A WONDER OF THE WORLD
John W. Cowart
As soon as the ship docked at the stone wharf, sailors leaped from its deck and raced toward the temple.
As soon as the caravan master collected his money for the silks, spices and ivory of the Orient, he secreted his purse deep in his robes and turned his camel toward the temple.
As soon as the thief heard the hue and cry raised by his victim's relatives, he snatched up his loot and dashed to the temple.
Both the woman who wanted a baby but feared she was barren and the pregnant woman who was afraid of the rigors of childbirth and who wanted a safe delivery went to the temple to seek the favor of the goddess.
When any sincere worshiper felt a craving for contact with the Eternal, he too turned toward the temple of Diana of the Ephesians.
All these people visited the temple for different reasons: the sailors came because the temple was a brothel and the grounds were surrounded with palatial outbuildings for temple girls of different prices. Every female devotee of Diana (the Roman name for the goddess Artemis) served two years as a prostitute in the temple precincts with most of her earnings going into the temple treasury. The cult of Artemis taught that by profane intercourse the worshiper insured the increase of financial prosperity, and it certainly worked -- at least for the temple treasury.
The temple treasury acted as a bank and financial clearing house for traders from all over the Roman empire. In the vaults of the temple their money was safely protected from thieves by an elite corps of guards as well as by the universally recognized taboo against the robbery of a sacred place. Since one of the major caravan routes from Cappadocia and the Orient found its western terminus at Ephesus and since Ephesus was the greatest harbor in Asia where hundreds of ships docked to discharge the goods of Rome and to load cargoes from the East, the bank in the temple of Artemis naturally controlled the finances for that part of the world.
The thief rushed to the temple because the temple grounds offered refuge.
No matter how heinous a crime, if the criminal escaped to the sanctuary then he would not be punished. he was offered asylum and was safe from reprisals by his victims or their kinsmen.
Besides degenerates, merchants and thieves the temple area thronged with devout worshipers and tourists. It was an incredible sight to see. One of the seven wonders of the ancient world, the temple at Ephesus was four times larger than the famous Parthenon in Athens. The Alexandrian architect Dinocrates designed the 10,000 square-foot building. He surrounded the temple with tiers of 127 marble columns over 60 feet tall supporting a roof of gleaming white tiles. Each of the pillars in the arcade had been dedicated to Artemis by a different king and each ruler had tried to outdo the others with the lavishness of his gift. Gold leaf gilded some of the reliefs which depicted scenes from the lives of the gods and goddesses.
Inside the temple, Praxiteles, one of the greatest Greek sculptors, carved the high altar for the image of the goddess.
A sharp contrast existed between the graceful Grecian altar and the harsh, grotesque statue of the idol. The female figure stood in the place of honor with its arms outstretched. Legend claimed this figure of Artemis (possibly a meteorite) fell from heaven. Gold, silver, and ebony overlaid the black stone of the image. An elaborate headdress crowned her, and her multiple rows of breasts rivaled any Playboy bunny's both in size and number -- about 50 breasts circled her body!
The goddess Artemis resembled a sow and hogs were sometimes offered as sacrifices on her altar.
The idol stood on an intricately carved pedestal covered with cryptic inscriptions of various prayers and magic incantations. The priests copied these inscriptions on parchments and medallions, selling them as charms to ward off disease, demons and bad luck. Archaeologists have recovered copies of these magic formulas, known as "Ephesian Letters". When the Ephesian Christians burned their books of astrology and black magic, the fire probably included some of these charms.
Like most sex goddesses, Artemis was a bit vain and one of the ways worshipers honored her was to present her with little replicas of herself enshrined on a canopied throne.
Craftsmen molded these statuettes from gold, silver, marble or terra cotta depending on how much the worshiper wanted to pay. Ancient records show that some of the gold shrines weighed as much as seven pounds each. During the annual festival of Artemis on the 13th of March, devotees paraded these shrines through the city before returning them to the temple. As the parade passed by, accompanied with wild music from drums, flutes and tambourines, the populace celebrated with a frenzied orgy in the streets.
In addition to the shrines presented to the temple, the craftsmen made replicas of the idol for tourists to take home with them to set up as worship centers in their homes; thus shrine making was a major industry in Ephesus.
When many people began to turn to Christ under the ministry of Paul, the idol makers, led by a silversmith named Demetrius, held a meeting which erupted into a riot with thousands of people chanting "Great is Diana of the Ephesians" (Acts 19:23-41).
Their temple with its idol was a wonder of the world and they wanted to keep it that way.
Even without the temple as an attraction, Ephesus existed as a great commercial city because of its location. It lay on the left bank of the Cayster River -- straight across the Aegean Sea from Athens and Corinth -- in what is present-day turkey. The mouth of the Cayster formed the best natural harbor in the eastern Mediterranean. Since ships of the First Century hugged the coast as much as possible in their voyages from Rome to Egypt, many ships anchored at Ephesus even when bound for other ports.
The valley of the Cayster River cuts a finger extending steeply inland through the coastal mountains so the caravan route followed the valley down to the sea. The treasures of the Orient poured into Ephesus.
Camels plodded to the wharfs bearing bolts of silk, fine linen, and purple cloth; cases of cinnamon, pepper and incense; caskets filled with exotic perfumes, cosmetics and pearls from the Persian Gulf. At the docks, crews of slaves loaded the cargoes: cages of wild animals for the arenas, baskets of fine-ground flour, elegant amphorae of spiced wines. Taskmasters prodded herds of slaves, goats, cattle and sheep across the decks and into the crowded holes of the ships. The bazaars of Ephesus teemed with every sort of merchandise from iron ore and peacocks to alabaster vases and slaves, the very souls of men.
Ephesus boasted other attractions besides the temple and the port; the city played host to the Pan-Ionic games in an arena where athletes, charioteers and gladiators did combat. In writing to the Corinthians, the Apostle Paul mentions that he once "fought with beasts at Ephesus" (I Cor. 15:32).
Ephesus thrived in other areas of culture too. Public baths, schools of philosophy, gymnasiums and theaters where mask-covered actors presented the plays of classic play writers filled the city.
Of course, not everything was shining gold or polished marble.
Most of the cultural aspects of the city did not touch the life of the ordinary working man. Most of the inhabitants were slaves laboring at the docks or in the warehouses. Slaves were marked by filthiness, degradation and poverty.
Since Ephesus lay in a low area beside the river, epidemic disease threatened daily. Malaria, encephalitis, small pox and other plagues decimated the city periodically. A huge percentage of mothers died in childbirth, and the infant mortality rate was high. Few effective medicines existed; wine served as the major pain killer.
Ephesus was a wonder of the world with monumental gateways, sparkling fountains, fairyland palaces, financial prosperity, but terrible human misery.
In Christian times the spiritual heritage of Ephesus surpassed its physical prosperity.
A Christian community grew in Ephesus even before the arrival of St. Paul, and he ministered here longer than in any other city visited during his missionary journeys. Here Apollos was converted through the witness of Aquila and his wife. Here the Holy Spirit worked extraordinary miracles to confront the reign of demons over the city (See Acts 18 and 19).
Since Paul and the Christians were so successful in healing the sick and casting out demons, some of the local Ephesian exorcists attempted to use the name of Christ in the same way they used their magical incantations.
Their experiment failed; the man who was possessed by the demon attacked them and chased them out of his house naked!
Ephesus holds a unique place in the history of Bible transmission. Paul wrote many of his letters while working in Ephesus. When he left to continue his evangelism, he appointed Timothy to remain as leader of the church (I Tim. 1:3). Mark assisted Timothy and may have written his gospel while in Ephesus (II Tim. 4:11).
After Timothy and Mark joined Paul in Rome, the Apostle John became leader of the church in Ephesus. There is a strong tradition that at Ephesus John cared for the Virgin Mary during her last years on earth and that here he wrote his gospel and three epistles. It was from Ephesus that John was exiled to the Isle of Patmos where he wrote the last book of the Bible, Revelation.
During the times of persecution, Ignatius called Ephesus "The highway of Martyrs" -- the route for God's victims -- because so many Christians passed through the port as slaves or as victims for the arenas. Because the Ephesian church was known for its staunch orthodoxy, several early ecumenical councils met here.
There is an ancient legend called "The Seven Sleepers of of Ephesus":
According to this tale, during the persecution of Decius (A.D. 250), seven young Christians fled from their tormentors and hid in a cave. The persecutors searched until they found the Christians' hiding place. Instead of trying to drag the believers out, the pagans buried the Christians alive by sealing the mouth of the cave.
Two hundred years passed.
The Ephesian church faced a new crisis from another ruler and by accident the cave was opened and the young men were found not dead but asleep. They were taken before Thedosius II where they awoke, reaffirmed their faith in Christ, then peacefully died.
Although this is only a legend, it presents an interesting thought: what if a citizen of ancient Ephesus were revived and visited our homes today?
He would surely be amazed.
Although his city featured one of the wonders of the world, he would be flabbergasted at the wonders that are part of our daily lives. He would gladly trade his bronze razor, chariot and two-thirds interest in the temple for a single sharp non-snagging modern razor blade.
He'd marvel that families don't live in constant fear of small pox, malaria and other plagues as the Ephesians did; that an old 1976 ford runs faster and farther than the finest Ephesian chariot; that supermarkets feature epicurean foods year-round; and that weekly TV reruns offer a greater variety of spectacles than the theater of Ephesus did in a year.
If the revived Ephesian were a Christian, he'd probably be even more amazed at our spiritual opportunities: no organized persecution, open churches within walking distance of our homes, thirty different Bible translations, great preachers and teachers available by turning a dial, plus Christian tracts, movies, concerts, plays, books and magazines.
Even with these many differences, however, the Ephesian Christian would find one very important -- but tragic --similarity between himself and the modern-day believer:
In Revelation 2:1-7, in his personal letter addressed to the ancient Ephesian church, the risen Christ praises them for their toil, orthodoxy, and endurance. He has only one rebuke for them -- and for us.
In the familiar passage Christ says, "You have left your first love."
At one time in your life you felt very close to Christ, so close that you honestly intended to devote your entire life to him. Some of us even become professional Christians but get so caught up in the doing of tasks that we lose sight of the love that motivated us in the first place.
The Ephesians had this same trouble; and in Revelation, Christ points out the remedy for them -- and for us.
His first command for recovery is "Remember the height from which you have fallen!"
That is, remember how the relationship used to be between you and the Lord. Remember how you used to wake up early, anxious to spend time alone with him. Remember the enthusiasm and love you had to share the Good News with others. Remember how older Christians used to dampen your enthusiasm saying, "When you're more experienced, you'll outgrow it."
And you said, "Never."
But you did.
Christ says, "Remember."
Then he says, "Repent..."
It does no good to fondly remember how sweet it used to be unless you take steps to recover what you're missing. Sticky spiritual nostalgia is useless unless you repent and turn back to recover your lost love. The world is full of people who complain, "Back when I was first converted..." Or, "When Brother So-and-So was pastor..." Or, "When I was on the field..." Unless you intend to join spiritual bores wallowing in memories, you must turn back to regain your lost love.
If your love is worth remembering and its loss worth repenting, then it is worth repeating. That's what Jesus continues to say, "Remember... Repent and do the things you did at first."
Love is always connected to a call to obedience. "If a man love me, he will keep my words... he that loveth me not keepeth not my sayings..."
When we lose sight of how much Christ has forgiven us then we lose our love for him. Unless we realize the extent of our sin and how freely he forgives us and what he went through to offer us that forgiveness, then we are not likely to love him much.
Despite Ephesus's metropolitan influence during biblical times, like other civilizations, it virtually disappeared from history until discovered under 20 feet of dirt in 1869 by J.T. Wood, an English archaeologist.
Because the city was built at the edge of the river, the surrounding area was low and boggy; over the years the river washed so much silt down from the mountains that today the coast has built up until the ruins of Ephesus lie seven miles from the sea it once bordered. Where the shining temple once stood is now a marsh inhabited by frogs, snakes and millions of mosquitoes. Where once thrived one of the mightiest churches of the day, there now virtually no Christians.
As Christ warned, the church at Ephesus lost her first love -- and died. Isn't that a wonder?
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