Ephesus and Miletus
Jerome Murphy-O’Connor, OP
En route to Jerusalem with the collection for the poor Paul had found an excuse to leave Timothy in Ephesus. It was a great sacrifice at a time when Paul was in desperate need of emotional support, and underlines the affection that he had for his young assistant. He could not take the risk of dragging his friend into whatever trouble might befall him in the Holy City.
It would have been unlike Paul to have appointed Timothy head of the church at Ephesus. Normally he preferred leaders to emerge on the basis of the gifts they had received from the Holy Spirit. It would not be surprising, however, if the church deferred to what they mistakenly considered to be Paul’s wishes.
Timothy unfortunately did not live up to Paul’s hopes. The man who had been a wonderful assistant and advisor proved to be a poor leader. By Paul’s high standards he was not doing the work of an evangelist. He was not fulfilling his ministry.
His failure was not doctrinal but personal. Responsibility frightened him, and he had withdrawn, perhaps with the excuse that he needed to earn his living and not be a burden to the community. In reality he could not endure the pain that leadership entailed. The energetic acceptance and follow-through that Paul demanded were lacking, and the community had suffered.
In particular Timothy had failed to control a group who had turned Ephesus into what Paul considered ‘a chattering church’. Foolish and inexpert research fueled debates that were no more than exchanges of profane and empty words.
Paul’s response was to remove Timothy from office and to take charge himself. Paul did not disgrace him publicly. He found an excuse to send him to report on the state of the churches of the Meander and Lycus valleys. Perhaps his mandate extended even as far as Galatia. Paul had been out of touch with these churches for some ten years.
Paul did not do any better himself. There had always been opposition to him at Ephesus, and he was constitutionally incapable of dealing with the sort of speculative theology that was causing the problem. Eventually he had the humility to recognize that his presence was only making things worse, and withdrew to Miletus.
This port city was 50 miles south of Ephesus, far enough for distance to be a barrier, but not so far that he was completely out of reach. It was also the sort of urban area in which Paul operated most effectively. Its four harbours and three markets made it a bustling commercial center with an estimated population of some 60,000. Moreover it was virgin territory. No church had yet been founded there.
What was proving to be a fruitful and absorbing ministry came to an abrupt end in the late summer of AD 65.
Fire broke out in Rome on 19 June AD 64, and raged through the city for nine days. When it was finally brought under control, 10 of the city’s 14 regions lay in ruins. The emperor Nero moved quickly to provide shelter for the homeless. Soon, however, he announced that he was going to expropriate 125 acres of private land in central Rome in order to build himself a magnificent new palace, the Golden House, surrounded by a spacious park. Inevitably rumours began to circulate that the one who benefited most might have started the fire. A spontaneous whispering campaign blaming Nero personally gained momentum.
The emperor decided to deflect attention by giving the mob something else to think about. Probably in the spring of AD 65 he initiated the first systematic persecution of Christians. According to Tacitus, “Their deaths were made farcical. Dressed in wild animals’ skins, they were torn to pieces by dogs, or crucified, or made into torches to be ignited after dark as substitutes for daylight.”
Word of the atrocities raced throughout the empire during the summer of AD 65, and came to Paul at Miletus. He had the imagination to realize the impact of the persecution on believers in Rome. They needed to be strengthened by their sister churches.
Paul was not prepared to ask others to go. He was old and had lived a full life. He had no dependents. It was no longer a question of finding things to do. In Rome he was needed. Some of his entourage took their courage in their hands and offered to accompany him.
Paul had to move fast, however, before the end of the sailing season cut him off from Italy. To take one of the last ships out he abandoned his friend Trophimus, who had fallen ill. In Corinth, Erastus had second thoughts and dropped out. Paul and the others struggled on. It was imperative to get to Rome as soon as possible.