Having promised to return, Paul comes to Ephesus, where he will do the Lord’s work for three- and one-half years. Ephesus was a city of 200,000 or more located in western Asia, now known as Turkey, in Asia Minor. This was a seaport town, 3 miles inland from the Aegean Sea, located on the Cayster River. Ephesus was ideally situated as a trade route by land and by sea. She was the proud guardian of the temple of Artemis, the fertility goddess. Remains of this structure indicate its beauty. The theater mentioned later is an outdoor amphitheater capable of holding 25,000. Such structures were so well designed that people situated anywhere in the theater could hear the speakers standing below. We do not know who founded the church in Ephesus, but it became quite strong.
Arriving at Ephesus, Paul found some disciples and asked them whether they had received the Holy Spirit when they believed. Since all converts receive the gift of the indwelling Spirit at baptism (Acts 2:38), Paul’s question referred to miraculous gifts of the Spirit. Their answer raised a red flag. If they had never heard of the Holy Spirit, what sort of baptism had they received? John’s baptism was based on repentance and a pledge to believe in the one to follow John—Jesus the Christ. But this baptism made no promise of the Holy Spirit. John’s baptism was no longer valid after the beginning of the New Testament era on Pentecost (Acts 2). The twelve men did not quibble or protest. They did not defend their prior baptism as being good enough.* After being baptized by the authority of the Lord Jesus, the disciples received the gifts of tongues and prophecy, imparted by the laying on of Paul’s hands (cf. Timothy’s gift in 2 Tim. 1:6). Such gifts were given only by laying on of apostles’ hands, as demonstrated by the experience of the Samaritans (Acts 8:18).
*If a baptism once valid but now outdated was not acceptable, what of baptismal practices today that fall short of gospel requirements? This narrative makes it clear that baptism is a serious matter.
After encountering opposition in the synagogue, Paul was given space to preach and teach freely in the hall of Tyrannus. This practice continued for two years, and the gospel spread over the entire province of Asia. Paul’s effective use of such strategic centers is worth emulating in any age. Be the location a synagogue, a school, a marketplace, or a home, Paul continually preached (Acts 20:20).
Does not the expression “extraordinary miracles” intrigue us? Miracles are actions beyond the bounds of what we know as the laws of nature. Miracles, signs, and wonders are always the prerogative of God, and have been performed only by those empowered by God. I seriously doubt the power of the “prayer handkerchiefs” sent out for a price by charlatans today. Though such powers seem to have ended with the apostles and those to whom they gave gifts, God always has the power to perform miracles. Do not limit God.
So-called exorcists in Ephesus tried to tap into miraculous power without authority and were embarrassed as a result. Many who had practiced sorcery brought their worthless scrolls and burned them. God’s power was seen, and his word spread. When the gospel is truly accepted today, perhaps those formerly misled by false writings should summarily dispose of them. Books of false doctrine, magical arts, pornography and sexual filth, etc.
About the time Paul decided to head back to Jerusalem, a major uprising against the gospel occurred in Ephesus. Acts 19:23-41 is subtitled “The Riot in Ephesus” in the NIV. This resistance and riot was stirred by Demetrius, head of the guild of craftsmen who made silver images of Artemis of the Ephesians. Paul had made it clear that idols are not really gods at all. Sometimes people do not resent the gospel until it affects their pocketbook. Couching his criticism of Paul in words that expressed loyalty to Artemis, Demetrius said there was danger “that our trade will lose its good name” (19:27).
Before long, the entire city was in an uproar and grabbed some of Paul’s co-workers and brought them into the magnificent theater for prosecution. It is not known where Paul was when the riot broke out. Screaming at the top of their lungs, the angry mob meant great harm. Note Luke’s sad commentary on mob mentality: “The assembly was in confusion: Some were shouting one thing, some another. Most of the people did not even know why they were there” (19:32). Good people, do not be led by the strident words of troublemakers to go and do harm.
Paul wished to address the crowd but was warned against this by both the disciples and officials of the province. This warning quite likely saved Paul’s life. The city clerk took wise action and deftly quieted the crowd. He noted that the accused evangelists had done no harm, and if there was a legal matter, it should be settled in a legal assembly. Rome looked with great disdain on riots and uprisings. The clerk warned the people of Ephesus that they were in danger of being so charged. He dismissed the assembly, and the dangerous episode was past.
The Greek word for assembly, used in verses 39 and 41 is ecclesia, the word often translated “church” in the New Testament. This word was long in use in a secular fashion, referring to an assembly of citizens to conduct town business. Jesus began to use the word to refer to the gathering of those who would be saved through his sacrifice. “I will build by church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it” (Matt. 16:18). The term church refers both to the church universal, and to local gatherings of the saints. Is it not wonderful to gather in sacred assembly to conduct the Lord’s business?! There we praise God together, and there we feel the sincere warmth of spiritual fellowship. May God bless his church.
My comments are not an inspired commentary, but rather a few words to draw attention to the background, context, and dynamic situation of the book of Acts. May God bless your reading of His Word. T.C.