The New Testament traces the full history of the church in Ephesus from it’s founding in Acts 18 to facing the rebuke of Jesus in Revelation 2:1-7.
The word Ephesus means desirable, and in many ways it was certainly a desirable place to live. In the ancient world, Ephesus was a center of travel and commerce. Situated on the Aegean Sea at the mouth of the Cayster River, the city was one of the greatest seaports of the ancient world. Three major roads led from the seaport:
- One road went east towards Babylon via Laodicea
- Another to the north via Smyrna
- A third south to the Meander Valley
On Paul’s second missionary journey (A.D. 52), he visited Ephesus after leaving Corinth, and evidently planted the church there (Acts 18:19).
On Paul’s third missionary journey (A.D. 54-56), Paul spent between two and three years teaching in the city (Acts 19:8-10). He spent his time addressing false doctrines and pagan practices. Paul’s teaching in the rented school of Tyrannus was so successful that those who practiced magic brought their books and burned them as an act of repentance (Acts 19:18-20). As the sale of silver idolatrous images began to fall off, the silversmiths caused uproar (Acts 19:26-41). Shortly after this dust-up was settled Paul left for Macedonia. It was during this stay that he wrote 1 Corinthians.
Several months later (A.D. 57) Paul met with the Ephesian elders on the nearby island of Miletus and made his farewell address (Acts 20). Their mutual love is evident as these tenderhearted men weep over what God has done – and they know they will not see Paul again. As Dr. Luke records their conversation and prayer it is evident there is increasing maturity in the faith. The picture now is of a church that has been carefully nurtured to the point of vitality.
About a decade after the church had been started, Paul wrote the letter to the Ephesians commending their faith and love (A.D. 62). A careful reading of this epistle shows that they had done well. They appeared to be devout in their faith, well organized, and busy in the gospel. During these early years they had been growing, expanding and doing the will of God. Jews and Gentiles, from several ethnicities and nationalities, had come together to form “one new man,” (2:15), “one body” (2:16). They were multiethnic as well as diverse in their socioeconomic make-up. Paul commends their sincerity in the final sentence of his letter: “Grace be with all those who love our Lord Jesus Christ with incorruptible love” (Ephesians 6:24).
In Paul’s first epistle to Timothy (mid-60’s) we begin to see some evidence of doctrinal drift: “As I urged you upon my departure for Macedonia, remain on at Ephesus so that you may instruct certain men not to teach strange doctrines, 4 nor to pay attention to myths and endless genealogies, which give rise to mere speculation rather than furthering the administration of God which is by faith” (1 Timothy 1:3-4).
Tradition says that Ephesus became the home of the Apostle John (mid-late 60’s). This may or may not be true, but circumstances make it very possible, if not probable. He was supposed to have taken Mary, the mother of Jesus, there to live (cf. John 19:26-27). John wrote three letters (1st, 2nd, and 3rd John), probably no later than the early A.D. 90s. He wrote from Ephesus and probably to the churches mentioned in Revelation 2:8–3:22. The church by that time had some difficult problems and had apparently undergone a church split. False teachers had arisen in the church who claimed to have deeper knowledge of the things of God. They claimed to have the “secret” to knowing Christ, but in reality, they denied His bodily incarnation and His deity. They taught many other heretical concepts. Their motive may have been to take some elements of pagan religion and blend them with Christianity, in order to make it more acceptable to the pagan culture.
It was probably during the reign of Domitian (81-96 A.D.) that John was banished to Patmos. He was released and died during the reign of Trajan according to Iraneus (an early church historian). Tradition relates that at a very old age John, too feeble to walk, would be carried into this church’s assembly and would admonish the members, as little children, to love one another. During this period the Lord gives His assessment of the Ephesian church through the apostle John (Revelation 2:1-7). He compliments them on their good works, but rebukes them for leaving their first love (Revelation 2:4). He commands immediate action – repent, remember, and repeat (the first works) (Revelation 2:5).
We have no way of knowing whether they corrected their problem for a season, but, sadly, the church died sometime during the second century. In later centuries Ephesus was a leading city for the councils of the early Roman church.
 Dr. Luke (a physician) is the author of Luke’s Gospel as well as the book of Acts.
 Glenn Barker. Expositor’s Bible Commentary, ed. by Frank Gaebelein, Zondervan Vol. 12:296.