastor. Then we get a much later glimpse of that church in Revelation.
(Precise dates are sketchy, but we can place Paul's main ministry in Ephesus about 53-56 AD, the epistle to the Ephesians around 60, and the letters to Timothy anywhere from 62 to 67. Revelation could be 90-95.)
Two themes emerge early in the Ephesian story: the first is struggle. There's an ongoing fight against false teaching and false worship. Before Paul even establishes his own ministry there, colleagues Priscilla and Aquila are coaching a famous preacher in proper theology (Acts 18:24-28). Later Paul brings some followers of John the Baptist up to speed on the Holy Spirit (Acts 19:1-7). Then we read about the exorcists who tried to poach the authentic power of Jesus and Paul—and got thrashed by the demons involved (Acts 19:11-16).
Ancient sources identified Ephesus as a center for the magical arts, which explains the bonfire in which new believers burned their occult books (Acts 19:19). The city was also the home of a thriving cult dedicated to the goddess Artemis. The local silversmiths, who made a living from goddess-based trinkets, started a riot against the Christians, claiming that the gospel was bad for business. Unable to locate Paul, they terrorized some of his associates (Acts 19:21-41).
Later, as Paul met with the elders of the Ephesian church, he warned them that "fierce wolves will come among you, and they will not spare the flock. The time will come when some men from your own group will tell lies to lead the believers away after them" (Acts 20:29-30 GNT). The struggle was not only against outsiders, but against internal heresy as well.
A second theme from the Ephesus story is love. Paul spent more than two years building relationships in that town, so it's not surprising that, as the farewell meeting concluded, "They were all crying as they hugged him and kissed him good-bye" (Acts 20:37 GNT).
The love theme continues in the epistle to the Ephesians. "I pray that you may have your roots and foundation in love, so that you, together with all God's people, may have the power to understand how broad and long, how high and deep, is Christ's love" (Ephesians 3:17b-18 GNT). Unity is crucial here, not only in the melding of Jews and Gentiles, but also in the use of varied spiritual gifts. Later the apostle adds, "Your life must be controlled by love, just as Christ loved us and gave his life for us" (Ephesians 5:1).
Yet even with all this love-language, the Ephesians are urged to "put on all the armor that God gives you," and the full panoply is described in military detail. "For we are not fighting against human beings but against the wicked spiritual forces in the heavenly world, the rulers, authorities, and cosmic powers of this dark age" (Ephesians 6:11-12 GNT). The struggle continues.
Late in life, Paul wrote the two letters to Timothy, who was serving as pastor in Ephesus. The apostle's affection for his protégé is evident, yet the epistles are full of conflict. "Fight the good fight of the faith" (1 Timothy 6:12 NIV). The young minister is warned against false teaching and foolish debates. Apparently those "wolves" were threatening the flock.
A Look Ahead
Flash-forward about three decades. In the book of Revelation, Jesus addresses seven congregations, including the church at Ephesus. We crack open these pages with the curiosity of a high-school reunion. How has this church aged? What do they look like now?
It should come as no surprise that they are commended for their hard work and patience. "I know that you cannot tolerate evil people and that you have tested those who say they are apostles but are not, and have found out that they are liars" (Revelation 2:2 GNT). Apparently they have been fighting the good fight.
But the message goes on. "Yet I hold this against you: You have forsaken the love you had at first" (Revelation 2:4 NIV).
And here's a lesson that lasts through the centuries. There are fights to be fought, false teaching to be tested. We can enter the struggle to uphold God's truth, wearing his armor, wielding the sword of the Spirit. But all too often that embattled attitude has a side-effect. We neglect the other theme of Ephesus: love.
This is Ephesus. Is it also true that this is us?
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