These are the words of him who holds the seven stars in his right hand and walks among the seven golden lampstands:
I know your deeds, your hard work and your perseverance. I know that you cannot tolerate wicked men, that you have tested those who claim to be apostles but are not, and have found them false. You have persevered and have endured hardships for my name, and have not grown weary. Yet I hold this against you: You have forsaken your first love. Remember the height from which you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first. If you do not repent, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place.
But you have this in your favor: You hate the practices of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To him who overcomes, I will give the right to eat from the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God.
This is first of seven articles on the seven cities mentioned in Revelation 2 and 3. I wrote a bit about them several years ago after visiting them in modern-day Turkey. Since then, I’ve learned more, been corrected on a few things, and thought an update might be nice…
Ephesus, the first of the seven cities written to by John the Apostle, was the center of commerce in first-century Asia Minor in the same way that the center of commerce in the USA today is New York City. It was home to the Apostle Paul, his disciple, Timothy, and later, the Apostle John.
According to church tradition, and supported by other reports, John was accompanied to Ephesus by Mary, the mother of Jesus. It is believed that she lived here for several years, and that she died here and was buried near what was later named Mary’s Church, the ruins of which can be seen today (right). This church was the location of the First (431) and Second (449) Ecumenical Councils.
Ephesus was the major sea port on the coast of Asia Minor, constructed with beautiful white marble and architecture that rivaled that of Rome. The Arcadian Way (the way of the sea) went directly from the port of Ephesus to the great amphitheater (see photo above) that we read about in Acts 19:23-41, where the crowd rioted because the spread of Christianity was impacting the sales of idols…
During the first century, there were two primary deities worshipped in Ephesus – Artemis (Diana) and Caesar (actually, multiple Caesars, beginning with Augustus, later Nero, Domitian and, finally, Trajan). Additionally, there are indications that the cult of Mithras also had a foothold in the Roman legions housed in Ephesus.
Each of these false gods has a part to play in the Apocalypse of John.
The Mystery Religion of Mythraism
A number of scholars believe that Mythraism, the worship of Mithra, began some time in the first century BC or early in the first century AD, as an attempt to explain a great crisis in astronomy.
In the cosmology of the ancient middle-east, the earth was the center of the universe and the stars were all attached to a great shell, referred to as ‘the heavens’. Between the earth and the heavens were seven ’stars’, the sun, the moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. Where the crisis occurred was when Greek astronomists found ancient records indicating that during the Vernal Equinox the sky was in Taurus, not Aries. Not understanding that the earth’s “wobble” would take it through each of the signs of the Zodiac, changing every 2160 years, the astronomers realized that something had “killed” Taurus, giving way to Aries. That “something” had to be bigger than the heavens, and it controlled the seven stars – which would lead departed souls from earth to the heavens. (For those of you keeping score, we will soon be moving out of Pices into the ‘Age of Aquarius‘ – no joke.)
For adherents of this ‘mystery religion‘, Mithra was identified as the “something” controlling the universe. He had a miraculous birth in a shepherd’s cave, he was visited by Magi, he died and was resurrected, along with many other similarities to Jesus and Christianity. By the time John was in Ephesus, Mythraism was competing with Christianity, and by the time of Constantine in the early fourth century, it was the primary religion competing with Christianity.
And so it is that John identifies Jesus as:
him who holds the seven stars in his right hand and walks among the seven golden lampstands.
This is in direct opposition to Mithra, who was believed to hold the “seven stars” – the path from earth to the heavens – in his hands.
In Ephesus, there were two incredibly large Agora, places of buying and selling. It is in these two marketplaces that Caesar worship and Christianity first clashed. In order to buy and sell in the marketplace, everyone had to burn incense and declare that Caesar was lord. If you needed food, or water, or clothing, or goods, you could not get into the Agora without worshiping Caesar. By the time Domitian came in to power, you could be put to death if you did not declare him lord and have his mark on you and/or your goods.
The Nicolaitans were Christians who believed that since Caesar was not God, they could ‘cross their fingers’ and burn incense to him for convenience sake. If they needed fire, they could go to the Temple of Hestia (goddess of hearth and home, left) and burn incense to her in order to get fire, because they ‘knew’ she was not God. If they needed food, they could go to the altar of Casar, burn incense in his name (while ‘knowing’ he was not God), and receive freshly-sacrificed meat. The expedience of ‘going through the motions’ in order to avoid persecution and meet their needs is what defined the Nicolaitans.
It appears, though, that this practice was not condoned by the Ephesian church:
But you have this in your favor: You hate the practices of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate.
I often wonder what the modern parallels are to Nicolaitanism today – who (or what) do we pretend to worship in order to avoid inconvenience or persecution, rather than accepting that Jesus is the only Lord in our lives?
Artemis, the Goddess of Fertility
Ephesus was the center of worship of the goddesses Artemis and Cybele, housing the Temple of Artemis – one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World (In a later article on Sardis, I will delve more into the bloody cults of Artemis & Cybele).
In this Temple, criminals could come to seek sanctuary, and as long as they did not leave the grounds, they could not be prosecuted. Additionally, it was believed that Artemis would protect women who were in childbirth, with some records indicating that 250,000 women each year came to the temple for such protection. The high maternal mortality rates in the ancient world made this an incredibly real concern. (Earlier, in his letter to Timothy, Paul references this when he tells Timothy that women would be ’saved through/during childbearing’ (I Timothy 2:15) through Jesus – not Artemis.)
In the center of the Temple of Artemis was a large enclosed garden, called the ‘Paradise of Artemis’. In the center of this paradise was a linden tree (actually, two intertwined linden trees). This tree was called by the Artemis worshipers, ‘The Tree of Life’. And so it is that Jesus, through John, promises that “to him who overcomes, I will give the right to eat from the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God.” – NOT the paradise of Artemis.
Another interesting note comes from John’s use of Greek here. In the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures, the Septuagint, there are two words for ‘tree’ – dendron and xulon. The first, dendron, is used almost exclusively for all living trees. However, xulon (which is used to denote dead wood) is used less often, as in the case of Deuteronomy 21:23, where God describes anyone hung on a tree – xulon – is cursed. This is the same word used for Jesus being hung on a tree – xulon. And so it is, when John describes the tree of life in the paradise of God, the tree (xulon) of life is the cross!
While we know a great deal about Ephesus, the city, and the latter church there, there is still a great deal of speculation about where they were going wrong, aside from it being obvious that they were following something or someone over and above their ‘first love’ – Jesus Christ. It is ironic that in a city with so many gods and idols the church apparently stood firm against, something aside from these blatant, godless influences had replaced Christ in their lives.
And so it is with us – we may stand up against the obvious evil in the world, but we may fall to the more subtle influences which could replace our ‘first love’. Let us pray it will not be so, and that it will be said of us:
To him who overcomes, I will give the right to eat from the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God.
2) It should be obvious that I am viewing Revelation from an amillenial (non-futurist/partial-preterist) perspective, and thus I will be examining the letters to the Seven Churches as something directly relevant to them, with culturally contextual references they would understand, and applicable lessons we can apply to ourselves.
3) All of the photos I plan on using in this series were taken in March/April 2006 while I was on location in Turkey. If you would like to use them (or others) for non-commercial purposes, contact me for permission and (if you would like) much higher-resolution photo files.