What we know of the foundation of the Ephesian assembly is contained in the 18th, 19th and 20th chapters of Acts. Ephesus today is but a solitary ruin, but in the time of the Apostle Paul it was a flourishing seaport and compared with Corinth as a centre of trade and commerce. It was also the centre of the fanatical worship of the goddess Artemis, or Diana of the Ephesians as she is called in Acts 19:28, and contained a temple whose magnificence and extravagant wealth brought world renown.
The constant flow of religious devotees into the city proved a good market for the wares of local craftsmen, and Luke tells us of one, Demetrius, a silversmith who made silver shrines for Diana, remarking that he 'brought no small gain' (Acts 19:24).
It is not surprising that Ephesus, its commerce and temple a continuous source of wealth, was noted for luxurious living; nor is it surprising that the city was equally noted for sin and loose moral standards. Its trade drew together a population of many nationalities similar to that of any modern seaport, a community bent simply on material gain and pleasure, while the fanatical worship of Artemis, the personification of the life force, gave added licence for immoral practices.
It is significant that in Ephesus, of all places, God should have raised up a testimony so unsullied by the degradation of its surroundings, a testimony of which in the fullness of its first love for Christ, the Spirit of God could say, "I know thy works, and thy labour, and thy patience, and how thou canst not bear them which are evil: and didst try them which call themselves apostles, and they are not, and didst find them false: and thou hast patience, and didst bear for my name's sake, and hast not grown weary" (Revelation 2:2-3). To the Ephesian assembly, the clamour of sin and materialism in the midst of which it dwelt served as a clarion call to holy living; rampant opposition was a means of increasing their strength and taught them spiritual warfare; the squalid emptiness of heathenism set their hands to labour and their hearts to rejoice for the glorious hope which is the inheritance of the people of God. Here was a people eager to know more of God's ways and, above all, eager to obey. Thus it is that Paul embarks upon a letter whose scope is as wide as the purposes of God themselves. The Epistle to the Ephesians takes us from eternity to eternity, from God, "Even as He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world," (1:4) to His "glory in the church and in Christ Jesus unto all generations for ever and ever" (3:21). All is summed up in the church which is His fullness (1:23).
The epistle reveals the church as something vital and intensely practical, not as a mere theoretical number of the elect with little relevance to the circumstances of everyday life, but as the place of communion between God and His people, the source of spiritual strength and sustenance, the medium through which God expresses Himself in the world. What is the church? What is its purpose? How is it maintained? How does it relate to the problems of living? These are all questions answered for us in the Ephesian letter. Its message is, therefore, one of paramount importance.
In the Acts we are told that Paul paid two visits to Ephesus, the first, a brief one of which we read in ch. 18, and the second, of which we read in ch. 19, entailing a stay of some three years. It was during this latter period that the assembly came into being. How it came into being is of more than general interest, for therein lies a principle of great importance in the foundation of any work of the Spirit.
Into the third year of Paul's stay at Ephesus he was 'reasoning daily in the school of Tyrannus' (Acts 19:9), and it was as a result of this faithful and steady presentation of the gospel that hearts were stirred, sin was confessed and put away, and the word of God grew mightily and prevailed (Acts 19:20). Here was the birth of the Ephesian church. Nowhere is there any suggestion that it was organised into being by Paul, although he was the instrument used to convey God's message; it was born in a spirit of divine compulsion to obey the Word, in a divine urge to walk in light received. "Woe is unto me if I preach not the gospel," said Paul (I Corinthians 9:16). "Woe is unto us if we obey not the Word of God," was the imperative that brought the Ephesian believers together. God had worked in their midst through the preaching of His word. They had to obey. They had to come together. Not a persuasive Paul, but a divine constraint laid the foundation. The Lord said to Peter that the gates of hell should not prevail against the church, but the condition of its strength was that He Himself should build it (Matthew 16:18). This divine constraint, this energy of the Spirit must be the church's source and sustenance, otherwise its testimony will soon fade and die. The Scriptures allow of no other sustaining factor in the body of believers than the life of the Spirit. The tragedy of so many systems of church organisation is that they often serve as a scaffolding to hold up an edifice from which the Spirit has departed and which ought to be allowed to collapse.
The Ephesian church had its duly recognised elders, and in Acts 20 we read of Paul's meeting with them at Miletus. At some point after Paul's departure from Ephesus these men emerged as overseers in the assembly. Exactly how they came to occupy this position we are not told. From what we know of the circumstances it is by no means conclusive that they were appointed by Paul. The indications of Scripture are that they emerged naturally from the company of believers as men whose spiritual stature and qualifications marked them out to all as God's obvious choice for the oversight of the assembly. "Take heed....to all the flock in which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers," Paul exhorts them (Acts 20:28). They were the Holy Ghost's appointment. Here again we see the initiative in the building of the church coming from the Lord Himself. This, however, does not mean that Paul stood passively by till the Spirit should move. Far from it; it was precisely this hope and vision of the Lord's working through the proclamation of His Word which demanded his uncompromising declaration of 'the whole counsel of God' (Acts 20:27).
In the light of the prevalent confusion of understanding on the nature of the church, a word must here be said on this subject if we are to grasp clearly the meaning of the Epistle. Christianity today is a vast conglomeration of so-called churches, some of which are large federations of local groups, diverse in many respects. It contains much that is good, and much also that is evil; those who are truly the people of God and those who are not; rival creeds and rival practices. What relation has all this to what the Scriptures call the church or the assembly?
The fact of historical and organised Christianity, and its obvious difference from the simplicity and spiritual vitality of the churches of the New Testament, has given rise to the widely held distinction between the 'church visible' and the 'church invisible.' The 'church visible,' we are told, is all that appears in the world as Christianity with its mixture of good and bad, righteousness and corruption, truth and error, children of God and children of the world. On the other hand, the 'church invisible,' we are told, is the sum total of God's children, those regenerated by the working of the Spirit, whatever their connections in the 'church visible' may be. This distinction, which has no foundation in scripture whatsoever, has effectively relegated the church to a place of powerlessness in the minds of many of God's people. The 'church visible' is a testimony to man's fallen nature rather than to the glory of God, and the 'church invisible' is a mere theory whose consummation awaits eternity.
But the church, in the mind of God, transcends the ages. It is a great and powerful fact, not only of eternity but also of time. It is no mere theory. It is a visible reality, and can be known now as surely as it will be in an eternity to come. Our Lord, in that striking series of parables recorded in Matthew 13, likens the church to a pearl. A pearl increases in size with the passage of time, but at whatever stage of its development it may be found it is no less a pearl, a thing of glory and beauty. It is true that there are many yet to be added to it, but wherever and whenever it is found it is complete, and an expression of the glory of God. The layers of nacre which compose a pearl must be together. Crushed to a powder and scattered to the four winds their beauty is gone. So it is with the church. The only expression of the church on earth recognised by the Scriptures is the coming together of the people of God, the local church, a visible company of people through whose actual and practical relationship with the Lord and with one another the glory of God can be expressed. It is with this local church that the epistle to the Ephesians deals. The force of this truth will become more clear in subsequent chapters, but what has been said will suffice to emphasise that any mention of the church or assembly in succeeding pages should be taken to mean not some theoretical company of the elect, but an actual and visible company of the people of God.