Studying the Bible, Making a Tremendous Discovery. The Ephesus Church in 62 AD, and in 92 AD and 132 AD.

Paul established a church in the great city of Ephesus and taught there for two years. (It was a coastal city back then, not abandoned until the fourth century when its port silted over.) Paul wrote a letter to the Ephesians in about 62 AD, when he was in prison. All of Paul’s letters are written to “churches of the Gentiles,” a phrase he writes in Romans 16:3-4. The churches in Galatia, Ephesus, Colossae, Philippi, Corinth, and Thessaly were Gentile churches established by Paul in his obedience to the Great Commission given to him by Jesus Himself on the road to Damascus. “I write to you as Gentiles. I am the apostle to the Gentiles,” he wrote to the church in Rome (11:13). Gentiles is the word ethne in the Bible; it means unreached peoples, the entire population of the world that is not Jewish. We can translate ethne as unreached peoples. This makes clear that God gave Paul a mission to unreached peoples. The phrase “a light to the Gentiles” occurs several times in the Bible; it is made clear if we translate it like this:

The Lord has commanded us, saying, ‘I have set you to be a light for the unreached peoples, so that you may bring salvation to the ends of the earth.’”[1] When the unreached peoples heard this, they were glad and praised the word of the Lord; and as many as had been destined for eternal life became believers (Acts 13:47-48).

The Ephesus congregation was a Gentile church. We know this because Paul writes, “For this reason I, Paul, am a prisoner of Christ Jesus for the sake of you Gentiles (you ethne). For surely you have heard of the commission of God’s grace that was given to me for you” (Ephesians 3:1-2). Then Paul explains “the mystery that was hidden for long ages past”:

In former generations this mystery was not made known to humankind, as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit: that is, the Gentiles have become fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel. Of this gospel I have become a servant according to the gift of God’s grace that was given me by the working of his power. Although I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given to me to bring to the unreached peoples the news of the fathomless riches of Christ, and to make everyone see what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things. (Ephesians 3:5-9).

This is a missionary text. The mystery was the Great Commission to bring the unreached peoples to God. But after the close of the New Testament, the missionary texts disappear from the writings of the early church fathers. Here is what I mean.

Paul wrote to the Ephesians in 62 AD. He filled chapters two and three with mission references. But thirty years later, when John wrote the book of Revelation, John had stern words for the Ephesus: “You have lost your first love,” John wrote. The Ephesians had become nominal and worldly. In Paul’s time they were saints (Ephesians 1:1). But in 92 AD John writes:

I have this against you, that you have abandoned your first love. Remember then from what you have fallen; repent and do the works you did at first. If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent (Revelation 1:4-6).

Dear reader, we must admit that most churches in the history of the world have started out with zeal and good works like the Ephesus congregation. But within three generations, the zeal seems to quiet down, even in the Protestant era. Ralph D. Winter writes,

Maintaining vitality over, say, three generations, is not assured in any tradition. It seems almost a rule that every Christian tradition, whether Protestant, Mennonite or Roman, insofar as it depends heavily upon a family inheritance—or, shall we say, a biological mechanism for its perpetuation over a period of time, will gradually lose the spiritual vitality with which they may have begun. [2]

Blincoe: The drift toward nominalism and worldliness is a nearly unsolvable problem. It caused Protestant churches to divide as evangelicals form new congregations. But the cycle repeated itself. Ralph Winter proposes a way to retain the oneness of the church (and a way to heed the teaching of our Lord that the time to separate is at the end of the age), as we wrote about here and here and here.

We move ahead another 30 or 40 or so years. Bishop Ignatius was residing in Antioch when he was arrested and sent to Rome, where he was to be martyred. The journey to Rome took some months, and during the journey he wrote seven letters:

  • To the church in the city of Ephesus
  • To the church in the city of Magnesia
  • To the church in the city of Tralles (now Aydin, in Turkey)
  • To the church in the city of Rome
  • To the church in the city of Philadelphia
  • To the church in the city of Smyrna
  • To Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna

Ignatius wrote to encourage believers to stay true to the faith. But especially he writes that they should obey their bishop. Ignatius advised the Ephesians that they should revere and obey their bishop as if he were Christ himself:

For we ought to receive everyone whom the Master of the house sends to be over His household, as we would do Him that sent him. It is manifest, therefore, that we should look upon the bishop even as we would upon the Lord Himself.[3]

Loyalty to a bishop becomes a theme in Ignatius’ other letters. To the Church in Magnesia Ignatius writes:

Take care to do all things in harmony with God, with the bishop presiding in the place of God, and with the presbyters in the place of the council of the apostles, and with the deacons, who are most dear to me, entrusted with the business of Jesus Christ, who was with the Father from the beginning and is at last made manifest.— Letter to the Magnesians 2, 6:1

The congregation in Smyrna is also enjoined to obey the bishop:

Wherever the bishop appears, there let the people be; as wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church. It is not lawful to baptize or give communion without the consent of the bishop. On the other hand, whatever has his approval is pleasing to God. Thus, whatever is done will be safe and valid.— Letter to the Smyrnaeans 8

I make two comments. First, the bishop’s prominence is rising, and will continue to rise as the Roman Catholic church centralizes its authority in a hierarchy of priests, bishops, archbishops and pope.

“The Context of an Emergency.” Second, while Ignatius has treasured Paul’s doctrines, Ignatius has not furthered Paul’s zeal for “the regions beyond.” In this disregard, Ignatius’ writings are like a seminary education today. We study the Bible to glorify God, yet fail to hear the Holy Spirit call us to go to “the regions beyond.” David Bosch writes,

Theology is ‘there in the New Testament, but second in important to the apostles who are writing it. They were not scholars who had the leisure to research the evidence before they put pen to paper. Rather, they wrote in the context of an ’emergency situation,’ of a church which, because of its missionary encounter with the world, was forced to theologize.[4]

Paul wrote, “I am the apostle to the Gentiles . . . We have received grace and apostleship in order to bring about the obedience of faith among the Gentiles . . . I will not venture to speak of anything except what Christ has accomplished through me to win obedience from Gentiles by word and deed, by the power of signs and miracles, through the power of the Spirit.

In Romans 15:8-12 Paul quotes a great number of Scriptures, to persuade the reader that a golden thread is wending its way through the entire Bible, “so that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy.” Sadly, that missionary determination seems to have vanished early in the second century, by the time of Ignatius. He offers not a thought of sending missionaries to the Berbers in Africa, or the Goths north of the Rhine, or to Arab caravans converging in Mecca. The business of translating the Bible into other languages is out of the question. Paul’s idea, “I become all things to all men that I might win some,” has vanished without a trace from the church in Antioch in just a few decades.

[1] This is a quote from Isaiah 49:6.

[2] Ralph D. Winter, “Protestant Mission Societies: The American Experience,” Missiology 7, no. 2 (1979).

[3] Greg Gordon, Ignatius of Antioch, Early Church Fathers Series (Greg Gordon at Smashwords, 2019).

[4] Bosch, Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission. 15