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Uproars Because of the "Way"
Wednesday Evening Home Bible Study
January 28, 2009
Theme: Paul's ministry in Ephesus shows us the power of the gospel to turn a culture upside-down by turning its people right side-up.
The great biblical scholar and archaeologist William Ramsey has called this passage "the most instructive picture of society in an Asian city at this period that has come down to us" (St. Paul the Traveler and Roman Citizen, p. 277). But Paul had a more personal view of the incident described in it; and it may well be what he was speaking of when he said that "Alexander the coppersmith did me much harm"; and that "I was delivered out of the mouth of the lion" (2 Timothy 4:14, 17).
In this passage, we see the ongoing ministry of Paul in the city of Ephesus—a ministry that began in Acts 18:19, was carried on for a time through Aquila and Priscilla, and was pursued in earnest by Paul in 19:1-7. And what's more, we see that the faithful preaching of the gospel can become the enemy of a culture that is entrenched in evil; because it transforms the individual people within that culture into men and women of God.
I. THE APOSTLE'S EPHESIAN MINISTRY FOR 'THE WAY' (vv. 8-12).
A. After Paul had ministered to the "Ephesian Twelve" (19:1-7), he then (as was in keeping with his usual plan) "went into the synagogue and spoke boldly" concerning the things of the kingdom of God "for three months (v. 8). We're told that, though he spoke "boldly", his method was that of "reasoning" and "persuading" with those who heard. Eventually, however, some of the Jews were "hardened" and "did not believe" (v. 9). More than simply not accepting the gospel themselves, they became aggressive opponents to it—speaking "evil of the Way before the multitude". Note how they recognized that the gospel was more than just a belief in One who claimed to be "the Way" (John 14:6)—it was a lifestyle of obedience in following Him who is "the Way", and is itself "a Way" of living. Most people are willing to tolerate a philosophy that they don't agree with—so long as it doesn't require a change in actual life-style!
B. Apparently, Paul was able to bring some to obedience to Christ. But no longer welcomed in the synagogue at Ephesus as they once had been (see 18:20), Paul departed and "withdrew the disciples". He took them, instead, to what appears to be a rented lecture hall, connected to "the school of Tyrannus"; from which he "reasoned daily". It appears that Paul also worked in a trade during this time (Acts 20:34), and also taught people privately in homes in the evenings (20:20, 31); so it's clear that he labored diligently during a two year period of ministry (v. 10). The result was that "all who dwelt in Asia heard the word of the Lord Jesus, both Jews and Greeks". Perhaps Paul was instrumental in the formation of many of the churches in Asia that are mentioned in Revelation 1:11.
C. In addition to Paul's teaching ministry, we read that God confirmed his message through works of miracles by his hand (v. 11). Apparently even handkerchiefs or aprons that were brought from Paul's body to sick people caused them to become well, and drove evil spirits out of them (v. 12). This had the same impact as God's miraculous confirmation of Peter's preaching had in Jerusalem (5:15-16). God was proving, through His own mighty works, that this truly was "the Way".
II. THE PREVAILING IMPACT OF 'THE WAY' ON PEOPLE (vv. 13-22).
A. The Lord's confirmation of His own message through Paul inspired a sense of 'competition' from magicians and exorcists among the people. Jesus made reference to the fact that there were 'exorcists' even among the Jewish people in Judah (Matthew 12:27). Apparently, some Jews who lived in Ephesus, who were advertising themselves as exorcist, took it upon themselves to "call the name of the Lord Jesus over those who had evil spirits" (v. 13)—thus showing us the manner in which God had healed, through Paul, those afflicted by demons. The false exorcists, however, thought of Jesus' name as something they could use—and didn't think of Him as someone that they needed to have any real relationship with. "We exorcise you," they would say, "by the Jesus whom Paul preaches". One incident in particular stood out in Luke's notice. Seven sons of a man named Sceva—a Jewish chief priest—did this; much to their regret. The demon answered, "Jesus I know, and Paul I know; but who are you?" (vv. 14-15). The demon possessed man severely attacked them so that they ran out naked and wounded (v. 16). As a result, the greatness of the power of the message Paul preached was established among the Jews and Greeks dwelling in Ephesus. We're told that "fear fell on them all, and the name of the Lord Jesus was magnified" (v. 17). Note here that, when God shows the greatness of His power among a people, not only is there "fear" but there is also esteem for Jesus! (See also Acts 5:11-14).
B. As God was showing the greatness of His power in the preaching of the gospel, many of the pagan peoples of Ephesus "believed" and "came confessing and telling their deeds" (v. 18). What seemed to dominate these people was occultism and magic practices; and so, in repentance, many brought their books on magic together and burned them publicly. Someone counted the cost of the books to be fifty-thousand pieces of silver (v. 19). This is a difficult value for us to estimate today; but it must have been a great sum. It could have been the equivalent of 50,000 days hire of a normal laborer (roughly in the tens of millions of dollars)—and as Dr. Lenski noted, it was "one of the best investments these believers ever made" (Acts, p. 798). It demonstrated a repentance that truly cost them something—not only in personal possessions, but also in social standing in a culture that was given over to such magic practices.
C. We're told that, through all of this, "the word of the Lord grew mightily and prevailed" (v. 20). People were hearing the good news of Jesus and were turning to Him in repentance. As time went along, it must have become clear to Paul that an effective work was established in Ephesus; and he "purposed in the Spirit" to move on. He intended to pass through Macedonia and Achaia, and then move to Jerusalem. And here, we discover that he felt the Lord's leading to move toward a very strategic opportunity for the Gospel—Rome itself (v. 21). With this in mind, he sent two of his "deacons"—Timothy and Eastus—on ahead into Macedonia; but he himself stayed in Asia "for a time" (v. 22). Paul was not willing, it seems, to establish a long-term ministry for himself, but was ever on the watch for new frontiers into which "the Way" might spread.
III. THE CULTURAL COMMOTION AGAINST 'THE WAY' (vv. 23-41).
A. It's then that a great commotion occurred about "the Way" (v. 23). A certain silversmith named Demetrius—apparently a man of some influence in the trade, because he made silver shrines for the worship of the goddess Diana (or Artemus), and because he brought significant profit to others in his trade—became alarmed at the loss of revenue that resulted from the spread of the gospel. The worship of Diana was vital to the Ephesian economy; and the gospel was proving to be bad for business. He gathered many in his trade together and explained that something must be done to stop Paul, who had preached the gospel "throughout almost all Asia", and has "turned away many people" from the cult of Diana by "saying that they are not gods which are made with hands" (vv. 25-26). He explained that the trade itself was in danger; but not wanting to sound so crass, he adds that the temple of "the great goddess Diana may be despised and her magnificence destroyed, whom all Asia and the world worship" (v. 27). This sounds very much like the arguments that were used to oppose Paul's preaching in Philippi (see Acts 16:16-21). Again, many are willing to tolerate a philosophy they don't agree with— but not when it changes lives for the good, and ruins the profits gained by sin!
B. The news of this financial threat filled the tradesmen with wrath; and they started the repeated cry, "Great is Diana of the Ephesians" (v. 28)—which suggests that reasoned discussion about the matter was not about to be allowed! Soon, the whole city was caught up in confusion and rushed to the local "theater" (the place of public gathering) "with one accord, having seized Gaius [Romans 16:23] and Aristarchus [Colossians 4:10], Paul's travel companions" (v. 29). One can immediately see the danger these two men were in—as well as Paul. Paul wanted to confront the crowd; but both the disciples and local officials urged him to stay away (vv. 30-31). Sometimes, it's God's will that His servants stay out of danger rather than jump recklessly into it.
C. The city was in a dangerous condition. Some were crying out one thing, some were crying out another; and nobody was sure just why the angry gathering had occurred. The Jews in the community sought to put one of their own—Alexander—before everyone; and he wanted to make his defense. But before he could speak, the crowd discovered that he was a Jew; and they cried out with one voice—for a period of two hours!—"Great is Diana of the Ephesians!" (vv. 32-34).
D. Perhaps the labors of Paul would have been lost, if it weren't for the provision of a wise government leader. The city clerk quieted the crowd by telling them that everyone knows that the city is the guardian of the temple of Diana, and also of an image that was supposed to have come down from heaven (v. 35). Since this was so, he urged that nothing rash should be done (v. 36). He affirmed that the men who had been dragged into the theater were "neither robbers of temples nor blasphemers" of the goddess (v. 37)—thus vindicating the work of the missionaries in the city of Ephesus! He urged that, if a complaint was needed to be made, proper legal channels should be used to do so (vv. 38-39); because the city was in danger of being held accountable by the Roman government for an uproar that could not be explained (v. 40). This had the result of breaking the angry crowd up. This not only gave greater credibility to Paul in his work, but also of making the message of 'the Way' even more well known!
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Jesus warned us not to think that He came to bring peace on earth "but a sword" (Matthew 10:24ff). When the gospel changes lives, it becomes a threat to cultures that are dependent upon sin. But let's learn that this is God's way of changing culture—by transforming people with the message of Jesus Christ one person at a time.
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