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By Dr Peter Pett BA BD (Hons-London) DD
Paul’s Ministry in Europe and Then In Ephesus (17.1-19.20).
Ministry in Europe (17.1-18.22).
Fruitful Ministry in Thessalonica and Berea (17.1-14).
Having been requested to leave Philippi, Paul and his party took the Roman Road, the Via Egnatia, out of Philippi, a road which went through Amphipolis, the capital city of the region, and Apollonia, before it came to Thessalonica, a city with a population of roughly 200,000. It would seem that the reason that he stopped at neither of these cities for any length of time was because he discovered that there was no synagogue there, and possibly even no recognised Jewish meeting place. Finally he arrived at Thessalonica, roughly one hundred miles from Philippi, where on discovering that there was a synagogue he remained.
Indirect confirmation of the accuracy of Luke’s narrative in this regard comes out in that we have no Pauline ‘letter to the Amphipolisians’ or ‘letter to the Appollonians’ but we do have letters to the Philippians and the Thessalonians.
However, being cityfolk in a busy port, and tied up with their own affairs the Thessalonians had to be ‘reasoned with’. This contrasts with the Bereans who lived in a more leisurely way and found time to look into the Scriptures in order to discover the truth of what Paul had said (verse 11). They lived in a smaller city on a by-road off the Via Egnatia.
The alteration from ‘we’ to ‘they’, although not being conclusive, (the ‘they’ could simply have been a natural continuation of how the Philippian narrative ended) suggests that Luke remained in Philippi. What tends more to confirm this is that the ‘we’ narratives recommence when Paul arrives back in Philippi (20.5-6). The suggestion that Luke lived in Philippi must, however, be seen as doubtful, otherwise Paul would have stayed with him, but he may have been connected with the medical school, and he may well have lived elsewhere in Macedonia.
It is in fact noticeable that the ‘we’ narratives tend not to occur on missionary journeys, (although we must note that Luke was very much involved in the spiritual activity at Philippi), but rather on voyages and periods of continuous travel. His subsequent presence with the party may thus partly have resulted from the fact that he wanted to visit the destinations which Paul had in mind (Caesarea, Jerusalem), possibly partly with a view to building up accurate information about the past for his writings. He was, however, present at the briefing meeting in his own right (21.18). Thus he was more than just a fellow-traveller. So he may well have remained to minister in Philippi. Whatever the case it is certain that he later remained steadfast and loyal to Paul at the time of his deepest need when no one knew what might happen next (27.1-28.16; 2 Timothy 4.11; Colossians 4.14; Philemon 1.24).
When reading these narratives we must always be aware of what lies beneath the surface, the continuing expansion of ‘the word’, which is brought out by constant reference to it, and by the special references such as 19.20. But Luke is describing the vivid events make up the total picture, and sometimes we therefore read them and gain a first impression of failure, as though a work began and was blown away. But a careful reading soon brings out that even while these things are going on, much time passes, churches are being successfully established and taught, fellow-workers are left to continue ministering to churches, and what the opposition does is merely to ensure that the Good News continues to spread. In 8.1 Paul had been the persecutor, ensuring that the word spread, now others were the persecutors of Paul, but again it ensured that the word spread. The word continues to grow mightily and prevail (19.20).
17.1-2 ‘Now when they had passed through Amphipolis and Apollonia, they came to Thessalonica, where there was a synagogue of the Jews, and Paul, as his custom was, went in to them, and for three sabbath days reasoned with them from the Scriptures.’
Moving down along the Via Egnatia from Philippi, parallel with the coast of the Aegean Sea, they came after thirty three miles to Amphipolis, were they may have remained overnight, unless they camped out by the roadside. But that was only intended to be a stop en route, so as soon as may be they moved on a further twenty seven miles to Apollonia, whose site is as yet unidentified (it was a popular name for cities). From there they then moved on to the port of Thessalonica, the capital of the whole province of Macedonia, the largest city of the area, on the Thermaic Gulf. If they travelled on horseback they might have done this one hundred mile journey with two overnight stops. If they were on foot it would have taken a good deal longer.
It would appear that the reason that Thessalonica was their intended destination was because they had learned that there was a synagogue there, and a synagogue meant not only Jews but God-fearers, people wide open to the Good News. Thus on arrival there they waited for the Sabbath day and then went to the synagogue. From what we have already seen it would seem that this was Paul’s usual strategy, and that he rarely employed open-air preaching except when it was forced on him by events. In those days such preaching could only too easily turn into a riot.
Paul makes clear in his letter how he was careful not to be a financial burden on anyone. Unlike many travelling preachers he supported himself (1 Thessalonians 2.9).
This ministry in the synagogue continued for three Sabbath days, during which, when the appropriate time came after the prayers and reading of the Scriptures, he reasoned with those present from the Scriptures.
‘Three Sabbath days.’ This may be specific, or it may have been using ‘three’ in its other meaning of ‘a good many’. (In common use ‘two’ could mean a few, ‘three’ a good many, and ‘ten’ a number of - compare 1 Kings 17.12; Genesis 31.41; Daniel 1.12. It is only the modern day who are more mathematically particular). Three also indicates a complete ministry.
17.3 ‘Opening and alleging that it was necessary for the Christ to suffer, and to rise again from the dead, and that this Jesus, whom, said he, I proclaim to you, is the Christ.’
The basis of his reasoning were those portions of Scripture which revealed that the Messiah would suffer, and rise again from the dead. These would include Isaiah 52.13-53.12; Psalm 22.11-21; 16.8-11; Zechariah 13.7 and, once Jesus was established as the Lamb of God (Isaiah 53.6-7; John 1.49), may have included reference to the sacrificial system as pictures of the supreme sacrifice. The Psalms were Davidic, and therefore necessarily lent themselves to Messianic interpretation, and the servant song, with its background in Isaiah could soon be demonstrated as being the same. Compare 8.32-35.
These he then connected with the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus and demonstrated from this that He was indeed the Messiah Who had fulfilled all these things (compare 13.27-41).
17.4 ‘And some of them were persuaded, and consorted with Paul and Silas, and of the devout Greeks a great multitude, and of the chief women not a few.’
As so often the hearers were divided. Some were persuaded by their reasoning and the Scriptures that they cited, taking their stand with Paul and Silas and associating with them. This includes ‘some’ of the Jews, large numbers of proselytes and God-fearers (compare 13.43), and a good number of ‘the chief women’. In Macedonia and parts of Asia Minor prominent women had a freedom not known in most places elsewhere (compare verse 12 and contrast here 13.50). They would be wives of important officials and residents, and wealthy widows of status. Included among the converts were many who were still idol-worshippers for Paul would say of them, "You turned to God from idols, to serve the living and true God" (1 Thessalonians 1.9).
Thus the basis of a solid and prospering church was built up, with the attention of those converted turning from being fully focused on synagogue activities, to taking constant note of these two ‘strangers’ and their beliefs and way of living, and of the Christ of Whom they spoke. We can understand why those who saw the focus as being taken away from the synagogue should become jealous.
17.5 ‘But the Jews, being moved with jealousy, took to them certain vile fellows of the rabble, and gathering a crowd, set the city on an uproar, and assaulting the house of Jason, they sought to bring them forth to the people.’
Thus ‘the Jews’, that is those who were not willing to respond to the new message, (note how here, as in John’s Gospel the term is used of those who are antagonistic to the Good News), set about trying to interfere with the ministry of Paul and Silas. In Pisidian Antioch this had been accomplished by utilising the influence of the chief women who were synagogue worshippers (13.50), but that was not possible here because so many of these chief women were now following Christ (verse 4). So instead they turned to the mob.
The Jewish traders and merchants, or their employees, would know the right people to contact. They turned to ‘vile fellows of the rabble’, that is the low life in the marketplace and the docks, people who could always be bribed and depended on to cause an uproar. These then raised a crowd and set the city in an uproar, racing through the streets stirring up trouble and ending up by making a forced entry into the house of Jason, a prominent local Jew who was presumably known to be giving hospitality to Paul and Silas, in order to drag out Paul and Silas and make an example of them (‘the people’ being either a popular assembly, it was a ‘free city’, or the equivalent of a stirred up lynch mob).
Thessalonica was in fact infamous for being a city in which uproars easily occurred. Cicero tells how when he was sent to see the rulers of Thessalonica on official business the rulers were so unpopular with the masses that he had to sneak into the city at night in order to see them, and then, after some time, he had later to sneak out again and take refuge ‘in the out of the way town of Berea’ until the uproars had died down.
17.6-7 ‘And when they did not find them, they dragged Jason and certain brethren before the rulers of the city, crying, “These who have turned the world upside down are come here also, whom Jason has received: and these all act contrary to the decrees of Caesar, saying that there is another king, one Jesus.” ’
Not finding Paul and Silas they turned on Jason and some fellow-believers and hauled them before the politarchs (a term for city rulers local to Macedonia) declaring that Jason had received into his house treacherous people who were know to have caused trouble elsewhere, (they have ‘upset/thoroughly annoyed the world’), and who broke Caesar’s decrees, declaring that there was another King, even Jesus.
The charge was a serious one. There were no police, and the legal method in those days was to act on the basis of accusations brought. Thus this followed accepted legal practise in a way that had to be responded to.
‘Politarchs’ was the correct term for the city rulers in that area, as we know from inscriptions (in 1st century AD there appear to have been five such politarchs), and they, recognising that correct procedures were being followed, would feel impelled to investigate. Suggestions that Caesar was in some way being slighted were always a guaranteed way of obtaining legal attention. The charge in this case was of treason, of aiming to set up a rival to Caesar. It was similar to the charge that had actually been brought against Jesus.
Teaching about the Messiah, the son of David, and about the Kingly Rule of God, was always open to such misinterpretation and to being twisted by unscrupulous people, as in this case. But then on examination, as in the case of Jesus (John 18.36-37), it would be seen to be what it was, preaching concerning the other world. It was what happened meanwhile, and the effects on the peace of a city, that were the main problems that affected the ministry.
17.8-9 ‘And they troubled the multitude and the rulers of the city, when they heard these things. And when they had taken security from Jason and the rest, they let them go.’
Both the crowds (those who had been used as pawns by the rabble-rousers) and the politarchs were troubled at the thought that such people might be in Thessalonica, and we may assume that they questioned Jason and his fellow-believers thoroughly. It is quite possible also that rumours had filtered through from Philippi, possibly coming from before the time when Paul and Silas had been declared innocent there. That being so it is clear that a compromise was reached.
They took large security from Jason and his friends, presumably as a bond against any further trouble, and let them go, possibly suggesting, or even specifically requiring, that it would be a good idea to get Paul and Silas out of town, with the recognition that they must not return. If they failed to do so they would lose their security. It was possibly this last that was the means by which ‘Satan stopped’ Paul returning to Thessalonica, although an alternative possibility is that it was an awareness of the volatile nature of the city and the constant danger of further uprising of which Paul was deeply aware (see 1 Thessalonians 2.18).
17.10 ‘And the brethren immediately sent away Paul and Silas by night to Berea, who when they were come there went into the synagogue of the Jews.’
Recognising the unpleasant nature of some of the people who were at the root of the trouble, who were no doubt types of gang leaders, the believers recognised that it would be best to get Paul and Silas out of town discreetly. They could square the authorities, but dealing with the gangs was something different. So they arranged for them to leave by night and take refuge in Berea, a more out of the way town, sixty miles away and off the main highway, where they would be comparatively safe, and yet could be reached. It may well be that this was at the house of a sympathiser or willing relative.
This was not, however, to be the end of problems for Jason and his fellow-believers, for Paul later refers admiringly to the way that they faced up to and gladly endured persecution (1 Thessalonians 2.14). But he thanked God for the fact that they not only triumphed over it, but also continued to ensure the spread of the word in all the areas round about (1 Thessalonians 1.8). They had not left a church to die, they had left one which was full of vibrant life.
Meanwhile the irrepressible Paul and Silas could not be held down. For as soon as possible after their arrival in Berea they were back in the synagogue. They no doubt had in mind the Lord’s words which were a part of the tradition of ‘the Testimony of Jesus’, and which we now have recorded in Matthew 10.23, ‘when they persecute you in this city, flee to the next, for truly I say to you, you will not have gone through the cities of Israel until the Son of Man is come’. Each synagogue represented a ‘city of Israel’, and what a different experience Berea was going to be.
17.11 ‘Now these were more noble than those in Thessalonica, in that they received the word with all readiness of the mind, examining the Scriptures daily, whether these things were so.’
For the Bereans were of a different bent to the Thessalonians. Living in a quieter town they were more relaxed and less uptight and hardened. And when they heard the word, instead of some of them arguing and growing bitter, they turned to the Scriptures and examined them daily so as to find out for themselves whether these things were true. In Luke’s words they were ‘more noble’, more open to seeking truth.
17.12 ‘Many of them therefore believed, also of the Greek women of honourable estate, and of men, not a few.’
The result again was that ‘many’ believed, including ‘many’ Greek women of honourable estate and (Greek) men ‘not a few’. Comparing this verse with verse 4 we are probably to see the ‘many’ as contrasting with the ‘some’, and the remainder as parallel and more, the idea being that the ministry prospered more among the Jews in Berea as well as prospering equally among the important women and the God-fearers. The ‘of men’ probably additionally signifies ‘Greek men’ and thus indicates that here in Berea even out and out Gentiles responded to the message in good numbers. The new church was being multiplied.
17.13 ‘But when the Jews of Thessalonica had knowledge that the word of God was proclaimed of Paul at Berea also, they came there in the same way, stirring up and troubling the multitudes.’
But news of what was happening gradually filtered through to Thessalonica (not immediately. There was time for a period of settled ministry) and those Jews whose hearts had been hardened arranged for the gangs to go to Berea to cause trouble, again seeking to stir up the crowds. They could not bear to think of ‘the word of God’ being proclaimed.
17.14 ‘And then immediately the brethren sent forth Paul to go as far as to the sea, and Silas and Timothy dwelt there still.’
The believers, however, were well up to it, and recognising that Paul was the main target, and not wanting their fellow-townsmen to be over-disturbed, they smuggled him away to the coast, while Silas and Timothy remained in Berea. This smuggling of him to the coast may have been a ruse in order to deceive the Thessalonian gang-leaders, for his Berean companions then escorted him to Athens. Going by boat may all have been part of the ruse so that no one would know where he had gone. But it is equally possible that it was a red herring and that they then travelled overland.
The result of all this was that the believers in Berea were left untroubled, the work went on through Silas and Timothy, the people continued to ‘receive the word’ (verse 11), Paul was safe, and instead of the word of God being silenced, it prospered. And Athens also received the Good News. Once again Satan had overstepped himself.
The situation here with regard to Thessalonica and Berea was very similar to that of Lystra and Derbe. There too they had had to flee from crowds in the larger city of Lystra, only to find in Derbe a ready reception for their message (14.19-21). Being removed from one city they simply moved on to the next, leaving behind a prospering church.
Note on the Movements of Silas and Timothy.
Luke does not always give us full details of the movement of ‘minor players’ and we therefore sometimes have to put them together from the information that we have. Thus when Paul arrives in Athens he immediately requests that Silas and Timothy join him (17.15). That Timothy did so we know from 1 Thessalonians 3.1-2. But Paul was so concerned for the Thessalonians that after some time he then sent Timothy back to Thessalonica (1 Thessalonians 3.2). Meanwhile he also sent Silas somewhere else, presumably with equal concern, back to ‘Macedonia’, thus to Berea or to Philippi. This is apparent because both of them later returned to him ‘from Macedonia’ when he moved to Corinth (18.5). Thus while Paul was preaching in Athens, Timothy was at work in Thessalonica, and Silas elsewhere in Macedonia
End of note.
Effective Ministry in Athens (17.15-34).
His Berean guides saw Paul safely to Athens. This had not been where he was originally aiming for. After Thessalonica his intention had probably been to proceed along the Via Egnatia towards Rome. But God had had other ideas. He had had Berea in His sights, and then Athens where a certain Areopagite was waiting (17.34), followed by Corinth. The whole of the province of Achaia had cause to be grateful to the persecutors.
With regard to the Areopagite it is typical of Luke’s writings to draw attention to particularly influential people whom God had determined to win for Himself, who would then go on to take His word to others. We can compare Simon the sorcerer, the Ethiopian official, Cornelius, Sergius Paulus (the pro-consul of Cyprus), Lydia, the Philippian jailer, and now Dyonisius the Areopagite and the woman, Damaris.
Athens was a city that was famous worldwide because of its past, but it was a fading city, and no longer large (around 10,000 inhabitants). Its glory days were long behind it. Its once great navy no longer existed as the dominant force in the Mediterranean Sea. The famous names of the past had long since gone. But its learning had spread throughout the Greek world first through Alexander, and then through Rome, and it still had a reputation for being a centre of philosophy and prided itself on being such. And it still despised others whom it saw as having less understanding than it did itself. Because of what it had been it was a designated ‘free city’, under its own rule. To it would come the sons of aristocratic Romans in order to further their education. And there were still prominent men there, among who was Dionysius the Areopagite.
The council of the Areopagus (‘court of Ares’) originally met on the hill of Ares (the name of the god of war and thunder), hence its name, but by the time of Paul it met in the Royal Porch (stoa basileios) in the Athenian marketplace (agora). Its reputation went back to ancient times, and in spite of the curtailment of its ancient powers, it was still respected and had some kind of special jurisdiction in the free city of Athens over matters of religion and morals. For this reason it therefore exercised some kind of control over visiting preachers and philosophers, presumably in order to ensure that they were genuine and not troublemakers or spreaders of sedition. So all visiting preachers were subject to ‘inspection’. Thus when Paul is called before the Areopagus it was not with any hostile intent, but with the purpose of discovering exactly what it was that he had come to proclaim. And at least one of those who were inspecting him was convinced and became a believer (Dionysius the Areopagite).
It was also a city full of statues and altars. It was said that there were more statues of the gods in Athens than in all the rest of Greece put together, and that because of this it was easier in Athens to meet a god than a man. But we must not thereby think of it as too religious a city. Apollonius, a philosopher contemporary with Paul, berated the Athenians because of their lascivious dances at the festival of Dionysius, and their thirst for human blood at the gladiatorial games. Philosophy went hand in hand with riotous living.
In the chiasmus 12.25-18.22 of which this is a part, this incident is paralleled with that at Pisidian Antioch. During the incident at Pisidian Antioch Luke gives a detailed summary of Paul’s preaching to the Jews and God-fearers, here at Athens he gives a detailed summary of Paul’s preaching to Gentiles. This follows the pattern, the Jew first and then the Gentiles. Both end up with enquirers saying that they wish to hear more, and both result in converts.
17.15 ‘But those who conducted Paul brought him as far as Athens, and receiving a command to Silas and Timothy that they should come to him with all speed, they departed.’
His companions from Berea brought Paul to Athens, and on arrival there Paul clearly decided that he would begin a ministry there, for he sent back instructions to Berea that Silas and Timothy were to join him. In the event he commenced his ministry before they arrived. We do not know how long it then went on, but at some stage after Silas and Timothy arrived he clearly felt the urge to send Timothy back to encourage the church at Thessalonica (1 Thessaloniand 3.2), and Silas to some other part of Macedonia, for it was from there that they would later join him in Corinth (18.5). Thus is made apparent that the ministry in Athens continued for some time. It is a reminder that we regularly only have glimpses of what was happening, sufficient for us to know something of its success, without knowing the full story. Luke is constantly seeking to give the impression of the swift advance of the word from place to place in a continuing forward movement.
17.16 ‘Now while Paul waited for them at Athens, his spirit was provoked within him as he beheld the city full of idols.’
While he was awaiting the first arrival of Silas and Timothy, Paul walked around the city, and as a result of all the evidences of pagan worship and idolatry his spirit was provoked within him. He no longer felt that he could wait until his friends arrived before commencing his ministry. He was on fire within, and stirred up at the sight of all the idols and false gods, he longed that these people might know the living and true God.
17.17 ‘So he reasoned in the synagogue with Jews and the devout persons, and in the marketplace every day with those who met him.’
So each Sabbath he went into the Synagogue and reasoned with the Jews, proselytes and God-fearers, and on other days he went into the marketplace and spoke with those who met him there. It is interesting to note that in Athens he met no violent opposition, even from the Jews. Athens was an unusual place in that many were there for the very purpose of entering into discussions on religious and philosophical topics, and all recognised that others might have different views than themselves .
Thus for some good period of time his ministry continued towards Jews and God-fearers on the one hand, and out and out Gentiles on the other, and while they argued with him there was no physical opposition. No crowds would be aroused here against strange teaching. Strange teaching was of great interest in Athens. We are not told at what stage Silas and Timothy arrived, nor how soon they left again. Luke did not consider it important. It is dangerous therefore to draw conclusions from Luke’s silences.
Nor are we given any idea of what positive impression Paul made until verse 34. And there we are given an impression of satisfactory fruitfulness without it being exceptional (it was not a large city). It would be sufficient to establish a small church.
But Luke’s main concern here is to bring out Paul’s contact with the philosophers of Athens, and his message to them, a message which summarised his message to Gentiles. This detailed summary is intended to be contrasted with the detailed summary of his message to Jews in 13.16-41 with which it is in parallel in this section of the Acts (see summary in the introduction to chapter 13). That, Luke is saying, is what Paul preached to Jews and this is an example of what he preached to Gentiles.
17.18a ‘And certain also of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers encountered him.’
In the marketplace he met among others certain Epicurean and Stoic philosophers. The founder of Epicureanism (Epicurus) saw the world as being a result of the totally random movement and combination of ‘atoms’. This being so the Epicureans saw everything generally as totally random and not affected in any way by the gods. The aim of their system was therefore to achieve happiness by serene detachment from the world and its clamour and wants and desires, allowing random activity to determine how their lives went. They were not atheists. They believed that the gods enjoyed this serene detachment by enjoying their own world and having nothing to do with this world. In the same way the Epicurean also, by detachment from the world as a result of limiting desire, and by finding solace in friendship and companionship, could also find contentment. And finally on death our atoms are dispersed. Thus they believed that there was nothing beyond death.
While they taught the pursuit of ‘pleasure’, it was not hedonism but a pleasure that was to be found in a life of tranquillity, a life free from pain and disturbing passions, and above all from superstitious fears. It was only later that the pursuit of extravagant pleasure through the satisfaction of carnal desires began to characterise Epicurean philosophers, a final natural result of their refusal to believe in an afterlife, and we should not read that into those who listened to Paul. But we can understand from this why on the whole they rejected the teaching of the resurrection, and of a God Who intervened in the affairs of life, and while their teaching certainly did enable people to find a certain level of contentment, it was purely negative and in its own way selfish. In a way it was a denial of the fullness of life and of our responsibility for our fellowman.
The Stoics on the other hand sought deliverance from life by seeking to align themselves with the eternal reason which was inherent in the Universe, the Logos. They believed that the Universe was a kind of fire, and that in each man was a spark of the eternal reason which had to be encouraged. Man, they believed, will be happy when he does not want things to be other than they are, but accepts and responds to the cycle of nature and the cycle of history and cultivates a willing acceptance of them. He must respond to the outworking of the universal Reason by allowing himself to be carried along by it, and by himself living ‘reasonably’. He must therefore be satisfied with all that comes his way, accepting it stoically without complaint and without fighting against it. Life and death, pleasure and pain, were equally unimportant.
Furthermore he saw it as his inevitable responsibility to serve his fellow-man, not out of love but out of disinterested duty and reason, and stoic philosophers like Seneca, Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius developed high levels of theoretical morality. But it should be noted that his theoretical morality was not such as prevented Marcus Aurelius, for example, from pursuing the persecution of Christians, and condemning them to suffer horrible deaths. He despised them because of their positive attitude towards life, and could not understand how they could have joy in suffering. To him suffering was something to be endured without emotion, as a result of the working out of Reason. Thus he considered that they brought their sufferings, for which he was largely responsible as emperor, on themselves. So in the end his morality was limited to those whom he felt deserved it and he had no compunction about causing suffering to those whom he saw as unworthy.
Their beliefs enabled Stoics to bear the vicissitudes of life without complaint, and to be dutiful in their lives, and they at least believed in a higher ‘force’ which was active among men. But their way was a way that was empty of joy, and deliberately so. Indeed they saw joy as a denial of what they believed in, which was the life of quiet reason and non-resistance. And it resulted in their seeking nothing beyond the grave. Their reason would simply be absorbed back into the eternal reason. Indeed they believed that periodically the world would be destroyed by a great conflagration, after which a new cycle would begin. Neither the Epicureans nor the Stoics had any hope beyond this life.
17.18b ‘And some said, “What would this babbler say?” Others, “He seems to be a setter forth of strange gods”, because he preached Jesus and the resurrection.’
We can see then why these philosophers had a sceptical attitude towards what Paul was teaching. The word rendered ‘babbler’ was applied to ‘seed-picking birds’, and then to people who picked up random and second hand ideas without any consistency of thought or real understanding. In their conceit the idea of these philosophers was that others like Paul, were like birds who went around picking up a seed here and there at random, without having a consistent system and logic. They were smug in their own understanding.
Others were amused because he seemed to set forth ‘strange gods’, because he spoke of ‘Jesus’ and ‘Anastasis’ (‘Resurrection’). There were in Athens many altars, not only dedicated to gods, but to ideas, to philosophy and beneficence, to rumour and shame. Thus the personalising of the term ‘Resurrection’ would tie in with these ideas, and some may have seen that idea as being presented here. But this appears rather to be an after-comment by Luke, which militates against this interpretation. Luke’s point is rather that they were reacting to Jesus Himself, as presented, and then especially to the idea of resurrection (compare verse 32). The charge of bringing ‘strange gods’ had also been made against Socrates. It may simply be a way of expressing disapproval of what they did not understand. As his ideas did not tie in with theirs, he must clearly be introducing ‘strange gods’. Neither Epicureans nor Stoics thought of any such gods as relevant to life.
In contrast this especially brings out what Paul’s emphases were. His first emphasis was Jesus. He ‘preached Jesus’ (compare 8.35). This would have included all the different emphases as described previously including his life and death. His second emphasis was on the resurrection. And he kept stressing both. Thus he proclaimed the full central message that he always preached. Indeed he could not have proclaimed the resurrection without the cross. Thus we do him wrong if we suggest that here he did not preach the cross.
17.19-20 ‘And they took hold of him, and brought him to the Areopagus, saying, “May we know what this new teaching is, which is spoken by you? For you are bringing certain strange things to our ears. We would know therefore what these things mean.’
But they were interested to know what he was teaching, and indeed to check up on it so as to ensure that it could be allowed to be taught among the people in Athens, especially the students who were among them (who could report back anything that seemed seditious to their families). So they brought him to their historic meetingplace in the marketplace, the Areopagus, and their questioned him concerning his teaching. They wanted to know the detail of his system of philosophy, which was totally new to them and which they could see concerned what they looked on as strange ideas.
‘Certain strange things.’ Not just the resurrection. They were interested in a good deal more.
17.21 ‘(Now all the Athenians and the strangers sojourning there spent their time in nothing else, but either to tell or to hear some new thing.)’
The enquiry was not antagonistic. Indeed the lives of these people and the strangers who came among them consisted in examining new philosophies. They loved to hear of ‘new things’. It was what their lives were all about. Nevertheless if he wished to go on teaching in Athens he had no choice but to comply.
17.22-23 ‘And Paul stood in the midst of the Areopagus, and said, “You men of Athens, in all things, I perceive that you are very religious. For as I passed along, and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription, TO AN UNKNOWN GOD. What therefore you worship in ignorance, this I set forth to you.’
That we have here only the bare bones of Paul’s words is obvious. He would hardly have been foolish enough to seek to dismiss the Areopagites with so few words. But we have no reason at all to deny that the ideas are Paul’s. Rather we must see Luke and his source as summarising the gist of what he said. Silas may well have been present at this speech and have conveyed its content to Luke when he went back to Macedonia. or Luke may have obtained the details from Dionysius the Areopagite.
Paul’s speech reveals that he had some knowledge of the teachings of these men and of the teachers whose writings they revered. He had been brought up in the University city of Tarsus. And he wanted to make quite clear that the message he brought was not something totally new, it was not ‘a novelty’ to be cursorily listened to and then discarded, but was related to aspects of things that they acknowledged but admitted themselves that they did not fully know and understand. He was speaking of things which they had admitted to being relevant, but which they agreed were not within their ken, for they had altars to ‘unknown gods’. He wanted also to find some common ground, and brought up aspects of the knowledge of God which are known to all men. Thus he begins by referring to what he has seen around them.
When speaking to the Jews he had always begun with their history which was the source of their religion (and no doubt had done with the Jews here). But here he has to begin with the basics of religion, while recognising that he was facing both idol worshippers and philosophers. He points out that he has noticed how ‘very religious’ they are. We can compare the use of the same word in 25.19 where it refers respectfully to a religion which the speaker does not wish to deride (the man he was speaking to believed in it and he would not want to offend him) but which did not apply to himself. Thus while it can mean ‘superstitious’, it would be taken by his hearers rather as complimentary. They saw themselves as ‘religious’ men.
He points out that he has noticed many altars, and many shrines. Athens was full of altars and idols of all kinds and were proud of them. They proliferated. And as he had walked about he had noticed that they had an altar there with the inscription, ‘to an unknown god’. (Being unknown it could have had no image). Well, that is why he was there, to bring to their knowledge this God Whom some of them worshipped and whom they admitted was as yet unknown to them. It was after all an open admission by Athens that there was a void in their religion, and it was one that he wanted to fill.
Altars ‘to unknown gods’ seem to have been known in the ancient world because men sought to cover their admitted ignorance of the ways of the gods by making such offerings to ‘unknown gods’ in order to cover any gods they may have overlooked and not have covered in their normal sacrifices, lest they be thought to be failing to offer due reverence to some god of whom they were not aware and then find themselves later being dealt with accordingly. For it was their view that the failure to pay all gods due reverence, even unknown ones, might be disastrous. They were ‘catch-all’ altars, ensuring that they did not slight gods of whom they were not aware.
Mention is made of such altars in or near Athens by Philostratus and Pausanius, and an altar has been discovered at Pergamum possibly inscribed ‘to the unknown deities’ (or it may have been ‘to the holy deities’, but either way it was anonymous and imageless). Alternately in a city of altars like Athens it may be that there was an altar which had become buried, and had then been rediscovered, which may then have been dedicated to its ‘unknown God’. Or it may have been one that had been built or rededicated to appease the dead when an ancient burial site was discovered, the god of the deceased not being known. It would be a typically Athenian gesture.
Whether ‘to an unknown god’ (singular) was Paul’s interpretation of such altars, in view of the fact that he wanted to emphasise that he only spoke of one God, or whether he had actually seen that exact wording on an altar for one of the reasons mentioned, we have no way of telling. But either way his approach emphasised the oneness of the God of Whom he spoke, and their own self-admitted ignorance, and there is no reason for suggesting that he is inventing having seen such an inscription. He refers to it because he did not wish them to think that he was bringing to Athens something totally novel. He was, he said, in his preaching filling in the gap that they admitted that they had in their knowledge.
The use of this idea of the ‘unknown god’ would to some extent appeal to all his listeners. The idol worshippers would be drawn in by the fact that they did offer such worship, or at a minimum allowed it, the Epicureans because they saw all gods as unknowable, and the Stoics because they may well have agreed that the eternal Reason was ‘unknown’ and that they were seeking to know it. Thus all in one way or another believed in an ‘unknown God’.
17.24-25 “The God who made the world and all things in it, he, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in temples made with hands, nor is he served by men’s hands, as though he needed anything, seeing he himself gives to all life, and breath, and all things.”
But Paul does not intend for Him to remain unknown. His first emphasis is that his God is the One God Who is Creator of all things and is above all things and requires neither man’s buildings nor man’s service. He needs nothing from man. Indeed both man and all creatures owe all that they are and have to Him. Life, breath and everything else come from Him. He is the Lord of creation and the Lord of life.
‘He gives -- all things.’ Rather than men providing for Him, He is man’s provider so that all that benefits mankind comes from Him (compare 14.17).
It will be observed that this is soundly based on Scripture, yet put in such a way as to appeal to men of all religions. It is totally Scriptural. For the oneness of God see Genesis 1.1; Exodus 20.11; Isaiah 45.5-6; Nehemiah 9.6; for creating all things and giving them life and breath see 14.15; Isaiah 42.5; Genesis 1.26; 2.7; 7.22; Ecclesiastes 12.7; for possession of heaven and earth see Genesis 14.19, 22; for being above all things see Deuteronomy 10.14; 1 Kings 8.27; for not requiring service at men’s hands as though He needed anything see Psalm 50.12-13; for having made all things, possessing all things and not dwelling in houses made with hands see Isaiah 61.1-2, compare Acts 7.48. Compare also Matthew 11.25.
Zeno, the Stoic philosopher, also stressed that the deity did not live in temples made with hands and Plutarch upbraided men for forgetting it, so they would connect with this. The Epicureans certainly firmly believed that the gods, whom they saw as keeping totally apart from men, did not require men’s ‘service’ and provision. Thus both could sympathise with some of Paul’s references, but we must not see Paul as pandering to them, for he has made it quite clear that the One of Whom he speaks has created all things separately from Himself (as against the divine reason pervading all things), and he will stress that He very much involves Himself with the affairs of men.
17.26-28 “And he made out of one every nation of men to dwell on all the face of the earth, having determined their appointed seasons, and the bounds of their habitation, that they should seek God, if haply they might feel after him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us, for ‘in him we live, and move, and have our being’, as certain even of your own poets have said, ‘for we are also his offspring’.”
Furthermore he points out that God has made all mankind of every nation out of one man (Genesis 3.20), so that they may dwell on the face of the earth (Genesis 11.9; Exodus 33.16), and He has determined their times and seasons (Genesis 1.14; 8.22; Job 14.5; Daniel 2.21), and where they will live, and what land they will inhabit (Deuteronomy 32.8; Job 12.23).
So all nations spring from the one man whom He created, and He controls both what they possess (‘the bounds of their habitation’) and the benefits of nature which they receive (‘their appointed seasons’, compare 14.17), And all this so that they might (out of gratitude and love because of His wonderful provision) seek Him, and feel after Him and find Him (Job 23.3). So that they might seek Him with all their might (compare Matthew 6.33).
Yet in spite of that He is not far from every one of us (Deuteronomy 4.7; Psalm 145.18; Jeremiah 23.23-24), for it is in Him that we live, and move and have our being (Job 12.10; Daniel 5.23). And this is even evidenced by their own poets, who have said, “For in Him we live and move and have our being” (found in the works of Epimenides as said by Minos concerning his father Zeus) And also “For we are also His offspring”, (said of Zeus by the Cilician poet Aratus, and also found in Cleanthes’ Hymn to Zeus)
It will be noted from this that as against the Epicureans he stresses God’s vigorous activity in the world, and as against the pantheistic Stoics that God is above, and over against, the world as its Creator. As against those Athenians who claimed to be made from the soil of Athens he states that all men come from the one man. Furthermore he applies ideas which were attributed by Stoic philosophers to Zeus, to the One God of Whom he speaks, the One Who is Lord over all. Yet both Epicureans and Stoics would agree with the idea of the oneness of the world, and the Stoics with the idea that He could be sought after and found (they would see it as by seeking to appreciate the eternal reason). Both would agree that He did not require the help of men’s hands.
Thus Paul is seeking to find points of contact with their beliefs, while at the same time transforming their significance so that they would reveal to them the truth about the living God. This would then give the Holy Spirit the opening by which he could seize their hearts through what they did believe, and then lead them into further truth. By the quotations he is declaring that what men have thought about Zeus is really true about the living God Who made the world and all that is in it, the God of Whom he is speaking.
‘Feel after.’ That is, feeling after like a blind man groping for understanding (Isaiah 59.10). That is certainly what the Stoics did with ‘reason’. They strove to be in conformity with the eternal reason, although aware that it somewhat eluded them. The Epicureans had simply given up on feeling their way to God at all. Both are now being stirred to take more positive action, and to allow themselves to be awakened from their philosophic drowsiness.
And the words are also emphasising the ‘ignorance’ that he will soon refer to. Men ‘feel their way’ because they do not know, and the point here is that men are feeling after God because they do not know Him. They are still seeking ‘the Unknown God’. As we have seen the Epicureans would deny feeling after God, but he is seeking to stir the thought in their hearts that perhaps they should be doing so in order to fill the blank in their lives of which they must sometimes be conscious.
‘Though He is not far from each one of us.’ This was a direct challenge to the Epicureans. Do not believe that He is far off, he is saying, for He is very near, waiting for them to reach out to Him. The Stoics would agree with him here for they saw the divine reason as pervading all things. What they needed to consider was that He was more personally near in order to act.
‘For ‘in him we live, and move, and have our being’, as certain even of your own poets have said, ‘for we are also his offspring’. As we have seen above he is citing here words from their own poets. These words repudiate the remoteness of the divine as believed by the Epicureans, emphasising that God seeks to enter into close relationship with man, and they repudiate the Stoic idea of the divine spark in man by pointing out that really we are in Him not He in us. At the same time he repudiates the idea that man is merely earthly, and therefore tied to idol worship. And he demonstrates that God very much desires to have dealings with us. He surrounds us, and He is here waiting for us, and the source of all we are is in Him. To all he is saying, ‘wake up, and recognise that God is now among you and working within you, and is this day calling you to Himself.’ That this is so comes out in his later call for them now to ‘change their minds and hearts’ (repent).
17.29 “Being then the offspring of God, we ought not to think that the Godhead is like to gold, or silver, or stone, graven by art and device of man.”
He then further emphasises that to speak of men as the ‘offspring of God’, by which these writers indicated a close relationship between men and God as those whom He had in one way or another created, and to whom He has given life and reason, must exclude the idea that He can be made of wood and stone, or be designed by man. Athens may be filled with idols, but he wants it known that any idol worship is to be seen as denying the very thing that their poets taught. Their own poets have condemned them.
So in a masterly way Paul has reached out to all, letting them see that he understands their ideas, and yet having also made clear to all the deficiencies of their own beliefs. At the same time he has declared a positive message concerning the Creator and controller of all things, the Great Provider, Who is even now in contact with them, and is calling them to Himself, while demonstrating that He must be sought, not through idols, but as Lord of Heaven and earth Who is so close that He approaches each man’s heart (through His Spirit).
17.30-31 “The times of ignorance therefore God overlooked, but now he commands men that they should all everywhere repent, inasmuch as he has appointed a day in which he will judge the world in righteousness by the man whom he has ordained, of which he has given assurance (literally ‘faith’) to all men, in that he has raised him from the dead.”
Let them recognise that God has in the past overlooked the periods of their ignorance (compare 14.16). This is firstly evident in that He has not again brought universal destruction on mankind as he did at the Flood. And why has he not done so? It is because He recognised that it was through ignorance that they did it. It is because of that ignorance and darkness that He has spared them the total catastrophe that they had deserved. But that this does not mean that men of the past will not be judged comes out in Romans 2, for there he tells us that all will be judged according to how they responded to their conscience (Romans 2.12-16).
To modern men and women that brings a sense of relief. Their consciences are hardened, and therefore they feel that they are really not so bad. They are sure that their consciences will excuse them. What they do not realise is that in that day when the secrets of their hearts are brought out, and all the truth is known, and the full records are opened, that obliging conscience will suddenly turn on them and become their accuser, and they will be judged according to their works and found wanting (Romans 2.16; Matthew 25.31-46; Revelation 20.11-15).
And secondly God’s overlooking of the periods of their ignorance is a guarantee that He will not hold the past against those who are now listening to Paul, if only they will hear him. It means that what those of past ages did and believed will not be held against the present generation, who must now make their own decision with regard to such things. They have been spared up to this day, and now they must make up their own minds about the truth. For the time has come when the truth has come to all men in a decisive way, so that God is commanding a change of heart and mind. Now is the accepted time. Now is the day of salvation. He is therefore calling on them to turn to Him and seek Him, and that because a day has been appointed when He will judge the world by the Man Whom He has now ordained. And what is more He has confirmed that this is so to all men by raising Him from the dead.
We need not doubt in this regard that he expanded on the fact that God is the judge of all the world (Genesis 18.25; 1 Chronicles 16.33; Psalm 82.8; 94.2; 96.13; 98.9; compare Job 31.4, 6, 14) and that in Jesus Christ He will call all men to account (John 5.22, 26-27, 29; Romans 14.11-12; Revelation 20.11-14), and that he stressed the cross and resurrection, and the evidences for that resurrection (1 Corinthians 15.3-8). For his emphasis on the resurrection, of which they were clearly aware, simply had to have included a reference to His death, and he would not expect them to accept the idea of the resurrection without evidence, as he himself makes clear in 1 Corinthians 15.3-8).
‘But now he commands men that they should all everywhere repent.’ They are now being called on to repent, that is, to have a change of heart and mind, and to turn to God from idols (verse 29) to serve the living and true God and wait for His Son from heaven Whom He raised from the dead (verse 31; compare 1 Thessalonians 1.9-10).
And this because ‘He will judge the world in righteousness.’ Compare Psalm 9.8; 50.6; 96.13; Isaiah 11.4; 51.5. The point is that all will be done in accordance with perfect righteousness and justice, for He is the moral God of Israel and judges accordingly.
‘By that Man Whom He has ordained.’ They had already said of him that he had preached ‘Jesus’. He had already no doubt made clear therefore that Jesus was God’s ordained Man, ordained for the final fulfilment of His purposes. Now he re-emphasises it. He would already have informed them that that Man had lived among mankind, had died and had risen again, and He would one day be their judge on a day already appointed. Now he re-emphasises that very fact.
‘He has raised Him from the dead.’ Again he has already referred sufficiently to the resurrection for them to have seen it as an essential part of his teaching (verse 18). This is not therefore said in a vacuum. But he would also have further expanded on it here. Jesus has been demonstrated as God’s approved Judge in that He has uniquely been raised from the dead.
Note that here therefore the resurrection is God’s ‘assurance (pistis)’ of coming judgment. For God is such that any future resurrection must result in judgment. But this raising of Jesus from the dead also arouses the ‘faith’ (pistis) of those who respond to it, with the result that they will receive salvation and escape that judgment.
It is wrong to portray this message as though somehow Paul let himself down by it. It is in fact a message which is both vibrant and life-giving. And its end is very soul searching. It contains all that men need to know, (given what must also have been said), starting from scratch, in their search to find God.
Thus Paul finally makes clear:
We can hardly say that he has not made the position clear.
17.32 ‘Now when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked; but others said, “We will hear you concerning this yet again.” ’
Central to Paul’s message had continually been the resurrection, and it was on this point that his hearers were divided. Some mocked at the idea (for previous mockery of the Apostles compare 2.13). Others said that they wanted to hear more. We can compare the latter with those in 13.42 where the Gentiles again had asked to hear more. We should not see such a request as simply a means of dismissing the truth. In 13.42 it was certainly very genuine. The parallels between 13.14-42 and 17.16-34 have already been noted in the analysis introducing chapter 13. Both give detailed summary speeches made by Paul, both result in continuing interest among Gentiles (13.42; 17.32), in both the response of the Jews is not described (13.42; 17.17). However, with regard to that lack of mention of response we must always beware of reading in from silence, for otherwise we would assume no conversions in Cyprus at all where there is also no mention of response (13.5). It is Luke’s practise to highlight what he wants to highlight, and to be silent otherwise. Here then also the non-mention of response need not be significant, and indeed verse 34 may be intended to cover all.
So Athens in its wisdom is here seen as paralleling the rest of the world. The resurrection, proclaimed through the power of the Holy Spirit, is what has divided men from the beginning of the Apostolic ministry (2.24-36; 3.15, 26; 4.10; 5.31; 10.40-41; 13.30-37). It continues to do so, for it is central to the Christian message. It lies at the very heart of what the Good News is all about, salvation, and life, and hope. And only through belief in the resurrection (with its accompanying sacrificial death) can eternal life be found. It is that which divides up mankind.
17.33 ‘Thus Paul went out from among them.’
Having completed his words Paul went out from among them. We are hardly right to suggest that he stopped short in order to do so. And there is no suggestion that they cut him short. It is rather that Luke finishes in this way because he wanted to emphasise that it was the resurrection that was at the root of their problems, and so that he can link a reference to the resurrection with the problems that they had with it. We can rightly assume that Paul had satisfactorily completed his address, before going out (indeed his last recorded words may well have been the climax with greater detail already having been given). What Luke wants us to recognise is that when he left they were discussing the resurrection.
17.34 ‘But certain men clave to him, and believed, among whom also was Dionysius the Areopagite, and a woman named Damaris, and others with them.’
The result of Paul’s activity in Athens was a number of believers, which included prominent people. ‘They clave to him’. That is, they firmly took their stand with him. Dionysisus the Areopagite was presumably a member of the council. Damaris may have been the wife of an important official, one of the ‘honourable women’. She may have been in the Areopagus with her husband (in a place like Athens provision might have been made for important women to hear proceedings), or she may have been a God-fearer who was present in the synagogue earlier. She may even have become a prominent prophetess. Or she may have been a well known courtesan of the marketplace whose conversion was seen as outstanding and who was now a living example of walking with Christ. There must have been some reason for her mention, for whichever way it was, she was clearly expected to be known to many of Luke’s readers.
It should be noted that this statement is intended to indicate success, not failure. Note the ‘certain men’, linked with Dionysius, which suggests important figures, in contrast with the ‘others with them’. Luke found many different ways in which to express such success, which often, if taken literally, suggested limited response. We have to read behind the lines. In Cyprus it was by the conversion of a pro-consul. In Philippi it was by the conversion of two households and possibly a slave girl. Here, in a small city, probably without an influential synagogue, a number of outstanding people were converted, along with a number of others. The nucleus of a church had been formed, as at Philippi.
Thus whether we see the visit to Athens as a success or a failure depends largely on how we read it and where we put our emphasis. Luke gives no hint of failure here that has not been given in success stories elsewhere. He was much too honest to suggest that the Areopagus were all converted, any more than he had earlier made the suggestion about the Sanhedrin. He certainly does not give the impression of huge numbers, but we would not expect that in a place like Athens where people were more likely to think about things for a while, and there were here no large gatherings.
It is often pointed out that we hear nothing elsewhere of a church in Athens. But if we judged success on that basis we would assume failure at many places. It is in fact always assumed in Acts that where men have believed a church will be established in one way or another, and no first visit in Acts ever does record the establishment of a church. The actual establishing of churches is usually only referred to on a return visit, so as to explain the visit, and we know of no return visit to Athens. Paul was no doubt satisfied that the church at Athens, with prominent people in charge, could hold its own. There was certainly a flourishing church there in 2nd century AD and later (we know little about the mid 1st century AD apart from Acts), and it produced prominent members.
Some have suggested that Paul failed to gain the approval of the Areopagus and was therefore afterwards forbidden to speak. But that is purely surmise and assumes what is not proved, that the Areopagus could have prevented him from preaching. Two doubtful surmises do not make a strong case. More probably he simply recognised that a greater opportunity awaited in the much larger Corinth. (Like the Apostles he would surely have declared, ‘I cannot but speak the things that I have seen and heard’).
Successful Ministry in Corinth (18.1-17).
Paul had recognised that in a small town like Athens he could well spare his companions and had sent Timothy off to Thessalonica, and Silas to Macedonia, possibly to Philippi. Now, having laid the foundations of a church at Athens, he decided to move to the much larger opportunity at Corinth. Some of the converts in Athens may well have drawn his attention to it and its need.
Corinth was an important city situated on the landbridge between the Corinthian Gulf and the Saronic Gulf, across which landbridge freight, and even smaller vessels, were transferred by land from one harbour (Lechaeum) to the other (Cenchreae) on its way to the world’s trade centres. This was done in order to avoid rounding the dangerous and feared Cape Malea on the Peloponnese peninsula. It was thus itself an important trade centre and grew rich.
Its presiding deity was Poseidon, the great sea-god, as befitted a maritime city, and it was a centre of the worship of Aphrodite, with its multitude of sacred priestess prostitutes, which involved a high degree of sexual perversion, such that ‘a Corinthian’ became a byword for loose living, and it was famous for its schools where great men came to expound ‘wisdom’ and ‘knowledge’, some of value and much of little value. It was in some ways a ‘popular’ version of Athens. People followed their favourite philosophers and spent much time in discussing and arguing their case for their differing views. This was a popular leisure activity. It was also heavily influenced by mystery religions which drew men into exotic experiences. And it was famed for its drunkenness. Another important thing in the life of Corinth was the Isthmian Games to which men came from far afield to partake in serious sporting activity, which themselves were heavily connected with the gods, and were held in Poseidon’s honour.
It was thus considered to be a highly civilised city, especially by its inhabitants. And it was, although very old, in essence a new city, simply because of its recent history. It had earlier been totally destroyed as a leader of rebellion against Rome, and it had been rebuilt by Julius Caesar in 46-44 BC as a Roman colony. Its 200,000 or so inhabitants were mainly without old roots, so that it was not bound by ancient customs, being mainly comprised of Greeks, retired Roman soldiers, freedmen from Italy, businessmen, government officials, easterners and a large number of Jews. It was the provincial capital of Achaia. We know from an inscription from Delphi that the pro-consul Gallio began his rule there in 51/2 AD, which helps to date what follows.
Paul defines something of what Corinth was like when he wrote, "Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingly rule of God? Do not be deceived; neither the immoral, nor idolators, nor adulterers, nor homosexuals, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor robbers will inherit the kingly rule of God -- and such were some of you" (1 Corinthians 6.9-11). Corinth was a cosmopolitan city full of every vice and sin known to man.
In the chiasmus from 12.25-18.22 (moving from Antioch back to Antioch twice) this incident parallels the ministry in Cyprus in 13.4-12, for both result in a steady ministry and both result in Paul being brought before a pro-consul.
18.1 ‘After these things he departed from Athens, and came to Corinth.’
It was, then, from the small city of Athens to this large capital city of Achaia that Paul now came. There is no hint that this move was any other than tactical and voluntary in accordance with what he believed was God’s will. But he was not in the best of conditions. He may well have been suffering a renewed bout of malaria, and he was not really feeling up to ministry. As he reminds them in his letter, ‘I was with you in weakness, and in fear, and in much trembling’ (1 Corinthians 2.3).
18.2a ‘And he found a certain Jew named Aquila, a man of Pontus by race, lately come from Italy, with his wife Priscilla, because Claudius had commanded all the Jews to depart from Rome.’
On arrival in Corinth he must have been encouraged when he ‘found’ a Jew named Aquila, a man of Pontus, who, along with his wife Priscilla, had lately left Italy because of the expulsion from Rome of all Jews in 49/50 AD. Suetonius, the Roman historian, tells us that ‘as the Jews were indulging in constant riots at the instigation of Chrestos, he (Claudius) expelled them from Rome’. ‘Chrestus’ may simply refer to some slave by that name who was a constant troublemaker, but it may equally refer to the reaction of some of the Jews to the growth of the Christian church in Rome, slightly misinterpreted. If so it would suggest that already the church in Rome was large enough to be noticed. In fact the decree finally failed of its purpose simply because there were just too many Jews in Rome.
18.2b-3 ‘And he came to them, and because he was of the same trade, he abode with them, and they wrought, for by their trade they were leatherworkers (tentmakers).’
We are not told whether they formed a partnership, or whether Paul worked for Aquila as an employee, but they worked together as tentmakers/leatherworkers. It was customary for a Rabbi to have learned a trade so that he could maintain himself and not need to be supported while preaching. 'Love work,' they said. 'He who does not teach his son a trade teaches him robbery.' This was Paul’s trade. He always made every effort not to have to rely on gifts from local Christians. (Compare 20.34; 1 Corinthians 4.12; 9.1-18; 2 Corinthians 11.9; 1 Thessalonians 2.9; 2 Thessalonians 3.7-10).
Especially having regard to what is said later we may probably assume that Aquila was already a Christian Jew (see 18.26). There is certainly never any suggestion that he was one of Paul’s converts and the assumption must be that he and his wife had been Christians for some time. Their meeting may have been providential, or it could be that Paul had been recommended by Christians he knew to seek out Aquila, and that was why he had ‘found’ him. Or possibly when looking around for work he had been told about this Jew with rather funny ideas
18.4 ‘And he reasoned in the synagogue every sabbath, and persuaded Jews and Greeks.’
But however he was feeling, every Sabbath day he went to the synagogue, and ‘entered into dialogue’ with both Jews and God-fearers, ‘persuading both Jews and Greeks’. While not holding back we note how he is limiting his ministry to the original pattern. There was probably quite sufficient ‘material’ to work on in the synagogue.
18.5 ‘But when Silas and Timothy came down from Macedonia, Paul was constrained by the word, testifying to the Jews that Jesus was the Christ.’
The arrival of Silas and Timothy from Macedonia, no doubt at his request, must have encouraged him, especially as they brought from Thessalonica encouraging news about the progress of the Christians there (see 1 Thessalonians 3.6-10), although he also learned of their problems (1 Thessalonians 2.3-6; 4.13-5.11). It was during this time at Corinth that he wrote the letters to the Thessalonians. Many consider that gifts from Macedonia enabled him to concentrate more time on the ministry in Corinth without looking to that church for support. He was determined not to receive any gifts or support from the church in Corinth itself. He wanted to combat their mercenary approach to life.
Heartened by the arrival of Silas and Timothy he was ‘constrained by the word’, testifying to the Jews that Jesus was the Messiah. The phrase ‘constrained by the word’ is a powerful one, demonstrating that the word was so pressing on him that in spite of his illness he felt that he could do nothing but proclaim it and reason from it. Thus he could later write ‘My speech and my preaching were not in persuasive words of men’s wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power’ (1 Corinthians 2.4). He had become acutely aware that anyone converted in the atmosphere of Corinth would need to be strong, and he wanted to be sure that their faith did not stand in the wisdom of men but in the power of God (1 Corinthians 2.5). In his weakness the word had become his slave-master, and he was preaching with power and with urgency.
18.6 ‘And when they opposed themselves and blasphemed, he shook out his raiment and said to them, “Your blood be on your own heads. I am clean. From now on will go to the Gentiles.” ’
The consequence of this powerful preaching of the word was that ‘the Jews’ (those who refused to believe) reacted by blaspheming against it. This probably indicates their refusal to accept Christ as the Messiah and being insulting about Him. And the final result was that he deserted the synagogue, shook off its dust from his clothes as a testimony against them, and declared that he was leaving them in order to go the Gentiles outside the synagogue (compare Nehemiah 5.13; Matthew 10.14). Of course once he did so he would be even more persona non grata in the synagogue.
‘Your blood be on your own heads.’ Compare 2 Samuel 1.16; Ezekiel 33.6. Paul no longer considers himself responsible for them. 2 Samuel 1.16, which contains the more exact parallel, was spoken of one who had ‘slain the Lord’s anointed’. The implication may therefore be that by their blasphemy against Christ he considers that they have crucified Him again (compare Hebrews 6.6).
We may probably gather from this that the response from the God-fearers had been very different from that of the Jews, and that they had begun to bring Gentile friends to hear Paul. That may well have been part of the reason for the opposition.
18.7 ‘And he departed from there, and went into the house of a certain man named Titus Justus, one who worshipped God, whose house joined hard to the synagogue.’
A God-fearer (one who worshipped God) who lived next door to the synagogue and whose name was Titius Justus, had a large house, and he offered it to Paul for his ministry. He may well have been identical with Gaius (Romans 16.23; 1 Corinthians 1.14), for Gaius is a first name.
18.8 ‘And Crispus, the ruler of the synagogue, believed in the Lord with all his house. And many of the Corinthians, hearing, were believing, and were being baptised.’
But in spite of the attitude of the Jews generally, Crispus the ruler of the synagogue became a believer, and so did all his house (compare 1 Corinthians 1.14). And as well as him and his household, many of the Corinthians came to hear Paul, believed and were baptised. We are justified in seeing in this that a good number of Jews as well as God-fearers did become Christians. The tenses of the verbs stress that this was on ongoing process.
18.9-10 ‘And the Lord said to Paul in the night by a vision, “Do not be afraid, but speak and do not hold your peace, for I am with you, and no man shall set on you to harm you, for I have much people in this city.” ’
It may be that as the Jewish opposition rose Paul remembered back to previous experiences with fanatical Jews and was considering the possibility of moving on so as to prevent an uprising among the people which might make things difficult for the church, for ‘the Lord’ (Jesus Christ) now spoke to Paul in a night vision, urging him to continue the ministry of the word in Corinth, and assuring him of His presence with him, and that there would be no violence against him.
‘I have much people in this city.’ This is probably looking ahead prospectively signifying that there were large numbers of people whom He wanted to win for Himself. Alternately it may signify that there had been far more converts than Paul had yet realised, and that the influence of some of them would for the time being prevent any uprisings. Either way he was told not to hold his peace, for God had a work that He wanted to do.
18.11 ‘And he dwelt there a year and six months, teaching the word of God among them.’
The result was that he preached for eighteen months without let or hindrance, ‘teaching the word of God’ among them. This ‘teaching’ was not only a proclamation but a steady build up in the word. Note the constant references to ‘the word’ throughout Acts. Underlying all that we find in Acts is the progress of the word as it advances. It is going forward to bring about God’s will as Isaiah had promised (Isaiah 55.9-13). And here once more Paul was sending it forth at the Lord’s command.
The clear assumption of this passage is that the word of God was working effectively in the lives of the ‘much people in this city’. But it is interesting that after the initial burst (verse 8) we are not told of even one convert. We are left to recognise the fact without being told, for it is quite clear that a great work was going on. Once again we recognise that Luke’s silences are not to be assumed as signifying that nothing was happening. From elsewhere we know that as well as Crispus, the ruler of the synagogue, and Titius Justus, whose house Paul stayed in, there were Stephanas and his household, his earliest converts whom he baptised himself, something that he soon refrained from doing (1 Corinthians 1.16; 16.15); there was Erastus the city treasurer (Romans 16.23); there was Gaius whose house was large enough to hold the church (Romans 16.23); and there was the Lady Chloe (1 Corinthians 1.11). These were highly influential people, but the unknown majority would come from the lower levels of society, including both freedmen and slaves, although we must remember in saying that, that slaves could hold positions of some importance. The church covered the whole spectrum of society.
18.12-13 ‘But when Gallio was proconsul of Achaia, the Jews with one accord rose up against Paul and brought him before the judgment-seat, saying, “This man persuades men to worship God contrary to the law.” ’
Knowing the constant strength of Jewish feeling we are not surprised to discover that eventually they took action against Paul. It may well have been the arrival of the influential and approachable Gallio as pro-consul in around 51/52 AD that resulted in this. He was brother to the philosopher Seneca, (Nero’s tutor), who had a high regard for him and spoke of his pleasantness to everyone. He was not a man easily to be deceived or wrongly influenced, and was generally approved of by a number of writers of the time. Sadly he suffered ill-health and his pro-consulship was not overlong. He would later be executed by Nero.
The Jews, feeling that he might sympathise with their case, (which they, of course, believed to be fully justified), took the usual tack of the day. In their view Paul was not preaching Judaism, he was preaching an Illicit Religion, one which, unlike Judaism, had not had the stamp of approval from Rome and was therefore not to be participated in. Many of course did participate in illicit religions but the danger of doing so was that they could always be denounced. This, however, would usually only occur when someone had been badly offended or had their business interests affected. And to bring a charge always had its dangers. it could rebound on the plaintiff.
18.14-15 ‘But when Paul was about to open his mouth, Gallio said to the Jews, “If indeed it were a matter of wrong or of wicked villainy, O you Jews, reason would that I should bear with you, but if they are questions about words and names and your own law, look to it yourselves. I am not minded to be a judge of these matters.” ’
Gallio was a discerning and wise ruler and having looked over their case he immediately came to the conclusion that both sides were simply disagreeing about the interpretation of the same religion. He drew the proceedings to a close before Paul had even had an opportunity to speak and pointed out to the plaintiffs, that is, the Jews, that interpreting their religion was not the purpose for which he had been appointed. If they could produce evidence of Paul breaking the law, or committing some villainy then he would be quite happy to act. But when it came to such things as interpretations of what ‘the word’ was, and disagreements about particular names connected with it, such as ‘Jesus’ or ‘Christos’, and whether their Instruction (Torah) should be observed by certain people or not, that was a matter for them to decide between themselves. He was not prepared to judge such matters. They must argue it out among them.
We may presume that in building up their case in order to demonstrate that Paul was not preaching Judaism, they had distinguished their Scriptures from ‘the word’ preached by Paul, had distinguished their idea of the Messiah from Jesus Christos, and had pointed out that contrary to Judaism Paul taught that Gentiles did not have to keep the Law of Moses. Gallio simply saw both sides as interpreting the same religious ideas in different ways. Interestingly both were right. It simply depended on how it was seen.
18.16 ‘And he drove them from the judgment-seat.’
And the result was that he drove them all from the place of judgment. He was having none of it. There is an impression here of rather forceful dealings, as the next verse confirms. The authorities did not take kindly to spurious cases which simply wasted their time.
The ‘judgment seat’ was a large raised platform that stood in the marketplace in front of the pro-consul’s residence and from which he would try cases in public.
18.17 ‘And they all laid hold on Sosthenes, the ruler of the synagogue, and beat him before the judgment-seat. And Gallio cared for none of these things.’
‘They all’ here probably refers to the officials responsible for overseeing the bringing of the case to court and the subsequent proceedings. They would mainly be Gentiles among whom there was quite probably some anti-Semitism, which would possibly be the result of jealousy over the Jews’ proverbial success in business. Observing Gallio’s attitude and contempt for the bringing of the case they proceeded to beat Sosthenes, the current ruler of the synagogue, (who had presumably replaced Crispus in the position). This would probably be on the basis that he had brought a false charge. Beatings were quite a common occurrence in those days (compare 22.24), and it would appear here that it was because it was considered that by bringing an unreasonable case he had wasted everyone’s time. It was intended as a warning to all not to bring up false matters. People had to learn not to misuse the court. That is why Gallio would ignore it. To him it was irrelevant and in fact deserved. In those days going to law always brought the possibility of reprisals if the case was not won.
Gallio’s view in general would be that as long as the people caused no trouble they could sort out minor matters between themselves. We must remember that the giving of such beatings was not unusual. They were seen as quite commonplace affairs. They were, for example, allowed on the authority of the synagogue elders for breaches in synagogue rules. Synagogues would regularly administer beatings for misbehaviour. As long as the person was not seriously injured they would not be seen as a serious matter, and would be allowed. After all fathers regularly beat their sons and masters their slaves. Beatings were seen as good for people. It was only Roman citizens who were not supposed to be beaten without first being examined.
‘Gallio cared for none of these things.’ This is not saying that Gallio did not perform his duty. It is saying that he refused to get involved in things to do with religious interpretation. Gallio in other words was saying that they had nothing to do with Roman Law. His attitude was thus in favour of Christians. Luke is saying to all who read his work, ‘see, Gallio was unconcerned about it’.
This decision by a pro-consul would have widespread effects. It was basically a decision that Christians were to be seen as included with Jews in a Licit Religion. It would require someone of comparative or higher status to reverse its effects.
Thus Luke is stressing that as with the pro-consul in Cyprus (13.12), here was another pro-consul who had examined Christianity and declared it to be a Licit Religion. Neither had seen in it anything that was illegal or to be condemned. Paul’s ministry to this point ended as it had begun, with the approval of Rome.
Paul Returns to Antioch Via Ephesus and Jerusalem (18.18-22).
The ministry at Corinth continued for some time after which Paul decided that it was time to return back to the church at Syrian Antioch who had originally sent him and Silas out (15.40), and he did so via Ephesus.
18.18 ‘And Paul, having tarried after this yet many days, took his leave of the brethren, and sailed thence for Syria, and with him Priscilla and Aquila, having shorn his head in Cenchreae, for he had a vow.’
Having continued his work in Corinth for some further good long time, Paul set sail for Syria, taking with him Priscilla and Aquila. But prior to setting sail he shaved his head as a result of some kind of vow. Cenchreae was an outpost of Corinth, and was the presumably the port from which Paul set sail. The shaving of the head would normally come at the end of the period of the vow, and the hair would then have to be presented in Jerusalem (compare Numbers 6.18). We must then assume that the vow was made at a time when he was at a low ebb, possibly through his illness, (and thus to be maintained while he was in Corinth), or in hope that it would produce more effectiveness in his ministry. Alternately it may have been some kind of expression of gratitude to God for the work he had done in Europe, and a rededication to God’s service for the future, with the shaving being preliminary, and preparatory to allowing it to grow for the full period of the vow. Perhaps it included a vow to return to Europe, and even possibly to visit Rome. Either way in the fulfilment of it he would hurry on to Jerusalem, (although Luke only mentions that visit indirectly - verse 22), prior to returning to Syrian Antioch.
We need see this vow and rededication as little different, except in intensity, from our special consecration meetings of one kind or another. They too should be just as binding. It was his way of expressing full consecration of himself to God in conformity with his upbringing, in view either of his rededication when he was feeling low or the joy in his heart arising from all that God had achieved, and his vow that he would continue so to serve God. Either way he wanted a means to outwardly express his feelings and clearly saw nothing inconsistent in it. He presumably saw it as a freewill action, and not as something binding by the Law. The Nazirite and related vows were all voluntary.
However it might also have been because by this act he hoped to keep open contact with the Jewish wing of the church especially in Jerusalem. He was always ready to be all things to all men where it did not compromise truth (1 Corinthians 9.20-23). It may even have been the warm reception of this vow by the church in Jerusalem that would lead on to its disastrous repetition. It is apparent from the text that Luke refers to it because as an honest historian he felt that he had to, and possibly in order to explain why Paul’s visit to Ephesus was curtailed. But the brevity with which he deals with the matters involved suggests that he feels that it was not in the end either an important or a wise action.
‘Priscilla and Aquila.’ We note here the unusual order of putting the woman first, something repeated elsewhere with regard to this couple (18.26; Romans 16.3; 2 Timothy 4.19). This is in contrast with 1 Corinthians 16.19, but there they are linked with the whole church so that Priscilla is not the prominent one. This would suggest that Priscilla was seen as of higher status than Aquila, possibly as of Roman aristocracy. In contrast in 18.2 Paul had been seeking work and therefore it was the one who could offer that work who was mentioned first. But here we have the normal order. Priscilla was the diminutive for Prisca, the latter preferred by Paul. Luke has a tendency to use diminutives. Priscilla and Aquila seem constantly to be on the move and it may be that they had business interests in Rome, Corinth and Ephesus. They had come from Rome to Corinth (18.2), and now they would go to Ephesus. They were in Ephesus, with a church meeting being held in their house, when 1 Corinthians was written (1 Corinthians 16.19), but were later found in Rome (Romans 16.3), and later again back in Ephesus (2 Timothy 4.19). They were therefore very peripatetic.
18.19 ‘And they came to Ephesus, and he left them there, but he himself entered into the synagogue, and reasoned with the Jews.’
On arrival in Ephesus Paul clearly said his ‘goodbyes’ to Priscilla and Aquila. ‘He left them there’ suggests that he did not expect to meet up with them again in Ephesus because he expected to embark at once. It would seem, however, that discovering that he could not embark as soon as he had expected he had to take up short term lodgings in Ephesus by the harbour, in order to wait for a suitable berth. This would be why he was unexpectedly able to go to the synagogue to reason with the Jews (we may presumably read in, ‘on the Sabbath day’). We say unexpectedly because had he been expecting it presumably he would have asked Priscilla and Aquila to accompany him.
This first act of evangelising in Ephesus is probably intended to stress that prior to the soon to be explained ministry of Apollos, there had been there an Apostolic witness. Thus the initial action in establishing the church at Ephesus had been Paul’s. He could therefore be seen as the founder of the church.
18.20-21 ‘And when they asked him to remain a longer time, he refused his consent, but taking his leave of them, and saying, “I will return again to you if God will”, he set sail from Ephesus.’
The Jews there seemingly saw his ministry as acceptable for they asked him to remain. But he had his vow to fulfil and presumably wanted to be in Jerusalem for a coming feast. Thus he refused his consent, but promised that he would return again shortly in the near future if it proved to be God’s will. Then he set sail from Ephesus.
18.22 ‘And when he had landed at Caesarea, he went up and saluted the church, and went down to Antioch.’
Landing at Caesarea ‘he went up and saluted the church’. This almost certainly indicates that he went up to the mother church at Jerusalem where he would complete his vow, rather than just to the church of Caesarea. He would not be seen as ‘going up’ to the church in Caesarea. But Jerusalem is no longer important to Luke and he makes this clear by dismissing it with a half reference. He is no longer interested in Jerusalem.
‘And went down to Antioch.’ Paul then returned to Syrian Antioch. His long second missionary journey was over. This visit to Jerusalem is confirmed by the ‘going up’ and the ‘going down’ which are technical terms. Attending the church in Caesarea would not be seen as a ‘going up’. Going from Caesarea to Antioch would not be seen as a ‘going down’. These were technical terms.
The Third Missionary Journey And The Ministry of Apollos (18.23-19.20).
This section from 18.23-19.20 follows the section which has described Paul’s ministry from first leaving Antioch for his first missionary journey to his arrival back in Antioch after his second missionary journey (12.25-18.22), in between which was sandwiched the enquiry at Jerusalem. It is thus not part of the 12.25-18.22 chiasmus. However, it is still a part of the section from 12.25-19.20 which ends with the subscription in 19.20, ‘mightily grew the word of the Lord and prevailed’. It forms its own chiasmus.
It commences with Paul revisiting the churches in Asia Minor and then deals primarily with ministry in Ephesus, the largest city in Asia Minor and third largest city in the Roman Empire (Syrian Antioch was the second largest after Rome). It includes the remarkable activity of Apollos, and the conversion of the disciples of John the Baptiser, followed by Paul’s ministry there. It is characterised by a lack of persecution, and this in spite of the opposition of the Jews at Ephesus. (Although it may be that any persecution which took place is simply unmentioned. Compare 1 Corinthians 15.32; 2 Corinthians 1.8). Such persecution will, however, certainly result in Ephesus in the next section of Acts). On the other hand it has all the appearance of the early days of Acts.
One reason for this subsection being here would appear to be in order to demonstrate that God had raised up another champion to take over the care of the churches in the face of Paul’s coming arrest and journey to Rome. It was saying that God would not leave the churches without someone to minister to them. When Paul was arrested the work among the Gentiles would still go on, for God always has His replacements. The word would continue to multiply. A second reason would appear to be in order to deal with the vexed question of disciples of John the Baptiser. We know from elsewhere that there were many of these in synagogues around the Roman world and it was important that the way into the church of Jesus Christ should be opened to them, while making clear to them that they did still require something more. But a third reason may well be in order to reproduce the atmosphere of the early part of both Luke and Acts so as to demonstrate that the same Spirit was at work at this time as from the beginning, and this as a preparation to commencing Paul’s journey to Jerusalem and then to Rome, which to a certain extent parallels Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem. Thus this subsection tells us that his coming journey was to be seen against the background of the powerful and continually maintained triumph of the Gospel which had gone forward right from the beginning without hindrance (see analysis below).
We may analyse it as follows (giving comparisons with Luke and early Acts with the analysis):
In ‘a’ the ministry of John develops into the ministry of Jesus, and in the parallel mightily grows the word of God and prevails. In ‘b’ the disciples of John are immersed in the Holy Spirit and speak in other tongues, in the parallel the books which are the instruments of Satan are dealt with by being immersed in fire. We are reminded of John’s words, ‘immersed in the Holy Spirit and in fire’. In ‘c’ the Jews as a whole are hardened (and thus become false witnesses), while the Gentiles continually respond so that all Asia hear the word of the Lord, and in the parallel the hardened Jews who are false witnesses are defeated, while the name of the Lord Jesus is magnified by ‘all’. Central to all in ‘d’ are the signs and wonders which confirm Paul’s ministry to be of God and to be continuing what happened at Pentecost. The whole section demonstrates the bringing to completion of the ministry of John and the atmosphere of the days following Pentecost as a reminder that Pentecost still goes on.
Paul Sets Out on His Third Missionary Journey: Ministry Among The Disciples of John The Baptiser (18.23-19.7).
Paul Sets Out On His Third Missionary Journey.
18.23 ‘And having spent some time there, he departed, and went through the region of Galatia, and Phrygia, in order, establishing all the disciples.’
Having spent some time in Syrian Antioch, during which time he would enjoy a teaching and evangelistic ministry, and would familiarise the church there with all that God had done, Paul set out again in order to visit the churches in Asia Minor, in ‘the Galatian region and Phrygia’ which he had previously evangelised. He did this in an orderly way, using the opportunity to strengthen all the disciples who had been won for Christ. Depending on which route he took, which would determine the order in which he visited, he would call in at Derbe, Lystra, Iconium, Pisidian Antioch, and Perga. This ministry would take many months.
The Ministry of Apollos in Ephesus. He Is Instructed In The Way of the Lord (18.24-26).
Meanwhile there arrived in the west of Asia Minor, in Ephesus, which Paul had visited but had not yet really evangelised, ‘a certain Jew named Apollos’. This remarkable person proclaimed the baptism of John, and the Coming One whom John had promised and to Whom he had pointed. He knew about Jesus, and believed, but his knowledge was incomplete. He was ‘instructed in the way of the Lord’ (compare Luke 3.4) and ‘taught diligently (or accurately) the things concerning Jesus’. Here ‘Lord’ may mean the God Whom John served, or the Coming One to Whom John had pointed. But either way it was not a full faith in the crucified and resurrected Jesus. He had to be taught ‘the way of God’ more perfectly.
But once he had been taught the way of God more accurately he began to proclaim the Messiah as Jesus along with all that went with it. A major explanation for the introduction of Apollos’ ministry is that it was in order to confirm that once Paul was prevented from engaging in further missionary journeys there was another who would take his place. It may well be that Ephesus first, and then Corinth, was a deliberate reversal of Paul’s path, which had been Corinth first and then Ephesus, in order to demonstrate that he was taking on Paul’s ministry (compare the reversal of visits to places when Elisha takes over from Elijah - 2 Kings 2). But it is also an essential first step in Luke’s re-enactment of the triumph of God from John the Baptiser to the final defeat of Satan at the cross, as suggested above.
We must pause here to remind ourselves of the importance of Ephesus in the ongoing of the Good News. It was the major city of western Asia Minor, itself an area of great cities, and was the third largest in the empire (although being on the wane due to difficulties in preventing the silting up of its harbour), containing over 250,000 inhabitants. Being at the end of the Asiatic caravan route, and a natural landing point from Rome, it was a prominent harbour. With its theatre (capacity 25,000), baths, library, agora and paved streets together with its huge and world-famed temple of the many-breasted Diana (Greek: Artemis) and its three temples dedicated to emperor worship it saw itself, and was seen by others, as an important centre of civilisation and religion. It had a large colony of Jews who enjoyed a privileged position under Roman rule. It would be an important centre for the spread of the Good News throughout the Roman province of Asia.
18.24 ‘Now a certain Jew named Apollos, an Alexandrian by race, an eloquent man, came to Ephesus, and he was mighty in the scriptures.’
Apollos was an Alexandrian from Egypt, which probably means that he interpreted the Scriptures more allegorically than would be done in Palestine. Alexandria had a large Jewish population and was heavily influenced by the Jewish philosopher Philo. He was also very eloquent, and above all very knowledgeable about, and effective in teaching, the Scriptures.
18.25 ‘This man had been instructed in the way of the Lord, and being fervent in spirit, he spoke and taught accurately the things concerning Jesus, knowing only the baptism of John.’
It would appear that Apollos had either visited Jerusalem and come under the ministry of John the Baptiser, or that he had come under the influence of others who had done so. As a result of that ministry they had learned of the coming of Jesus, and even something of His life and teaching. We learn here that Apollos had been instructed in ‘the way of the Lord’. This reminds us of the words cited by John, ‘make ready the way of the Lord’ (Luke 3.4). Apollos had taken in John’s instruction.
Furthermore he knew and taught accurately ‘the things concerning Jesus’. We must probably read this as meaning ‘the things concerning Jesus as taught by John’. He had been so inspired by it that he had taken up a teaching ministry so as to press it home to Jews everywhere, and prepare them for the arrival of the Coming One. Unfortunately we are not given full details of what he did know and believe. But we can be sure that he knew nothing of the saving effects of Jesus’ death and resurrection, nor of the coming of the Holy Spirit in power. Otherwise he would not have needed to be taught more.
‘Fervent in spirit.’ Almost there, but not quite. His own spirit was the source of his effectiveness, even though strengthened by God. Possibly he had similar inspiration to others prior to Pentecost, which could include being ‘filled (pimplemi) with Holy Spirit’ (Luke 1.15, 41,67) to speak inspired words. Thus ‘being fervent in spirit he spoke and taught’. But it was pre-Pentecost filling.
18.26 ‘And he began to speak boldly in the synagogue. But when Priscilla and Aquila heard him, they took him to them, and expounded to him the way of God more accurately.’
In God’s goodness he began to proclaim his teaching in the synagogue in Ephesus which was attended by Priscilla and Aquila. When they heard what he had to say they took him to one side and updated his teaching, explaining to him ‘the way of God more accurately’. In other words they filled him in on what was lacking in his teaching through lack of knowledge, telling him about the death of Jesus as Messiah, and His resurrection and enthronement through which men could be saved and as a result of which He had sent the full blessing of the poured out Holy Spirit. And he seemingly responded to such an extent that the Ephesian believers then felt able to recommend him to the churches in Achaia.
We may see in all this a re-enactment of John’s ministry and its blossoming into the full revelation of Jesus Christ.
For ‘the way of God’ compare Matthew 22.16 where it refers to the teaching of Jesus, Mark 12.14 where it refers to the teaching of Jesus as paralleled with the idea of the best of Jewish teaching, and Luke 20.21 where it very much emphasises the special nature of Jesus’ teaching. It does not directly appear in the Old Testament, but compare ‘the way of holiness’ (Isaiah 35.8). We must also keep in mind the description of Christianity as ‘the Way’ (compare 16.17; 19.9; 22.4; 24.22)
The Ministry of Apollos in Achaia (18.27-28).
18.27-28 ‘And when he was minded to pass over into Achaia, the brethren encouraged him, and wrote to the disciples to receive him, and when he was come, he helped them much who had believed through grace, for he powerfully confuted the Jews, and that publicly, showing by the scriptures that Jesus was the Christ.’
Moving on to Achaia Apollos continued his ministry, but now with the full facts burning in his heart. Now he was indeed fervent in the Spirit. The ‘brethren’ in Ephesus, (‘the brethren’ suggests that there was already a small church there, possibly founded by Priscilla and Aquila during there stay there), encouraged him in his endeavour, and sent letters with him recommending him to the churches of Achaia. Such letters of commendation were to be a regular feature of the early church in order to identify true men of God, and avoid the danger of false and lying prophets. On arrival there he was a great help to the believers, ‘those who had believed through grace’, for he powerfully and publicly demonstrated to the Jews from the Scriptures, that the Messiah was Jesus.
‘Those who had believed through grace.’ Compare especially 15.11. See also 4.33, 11.23; 13.43; 14.3, 26; 15.40; 20.32. This refers to those who were trusting in the ‘unmerited love and compassion’ (grace) of God for salvation through the cross and resurrection of Christ (15.11), as contained in the word of His ‘grace’ (14.3). ‘Grace’ is the unmerited love and compassion of God which was revealed clearly in the lives of the converts at Pentecost and after (4.33) and in Syrian Antioch when Barnabas visited them (11.23). Thus the disciples in Pisidian Antioch were ‘encouraged to continue in the grace of God’, that is, in trusting in God’s unmerited love and favour for their salvation. In 14.26 and 15.40 it refers to God’s gracious and effective assistance in the ministry.
Up to this point we are only told that he preached in Achaia, but eventually, as we would expect, Apollo ministered in Corinth (19.1). How soon it was after his arrival in Achaia we are not told. Possibly almost immediately. He would later return to Ephesus (1 Corinthians 16.12).
Paul’s Ministry in Ephesus among The Disciples of John the Baptiser (19.1-7).
Meanwhile Paul, having encouraged the churches in Phrygia-Galatia arrived via the mountain regions in Ephesus. There he came across a group of believers, possibly in the synagogue, who seemingly honoured Jesus and yet whose lives were lacking the glow of the Spirit. Whether these were original disciples of John, or merely those who had received Apollos’ teaching before he himself had had his eyes opened, we do not know. Had they been Apollos’ converts, however, we might have expected Luke to say so.
But spread around the Jewish world were large numbers of disciples of John the Baptiser. They had responded to his teaching on various visits to Jerusalem and their hearts would be waiting for the full truth about Jesus. Yet it was important for all, and especially Jews, to recognise that they were not Christians (although hopefully Christians-in-waiting), nor were they an alternative to Christianity. Thus in this incident it is made quite clear that if these disciples of John are to be true Christians they must come to believe fully in Jesus Christ, and must be baptised and given the Holy Spirit, and thus become one with the Christian church. This fact is now emphasised.
But this incident is important in another respect. Paul had not been present at Pentecost. He had only heard of what had happened. But now he was to see something of it for himself. It would be like a new Pentecost. The Holy Spirit would be poured out and men would speak with other tongues. As far as Acts is concerned this is Paul’s first experience of it. It would be a boost in preparation for what was to come.
19.1-2a ‘And it came about that, while Apollos was at Corinth, Paul having passed through the upper country came to Ephesus, and found certain disciples, and he said to them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?”
When Paul arrived in Ephesus he ‘found’ certain disciples. Perceiving the lack of any signs of the Holy Spirit in these men, in spite of what they appeared to believe, Paul asked them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” Without the Holy Spirit they were not members of the body of Christ, nor were they full Christians.
‘Found certain disciples.’ They would probably be Jews whose faith had been extended by acceptance of the teaching of John the Baptiser and belief in the Coming One. They were ‘almost-Christians’. They followed ‘the way of righteousness’ and have therefore to a certain extent entered under the Kingly Rule of God (Matthew 21.31-32). Indeed a number of the Apostles had once been such disciples of John. They can be classed as ‘disciples’ because in their own way they are believers in Jesus and desire to follow Him (although we should note that Luke does not necessarily always refer to true believers when he speaks of ‘disciples’ - Luke 6.17; 19.37, 39). We are not told how he found them. Note that they are honoured by being given precedence to his visit to the synagogue. They are dealt with first and are seen as a unique and precious harvest-field to be garnered. Perhaps he had learned of them from a previous visit and had now sought them out.
19.2b ‘And they said to him, “No, we did not so much as hear whether the Holy Spirit was given.” ’
Their reply explained why it was that there was no obvious open evidence within their lives of the Spirit. They claimed that they had not known that the Holy Spirit, Whom John had promised would come through the Messiah, had in fact been given. (Literally, ‘whether the Holy Spirit (Whom John had promised) was,’ that is, had come).
19.3 ‘And he said, “Into what then were you baptised?” And they said, “Into John’s baptism.” ’
This lack of the Spirit puzzled him because he knew that they had been baptised. How could they have been baptised having not experienced the Spirit? So he asked them the nature of their baptism and was told that it was the baptism of John.
19.4 ‘And Paul said, “John baptised with the baptism of repentance, saying to the people that they should believe on him who would come after him, that is, on Jesus.” ’
Then Paul explained to them that John’s baptism had pointed ahead to the need for a change of mind and heart about sin, so that they might receive the forgiveness of sins (Mark 1.4). And he reminded them that John had also pointed forward to the Coming One, calling on all his disciples to believe on Him (Mark 1.7-8; John 1.23-34). This Coming One, he informed them, was Jesus. So while Apollos was declaring that the Messiah was Jesus in Corinth, this group of disciples were learning the same truth from Paul in Ephesus.
19.5 ‘And when they heard this, they were baptised into the name of the Lord Jesus.’
When they heard this their hearts responded to the message. The fact that they believed is assumed, for that is what Paul had directed them to do (verse 4). And on believing they were baptised into the name of the LORD Jesus. Note that the baptism was into the name of Jesus as ‘the LORD’. Baptism ‘into the Name’ is always in the Name of the LORD, a title which signifies the God of Israel (Matthew 28.19).
19.6 ‘And when Paul had laid his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they spoke with tongues, and prophesied.’
But the Holy Spirit did not come on them until Paul laid his hands on them and identified them with the Christian church. It was necessary that this be so, so that it would be crystal clear that initially the disciples of John had only ‘received the Spirit’ on becoming united with the Christian church through the laying on of hands of an Apostle.
The laying on of hands is always a mark of identification. Where it takes place under the strict direction of God the result will always be that the Holy Spirit comes on the one who has hands laid on him if he has not previously known the Spirit. It can also result in a special enduement with the Spirit on one chosen by God. But it is not the laying on of hands that ensures either. It is the fact that God has made His will known, and His people then identify those whom God has chosen. Once God has made His will known the identification by holy men of that one will ensure the coming of the enduement of power. But where the will of God is lacking, any laying on of hands will be an empty ceremony.
This incident is similar to that with the Samaritans 8.16-17, and in contrast with that of Cornelius 11.44, in that the coming of the Holy Spirit is delayed until the recipients have been directly identified with an Apostle by the laying on of hands. This would seem to be because both were examples of distinct bodies who already saw themselves as worshipping the God of Israel and who were both therefore in danger of being satisfied with what they were and thus not uniting with the whole church of God. Thus in both cases it had to be made clear that their reception of the Spirit came though the one true church of Jesus Christ founded by the Apostles. For Cornelius and his group the word which gave life came directly through an Apostle and there was therefore no danger of schism.
We also learn that when the Holy Spirit came on these men they ‘spoke with tongues and prophesied’. This would identify them with Pentecost, and with Cornelius and his men, for the same thing happened in both cases. They too were being received by God on the same basis as both Jew and Gentile, through the reception of the Spirit. It was sealing the fact that the disciples of John were now being united in the body of Christ, and that without that union what they had experienced was only partial and insufficient.
We have no reason for assuming that such an experience of the coming of the Holy Spirit on men as witnessed by tongues and prophecy was commonplace for Paul. It is the first time in Acts that he is associated with such an experience. Seeing the effect of the Holy Spirit coming on the men accompanied by tongues and prophecy would be seen by him as a fulfilment of Pentecost before his eyes, a reminder that what Pentecost had brought for men was still as real there in Ephesus as it was previously. We note that while all spoke in praise of God, only some spoke in tongues. But the tongues were necessary so that they might all recognise that they were entering into the same experience as the infant church had at Jerusalem. They too were being ‘baptised into the body of Christ’ (1 Corinthians 12.13). The remainder praised and glorified God in their own language. In this case we are not told whether the tongues were identifiable to anyone, but the group, even though small, may well have been multi-racial. It may even be that the prophesying was in Greek or Aramaic while the tongues were their own native tongues, and that the fact of their spontaneous praise in this way was really the important sign (both tongues and prophesying are mentioned together).
19.7 ‘’And they were in all about twelve men.’
The men to whom this happened numbered ‘about twelve’ (when citing numbers Luke always says ‘about’). The clear purpose of mentioning ‘twelve’ here is to link these new believers with the new Israel founded on the twelve Apostles (Ephesians 2.20; Revelation 21.14). They are now Christ’s men and members of the Israel of God. They have been established on the foundation of the Apostles. But there may be a further significance in the figure. They may have been the leaders in Ephesus, similar to the twelve Apostles, of a larger contingent of disciples of John (it is difficult to conceive of the possibility that there could only be twelve men baptised by John in a prominent place like Ephesus so near to Jerusalem. John’s impact had been huge). If so the word of God would now go back to these earnest already half-converted Jews so that they would come to be baptised and would become a part of what follows.
There seems little doubt that one main reason that Luke had for describing this incident was precisely because it was a kind of re-enactment of Pentecost. There too those who had been baptised by John received the Holy Spirit and spoke in tongues and prophesied. It was a seal on Paul’s ministry preparatory for what was to come.
Note on The Followers of John.
The death, resurrection and enthronement of Jesus necessarily brought about a difficult situation for us as we look at the New Testament. To us believers are simply those who believe in the crucified and risen Christ and are thereby saved. But of course at that point in time there were large numbers of true ‘believers’ who knew nothing about His death and resurrection. Many were humble Jewish believers around the world who loved God and sought to walk with Him, fulfilling all the requirements of their faith, similar to those described in Luke 1 & 2. Especially there were many who had listened to John the Baptiser and had responded to his message and were seeking to live by it, looking forward to the One Whom he had promised as coming. Some would even have heard him after he began specifically to point to Jesus. All these people did not immediately become ‘disenfranchised’ from the grace of God by the resurrection. Their genuineness would only be tested when they were brought face to face with the Good News at the mouth of a Spirit inspired man. Until that time they were seen by God as true believers, for he knew their hearts. And he knew that when they did hear the Good News they would respond wholeheartedly. Thus these were truly ‘disciples’ here and they were true believers. It is just that Paul was privileged to bring them from the light that they enjoyed to the greater light of the Light of the world.
End of note.
Paul’s Continuing Ministry in Ephesus (19.8-20).
Meanwhile we are reminded that Paul’s’ ministry continues in Ephesus in the proclamation of the Kingly Rule of God (compare 1.3; 8.12; 14.22; 20.25; 28.23, 31). Like the working of the Holy Spirit, and the expansion of ‘the word’ this idea of the proclamation of the Kingly Rule of God lies at the root of the book all the way through. And now, having ensured the giving of the Holy Spirit in the same way as at Pentecost, he reveals Pentecostal power in his ministry and in signs and wonders and in the disorientation of the world of evil spirits and destruction of the books used in the occult by burning in fire. God inundates ‘in the Holy Spirit’ and ‘by fire’ (Luke 3.16). The Spirit of Pentecost is still active.
19.8 ‘And he entered into the synagogue, and spoke boldly for the space of three months, reasoning and persuading as to the things concerning the Kingly Rule of God.’
Encouraged by this experience Paul entered the synagogue and for three months boldly ‘reasoned and persuaded’ about the ‘things concerning the Kingly Rule of God’. For ‘reasoned’ compare 17.2, 17; 18.4, 19 where it is always in the synagogue or with the Jews. However in verse 9 he also ‘reasons’ daily in the school of Tyrannus in the new group that he has formed, which marks a new beginning. For ‘persuaded’ as used of seeking to win men for Christ see 13.43; 17.4; 18.4; 28.23, 24.
‘Concerning the Kingly Rule of God.’ Acts commences with (1.3) and ends with (28.31) the proclaiming of the Kingly Rule of God. See also 8.12; 14.22; 20.25; 28.23. It is the equivalent of proclaiming ‘the Gospel’. The call is for men to come under the Kingly Rule of God in order that in the end they may enjoy the everlasting Kingdom.
In this he parallels Jesus who also went out to the Jews proclaiming the Kingly Rule of God. He too found that ‘the Jews’ (the unresponsive ones) hardened their hearts against His Message.
‘‘And he entered into the synagogue.’ The singular probably signifies ‘the sphere of the synagogue’. There would be a number of synagogues in Ephesus and he probably visited a number of them.
19.9 ‘But when some were hardened and disobedient, speaking evil of the Way before the multitude, he departed from them, and separated the disciples, reasoning daily in the school of Tyrannus.’
Such continual efforts could only result in some being ‘hardened’ because they refused to accept the message. Note that this is also described as being ‘disobedient. For ‘hardening’ compare Romans 9.18; Hebrews 3.8, 13, 15; 4.7. When used in the New Testament the word is always used of Israel/Jews. In the Old Testament it was used of Pharaoh in his attitude towards God during his battles with Moses, and elsewhere in the Old Testament of Israel, with this significance of a heart that is gradually hardened because of a refusal to submit to God. The idea in the New Testament is that those who had the Scriptures hardened their hearts against its message.
The result was that they spoke evil of ‘the Way’ before the whole congregation. That this is to be seen as more than simply disagreeing comes out in the consequences. It was on open and determined attack, no doubt including blasphemy against Jesus Christ. It presumably made further teaching in the synagogue impossible. These may well have been the ‘wild beasts at Ephesus’ (1 Corinthians 15.32). If so it suggests that Luke is toning the situation down.
‘The Way.’ A regular description of the new teaching (9.2; 19.23; 22.4; 24.14, 22) indicating that those who followed it lived in a special way, the way of holiness. It may well have been a name that they gave to themselves. If so it would be because they were saw themselves as walking in God’s new way, and following a way of life different from all others, although it may also have connection with Jesus’ claim to be ‘The Way’ in John 14.6. Alternately it may be a title applied to them by observers, who noted their punctilious way of life, a title which they then took over for themselves.
The idea of ‘the way of holiness’ can be found in the Old Testament, especially in Isaiah 35.8-9; compare 26.7-8; 30.21; 42.16; 43.19; 48.17 The idea that it represents is that of walking before the Lord in cleanness and purity, and in following God’s Instruction (Torah), in this case in terms of the teaching of Jesus (compare Isaiah 2.3), steadfastly and truly. Those who walk in that way desire only to please Him. It was thus a very suitable title. It was ‘the way of God’.
‘He departed from them, and separated the disciples, reasoning daily in the school of Tyrannus.’ Realising that the synagogue could no longer be a suitable place for speaking of Christ Paul moved the disciples in their entirety to the School of Tyrannus. There could now be no true worship in the atmosphere of the synagogue. From now on the church would meet in the School of Tyrannus, and it was there that the future evangelistic activity would take place, and where Paul established his own outreach. It would make him more accessible to Gentiles. We can compare the similar response in Corinth in Acts 18.7.
It was possibly partly with regard to this situation that he wrote to the Corinthians, ‘a great door and effectual is opened to me, and there are many adversaries’ (1 Corinthians 16.9).
‘The School of Tyrannus.’ Tyrannus was presumably a philosopher who had set up a school in Ephesus. He may have hired out the building during the periods when he was not teaching (the Western text has an addition which says that Paul preached there ‘from the fifth to the tenth hour’,that is from 11.00 to 16.00 indicating the period of siesta). Or he may have become a Christian and have gladly shared his building with Paul. In view of the length of time in which Paul ministered there we can be almost certain that he was friendly disposed towards him.
19.10 ‘And this continued for the space of two years, so that all those who dwelt in Asia heard the word of the Lord, both Jews and Greeks.’
The move was successful and, far from hindering the church, resulted within two years in the spreading of ‘the word of the Lord’ throughout the whole of Asia Minor, among both Jews and Gentiles. ‘All those’ is an exaggeration indicating the widespread nature of the spreading of the word. From this evangelism would arise the ‘seven churches of Asia’ to which John writes in Revelation. Also established would be churches at Laodicea, Colossae and Hierapolis, although not by Paul himself (Colossians 2.1). It was indeed a great door that had been opened.
19.11-12 ‘And God wrought special miracles by the hands of Paul, (in so much that to the sick were carried away from his body cloths or aprons), and the evil spirits went out.’
It was a period also of great signs and wonders, such that God wrought special miracles ‘through the hands of Paul’ in an unprecedented way, probably literally. He laid hands on the sick and they recovered. He cast out evil spirits. On top of the wonders he himself performed, cloths (see Luke 19.20; John 11.44; 20.7) and aprons were take from his body, and the suggestion would appear to be that these resulted in men and women being healed. But there is no need to see this as having been widespread. It is mentioned as unusual. The cloths may have been worn around his head as sweatbands, and the aprons have been worn while he was at work. Both may have been taken without his knowledge. This was no indication of a precedent to be followed.
The deliverance from evil spirits is probably a separate issue as they would be responsive to commands given in the name of Jesus (see following verses). Evil spirits are never cast out by the laying on of hands (and laying hands on a spirit possessed person is foolish for it encourages possession for the one who does it). They are cast out by the name of Jesus. But the whole point is that the wonders of the early days are being repeated (or are continuing), with Messianic healings and demonstrations of the defeat of the tyranny of Satan. This last was now to be highlighted by events that followed.
19.13 ‘But certain also of the strolling Jews, exorcists, took on themselves to name over those who had the evil spirits the name of the Lord Jesus, saying, “I adjure you by Jesus whom Paul preaches”.’
Ephesus is here revealed to be a centre of the occult. This was so much so that the phrase 'Ephesian writings' (Ephesia grammata) was common in antiquity for documents containing spells and magical formulae. We have already encountered Bar-jesus in Cyprus (13.6). Jews especially appear to have been involved in exorcisms, and there was a recent history of exorcism in Judaism as is evident from the literature at Qumran (compare Luke 11.19), which exorcism (probably spuriously) dated itself back to the time of Solomon, and even Abraham. Here in Ephesus, seeing the wonders performed in the name of Jesus, Jewish exorcists took His name and added it to their armoury. Their failure to appreciate Who He was or to seek to have any relationship with Him comes out in the way in which they are said to have used the name, ‘by Jesus Whom Paul preaches’. They are in total contrast with the one of whom Jesus spoke in Luke 9.49.
Interestingly a papyrus that has been discovered mentions the use of the name of Jesus in exorcisms in the form ‘I adjure you by Jesus, the God of the Hebrews’, while the Rabbinic prohibition of using the name of Jesus in exorcisms indicates that it certainly occurred. Thus there is no good reason for doubting the historicity of these verses.
19.14-15 ‘And there were seven sons of one Sceva, a Jew, a chief priest, who did this, and the evil spirit answered and said to them, “Jesus I know, and Paul I know, but who are you?” ’
Included among these exorcists were seven sons of Sceva, a chief priest (which suggests connection with one of the Jerusalem hierarchy, a member of a high priestly family). They also sought to use the name of Jesus in order to cast out evil spirits. The ‘seven sons’, the divinely perfect number, would be seen as signifying that working together they had ‘sevenfold’ effectiveness. Their connection with ‘a chief priest’ would be considered to further proof of their effectiveness. So if any could succeed these could. But when they made the attempt the spirit replied through his victim, “Jesus I know, and Paul I know, but who are you?” The reply is significant to Luke. The realm of evil were very much aware of Jesus and Paul. But of connections with the chief priests they knew nothing.
We do not know who this chief priest was. He may even have been an exaggeration of the seven as they sought to bolster their powers of exorcism by suggesting that they knew the hidden secrets of Jerusalem and the hidden name of God. But Luke saw this connection with the ‘chief priest’ of whatever kind as conveying an important message. Christianity was now revealed as the main enemy of Satan, not Judaism. Judaism was now irrelevant, and no longer recognised by Satan as a threat. The sevenfold sons of Sceva with their claimed Jerusalem connections were dismissed by him. Indeed later Christians would speak of synagogues as being ‘synagogues of Satan’ because of their fierce attacks against Christians (Revelation 2.9; 3.9).
19.16 ‘And the man in whom the evil spirit was leaped on them, and mastered both of them, and prevailed against them, so that they fled out of that house naked and wounded.’
The possessed man was then moved to violence, leaping on the seven men and ‘mastering them and prevailing against them’. This suggests that he had supernormal strength, although he would have been helped by the element of surprise and the fears that his condition aroused. But the fact that he was able to tear off their robes and wound them demonstrates the fierceness of the attack. The result was that they fled from the house, bleeding, leaving their robes behind, their discomfort and defeat clear for all to see. We can compare this possessed man with the Gadarene demoniac who also revealed his possession by violence (Luke 8.26-39).
19.17 ‘And this became known to all, both Jews and Greeks, who dwelt at Ephesus; and fear fell on them all, and the name of the Lord Jesus was magnified.’
And the result of this demonstration, both of the power of the name of Jesus, and of the treatment of exorcists who misused it, became widely known in Ephesus, both among Jews and Gentiles. And all were filled with awe. And the name of the LORD Jesus was magnified.
So as a result of the activities of Paul through the successful proclamation of the word of the LORD (verse 10) and the Kingly Rule of God (verse 8), and the performing of signs and wonders (verses 11-12), and the casting out of evil spirits (verse 12), and as a result of this abject failure of the sons of Sceva as they misused the name of the LORD Jesus and suffered for it (verses 13-16), so that the power of the Name was further revealed, great glory came to the Name of the LORD Jesus. Many in Ephesus whose usual cry had been ‘Great is Artemis (Diana) of the Ephesians’ (verses 28 & 34), now instead cried ‘Great is the Name of the LORD Jesus’. For while one had a magnificent Temple and lured men into the occult, and into buying silver shrines, and into possession by evil spirits, the Other transformed men’s lives, healed those who were sick, triumphed over evil spirits and rid men of them, and delivered men from their sins and from the occult and caused them to burn their books which were worth large amounts of silver (verse 19). We are reminded of the contrast in the words of Peter in 3.6, ‘silver and gold have I none, but what I have I give you, in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk’.
19.18 ‘Many also of those who had believed came, confessing, and declaring their deeds.’
It resulted in a widespread awareness of the seriousness of sin in God’s eyes, and especially of being involved with the occult, and believers came and admitted to their secret sins. This suggests a period of true revival. In periods of true ‘revival’, when the presence of God is experienced in a new way in the community, open confessions of sin become a regular feature as people seek to bring all out into the open for cleansing. Like Isaiah of old they have seen the Lord and they cry, ‘Woe is me, for I am undone’ (Isaiah 6.5) because they are horrified at their sins as they see them in the light of God’s presence (compare John 3.19-21). That is clearly what was happening here.
19.19 ‘And not a few of those who practised magical arts brought their books together and burned them in the sight of all, and they counted the price of them, and found it fifty thousand pieces of silver.’
And the result was that a goodly number of them who had practised magical arts brought their books and burned them openly in the sight of all. They were now only too glad to get rid of them and destroy them for they recognised them for what they were. Satan was in full retreat. It may well be that Luke saw here a sense in which the Holy Spirit had come in fire to purge the believers from their sins and to destroy the evil that was among them.
‘And they counted the price of them, and found it fifty thousand pieces of silver.’ This unusual note emphasises the quantity and value of what was being burned in terms of silver. These were thus in direct contrast with Demetrius and his fellows in verses 24-25 who for the sake of silver would put the world in uproar. These now wanted to bring the world peace. And as the amount spoken of reveals, this was not just a matter of a few deviant Christians, it was evidence that many had still been dabbling in the occult, possibly without being aware of its inconsistency. In total the value was fifty thousand pieces of silver, a huge sum, demonstrating (even though books were expensive) how many were involved. It revealed that along with Satanism Mammon was also being ‘destroyed’. The believers, unlike the followers of Artemis, now had no thought for either.
19.20 ‘So mightily grew the word of the Lord and prevailed.’
Thus was the mighty working of the word revealed. The word of the Lord grew mightily and prevailed, and this in contrast to the word of Satan which was doomed to the fire. But while applying to what had just happened this also applies to the whole section from 12.25. God’s word had gone forth and had accomplished its purposes in both Asia Minor and Europe and was triumphant.
From this point on the narrative takes on a new perspective. It concentrates on Paul’s set determination to make a journey to Jerusalem, which will then result in his journey under restraint, to Rome, although we are still assured that God was active through it.
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