I haven’t written for awhile because I took a small sabbatical. I needed to know I was writing not for me or for you, but for Him. I had become… uncertain, and it took some time to work through.
In 62 AD, some 30 years after Christ was crucified and rose again Paul wrote a letter, while whittling away time in his Roman prison cell, to the church at Ephesus, a city he’d lived in some number of years earlier (more on that later). You may know this episle, as it was later canonized as the book of Ephesians. There is a thing in this letter I need to expose. I know that seems crazy. It is a densely packed letter and we suck the marrow from it; it’s rare to have any kind of sermon that doesn’t cite it, and many a book and Facebook post declare its truths. But the Spirit would have us always look deeper, and He called me to this thing.
We have a tendency to read the Bible without really immersing ourselves; I’ve written about that before. We skim words and names searching for the powerful stuff, the fuzzy stuff, the stuff that hits you in the feels. But in this letter it is really critical to take a wider view because the setting informs something incredibly huge, and of interest to all of us: our future. So let’s start with examining the place, Ephesus.
We hear “the church at Ephesus” and picture maybe a marble-columned room with a small risen pulpit like you see in a Raphael painting, a few robed or toga’d people milling about in a huddle discussing Jesus. But that picture is inaccurate. The church here wasn’t what you think. Not by a long shot. See, Ephesus was not Bethlehem – some quaint little town with a few sparse hovels and kids running in wide open fields. No, Ephesus was a bustling micropolis; it was second in population density only to Rome itself, and Augustus Caesar named it the capital city of Asia Minor because of its highly favorable position in trade routes up and down the Aegean Sea. Let’s delve into the history for a second.
Excavations have shown that the area Ephesus was to be founded on was inhabited back to the days of Cain, but the foundation of the city itself is an event lost to mythology. It was either founded by an ancient runaway Athenian king on the spot where the Oracle of Delphi became a fish and a bear and told him to, or by the queen of the Amazons. Regardless of the truth, it was a thousand years BC that this lush valley, not unlike the hills and valleys of southern California, saw itself united under the Ionic League and became a city of strength due to the ease of defense provided by those hills and valleys. Some 200 years later a temple was built on the site to honor the goddess Artemis, the goddess of the hunt, of childbearing, and of animals. Silt, brought by flood, washed this temple away a hundred years later, but the spot was not to be left alone. No, the Lady of Ephesus was to be honored here in the lands that were so clearly blessed by her gift of thriving crops and favorable weather for much longer to come.
Around 500 BC the temple was rebuilt on this spot as the Artemisium, and people came from far lands to see its columned splendor. Despite being adored, it was burned down by an arsonist a couple hundred years later. Rumor has it that Alexander the Great was being born as the fire was set and the goddess was so busy tending his birth that she couldn’t stop her house from being destroyed. But the third time was the charm for this spot as the temple was rebuilt a few years after Alexander’s death when one of his generals, Lysimachus, took control of the region. Often referred to as The Artemision, this incarnation was the grand Temple of Artemis that became one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. In fact, Antipater said of it:
I have set eyes on the wall of lofty Babylon on which is a road for chariots, and the statue of Zeus by the Alpheus, and the hanging gardens, and the colossus of the Sun, and the huge labour of the high pyramids, and the vast tomb of Mausolus; but when I saw the house of Artemis that mounted to the clouds, those other marvels lost their brilliancy, and I said, “Lo, apart from Olympus, the Sun never looked on aught so grand.”
Artemis had, in the region, quite the dedicated following. But Lysimachus didn’t stop there. Using the traditional Roman grid pattern he laid out a city along the walls of the valley with the Temple marking the northeastern corner of the grid, as was Roman practice. The city came together slowly at first, but by 27 BC when Augustus named it capital it had been a powerhouse of commerce, community, and culture for hundreds of years. On the eastern edge of the center of the city stood the Theatre, a massive stone arena that could hold north of 24,000 people. Massive temples, gates, baths, brothels, and other, more common, structures made up this wealthy and highly-regarded city. By 50 AD when the apostle Paul arrived the city population was nearly 100,000.
It was a major tactical target in Paul’s mind: this little Rome housed a hundred thousand, but far more peopled the city with seafaring merchants and visitors. Further, under the Roman influence the Artemision was used not only to worship Artemis, but also her Roman counterpart, the many-breasted goddess Diana. She is a whole other blog post, but her place in Ephesus was large and prominent. This led to a strength of idol worship that almost rivals what we see around us today. In fact, it led to Paul’s imprisonment in a tower during his time there. An army of metalworkers who made their living selling idols of Diana and Artemis dragged him to the Theatre with a pre-frenzied crowd and called for him to be stoned.
But not one to give up, he persisted. He drove himself to frustration trying to enlighten the local Jews there, he spent his days preaching the gospel a few hundred yards away from construction of a temple dedicated to Domitian, the Roman emperor who bitterly persecuted Christians throughout the empire, including Ephesus. This was not a party city for us. It wasn’t pleasant, it wasn’t accepting, and at every turn there were pagans berating God, seeking to bring to light any who might worship Him so they could be attacked.
So this is Ephesus. This is where Paul fought to spread the gospel, where he assigned Timothy after him. Where John is said to have written his gospel. Where rumor says the Virgin Mary died. A happy, bustling, and high-energy city where you could meet half the known world. The church here was not large, not public, not celebrated. It was scared people operating in secrecy, trying not to get found out, trying to fit in to society. That living on the knife’s edge leading to an array of issues with their faith that caused Paul to write his letter, his perfect description of what it is to be a Christian. They needed his words, they needed the instruction, the exhortation.
And so now at last we come to Ephesians 5:2. He starts off, “and walk in Love, as Christ also hath Loved us”. Can you imagine now the depth of meaning there? He was reminding them that though they walked among those who desperately hated them they needed to show Love. This was not a bumper sticker platitude, it was an earnest instruction. That’s agape Love, by the way. Chav Love. The selfless, unearned, devotional Love. But wait for the best part: “and hath given himself for us an offering and a sacrifice to God for a sweetsmelling savour.”
Probably you missed it. You skimmed. It’s OK, so did I. See that second “and” in there? An offering and a sacrifice. You maybe read that as a unit and processed it as a single reminder of the Cross and your salvation. You rendered it a distinction without a difference. But they are two very different things, one of them going virtually unsaid in our faith. And that’s the thing the Spirit spoke to me. We just have to take one more aside, and that is to talk about the difference between sacrifices and offerings.
So back to Leviticus we go. Read through it. OK, skim. We all know we skim that stuff, it’s a dense set of instructions and it takes some study to appreciate. Skim properly and you’ll note several kinds of offerings: atonement offerings, firstfruit offerings, peace offerings, wave offerings, etc. Leviticus details the preparation of said offerings for a variety of objects – one set for fowl, one for flock, and so on. Why? Why would He spend so much time detailing how to prepare an offering?
Well, I’ll tell you why it isn’t: it isn’t because He needs birds prepared one way and lambs another. It isn’t because He likes the smell of quail roasted whole, but goat in pieces. How do I back up that conclusion? Genesis 4.What was Cain’s violation? Was it that his vegetables didn’t smell as good as Abel’s cooking lamb? Please; our Father is not so mundane as that. No, Cain’s fault was that his offering was an afterthought. He picked from the ground and brought it forward. Abel took care to prepare his offering, and the Lord looked favorably on him for his effort.
And so it is with offerings: what defines an offering is not the fact the goat has no spot or blemish, or that it was the firstborn or the dedicated. No. What defines an offering is what you pour of yourself into it, what Love for your Father you exercise in preparation. That is not the same thing as sacrifice. Your sacrifice is the thing you give up, the thing you relinquish to pay a debt. Your offering… that is an inward effort, a demonstrated Love for Elohim, the Creator, Yahweh the Lord of all and the great I AM.
What, then, of Ephesians 5:2? What significance of calling Christ sacrifice and offering? The sacrifice paid your debts, but the offering brings you favor. The sacrifice clears your separation from God, but the offering exposes your heart and pleases Him. It is the offering, not the sacrifice, that makes us co-inheritors. It isn’t the death, it is the resurrection. More accurately, it is the agony of understanding the sacrifice and the joy of knowing the victory. The sacrifice is about what He did, the offering is what we put into it.
You may be saying we put nothing into the Cross. I submit that you’re wrong. The Word says that God Loves a cheerful giver. He doesn’t care if it’s $2 or $2M because the number is about the sacrifice, but the gift, the offering, is about your perspective on it. So it is with the Cross. Your perspective on it, on Christ, is what illuminates you as a child of God. He Himself tells us that when He talks about the promises to “he who believeth in Me”.
That is incredibly important because it speaks to the nature of life, of our relationship to Him. That’s why the life of the follower of Christ will never be easy, never comfortable: the moment it doesn’t take conscientious effort on your part it means you’ve gone numb. If your spouse says they Love you, but it’s said impatiently while rifling through the junk drawer, it doesn’t have weight, it doesn’t have connection. So it is with God. If you want connection to God you need to offer connection to Him first. The fire never comes down before you cut up the meat.
So what Paul is telling his Ephesian brothers and sisters is not to let themselves become deadened by the lost around them, by the vast numbers of Godless they were immersed in, by the icons and pagan rituals they were affronted by hourly.
I said this was about our future. Do you see why? It is our call. We are the Ephesian church. We sit before powerful idolators and try to bring them from their shame. Revelation 2:1-7 gives us Christ’s message to us, the church at Ephesus, in the endtime. I will leave it to you to go read it. What I wrote to tell you is this: the Love you have for Christ, the joy and hope you draw from Him, is what is pleasing to God. It is your effort, your dedication, your obedience, and your worship.
Do not allow the death-worship of this world to pull you away. It is a mistake I made recently, and the chasm it creates between you and God is agonizing. Seek first the Kingdom, this is what that means. Before and above what you may want to focus on in your life don’t let your relationship with God slide behind that. It doesn’t take a lot of time, it just takes calibration. Put away the sinful nature you left behind you, by which I mean stop worrying about what you did or what it means or why you’re bad. Think instead of how wonderful He is, how Loving, how great.
Father, thank You for ever showing me Your truths. Thank You for allowing me these words, this chance, to learn more about You and about me. Though I sit here in Ephesus watching the idolators disrespect You I am aware of what they are not, I see what they cannot. But I have hope for them because I was one of them. I know their ways and I know their blindness. I have tested the false apostles and found them liars, but I have yet patience for them. I don’t yet know how to help them, but I am trusting You to show me how to do the first works, how to bring Your sheep to You. In the name of Your Word, and my brother, Jesus, I pray. Amen.