It's Tuesday and we continue to read our way through the New Testament in a year. We've passed five months of time in our journey to read thru it all, and to all who are faithfully persevering and continuing to read, a big thank you for sharing the time with me. Today our reading is in Acts 19:1-41. After you finish reading the Scripture, come back and we'll look at it with a fresh set of eyes, mind, and heart.
The geography of Acts is not always easy to keep track of. Paul had begun his third missionary journey when he left Antioch, his home church city, to travel west through the Taurus mountains to revisit the churches from his first missionary journey in Galatia. He traveled west "through the inland" (vs 1, ESV) toward Ephesus. Apollos had already moved from Ephesus back across the Aegean sea to Corinth. (see the map below - it might help get a picture of this all).
Paul headed to Ephesus. If anything was typical of Paul's journeys and his mission to plant Christian communities (the church as an organism not a building) he focused a lot of his energy on key leading centers for Roman commerce, power, and influence. The three leading cities in the east of the Roman Empire were Athens (which was smallest of all them, but an intellectual capital), Corinth which was the largest of the three and the commercial center of the Roman empire, and Ephesus which was situated on the Asian mainland but called "the market of Asia" and was the capital of the Roman province of Asia. Ephesus was famed for being "the guardian of the temple of Artemis". Artemis was a fertility goddess - known as Diana to the Romans - and the statue of Artemis was housed by a large temple made up of 100 pillars, each 60 feet high, supporting a marble roof. It was considered to be one of the seven wonders of the world.
Paul journeyed west from Antioch, through the previously established cities in Galatia to the city of Ephesus. Paul had previously visited Ephesus (18:19) at the end of the second missionary journey and after establishing the beginnings of the church, had left Aquila and Priscilla, along with Apollos behind to serve the church as leaders while he had gone on to Jerusalem and Antioch. The church in Ephesus knew Paul, wanted him to stay with them, and he had promised that he would return (18:21) - and now after a year's absence, he returned.
An unusual event occurred when Paul arrived. Luke writes that as Paul arrived in Ephesus "he found some disciples". It seems to imply that these were people who believed some of the Gospel, but not all of it. Obviously, they had not yet entered into the fellowship of the previously formed Ephesian church. They were people who - like Apollos - had become disciples of John the Baptist, but had not understood what Jesus accomplished and the role of the Holy Spirit in their growth and faith.
Luke records the dialogue which developed between them (2-4) and its sequel (5-7).
Paul’s first question:‘Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?’
Their answer:‘No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.’
Paul’s second question: ‘Then what baptism did you receive?’
Their answer: ‘John’s baptism.’
Paul’s comment: ‘John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance. He told the people to believe in the one coming after him, that is, in Jesus.’
Luke then records: "On hearing this, they were baptized into the name of the Lord Jesus. When Paul placed his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they spoke in tongues and prophesied. There were about twelve men in all. (19:2-7).
This same sort of anomaly had occurred previously with the Samaritan believers (Acts 8:14-17). Many of my Charismatic friends see this as proof that there are two stages of faith and conversion - first faith in trusting Christ as Savior, and second the infilling of the Holy Spirit. My own opinion is that this falls into the realm (again) of something "descriptive" and not something "prescriptive". In other words, Luke is describing something that happened and not prescribing a pattern of something that happens all the time.
You might ask, "then what and why did this happen?" I think these "disciples" had repented according to the word John the Baptist had preached, and they were waiting for the Messiah, but they did not know of the fulfillment that occurred in Jesus. They did not receive the Holy Spirit because (vs 4) they had not put their trust in Jesus Christ for salvation...they didn't know what Jesus had done on the cross. When they did do that - put their faith in Jesus as their Savior - Paul laid hands on them and the "Holy Spirit came upon them" (vs 6). Paul laid hands on them as a way of giving Apostolic approval for the genuineness of their faith in Christ - it was a mini-Pentecost all over again.
Let's be clear about how to read this. The norm of entering into Christianity is in four things: repentance, faith in Jesus Christ, receiving the gift of the Holy Spirit (described as being baptized in the Spirit), and then water baptism. When we get to the Ephesian's letter we will see once again that God is the one who initiates all of these actions in order that we might believe and be adopted into the body of Christ. There are always anomalies in people's personal experiences. The various ways one might describe how they came to faith, does not negate the biblical - even doctrinal descriptions. When we come by faith to Jesus Christ for salvation, we have come because of the Holy Spirit at work drawing us to him. When we believe in Jesus Christ as Savior, we do so because of God's gifts of grace and faith. Paul tells the Ephesian church so - "salvation is by grace through faith, it is a gift of God, not of works, so that no one can boast" (Ephesians 2:8-9).
Luke tells us that Paul stayed in Ephesus for two full years and used Ephesus as a base to establish churches throughout that part of Asia (19:8-20).
Luke spells out two specific details from Paul's time in Ephesus. First, as previously was the pattern, Paul began in the Synagogue, but when opposition and rejection occurred, he moved the disciples to another location - the School - "scole" - of Tyrannus, a lecture hall - in order to establish the church as disciples of Jesus. That is significant if only for the recognition that a disciple comes from the Greek word, "Mathetes", and means "a learner". The role of the church is to "disciple"...teach the believer about "all the things I have told you" (Matt. 28:18-20).
Luke next inserts a story of seven sons of Sceva, a Jewish priest, in order to highlight Ephesus' pagan influences that had even influenced the Jewish leadership. Ephesus was known for its pagan gods and goddesses - over 50 of them were worshiped in various shrines and temples spread across the city. God used Paul in a "power encounter" - i.e., Paul was endowed with "extraordinary miracles", literally, "works of power, not ordinary works". Ephesus was as tied to pagan practices of magic and incantations, witchcraft, and prostitute religious worship as Corinth had been. God used Paul in these extraordinary ways (again descriptive) to validate the message of the Gospel and the power of the Kingdom of God. These sons of Sceva were using their demonic fueled magic to frighten people and make money and thought they could do the same with Jesus. Their exposure was described by Luke in almost comical ways. It all served to highlight the power of God in a city that was immersed in the magical arts. Those who saw and believed now brought their magic arts and books and burned them in public - a large sum of money's worth - and "God's word continued to increase and prevail mightily" (19:20).
As was previously a pattern, not all of the Gospel's opposition came from the Jewish religion but also from the Romans. While Paul made plans to move on and prepare for a trip that he hoped would take him to Rome, a riot broke out. Luke says "a no small disturbance arose concerning 'the Way'" (19:23). Christianity was a faith of Jesus as "the way, truth, and life". A silversmith named Demetrius - one who fashioned silver into various idols, chiefly in the form of Artemis - saw his trade dwindle as more and more people gave up their belief in these idols for faith in Christ Jesus. Luke describes the story in detail in 19:23-41. Paul had taught the believers that idols were not gods, but merely things made by human hands (vs 26). Soon, the whole city was in an uproar (vs 29). The riot was confusing, chaotic, loud, and dangerous. Paul wanted to go into the crowd to explain, and his followers protected him and prevented him from doing so. When the town clerk settles the crowd down he reminds them that the city had a proconsul, so they could take this to the court, but if they continued on they would most certainly incur the wrath of Rome - who looked upon mob violence with great disdain. You can feel the air being taken out of the balloon and the crowd disappears as quickly as it had come together.
I often end these devotions with the word "Peace". As I write this our country is going through anything other than peace. What do we do when madness, chaos, evil rears its ugly head? We need to understand the source of it, and we need to be involved in ways that bring peace, not more chaos. In short, we must be people of God's peace, not participants in a chaotic panic.
Believers, Christians, Disciples...if we are these things...we believe that God is sovereign and that everything works together for good to those who God loves (Romans 8:28). Paul was not wrong for wanting to step in, and his brothers in Christ were not wrong in preventing him from doing so. With both, God was telling them that it takes great courage, wisdom, and faith to enter into the fray and knowing when to do it and when not to is as important as anything. AND, note, God - in the end - used a pagan town clerk to calm everything. God is bigger than the crowd and wiser than us - so we stay calm, we pray, we enter in where possible, and we avoid speaking into things where it is not helpful. Peace instead of Panic.