The city of Ephesus lay in the mouth of the river Cayster, between the mountains and the sea. Like all river valleys in that area, it became a highway into the interior of Asia. It was the end of a trade route that linked up with others and opened up the east for Greek traders. Because of this it grew and became a great trading centre with a large important harbour.
It became the most important city in the Roman province of Asia. It was a huge city of 1/3 million people. The great theatre held 25,000 people - the scene of the riot in Acts 19:29-31. A magnificent road 37 feet (11 metres) wide, lined with columns, ran through the city to the harbour.
By New Testament times, the great days of Ephesus were long past, because of a problem of the harbour silting up. This was caused by deforestation, when many trees were cut down for timber and charcoal. Goats then trampled down the regenerating forest. As a result, the top soil slipped and streams became swamps. In storms, water washed silt down to the river mouth. Today, the harbour works of Ephesus are seven miles (11 km) away from the sea. What was at one time a safe haven for ships is now a reedy plain.
Despite the problems, great efforts were made to keep the harbour open. This was even more necessary as the sister port of Miletus was having the same problem, and had been irreparably damaged in the Persian suppression of the great revolt of the Ionian Greek cities. Therefore a succession of rulers promoted the maintenance of the harbour facilities that the increased volume of traffic demanded. At the end of the first century, Domitian was the last ruler to seek to save the harbour. Five centuries later Ephesus was lost in ruins.
Deepening economic depression and decline must have been a feature of life in Ephesus during the last century BC. The city turned to the equivalent of her tourist trade. In Paul's time, it was the seat of Roman government and a centre of emperor worship, as well as a trading centre and a port city. It was also the place where many people flocked to visit the Great Temple of Artemis, one of the Seven Wonders of the ancient world, and the largest building in the Greek world.
Artemis was the Greek name for the Roman god Diana, who was worshipped all over the Greek world. She was the god of the uncultivated earth and forests and hills. This resulted in fertility rituals, orgiastic rites and religious prostitution. Peculiar to Ephesus was the fact that the cult was associated with a meteoric stone, which was owned by the city. The image of the goddess was claimed to have fallen from heaven (Acts 19:35). This made it a special centre of the cult. As the religion developed over the years, the cult image ended up being a female figure. She had a shrine and basket on her head, a veil decorated with beasts, long necklaces, embroidered sleeves, legs sheathed with empanelled animals and she had multiple breasts. Some suggest these are clusters of grapes or dates, a sign of her role as the nourishing spirit of nature.
The first temple built for this religion was in the sixth century BC and was burned down in 356 BC. Alexander contributed to the next one, which was destined to be a shrine of unrivalled splendour. It took 220 years to build and was made of pure marble. It was sacked and destroyed by the Goths in AD 263. The ruins have been located 1.5 miles north east of the city. (The temple also served as a bank). Silver coins inscribed "Diana Ephesia" have been found (Acts 19:34).
II. The church at Ephesus
A. Paul and Ephesus
The second missionary journey:
When Paul decided to go to Ephesus, he was going to one of the darkest spiritual strongholds of that time. It was the most strategic city of Asia. By preaching the Gospel there he was assaulting a stronghold of pagan religion, together with the active life and commerce associated with this vast heathen cult.
As Ephesus was a key town, Paul, the strategist, had his eye on it on his second missionary journey, but God, by the Holy Spirit, had other plans and directed Paul to Europe (Acts 16). Paul later did reach Ephesus, though only briefly on his way home. He was accompanied by his fellow workers Priscilla and Aquila, and spent his time preaching in the Jewish synagogue (Acts 18:18-21). The response was good, the Jews were interested and wanted to hear more, but Paul was unable to stay. Leaving Priscilla and Aquila there, he returned to Antioch.
Some time later, Apollos, a Jewish believer, arrived in Ephesus. He was an eloquent man, well-versed in the Scriptures (Acts 18:24). He spent time in the synagogue teaching from the law that Jesus was the Christ, the Messiah (Acts 18:28). The result was that twelve people believed.
The third missionary journey:
When Paul arrived on the third missionary journey he came in contact with these twelve and, finding them lacking in some areas, had them baptized and they were filled with the Holy Spirit (Acts 19:5-6). The power of God came down; they spoke in tongues and prophesied.
On the third missionary journey (Acts 19), he stayed two to three years (AD 54-57). Paul continued his custom of starting in the synagogue. He preached there for three months, pleading and arguing about the Kingdom of God (Acts 19:8), but the usual happened - opposition arose amongst the Jews and he withdrew. He then spent each day in the hall of Tyrannus, arguing with the non-Jewish people in Ephesus.
We do not know who Tyrannus was, or the significance of "the hall of Tyrannus". It could be a private hall belonging to Mr Tyrannus, or maybe a city hall that Paul hired for his teaching, or possibly the local debating centre. Paul spent the hottest part of each day teaching there (11am to 4pm, according to some manuscripts) (Acts 19:9).
We know very little of the events during Paul's three years in Ephesus. It seems that Paul spent the mornings in tent-making, or some other work to support himself (Acts 20:34) and the rest of the day teaching in the hall of Tyrannus, or in the homes of believers (Acts 20:20). His teaching was very comprehensive. He was able to say to the elders, when he met them at Miletus, "I did not shrink from declaring to you anything that was profitable" (Acts 20:20) and "I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God" (Acts 20:27), and "for three years I did not cease night and day to admonish everyone with tears" (Acts 20:31).
It is important to note the different types of teaching Paul gave the Ephesian Christians and to see his heart. He taught them in large gatherings (Acts 20:20), in smaller house group sizes (Acts 20:20) and individually (Acts 20:31). He taught with the fear of God on his heart. He taught everything needed, but there were tears when correction was given (Acts 20:31).
Ephesus became the base for evangelism of the whole of Asia. Being the focal point of communication it is easy to see how "all the residents of Asia heard the word of the Lord”. (Acts 19:10). No doubt all the seven churches listed in the Book of Revelation were established during this time, along with churches in Colossae and Hierapolis (Col 1:6-7, 2:1, Acts 19:10).
His time there was plagued with problems from the Jews (Acts 20:19 and 1 Cor 16:9). It seems that after the three months in the synagogue, the Jews started planning persecution and plotting trials. None of these are recorded for us in Acts, but what is recorded is the amazing way the power of God was released and the tangible effect this has had on the kingdom of darkness.
According to Luke, God did extraordinary miracles by the hand of Paul! People were delivered of demons and physically healed even by handkerchiefs or aprons (Acts 19:11). People who were formerly involved in the occult were saved and openly repenting. They burned their books and divulged their secret magical practices. Fifty thousand pieces of silver would correspond to the wages of 50,000 workmen for one day's work apiece (one piece of silver is equal to one day's wages for a labourer) - equivalent to £2 million. The Jewish exorcists were overpowered by one man, compared with the power of the Holy Spirit through Paul. Stories like these travel fast! (Acts 19:13-17)
The incident that Luke gives most space to is revealing, because it shows just how much the power of God and the Gospel effected that city (and area!). So many were being saved (and fearing God) that the sale of miniature idols was noticeably affected, putting silversmiths out of business (Acts 19:24ff). When things begin to hurt the pocket then things begin to hurt! Demetrius called a trade union meeting and spoke out. This meeting got heated and turned into a great stir, so that "the city was filled with confusion" (v29). The crowd went to the theatre, and finding two of Paul's travelling companions, Gaius and Aristarchus, they took them with them. The result was great confusion, many people gathered in the theatre, not knowing why they were there.
The Jews, supposedly wanting to clear their name and disassociate themselves from the Christians, put forward a spokesman, Alexander, but the crowd knew him to be a Jew, therefore shouted him down with the chant, "Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!" It took the town clerk to quieten the crowd and speak sense to them, before they were dismissed. The clerk's instruction was, "If Demetrius had any complaint, he should take it through the normal channels". After this incident, Paul left for Macedonia.
During his two or three year stay, Paul also corresponded with Corinth (1 Cor 16:8) and made a brief visit (the painful visit) (2 Cor 2:1). The reference to fighting with wild beasts (1 Cor 15:32), could refer to the riot or imprisonment in Ephesus.
Paul founded an extremely significant church at the geographical centre of the Roman Empire. It is not recorded that Paul ever returned to Ephesus. He did not expect to ever go there again (Acts 20:25,28). Paul did, however, meet the elders at Miletus, on his way back from the third missionary journey. He reminded them of his example and teaching, and challenged them with their duties (Acts 20:19,21, 26-28, 31-35). He also gave them warning about what he knew would happen. "Fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock, and from among your own selves will arise men speaking perverse things to draw away the disciples after them". (Acts 20:29-30). Paul knew false teachers would be seeking to destroy the church and predicted they would come from outside and inside the church. This is significant when we consider the letters to Timothy, especially 2 Timothy 2:18.
Further contact with Paul
It was probably Jews from Ephesus who caused Paul's imprisonment in Caesarea. (Acts 19:33, cf. 2 Tim 4:14). Paul wrote the letter to Ephesians (AD 62) from Rome, possibly a circular letter to all the churches in Asia. He wrote first letter to Timothy (AD 65?) from Macedonia, probably after a brief visit, when he left Timothy to oversee the church (1 Tim 1:3)
B. Peter and other apostles
The first letter of Peter was written to the Christians in Asia, (among others) and possibly also the second letter.
Later first century:
According to Irenaeus and Eusebius, Ephesus became the headquarters of the Apostle John in his latter years until his death, where he was the elder of the church. He was also the presiding pastor of all the seven churches in Revelation. John probably wrote his gospels and letters in Ephesus. Onesimus (as in Philemon) became the leading elder after John's death. It was probably during his time that Paul's letters were collected together (including the letter to Philemon, which had given him his freedom).
Another letter written to Ephesus is in the book of Revelation. Ephesus was the first church of the seven churches of Asia (Rev 2:1-7). A messenger from Patmos would land at Ephesus. At this time we find a church that was doing well. There was work, toil and patient endurance. They were exposing and rejecting false teachers and not growing weary. It does seem that their love had grown a little cold and needed to be rekindled (repentance called for!). One point in the church's favour was that they hated the work of the Nicolaitans. We know little from Scripture about this group, but from church history (Irenaeus) we find a group of people who lived in "unrestricted indulgence", compromising with pagans.
The 3rd general council of the church was held here in AD 431, when Nestorius was condemned as a heretic. Later, the city declined as the harbour silted up, and was completely separated from the sea. It is now uninhabited and no church remains.