I was recently invited to be a speaker at a conference in another African country, which turned out to be a disappointing experience, though I trust it will ultimately prove to be a constructive one.
It confirmed for me a conclusion that perhaps large portions of the church on the African continent are a mile wide and a millimetre deep. Nominal Christianity is a problem.
You may think that one conference with a couple hundred people is not a vantage point from which to make this conclusion, but it was confirmed again on the night before we departed for home. I met a solid pastor in a restaurant, who confirmed the shallowness that I perceived, but who encouraged me by his reports of some of his work there.
I was grieved on several fronts.
First, I was grieved by the theological confusion I saw. The theological zoo of which I was pre-warned seemed in some ways to be more of a theological circus. It reminded me of many Christian bookstores, where one might find a book by Charles Spurgeon alongside books by Benny Hinn.
Second, I was grieved by the manipulation of the congregation by those who, though they may have been very sincere, were at the same time way off the mark. There were a number of empty promises. For example, there were unfounded warnings of generational curses and promises for generational repentance. There was a seeming disregard for the authority and sufficiency of Scripture, accompanied by an emphasis on “revelation” and “visions.” Music was given a decidedly central place to supposedly “support” the preached Word. One elderly Muslim man in attendance, to whom I had tried witnessing, but who was clearly not a believer, seemingly enjoyed it and even uttered, “Amen”!
I left wondering, what can be done? What can I do? What can we do?
But then I returned to South Africa and attended another conference, which proved to be a breath of fresh air. It was clear that God is doing something in our part of Africa. The gospel, through local churches, is going far and near, wide and near. So I was encouraged to answer the above questions in the following manner: Keep doing what we are doing, but more intensely, and do a better job of it. Specifically, we need to plant local churches that will be model churches: key churches, led by key men in key cities. I want to build the case for this from the historical account of the founding of the church at Ephesus.
God willing, I will begin an exposition of Paul’s epistle to the Ephesians. It will be helpful for us to know the background.
The church at Ephesus was a historically significant local church. Paul spent three years there and then left it in the care of Timothy, a man who was given the rare title “man of God” (1 Timothy 6:11; 2 Timothy 3:17), which is used elsewhere to designate the likes of Moses and David. It was a church that became known for its doctrinal, discernment and discipline. The church was significant long after the death of Paul and Timothy, and it boasted some wonderful church leaders.
The epistle to this church is rich on many levels, not the least of which its presentation of the glory of the local church.
There are some important lessons for us to learn in the founding account of the church in Acts 19. If we embrace these lessons we will be encouraged to keep focusing on what is important. We will be encouraged as to what the Lord can do in and through us. If we embrace these lessons we will have hope for the future of our continent. I want to study this account under four broad headings.
The Founding of the Church in Ephesus
The actual founding of the church is recorded in vv. 1–10:
And it happened, while Apollos was at Corinth, that Paul, having passed through the upper regions, came to Ephesus. And finding some disciples he said to them, “ Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?”
So they said to him, “We have not so much as heard whether there is a Holy Spirit.”
And he said to them, “Into what then were you baptised?”
So they said, “Into John’s baptism.”
Then Paul said, “John indeed baptised with a baptism of repentance, saying to the people that they should believe on Him who would come after him, that is, on Christ Jesus.”
When they heard this, they were baptised in the name of the Lord Jesus. And when Paul had laid hands on them, the Holy Spirit came upon them, and they spoke with tongues and prophesied. Now the men were about twelve in all.
And he went into the synagogue and spoke boldly for three months, reasoning and persuading concerning the things of the kingdom of God. But when some were hardened and did not believe, but spoke evil of the Way before the multitude, he departed from them and withdrew the disciples, reasoning daily in the school of Tyrannus. And this continued for two years, so that all who dwelt in Asia heard the word of the Lord Jesus, both Jews and Greeks.
This church, which became a remarkable church, was founded the same way that every biblical local church is founded: by the faithful proclamation of the gospel.
The record begins, “And it happened.” I love that phrase. What happened? The faithful ministry of a missionary resulted in the establishment of a local church. This missionary engaged a group of religious people (whom, it would seem were, lost), faithfully preached Christ to them, with the result that they were gloriously saved. Upon their profession of faith, they were baptised. They gave evidence of having been converted (the Holy Spirit) and the nucleus of the church was formed.
Paul just so “happened” to be in the right place at the right time, and he preached the right message so that a church was founded. But we should note that this church-planting ministry rode the back of the ministry of two wonderful Christians, a husband and wife, Aquila and Priscilla (18:24–26).
This faithful couple had been run out of Rome by the cruel edict of Emperor Claudius (18:1–3). But they did not abandon their faith. They clearly adopted the mindset that life is short, and so they chose to be faithful. They were faithful and gentle with the truth of the gospel. Rather than bludgeoning a man who did not cross his T’s and dot his I’s with precision, they chose rather to tenderly and truthfully instruct Apollos more deeply and correctly in the gospel. The result was a stronger and more effective evangelist (18:27–28).
The third stage in the founding of this local church was when Paul went into the local synagogue and spoke boldly for three months, reasoning and persuading concerning the things of the kingdom of God. The result was friction, and so Paul moved to a place known as “the school of Tyrannus” (vv. 8–9). The culmination of this ministry was a local church, which would be significant in the historical stewardship and spread of the gospel.
The takeaway is this: Churches are planted by faithful proclamation of the Word by both congregation and leaders. There is a need for all of us to be equipped. There are opportunities as well as responsibilities to evangelise the nominal. There are still plenty of people who have a “baptism of John” apart from the baptism of the Holy Spirit (see 1 Corinthians 12:13). They need the gospel.
Are you equipped to help found a local church? You should be heading in that direction.
The Abounding/Resounding of the Church in Ephesus
We are told that Paul continued this ministry of teaching and preaching for two years so that “all who dwelt in Asia [Minor] heard the word of the Lord Jesus, both Jews and Greeks” (v. 10; see Ephesians 2–3). That would be an incredible statement if it was not inspired. The result of his ministry can be read in vv. 11–20:
Now God worked unusual miracles by the hands of Paul, so that even handkerchiefs or aprons were brought from his body to the sick, and the diseases left them and the evil spirits went out of them. Then some of the itinerant Jewish exorcists took it upon themselves to call the name of the Lord Jesus over those who had evil spirits, saying, “We exorcise you by the Jesus whom Paul preaches.” Also there were seven sons of Sceva, a Jewish chief priest, who did so.
And the evil spirit answered and said, “Jesus I know, and Paul I know; but who are you?”
Then the man in whom the evil spirit was leaped on them, overpowered them, and prevailed against them, so that they fled out of that house naked and wounded. This became known both to all Jews and Greeks dwelling in Ephesus; and fear fell on them all, and the name of the Lord Jesus was magnified. And many who had believed came confessing and telling their deeds. Also, many of those who had practiced magic brought their books together and burned them in the sight of all. And they counted up the value of them, and it totalled fifty thousand pieces of silver. So the word of the Lord grew mightily and prevailed.
Later, Paul would remind the elders of the Ephesian church that he had been faithful to teach the whole counsel of God (20:27). In other words, he preached the whole Bible in the whole region. And it is clear from 19:20 that the Lord attended his ministry with His blessing, “so the word of the Lord grew mightily and prevailed.” How should we interpret this phrase?
The gospel spread, and it did so far and wide. It spread, powerfully and effectively, far and wide. It spread, powerfully and effectively, far and wide and deep. This is precisely what we desire. It is specifically what we need in South Africa and throughout the continent: a ministry of the gospel that is deep, wide and far.
But we need to follow this up with another question: What is required for this to take place? What will it take for the church to see the word of the Lord growing mightily and prevailing?
It will take those who know the Word of the Lord. It will take those who are convinced concerning the Word of the Lord—its power to save and its absolute necessity to be expounded so as to be embraced. It will take those who are being converted by the Word of the Lord. It will take those who are courageous for the Word of the Lord. It will take those who are willing and committed to couriering the Word of the Lord.
Note the connection between v. 10 and v. 20. The passage begins with God working unusual miracles (v. 10), and it ends with the Word of the Lord growing mightily and prevailing (v. 20). A couple of things need to be observed and considered.
First, we note that the former led to the latter. This has always been the biblical pattern (for example, in the ministries Moses, Elijah and Elisha, Jesus and the apostles—see Ephesians 2:19–22). We need to beware getting stuck in v. 10! The goal is always v. 20. It is interesting that, when Paul departed from the elders at Ephesus, he did not commend them to the miracles of God but rather to the Word of His grace (20:32). If we are not careful then we may become guilty of perpetuating the shallow due to obsession with v. 10 and therefore never getting to v. 20.
Second, we note that the latter is not dependent on the former. We don’t necessarily need v. 10 for v. 20 to occur.
Third, God does at times gives to us v. 10 in our ministry of spreading His Word far and wide and deep. It does seem, particularly in some heavily Muslim cultures, that God is currently using visions and miracles of various sorts to get people’s attention. Beware of quenching the Spirit.
This should be our desire. South Africa needs this. Our nearby communities need this. Our continent needs this. How will we do this? By exemplifying all of the above. Will you do so?
The Grounding of the Church in Ephesus
Chapter 20 clearly instructs us that Paul had done a thorough job of grounding the church, perhaps primarily by grounding the elders.
His statement that he had not ceased for three years to warn them with tears (v. 31), along with his claim to have not shunned to declare to them the whole counsel of God (v. 27), imply that Paul had done a grand job of grounding the church (and its leaders) in the Word of the Lord. It was no doubt because of this that the church of Ephesus remained doctrinally and discerningly solid.
Though there is more to healthy church life (and as we see in Revelation 2, the church in Ephesus lagged in heartfelt devotion to the Lord), nevertheless, without being grounded in the Word a church will never be both wide and deep.
As I have argued before, the text which informs us that Paul spent three years teaching “publicly and from house to house” no doubt emphasises his ministry of making disciples commencing with evangelism. However, this ministry also no doubt included training those who could and who would train others (2 Timothy 2:2). Most likely, Paul had spent much time and effort grounding many of those who became elders in the church at Ephesus.
The point is that for the church to be wide and deep and to therefore, in a healthy way, reach near and far requires leadership that is competent—in many areas. Such competence is the responsibility of the local church, with special reference to her leadership.
My recent experience in East Africa was a reminder of this—and so have been recent events amongst both evangelical and reformed Christians and churches in the United States. In East Africa, I met a brother who was travelling from conference to conference because the leaders of his church, without equipping him, had simply informed him that he was now in charge of the youth ministry. He was, by his own admission, clueless and was looking for help. I was able to point him to the other pastor I had met who was training leaders.
Two of the speakers at the conference spoke only Portuguese. Their teaching was translated by a lady, who was only just learning English, from Portuguese into English and then from English into the local dialect. Even despite this obvious language barrier, several non-Portuguese speaking men were appointed to “shepherd” those who responded to the Word. One could not help but wonder what eventual message was received by the hearers.
The “entertainment” aspect of the conference was well received, but there was a noticeable “expositional yawn” during the preaching. Some of the more “liberal” preachers were better received; one man told me that many considered us “Reformed” types somewhat dry.
Moving away from that particular conference, there have been several prominent Christian leaders whose character has been called into question, particular with the Ashley Madison scandal. Prior to that scandal, a well-known pastor was removed from the leadership of his church due to adultery. While he confessed his adultery, he did so in the context of “confessing” his wife’s prior adultery. It was right to remove him. More recently, after finding his marriage “irreparable” he filed for divorce, and then later the same week was hired by another church in a ministry development capacity. I groaned when I read of these developments.
All of these examples share something in common: the lack of credible leadership and the need for competent leadership in the church, not merely when it comes to being skilled in the Word but also when it comes to character issues. Church leaders are to be skilled textually, pastorally and morally.
There is a pastors’ conference that I hope to attend next year, whose theme is “the man of God.” The four subjects to be dealt with under character issues of the man of God are faithfulness, fruitfulness, fitfulness and forgiveness. Unless the pastor/elder is characterised by these, he is not worthy of the title “man of God.” We have too many cases where “the man of God” is not. This is a large contributing factor the church that is very wide yet not very deep.
So, what will we—you and I—do about it? In fact, you might at this point even be wondering what in the world this has to do with you. Well, it has everything to do with you; that is, if you are a member of a biblical local church.
If you are a member, then you are a part of an army on a mission: God’s mission. You therefore have a responsibility. Your responsibility is to pray that the Lord of the harvest will send forth labourers into His vineyard to gather the harvest. You must do your part to help your church to be deep so that it can be wide (Ephesians 4:11–16). You are responsible to care about this, and to perhaps step in the gaps by growing so that you can become a spiritual leader, in some capacity, to others.
This includes women! We need to give some healthy and serious scriptural thought to the need for women leaders in the congregation—not elders, but leaders.
Church member, consider the opportunities you have to grow and to develop. Is there some ministry you can help develop to the end that the church will be equipped to reach far and near, wide and deep?
Let me bring this point to a close with a reference to, and an encouragement from, a church that exemplifies this matter of being wide and deep.
Grace Community Church (GCC) in Los Angeles, California, under the teaching vision of pastor-teacher John MacArthur, is one such congregation. It is a church that is both wide and deep, and it is reaching people far and near. However, as I have discussed with other pastors in South Africa over the years, GCC does not serve well as a model church, for it is not reproducible—at least here in our culture. There are a number of barriers we face as we seek to replicate GCC: American economics, the extreme giftedness of the congregation, the international strengthening of the church due to unique North American connections and opportunities, and the extremely rare gift of John MacArthur.
But there is a local church in the United States that, while it also has some things that may not be reproducible here in Alberton, is more reproducible in South Africa. There is much by which we can be encouraged rather than overwhelmed in this church. I am speaking of Capitol Hill Baptist Church (CHBC) in Washington, D.C. I have attended CHBC and it is a church with a healthy expository ministry, which understands the gospel and biblical accountability. They have an ethos in which every member serves actively in ministry. There is a good understanding of discipleship, priority of the local church, discipline, etc. When I first read Mark Dever’s 9 Marks of a Healthy Church, I remember thinking that I would like to meet him one day, because we think alike.
By God’s grace, we are healthy. We have had a growing breadth, which I believe has grown out of our depth. CHBC is miles wider than we are, and I believe much deeper. But our journey is not over. There is every reason to believe that we can and that we will grow even wider and deeper. In fact, for our 2016 missions conference, Andy Johnson, one of the elders at CHBC, will be our keynote speaker.
Be encouraged and committed. As Carey famously said, expect great things from God and attempt great things for God.
The pastor I mentioned earlier whom I met in East Africa gave a wonderful report of his ministry. He said when he first came to the country in which he serves, he began ministry by setting up a school to meet some of the temporal needs of the community, all the while ministering the gospel. Things grew to such a degree that he said to me, “We’ve now reached our entire community.” It was a wonderful testimony. I’ve never heard that before. At present, they are setting up training centres to help other regions in that country reach their own communities. That is what I desire for BBC. It is surely what all good pastors desire for their churches.
The Confounding by the Church in Ephesus
The remainder of the chapter, and into chapter 20, records the confounding of the church at Ephesus:
When these things were accomplished, Paul purposed in the Spirit, when he had passed through Macedonia and Achaia, to go to Jerusalem, saying, “After I have been there, I must also see Rome.” So he sent into Macedonia two of those who ministered to him, Timothy and Erastus, but he himself stayed in Asia for a time.
And about that time there arose a great commotion about the Way. For a certain man named Demetrius, a silversmith, who made silver shrines of Diana, brought no small profit to the craftsmen. He called them together with the workers of similar occupation, and said: “Men, you know that we have our prosperity by this trade. Moreover you see and hear that not only at Ephesus, but throughout almost all Asia, this Paul has persuaded and turned away many people, saying that they are not gods which are made with hands. So not only is this trade of ours in danger of falling into disrepute, but also the temple of the great goddess Diana may be despised and her magnificence destroyed, whom all Asia and the world worship.”
Now when they heard this, they were full of wrath and cried out, saying, “Great is Diana of the Ephesians!” So the whole city was filled with confusion, and rushed into the theatre with one accord, having seized Gaius and Aristarchus, Macedonians, Paul’s travel companions. And when Paul wanted to go in to the people, the disciples would not allow him. Then some of the officials of Asia, who were his friends, sent to him pleading that he would not venture into the theatre. Some therefore cried one thing and some another, for the assembly was confused, and most of them did not know why they had come together. And they drew Alexander out of the multitude, the Jews putting him forward. And Alexander motioned with his hand, and wanted to make his defence to the people. But when they found out that he was a Jew, all with one voice cried out for about two hours, “Great is Diana of the Ephesians!”
And when the city clerk had quieted the crowd, he said: “Men of Ephesus, what man is there who does not know that the city of the Ephesians is temple guardian of the great goddess Diana, and of the image which fell down from Zeus? Therefore, since these things cannot be denied, you ought to be quiet and do nothing rashly. For you have brought these men here who are neither robbers of temples nor blasphemers of your goddess. Therefore, if Demetrius and his fellow craftsmen have a case against anyone, the courts are open and there are proconsuls. Let them bring charges against one another. But if you have any other enquiry to make, it shall be determined in the lawful assembly. For we are in danger of being called in question for today’s uproar, there being no reason which we may give to account for this disorderly gathering.” And when he had said these things, he dismissed the assembly.
After the uproar had ceased, Paul called the disciples to himself, embraced them, and departed to go to Macedonia.
All was not smooth in Ephesus, even though this church was founded, wonderfully grounded and miraculously abounded. Progress in the Great Commission is rarely hassle-free. My pastor used to say that the church’s assignment is to do the Great Commission and to address the problems that arise from doing it. Ephesus was a case in point. In fact, it would seem that, as the church progressed, the problems that arose in consequence of this led to Paul’s permanent departure from it.
The Way they Were
When Paul and Silas ministered in Thessalonica they were identified with Christians who had such an impact through the gospel that they “turned the world upside down” (Acts 17:6). We see this quite clearly here.
It is apparent for any with eyes to see that the city of Ephesus was in an uproar as the result of the Word of the Lord growing mightily and having prevailed. Idolatry was challenged and even threatened. Economy was affected. Ephesus was confounded by changed lives by the power of the gospel. As the text says, it was in a “commotion” (v. 23)—in fact, a great commotion—because of the Way.
The Commercial Cause of the Commotion
As the riot broke out, some leading officials, fearful of Rome’s response, sought to disperse the crowd. In an interesting piece of blind honesty, they said that they could give no reason to account for their disorderly gathering (v. 40). But let me suggest the underlying reason: economic.
Though they sought to give it a religious justification (vv. 26–29, 33–36), the underlying concern was financial. In fact, this is made plain in vv. 24–25. We can even hear the clang of the cash register in v. 26: “Moreover you see and hear that not only in Asia, this Paul has persuaded and turned away many people, saying that they are not gods which are made with hands.” In other words, “Even our exports are suffering under the spread of this iconoclastic ministry of these gospel preachers. The further their message spreads, the smaller our incomes. Something needs to be done about this financially crippling change in worldview.”
Later when the new converts burned their idolatrous images of Artemis (Diana), it is estimated that the value was fifty thousand pieces of silver. A piece of silver was a day’s wage for an ordinary worker. That is a lot of money in any economy. Truly, as the word of the Lord spread far and near, its effects were wide and deep. The gospel touched the culture in a way that was most painful—in the wallet.
The point is simply this: As the Word of the Lord grew, it prevailed in the lives of its converts. They were growing deep as well as wide. We can summarise this effect by the observation that transformation often is accompanied by commotion.
First, let’s address the issue of transformation.
The gospel fundamentally changes hearts. This is the first front in which we need to address our efforts. Far and near, we must preach the gospel and aim to plant this seed deep into soil prepared by God. The salvation of a soul is invaluable.
Yet it is true that once hearts are changed, so are minds (see Romans 12:1–2; 2 Corinthians 10:1–5). And with changed minds comes changed manners, and with changed manners often there is an attendant change in cultures and communities.
Consider, for example, the way that the changed life of the demoniac in Mark 5 ultimately impacted the community in which he lived. The history of missions likewise bears witness to this reality. Consider the impact that the arrival of the gospel had historically in lands like India and Zambia.
On my recent trip to East Africa, we were at one point driving back to the airport from the conference venue and we encountered chaotic traffic like I have never seen. My mind immediately went to this principle. Surely one evidence of the gospel gripping a culture is order. Where the gospel has no roots, disorder reigns. The chaos was needless, inexcusable in a country that professes an 85% Christian population (with 32% noted as evangelical). What is the problem? While the gospel may be known in some sense far and near, and even wide, it is really quite shallow.
The main goal of the Great Commission is not to change culture, but such change is a blessed byproduct. As the church grows wide and deep, transformation can be expected, at some level, under the sovereign rule of God.
Second, let’s address the issue of commotion.
The gospel caused a stir—a big one. When the gospel begins to transform a culture, you can expect confrontation. Beware the danger of thinking that the progress of the gospel means an easier life. Often, nothing can be further from the truth. As I recently was reminded, the church is still in the world.
But this kind of commotion described here is commotion that we should welcome: defying of the false gods. Would to God that we would see the proclamation of the gospel result in a defying of the homosexual agenda, abortion and human trafficking. The church should surely become a threat where the gospel takes root. The point is simply this: Though we should never be looking for a fight, nevertheless we should not be surprised by the life-transforming gospel causing a stir as lives are changed.
As we seek to be faithful with the gospel, we should do so anticipating that it will be spread far and near, wide and deep. We must labour as much for the latter as we do for the former. We should be hopeful for this on our continent and in our country.
Let’s not lose perspective in these trying days. Let’s not lose perseverance in these troublesome times. Let’s not let “go off” preaching and discipling in these tempting days. Let’s unite for the purpose of the spreading the gospel far and near, wide and deep. Let’s keep going far and near, wide and deep—to the glory of God.