The city of Ephesus is situated on the south-west coast of Turkey, in the area that was known as Ionia. Although it is not mentioned in the Old Testament Scriptures, the area in which it is situated has evidence of settlements stretching back to 1400-1500 BC.
The history of the city
A prince, a mythical figure named Androclos, hailing from Athens, is reputed to be the founder of the city colony of his kingdom. This prince is claimed to have been a skilful warrior and brought together the twelve cities of the area to form the Ionian League. Under his rule the area is noted as having increased greatly in wealth. The religion of the city centred round the worship of Artemis, later to be known in Ephesus as Diana of the Ephesians. The temple built for her worship was reputed to be the largest in the then known world and was regarded as one of the seven wonders of the world.
Around 650 BC the city was attacked and destroyed by the Cimmerians, a race who appear to have come from the territory north of the Black Sea. Following this a series of petty kings ruled the city as tyrants. This ultimately led to a revolt after which government was in the hands of a council that was named the Kuretes. It would appear that the city prospered greatly at this time; art, poetry, philosophy, and medical science, as much as it was known then, flourished.
In 560 BC, however, this era came to an abrupt end with the capture of the city by King Croesus of the Lydians. The city, however, prospered once more. The temple was rebuilt as a base for the worship of Artemis and this alone became a means of wealth creation. The city was enlarged by the king moving the population of neighbouring towns into Ephesus to be housed around the temple of Artemis. In 547 BC, during the reign of Cyrus the Great, the area was incorporated into the Persian Empire, the largest known empire up to that time of recorded history. Each province of this empire was governed by "satraps". They were responsible to the Shah or Supreme Ruler for the government of the province. They lived almost as monarchs, although there were limits placed on their authority. The official responsible for the treasury of the province, and the general who controlled the army based in the province reported directly to the monarch.
The issue of taxation resulted in a revolt against Persia (498 BC) which led to war between Greece (Athens and Sparta), in partnership with the Ionian cities, and Persia and in 479 BC to the expulsion of the Persians. During this period Ephesus continued to flourish. Being a sea port, the city benefited greatly from the passage of goods from east to west and vice versa. Following a time of relative peace Athens, which was a mighty imperial power, and Sparta supported by the Peloponnesian League declared war. The result was that ultimately Athens was decisively defeated with Persia supporting Sparta. Ephesus had supported Sparta in this war and as a result Persian rule was established again in the Ionian cities.
In 334 BC Alexander the Great was victorious over the Persians and established his authority over Ionia. "The pro-Persian tyrant Syrpax and his family were stoned to death, and Alexander was greeted warmly when he entered Ephesus in triumph. When Alexander saw that the temple of Artemis was not yet finished,1 he proposed to finance it and have his name inscribed on the front. But the inhabitants of Ephesus demurred, claiming that it was not fitting for one god to build a temple to another".2
Following the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BC Ephesus lay in the territory ruled by Lysimachus, one of Alexanders generals. Some thirty years later it was necessary to evacuate the city as the river Cayster had silted up the harbour, and the city was relocated nearby at about two or three kilometres distance. The period following that was somewhat unsettled until the death of the last king whose kingdom included Ephesus. Due to the fact that he had no heir, he left instructions that the kingdom was to be given to Rome. In 88 BC, however, as discontent rose over taxation and other aspects on Roman rule, Archelaus, a general in the armies of Mithradates, king of Pontus, entered Ephesus and was welcomed by the inhabitants. At this time a great slaughter of the Roman citizens in that area took place. It is reckoned that 80,000 perished, and any who could speak Latin, or had an accent that suggested they could, were put to death. In 86 BC Sulla, one of the greatest of Roman generals, put down the rebellion and defeated the Pontus armies.
Some years later Augustus Caesar, whose rule commenced in 27 BC, made Ephesus the capital of the Roman province of Asia. This was the commencement of a time of great prosperity for the city. It became, not only the seat of the Roman governor with all the employment and renown that came with such an honour, but also a major centre of trade. The harbour, again, was a major factor in this. At the zenith of its power in the first century AD it is reckoned that the population had risen to between 400,000 and 500,000.
The worship of Diana was still a major factor in the city and the trade which this fostered was considerable. The theatre, which could hold 25,000 spectators, was used for the arts and also for the gladiatorial contests that were regarded as being necessary for such an important city. Thus with its temple, its theatre, its well-known system of aqueducts, its baths, and its standing as the capital, Ephesus sat proud, well content with its prominence.
The entrance of the gospel
Ephesus was situated, as has been noted, in the Roman province of Asia, and there were Jews from Asia present when Peter preached in Jerusalem on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2.9). There is no indication in Scripture that any of these returned home as believers. During his second missionary journey, when there was uncertainty regarding the direction he should take, Paul was forbidden by the Holy Spirit to travel into Asia to preach there (Acts 16.6). Later, with Priscilla and Aquila, a godly Jewish couple whom he had met in Corinth, he arrived in Ephesus. He left Priscilla and Aquila there, as he was anxious to travel back to Antioch (Acts 18.18-22), and they continued to teach whenever an opportunity arose (Acts 18.24-28).
Pauls second visit to Ephesus (Acts 19.1-20.1), which lasted for two years (Acts 19.10), took place on his third missionary journey. It was a strategic place to preach the gospel, not only because of its large population, but also because of the great number of people who would travel through this important centre. During those years he saw baptised twelve men who had been disciples of John Baptist. The preaching of the gospel was very effective so that "all they which dwelt in Asia heard the word of the Lord Jesus, both Jews and Greeks" (Acts 19.10). There was opposition. Those who sought to cast out demons, exorcists, used the name of the Lord Jesus in their evil practices. Their utterly humiliating failure led to the name of the Lord Jesus being "magnified". The gospel continued to bear fruit. Many believed and those who had been involved with the dark arts associated with demon possession brought their books and publicly burned them. What a testimony that must have been!
All this was too much for those involved in the worship of Diana. A whole industry had been built up round this cult and its future was endangered. Demetrius, a silversmith, called together those who were engaged in the same trade and caused uproar in the city. The cry went out, "Great is Diana of the Ephesians" (Acts 19.28), and the mob catching Gaius and Aristarchus, two of Pauls companions, took them into the theatre. They were only appeased by the town clerk warning them of the damage they might cause to themselves by such behaviour. So great was the opposition to the gospel that Paul states, "I have fought with beasts at Ephesus" (1 Cor 15.32). As he was returning from this third missionary journey Paul called on the elders of the assembly to meet him at the port of Miletus and on that occasion addressed them regarding overseership (Acts 20.17-38). The remains of the theatre, to a great extent still intact, can be seen today. The city of Ephesus is in ruins, the goddess Diana is no more, but the triumph of the gospel still continues.
Later, during his first term as a prisoner, Paul wrote the Epistle to the Ephesians, and on his release from prison he visited the city again. On that occasion he had to leave Timothy there (1 Tim 1.3) to combat the erroneous teaching that was causing spiritual decline.
The last letter addressed to the Ephesian believers (Rev 2.1-7) reveals much that was commendable. They had dealt with "them which are evil" and those "which say they are apostles, and are not". However, they had left their first love, and in so doing left a warning for us all. The early clarity and freshness had gone. How would we stand if an assessment such as was made of the saints in Ephesus were made of us and of the assembly of which we form a part?
1 This temple had been burned down in 356 BC