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The Church in Ephesus: Passion

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 The Goddess Nike holds a palm branch in her hand to denote victory just as the saints in Revelation wave palm branches.

This theatre is still in use and seats 25000. This is where the angry crowd gathered during Paul’s ministry to defend their goddess artemis.

Introduction

I've wanted to do this series for some time now. The seven letters to the seven churches provide a unique intersection of what God is doing in our times and KPC's part in that work.

The first reason to study the seven letters to the seven churches is that they're in the Bible. Need I say more? The study of Scripture is always profitable. What's unique about this study is that it connects us to "the other Holy Land" . . . Turkey . Sometimes we think all the Bible action took place in ancient Israel . Not so. A great deal of New Testament action took place in Turkey . In fact, there are some wonderful archaeological sites in Turkey that record the work of the New Testament Church.

The second reason to study the seven letters is that they are all about revival. In each letter Jesus speaks personally to His Church, laying out for them His heart for revival. Revival is something we care about. Furthermore, revival is something God is doing in the world today. All around the world, entire communities are being transformed as the Church is revived. We're in a unique period of history. Each of these letters speaks to an important principle of revival. The seven churches were all in ancient Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey ). By studying God's past work in Turkey , we become connected to God's present-day work in Turkey . That's a good thing.

With that said, let us read . . .

"To the angel of the church of Ephesus write,

'These things says He who holds the seven stars in His right hand, who walks in the midst of the seven golden lamp stands: "I know your works, your labor, your patience, and that you cannot bear those who are evil. And you have tested those who say they are apostles and are not, and have found them liars; and you have persevered and have patience, and have labored for My name's sake and have not become weary. Nevertheless I have this against you, that you have left your first love. Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent and do the first works, or else I will come to you quickly and remove your lamp stand from its place-unless you repent. But this you have, that you hate the deeds of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate.

"He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To him who overcomes I will give to eat from the tree of life, which is in the midst of the Paradise of God." (Revelation 2:1-7 NKJV)

The Background

Ephesus was the first city of Asia Minor. It was the largest and the most famous city. It was an urban center placed strategically on the Roman Road. It was really the intersection point between the Roman West and the Middle East. In Biblical time east met west at Ephesus. He knew that a strong church planted in Ephesus would have influence well beyond the borders of that city. In fact, the Bible itself confirms just this strategy of Paul's . . .

(Paul reasoned) daily in the hall of Tyrannus. This continued for two years, so that all the residents of Asia heard the word of the Lord, both Jews and Greeks. (ESV)

Wait a minute. Paul was in Ephesus. How come everybody in Asia heard the word of the Lord as he preached there? The answer is simple. Like New York City or Washington. DC, almost everybody ended up there at one time or another. Pagans came for the religious festivals surrounding the goddess Artemis. Jews came because of the influential synagogue located there. Everybody came because it was a business center and a prominent seaport. By preaching in Ephesus Paul reached not only the Ephesians, he reached the whole of ancient Turkey .

The story of Ephesus in the New Testament really begins with church's birthday-Acts 2 and the story of Pentecost. Pentecost was a major Jewish festival and Jews came from all over the world to do it up right - celebrate Pentecost in the Temple with the high priest leading the ceremonies. You know the story, the Holy Spirit fell in power on the disciples and they all began speaking in tongues. Those who were there were blown away:

Then they were all amazed and marveled, saying to one another, "Look, are not all these who speak Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each in our own language in which we were born? Parthians and Medes and Elamites, those dwelling in Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia . . . we hear them speaking in our own tongues the wonderful works of God."

Notice the reference to "those dwelling in . . . Asia" (Acts 2:9). "Asia" would mean Turkey and, as I just mentioned, Ephesus was far and away the most prominent city there. As our own in-house authority on the Seven Churches mentioned to me, "It seems all but certain that Ephesians were among the Asians there at Pentecost." The birth of the Church was the beginning of Ephesians hearing about the Lord Jesus. Ephesus was a part of things from the very beginning.

In fact, Ephesus was not only the center of Turkey , it's one of the centers of the New Testament as well. If you know what happened in Ephesus, you find yourself knowing major parts of the New Testament.


Put it together and you'll see the New Testament record of ministry in Ephesus covered six decades, included two apostles, was a major part of five New Testament books (Acts, Ephesians, Revelation, 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy) and surfaces in three others, embraced the lives of several other New Testament figures of varying stature (most notably Timothy, Apollos, Priscilla, and Aquila), and launches one of the most visible of the early Church fathers (Polycarp).

It is not surprising that this is the first of the seven letters. Ephesus was the first among cities in Asia Minor. Only Jerusalem and Rome have greater prominence on the pages of the New Testament.

The Battleground

Now that we've looked at the background, let's look at the battleground. Being at the center of things isn't always fun. You tend to draw a lot of attention-and some of that attention comes from unwelcome sources. When you read the combined Scriptural account of the Church in Ephesus, it's clear that Ephesus was a spiritual battlefield. Their spiritual warfare was intense and unending. Let me give you just a few snippets to set the stage:

Ephesus was a spiritually intense place. The warfare was huge there-and it's no wonder. As I said earlier, Paul made a point of going to Ephesus to preach, apparently sensing that whoever controlled Ephesus spiritually would control the whole of Asia. It seems that Satan sensed the same thing for he put up an enormous fight:

There were three-perhaps four-major battles taking place at Ephesus. First of all, there was the battle with Artemis of the Ephesians (a pagan fertility cult). Secondly, there was the battle with Roman emperor worship. Thirdly, there was a doctrinal battle involving false apostles, false doctrine, and ungodly leaders. That this battle penetrated the Church itself is clear from Paul's warning to the Ephesian elders that "savage wolves would come in among them" and that even among the leaders of the Church some would give way to heresy and feed upon the flock. Shepherds would develop a taste for lamb-the one thing that can never happen. Finally, there was a battle with something known as the Nicolatian heresy, which we don't know much about. It may have been the false doctrine/false apostle battle I've just mentioned or it may have been a fourth battle in its own right.

Consider the sum total of these struggles:

Isn't that the sum total of our battles? And all of them are spiritual, for we wrestle not against flesh and blood but against powers and principalities. We fight sexual temptation. We fight a political battle for this nation. We fight battles over what is true and what isn't, and over who is true and who isn't.

What do you think the total effect of these battles fought over all these years were on the Church in Ephesus? In some ways it made them strong, didn't it? They had strength to figure out who the spiritual phonies were (the false apostles). They had the strength to hang onto truth in an era of spiritual compromise. They had the strength to keep on doing what was right and righteous in a time when even Christians would backslide into the immorality of their culture. (Sounds kind of familiar, doesn't it?)

But there was another effect of this ongoing, unrelenting spiritual warfare. It wore them out. As someone commented to me while we were talking through this passage, it's hard to love when you're tired. The charge of the Lord Jesus really makes sense now, doesn't it?

"Yet, I have this against you. You have forsaken your first love." Or, as another commentator translated the verse . . . "You do not love as you did at first."

The Application

I can think of four key applications for this letter-each is key to revival and each centers on love. (By the way, isn't love a fitting place to begin revival?) How like Jesus to construct this series of letters intended to revive the Church with that which was obviously first place for Him . . . love. It was Jesus who said that the mark of a Christian was love, "By this shall all men know you are disciples, how you have loved one for another." After all, couldn't this letter be aptly entitled, "First Things First"?

Application #1 . . . Warfare Wears Us Out

It's pretty simple . . . warfare wears us out. Isn't it true, for example, why many marriages finally fail? One spouse (or both) simply gets tired. The battles take their toll. Satan would be delighted to keep us endlessly on the battlefield, because he knows he can win the war of attrition. I also notice this in my own parenting-if I want to take the bait, there can always be a battle in our home. But if our home is in constant warfare, then I'm doing something wrong. It's my job (along with Helen) to set the tone and atmosphere of our home. If there is unending conflict, then Satan is duping me into living life on his terms. There are peaceful, rather than angry, ways to work through disagreements.

Application #2 . . . What Fuels My Life?

I think that sometimes we get hatred and love confused with each other. Notice the end of the letter and Jesus' compliment with regard to hatred . . . Yet this you have: you hate the works of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate. (ESV) That's an interesting contrast . . . love in verse 4 and hate in verse 6. Both of them are good. Hatred of the things God hates is a virtue. (Let's not over-spiritualize the Bible and fail to grasp that there is such a thing as holy hatred.) David wrote in Psalm 139:21-22 (NKJV)

Do I not hate them, O LORD, who hate You? And do I not loathe those who rise up against You? I hate them with perfect hatred; I count them my enemies.

We don't hate people-we hate abortion. We hate alcohol abuse. We hate injustice. Those are the enemies of God. After all, we don't wrestle with flesh and blood but against powers and principalities. In the case of the Ephesians, they hated something known as the Nicolaitan heresy. We don't know much about this particular cult. We just know the Church in Ephesus rejected it . . . they hated false religion. That was to their credit.

Yet notice this . . . they hated God's enemies, but they lacked love. Now one thing that is a bit unclear is what "forsaking their first love" meant. Did it mean that their love for the Lord was cooling off? Or did it mean that their love for each other was cooling off? Or what about love for those outside the Church? Maybe it was all three. We can't really be absolutely sure because you could just as easily translate this to render a meaning such as "you have forsaken your first love" (that is, your love for the Lord), or "you do not love as you did at first" (that is, you used to be a more loving Church).

My thought is that I'm more than willing to work on both those things--passionate, joyful, enthusiastic love for the Lord Jesus and 1 Corinthians 13 love for the people of God and those who do not yet know Him. I suspect I have some things to learn about love on both counts. I'm willing to say "guilty" on both charges, because I want to learn how to love the Lord and people.

The contrast in this letter is pretty stark. They hated heresy but they lacked love. The bottom line is that we can apparently be filled with zeal against the enemies of God but lack love for the Son of God. Apparently, we can fervently hate falsehood but be lukewarm in our love for others.

In a sense, we have to be careful about battles. The truth of the matter is that they can leave us more than tired . . . we can also become hard. There's a sense in which being "battle hardened" is a bad thing. Constant warfare-constant conflict-can just make us angry.

The question behind the question becomes, "What fuels our lives?" One ministry leader and I were talking about this passage, and he said something really powerful . . . "When I'm under stress I tend to push through with anger. My response is something along the lines of, 'I'll show you!' rather than love." I think that's pretty penetrating stuff. It made me think about my own motivations, particularly when I'm under stress. Am I primarily fueled by dislike of injustice, or intimate love for Jesus Christ and, at the same time, love for the Body of Christ? My friend's comment hit the nail on the head-"I'll show you" is about, you guessed it, "I." Love is about intimacy with Jesus and an unflinching resolve to ask the question of how this serves the best interests of others. I'm still working on that one . . . but Jesus is bringing me along.

Application #3 . . . They Know our Motives

Let's read it one more time . . . "I know your works, your labor, your patience, and that you cannot bear those who are evil. And you have tested those who say they are apostles and are not, and have found them liars; and you have persevered and have patience, and have labored for My name's sake. (Rev. 2:2-3 NKJV) It's hard to miss what's being said: we can do a lot of good things but still lack love in the process.

I was talking with another ministry leader about this passage and this tendency, and he had a great insight . . . "Maybe that's why we find it hard to hate the sin and love the sinner." Boy, what a thought! In other words, maybe our difficulty in really loving sinners (I mean, really having a heart of compassion and love for them) is that we're so often fueled only by dislike-even hatred-for God's enemies. Maybe if love for Jesus was our primary fuel, then we'd find it natural to love sinners even while we hated sin. Maybe that's why the world is sometimes less than open to the message of the Gospel-they sense more anger in us than they do love. Maybe they're right.

Close

I like where this letter leaves me, particularly in a series about revival and release. It brings me to a great starting point: what is my love life like? One commentator hit the nail on the head . . . "Some churches die from lack of outreach, lack of planning for the rising generation, or lack of courtesy to visitors; some churches, like the Church in Ephesus may risk simply killing themselves off by how they treat others."

This is the first letter, to the first church, with a message of first importance. The church in Ephesus was a Fountainhead church. Its life had an enormous impact on the whole of Asia. And what was the one thing the Lord wanted for them above all others? Love. Love does cover a multitude of sins. We can be wrong about many things, but we dare not be wrong about love.

The church in Ephesus apparently passed their test. Even a generation later, when Ignatius wrote to Onesimus (the runaway slave of Philemon who had become in his later years the bishop of Ephesus), it was clear that the Church was again vibrant and strong. Jesus, who commanded love, gave them love. He put oil back in the lamp stand of their lives, and they continued to burn brightly.

What about a revival of love? Wouldn't that be the heart of the Lord Jesus for us? Marriages. Friendships. Families. Church life. Isn't love a wonderful beginning point for a revival?

Turkey and the First Century Church

As contemporary as the European Union and as ancient as the Euphrates River, Turkey is a Muslim country steeped in Biblical history.

CBN.com – As contemporary as the European Union and as ancient as the Euphrates River, Turkey is a Muslim country steeped in Biblical history. I visited Turkey , called The Other Holy Land, recently on a short-term mission trip.

According to Dr. Mark Wilson, Adjunct Professor of New Testament at Regent University, "The land of Turkey is especially important in understanding the background of the New Testament because approximately two-thirds of its books were written either to or from churches in Turkey . The three major apostles-Peter, Paul, and John-either ministered or lived in Turkey ."

The Seven Churches are those addressed in letters from Jesus in Revelation, the final book of the Bible. All of these churches are located in Turkey , once the Roman province of Asia. They lie within a 150 mile radius of each other within Western Turkey near the Aegean Sea.

As we visited each of these ancient cities, we read the letter from Revelation to each church and prayed for a revival of the Christian faith there. There are only about 3,000 believers in a country of 60 million. Islam dominates.

We will feature each letter in detail, but join me first on a stroll through a typical First Century city where Peter, Paul and John would have walked.

Mosaic floorLet's start at home in a Roman villa where these home-based churches might have met. The floors are covered in beautiful mosaics, the walls decorated with brilliant frescos. The rooms are arranged around a courtyard where light and fresh air enter the house. Depending on the elevation of the site, the first floor of the home might be devoted to a commercial shop. If this is a prosperous home, it may have hot and cold running water.

If we decide to take a stroll, we'll want to do that during daylight hours. Nights are when the retailers haul in their goods. Animals and carts fill the streets and make them treacherous for pedestrians. These activities are banned during the day.

The streets in major cities will be marble with holes poked out to prevent slipping in the rain. However, the rain isn't likely to trouble us because we will be walking under a covered colonnade. The colonnade will be supported by brightly painted pillars and decorated with statues of prominent citizens. The columns will have the names of the priests from the temples carved in them in Greek. There will be marble tablets scattered about with important laws inscribed on them or tributes to benefactors of the city. Shops will be located adjacent to the colonnade on both sides of the streets.

What's left of the temple of ArtemisTo find the highest concentration of shops we head for the agora or marketplace. The goods are varied, the shops sometimes downright crude. We scurry by the fuller's shop where a pot is kept out front for men to urinate into. The urine is developed into a bleach for the garments the fuller cleans.

Of course, we may not be that squeamish if we live here. The public latrines are very public indeed, with rows of key-holed shaped seats positioned cozily in slabs of marble mounted on the walls. The situation is perfect for exchanging a little gossip with your neighbors. The sanitation is well engineered with used water from the Bath House being flushed through the trenches.

The public baths provide another opportunity for talking with neighbors. The gymnasium is also a community meeting place.

In Ephesus and Pergamon, we may have to walk past a temple of the Imperial Cult. These are the places where the emperor is worshipped like a god and sacrifices are offered up to him. This sacrificed meat was a stumbling block to Christians as it was often served at public events. Persecution often followed the refusal by Christians to eat this meat or offer sacrifices to idols. We will pass temples with other idols, perhaps of Artemis or Zeus.

We may also encounter a synagogue as the Jews have already been scattered from Israel . Paul will make a beeline there when he first comes to town. He likes to start his teaching among the Jews.

ArtemisWe are sure to pass at least one monumental fountain, most likely at the point where the water is piped into the city from aqueducts.

Finally, we may seek out a little entertainment. We head for the outdoor theater for the latest drama or to the stadium to see the gladiators' games. We can come back again and again for the games that last several days. The squeamish may want to stay away as these are battles to the death.

This is the environment in which the Apostles lived after Jesus' resurrection and where all but John were martyred.

Be sure to read the accompanying articles about Paul and John in Ephesus and about the letter written in Revelation to the Church in Ephesus.

The Apostles in Ephesus

Both Paul and John ministered extensively in Ephesus.

CBN.com – Paul visits Ephesus sometime in the early 50s on his way back from his second journey. Paul tried to reach there on his second journey, but the Holy Spirit forbade him to preach in the province of Asia. We're not told in Acts that he's going to Ephesus, simply that he's on his way to Asia. But the fact that Ephesus is the fourth largest city in the Roman Empire with a significant Jewish population shows Paul's church-planting strategies or his techniques in doing this. So he's detoured around northward by the Holy Spirit to Troas and then goes over to Philippi, Thessalonica, Athens, and Corinth. On his way back from that period of a year and a half in Corinth he stops in Ephesus. And he brings Priscilla and Aquila and leaves them there as he continues on to Jerusalem. There apparently are already believers in the city, and Priscilla and Aquila become involved with the house churches before Paul returns on his third journey. During this period when Priscilla and Aquila are in the city, Apollos arrives and begins speaking about the Way, however, knowing only the teaching of John the Baptist. It is at this time that Priscilla and Aquila more adequately inform him about Jesus the Messiah, and he becomes a full-blown believer.

Paul was invited by the synagogue rulers to return, so when he arrives in Acts 19, he spends almost 2-1/2 years in the city at that time. You see various stages of ministry there, beginning as a tentmaker, then lecturing at the school of Tyrannus, then being involved in power encounters, and finally Acts 19 ends with the description of the disgruntled silversmiths led by Demetrius leading a sort of uprising against Paul. Perhaps even the Jews of the city use this occasion to speak against them. We see from the text that Paul was beginning to sense that his time of ministry is over. He's already sent his helper Timothy on ahead into Macedonia . During the time in Ephesus he's also been concerned about the church in Corinth. He's made one trip to Corinth, his so-called painful visit to the church there. He's written First Corinthians to the church there from Ephesus during this time. And Luke tells us that during this time, the entire province is reached through Paul. So he's probably not himself going out, but is reaching those who come and hear the message and become converted under his teaching. They're the ones who now are going out and planting churches in their home communities. For example, in the upper Lycus valley Epaphras planted churches in Colossae, Laodicea, and Hierapolis.

St. John's TombSo Paul's final contact with the city comes after his prison journey when he's taken to Rome. He writes his Prison Epistles, three of the four back to the province of Asia. There is a suggestion in the Pastoral Epistles that Paul is released and returns to Asia during this period. He first goes to Crete, leaving Titus there, before going with Timothy to Ephesus. First Timothy is written to Timothy a little bit later. Paul for some reason can't stay in the city. There are a number of problems in the church including false teaching. He leaves Timothy as a troubleshooter to represent him in the church. He continues up the coast to Troas and over to Nicopolis where he spends the winter, and eventually comes back through here and down the coast. Perhaps he's rearrested somewhere here in Asia and taken to Rome. So in Second Timothy, he is asking Timothy to come to him. He realizes he only has a few weeks, or perhaps months, left in his life. He wants his closest associate with him. Timothy apparently leaves, and Tychicus is asked to take responsibility for the church after he leaves. Paul is later killed in the persecution following the great fire in Rome when Nero begins to persecute the church. So it's during this period that Peter is martyred about 65, Paul martyred in 66. So these two great apostles are both dead by the time of the mid-60s.

Sometime in this context apparently John goes into the province of Asia. Some have suggested that John went much earlier in the 30s after the martyrdom of Stephen. But the text in the Book of Acts says that everyone was scattered except the apostles, so that suggests the apostles did not leave Jerusalem at that time. Only the disciples left. The probable circumstances for John coming to Asia involve the outbreak of the Jewish revolt in AD 66. Now Jesus in the Olivet Discourse (Matthew 24, Luke 21, Mark 13) warned his disciples, who are looking over the Temple Mount and marveling at these stones, that within their generation these stones would be overthrown and the Romans would overrun Jerusalem. Now to the disciples this was simply incredible. Herod had been working 40 years on refurbishing the temple. It was a magnificent facility, and suddenly Jesus is prophesying that this all is going to be destroyed. And he told them, "When you see the armies of Rome encircling the city, flee." According to tradition, no Christians perished in the horrendous massacre that took place. Josephus reports in his Jewish War that perhaps over a million Jews died in Jerusalem at this time. One group of Christians crossed into the Decapolis area near Pella and were saved. Probably John leaves with a community of believers from the Palestine-Jerusalem area and resettles with that community in the Roman province of Asia.

Cross on a capitalNow I believe in an early dating for the Book of Revelation. The majority of scholars think the book is better dated late in the reign of Domitian around 95. I think the historical circumstances work much better in the late 60s when there is a great persecution of the church with Peter and Paul being killed. Uprisings are happening all over the Roman Empire. After Nero commits suicide in 68 there were four emperors in one year, the so-called year of the four emperors. The Jewish revolt is taking place in the East. You can imagine John now coming into the spiritual vacuum that's in Ephesus. John is not only a Christian leader, but also a Jew coming with other Jews from Judea at the time when the Jews are revolting. John would have been a very suspicious character that the authorities would want to get out of the spotlight at this time. And so this is a very probable reconstruction of why the Roman proconsul decided to move John from Ephesus and exile him to the island of Patmos, which is southwest approximately 75 or 80 miles. So it's in that context then that he receives the vision, the Revelation of Jesus Christ, while he's there in exile. So probably after Jerusalem was destroyed in AD 70 the pressures have eased. The Jews are led as captives into Rome. You can see the arch of Titus today in Rome that shows the Jews being led as captives there following the destruction of the city.

Irenaeus was a third-generation church father who studied under Polycarp, himself a disciple of John. He was the bishop of Lyons in France who dated Revelation to 95. But I think he got it wrong. By his generation, he no longer knew the identity of 666 either. Historically Domitian did reign in Rome for a period of about nine months while his father Vespasian was turning over the Roman armies in the East to Titus and making his way back to Rome to rule. So I think that's where the confusion came in.

Baptismal FontJohn then is released from exile on Patmos. He lives almost another 2 1/2 decades in Ephesus as the leader of the church in Asia. He writes his three letters to Christian communities in and around Ephesus. And of course the Gospel of John is written during this period to people who don't know the historical circumstances of the life of Jesus. The first three Gospels called the Synoptics tell a very similar story about the life of Jesus. The Gospel of John is more of a spiritual story where very select events in the life of Jesus are told by the "beloved disciple" who is most probably John. And so John, according to tradition, is the only one of the Twelve that does not die as a martyr. He lives out his life to old age in the 90s in Ephesus. You have a sense in 1 John that the cares of the world are behind him and he keeps talking about love. That's his main theme - love one another.

The tradition related to John in Ephesus is, of course, a very strong one. The early church was very careful to preserve traditions so I think there is a high likelihood that Ephesus is where John was buried. After Constantine took over, his mother Helena traveled throughout the East looking for important sites where the events of the life of Jesus and the early apostles took place. She built the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, and the Ascension Church on the Mount of Olives. These very strong early traditions are then preserved in some of the building activities that began in the Byzantine period. It is very likely then that the Basilica of St. John in Ephesus stands over John's burial site.

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