This past Sunday we began a new sermon series with a dramatic reading of the book of Ephesians by the pastors and directors. This kicks off our new fall series titled “Things Once Hidden” on the letter to the Ephesians. The Apostle Paul wrote this letter to the church that had started in the thriving metropolis of Ephesus. Ephesus was a coastal city in what is now western Turkey that was estimated to be 250,000 people at the time of Paul’s writing. It was a bustling hub of trade that attracted many people from various cultures.
Because of that diversity, there was also great diversity of cultic worship and religious thought. Ephesus was a melting pot of ethnicities, culture, and religion with an estimated 50 gods/goddesses that could be worshiped. Generally, there was tolerance and freedom of worship in the city. However, there was strong preference for the worship of the fertility and protective goddess Artemis of the Ephesians. In fact, the Temple of Artemis was so big and impressive, it was considered one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Worship of the goddess Artemis also had a significant economic effect on the inhabitants of the city was also quite lucrative for many.
The very end of Acts 18 and then chapter 19, tells the story of Paul’s arrival in Ephesus and his immediate encounter with new converts in the city. Ephesus also had a significant Jewish population and, as was his custom, Paul began speaking in the synagogue first. After a time, he encountered resistance, so he turned his attention toward the gentiles. Paul spent nearly 3 years in the city. Acts 19 documents many of the miraculous happenings during his stay, but the most significant happening was the increasing number of gentiles who came to faith. After a period, Paul left the church in the hands of local leadership including his traveling companions Gauis and Aristarchus. Acts 19 also documents a major disruption in the city initiated by those whose livelihood was threatened by the numberical increase of those following Christ who were no longer purchasing idols. The instigators were those who made silver shrines to the goddess Artemis, and they provoked thousands in what ultimately became a shouting match. Paul wanted to face and speak to this riotous crowd as it was always his goal to some day speaking in the 25,000-seat theater in Ephesus, but his disciples would not let him. Things eventually calmed down and Ephesus ultimately became the third largest hub of Christianity behind Antioch and Jerusalem.
Six years later, his letter to the Ephesians along with his first and second letters to the young disciple and leader Timothy were each sent to the church in Ephesus from Paul while he was imprisoned in Rome. Each of the letters are written in response to particular crisis including divisions within this multicultural, multiethnic church full of both Jews and Gentiles.
Paul’s letter has much to say to us today. The letter is split into two halves. Chapters 1 through 3 are Paul’s telling of the gospel story emphasizing the importance of salvation by grace alone and the truth that the Ephesians are now part of a new covenant family. He emphasizes that the barriers between Jews and Gentiles have now been removed. Within this first part of the letter are also some especially important prayers from Paul that are still very relevant for us today.
In the second half of the letter, Paul addresses the importance of unity over uniformity and that the fact that the church is a new humanity. He addresses several moral behavior issues prevalent in the culture encouraging the Ephesian church and us to take off many sinful practices and put on new better practices. Paul also addresses how households should look and function and how these new followers can practically stand up to the spiritual evil that was so prevalent in this cultically diverse city.
We now begin our deeper dive into this letter that has so much to say to us in our current context. In preparation for this journey, I invite you to view a couple videos that expand on the context of the city of Ephesus: Ephesians Historical Background - YouTube and the structure of the letter: Watch: Ephesians Bible Book Overview Video | BibleProject™. I look forward to our journey together through the book of Ephesians!