The Seven Churches of Revelation - Part 2

Did the Church at Ephesus Repent?

Ephesus was among the largest cities in the Roman Empire during the first century. There were many reasons why Ephesus was an important place. For one thing it was a seaport city, on the estuary of the river Cayster with a deep enough harbor to allow large ships to dock there. Because of this, it was a major economic center for the Roman Empire for Asia Minor.

Another feature of the city that made it so important to the Roman Empire was its three main roads leading to other cities in Asia Minor. This road system was also an advantage to the new churches established in the region during this time, since it allowed easier travel among the cities mentioned here in book of Revelation. There were three other features that made Ephesus a very popular city: It had an amphitheater that seated 25,000 people, it had one of the largest libraries in Asia, and it contained the temple of Artemis (Diana to the Romans)-the Greek goddess of fertility. The temple built to her was one of the wonders of the ancient world. There were also 33 other smaller temples to this goddess in the city.

Politically, Caesar Augustus made Ephesus the capital of the Roman province of Asia. The Romans generally allowed the people of Ephesus to govern themselves as long as there was no trouble. During his time there, the Apostle Paul was dragged into a riot among the people, which was only curtailed because of the intervention of the town clerk: "After quieting the crowd, the town clerk said, Men of Ephesus, what man is there after all who does not know that the city of the Ephesians is guardian of the temple of the great Artemis and of the image which fell down from heaven? So, since these are undeniable facts, you ought to keep calm and to do nothing rash. For indeed we are in danger of being accused of a riot in connection with today's events, since there is no real cause for it, and in this connection we will be unable to account for this disorderly gathering.' After saying this he dismissed the assembly" (Acts 19:35-41). The silversmiths and other guilds were upset because this new religion of Christianity had reduced the need of silver shrines that honored Artemis.

In early Christianity, Ephesus was a key center of ministry. The church there was begun by Paul in about 52 A. D. John also is said to have served as a pastor to them, as did Paul's young disciple Timothy. Some traditions even hold that Jesus' mother Mary lived the last years of her life and was buried there (by reasoning from Jesus' request that John care for her after His death). What happened to this city and the Church there? To reveal the answer, read again what Christ instructed John to write in Revelation.

Christ is revealed as the one in charge of the church leaders, and has complete authority over the various churches mentioned here. We read "To the angel of the church in Ephesus write: The One who holds the seven stars in His right hand, the One who walks among the seven golden lampstands" (Rev. 2:1). The fact He holds the pastors or leaders in His right hand is very important, since this indicates they are to answer to Him alone.

Christ first commends the church at Ephesus: "I know your deeds and your toil and perseverance, and that you cannot endure evil men, and you put to the test those who call themselves apostles, and they are not, and you found them to be false; and you have perseverance and have endured for My name's sake, and have not grown weary" (Rev. 2:2-3). Christ goes on to remark that the Ephesians "hate the deeds of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate" (Rev. 2:6). Who were these Nicolaitans that were so evil that Christ gave them special mention? They are only mentioned here in Scripture, so no one knows for certain. The consensus of the references I've found is that they could have been followers of Nicolas, a new convert from Antioch who was one of the men chosen to serve as a deacon in Acts 6:5-6. Whether this is the case or not, over time it seems this group became devoted to antinomianism, saying the grace of God meant they could do anything they wanted because they were not under the Law.

In spite of their good deeds and good doctrine, Christ also brought condemnation to the church at Ephesus: "But I have this against you, that you have left your first love" (Rev. 2:4). It appears that these believers had a great enthusiasm for Christ at first, but now they had lost it, going through the motions of faith without love for Him in their hearts. Some theorize that these new Christians could have been influenced by the various guilds, giving up zealous faith for economic gain. In Acts 19, we see that what lead to the riot previously mentioned was the growing Christian influence in the city, resulting in fewer people worshipping Artemis and a reduced demand for the silver shrines that were so important to the city's wealth. Perhaps the believers had been financially impacted by this and been tempted to compromise their convictions.

But Christ does not leave them in condemnation, offering them correction as well. He indicates to John how they are to reverse their downfall. All they need to do is repent. To repent, in this case, is a simple thing, just return to their first love and enthusiasm for the Savior. He also indicates what the consequences are if they don't repent: "Therefore remember from where you have fallen, and repent and do the deeds you did at first; or else I am coming to you and will remove your lampstand out of its place-unless you repent" (Rev. 2:5). He held out a promise of life for them if they would heed His rebuke: "To him who overcomes, I will grant to eat of the tree of life which is in the Paradise of God" (Rev. 2:7).

History seems to indicate that they did not ultimately repent-both the city itself and the Christian influence there have long since been wiped away. It continued to be a center of Christian influence for a few centuries, hosting ecumenical councils in the fifth century, but the city ultimately declined due to invasions by the Goths and the silting of its harbor by the River Cayster. The final destruction of Ephesus came in 614 A.D. by an earthquake. All that remains today are ruins.

Ray P. Burriss is a retired missionary (having served in Puerto Rico) and is a marriage and family counselor ordained by the Southern Baptist Convention.

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