Why Being Good Doesn’t Cut It

Segovia Castle, Segovia Spain
CC BY-NC, ktran_wz, Flickr

The following poignant words belong to Dietrich Bonhoeffer from his classic, The Cost of Discipleship. He details the believer’s righteousness:

The source of the disciple’s life lies exclusively in his fellowship with Jesus Christ. He possesses his righteousness only within that association, never outside it. That is why his righteousness can never become an objective criterion to be applied at will. He is a disciple not because he possesses a new standard, but only because of Jesus Christ, the Mediator and very Son of God. That is to say, his righteousness is hidden from himself in fellowship with Jesus. He cannot, as he could once, be a detached observer of himself and judge himself, for he can only see Jesus, and be seen by Him, judged by Him, and reprieved by Him. It is not an approved standard of righteous living that separates a follower of Christ from the unbeliever, but it is Christ who stands between them.

What I hope you gather from these words is the difference between salvation and human goodness. Expounding upon this quote in my “Reflections On Evangelism,” I stated and restate here, “This is why merely good people don’t get to Heaven. Our best efforts and supreme moral good is worthless to make any difference for our salvation (Isa. 64:6)—and so is a righteousness given by God should we ever try to divorce it from Jesus. The righteousness which is from God ceases to be when we try to take credit for it. Jesus is everything in the ongoing conversion process, for even our confession is by the Holy Spirit.”

Ascending the Hill of the Lord

The rich young ruler (Matt. 19) approached Jesus with an epithet—Good Teacher—and Jesus checked him on the spot. Jesus challenged his reference to him being good, the word used conveying essential goodness or goodness by nature and only in relation to God. “Why do you speak to me in glowing, divine terms but view me as a mere mortal?” Jesus wasn’t trying to vindicate his deity but reprove the man’s flattery and high-mindedness and underscore his need for simplicity.

The more sobering aspect of Jesus’s challenge and expressed humility is the glance we get at the incredibly steep climb to God’s righteousness. God is utterly right (morally pure) and distinct from every other thing (holy); his perfection is the ground of human morality and ethics. Objective moral values exist and they proceed from the character of God.

Furthermore, only God is intrinsically good and of inherent worth. Every other thing derives its value from him. He created the cosmos and deemed it good because it, as it could only be, proceeded from his plenitude of perfect goodness.

One who says “Well I’m a good person” and claims his or her goodness to be deserving of God’s favor…his Heaven…asserts a personal righteousness that even Jesus dared not avow—and he came to fulfill the law of God. In effect, these (prideful) people argue that they have breached the high walls of God’s moral standards, satisfy a compendium of requirements for humankind, and are so entitled to his fellowship.

Really? Just like that? People approach human royalty with some trepidation; God is infinitely beyond their worth. Is there no reverence? Even the angels terrify humans! God is holy. This position makes me think of insects flying into the zapper! Good people just don’t understand their moral trespass and God’s holiness.

You see, Jesus came to tell us that there is nothing we can do about our moral shortcoming. We simply won’t scale that wall, even with our best effort. But Jesus can get to God and get us to God—and make any goodness of ours a servant of God’s holiness.

This is about spiritual transformation, not degrees of right and wrong and ticking off our moral checklists. We have a sin problem and salvation is the answer. Salvation is the flood of God’s holiness and goodness—all that we lack—surging into us, renovating us body, soul, and spirit. Mere goodness cannot achieve that.

John the Baptist

CC BY-NC, david_shankbone, Flickr
CC BY-NC, david_shankbone, Flickr

John the Baptist—the more I think of him the more I consider how his peculiar upbringing must have resembled Jesus’s.

The archangel Gabriel had detailed John’s life and purpose to his father Zechariah in the temple. John would be great and greatly used by God. Certainly Zechariah and Elizabeth were proud to know this, declared by the chief emissary of Heaven. “He will be a joy and delight to you,” Gabriel had promised.

But I wonder what became of their mood as John grew. This son of the priest bore a deep spirituality, but did it look like it was going off the rails as it evolved? Did his attitude toward Israel, fierce message of repentance, and uncustomary baptism of Jews seem radical to his parents? And were they maxed out and questioning God when John left the comfort of home for the wilderness, a preaching ascetic and possible embarrassment to his father?

I don’t know. Perhaps Zechariah had learned well from his first bout of unbelief and muteness and fully trusted despite his concerns. Furthermore, how do we respond to our relatives and acquaintances when their pattern of life or spirituality takes turns that throw our minds into tailspins? It can be scary to watch.

Everything’s Gonna Be All Right

Most of us haven’t had the assurance of an angel that our Johnny was gonna be okay. It would be great if there were a way to be certain that the people we love would turn out all right in their emotional and spiritual development. Since there isn’t, we have to do the next best things, which I will explain.

Concerns or problems do not exist in vacuums; people are involved. We must remember that dealing with potential issues is necessarily relational. We must avail ourselves to people about whom we have concerns. No one appreciates being viewed as a problem or problematic. Even mentally ill people deserve the respect of being treated as persons.

True care for people makes it easier for us to hear them, see the issue fully or discern whether there really is one, and offer our knowledge and counsel. We cannot help people we do not love.

Moreover, we must sometimes release people to discover their own way. This can be hard but none of us like hearing stories about folk hard-pressed by religious rearing who rebel. We would never want to create haters of God.

Freedom grants a person the ability to detach from all he or she knows to rummage through the piles of acquired wisdom and decide for themselves what they believe—and we should respect a person’s right to think and choose for themselves. Joshua expresses this marvelously: “But if serving the Lord seems undesirable to you, then choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served…or the gods…in whose land you are living. But as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord” (24:15).

We should not view this negatively, as though we release a person to their doom. This is to forget the providence of God. Sometimes people go through periods of questioning, conflict, or gloom like stages in birth without which we would never see the light of greatness within them. No, we never give up on others but can be certain that God will control what we cannot.

The process may not always feel good or look glamorous, but just because it doesn’t look like what we expected doesn’t mean God isn’t in it. We just have to trust him.

Now, Back to John…

We see the full picture of John the Baptist and know that he was among the greatest Hebrew prophets. He must have owned a deep spirituality and interaction with God, for he sensed a profound call and exercised astute spiritual discipline.

I can imagine that John would have been viewed as uncouth by many of his society when, in fact, he was spiritually avant-garde. But he was what he was—by some an assumed religious quack roaming the back country—because of what was inside of him. John’s process was the only way for his greatness to come forth.

John’s testimony of Jesus (John 1:29-34) is pretty revealing to me of God’s power and reality in his life. John and Jesus didn’t know one another, and John had no reason to know that Jesus was the Messiah until he baptized him. But it wasn’t merely the baptism that pointed out Christ to John; Jesus already existed in John’s pronounced spiritual aptitude. Look and ponder carefully:

I saw the Spirit come down from heaven as a dove and remain on him. And I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water told me, ‘The man on whom you see the Spirit come down and remain is the one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit’ (1:32-33).

If Zechariah and Elizabeth could have only seen how their boy turned out.

More on this topic: God, Our Contender

Morning Train

CC BY-NC, Home for Good, Flickr
The Shinkansen of Japan
CC BY-NC, Home for Good, Flickr

The number of friends and co-workers that came to see me off that morning overwhelmed me. I never figured I mattered as much. The occasion effervesced with cheer, but it was also awkward. Nobody wished to see the elephant in the room. A year of good memories collected in this final moment slowly infecting with sadness.

When the time came to move to the platform, the sadness became palpable. Some could hold their tears no longer, and I was pressed to see everyone to say goodbye. Then, the train, a bullet train, arrived, as much an interruption to its own arrival. The guys helped me load my bags.

I took my seat and gazed at my friends, refusing to take my eyes off of them. There was no guarantee that I’d ever see them again. The women wept sorely. I mouthed words and made faces, fighting my own tears. I loved these people and never had an earlier time done more to convince me of this than this moment.

I ached at their grief and finally turned my face and wept. After several minutes, the departure bell sounded and, in seconds that would wait no longer, I was whisked away to be all but standing at my destination.

Isn’t this what death is, the unbearable parting with one love for the long awaited greeting of another?

I always remember this overseas farewell scene when I ponder death. My questions about the life to come are settled, and I have no fear of death or dying, as I did when I was young. I do wonder how my end will occur. I imagine the moment to be like the shock of an off-guard punch leaving me to heave celestial winds that renew my every fiber with the life of God.

Who will be the angel that greets me? Is my journey direct? Who will be in my greeting party? How long until I stand before God? And will Christ embrace me and, in that glorious moment, make me everlastingly holy? Just some of my endless questions…

Death is often my pillow thought, but I get excited when I consider it. There is no hopeless sadness about it, and neither do I have a morbid fascination or longing to die. Instead, I will live heartily and joyfully until it is my turn to wonder no more.

Getting Faith Right

CC BY-NC, Samuraijohnny, Flickr
CC BY-NC, Samuraijohnny, Flickr

Inspiration is oftentimes gradual, but it is a gratifying moment to fully see it. Moreover, it is sometimes the negation of a subject that best instructs—“A is not ___; A is ___.” The path of discovery, in some cases, is just as great as the discovery.

I have partly learned what faith is by understanding what it is not. I know what Hebrews 11 tells about faith, but reading about faith and living it are two drastically different sides of the same coin. One is theory, the other is praxis. Our reading stands to gain immeasurable depth when we’ve had to live out principles we’ve only read about.

Hebrews 11:6 always baffled me: “And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.” I could never unconvince myself that God exists, but was this all faith required? I sensed that I was merely scratching the surface.

Thank You, Josh Groban

Josh Groban was on my radio one day crooning his very moving song Believe: “You’ll have everything you need if you just believe.” No, I retorted, first mentally then aloud. It couldn’t be true: believe what? The reaction wouldn’t subside, and a lesson on real Christian spirituality came into sharper focus.

The song verse chalked up so much that I have witnessed with some Christians that makes me shudder. Permit me to explain it in the negative. It pains me in my heart to watch Christians who see faith only as a cure to life’s ills or as a last resort in circumstance. Faith is cliché for them. All we can hope to do is pray. God is merely our way out when there is no way. Faith is a name-it-and-claim-it gimmick. Romans 8:28 is a helpful analgesic.

Please hear me: Christ spread a message that centered profoundly on his Father and a kingdom proclamation of privileged righteousness. To see him, by his own admission, was to be introduced to his Father and to understand life—God-enriched life—fully offered, the same life enjoyed eternally in the Godhead. Christian faith and holiness that embodies this message is surely not an opiate or a trite superstition that passes for spiritual gravitas.

The Groban song was but a proxy for all those I had occasioned over the years whose roots hadn’t gone this deep to know any better.

I and Thou, O Lord

The unveiling was gloriously simple: there is no magical formula, no incantation. Though faith is the “assurance of things hoped for…the conviction of things not seen,” it is never an easy-button. And before faith is any of the scriptural and theological definitions we know it by, it is FIRST relational and personal. This is what I was not seeing in Hebrews 11:6.

“Anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists.” I knew God was there, but I didn’t understand that before all the great possibilities of his power and my obedience was our relationship and that it is the touchstone to everything. He wants me more than anything he desires for me or that I desire from him, and by transformation I should more and more want him above all things. It is a living relationship that marks the division between real faith and mere magic.

“And that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.” We don’t “just believe,” apart from spiritual orientation or purpose…believing for belief’s sake. Christian faith is exclusive and incompatible with other ideological patterns of conviction. In our faith endeavors, whether the resolution we seek comes or not, God is who we desire, the very end of all our longing. He is the reward.

How to Handle a Crisis of Faith

CC BY-NC, Ross Merritt Photography, Flickr
CC BY-NC, Ross Merritt Photography, Flickr

Why does God never leave me?—that’s what I wonder sometimes. Yes, I know the answers, but sometimes it’s helpful to let yourself go there. It keeps you humble and concentrating on grace. And why is it that the more the heat has been raised in my life—whether by God’s fire of testing or my playing with sinful fire—or the more distant I once grew toward him, the more consuming were my thoughts of him?

Why did I never turn away when God felt too far to reach?

I may never understand any of it, except to know that when I would have run away, he simply wouldn’t let me go, or I, like Jacob in flight, ran smack into him any way I went.

When I lived in Indianapolis and trekked through a real spiritual wilderness, one day I was driving from my workplace and listening to a Catholic priest in a radio interview. I don’t recall the specific question he was asked, but it was something like how to explain people who question God or grow sullen in difficult times. I perked up. His response still resonates with me.

He stressed that people who wrestle with their faith often do so not to distance themselves from God, but to reach for him. I understood exactly what he meant. Hopefully that includes being angry at God, too. I once viewed anger at God as a terrible thing (who would dare!) until I got angry with him.

What I’ve learned is that anger and stressed faith will happen and is sometimes necessary in our process. The heart that truly loves God, however, does not shake its fist at him but strains to comprehend his will, to see in the dark. What may look like a fight with God to others (and sometimes to us) is but a fit of frustration to know him better. For me, I realized how ingrained faith was in my soul. Quitting God was no option.

“Whom have I in heaven but you? And there is none upon earth I desire besides you. My heart and flesh fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever. ” Psalms 73:25-26

After going through the ho-hums long enough, we gain insight. We learn to discern God’s designs for something foremost within us rather than any external conditions we need solved, although God works in our affairs, too. We also learn to measure the degree of our frustration. We may have our “moments” and get low on faith and stray and crave sin and smolder, but we do so with our faith mostly intact. We can only imagine what it would be like tackling life without God or the Holy Spirit’s restraint.

I’ve learned to latch onto this faith ride. I once had the notion that I could simply abandon myself to faith, as if setting a dial to make sure I remain in a proper state of heart. But now I realize that I cannot store faith and that God designs our process to deal with our specific inner needs. It is not possible to be passive in our own making. The heat that God brings into our lives is there to make us move! So faith is not a dial I can set but a wheel I must steer on my journey.

Not to be contradictory, I’ve learned to retain just enough indifference for it all not to matter so much. Don’t let that surprise you and if it does, stay on the journey—it’ll make sense soon enough. But take it all in stride. This is letting the top down to enjoy the sun and breeze and taking in the view, allowing God to care about the terrain we must travel.

The Golden Rule: “Mirror, Mirror…”

CC BY-NC, Joanna Paterson, Flickr
CC BY-NC, Joanna Paterson, Flickr

“So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you.” (Matt. 7:12)

The Prescription: Expect to be treated to the degree people perceive the respect you grant yourself.

How you treat yourself is a message to others of how they may treat you. It is a circular process that teaches us how to love and esteem ourselves highly.

When we are excellent in our own matters and affairs—like our health, attitude, and finances—we tend to become empathetic persons preferring one another’s well-being and dignity because we have, in effect, dignified ourselves. Our relationships improve also because our own lives have done just that as we’ve sorted out the kinks in our character. The obverse is that we will not treat others how we don’t want to be treated.

The Description: Our general manner toward others explains how we view ourselves.

People that truly love themselves and seek happiness and enrichment approach others hoping to connect with like quality. Those who belittle themselves are negative, distrustful of others, and hard-pressed to find any good in people.

Do you think I’ve overdone explaining this Rule? But we definitely act this way toward people we consider our superiors, perhaps for a prestige, title, or wealth. We do so because we feel there is something in it for us, not because we truly care. The deep insight of the Golden Rule is that therein we all become dignitaries, not for possessions but self-worth.

The lesson here is more than one of mere courtesy. It is a philosophy of self-respect that raises the quality of our lives and enhances the relations we share. Thus, we discover a social approach firmly rooted in personal integrity of character.

The Day I Was Doomed to Hell

CC BY-NC, Beau Ramsey, Flickr
CC BY-NC, Beau Ramsey, Flickr

A little old lady regularly shopped the drugstore where I once worked. She always had a smile and a joke. Sometimes she would be nicely dressed and on her way to church, and she dutifully extended to me an invitation to visit.  I made her a promise, indicating that I’d let her know when I was coming. I kept it on the back burner until it was simply time to make good on it.

I like visiting other churches. I like to see what community in other parts of the “family” looks like. Of course, there is the awkwardness of being the newbie anywhere, but that’s easily remedied by welcoming folk. I hoped for such people this time because I knew everything about me and this place was different, except Jesus. Still, I’ve preached a little everywhere, so acculturation was not difficult for me.

I went to the Sunday evening service. The little white church on the hill was quaint and about as dated as its congregation. Still, the people were very nice and cordial. I truly felt welcomed. I sat alone since my customer showed up just after the service began. Then it came time for the sermon. The minister, a senior but sprite man, ushered me into the most humiliating church experience I have ever had.

Somewhere after his intro, he started into a diatribe about this denomination, why it was right and why outsiders (like me) were on their way to hell. He taught and clarified, railed and complained, preached and evangelized straight dogma. I honestly wondered if this was what he had prepared for the people that evening because everyone else there, members of the church for years, certainly knew the script. I was the only guest present.

At times I nearly melted to the floor since it was evident that he was using the moment to give the visitor ‘a learning’ about why he didn’t have good religion. Then, I’d feel anger at his manner and entrenched ignorance. Everything he would say would cause something I learned in seminary to race to my wounds like white blood cells staving off infection. All that was left for him to do was point and say in a booming voice, “YOU, SIR!” and interrogate me on the spot.

What’s Your Motivation?

Why do we do this kind of stuff? I mean, at church, in our personal conversations, right here in the blogosphere? We regularly waste time arguing, criticizing, and lambasting others when we could be demonstrating the love of Christ to people who are hurting and conspiring good works that edify. Being factional is harmful; being right is counterproductive; making heretics out of people who only peeve us is not Christlike.

Behavior like this brings us into the condemnation of the ungodly minister described by Jude. In just 25 verses, Jude delivers a vivid, scathing criticism of false leaders that reads like an Old Testament prophet. He describes their glibness and failure to be conscientious in their speech and to weigh their words and actions. Jude skillfully references the fable of Michael the archangel refusing to be disputatious with Satan over Moses’s body.

And my point, using Jude’s illustration, is that if even an archangel wouldn’t allow himself to become reproachful of Satan out of respect for the Lord but opted to leave the matter with God, how do we cavalierly denounce our Christian brothers and sisters? Our methods may not please the Lord.

There are ways to deal with true spiritually destructive problems, but it seems that most of our squabbles result of our own pride. Let us not take the low road. We dishonor God and wreck the church in the process.

A Survey of Ephesus, Paul and Timothy’s Field

CC BY-NC, B Evershed, Flickr
CC BY-NC, B Evershed, Flickr

The following was originally an academic paper. I encourage you to incorporate this rich information in your study of Acts, Ephesians, 1&2 Timothy, and the Johannine writings. It is longer than most posts you read, but it won’t disappointpromise!

The apostle Paul assigned his young protégé Timothy to Ephesus to oversee the affairs of the church there (1 Tim. 1:3). Paul was aware of threats opposing the gospel, and he sent Timothy to fight against an onslaught of heretical teachings. His primary concern was that Timothy guard the church by maintaining the truth of God’s word. He was to do this by carefully concentrating on its internal affairs.

Throughout the Pastoral Epistles (1&2 Timothy, Titus), Paul affirms the church’s presence in a spiritually dark world. If Timothy’s war within the church was difficult, the thought of confronting the sin and mindset outside the church was more daunting. Paul himself had spent three years in Ephesus (Acts 20:31) and knew that the spiritual climate there was rife with paganism, immorality, and relativism. This was the field of evangelism for the Ephesus church.

City of Culture and Pleasure

In the mid-first century, when Paul and Timothy ministered, Ephesus was the first and greatest metropolis of the Roman province Asia Minor. Little is known about its exact origin or the origin of its name. Grave relics place the founding of the city between 1400 B.C. and 1300 B.C. The story of Ephesus’ founding is legendary, its roots being traced back to the mythical Amazons, a race of female warriors. The city grew to become the premiere commercial, political, and religious center of Western Asia. The population ultimately rose to 250,000 by the third century, placing it third in size in the Roman Empire behind Rome (800,000 to 1 million) and Alexandria (300,000).

Ephesus was located on the western coast of Asia Minor on the Aegean Sea, and, as a leading seaport and the resulting trade, it swelled into a cosmopolitan metropolis. The city was the capital of the slave trade—the backbone of the Roman economy—from 100 B.C. to A.D. 100. The slave trade made Ephesus wealthy.

The city was also the meeting place for ideas from both the Eastern and Western cultural traditions of the empire. The scholarship of Ephesus was vast. Richard Oster and Markus Barth say, “It was well-known for its philosophers, artists, poets, historians, and rhetoricians. Ephesus made distinctive contributions to intellectual and religious history from the pre-Socratic period down to the philosophical revivals of the later Roman Empire.”

Ephesus was a city of culture where the people were distinguished by their amiableness, refinement of manners, luxury, music and dancing, and seductive arts that lead to vicious indulgences. The city hosted numerous festivals that attracted participants from other cities. Additionally, there was located there the world-renown Temple of Artemis, the library of Celsus, a 25,000-seat theater, temples dedicated to deities and cults, and numerous gymnasia and baths.

At the city’s center was the agora, or marketplace, a rectangular area 360 feet long surrounded by pillared halls, shops, and rooms. A sun and water clock was set in the open space. This environment entertained a multitude of hedonistic pleasures and philosophical ideologies that served to corrupt the moral consciences of the people.

Paul and Timothy’s Challenge

The ministry of Timothy and the Ephesian church cannot be perceived as anything other than doubly difficult. Paul and Timothy fought a battle on two fronts. One was definitely outside the church but the other was inside. Paul writes the two epistles to Timothy because he was well aware of the trouble Timothy faced at Ephesus having Judaism-loyal Jews right within the church (Acts 20:19).

Persecution by the Jews was prevalent at the time as well. Kenneth Scott Latourette says, “At the outset…the main persecutors of the Christians were those who held to Judaism and were antagonized by the fashion in which what superficially appeared to be a sect of Judaism was undermining institutions and convictions cherished by that religion.” This persecution was fueled by the church’s success in converting Jews and did not dissipate until there was further separation between the two religions.

O.P. and Barbara Reid provide an image of Paul and Timothy’s ministry in Ephesus. They explain that it is generally an unquestioned assumption that Paul was everywhere successful in ministry. Yet he must have found Ephesus challenging. Any success that he did have was most probably among ethnic Jews rather than the pagans of Ephesus.

Religious Relativism

What did the spiritual landscape look like then? Ephesus was home to the flagrant worship of more than seventeen deities and other cults. Dr. James Jackson explains what made this so difficult for the Ephesian church and other churches like it. He says that most pagan religions in Ephesus were either Greek or Roman, and Greco-Roman religion was without dogma. Any practicing priest at that time functioning in such a polytheistic setting would never make a claim to a unique validity of one set of rites or beliefs.

In addition, there was no religious prosecution. Just as there was no dogma, there would have been no need for heretics or martyrs. Religion was personal and unorganized, and there was no thought of denying the cults of other gods. The Greco-Romans viewed foreign gods as being like their own gods, although with other names. It would have been ill-mannered for one to assert the supremacy of his god above a neighbor’s “false” god. Such religious relativism provided the seedbed for a niche teeming with myriad forms of religion, cult, and superstition.

Artemis and Her Worship

The greatest of the Ephesian deities was undeniably Artemis Ephesia (of the Ephesians). She was first identified with the Anatolian mother goddess Cybele who was worshiped prior to the arrival of the Greeks in Anatolia (modern-day Turkey). Her worship was great, being called by Eugene Peterson “a pastiche of stories, superstitions, and systems of thought endemic to the ancient East that served Ephesus’ religious need.”

Artemis (Diana, her Roman name) functioned mainly as a city or local goddess, like most other gods and goddesses of the time. She undoubtedly contributed to the high feminism of the city, after all, a city founded by female warriors. Artemis served to protect (as a tutelary goddess) the safety and wealth of the people and their social institutions of justice and democracy. The wealth and security of Ephesus so attested to the power of Artemis Ephesia that other cities adopted her as their goddess. In fact, artifacts from her cult have been found as far east in the empire as Palestine and as far west as Spain.

Ephesus was the site of the world-famous Artemision, or Temple of Artemis, deemed one of the Seven Wonders of the ancient world. It was the largest Greek temple in antiquity, and the apostle Paul and Timothy would have seen it regularly. It was constructed on a huge concrete platform 238′ x 418′ (l) upon which sat the marble temple itself, 163′ x 342′. The roof was supported by 127 Ionic columns six feet in diameter and an astonishing sixty feet high. It is believed that the women of Ephesus sold their jewelry to help fund the project and that kings presented gold and furnishings to the temple. In 356 B.C., however, it was burned to the ground by an arsonist leaving only the four walls and a few columns. It was later rebuilt (completed in 323 B.C.) to match the splendor it had previously known.

The Artemision was Ephesus’ symbol of wealth. It served as a safe deposit of people’s personal wealth and offered loans to the public at a profitable rate of interest. The temple also boasted its own band of priests who were automatically and simultaneously officials of Ephesus and the sanctuary. Their job, however, was accompanied with ceremonial prostitution and other indecencies streaming forth from the temple center.

Artemis was depicted by an idol that supposedly fell from heaven. The upper part of the image’s front body was covered with rows of what appeared to be breasts that labeled Artemis as a fertility goddess, although this is uncertain. Coins that have been found bear this image of her, and it is with regard to this that Paul experienced the frenzied loyalty with which the Ephesians protected their goddess. Acts 19:23-41 is called the “revolt of the silversmiths” passage and refers to the trade derived from Artemis. Paul’s troubles come when silversmiths become alarmed that their trade is being diminished on account of the apostle’s preaching.

Other Deities of the Ephesians

Artemis was the main deity of Ephesus, yet there were a few other notable gods and goddesses there as well. Aphrodite (Venus) was the goddess of love. She was associated with phallic mysteries that usually resulted in the loss of virginity. Prostitution was common in her cult, including festivals honoring prostitutes and sacred prostitution. She was also celebrated as the goddess of hermaphrodites. In fact, there were several divinities that symbolized Aphrodite’s powers and were revered together. These included Eros (Love), Himeros (Longing), Posthos (Desire), Peithos (Persuasion), and the Horai (Seasons, Youths, Beauties). The personifications together contribute to a picture of erotic seduction all around Aphrodite.

Apollo, the Sun god, was the most famous and celebrated of all the Greek gods. Prophetic powers were associated with him, and his oracle at Delphi was world-renown for the counsel it produced on commercial ventures and political issues. Apollo represented order and discourse. Dionysus was Apollo’s opposite. Dionysus (Bacchus) was the god of lust and debauchery. His worship was associated with great festivals of wine, wild dancing and music, ecstatic revelry, and orgiastic excess, all too common in Ephesus.

Cabiri, a Phrygian god, was another ecstatic religion that had its roots in the primitive religion of the mother goddess from whom derived Artemis. It was also orgiastic in nature and involved scandalous obscenities. The cult of Asclepius was known for its miraculous powers of healing. As the Christian message of Jesus’s miraculous healings spread, his virtues were paralleled with the powers and wonders of Asclepius.

Other gods and goddesses worshipped in Ephesus included: Zeus (king of the gods and god of the sky), Gaea (goddess of earth), Hestia (Vesta, goddess of the hearth), Hecate (goddess of horror, witchcraft, and darkness), Hephaestus (Vulcan, god of destructive fire), Athena (Minerva, goddess of war), Demeter (Ceres, goddess of harvest and fertility); and the Egyptian gods and goddesses: Serapis (wonder-worker and protector), Anubis (Anpu, god of the dead), and Isis (goddess of family and motherhood). The Egyptian gods arrived in Asia Minor with Egypt’s merchant and military presence.

Then, there was always the imperial cult of Caesar and hero veneration. Hero veneration happened in Greek cities when certain individuals were worshiped for reasons that might have included benefactions, miraculous interventions, extraordinary civic or political contributions, or unique roles in the founding and history of the city.

This was Timothy’s field.

The city of Ephesus was a bastion of paganism, magic, and religious tolerance. The people gave themselves over to pleasures, revelry, and unimaginable sexual grossness. The authoritative words of Paul were challenged at every point, and even demon counterfeits seemed to rival any true spiritual manifestation of the Spirit. Timothy had to refute damnable teachings within the church, then look into the culture and preach the exclusivity of an inclusive God and kingdom. How was he to bear the task?

A Gospel Legacy

It is proper to think of the ministry of the Ephesian church as difficult but not impossible. The words of Paul to the Ephesian church the last time he would ever see them are befitting:

Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which he purchased with his own blood. I know that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves men will arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after them. Therefore be on alert remembering that night and day for a period of three years I did not cease to admonish each one with tears. And now I commend you to God and to the word of his grace, which is able to build you up and to give you the inheritance among all those who are sanctified (Acts 20:28-32).

Paul knew that after his departure teachers would attack the fledgling church from all directions. Any other person looking at the situation might have questioned the survival of the church. Nonetheless, Paul trusted the power of the grace of God, and it is with those hallmark words, that benedictory blessing, that he could count on the survival of God’s work in Ephesus.

Timothy’s Death

John Foxe, in his Book of Martyrs, relates that Timothy died in Ephesus in A.D. 97 at the hands of pagans celebrating the Feast of Catagogion. This feast was held annually in Ephesus on January 22. Men would run about the streets in a frenzy dressed in outrageous costumes with clubs in-hand carrying images of their gods. They would rape women they encountered and beat or kill the men. Foxe says that Timothy met the procession and rebuked them for their “ridiculous idolatry” so enraging them that they beat him severely with their clubs. He died two days later of his wounds.