It has been more than a year since my December sojourn to trace my spiritual roots. But the wonders and blessings of and lessons from the place biblically known as Asia Minor are still very much worth telling. Little did I know before that the physical remnants of Seven Churches of Asia mentioned in the Revelations still exist today in the region of Anatolia of modern-day Turkey.
My interest to see the sites for spiritual reflections came about in 1994 when in his sermon, the Pastor of Vienna Baptist Church where I used to worship in Austria shared about his family’s pilgrimage there. I have prayed for the chance to do the same since then. For a long time, however, I wrestled with trepidation and misgivings of a trip to a strange and distant land. Would’nt a personally-funded foreign travel of a lowly paid civil servant be somewhat shameful? So, I asked a few people to pray for this desire.
Once again, the God of the New and Old Covenant proved that He is a gracious God, who would not withhold every good gift to His children. This once-in-lifetime trip to these New Testament landmarks became possible when in August 2003, I got a surprise invitation from an unknown entity to participate in the Uppingham Seminar in Literacy and Development in Rutland, U.K. From London, Istanbul could not be far behind. The resources that became available for a side trip to Turkey exactly met all the costs.
In December 4-9, the fulfillment of my ten-year old desire to walk the paths where the Apostles Paul and John had trod was clearly confirmed. With my anxiety about a travel insurance which I could not afford, the Lord’s protection coverage proved to be the best provision. The trip was indeed good for the body and soul and the mind as well. Forced to rely on my feet again for long distances of unpolluted air of the Bosphorus banks and the Anatolian hills, the trip proved to be physically re-invigorating and an enjoyable therapy for motorbiking-induced weight gain and high blood pressure! It has also occurred to me then that this Turkish part of the Aegean-Mediterranean world is the most important place after Israel in the spread of the Christian faith, thanks to the labors of St. Paul and St. John the Beloved (whose Island of Patmos place of exile) is just in its vicinity.
But arriving at Istanbul Airport (where English is not so well-spoken) with very little money in a cold winter night was very daunting and caused some doubts. The organized Asia Minor tour offered in the airport would cost me a fortune and would need at least seven days to complete. Travel time alone to and from the entrypoint city of Kusadasi is at least 28 hours. Yet I had to be back to London after five days for my return flight to the Philippines. Did I make the wrong decision? The Seven Churches and no other reasons were what I came for. If I would not be able to see at least two of these, I’d rather go back to London in the first available flight, I nearly decided.
To make the long story short, I made it to the Istanbul city center in the freezing early morning of December 5 and chanced upon two tourism policemen, Mehmet and Muharrem. They were very kind to offer me hot tea and to invite me inside their heated little outpost. It was they who introduced me to the cheapest overnight place to stay and helped me find less costly tour to Anatolia. It turned out that I would be the lone tourist in the bus trip to Kusadasi where I was to meet the local travel agency representative. So anxious and discomfited by not being in a group tour, it was heaven-sent to meet a very kind businessman named Engin Kaplan (returning from China to his town of Söke, near Smyrna or Izmir,) with whom I spoke in German and very little English for some information I badly needed. He and his police officer companion Celil Kirin gave assurance that I would find my way and offered help if I would get lost. They also paid for my tea, coffee and toilet during the roadside stops. Months later, Mr. Kaplan and I were still communicating by text until I lost my old cellphone.
Faster forward. Finally meeting my young tour guide, named Ertunga Ecir (Erty for short) at the Kusadasi bus station, I got convinced that covering even five of the distantly adjoining seven cities was a wishful thinking for the remaining three days of the trip which included the return to Istanbul. So, I decided that I would concentrate on the ancient city of Ephesus (Efez) and next nearest site, Laodicea which is about three hours away. Ephesus, after all, is the first one among the seven to which the message in the Revelations was written.
Passing by the new (and inhabited) Ephesus town now known as Selcuk, Erty brought me to ancient site of the city which has been in ruins for more than a thousand years. He pointed to me a curious structure atop a hill near the city gate which was claimed to be the prison house of Paul. Was Paul really imprisoned in Ephesus? – was a question that bothered my mind. I regretted that I did not do serious prior study of the Book of Acts. Perhaps, it was true, I thought. This fact could be inferred from the riot instigated by the idol-maker Demetrius during Paul’s three-month preaching visit. At that time, unrest was stirred by the direct threat to the big business of the city’s craftsmen and the worship of Artemis (aka Diana) by the fast spread of the Christian faith in almost all of Asia (Acts 19:23-33). The scene of Gaius and Aristarchus (Paul’s Macedonian companions) being dragged by the mob that cried “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians” came alive to me when I beheld the amphitheater (mentioned in Acts 19: 29 & 31) from a distance.
The well-preserved massive ancient structure which could seat more than 15,000 is an engineering and architectural marvel. Together with the town’s Odeon a hundred meters away, the theater served well as regular venue for the ancients’ practice of direct democracy and for popular gruesome gladiatorial sports which most likely featured the persecution of the Ephesian believers. To have a sense of their martyrdom, I sat on the theater’s steps, jumped from one seating level to another and peeked through the passages of its lions dens.
Little is left of the spectacular and grandiose Temple of Artemis who was greatly worshipped in all of Hellenized Asia Minor. From the signs of the state- patronized and -protected religion as well as the big commerce that this idolatry engendered, I imagined how much it would cost to be a follower of Jesus. In the heydays of cultic worship, the odd figurines of all sizes of this Graeco-Roman goddess of fertility was favorite souvenir-possession of tourist-pilgrims who would flock to Ephesus.
In one corner of what looked like the ancient shopping center, majestically stands the remains of the Temple built by Domician for himself. This is the Roman Emperor who decreed that he be worshiped by all. From what was explained to me, I surmised that his notorious reign must truly be a period when the faith of the Ephesian Christians was being tested by fire. No wonder, the Lord commended the Ephesian church for its “perseverance and endurance for My name’s sake” (Rev. 2:2-3).
Ephesus is reputed to be both the largest city and banking center of the ancient times. One could still be awed by the remaining traces of its social, intellectual and economic glory which saw better days under successive Greek and the Roman conquest while walking along the ancient marble-paved main thoroughfare. Now the desolate heaps of Doric, Corinthian and Ionic columns and colored stone slabs attest to Ephesus’ fall from where Ephesus never rose and never to be populated again. Coming face to face with the physical evidences to the effect that along with the glorious city’s death went the physical and spiritual demise of the church could chill one’s spine. Did not the Apostle Paul so love, nurture and make so much personal sacrifices for the Ephesian church? Was the fundamental Christian doctrine of “salvation by grace and faith and not a result of works” (Eph. 2: 8) not expounded by Paul to the Ephesians? Today, unlike the once-poor nearby Smyrna (now Turkey’s third largest and most prosperous city) which has a surviving Christian presence, there is now no known believer in modern-day Selcuk.
Long after my trip, I continue to wonder why indeed this happened to the church that was even commended by the Lord Jesus Himself in Rev. 2: 4-5?. Did the Ephesian church really fail to heed the warning to “repent and come back to its first love,” hence, the “lampstand was removed out of its place”?
Local historical accounts gave much information about the Apostle John. It is well claimed that he brought Mary to Ephesus from Israel after the death of Jesus where she lived in a house built for her till her own death. John is widely believed to have spent the rest of his apostolic life there, built and pastored a church (whose purported physical remains I inspected) and been buried in a place near the Temple of Artemis, a proof of which is his ancient but well-preserved grave shown to me by Erty inside the ruins of a Basilica named after him.
Indeed, John’s vision of the Alpha and Omega that prominently figured Ephesus underlines its significance and eternal message for the present-day believers. The three-hour sightseeing gave me a chance to witness to my guide Erty (a graduate of history) whom I found to be intellectually honest and very open-minded. Before we parted, I let him know what the teachings and life of the Apostles Paul and John meant to me. Curiosity also led me to ask if a Muslim like him actually believes in the unique historical claims of the Christian faith which he, day-in and day-out, lectured to his guests. Pointing to Christ as the Master and Lord of St. Paul who made Ephesus a spiritually significant place, I asked Erty if he had already reflected on the implications on his own life of the central teaching of Paul about the only Prophet who rose from the dead and ascended to heaven and the only Savior of the whole world.
Oh, what a joy to hear him say that he should act positively on what he already knows about Jesus Christ – “one of these days I might decide to become a Christian,” was his parting shot. Weeks later, he told me in an e-Mail message that “I would like to celebrate your Christmas, I learned lots of things from you and I have got a bible and I will read the chapter you told me.” Is this the real reason why He allowed me to go to Asia Minor?, so I asked the Lord,. On the long and winding road to the city of Denizli where I would get to Laodicea and the Hierapolis, I imagined Paul and Timothy on foot or riding a donkey (which might be a luxury) to teach and have fellowship with the other churches. I thought of the original scrolls of Paulinian epistles being passed on to churches by couriers walking the same paths I was traveling. Their trips that took days of walking and sailing but which took me only few hours, made Christianity spread like wildfire in Asia and the Aegean world. I wondered if only the speed with which we travel to and communicate with the rest of the world in the age of advance technology could more speedily spread the knowledge and joy of being in Christ. Midway, I was sidetracked by another bout of anxiety and confusion.
I hastily departed from Kusadasi without being informed about travel and tour guiding arrangement. I did not even know at which bus stop to get off but could not ask folks seated beside me because they do not know enough English. Indeed, this trip was part of continuing test of faith. The ruins of Laodicea whose barrenness is starker than that of Ephesus, seemed not to invite many visitors. They would rather enjoy the pleasures and sites of adjacent Pamukkale and Hierapolis mentioned in Col. 4:13 and their exhilarating historical-geological attractions (which I also enjoyed later that day).
Once again, I was a lonesome tourist and this time, in the company of a not-so-articulate guide. With little help from him, I could only turn to the Revelations 3: 17-18. It must really have been a proud super-rich city, an attribute that was shared by the Laodicean church. The New Testament passage gives these clue: “Because you say “I am rich and have become wealthy and have need of nothing….” Indeed, the physical layout of the city and the stumps of the ancient commercial infrastructure gave hints to its economic status. Laodicea, in its heyday was the center of gold trade and banking. It could be considered as counterpart of modern-day London, Zurich and New York financial centers.
Affluent but morally and spiritually bankrupt was Laodicea at the time of John’s vision that the Lord ordered him to write to the church His displeasure, thus: “you do not know that you are wretched and miserable and poor and blind and naked. I advise you to buy from Me gold refined by fire, that you may become rich and white garment that you may clothe yourself….the shame of your nakedness may not be revealed….” The Lord’s diagnosis and warning: you are lukewarm and because of it, “I will spit you out of My mouth.”
What shall we be in the age and in time of convenience, prosperity and affluence, was the question I brought back to England and when I returned to the Philippines. In England (especially in Brighton and London areas where I stayed as a student) and Germany, I saw desolation of the many churches that had to close (and some were converted into museums and pubs) because of fast declining membership or simply dying down. The Lord must have really spit Laodicea from His mouth. Even a well-cared for and Paul-nurtured church like the Ephesians ended up in a lonely death. These thoughts now often remind me of the many times of my being lukewarm which I also observe in many present-day churches and fellowships. I think of my own church and my office fellowship – will they persevere in their prayer lives and remain faithful to the end? Will there still be a Diliman Bible Church (where I have spent thirty years of my Christian life) ten years hence or after the passing of my generation? Will the NEDA Christian Fellowship that has been struggling to survive during the past decade, still go on or will a possible decline just reflect the quality and depth of our discipleship? And I pray that the Lord forbid the removal of His lampstand.
My post-Asia Minor trip, I hope, will preoccupy my prayer life especially with the following concerns:
• May I be able to love and abide with the Lord and serve God and Country till the end of my days;
• Erty Ecir, Muharrem Ceylan and Mehmet – I hope I can go on praying for and being in touch with them as far-away friends through texting and the Internet. I always long for the eventual news that they would come to the knowledge of the forgiveness of sins and of eternal life in Jesus. How nice will it be to reach out to Asia Minor again (and the thousands of tourists) through Erty.
• Engin Kaplan and Celil Kirin – too bad, I cannot reach these two kind gentlemen again through texting. May the Lord make Engin to reply to my cards and send me his mobile number and e-mail address. And if he eventually does, may we understand each other in German until the day he (or them) act on the Gospel that was sent to the Ephesians.
“He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.” (Rev. 2: 11; 29; 3:6; 22) (If anyone is interested to see the pictures of interesting landmarks I took in Ephesus and Laodicea, let me know and I will upload them.)
NAP B. IMPERIAL
31 December 2004
Give me, O Lord, a steadfast heart, which no unworthy affection may drag downwards; an unconquered heart, which no tribulation can wear out; an upright heart, which no unworthy purpose may tempt aside.(Thomas Aquinas) ********************************************************************************************************************