Arcadian WayTo the angel of the church in Ephesus write:

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.

Revelation 2:1-7

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…

Mary's ChurchEphesus, 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.

Caesar Worship
Temple of Hestia

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

Library of EphesusEphesus 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!

First Love

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.

Bird's-eye view of Ephesus

NOTES:

1) Thank you to Rev. Ray Vanderlaan, Dr. Tim Brown, Steve Reeves and John Sexton, who all provided information used in this, and/or additional Revelation lessons.

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.

  • Share/Bookmark
This entry was posted on Tuesday, January 20th, 2009 at 12:33 pm and is filed under Devotional. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.
+/- Collapse/Expand All

16 Comments(+Add)

1   Paul C    http://www.themidnightcry.com
January 20th, 2009 at 4:36 pm

Thanks for this research Chris. I found it very interesting.

Though I think we disagree as to the timing the book of Revelation addresses (from what I gather, you think it’s happened, whereas I see it as being/yet to be fulfilled) I think this is good.

What catches me when I read chapters 2 & 3 of this book is the absolutely stark and firm comments made by our Lord Jesus regarding the responsibilities each church has been entrusted with. There seems little room for compromise despite the harshness of the conditions around them.

Also, it demonstrates an almost complete difference between the gospel back then and the gospel being promoted now.

I look forward to the other reflections on the messages to these churches.

2   iggy    http://wordofmouthministries.blogspot.com/
January 20th, 2009 at 6:47 pm

My understanding of the Nicolaitans was that they added the separation of priest and laity which Jesus had removed at the Cross.

I also understand that the Nicolaitans used this separation for personal gain.

The name when broken down means victory over the laity… Nico means victory and laitan of course is where we get laity as we use it today.

It seems later they are closely related to those mentioned at the church a Pergamum as Jesus criticized that “people there who hold to the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to entice the Israelites to sin by eating food sacrificed to idols and by committing sexual immorality.”

I often wondered if it was the first time “indulgences” were given in exchange for money.

iggy

3   Chris L    http://www.fishingtheabyss.com/
January 20th, 2009 at 7:01 pm

Iggy,

I’ll go into it more in the Pergamum article, but you might ask yourself the question – “In the OT account of Balaam, did he teach Balak to entice the Israelites to sin?” If not, where might this idea come from.

There were more aspects of the Nicolaitans than just their “selling out” to avoid persecution, it is true, but I would argue “their practices” are more in line with their compromising behavior than clergy/laity doctrinal distinctives…

4   iggy    http://wordofmouthministries.blogspot.com/
January 20th, 2009 at 7:14 pm

Chris L,

There were more aspects of the Nicolaitans than just their “selling out” to avoid persecution, it is true, but I would argue “their practices” are more in line with their compromising behavior than clergy/laity doctrinal distinctives…

No doubt, though I think this was the core of it. They created a separation that was done away with and made themselves some sort of authority priests and used that to gain wealth to use in a corrupt manner.

Of course if the “priests” do it then the laity would see it as something they could do… again, the idea of indulgences comes to mind which was giving the laity permission to sin if they paid to be able to do so. This alone is a corrupt practice that God would hate and seemed to be in the church well before Luther came around.

I have no disagreement, just thought it all interesting though unfortunately most of it is conjecture as there is so little written about the Nicolaitans.

iggys

5   Rick Frueh    http://http?//followingjudahslion.com
January 20th, 2009 at 7:15 pm

Ceasar worship is still alive and well today.

6   Chris L    http://www.fishingtheabyss.com/
January 20th, 2009 at 7:16 pm

Aye, particularly w/ this being Jan 20, 2009…

7   nc    
January 20th, 2009 at 8:07 pm

#6

regardless of party and/or policies regarding abortion.

;)

8   nc    
January 20th, 2009 at 8:09 pm

Just a little FYI:

Pagitt’s facebook status recently took issue with the cries of “o-bam-a”, he said it sounds too much like something in a dictatorship (i.e. personality cult). He said people need to “watch that”…

yep, those unreflective emergent idolaters…

9   Paul C    http://www.themidnightcry.com
January 20th, 2009 at 8:11 pm

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.

How do you envision this and by what criteria do you think they rendered judgment? Is there a practical application to this discernment today?

10   Paul C    http://www.themidnightcry.com
January 20th, 2009 at 8:18 pm

BTW, not trying to open a discussion re the ODMs, but get your take on this verse and how it applies.

11   Rick Frueh    http://http?//followingjudahslion.com
January 20th, 2009 at 8:44 pm

I believe that verse applies mainly to “apostles” that preached another Jesus and/or departed from the gospel of grace.

12   Phil Miller    http://pmwords.blogspot.com
January 20th, 2009 at 8:45 pm

How do you envision this and by what criteria do you think they rendered judgment? Is there a practical application to this discernment today?

Well, I think within the context of that whole section, it may be not the best compliment. In many ways it does remind me of segments of the American church. There are people who are very passionate about doctrine and “discernment”, but yet they seem to exhibit so little in the way love – exactly what the church in Ephesus is being chastised for.

The problem with seeing everything critically is that is simply easy to become nothing more than a critic. It can prevent a person from really experiencing and exhibiting the love of Christ if they aren’t careful. Jesus said we are to be as wise as serpents but as gentle as doves. So, like many things it needs to be a both/and situation, not an either/or.

13   Rick Frueh    http://http?//followingjudahslion.com
January 20th, 2009 at 9:23 pm

Following Jesus is not hurling scathing invectives at lost sinners.

Following Jesus is not embracing a systematic theology like an idol.

Following Jesus is not trolling the secular news in search of something to criticize.

Following Jesus is not pronouncing ordained men as apostate carelessly.

Following Jesus is not speaking to the hungry without providing food.

Following Jesus is not teaching that the “attack life” is the “abundant life”.

Following Jesus is not straining at doctrinal gnats while swallowing the camels marching in your own life.

Following Jesus is not thanking God you are not like the current culture.

Following Jesus is not loving a sinner’s soul while hating his guts.

Following Jesus is not consistantly reporting your own valiant stand for God’s Word while you ignore your open defiance of much of the same Word.

*****

Following Jesus must be a constant journey of humility born of grace. A true followship must never have others in our windshield, we must be looking unto Him. No credit must be taken, and an open admission of our daily frailties and sins must temper our verbiage concerning others. A true follower of Jesus must re-evaluate his tone, especially when he feels led to correct.

A faithful follower must carry his cross, not just his bullhorn. A faithful follower must draw attention to Christ, and never himself. A faithful follower meditates, thinks, dwells, and assesses God’s truth through the Scriptures and expresses them through a humble and contrite spirit.

A true and faithful follower of Jesus must see the gap between where he is and where Christ calls him to, as widening with each and every revelation of the Risen Christ. Any believer who sees himself closing in on His Savior has deceived himself and will attack others with little regard for their well being.

A true and faithful follower of Jesus must die…whatever that truly means and however that can be revealed in our earthly lives. I sometimes believe that kind of death is a pursuit rather than a pronounciation.

That is my answer to “criteria”. Let me know when you arrive.

14   Paul C    http://www.themidnightcry.com
January 20th, 2009 at 9:23 pm

Good comments Phil. I agree that it is a tough balance to strike: on the one hand being vigilant and on the other maintaining the core calling we have which is love.

The tendency we have is to err on either side (become hyper-vigilant that we see everything critically and with a mote-hunting spirit or to translate love as tolerance and “everything goes”).

The thing that I get out of Revelation 2 & 3 is really how firm Jesus is, and how rarely these verses are taken into account when we discuss His nature and character, though these addresses might give us the clearest concept as to His righteous judgment.

We spend hours on the woman caught in adultery and other accounts, and well we should, but the balance in understanding the Lion of Judah and the Lamb of God often escapes us. Just my 2 cents.

15   Chris L    http://www.fishingtheabyss.com/
January 21st, 2009 at 12:24 am

Paul,

I would also point out that one could actually test to see if one was an apostle, since you had to study under Jesus to be one. I would also note that, at this time, there was no codified “New Testament”, or even canonized gospels with which to refute false apostolic claims…

16   Paul C    http://www.themidnightcry.com
January 21st, 2009 at 10:26 am

Chris, I would say that it was perhaps a little more tricky than that, else Christ wouldn’t have commended them for this. For example, there was nothing to stop men declaring (much as they do today) that they had a direct commission from Christ in a dream or a “road to Tarsus” experience like Paul. It seems Paul spent a lot of time, as did Peter and Jude, warning about false teachers.

Remember Hananiah (Jer 28) in the days of Jeremiah the prophet.

The reason I asked the question is because of the 2 ends of the spectrum we find ourselves, in my observation: either harshly criticizing and condemning with relish false teachers on the one hand, and accepting everyone with the name of Jesus on his lips as true, irregardless of his departure from the faith.

2 things come to mind that I see as so critical:
- self examination (motives and a right spirit)
- true humility (as opposed to self-depracation or false humility)

The second, easily representing the core of Christ’s character, seems to escape most of us (me included), as it did the Ephesian church.