Studying the Bible is one of the greatest gifts God has given His people, and within that, Paul’s letter to the church in and around the city of Ephesus is one of my favourite letters for how it has so often spoken to me. ‘Studies in Ephesians’ is my attempt to share, in written form, those lessons and promises that God has revealed to me in my studies through this magnificent book.
“Welcome to Ephesus, the greatest city of Asia. You’ve had a long boat journey from Rome, but you’ve come at the right time. Everything you’ve ever wanted, and a few things you never knew you needed, you can find right here. And no doubt, while you are here, you will want to visit one of the greatest wonders of the world! The Artemision is unrivalled for its beauty, and is our great Lady Artemis’ pride and joy! Or maybe you’d like to take in the theatre, for surely you have heard of our majestic theatre – it can seat tens of thousands! Have you maybe come to learn the ways of prosperity and safety from the netherworld? Much can be learned here in Ephesus, capital and crown of Roman Asia!”
If ever there was a city from the New Testament which rivalled the world in which we live today, it would surely be Ephesus. Capital of the Roman province of Asia, modern-day Turkey, Ephesus was a port city smack-bang in the middle of the one of the most lucrative and busy trade routes in the world. With a population in excess of 250,000 – a population that wouldn’t be rivalled in terms of numbers until the 1500s when Paris and London began to flourish – “Ephesus may accurately be called the leading city of the richest region of the Roman Empire” and “the greatest commercial centre in Asia this side of the Tarsus river.” The whole of the Province of Asia measured itself in relation to Ephesus.
Ephesus was simply the place to be.
Given all of this – its regional status and its location on a major trade route – it is unsurprising that Christianity arrived in Ephesus not long after the Apostles began their ministry. However, it took the Apostle Paul a little longer to visit, stopping through briefly in 53 A.D. and then returning later that year to stay nearly three years in ministry amongst them.Acts 19 is entirely dedicated to Paul’s work in Ephesus, and gives us a starting point for understanding the city that would later welcome one of the Apostle’s greatest letters.
Author’s Note: There is much debate over whether a) Paul wrote the letter to the Ephesians, and b) whether the letter was intended for the Ephesians at all. After much study, and in the wake of many before me, I believe not only that Paul is the definitive author of the letter to the Ephesians, but that the letter was intended for the Ephesians, as well as the surrounding region, which would have been heavily influenced by Ephesus and its citizens..
The letter to the Ephesians is unusual in many ways, including in the way that Paul repeatedly addresses the heavenly realm and “powers”. (Ephesians 1:3, Ephesians 1:21, Ephesians 2:2, Ephesians 3:10, Ephesians 6:12, Ephesians 6:10-18) In fact, Ephesians is the Biblical home to the most definitive account of how believers are to defend themselves against spiritual attack – “against the rulers, against the authorities, against the world powers of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavens.” (Ephesians 6:12)
Why such a focus on the spiritual? Why did Paul, who realistically wrote this letter due to no particular issue in the Ephesian church, write a letter so different in content to his previous letters, and focus so heavily on the heavenly powers?
The answer, I believe, is integral to understanding the letter to the Ephesians. Authorship, context, destination – these are always integral to understanding Biblical writings. With no particular reason for Paul to write, understanding of Ephesians must be found in the author, the context, and the destination.
Which is why Acts 19 is so important to understanding the letter of Ephesians.
InActs 19:11-12, Luke writes that “God gave Paul the power to perform unusual miracles. When handkerchiefs or aprons that had merely touched his skin were placed on sick people, they were healed of their diseases, and evil spirits were expelled.” Other than the exorcism at Philippi covered inActs 16:16-18, when Paul cast a demon out of a slave girl, “there are no other accounts of exorcism or even references to ‘evil spirits’ in Luke’s account of Paul’s missionary journeys (Acts 13-28).” Yet in Acts 19 we see a great deal of attention suddenly given to the idea of evil spirits. Paul is casting out evil spirits in verse 12, and Luke immediately recounts the tale of “A group of Jews” who were “travelling from town to town casting out evil spirits” who “tried to use the name of the Lord Jesus in their incantation” to cast out the spirits.
This incident is important for us, as it the first hint we have of why the letter to the Ephesians so prominently deals with heavenly powers.
History and archaeology both have confirmed that Ephesus was a city of great magical activity – and by ‘magic’, the Bible is not referring to illusions or entertainment, but rather what we more commonly call ‘sorcery’ or ‘witchcraft’. In Ephesus, practicing magic was to harness and appropriate the power of supernatural powers, often by beseeching or forcing a demon or deity to confer their power or blessings on you. Amulets were made according to the right ritual to provide safety or provide good luck, spells were cast to change one’s “fate” or to again protect oneself form evil forces, and curses were written down and proffered to the correct deity to inflict harm or bad luck on another.
Ephesus was a hotbed of such activity, and at the top of the list of magical practitioners were the adherents to the cult of Artemis – “The most prominent and significant cult in Ephesus during the first three centuries of the Roman Empire”. This is not the Artemis known to lovers of Greek mythology, but rather a hybrid, most likely of Greek and Asian influences, and intrinsically linked to the city of Ephesus. “The people of Ephesus regarded the city’s relationship to [Artemis] in terms of a divinely directed covenant relationship.” So much was she loved that her temple would become one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World (shown right). The cult of Artemis was heavily involved in magic, as well as other mystery rites which, literally, were kept secret and are unknown to us today. Clinton E. Arnold suggests that some of the rites might be similar to those performed by those performed by other cults, such as one where “the blood of a slaughtered bull was drained through the lattices of the altar onto the neophyte below, where the strength of the beast was allegedly transferred into the limbs of the devotee.” Arnold continues, adding that “The worship of Artemis is also thought to have been orgiastic in nature, with sacred prostitution as part of the ceremony.”
And it is not wise of 21st century readers to hear of “magic” practiced in ancient days and dismiss it as superstitious nonsense or fake. There is too much historical evidence and eyewitness testimony to so blithely throw these stories out the window as false. If nothing else, we must look again to Acts 19, to the story of those Jews who attempted to use the Lord Jesus’ name in their “incantations”. That word is important, because it gives us context – these Jews were obviously already relatively successfully, for it was known that they were “casting out evil spirits.” (Acts 19:13) Their magic was in some way casting demons out of people. But when they attempted to use Jesus’ name like they would another deities’ name, they were confronted with a surprise:
“Then some of the itinerant Jewish exorcists attempted to pronounce the name of the Lord Jesus over those who had evil spirits, saying, “I command you by the Jesus that Paul preaches!” Seven sons of Sceva, a Jewish chief priest, were doing this. The evil spirit answered them, “I know Jesus, and I recognize Paul—but who are you?” Then the man who had the evil spirit leaped on them, overpowered them all, and prevailed against them, so that they ran out of that house naked and wounded.” —Acts 19:13-16
Jesus’ name was not so easily employed, and as Luke continues, when this “became known to everyone who lived in Ephesus, both Jews and Greeks … fear fell on all of them, and the name of the Lord Jesus was magnified.” (Acts 19:17) They tried to use Jesus’ name in their magic rituals the same way that they would any other deity, but because they did not know the Lord, they had not the right to use His name. These otherwise successful Jewish exorcists were turned into a laughing stock, and the cause for their failure into a story of God’s glory – which caused many who heard of this to turn to Jesus. “And many who had become believers came confessing and disclosing their practices, while many of those who had practiced magic collected their books and burned them in front of everyone. So they calculated their value and found it to be 50,000 pieces of silver.” (Acts 19:17-18)
Biblical evidence shows us not only evidence of magical and demonic activity in Ephesus – and in greater quantity than in any other city Paul visited – but it also shows us the way in which the people of Ephesus reacted to this new “magic” evoked simply by one man’s name. Paul had already been preaching for some time by the time this happened, and many residents of Ephesus began to put two and two together. Sadly, immediately after this mass conversion away from practicing magic, the worshipers of Artemis rose up, angry at what Paul’s teaching was doing to their goddess, and their businesses (read exactly what happened inActs 19:23-41).
Archaeological and historical evidence expands further on this, showing us that not only was magic a big part of the cult of Artemis, but that there were many more deities and gods worshipped in Ephesus, and many more cults practicing magic. Paul would soon leave Ephesus (Acts 20:1), and though he would later appoint Timothy to oversee the church in Ephesus (1 Timothy 1:3), the church in Ephesus would be like many other churches – flourishing, but surrounded by a vast many unbelievers.
Given this, it is no wonder then, that Paul felt the need to so blatantly remind the Ephesians – and those throughout the whole province of Asia – that God was sovereign over all, and that God had placed Jesus “in the heavens – far above every ruler and authority, power and dominion, and every title given, not only in this age but also in the one to come.” (Ephesians 1:20-21) Interestingly, according to Arnold, “Few NT scholars have referred to the Artemis cult as relevant to the background to Ephesians, much less as relevant to the teaching on the hostile ‘powers’. Most scholars quickly dismiss seeing any reference to the Artemis cult in Ephesians … This may prove to have been an erroneous assumption.” Arnold goes on to “tentatively suggest that an understanding of the cult may also give some insight into why the author emphasised the ‘powers’ in Ephesians.”
Arnold’s view has garnered much attention since he published his book in 1989, and it is easy to see why. The Ephesians were surrounded by magic, deities, and powers that were all too real. But through this all, Paul made it clear that God reigned over it all, and that His Son, Jesus, alongside whom all new believers are now seated (Ephesians 2:6), had complete and utter authority over all these “powers” that the Ephesians were witnessing.
Can we, today, say the same? Maybe we don’t see things the same way the Ephesians do – sorcery and witchcraft are surely not as evident today, and many in the west dismiss these concepts as fantasy (much to our discredit, and most certainly to Satan’s great pleasure). But are the actions of the world around us much different to that which the Ephesians encountered? How many people are worshippers of the cult of Lust and Sexual Pleasure? How many have fallen prey to the deities of Violence, Greed, and Self? The events depicted in Acts 19 remind us that the spiritual world is not so divorced from our own as we might like to imagine – and there are tens of thousands around the world who will gladly remind us that magic and the demonic is not so far away either.
Yet, like the Jewish exorcists, there is only one way to combat this old warfare. Luke is blatantly clear as he writes, it was not Paul who cast out demons or who healed the sick, but God who performed “extraordinary miracles by Paul’s hands” (Acts 19:11). As we will see when we come towards the end of Ephesians, as well, it is not by our hands, but by God’s armour that we stand against the “rulers … authorities … the world powers of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavens.” (Ephesians 6:12)
As we begin to study Ephesians, I want you to keep in mind the concern Paul must have had for his readers. He had encountered first-hand the evil at work in Ephesus, manifested through magic, and the worship of dozens of deities. Paul saw things that brought to mind the need for battle armour, which he then shared with the Ephesians as their means to defend themselves. We must not only keep this in mind as we study Ephesians, but we must keep Paul’s reaction to such things in mind as we step out into the world around us, for if Paul felt the need for spiritual armour, what more do we need to see or hear before we ourselves prick up our ears to the oncoming spiritual battle.
 W. Elliger, Ephesos: Geschicte einer antiken Weltstadt (Stuttgart: Kohlhammer, 1985)
 Strabo (14.1.24)
 C.E. Arnold, Ephesians: Power and Magic, p. 30
 R. Oster, “Ephesus as a Religious Center Under the Principate, I. Paganism Before Constantine” ANRW II.18.2 (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1990) 1661-1728
 Dictionary of Paul and his Letters, Hawthorne, Martin, Reid
 Arnold, Ephesians, p. 26-27
 ibid, p. 27