There are times when I wonder if it can get any worse here in America. Recently a man barricaded himself in an Amish schoolhouse and proceeded to shoot eleven helpless young girls in the head. As of today, five are dead and the others linger in critical condition. A prominent legislator has been caught sending sexually explicit messages to a young page in our nation’s capital. Idolatry is rampant. Sexual perversion is applauded. Jesus is mocked.
Don’t misunderstand me. I love my country. I love my city. But how bad can it get? Well, actually, a lot worse! Some day it might even be as bad for us as it was for believers living in Ephesus in the latter years of the first century.
It’s appropriate that the first of the seven letters was sent to Ephesus, for although not the titular capital of Asia (Pergamum held that honor), it was the most important political center of all. By the time the church received this letter, the city of Ephesus had grown to a population of @ 250,000. By their standards, it was huge. It was, in effect, the New York City of the ancient world.
We honor our President and pray for him, and rightly we should (1 Peter 2:17; 1 Timothy 2:1-2). But in Ephesus, worship of the Roman emperor was mandatory. Prayer to him was normative. Scattered across the landscape of America are Presidential Libraries, bearing the names and housing the historical artifacts of men such as Harry S. Truman, John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, and Bill Clinton. Not so in Ephesus. There one would find, not libraries, but temples dedicated to the idolatrous veneration of such as Claudius, Hadrian, Julius Caesar, Augustus, and Severus. Every day Christian men and women in Ephesus passed these imposing structures, going about their daily tasks in an atmosphere filled with pagan praise of mere humans.
Worse still, religion and superstition were hopelessly intertwined and the magical arts were widely prevalent (cf. Acts 19:19). As Charles put it, Ephesus “was a hotbed of every kind of cult and superstition” (48). Preeminent among all religious attractions was the Temple of Diana (Artemis), construction of which began in 356 b.c. It was regarded as one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. The platform on which the temple was built measured more than 100,000 square feet. Pliny the Elder records the dimensions as 425 ft. long, 220 ft. wide (hence, 93,500 square feet), and 60 ft. high (Hist. Nat. xxxvi. 95ff.). Some 127 pillars were of Parian marble and 36 were overlaid with gold and jewels.
Christianity came to Ephesus with Aquila and Priscilla in a.d. 52 when Paul left them there as he traveled from Corinth to Antioch (Acts 18:18-22). On his next missionary journey Paul remained and worked in Ephesus for more than two years (Acts 18:8,10) and sometime later Timothy ministered there (1 Tim. 1:3). The effect of the gospel in that city is best illustrated by the incident recorded in Acts 19:23-41 (esp. vv. 23-29). The theater mentioned in that passage could accommodate more than 24,000 people. I, like many others, have had the privilege of standing on its excavated ruins.
It was believed that the apostle John spent his final years in Ephesus, from which city he also wrote his gospel account and where, according to Eusebius, he was buried. Later tradition also locates the grave of Mary, mother of Jesus, in Ephesus.
I suspect that many of you often wonder if it’s possible for a Christian, indeed a church, to flourish in the cities of our nation. Here in Kansas City one finds the international headquarters for one of the largest Unitarian movements in our nation, as well as the center for the Reorganized Church of Latter Day Saints. There are Muslim and Buddhist shrines, together with schools and other facilities devoted to false religions of a wide variety. Yet, I can make it through most days without ever encountering such folk or feeling their presence. I never have to worry about persecution on Sunday morning or being threatened with confiscation of my property or imprisonment for failing to pay homage to any local or national political figure. If I were to be beaten or arrested for sharing my faith, there are laws in place to protect my rights and vindicate my name. Not so in Ephesus.
The first church to receive a letter from Jesus was located in a city that wasn’t even remotely Christian. No laws existed to protect their freedom of religious expression. The worship of false deities was institutionalized. The only thing on which the Ephesian believers could rely was God himself and one another. Yet, as we’ll note in a subsequent lesson, they labored faithfully for the gospel, endured patiently, and were intolerant of evil. Yes, the church had its problems, for which Jesus issues a stern rebuke, but they had not abandoned the faith.
How would you and I fare in such a pagan atmosphere? I ask this because it often appears to me that many Christians believe the church in America can survive only if it is afforded legislative protection, only if politically conservative and Christian candidates are elected to national and local office, only if the next appointee to the Supreme Court is pro-life, only if prayer is restored to our public schools.
Make no mistake. I’m eternally grateful for the laws that safeguard our rights, and I consistently vote for those candidates who are social, fiscal, and moral conservatives. But have we come so to depend on such political blessings, economic liberties, and the legal protection Christianity enjoys that in their absence we fear the destruction of the church and the silencing of our witness?
The church in Ephesus, as with so many other congregations in the first century, knew nothing of a constitution, a first amendment, or a right to vote. Yet they survived, and thrived, in the midst of what strikes us as unimaginable state-sanctioned idolatry and immorality. Before we panic or lose heart at the state of our state, or the condition of our city, we would do well to remember the promise of Jesus: “I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:18).