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An Exile from Ephesus
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As we dive deeper into our series on the seven churches of Revelation this week, we begin with a look at the church in Ephesus, which is the first major city a messenger would have come to in taking John’s written Revelation from Patmos. Ephesus was the leading city in Asia Minor in the first century with an estimated population of about 250,000 and was the center for both the worship of the Greco-Roman goddess Artemis (Diana)–goddess of fertility, magic, and astrology–as well as the worship rites of the cult of the Emperor, which became a kind of litmus test for Roman loyalty. Ephesus was a kind of crossroads for ideas in the Roman world, which is why some significant scenes in the New Testament take place there.


I had the chance to travel to Ephesus in 2009 and to offer an impromptu sermon/lecture to our tour group on Paul’s ministry in the city. You can view a video of that sermon here:



Ephesus is an impressive archaeological site and I hope to get back there one day to spend some more time. When you stand in the ruins of the huge theater that seated some 25,000 people, you can almost hear the crowds still shouting, “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!” as Paul chomped at the bit to preach to them about Jesus.


screen shot 2022 01 12 at 12.15.24 pmPaul’s ministry in Ephesus bore fruit and by the time you get to Acts 20, Paul is saying goodbye to the “elders of the church” as he leaves for Jerusalem and the trials that await him there. Christianity left a major footprint on this city, and John realized it was an important and leading church as he wrote down his Revelation from Jesus. Tradition says that John settled in Ephesus along with Mary the mother of Jesus sometime in the early 60s AD (remember that Jesus had given John charge of caring for his mother from the cross as related in John 19:26-27). Using Ephesus as a base, John itraveled around to some of the churches mentioned in Revelation 2 and 3. He was eventually exiled to the island of Patmos because of his preaching and church leadership (likely during the reign of the Emperor Domitian) where he wrote Revelation.


screen shot 2022 01 12 at 12.15.37 pmWhen I was growing up, I assumed, like many Christians, that Patmos was a isolated and unihabited rock in the middle of the Mediterranean where John had to live in a cave like a hermit (think old Luke Skywalker in the last Star Wars trilogy). But the reality is that Patmos was indeed inhabited and was actually an important military and religious site for the Roman empire. It guarded the naval route toward the city of Miletus on the coast of Asia Minor (present day Turkey) some 37 miles away. The islands of the Sporades, of which Patmos is a part, were so frequently used by Domitian to exile political opponents and suspected troublemakers that the contemporary Roman satirist Juveal referred to them as “rocks crowded with our noble exiles.”


Some traditions say that John returned to Ephesus after his exile was lifted, likely by the Emperor Nerva who reversed many of Domitian’s orders when he came to power in 96 AD after Domitian’s assassination. In his last years in Ephesus, John wrote his Gospel and, in his will, indicated that he wanted to be buried near the city.


Of course, much of that is from later tradition, some from the early church father Irenaeus who studied under Polycarp who in turn had studied under John the Apostle while he lived in Ephesus. Still, it makes for a plausible unfolding of events. Clearly, John had some connection to Ephesus and it was there that his Revelation first lands on its way from his pen on Patmos. You get the sense in reading the message to Ephesus and the others that, while John is speaking for Jesus, he has his own emotional investment in these churches.


In a time where “going to church” is seen by many as a kind of consumer exercise, as a place where one can access religious goods and services, John’s investment in these churches is striking. He is prevented from being with them and it hurts.  “I, John, your brother who share with you in Jesus the persecution and the kingdom and the patient endurance, was on the island called Patmos because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus,” he writes in Revelation 1:9. He is a shut-in (a shut out?), isolating from his church family, prevented from seeing them by a pandemic of persecution and government-ordered exile.


We’ll be talking about other aspects of the sermon to Ephesus on Sunday, but I wonder if John’s pain of separation speaks to us in our own time, when we’re struggling with how to maintain connection. John recognizes that sending a scroll is no substitute for real community, and neither is a Zoom call or a live-stream. Yes, we still need to do those things for a while, but my prayer is that when our COVID exile is finally lifted, we will have the same passion as John for getting back to community; that our “patient endurance” will pay off in a deeper sense of connection with one another as we gather for worship, sacrament, and fellowship.


I hope you’ll join us Sunday  as we hear Jesus’ word to the church through the Spirit and through John, the exile from Ephesus.

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