reading Ephesians: Ephesus backstory (part 1), strategic people and place

Ephesians 1 & 2 – a study series 


 

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The city of Ephesus is more prominent in the New Testament and in early Christianity than we may realize. Sermons and commentary on the New Testament tend to give Rome a singular attention as a counterpart to Jerusalem. Ephesus has had significant influence in Church history. The apostle John was the Bishop or Elder of Ephesus (see Irenaeus, Against Heresies, AD180). The 3rd church council convened in Ephesus (AD431). Ephesus is mentioned again in Revelation as one of the Seven Churches. Asia was a region with web of transportation, rich economic exchange and vibrant cultural influence. Ephesus was in the middle of it. This post explains key ideas from the following Scripture portion. 

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To read: Acts 18:18 – 19:22

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When Tertullian asked the didactic question, “What does Athens have to do with Jerusalem?” we should notice that he wasn’t referencing the Latin culture as a contrast to Hebraic or biblical culture. He was recognizing a philosophical and religious tradition in Greek thought that long preceded Rome and which stood in contrast to the God of Israel. Paul answered Tertullian’s question before Tertullian asked it. Paul strategically targeted Ephesus and the region around it as an ideal spot to set down his positive answer to Tertullian’s question.

 

Rome, of course, was important, but important in the ways it mimicked, built upon or spread Greek thought. Rome added force and heft to ideas which had already been developed by the Greeks. That Greek was the lingua franca of the Roman Empire shows the persistence of Greek thought many centuries after Alexander the Great’s conquests. It is a fact of history that cultural ideas which can be well communicated and preserved in language have a greater chance of persisting in time and across different cultures. In Ephesus we see a city within a larger region that dominated the Mediterranean region for several centuries.

 

As we begin this study of Ephesians 1 & 2 we go to the Book of Acts for some back story about Ephesus. In this post (the first of two on Ephesus) we learn a few facts from Acts 18:18 – 19:22 that will give us illumination when we get into Ephesians 1. In this section of Acts we see why Ephesus was a strategic location to spread the Gospel. Ephesus was strategic because of it geographic position in the Roman empire and it was strategic as hub of Greek philosophical and pagan cultural influence.

 

Why is this information useful to us now? Seeing the 1st century dominance of Ephesus and the region around it helps us…

 

a) …appreciate what a huge hurdle Christianity had to overcome in the powerful cultural ideas of that age. The pagan religion and culture of Ephesus was not a passing local phenomenon. It was emblematic of the Greco-Roman age. If Christianity was going to succeed it had to not merely compete with this powerful ethos. It had to overcome it. Why?

Because the core truths in Christianity were inherently opposed to the core ideas of pagan religion and culture. Christianity could not simply hope to “get along” with paganism for to do so would mean it would turn itself into another variety of paganism. That move had been done many times before by other ideas or religions. Christianity was quite different and could not hope to be just another option. Ephesus with library (Acts 19:19), its temples, especially the Temple of Artemis (Acts 19:34-35) and its political centers represent a massive culture machine that could not tolerate Christianity as originally conceived. The Great Theatre of Ephesus is said to have had a 25,000 seat capacity (more about that in the next post).

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b) …appreciate that the since Christianity did overcome paganism we are living in the long benefits of that global conversion culturally, religiously and politically.

 

Enjoy this conversation in which historian Tom Holland sings the praises of Paul’s “new way of life” that has radically changed the West and how our entire culture is living in the goods of that change whether they are aware of it or not.

 

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c) …appreciate that though Christianity’s origins were distinctly Jewish it did not discard useful aspects of pagan culture. In the coming of Messiah the Gospel was robust enough to bring the religion of Israel’s God in Christ right into the epicenter and hubs of Greco-Roman intellectual, commercial and familial activity. The synagogues of the Hellenic Jews was an ideal place to set that project in motion (Acts 18:19, 24-26).

 

Consider Judaism in ancient Ephesus.

It is known that there have been a substantial Jewish community in Asia Minor since at least the 5th century BC and when St Paul visited Ephesus around 53 AD there was a Jewish community at Ephesus for over three hundred years, but the exact date of the establishment of Jewish community in Ephesus is not known.

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d) …appreciate how focused Paul was in his zeal for spreading the Kingdom Gospel even in areas where the culture was opposed or conflicted about who Jesus Christ is – Christus Rex – and why this King came to save the cosmos (Acts 19:8). Iesous Kurios – “Jesus is Lord” – was the first creed of the Church and that ground of faith the Good News about him was declared into the empire of the other kurios, Ceasar. For Paul talking about the Kingdom of God and its many sub-themes was not a secondary interest for him apart from the Gospel (see also Acts 28:30-31). Notice how long Paul stayed fixed on the subject of the Kingdom of God and its King. Paul was not merely interested in showing people how to get to Heaven. Paul was interested in that and even more so in seeing how far the Gospel of King Jesus could take over every corner of the cosmos for God’s grace and glory (see Eph 1:6).

 

e) …appreciate the importance of training people around us who are eager and well-positioned so they can extend the Gospel message farther than we can by ourselves. Apollos, a Greek Jew from Alexandria, Egypt and Priscilla and Aquila is a great example of how God uses individuals (men or women, highly accomplished or ordinary workers) for Gospel advance (Acts 18:18-27).

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In the next post on Reading Ephesians we look at how the Temple of Artemis was an ideal target for evangelism and why a guy named Alexander made a big difference in the chaos which rose up.

 

 

image: ‘The Preaching of Saint Paul at Ephesus,’ Eustache Le Sueur, 1649

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