Ephesus: City of Worthless Idols

When Paul finally left the crossroads commercial city of Corinth, he had spent at least a year and a half teaching and establishing the new community of believers there (Acts 18:11). On the first leg of his journey back to Antioch in Syria, the husband-and-wife tent-making team, Aquila and Priscilla, accompanied him. They departed by ship from Corinth’s eastern port of Cenchrea, sailing across the Aegean to Ephesus, which was known as “the Treasure House of Asia” for its preeminence in the Roman province’s trade. The apostle was to spend three years in the famous city.

When Paul arrived, his appearance was a little different than it had been at the end of his stay in Corinth. Just before leaving Cenchrea, he had cut his hair short to mark the completion of a vow he had made (verse 18). Though the book of Acts makes no comment about the reason for Paul’s vow, it was likely in accord with instructions given in the Hebrew Scriptures. If Israelite men or women wished to make a vow in dedication to serving God in a particular way for up to 30 days, they temporarily became “Nazirites” (from the Hebrew nazir, “consecrated”). During the period of the vow, they consumed no grape product nor strong drink, did not cut their hair, and avoided contact with dead bodies.

Once the self-imposed restrictions were over, Nazirites were to purify themselves and shave their heads, typically at the central place of worship: in earlier times the “tabernacle of meeting” (Numbers 6:18), or later, the temple in Jerusalem. When a Nazirite was too far from the temple, he had to modify that practice somewhat. Thus Paul, who was traveling in the Diaspora at the time, could only cut his hair short to signify the completing of his vow. The vow seems to have been related to his time in Corinth and perhaps to his gratitude for God’s continued help there. This episode, as recorded by Luke, shows that Paul was not opposed to living according to the ceremonial law of the God of ancient Israel.

When the ship docked in Ephesus, Paul took his leave of Priscilla and Aquila and went to the local synagogue as usual to reason with the congregation. His discourse was intriguing enough to cause the listeners to ask him to stay on, but he was intent on returning to his home area after a visit to Jerusalem. Promising to return if possible, he set sail for Caesarea, the capital of Roman Palestine. After traveling up to Jerusalem to greet the church (a mark of his close relationship and respect for the brethren and leaders there), he went on to Antioch. Then, after some time there, he started out on another extensive journey to the west (verses 19–23).

Teaching and Ministering

During Paul’s absence, a Jew named Apollos from the Egyptian city of Alexandria arrived in Ephesus. He began to preach in the synagogue about Jesus and His message. Apollos was familiar with John the Baptist’s call to repentance, and although he had knowledge of Jesus, he did not know about the need for the believer to be transformed by the Holy Spirit. Priscilla and Aquila heard him, and recognizing that there were gaps in his knowledge, they took him aside and helped him understand what was missing in his public addresses. Apollos then went on to Corinth with the encouragement and support of the Ephesian brethren and spoke openly and boldly to the Jews there (verses 24–28).

At this point Paul was approaching Ephesus from the inland provinces of Galatia and Phrygia, where he had been encouraging the communities established on his previous journeys. When he arrived in the city, he met some believers—about 12 in all—influenced perhaps by Apollos’s teachings. In response to Paul’s questions about the process of their conversion, they said that they had not even heard of the Holy Spirit. Like Priscilla and Aquila before him, Paul found himself explaining that belief in Jesus meant not only baptism by immersion in water but also receipt of the Holy Spirit (Acts 19:1–7). The willingness of the group to be rebaptized signified their humility and led to their receiving the gift of God through the agency of Paul, who laid his hands on them in prayer.

Soon after, Paul kept his promise to the Ephesian Jews and returned to teaching in the local synagogue for about three months. His reasoning was convincing to some and persuaded them of the truth about God’s coming kingdom on the earth. It was only when others in the synagogue rejected what he had to say and spoke critically of “the Way” (of life) he represented that he started teaching his disciples and others each day in a local lecture hall belonging to Tyrannus, a teacher or philosopher. It’s possible that Paul taught during the heat of the day, between 11 a.m. and 4 p.m., when the school was not in use. This schedule would have allowed him to also work for his living, as he noted to the Ephesians (Acts 20:34).

Once at the school, he met with much success. Luke tells us that “this continued for two years, so that all who dwelt in Asia heard the word of the Lord Jesus, both Jews and Greeks” (Acts 19:10). Paul’s time in Ephesus was the longest he spent anywhere (a later note tells us that he stayed for three years; see 20:31). Though most of the Jewish community rejected his message, some did believe. But Paul’s greatest success came amongst the God-fearing non-Jewish population in the city and the surrounding area.

One of the remarkable aspects of Paul’s time in Ephesus was God’s healing of various illnesses. In some cases, just a headband or apron that had touched Paul had a restorative effect on the sick and those possessed of evil spirits (Acts 19:11–12). This power impressed some wandering Jewish exorcists, who appropriated the name of Jesus in an attempt to cast out evil spirits. But they were unable to bring about the same positive effect as Paul, since they were not genuine believers. In fact, seven of the exorcists, who were sons of a Jewish high priest named Sceva, were overpowered and injured by a possessed man whom they tried to heal.

The news of this episode spread around Ephesus, making the name and power of Jesus very well known among all the community. So convicted were those who became believers that they brought their books of magic, valued at 50,000 silver coins, and burned them publicly (verses 17–20). This dramatic reversal also worked in favor of Paul’s ministry, because the city was a center of healing superstitions and charlatans who claimed recuperative powers.

It is reasonable to suggest that at this point Paul made a second visit to Corinth, and that after returning to Ephesus he wrote a now lost letter (see 1 Corinthians 5:9) as well as the one we know as 1 Corinthians (see 1 Corinthians 16:8, 19). Luke tells us in Acts 19:21 that in Ephesus Paul also began making plans to visit Macedonia, Greece, Jerusalem and Rome. He refers to this intended visit in 1 Corinthians 16:5, proposing to make yet a third visit to Corinth. Paul’s first step was to send two of his helpers, Timothy and Erastus, ahead to Macedonia. From there Timothy was to go on to Corinth (1 Corinthians 4:17; 16:10–11). Meanwhile Paul stayed in Ephesus (see also 1 Corinthians 16:8–9), but only until events overtook him and he was forced to leave.

Artemis, Artisans and the Amphitheater

Ephesus was known throughout the Roman world as the site of one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, the much-visited Temple of Artemis. Paul would have seen the temple as his ship entered the estuary of the River Cayster and approached its harbor, which had been specially dredged to accommodate sea traffic. Just to the north beyond the dock stood the massive edifice—more than 400 feet long by 200 feet wide (120 meters by 60 meters)—with its 127 marble columns, each nearly 60 feet, or 18 meters, tall. Inside stood a statue of the fertility goddess, Artemis of the Ephesians, possibly carved from a black meteorite (significant to the inhabitants because it had fallen from the sky and was presumed to be a gift of the gods). The idol’s temple, which was four times the size of the Parthenon in Athens, also served as a central bank and as a sanctuary for those accused of criminal activity. Ephesus had all the problems of a wealthy port community.

[Demetrius, the silversmith, said,] ‘Not only at Ephesus but almost all over Asia this fellow Paul has drawn off a considerable number of people by his persuasions. He declares that hand-made gods are not gods at all!’” 

Acts 19:26, James Moffatt Translation

The other major structure visible from the harbor was the amphitheater, still intact today and seating 24,000. This was the site of the riot that precipitated Paul’s sudden departure. Local craftsmen had been making a living from the manufacture of small silver shrines to Artemis. One of them, the silversmith Demetrius, accused Paul and his colleagues of subverting their business by teaching the people that gods made by human hands were worthless idols. Sensing that this would ruin their business and shame the city, which was an official protector of the cult of Artemis, the tradesmen became enraged and dragged two of Paul’s Macedonian companions, Gaius and Aristarchus, into the amphitheater. In the confusion that ensued, Paul wanted to follow them in and address the crowd. But his supporters, including not only church members but also several Asiarchs (“rulers of Asia” or city leaders), begged him not to do so (verses 23–32).

The crowd would not even allow a local Jew named Alexander to make a defense, but shouted him down for two hours as they chanted, “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!” The city’s chief executive, or “town clerk,” finally restored order and addressed them. He pointed out that everyone knew “that the city of the Ephesians is temple keeper of the great Artemis, and of the sacred stone that fell from the sky” (verses 33–35, English Standard Version). Thus there could be no danger from men who had not in fact blasphemed the goddess. And after all, there were courts where any such accusation could be lodged. He advised all to go home lest the Roman authorities call them into question for the uproar. This was the opportune moment for Paul to depart the city.

And when the town clerk had quieted the crowd, he said, ‘Men of Ephesus, who is there who does not know that the city of the Ephesians is temple keeper of the great Artemis, and of the sacred stone that fell from the sky?’” 

Acts 19:35, English Standard Version

Observing Holy Days

What followed was about a year of visiting the Macedonian churches (during which time he wrote 2 Corinthians and referred to his previous difficult visit to the city; see 2 Corinthians 2:1 and 13:2), a possible stop in Illyricum (a Roman province on the eastern shore of the Adriatic; see Romans 15:19), and a three-month stay with the followers in Greece. Paul then started his homeward journey.

Escaping a plot against him by the Jews in Greece, he traveled circuitously through Macedonia instead of directly to Syria as originally planned. There he and Luke stopped for a few days in Philippi. Meanwhile, their seven traveling companions went ahead and waited for them at Troas (Troy) on the eastern side of the Aegean, where there were also church members. Giving an important clue to early church practice, Luke notes that he and Paul left Philippi “after the Days of Unleavened Bread” (Acts 20:6). This is not merely a calendar reference; it conveys that Paul continued to observe the holy days prescribed in the Torah (see Leviticus 23). The brethren at Philippi were of gentile and/or proselyte background (see “The Apostles, Part 5”). Yet as converts, with their teacher among them, they would have kept the Passover and the Days of Unleavened Bread, albeit with new significance after the coming of Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 5:7–8).

Joining his companions in Troas after a five-day sea journey, Paul spent the next week there. On a Saturday evening as they prepared for a final meal with the church, Paul gave a lengthy address, speaking till midnight. A young man sitting on a third-floor window sill fell asleep and tumbled to the ground, and was presumed dead. Paul reassured everyone and took him into his arms: he was alive. After a meal, the apostle continued speaking till daybreak, when he and his party went on their way. Paul walked overland that day and met his companions a little way south at Assos, where they had arrived by ship. They sailed past Ephesus and landed at the next main port, Miletus. Paul had determined not to return to Ephesus because he was hurrying to be in Jerusalem by Pentecost (Acts 20:7–16). And here is another important reference to Paul’s observance of God’s prescribed holy days.

From Miletus, he called for the Ephesian church elders to travel the 30 or so miles overland to meet him. When they arrived, Paul took the opportunity to deliver a heart-to-heart talk about his ministry among them, and a warning about what would come to the church in their care if human ambition got in their way. He began by reminding them of his own example of hard work and humility from the start of his service among them. He had taught both publicly and privately—the preaching and teaching aspects of his work as a minister. He had explained to Jews and gentiles alike the need for repentance before God of sinful ways, and for faith in Jesus Christ’s paying the death penalty for that sin, so that forgiveness could come from God.

Paul was taking his leave of them and going to Jerusalem, fully aware that he might never see them again, because the Holy Spirit was making it known wherever he went on his travels that he was destined for imprisonment and physical suffering (verses 22–23). His only concern was that he would be able to complete the work God had given him.

Then Paul reminded the elders of their duty to care for “the church of God.” He foresaw that there would be attacks on the membership from outside—from, as he put it, “savage wolves.” And some of the elders, he warned, would succumb to the temptation to draw away disciples for themselves, teaching false doctrine. It was a sobering message, concluded with a repetition of his example of hard work to help the weak, and of living by Jesus’ words, “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (verses 28–35).

In parting, Paul knelt down and prayed with the tearful men, who sorrowed that he had said they would see him no more.

Bound for Troubles

Boarding a ship bound for Tyre, Paul and his party left Asia behind. When they arrived in the ancient Phoenician city, they disembarked and spent a week with the brethren there. Following a one-day stop with the church members in Ptolemais, they went on to Caesarea, where “for many days” they were guests of Philip the evangelist, one of the original seven deacons at Jerusalem (see Acts 6), and his four daughters. When a prophet named Agabus arrived from Judea, it was to warn Paul that in Jerusalem he would be bound and delivered to a foreign power. Though his companions and the brethren in Caesarea begged him not to go, Paul couldn’t be deterred. Accompanied by some of the church members, he and his companions arrived in Jerusalem, where an early disciple, Mnason of Cyprus, gave them lodging (Acts 21:1–16).

Welcomed warmly by the Jerusalem brethren, Paul went the next day to visit James, the brother of Jesus, and the other elders. He related the success of the work among gentiles in the Diaspora, at which news they were delighted. They expressed one concern, however, and gave him a way to offset the reputation he had developed among some of the believing Jews. It seems he was wrongly thought to have been teaching Jews against the law delivered by Moses regarding infant circumcision and the ancient Israelite customs. The elders therefore advised him to ritually purify himself, to go to the temple with four believers who were about to complete a vow, and to pay their expenses so that at the end of seven days they could have their heads shaven. This would be proof to all that Paul did honor the law. The elders mentioned again that they were in agreement with him about what the gentiles should do in respect of becoming members of the community of believers (see Acts 15), and they spoke of the letter they had sent with Paul to the church in Antioch, in which they confirmed that adult male circumcision was not required of gentile converts (Acts 21:17–25).

Their proposal for clearing Paul’s name was well intentioned, and all would have gone well were it not for some Jews from Asia who saw him in the company of his traveling companion, Trophimus of Ephesus. They assumed that Paul had brought a forbidden gentile into the temple. It was enough to enrage the local community, and Paul found himself at the center of another riotous uproar.

What happened next, and how Paul came to stand before Caesar in Rome, we take up next time in Part 8 of The Apostles.