Ephesus was kind of a big deal. Think of it as the “New York” of ancient Asia Minor. With a population of 400,000 people during the first century AD, it was the second largest city in the world after Rome. It was the political and economic center, not to mention the major port, for all of Roman Asia. The city was home to the second largest library on its side of the Mediterranean (after Pergamum), the largest theater anywhere in Asia Minor (holding upwards of 44,000 spectators), and one of the seven wonders of the ancient world (the great temple to Artemis). Needless to say, when the emperor came to visit the area, Ephesus is where he parked his boat.
In Christian history, Ephesus racks up quite a scorecard as well. It boasted Paul’s longest stay in any one place during his missionary journeys, 1 Corinthians was written from Ephesus, and one of Paul’s other letters was written to Ephesus. Church tradition tells us that John moved to Ephesus and may have penned his gospel while living there. Certainly the letter of Revelation was written by him to Ephesus and the surrounding cities.
Today, Ephesus would remind you more of Disneyland than New York. For starters, when we arrived, we had to wait in line for our ticket. (Not a good start.) But while I was there, an interesting thing happened. As the mobs filed in through the turnstiles, the ancient city began to fill up with people. Crowds walked the old city streets and wandered through the agora where sellers would have had their shops. The Celsus Library was bustling with people and each temple seemed to have a crowd of gawkers. I saw a city animated.
Unlike the ruins of other cities we visited, I saw Ephesus more as it would have looked. Crowded streets and busy buildings. The whole town came to life, and it was a busy place. Imagine what it would have been in its golden age, 400,000 men, women and children squeezing through the streets and meandering through some of the most fantastic structures of their day.
This is the world Paul came to visit in Acts 19.
He stayed for around three years reaching out to all the cities in the area, with Ephesus as his base. Christianity took hold in Ephesus, and it grew some serious roots. Despite its claim to fame as the very throne of Artemis and its huge industry in witchcraft and pagan goods, this city began to feel the impact of Christian witness from its community of believers. On one instance believers confessed their former witchcraft and brought all of their old resources together to publicly burn them in the sight of everyone, so that all would know they no longer practiced this kind of lifestyle. This was no small group either. According to Acts, so many books were burned the result was a multi-million dollar pile of ashes.
The story gets better.
Apparently, this new Christian witness was having such an impact in its first couple years that it began making a dent in the economy of Ephesus. Imagine that, this band of believers was actually shutting down the idolatry industry in the second largest city in the known world. After what appears to have been a chamber of commerce meeting, a demonstration broke out against the Christians that can only be labeled as a riot. Scores of people poured into the massive theater and chanted for hours for their patron goddess and against the Christian movement. The city stood still, all because the Christian influence was strong enough to sucker punch their sinful livelihood.
Little wads of tourists shuffled in and out of the massive theater while I sat there pondering the events that took place there 2000 years ago. Standing on the middle of that stage, looking up at the endless rows of seats, I could not help wondering about the range of emotions experienced by the Christians who were the target of that riot. I also could not help but be a little jealous. Not of the snarling multitude who wanted them dead mind you, but of the impact they had on their city. In less than three years, they had changed everything. The rules were different in Ephesus, and they had worked paganism into a rioting frenzy because of their presence.
I think my temptation is to say that it was a different time in history. It is easy to think of this as some special exception because it happened in “bible times.” God does not work that way anymore right? Now the work is slow, gradual, and nominal.
However, there is another approach. What if we, like the believers in Ephesus, brought all of our sin, our past habits, our evil out of the closet and burned it before the world? What if we gave a real sign that we were different and were not going back? What if we released our secret grip on money, materialism, sex, alcohol, drugs, pornography, and the countless idols we hold on to?
Could we change our city?