A Nucleus of Uninstructed Believers
The travels of Apollos after he left Ephesus took him eventually to Corinth, where he continued his ministry of proving from the Scriptures that Jesus is the Christ. Paul was traveling at the same time, pursuing his third missionary journey. If he had a principal companion, Scripture does not name him. Nor does it say much about the places Paul visited at the beginning. It informs us simply that he went through Asia Minor (the regions of Galatia and Phrygia) by following a road through the northern districts. As we have said before, the whole trip overland was a walk of about fifteen hundred miles. But instead of continuing to Troas on the western coast, his point of embarkation for Europe during his previous journey, he took a different course. He bent southward along a route leading to Ephesus, another coastal city.
He went there to keep a promise. At the end of his last journey, he stopped briefly in Ephesus and assured the Jews who showed interest in his message that he would return at first opportunity, if God willed. And God was willing. As it turned out, God had a major work for Paul to accomplish in that city, requiring his presence for about three years (Acts 20:31).
When he arrived, he found a small band of disciples, comprising about twelve men. In context, the term "disciples" must refer to disciples of Jesus, since Paul did not hesitate to address them as believers. No doubt many of their wives and children also believed. But Paul surmised, for reasons not stated, that they had not been fully incorporated into the universal body of believers, the church. Assessing what deficiencies needed to be supplied, he asked them whether they had received the Holy Spirit. They responded with some bewilderment. They said, in essence, "Who is the Holy Spirit?" Apparently, Paul had heard that they were baptized, so his next question was to ask what kind of baptism they received. They replied that they received the baptism of John.
The answers Paul heard convinced him that this group of disciples needed to be baptized again. He did not belittle John's baptism or suggest that it was unworthy. But he explained that although it was valid as a testimony of repentance, it was insufficient. John's purpose had merely been to pave the way for the coming of the Messiah, Jesus Christ. It was therefore necessary for the men to be rebaptized, this time in the name of Jesus, not John.
Since the men had already made the decision to follow Jesus, they were entirely willing to show their faith by being baptized again. Indeed, all were baptized. Then Paul laid his hands on them, and they received the Holy Spirit, whose presence was made manifest by outward signs. As on Pentecost and other occasions recorded in Acts, the believers began to speak in tongues and to prophesy.
A Powerful Ministry
Paul then began an aggressive campaign to evangelize the city. He followed his usual strategy of starting in the synagogue. For three months he declared with Spirit-wrought power and eloquence "the things concerning the kingdom of God." In other words, He argued with great force that Jesus was the King, and that entrance into His Kingdom was impossible except by believing in Him. Others had preceded Paul with much the same message. Apollos had boldly preached Jesus to the same congregation. Perhaps Aquila and Priscilla had also given public witness to Jesus. But Paul's aim was different. He was pushing each person in the congregation to the point of decision, with the goal of forming a new church from the believers.
Paul's message did not go unopposed. Voices of unbelief forced him to engage in heated debate. Yet he was equal to the challenge. No doubt the pressure of being contradicted helped him to sharpen his arguments and win more supporters. But as the debate drew on, his opponents slipped into a rigidity of mind and hardness of heart that made further debate pointless. Moreover, their words were becoming ugly. They began to bring evil accusations against Paul and "that way," which, as we have said before, was a term that people in the apostolic era often used for the Christian movement. So, the time came when Paul decided to gather followers and leave the synagogue.
They chose the school of Tyrannus as their new meeting place. We are not told whether Tyrannus himself was a believer. If he was typical of schoolmasters in the Greek world, he gave lectures every day on such subjects as philosophy and rhetoric to whoever wished to hear them, whether young or old. Today's young people would be thrilled to attend such a school, which ordinarily continued only until 11 o'clock in the morning.
Such a school was an ideal site for the ministry of Paul. It must have provided a lecture hall accommodating a large crowd. Since the school itself concluded in the morning, he could use the hall for the majority of the day. We know from several texts that he spent part of his day pursuing his trade of leather working (Acts 20:34; 1 Cor. 4:11-12, the latter written from Ephesus). No doubt the part he gave to manual labor was early in the morning, while the school was in session. One early commentator said that he taught from 11 AM to 4 PM.
There in the school of Tyrannus he began his own lecture series. For two whole years, he spent maybe five hours a day proclaiming Christ.
These talks at the school of Tyrannus became famous throughout the region. Everyone who lived in the province of Asia, incorporating the entire western side of Asia Minor, heard what Paul was teaching. Perhaps many heard because they attended his talks.
It was during this period that Paul wrote the epistle now known as First Corinthians. This was not actually the first letter that he sent to Corinth while he was in Ephesus. An earlier one has been lost (1 Cor. 5:9–10). Like his letter to the Laodiceans which has also not survived (Col. 4:16), we may be sure that the Lord has not preserved it because it was not divinely inspired. We know nothing of its contents except that it enjoined separation from professing Christians whose lives do not match their testimony. In reply, the Corinthian believers sent Paul a request for advice on other issues troubling the church (1 Cor. 7:1). As always, the most urgent and difficult issues concerned marriage; such as, whether marriage is the best option, whether divorce is ever permissible, etc. But Paul also received a wide range of other questions: concerning meat sacrificed to idols, the support of Christian workers, celebration of the Lord’s Supper, the place of women in worship, and spiritual gifts.
First Corinthians is not only Paul’s answer to a letter, however. It is also his reaction to news he heard when Chloe’s household came from Corinth to Ephesus (1 Cor. 1:11). From this source he learned of sharp divisions within the church, to the extent that members were pulling away from each other and forming groups based on loyalty to different preachers of the gospel (1 Cor. 1:12).
Sad to say, Paul’s epistle did not resolve all the problems in Corinth. Anticipating that the church there would need further outside help, he planned to send Timothy as his representative (1 Cor. 4:17; 16:10–11). Probably at some time during his years in Ephesus, he himself made a quick trip back to the Grecian capital in an effort to settle remaining matters of dispute (2 Cor. 12:14; 13:1). It was not a pleasant trip. Paul describes it as full of grief (2 Cor. 2:1), for there was a disagreeable faction in the church that questioned his apostleship and rejected his authority (2 Cor. 12:11–13, 20). Their chief motive apparently was an unwillingness to comply with his demand for moral purity (2 Cor. 12:21).
Yet in Acts 19, Luke is silent concerning the Corinthian side drama distracting Paul from his ministry in Ephesus. Nor does he explain Paul’s comment in First Corinthians that in Ephesus he "fought with beasts" (1 Cor. 15:32). The omission should not surprise us, since the Book of Acts overall mentions only a small fraction of the severe trials that Paul recalls in Second Corinthians (2 Cor. 11:23–28). It appears likely that Paul’s early ministry in Ephesus met serious opposition, leading even to beatings and imprisonments. The forces arrayed against him were the "beasts" whose persecution was endurable only because death is not the end of a believer’s life.
For the most part, Luke gives a different slant on Paul’s years in Ephesus. He presents them as yielding Paul the great satisfaction of victory after victory. The emphasis we find in the Book of Acts was no doubt chosen to strengthen Paul’s defense in Rome. To counter charges that Christianity was a dangerous movement on the fringes of society, Luke showed that in Ephesus Paul entered the mainstream of life in the empire, winning the support of many responsible leaders in the region.
To enhance the effectiveness of Paul's ministry in Ephesus, the Lord empowered him to do miracles. In the record of his first two missionary journeys, we read that he healed a lame man in Lystra and cast out a demon in Philippi, but we find no remembrance of healings anywhere else. Yet miracles of healing became the centerpiece of his ministry in Ephesus. Luke refers to them as "special"; literally, "extraordinary." It was like a return to the early days of the church in Jerusalem, when people brought the sick from far and wide so that Peter might heal them. The power of healing lay even in Peter's shadow. Much the same outpouring of the supernatural occurred in Ephesus. Paul healed not only those brought to him, but also many others who merely touched one of his handkerchiefs or aprons. These were items he wore as he practiced his trade. A plainer translation of handkerchief would be "sweat rag." As he worked, he wrapped one of these about his head, and he protected his clothing with an apron. The power available through faith in the Christ that Paul preached was sufficient not only to heal every manner of physical disease, but also to cast out demons.
There was in Ephesus a group of professional exorcists working in partnership. They were seven Jews, all sons of a certain Sceva whom Luke describes as a high priest.
It was not unusual in the ancient world for a Jew to claim proficiency in the magical arts. The sorcerer in Cyprus that Paul inflicted with blindness was a Jew. Apparently, the gentiles had some vague knowledge of the great feats done by the God of Israel, as recorded in the Old Testament. So, when a Jew claimed the ability to do magic through the power of God, many gentiles were inclined to believe him.
The concept of evil spirits was as commonplace in the Roman world as it has been in all other premodern societies. Outside the stream of Judeo-Christianity, demons are not seen as fallen angels, however. Among the Greeks, they were identified as obscure deities or as disembodied human spirits. But the fact of demon possession could not be denied, and relatives and friends of a victim were always in search of a remedy.
The seven sons of Sceva, who were not only Jews, but sons of a high priest who might have access to lore hidden from others of his race, were in an especially good position to market themselves as exorcists. Potential customers might hope that from their father they had even learned the correct pronunciation of the divine name we spell "Jehovah." At some time in antiquity the Jews stopped speaking this name for fear of violating Leviticus 24:16, and since Hebrew words were then written without vowels, the correct pronunciation of the name was eventually forgotten by the nation as a whole. Whether the line of high priests remembered it is unknown. In any case, superstitious minds readily believed that the reason Jehovah’s name was kept a dark secret was that it possessed rare magical power.
Paul's spectacular success in ridding people of demons came to the notice of the sons of Sceva and provoked them to imitate his methods. They heard that he cast them out in the name of the Lord Jesus. So, when they were next called to help a victim of demon possession, they solemnly intoned Jesus' name when they ordered the demon to come out. The demon was unimpressed. Determined not to lose his lodging in a convenient victim, he challenged their authority to give him commands. By using the victim's voice as if it were his own, he cried out that he knew the name of Jesus and the name of Paul, but who were they? It is evident that the evil spirit was well aware that he was subject to Jesus' apostles. He knew that after Jesus' resurrection, He gave His apostles authority over the demonic world (Mark 16:17). But the demon's obligation to obey a true apostle like Paul did not extend to dabblers in exorcism who used Jesus' name as a magical formula rather than as an expression of faith.
After the sons of Sceva hurled the name of Jesus at the evil spirit, he showed his contempt for these self-proclaimed exorcists by attacking them. His victim had so fully lost control of his own body that the demon was able to use it as a weapon. With this human instrument, the demon leaped upon the seven brothers and overcame them, assaulting them with such violence that they could not resist. In fear and pain they fled from the house, their clothes rent and torn away and their flesh covered with wounds.
There must have been witnesses to the altercation, because news of what happened quickly spread through the whole city and beyond. Both Jews and Greeks heard that an evil spirit gave testimony to the authority of Jesus and his minister Paul, and the effect was to put the fear of God into their hearts. The name of Jesus rose still higher in public esteem.
Powers of Darkness in Retreat
Ancient Ephesus was known by reputation as a center of magical arts. Writings containing spells and other occult devices were widely known as "Ephesian writings." Therefore, the testimony that the demon gave to the superior authority of Jesus and Paul had the unintended effect of greatly weakening Satan’s hold on the city. It convinced many involved in sorcery and in occult practices that they were on the wrong side. Realizing that they must forsake alliances with the powers of darkness and join the people of God, they declared themselves to be believers in Christ. No doubt with Paul's encouragement, they made public confession of their sins. The phrase, "shewed their deeds," can be translated, "revealed their spells." It was generally assumed that spells were effective only if kept secret. Therefore, when these practitioners of the occult made their spells public, they were not only renouncing their use but also, in their view, taking away their power.
They also brought all their books and burned them. These books contained the spells that they had just revealed—spells designed to unleash magical power for the purpose gaining the magician's desires. The value of what was committed to the flames was substantial, amounting to fifty thousand pieces of silver known as drachmae. We cannot state the exact value in modern terms, because it is difficult to compare buying power in two societies so radically different. Nevertheless, a rough estimate might be twenty-five to fifty thousand dollars. It is evident that the converts from the occult were indeed many in number, and that for the sake of renouncing their past they absorbed a significant loss.
Luke then marks these dramatic developments as an illustration of how mightily the word of God grew and prevailed.
The time came when Paul sensed that he was nearing completion of his work in Ephesus. As he looked ahead, he resolved to revisit Macedonia and Greece. No doubt he wished to strengthen and encourage the churches that he had founded on his previous missionary journey. He apparently did not plan to see the Ephesians again, for he plotted a future course that would eventually take him far away from the former scenes of his labors. After going to Macedonia and Greece, he meant to go back to Jerusalem, then on to Rome. In the book of Romans, he informs his readers that after he went to Rome, he would go even farther westward, all the way to Spain (Rom. 15:24). He was ambitious to carry the gospel to the uttermost parts.
From what source did he obtain this vision of his future ministry? The phrase, "purposed in the spirit" is like several others in the Book of Acts (Acts 18:25; 20:22; 21:4). On the surface, it is ambiguous, with possible reference either to a person’s own spirit or the Holy Spirit. But since in one instance, Acts 21:4, the spirit intended is undeniably the Holy Spirit, and since in every instance the reading "Holy Spirit" makes good sense in the context, we will assume that it was the Holy Spirit who guided Paul’s meditation on what God wanted him to accomplish. From the Lord Himself, Paul derived his itinerary for evangelism in coming years.
But as it turned out, Paul never finished his tour of Achaia and Macedonia. The necessity of overseeing the delivery of substantial funds collected for relief of the poor in Jerusalem forced him to return to Jerusalem sooner than he expected. As we will see, he intended afterward to revisit Greece and Macedonia, but, so far as we know, he never got there.
Also so far as we know, he never went to Spain. Later, we will show why his plans to go to the western edge of the empire did not materialize. Rome was his final destination. It was there that he met his death in the early 60s, during the reign of Nero.
To prepare the way for his return to Macedonia and Greece after departing from Ephesus, Paul sent as his forerunners both Timothy and Erastus. Evidently, Timothy had been in Ephesus assisting Paul. This is the first appearance of Erastus in the history of Paul's labors, but he will appear again (Rom. 16:23; 2 Tim. 4:20).
After dispatching his two assistants, Paul did not set out himself, but stayed in Ephesus "for a season." "Season" is chronos, the most general Greek word for a period of time. The period Luke intended might have been a few weeks or months, either a relatively small delay in relation to the overall duration of Paul's stay in the city, amounting to two years.
Paul spent more time in Ephesus than in any other city where he founded a church. But finally, after nearly three years of ministry, he decided that the church in Ephesus was stable enough for him to move on.
As he was preparing to go, a great conflict suddenly exploded. So many Greeks had been won to Christ that the local culture and economy began to feel profound effects. The city was the site of a great temple to Diana (known as Diana to the Romans, as Artemis to the Greeks). In Roman mythology, Diana was a virgin goddess identified with the moon, but the Diana worshiped in Ephesus was really the same deity that had been the mother goddess of Asia Minor since time immemorial. Her magnificent temple just outside the city was regarded as one of the Seven Wonders of the ancient world. Even by modern standards it was a large edifice, with dimensions of about four hundred feet by two hundred feet, making it slightly bigger than a soccer field for international matches. It attracted a steady flow of visitors especially from the surrounding regions, but also from remote corners of the empire.
In Paul’s day, the worship of Diana was the economic base of Ephesian life. In days past, when the harbor adjoining the city was one of the best on the western coastline, Ephesus had also been a primary center of trade moving back and forth between inland Asia Minor and all points west. But deforestation and agriculture in the hinterland had been conducted without any measures to prevent catastrophic soil erosion into the Cayster River that emptied into the harbor. Over time, the harbor became so choked with silt that it could no longer receive ships. Attempts were made to clean the harbor, but it was a losing battle. In the many centuries since the first century AD, silting has continued largely unchecked, so that now the original harbor works sit seven miles away from the sea.
This digression concerning the economy of ancient Ephesus was necessary to understand the events reported in Acts 19. The Temple of Diana had become the principal source of revenue for the city. As in any modern city dependent on tourism, most people made a living by selling goods and services to visitors. Food, lodgings, and souvenirs were naturally the main items of business, but also the Temple served as a sort of international bank, where the wealthy deposited their money. Especially lucrative was the sale of silver shrines to worshipers of the goddess. The term "shrines" suggests something large and imposing, but it actually refers to small handwrought objects showing Diana and her lions standing in a niche of the temple. For many years the manufacture of such shrines had employed a large number of silversmiths.
But after the gospel came to Ephesus and the surrounding region, so many devotees of Diana switched their allegiance to Christ that attendance at the temple fell off sharply. The decline in the cult of Diana cut deeply into the sale of shrines, and the income derived from their sale dried up. The silversmiths, feeling the pain in losing so much money, decided to take action to preserve their livelihoods. One of them, a certain Demetrius, called together his fellow craftsmen and made a rousing speech protesting Paul's influence. He accused Paul of preaching that any god depicted by an image made with men's hands is no god at all. The result, said Demetrius, was that many people had turned away from paying homage to Diana. Now the silversmiths' means of support was in jeopardy, and the importance that Ephesus enjoyed as the center of Diana's veneration was slipping away. Worst of all, the Hebrew preacher had diminished the glory that rightly belonged to the goddess and her temple.
The men listening to Demetrius became more and more excited as he spoke. His concluding appeal to defend the honor of Ephesus and Diana worked on their emotions with great effect, and stirred them up to great wrath against Paul. They cried out, "Great is Diana of the Ephesians." They crossed the line from being rational individuals to being an irrational mob in blind submission to their leader.
They hurried away to do mischief. First they carried their anger to the whole city and infected it with confusion. Then they ran to and fro, seeking a target for their wrath. The person they especially wanted to find was Paul, but the best they could do was to catch two of his companions, Gaius and Aristarchus, both from Macedonia. Luke identifies them as men who had traveled with Paul in the past. Several individuals by the name of Gaius appear in the records of Paul's ministry: one was from Derbe in Asia Minor (Acts 20:4), another from Corinth (1 Cor. 1:14; Rom. 16:23). But of this Gaius in Ephesus there is no other mention in the New Testament. Aristarchus, however, is an important figure who worked for a long time beside Paul and eventually became his fellow prisoner (Col. 4:10).
After apprehending Gaius and Aristarchus, the mob rushed them into the large amphitheater lying at the end of the Arcadian Way, the main boulevard that began at the harbor on the west and ran eastward through the city. From the ruins still in existence, we can estimate that the theater could have held as many as 25,000 people. The silversmiths brought their prisoners here because they wanted to bring charges against them at a public trial.
News of the commotion somehow reached Paul. Far from provoking him to flee for his own safety, it aroused in him a great anxiety for the men taken captive, and he hurried to help them. In the company of other believers, he arrived at the theater and heard all the noise. He intended to enter and speak in defense of his friends under arrest and of his own ministry. Here is another proof of Paul's courage. But he stayed outside because his friends there held him back.
Among those inside the theater were "certain of the chief of Asia." In the Greek, "of the chief of Asia" is a single word best translated "Asiarchs," a reference to the leading figures in a league of men from the chief families in the province of Asia. The league’s founding purpose was to uphold Roman interests. Although the members had no formal political authority, they wielded strong political influence, and from their ranks they took men to serve as high priests in the cult of the emperor. Luke informs us that some in this highest echelon of provincial society counted themselves as Paul’s friends. Whether they had become followers of Jesus is left an unanswered question. Perhaps they were merely men of nobility who felt more kinship with a man of Paul’s learning and bearing than with the superstitious mob. Yet if they were his friends, they could not have been far from Christ.
When these Asiarchs heard that Paul was preparing to come into the assembly, they sent him a message begging him to remain outside for his own safety. No doubt they were also worried that his presence might fan the furor into an uncontrollable riot. Paul, out of respect for authority, complied with their request.
Meanwhile, the scene inside was becoming chaotic. Luke comments wryly that although everyone was shouting, few knew what they were shouting about. Most in the theater did not know why everyone had flocked together.
Finally the Jews found a certain Alexander and put him forward to speak. Nowhere else in this account is there any mention of Alexander, so we are not sure who he was or what his intentions were in speaking. Yet in 2 Timothy, written to Timothy apparently when he was in Ephesus, Paul refers to a certain Alexander the coppersmith who did him much harm (2 Tim. 4:14). It is therefore likely that the Alexander who spoke in the theater was not a believer, but a Jew hostile to Paul. The reason he rose to speak is perhaps revealed by what happened next. When the mob perceived he was a Jew, they let loose a ferocious outcry of support for the great goddess Diana, and for two whole hours the mighty din continued unabated. The mob clearly saw Jews and Christians as equal threats to their religion. Perhaps the Jews sensed the anti-Jewish mood in the theater and called upon Alexander to instruct the crowd that all Jews were not followers of Paul.
A Calming Influence at Last
Responsibility for bringing the crowd under control fell to the town clerk. Ephesus, like other Greek cities, was ruled by the whole body of citizens, called the Demos, which had the power to enact laws. The town clerk, a local citizen who presided over meetings of the Demos, was the main liaison between the city and higher Roman authority. In the eyes of the Romans, he bore primary responsibility for maintaining order in the city. They would have held him accountable for a meeting of the Demos that failed to qualify as a legal proceeding. The present meeting was illegal both because it was out of control and because it was outside the schedule, which permitted only three meetings each month. The town clerk was therefore very keen on stopping the commotion and sending the people home.
Somehow he managed to make the mob give up their chanting. Then he made a carefully reasoned speech designed to defuse their anger. He started off by arguing that all their chanting in praise of Diana was unnecessary, because no one doubted that the Ephesians loved their goddess. They loved not only her, he said, but also "the image which fell down from Jupiter."Continuing, the town clerk counseled the people that since their loyalty to Diana was beyond question, they had nothing to prove. They did not need to commit rash violence against fellow citizens of a different religious persuasion. These fellow citizens, according to the town clerk, had done nothing to hinder or defame the cult of Diana. They had neither committed sacrilege against her temple ("church robbers" should be translated "temple robbers," meaning committers of sacrilege against the temple) nor blasphemed the goddess herself. So, in the view of the town clerk, there was no justification for all the excitement that nearly caused a riot. He said that if anyone had a legitimate complaint against the Christians, they should follow due process, by taking recourse either to "the law" (literally, "courts") or to "deputies" (literally, "proconsuls"). Since at the time there was likely only one court available in Ephesus to hear cases and only one proconsul serving as provincial governor, Luke has sometimes been charged with inaccuracy here. But the town clerk was merely voicing a general principle. He meant that the whole system of courts and proconsuls was normally the proper avenue for seeking redress of a grievance. He added that for questions void of accusation, the best way to resolve them might be a regularly scheduled meeting of the Demos. But he warned them that the present gathering risked Roman wrath. Implicit in what he said was the threat that if the uproar continued, Rome might take away some of the privileges the city enjoyed, including the right of self-government.
No doubt the town clerk was highly respected, and no doubt he spoke with great authority, for when he then dismissed the crowd, no one protested. They all meekly obeyed. The crowd dispersed and left the Christians alone.