All Scripture quotations are taken from the New American Standard Bible 1995 Ed. (NASB95), published by The Lockman Foundation
We live in an exceedingly dark world that is under the immediate influence of the prince of darkness — Satan. This darkness consists not most destructively in suffering and sorrows, but in the sinfulness and ungodliness that abounds in the lives of most of earth’s inhabitants. Although some forms of sin are obscured by the common goodness that covers so much of the world’s sinful living, there are a few manifestations of man’s rebellion against God that still rear their ugly heads. Three of these most obvious sins are Satanism, greed, and idolatry. And these three sins can be seen more and more, not only in third-world, or under-developed, societies, but also in the western world, with its prosperity, technology, and highly developed organizations. These sins were hardly more prevalent in the time of the early church than they were in the city of Ephesus, on the western coast of modern-day Turkey.
The city of Ephesus, just like our present world, lay in a cloud of darkness that gripped most of its inhabitants in its malicious slavery. That’s why the Lord sent two preachers of the gospel to begin to rescue sinners from this destructive bondage. The first was Apollos, who began the work, but the one through whom the Lord brought a glorious revival to the city was Paul the apostle. How did he do this?
He first did this by regularly, publicly, and patiently teaching the gospel of God’s kingdom. We read this in Acts 19:9-10, where Luke records,
“But when some were becoming hardened and disobedient, speaking evil of the Way before the people, he withdrew from them and took away the disciples, reasoning daily in the school of Tyrannus. This took place for two years, so that all who lived in Asia heard the word of the Lord, both Jews and Greeks.”
So, the foundation of Paul’s service to the city of Ephesus was the teaching of God’s Word in the form of “reasoning”, or dialogue. This resulted in the widespread knowledge of the gospel in the whole Roman province of “Asia”.
But the great revival that took place in Ephesus was due from more than the preaching of the gospel. We must remember that the main instrument that God uses to bring salvation to sinners is the preaching of the gospel, since it is “the power of God for salvation” (Romans 1:16). Nevertheless, the Lord uses more than this to convict both sinners and saints, and to lead them to repentance and pure living. He also uses the powerful witness of good deeds done in Christlike love and power. This was the final element that sparked revival among the Ephesians.
So, in the next passage in Acts 19, Luke describes how Paul reinforced his preaching, and how the Lord used this to convict and convince people to follow Christ faithfully, as well as to spread the gospel of Christ.
The Excellence and Effectiveness of Paul’s Good Deeds
In Acts 19:11-20, we can see five characteristics of the excellence and effectiveness of Paul’s good deeds:
- His teaching was reinforced by them, in the form of exorcisms. (vss. 11-12)
- His exorcisms shamed his Jewish rivals. (vss. 13-16)
- This shaming invoked fear in the Ephesians. (v. 17)
- People came to Paul to confess their sins. (vss. 18-19)
- God’s Word powerfully grew and succeeded. (v. 20)
So, first, here’s what Luke says in this record of the Ephesian revival:
“11 God was performing extraordinary miracles by the hands of Paul, 12 so that handkerchiefs or aprons were even carried from his body to the sick, and the diseases left them and the evil spirits went out. 13 But also some of the Jewish exorcists, who went from place to place, attempted to name over those who had the evil spirits the name of the Lord Jesus, saying, “I adjure you by Jesus whom Paul preaches.” 14 Seven sons of one Sceva, a Jewish chief priest, were doing this. 15 And the evil spirit answered and said to them, “I recognize Jesus, and I know about Paul, but who are you?” 16 And the man, in whom was the evil spirit, leaped on them and subdued all of them and overpowered them, so that they fled out of that house naked and wounded. 17 This became known to all, both Jews and Greeks, who lived in Ephesus; and fear fell upon them all and the name of the Lord Jesus was being magnified. 18 Many also of those who had believed kept coming, confessing and disclosing their practices. 19 And many of those who practiced magic brought their books together and began burning them in the sight of everyone; and they counted up the price of them and found it fifty thousand pieces of silver. 20 So the word of the Lord was growing mightily and prevailing.”— Acts 19:11-20
First of all, Luke shows us the extraordinariness and excellence of Paul’s good deeds by telling us that they most powerfully consisted of healing miracles, accompanied by the casting out of demons. Paul could perform these miracles because, as an eyewitness of the Lord Jesus and a personally-commissioned apostle, the Lord granted this gift in order to confirm the source of his gospel. And yet these exorcisms were still good deeds. More than that, they excelled or surpassed the same type of good deeds that some of his rivals were attempting to do. In so doing, the Lord put His authority and power on display, and shocked the dwellers of Ephesus with fear (v. 17).
Paul’s exorcisms resulted in this fear of Jesus’s name through their shaming of his Jewish rivals. Luke tells us that “some of the Jewish exorcists, who went from place to place, attempted to name over those who had the evil spirits the name of the Lord Jesus” (v. 13). They did this by specifically referring to that “Jesus” whom Paul preached, and attempted to use Jesus’s authority to demand demons to leave a certain man’s body. Much to their shame and hurt, the demon acknowledged both Jesus and Paul, but denied any respect or fear of them. Then, the demon-possessed man attacked them, and ran them out of the house. In verse 17, Luke notes that this defeat of the Jewish exorcists invokes fear in all the Ephesians, resulting in the “magnification”, or “fame”, of Jesus’s name.
So, how do we know that this recognition of Jesus’s name, power, and identity through Paul’s exorcisms resulted in revival? Because what accompanied it was the confession of sins to Paul, not only of unbelievers, but also of believers. Luke says in verse 18 that “many” of “those who had believed” were “coming, confessing and disclosing their practices”. To where were they coming? Well, wherever Paul was, which seems to have been often in the school of Tyrannus (v. 10), at least for an extended part of every day.
And specifically what practices were these believers confessing? We could think of many sins that were practiced in Ephesus, and many of them would be the very same sins that most people practice in our societies. But Luke specifies one specific evil that pervaded Ephesus, just as it’s increasingly doing so today — magic or sorcery.
In the very next verse, Luke describes the burning of spell or sorcery books by “many of those who practiced magic” (v. 19). He says that they were doing this for everyone in Ephesus to see, and that someone counted the total price of the burned books, and found it to be an exorbitant amount of money. Why were these magicians burning their books? Because they knew what those books represented and taught was evil, and in alignment with the activity of Satan. Since they had repented of practicing sorcery, they now wanted to acknowledge to everyone that what they used to devote themselves to was evil, and they were now forsaking it to follow Jesus. What a spectacle this must have been!
Finally, Luke concludes this account of the Ephesian revival by saying that the message of the Lord was powerfully growing, and succeeding in converting sinners, and renewing saints. And how did the Lord accomplish this? Not only through the preaching of the gospel, but also through acts of love done in the name of Jesus.
We can learn a few lessons from these events:
- The preaching of the gospel should always be accompanied by the good deeds of Christians, so as to confirm the truth of the gospel, and provide more opportunities to preach it.
- Christian deeds of mercy and charity should always be more prevalent and powerful than those done by unbelievers, since Christians do good by the power of the Spirit, and out of true love for suffering sinners.
- True revival among believers and unbelievers always results in the confession of sin, and in its public contempt.
- Through the faithful preaching, kindness, and prayers of believers, the Lord will cause His message to powerfully grow, and to prevail over the forces of Satan.
The Exasperated Response of an Idolatrous People
After the revival in Ephesus begins, and bears fruit for at least a couple of years, Paul decides to travel back to Jerusalem, after passing through modern-day Greece, so that he can prepare to finally visit Rome (v. 21). While he waits for two of his helpers to prepare for him to leave Ephesus, he stays there for a while, and witnesses the fury of the unbelieving Ephesians against his preaching and influence (v. 22).
For the sake of brevity, I won’t quote the passage that concludes Acts 19 (vss. 23-41), but I want to simply note what response such an overtly idolatrous city as Ephesus gave to the revival that the Lord brought. This reaction shows us what sort of behavior we should expect when the church is growing, and many people in a local area are being saved.
Not only was Ephesus polluted by sorcery, but it was also controlled by overt and perverted idolatry. This was most clearly manifested in the form of a gigantic temple dedicated to a goddess called Diana, or Artemis. It was prominently located, of course, on the top of a hill overlooking the city, and it was used for wicked worship practices. It was the center, not only of Ephesian worship, but also of its economy, and social life.
Hence, when Paul’s service led to hundreds, if not thousands, of people abandoning the worship of Artemis in order to worship Jesus, this resulted in a great loss for the religious society of Artemis. The particular aspect of Ephesian idolatry that the revival greatly damaged was the use and sale of small statues of Artemis. Luke tells us that one of the makers of these statues, who greatly profited from this business, gathered similar workmen, and warned them that Paul’s teaching about the falsehood of idols was robbing them of their livelihoods (vss. 24-26). In addition, he alarmed them to the fact that Artemis was in danger of being held in contempt, and of no longer being worshipped (v. 27).
Persuaded and incited by this one metal-worker, the crowd of craftsmen then angrily praise the name of Artemis, go into the midst of the city, gather more idolaters, and then go into the public theatre (vss. 29-34). They do this so that they can voice their grievance against Paul and his preaching to the city officials. After wildly shouting a chant about the greatness of the false goddess for hours, the “city clerk” finally calms them down, reasons with them, and persuades them to act logically, and in accordance with their orderly laws (vss. 35-41). So, what began as a discussion, and turned into a riot, ends up coming to nothing too catastrophic.
Despite the undramatic ending to this riot, it teaches us a couple of things:
- Wherever the idolatry of choice is weakened by the rescue of its devotees from its enslavement, there will be an angry response from those who are still devoted to it.
- Wherever the financial gain of sinners is at stake in an area that’s experiencing mass conversions, there will be an angry response from those who profit from the sinful lifestyle from which sinners are being saved.
So, here’s a question to ponder for we believers. Where is the angry response of idolaters in our communities to the conversion of sinners, and the transformation of societies for the better? Where is the concern on the part of the participants in idolatry, and its business, to the removal of its practitioners, and the contempt of its beliefs and practices? We should work for such a work of the Spirit on our neighbors and neighborhoods, that we’ll be a danger to Satan’s enslavement of sinners to idolatry, greed, and pride. Let us believers do all we can to preach the gospel, to display the truth of the gospel, and to make disciples of everyone we can, by teaching them to obey the Lord Jesus, in their new freedom from the darkness of sin and Satan. In this way, we’ll advance the reign of our Lord, and bring more glory to Him.