There are times when I wonder if it can get any worse in the world…mass murders, sexual assaults, sex-trafficking of little girls, child labour, chronic addictions, and endless scandals. Corruption and bribes are viewed as normal, idolatry is rampant, sexual perversion is applauded, and Jesus is mocked. 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 capital of Asia (Pergamum held that honour), it was the most important political centre 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 London of the ancient world.
We honour our nation’s leaders and pray for them, and rightly we should (1Peter 2:17; 1Timothy 2:1-2). But in Ephesus, worship of the Roman emperor was mandatory. Prayer to him was the norm. Scattered across the landscape of Ephesus one would find temples dedicated to the idolatrous worship of such as Claudius, Julius Caesar, Augustus, and others. 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. Ephesus was a hotbed of every kind of cult and superstition. Preeminent among all religious attractions was the Temple of Diana (Artemis), construction of which began in 356 BC 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 130m. long, 67m. wide, and 18m. high. Some 127 pillars were of marble and 36 were overlaid with gold and jewels.
Christianity came to Ephesus with Aquila and Priscilla in AD 52 when Paul left them there as he travelled 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 (1Timothy 1:3). The effect of the gospel in that city is best illustrated by the incident recorded in Acts 19:23-41. The theatre mentioned in that passage could accommodate more than 24,000 people. 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.
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 they laboured 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 Western countries can survive only if it is afforded democratic protection, only if politically conservative or even better, Christian candidates are elected to national, state, and local offices.
Make no mistake. I’m eternally grateful for the laws that safeguard our rights, and I consistently seek to vote for those candidates who are socially, fiscally, and morally conservative. However, I never want to depend on political blessings, economic liberties, and legal protection we may presently enjoy. If we lost these freedoms, would we in their absence 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 democracy, freedom of speech, 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 government here in Australia, or the condition of our country if they continue on a downward path, 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).