On his way back to Antioch in Syria at the end of his second missionary journey, Paul visited the synagogue in Ephesus and, on being asked to stay longer, promised to return “if God wills” (Acts 18:21). After spending some time in Antioch, Paul set out on a missionary journey which would center on Ephesus. I plan to consider it in six posts: this one based on Acts 18:23 and 19:1-20; “A Riot in Ephesus” (19:21-41); “Paul’s Letters to the Corinthians”; “Paul’s Visits to Macedonia and Greece and Trip to Jerusalem” (parts of 20:1-21:16); Paul’s Letter to the Romans”; and “Paul’s Speech to the Ephesian Elders” (20:18-35).
Paul began the journey, his third missionary journey, by visiting the churches in Galatia and Phrygia which he and Barnabas had established on his first missionary journey and he and Silas had visited at the beginning of his second missionary journey. Luke describes Paul as “[going] from one place to the next … strengthening all the disciples” (18:23, ESV; all Biblical quotations are from the ESV), indicating that his main purpose was to help and encourage his converts in Derbe, Lystra, Iconium, and Pisidian Antioch rather than to carry out more evangelism in the area.
On Paul’s second missionary journey the Holy Spirit hadn’t allowed him to enter Asia, the Roman province stretching from Galatia to the Aegean Sea. Thus he had gone north and then, not allowed by the Holy Spirit to enter the Roman province lying south of the Black Sea (Bithynia), west to Troas, where he had a vision calling him to preach the gospel in Macedonia. However the Holy Spirit didn’t stop Paul from entering Asia this time and he “passed through the inland country and came to Ephesus” (19:1), the administrative and commercial center of the province, thus fulfilling the promise that he had made in Acts 18:21.
Paul’s Encounter with “Disciples” in Ephesus (Acts 19:1-7)
1 And it happened that while Apollos was at Corinth, Paul passed through the inland country and came to Ephesus. There he found some disciples. 2 And he said to them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” And they said, “No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.” 3 And he said, “Into what then were you baptized?” They said, “Into John’s baptism.” 4 And Paul said, “John baptized with the baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in the one who was to come after him, that is, Jesus.” 5 On hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. 6 And when Paul had laid his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they began speaking in tongues and prophesying. 7 There were about twelve men in all.
Biblical scholars disagree on who the “disciples” were. Some think that they were disciples of John the Baptist, arguing that verse 4 indicates that they didn’t know of Jesus. However others note that elsewhere in Acts “disciples” without qualification refers to disciples of Jesus and thus claim that if Luke had meant that these were disciples of John he would have said so. As well, Paul’s asking them “”Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” implies that they had heard of and believed in Jesus. What Paul wanted to know is whether they had been baptised with the Holy Spirit after they believed (“when you believed” can also be translated “after you believed”) in Jesus.
This is the only occasion recorded in Acts in which ones who had been baptized were rebaptized. Probably, on hearing Paul’s explanation of baptism, the disciples asked to be baptised in the name of Jesus to ensure their relationship with him. According to John B. Polhill, the disciples’ being baptized “in the name of Jesus” would not differ from their being baptized “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” as commanded by Jesus in Matthew 28:19. He observes in his note on Acts 10:48 in ESV Study Bible (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway Bibles, 2008) that a person’s “name” represents his or her character and attributes and that the “name” (character) of Jesus here would be the same as the “name” (character) of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit in Matthew 28:19. His observation is supported by the fact that “name” in Matthew 28:19 is singular, indicating that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit share one “name” (character).
This is the third occasion recorded in Acts in which ones are described as speaking in tongues when the Holy Spirit came upon them, the others occurring in 2:1-4 and 10:44-46. By “No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit,” the disciples wouldn’t mean that they hadn’t heard of the Holy Spirit. Since they had received John’s baptism, they would have been told that it was preparatory for the coming of one who would baptise with the Holy Spirit (Luke 3:16). Thus the disciples would mean was that they didn’t know that the baptism with the Holy Spirit promised by John the Baptist and by Jesus (Acts 1:5) had already taken place. Paul’s laying his hands on the disciples before they were baptised with the Holy Spirit shows that he expected believers to be baptised with the Holy Spirit. For more on baptism with the Holy Spirit, see these earlier posts on it here: [The Baptism in the Holy Spirit – Its Promise and Purpose], [The Baptism in the Holy Spirit – Receiving It], [The Baptism in the Holy Spirit – The Initial Evidence], and [Baptism in the Holy Spirit – Speaking in Tongues].
Paul’s Subsequent Ministry in Ephesus (Acts 19:8-10)
8 And he entered the synagogue and for three months spoke boldly, reasoning and persuading them about the kingdom of God. 9 But when some became stubborn and continued in unbelief, speaking evil of the Way before the congregation, he withdrew from them and took the disciples with him, reasoning daily in the hall of Tyrannus. 10 This continued for two years, so that all the residents of Asia heard the word of the Lord, both Jews and Greeks.
The three-month hearing the Jews gave Paul was one of the longest he had in any synagogue. As usual when opposition rose against “the Way” he withdrew, taking the disciples with him. For the next two years he ministered daily in the hall of Tyrannus, probably the lecture hall of a local philosopher or a hall rented out to travelling philosophers by its landlord owner. Some Greek manuscripts add that Paul gave his daily lectures between 11:00 A.M. and 4:00 P.M., which included the hottest part of the day, when people (including Tyrannus) would take off work for a midday nap.
In 20:31 Paul told the elders of the church in Ephesus that he had ministered there for three years. This would include the “three months” and “two years” referred to here. That “all the residents of Asia heard the word of God” reflects Paul’s missionary strategy of setting up in major cities and sending helpers into the surrounding region to establish churches. Two of his helpers are identified in 19:22–Timothy and Erastus (a Corinthian, possibly the one named in Romans 16:23 and 2 Timothy 4:20).
Paul wrote 1 Corinthians near the end of his time in Ephesus, sending it to Corinth with Timothy and Erastus. Later he visited Corinth himself (20:1-2; 1 Corinthians 16:5-8). As I noted at the beginning of this article, I plan to post an article here on Paul’s Corinthian letters.
The Sons of Sceva (Acts 19:11-20)
11 And God was doing extraordinary miracles by the hands of Paul, 12 so that even handkerchiefs or aprons that had touched his skin were carried away to the sick, and their diseases left them and the evil spirits came out of them. 13 Then some of the itinerant Jewish exorcists undertook to invoke the name of the Lord Jesus over those who had evil spirits, saying, “I adjure you by the Jesus whom Paul proclaims.” 14 Seven sons of a Jewish high priest named Sceva were doing this. 15 But the evil spirit answered them, “Jesus I know, and Paul I recognize, but who are you?” 16 And the man in whom was the evil spirit leaped on them, mastered all of them and overpowered them, so that they fled out of that house naked and wounded. 17 And this became known to all the residents of Ephesus, both Jews and Greeks. And fear fell upon them all, and the name of the Lord Jesus was extolled. 18 Also many of those who were now believers came, confessing and divulging their practices. 19 And a number of those who had practiced magic arts brought their books together and burned them in the sight of all. And they counted the value of them and found it came to fifty thousand pieces of silver. 20 So the word of the Lord continued to increase and prevail mightily.
God supported the ministry of Paul with such extraordinary miracles–people’s even being healed by application of his sweat-cloths and work-aprons–that the sons of a Jewish priest tried to cast out evil spirits by saying, “I adjure you by the Jesus whom Paul proclaims.” The attempt failed, the evil spirit in one man leading him to attack them so that fled out of his house naked and wounded. All in Ephesus, both Jews and Gentiles, heard of the incident and were overcome with fear and magnified the name of Jesus. Many who practiced the magic arts became believers and, renouncing their former practices, brought their books of magic and burned them publicly. Thus “the word of the Lord continued to increase and prevail mightily.”
As I look back over Luke’s account of Paul’s ministry in Ephesus, the word “power” comes to mind. The account opens by reporting how a group of believers was baptised with the Holy Spirit when Paul lay his hands on them, an experience that Jesus told the apostles would be accompanied by their receiving power (Acts 1:8). It continues by telling of God’s doing such extraordinary miracles through Paul that the sons of a Jewish priest tried to imitate him. And it concludes by describing how such fear and respect for Jesus fell on the people that even pagan magicians became believers and renounced publicly their former practices.