We read about the Lord’s church in the city of Ephesus in three different New Testament books: Acts, Ephesians, and Revelation. When we examine some basic facts about the church in Ephesus, there are a number of lessons for us to learn from her history and happenings.
The church in Ephesus had a beginning. The details of its establishment are not recorded in the Bible. Paul briefly visited and preached in the city with Aquila and Priscilla near the close of his second-recorded preaching trip, but no conversions are mentioned at that time (Acts 18:18-22). Apollos came there to preach, and when he departed from Ephesus, “the brethren” in Ephesus wrote a letter on his behalf (Acts 18:27). So, there were “brethren” there at that time, though none are named except Priscilla and Aquila. All of that took place before Paul went there and immersed about twelve men (Acts 19:1-7). Lesson: It does not matter which faithful servants of the Lord start a new congregation. It takes the preaching of the gospel and hard work to get it accomplished (Romans 10:13-17), but emphasis should be on the message and commitment to the Lord, not the messenger(s).
The church in Ephesus had elders. Paul met with them, reminding them of their obligations to the flock of God (Acts 20:17-38). Lesson: It is the Lord’s will for every congregation to have faithful brothers serving as pastors (Acts 14:23). Any local church that currently does not have elders ought to be working diligently toward the goal of having qualified shepherds watching and ruling over it as soon as possible. Such is God’s plan for His church.
The church in Ephesus received a letter from the apostle Paul. Written from a Roman prison in 62/63 A.D., we call it “The Book of Ephesians.” In this epistle, there is no mention of specific moral or doctrinal issues plaguing the congregation at that time. Lesson: What a blessing it was to receive an inspired message from the God of heaven! However, such a wonderful revelation could benefit its recipients only if they would accept and apply it in their lives. The same is true of us today. Also, though the affairs of the church seemed to be “in order” when Paul wrote the Ephesians epistle, that scenario was no guarantee of her future faithfulness.
The church in Ephesus had some outstanding gospel preachers work with it. Paul preached in Ephesus for three years (Acts 20:31), and Timothy labored there for a period of time as well (1 Timothy 1:3). What a blessing it was to the saints to have faithful evangelists labor among them! Lesson: When it comes to the efforts of God’s faithful servants, He wants His people “to esteem them very highly in love for their work’s sake” (1 Thessalonians 5:13). Let us remember, though, that having a sound gospel preacher (or more than one) does not guarantee that the members will grow or that no false teaching can creep in. Having a sound evangelist is a blessing, but he is not the Savior, nor can he force people to love and live the truth. The later, sad developments in the congregation at Ephesus remind us of this truth.
The church in Ephesus was attacked by wolves. Not literal animals, but false messengers who come in sheep’s clothing, though inwardly they are as ravenous wolves (Matthew 7:15). Paul warned the elders from Ephesus with these words, “For I know this, that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock. Also from among yourselves men will rise up, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after themselves” (Acts 20:29,30). What a tragedy that at least some of the destruction to the congregation in Ephesus came from her own elders! Lesson: Every local church needs to be on guard against false teaching. The only way to do this is to be grounded well in God’s word (Acts 20:32), then maintain a love for His truth above everything else.
The church in Ephesus left its first love. Hear what Jesus told them: “Nevertheless I have this against you, that you have left your first love” (Revelation 2:4). The Christ implored the Ephesian church members, “Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent and do the first works . . .” (2:5). Lesson: It is possible for both individual saints and entire congregations to depart from the faith (1 Timothy 4:1). We always must be on guard against such be ready to work fervently to win back those who have lost their way (James 5:19,20).
The church in Ephesus had a good beginning, had elders, enjoyed the help of faithful evangelists, and received at least two inspired letters to guide and strengthen her. Yet, she struggled and died. Are we listening? Let us learn well from her history.
— Roger D. Campbell