Several months ago, I received an email from the eldership of another church that was adopting logo and motto to describe a particular aspect of their ministry. They had decided on calling it “The Word to the World.” They subsequently discovered that BBC uses such a motto and so wrote to ask if we would mind them also doing so. Of course, I told them that there was no problem with that. The motto is certainly not unique to us and neither should be the goal. Should not every local church desire, determine and labour to get God’s Word to the world?
The New Testament reveals several churches that were mightily used of God to get the Word out. Many local churches were significantly used to quite literally get the Word to the world.
For example, consider the church at Jerusalem and how, through some intense persecution (under the helm of Saul!), the Word went to Antioch some 500km north. We have also seen how, from Jerusalem, the gospel went to the Samaritans and to some Gentiles in Caesarea.
From the church in Antioch, the Word quite literally went into all the known world as the local church sent Barnabas and Saul (Paul) as missionaries. Later, Paul and Silas would team up from Antioch and the gospel would go to new territories.
Joining this esteemed group of missionary churches was the local church at Ephesus. This local church apparently had its beginnings, as seen in the latter part of Acts 18, with a brief visit by Paul. His ministry was then built upon by the labours of Aquila and Priscilla, and further strengthened by the powerfully persuasive preaching ministry of Apollos. All of this latter ministry took part during what was a significant time of Paul’s absence while he visited Jerusalem and returned for a furlough to his sending church in Antioch.
But upon Paul’s return to Ephesus (19:1), the church seems to have grown by leaps and bounds. Initially, Paul encountered some disciples of John the Baptist who were sectarian rather than saved. He proclaimed Christ and His gospel and they were converted. The text informs us that there were about twelve men in all, which means (as is often the case in the Gospels) that there may also have been some men and women in the group. Regardless, the point is that there were quite a number of new converts. The church was well on its way to growth. This brings us to the text presently under discussion.
The rest of Acts 19 records further labours and incidents that accompanied the growth of the church in Ephesus. But unlike Vegas, what happened in Ephesus did not stay in Ephesus. In fact, from Ephesus the Word went out to the entire region of Asia Minor.
In this study, we will consider 19:8-20 under several headings, but with the overall theme of our responsibility and opportunity as a local church to get the Word out—to get the Word to the world.
We Must Take Seriously our Responsibility
There are several things that Paul experienced throughout this passage, of which we must take note as we seek to learn from it. In the first place, we see that he experienced opportunity. Luke writes, “And he went into the synagogue and spoke boldly for three months, reasoning and persuading concerning the things of the kingdom of God” (v. 8).
This was a highly unusual experience for Paul: three months of preaching without a riot!
As always (see Acts 9:27; 13:46; 14:3; Ephesians 6:20), Paul preached “boldly.” The word means “freely,” “confidently” or “courageously.” And what did he preach “boldly” for three months? “The things concerning the kingdom of God.”
“The kingdom of God” is a phrase that is used some 69 times in the New Testament. It refers, as has been said, to the rule of God in the heart of man. Stott correctly notes that “to argue from the Old Testament Scriptures about the kingdom is the same as to argue that Jesus is the Christ, since it is Jesus the Christ who inaugurated the kingdom.”1 Paul was seeking to “reasonably persuade” people to leave the rule of sin and Satan and death for the gracious, loving and liberating rule of God in Christ (cf. Colossians 1:13).
When we enter God’s kingdom—implying that we have received the Holy Spirit—it is expected that our “removal” will be noticeable. After all, “no fornicator, unclean person, nor covetous man, who is an idolater, has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God” (Ephesians 5:5). Again, “Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived. Neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor homosexuals, nor sodomites, nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners will inherit the kingdom of God” (1 Corinthians 6:9-10). As Paul would categorically tell the Galatians, “those who practise such things will not inherit the kingdom of God” (Galatians 5:21).
We Must Be Prepared for Adversity
Though he initially faced an opposition-free period of preaching, eventually “some were hardened and did not believe, but spoke evil of the Way before the multitude” (v. 9a). Paul eventually experienced opposition.
The word “hardened” means “rough,” “severe” or “difficult.” It is translated in Luke 23:31 by the word “dry.” MacArthur notes,
The imperfect tense of the verb shows that the hardening was a process. Over the course of Paul’s three-month ministry in the Ephesian synagogue, some hearts gradually hardened against the gospel. . . . Their refusing to repent and believe the gospel is classified as being “disobedient,” since belief is a divine command.2
The writer of Hebrews is passionate in his exhortation for his readers not to harden themselves to the gospel (3:8, 13, 15; 4:17). Of course, hardening falls within the gamut of God’s sovereignty (Romans 9:18); nevertheless, the hearer must take responsibility that he does not harden his own heart.
Those who were hardened “did not believe.” To not believe is to disobey (cf. Romans 2:8; 10:21; 1 Peter 4:17). Unbelief is the sin of disobedience, which is the root of all disobedience. After all, repentance is a command, not a suggestion (see Acts 17:30).
Those who were hardened and would not believe “spoke evil of the Way before the multitude.” Slander is the devil’s strategy, and it comes naturally to those who will not believe, for what we say is simply a manifestation of what we believe (Matthew 15:11, 17-18).
Christianity is frequently referred to in Acts as “the Way.” This makes sense because, for the Christian, Christ and His Word is the way of all ways to walk.
We Must Make the Most of Our Opportunity
And so, after a relatively trouble-free three-month period of preaching, Paul faced some opposition. How would be respond? We are told in vv. 9b-10.
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.
Simply stated, he experienced even more opportunity.
I was recently privileged to sit under the ministry of Don Carson, who at one point related a story from his youth. His father, Tom, was a pastor in French-speaking Canada at a time when Protestant churches were scarce in a very Roman Catholic dominated region. About the same time, great opposition to the gospel broke out in French-speaking Zaire, and many missionaries were expelled. Looking for new fields of service, many of those missionaries made their way to Canada, to the very area in which the Carsons were ministering.
These missionaries, however, did not stay very long, and when a young Don Carson asked his father why so many of them were leaving, Tom explained that those missionaries had come from a part of the world in which they experienced much fruit, and they found it hard and discouraging to minister in a less fruitful part of the world. They were off to find more fruitful fields. Don asked his father why he didn’t leave for more fruitful fields and, very seriously, his father looked him in the eye and said, “Because, Don, I am convinced that God yet has many people in this place.” Several years later, after much perseverance, a great awakening broke out there.
It is often like this. One must often persevere in the face of hardship and opposition to experience fruit from the ministry (cf. 1 Corinthians 16:8-9). That was the experience of Paul in Ephesus. In fact, he experienced quite literally a mini-Pentecost here!
Paul took a principled stand and intentionally took away the disciples to a safer haven. In Luke’s language, he “departed from them and withdrew the disciples.” Though he was no stranger to persecution himself, there was no need to unnecessarily subject the disciples to persecution.
Instead, he found a “school” or lecture hall belonging to Tyrannus (lit. “tyrant). Though there is not much manuscript evidence for this, there are a few manuscripts that add the words “from the fifth to the tenth hour.” In other words, these manuscripts suggest that Paul lectured daily from 11:00 AM till 4:00 PM. Historically, this was a time of siesta from work and daily errands. If we assume, for the sake of argument, that this was the daily time of Paul’s preaching, it is interesting that he wisely took advantage of the best time possible to preach. And it is particularly significant in light of Paul’s personal work ethic (20:20, 31, 33-34). He laboured hard during working hours, and then when there was opportunity for a break, he chose instead to labour in the Word.
The fruit of all this was that the region was evangelised. “This continued for two years, so that all who dwelt in Asia heard the word of the Lord Jesus, both Jews and Greeks” (v. 10). Indeed, Paul’s labour was such that, before his ministry drew to an end, the entire Empire had been reached with the gospel (Colossians 1:6, 23). Disciples were made. Local churches were planted. And, significantly for our purposes, we see that all of this took place from his daily teaching in a single location. He did not travel the province himself to evangelise. Instead,
Paul’s very effective strategy for evangelism was to teach the Word, make disciples, and let them spread the gospel. Spiritually reproducing Christians are the heart of any successful method of evangelism.3
There is much that we can learn from this. Word of mouth is still effective! In what practical ways can we work so as to get the Word out?
Let us learn from this that, if we will be faithful in gospel ministry, we must be prepared for hard work. We must likewise be encouraged that the Lord has His people. And we must remember that we are responsible to get the Word out, not for the results.
Let’s get the Word out. And when we do, then we might be wonderfully surprised at what occurs.
We Must Trust the Lord for Awesome Possibilities
“Awesome” is often an overused term amongst evangelicals, but it is a good word nonetheless. I don’t think that we should use the word to describe pizza or athletic events, but it is a great term to describe both who God is and what He does. When we are humbled before the Lord, “awesome” is an apt term. And clearly the account in this passage was of such impact that it struck awe in the hearts of many in this hitherto pagan city (v. 17). The results were also awesome in that we are told once again of the Word spreading. The Word was getting out both at home and abroad.
There is no substitution for the proclamation of God’s Word if we aim to fulfil the Great Commission. I appreciate the words of Fortner who wrote,
This phenomenal growth came about without the use of puppet shows, musical recitals, Sunday school contests, sports teams, or the testimonials of famous film stars, athletes or politicians. Without gimmickry or political influence, the naked truth of God, preached in the power of the Holy Spirit, in the simplicity of everyday language, had done its work. “So mightily grew the word of God and prevailed” (19:20).4
As we begin our exposition of this passage we must keep before us the fact that the emphasis is upon the spread of the Word. The Word is central to our Commission. Though many things will attend our proclamation of the gospel they are always subservient to it.
Allow for Sovereign Diversity
God performed incredible miracles in Paul’s ministry.
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.
If you have been exposed to much of Western evangelicalism then you have no doubt seen the religious hucksters who claim that, for so much money, they will send you a handkerchief that they have “anointed” with their prayers, which will surely be a source of blessing to you. Such claims are deduced from a complete misapplication, if not deliberate perverting, of this passage. I can well remember self-professed faith healer Ernest Angley making such nonsensical claims. I always chuckled as I listened to him claim to be able to heal people of whatever malady while he wore a very ill-fitting toupee!
Paul was an apostle and for this reason his ministry was confirmed by various “signs and wonders” (2 Corinthians 12:12). Some of these are noted here. Though many moderns and postmoderns scoff at this account, there is every reason to accept it as factual. After all, it is in the Bible.
The writer of Hebrews pointed out that there was a time—past tense—when the gospel was confirmed by such miracles, but that even in his day (early 60s) they were a thing of the past. God’s Word had been sufficiently confirmed and therefore there was, and there remains, no need for reconfirmation. Rather, we are to simply unsheathe the sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God, and God will work through it.
It should be noted that, by definition, miracles are unusual, uncommon and thus extraordinary occurrences. It might therefore appear a bit redundant to read that “God worked unusual miracles by the hands of Paul.” I believe that Luke was simply highlighting that the means of these miracles were highly unusual. In fact, the only near similarity was when the woman with the issue of blood reached out to touch the garment of the Lord and was subsequently healed. Here, even Paul’s clothes bore miraculous power!
It would seem that both the “handkerchiefs” (rather, more like a sweatband) and “apron” (usually worn by a servant or a labourer) were what Paul would wear in the ordinary course of his tent-making labours. I love the thought that, even when Paul was doing “secular” work, he was impacting others with the gospel. That is a good principle for all of us to grasp.
The question has to be asked why Luke recorded this scene.5 Bruce Metzgsr helps us to see why the Lord would do such unusual miracles when he notes, “Of all ancient Graeco-Roman cities, Ephesus, the third largest city in the Empire, was by far the most hospitable to magicians, sorcerers, and charlatans of every sort.”6 In the light of this cultural reality, it is understandable that the Lord would confirm His Word by real rather than imagined or satanically-counterfeited works. As Longnecker observes,
Ephesus was the home of all sorts of magic and superstition, and the phrase “Ephesian writings” was common in antiquity for documents containing spells and magic formulae. So it need not be thought unnatural that just as Paul met his audience at the point of common ground ideologically in order to lead them on to the Good News of salvation in Christ, so at Ephesus he acted in the way here depicted.7
I do not want to dwell on these verses except to point out two things.
First, the miracles served the Scriptures. They always did and always do. Proclamation is what the world needs, and even when God does the miraculous His purpose is to confirm the Word. We don’t need to export miracles; rather, we need to export missionaries with the Word.
Second, God understands contextualisation better than we ever will, and therefore He freely does what He needs to do to reach His people. In other words, we need to recognise diversity in God getting the Word out. “God condescends to meet us in our ignorance and weakness where he can reach us.”8
I am fairly conservative in my theology and, as noted, I believe that the miraculous gifts of the Spirit have ceased. That is not to say, however, that God cannot and does not still perform miracles when it serves His gospel purposes. I have read accounts of Muslims in unreached countries who have received visions directing them to gospel preaching churches and missionaries, who have subsequently come to faith. I have no problem believing those accounts—so long as the vision or miracle serves to drive the recipient to the gospel.
Recognise Spiritual Reality
What follows in vv. 13-16 is a strange and somewhat humorous account, but one that gives us pause for sober reflection.
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.
Our experience in matters such as this may not be vast, and for most it is likely completely unintelligible. We may not—as far as we can see at any rate—be inundated by demonic activity. But let us recognise that the uniqueness of our situation is likely due to the conquest of the gospel over the ages. Because we live in places that have a strong gospel heritage, demonic activity has be largely squashed. But let us also recognise that, while we may not have much first-hand knowledge of such incidents, there are many places in the world where demon possession is more prevalent.
But even allowing for this, we must beware of an unhealthy obsession with such matters. As MacArthur observes,
This fascination, seen today in some Christian circles, with exorcising demons is without biblical support and dangerous. The assumption that a believer has authority to command demons and Satan, or to bind them, is fiction. Even Michael the archangel would not be so bold (cf. Jude 9). And reducing the Christian life to a demon hunt obviates believers’ biblically mandated responsibility to pursue true sanctification by holiness and godly living.9
Having stated such caveats, let’s look at these verses and then draw some conclusions and applications from them.
This scene is reminiscent of Acts 8, in which Simon the Sorcerer was impressed with the supernatural confirmation of Peter’s ministry. You will remember that the Holy Spirit gave a visible and authenticating sign to those who believed the gospel. Simon tried to purchase this, only to be sorely rebuked by Peter. Similarly, these “itinerant Jewish exorcists,” under the influence of Sceva, a member of the high priestly family, sought to emulate the exorcism ministry of Paul.
They are described as “exorcists.” The word derives from a root word meaning “to bind with an oath.” As MacArthur notes, “ancient exorcists attempted to expel demons by invoking the name of a more powerful spirit being.”10
Historians tell us that many Jews were involved in such magical and mystical ministries of casting out demons. Ephesus was certainly no stranger to such spiritual phenomena. As long as one had a secret name of some god, they could do amazing things. Or so they claimed.
Having heard Paul use the name of Jesus, these unbelieving Jewish exorcists also used the name in attempt to perform their magic. As noted, the scene is almost humorous. The demon responds, with some derision no doubt, “Jesus I know, and Paul I know, but who are you?” The words “know” in this reply are translations of different Greek words. The first, in relation to Jesus, speaks of an intimate, profound knowledge; the second, in relation to Paul, speaks of a recognition. The demon knew exactly who Jesus was, and he knew of Paul, but he had no intention of obeying frauds. How embarrassing for the exorcists!
They obviously thought a mechanical articulation of the name Jesus would work. They could gain some spiritual prestige. But it did not work. On the contrary, they were beaten by the demon and forced to flee naked from the house. As Longnecker observes, “The name of Jesus, like an unfamiliar weapon misused, exploded in their hands; and they were taught a lesson about the danger of using the name of Jesus in their dabbling in the supernatural.”11
Much could be said here but let two observations suffice.
First, if we will be effective in getting the word out then we must recognise the spiritual reality that surrounds us. It is not being melodramatic to say that this is war (2 Corinthians 10; Ephesians 6:10-20). Demons are real, as is spiritual quackery, and we need to be prepared to stand in the midst of it. But we must also see, positively, that we are on the winning side. “Things are not as they seem. Our great Saviour is sovereignly ruling this world from his heavenly throne, accomplishing his will everywhere by his omnipotent power and grace.”12
Second, we need to recognise that the New Testament does not call us to demon exorcism. Related to this is the need for us to be persuaded of the doctrine of the sufficiency and thus the priority of Scripture. Is it not interesting that Paul’s discourse on spiritual warfare in Ephesians 6 is devoid of any reference to exorcism. Instead, he highlights the power of the Word. It is the gospel that is able to overcome the forces of darkness.
The church of our day is far too easily distracted from its primary mission of proclaiming the Word of God. The sooner she returns to this, the better the church—and the demon-plagued world—will be for it. In other words, exposition rather than exorcism must be our passion and pursuit and our practice.
Have a Word-Driven Expectancy
The disastrous scene of these would be exorcists being beaten up and left to flee naked from the house had a glorious result.
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.
As word spread about what had happened there was sufficient evidence for both “Jews and Greeks dwelling in Ephesus” to believe, and the result was awe: “Fear fell on them all, and the name of the Lord Jesus was magnified.” “No longer could the name of the Lord be taken lightly. Men stood in awe of the power He had exhibited in their midst.”13
It needs to be noted that v. 13 records these would-be-exorcists recognised that Paul preached the name of Jesus. He proclaimed the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ, which means that he proclaimed His person and work. It was this message that led to many magnifying the name of the Lord Jesus. And it is quite clear that they brought glory to Jesus by repentance and faith, for this is the content of vv. 18-19. Repentance towards God and faith in the Lord Jesus Christ is the fruit of fear of the Lord and is the root of bringing glory Him. We should be motivated to proclaim the Word by these goals and we should trust God for such wonderful possibilities.
Verse 18 indicates a couple of things.
First, it appears that this group included those who had previously believed on Christ but now were moved to a deeper repentance. This is often the case with the gospel. As we increasingly experience God’s grace and grow in our appreciation of the glory of the gospel, repentance continues. In fact, I would argue that, according to Scripture, repentance is an on-going characteristic of the disciple of Jesus Christ.
Second, this was not an isolated but a continual response. The imperfect middle of the verb “came” implies “kept coming, one after another.” A great movement of God was taking place.
In v. 19 we have further evidence of this work of God in that many who were converted brought forth the fruit that accompanies repentance. Occultic books to the tune of 50,000 pieces of silver were burned. A piece of silver was roughly equal to a day’s wage, and so the total amount of the evil paraphernalia that was burned up equalled 50,000 days of wages! True repentance indeed was being witnessed by the church and the community. “That these young believers, instead of realizing the monetary value of their magic spells by selling them, were willing to throw them on a bonfire, was signal evidence of the genuineness of their conversion.”14
The same gospel expectation applies to us today. I so appreciate the words of William Barclay with reference to this: “They made the sharp and abrupt break. It is all too true that too many of us hate our sins but cannot leave them. . . . There are times in life when treatment must be surgical, when the only clean and final break will suffice.”15 In fact as the rest of the chapter highlights such a cultural impact of the gospel created quite a culture-transforming effect. Ponder much on the powerful effect of the Word and live as though you have such expectancy.
Verse 20 concludes the passage with this summary statement: “The Word of the Lord grew mightily and prevailed.” Literally, the text could read, “kept growing and gaining strength.” And as Robertson notes, “it was a day of triumph for Christ in Ephesus, this city of vast wealth and superstition. Ephesus for centuries will be one of the centres of Christian power.”16
As we come to the close of this study, let us be encouraged that we have every reason to be encouraged to get the Word out. As Spurgeon once said, the Word is like a lion; simply let it out and let it do its work.
Fortner helpfully highlights the exhortational value of this passage:
Luke is saying, “Carry the gospel of Christ into the field of battle and make war against the gates of hell. As you preach the grace of God, the Son of God rides forth on his white stallion, conquering and to conquer. Thus the mighty Word of God will prevail!”17
The Word of God is central. We must preach it, send it, invite people to sit under it, and distribute it. God’s Word has invincible might. Let’s do what we can to get it out!
- John R. W. Stott, The Message of Acts: The Bible Speaks Today (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 1990), 305. ↩
- John F. MacArthur, Jr., Acts: The MacArthur New Testament Commentary, 2 vols. (Chicago: Moody Press, 1994), 173. ↩
- MacArthur, Acts, 174. ↩
- Donald S. Fortner, Life After Pentecost: A Guide to the Acts of the Apostles (Darlington: Evangelical Press, 1995), 228. ↩
- Incidentally, the strangeness testifies to the historicity and integrity of Luke as a historian. After all, he was a doctor! ↩
- Everett F. Harrison, Interpreting Acts: The Expanding Church (Grand Rapids: Academie Books, 1986), 311. ↩
- Richard N. Longnecker, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, 12 vols. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan 1981), 9:496. ↩
- A. T. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament, 6 vols. (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1930), 3:317. ↩
- MacArthur, Acts, 171. ↩
- MacArthur, Acts, 175. ↩
- Longnecker, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, 9:498. ↩
- Fortner, Life After Pentecost, 227. ↩
- Everett F. Harrison, Interpreting Acts: The Expanding Church (Grand Rapids: Academie Books, 1986), 312. ↩
- Stott, The Message of Acts, 307. ↩
- William Barclay, The Acts of the Apostles: The Daily Study Bible Series (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1955), 157. ↩
- Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament, 3:320. ↩
- Fortner, Life After Pentecost, 230. ↩