Yesterday we saw Paul begin his third and last recorded missionary journey. Today, we are going to see Paul’s return to Ephesus, the place that Paul would return to a third time as the book of Acts comes to a close. We are going to see that Ephesus would become Paul’s home base for his missionary work, outside of Antioch. But before we get into the meat of today’s passage we need to understand a little bit about the city of Ephesus.
Ephesus was an ancient port city whose well-preserved ruins are in modern-day Turkey. The city was once considered the most important Greek city and the most important trading center in the Mediterranean region. Throughout history, Ephesus survived multiple attacks and changed hands many times between conquerors. It was also a hotbed of early Christian evangelism and remains an important archaeological site and Christian pilgrimage destination.
- Where is Ephesus?—Ephesus is located near the western shores of modern-day Turkey, where the Aegean Sea meets the former estuary of the River Kaystros, about 80 kilometers south of Izmir, Turkey.
According to legend, the Ionian prince Androclos founded Ephesus in the eleventh century BC. The legend says that as Androclos searched for a new Greek settlement, he turned to the Delphi oracles for guidance. The oracles told him a boar and a fish would show him the new location.
One day, as Androclos was frying fish over an open fire, a fish flopped out of the frying pan and landed in the nearby bushes. A spark ignited the bushes and a wild boar ran out. Recalling the oracles’ wisdom, Androclos built his new settlement where the bushes stood and called it Ephesus.
Another legend says Ephesus was founded by the Amazons, a tribe of female warriors, and that the city was named after their queen, Ephesia.
- Temple of Artemis—Much of Ephesus’s ancient history is unrecorded and sketchy. What is known is that in the seventh century BC, Ephesus fell under the rule of the Lydian kings, and became a thriving city where men and women enjoyed equal opportunities. It was also the birthplace of the renowned philosopher Heraclitus.
The Lydian King Croesus, who ruled from 560 BC to 547 BC, was most famous for funding the rebuilding of the temple of Artemis in Ephesus. Artemis was the goddess of the hunt, chastity, childbirth, wild animals and the wilderness.
She was also one of the most revered Greek deities. Modern-day excavations have revealed that three smaller Artemis temples preceded the Croesus temple.
In 356 BC, a crazed man named Herostratus burned down the Temple of Artemis. The Ephesians rebuilt the temple even bigger. It was estimate to be four times larger the Parthenon and became known as one of the Seven Wonders of the World.
The temple was later destroyed and never rebuilt. Little remains of it today, although some of its remnants reside in the British Museum, including a column with Crosesus’s signature.
- Lysimachus—In 546 BC, Ephesus fell to the Persian Empire, along with the rest of Anatolia. Ephesus continued to thrive even as other Ionian cities rebelled against Persian rule.
In 334 BC, Alexander the Great defeated the Persians and entered Ephesus. Upon his death in 323 BC, one of his generals, Lysimarchus, took over the city and renamed it Arsineia.
Lysimarchus moved Ephesus two miles away and built a new harbor and new defensive walls. The Ephesian people, however, would not relocate and remained in their homes until Lysimarchus forced them to move. In 281 BC, Lysimarchus was killed at the Battle of Corupedium and the city was renamed Ephesus again.
In 263 BC, Ephesus fell under Egyptian rule along with much of the Seleucid Empire. The Seleucid king Antiochus III took back Ephesus in 196 BC; however, after being defeated at the Battle of Magnesia six years later, Ephesus fell under Pergamon rule.
- Ephesus under Roman Rule—In 129 BC, King Attalos of Pergamon left Ephesus to the Roman Empire in his will and the city became the seat of the regional Roman governor. The reforms of Caesar Augustus brought Ephesus to its most prosperous time, which lasted until the third century AD.
Most of the Ephesian ruins seen today such as the enormous amphitheater, the Library of Celsus, the public space (agora) and the aqueducts were built during Augustus’s reign.
During the reign of Tiberius, Ephesus flourished as a port city. A business district was opened around 43 BC to service the massive amounts of goods arriving or departing from the man-made harbor and from caravans traveling the ancient Royal Road.
According to some sources, Ephesus was at the time second only to Rome as a cosmopolitan center of culture and commerce.
- Christianity in Ephesus—Ephesus played a vital role in the spread of Christianity. Starting in the first century AD, notable Christians such Paul and John visited and rebuked the cults of Artemis, winning many Christian converts in the process.
Mary, the mother of Jesus, is thought to have spent her last years in Ephesus with John. Her house and John’s tomb can be visited there today.
Ephesus is mentioned multiple times in the New Testament, and the book of Ephesians, written around AD 60, is thought to be a letter from Paul to Ephesian Christians, although some scholars question the source.
Not every Ephesian was open to Paul’s Christian message. Chapter 19 in Acts tells of a riot started by a man named Demetrius. Demetrius made silver coins featuring the likeness of Artemis.
Tired of Paul’s attacks on the goddess he worshipped, and worried that the spread of Christianity would ruin his trade, Demetrius plotted a riot and enticed a large crowd to turn against Paul and his disciples. Ephesian officials, however, protected Paul and his followers and eventually Christianity became the city’s official religion.
While Apollos was at Corinth, Paul took the road through the interior and arrived at Ephesus. There he found some disciples and asked them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?”
They answered, “No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.”
So Paul asked, “Then what baptism did you receive?”
“John’s baptism,” they replied.
Paul said, “John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance. He told the people to believe in the one coming after him, that is, in Jesus.” On hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. When Paul placed his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they spoke in tongues and prophesied. There were about twelve men in all.—19:1-7
Paul’s discovery of some disciples in Ephesus is in contrast to Apollos. Apollos only needed more instruction, while these disciples of John the Baptist needed salvation, as indicated by baptism. Apparently, their information about Jesus was insufficient or nonexistent. Their confession of ignorance of the Holy Spirit was ignorance not of his existence but of his outpouring. The dividing line between Apollos and these disciples was correct information about Jesus. Their speaking in tongues (after Paul laid hands on them) is similar to what happened to the Samaritans in chapter 8. Like the Samaritans, these disciples represented a significant group—people who had only received a portion of God’s revelation and not the final and full revelation of God’s salvation in Jesus Christ. Luke included the story of Apollos and these disciples in the face of an ongoing issue in the early church. Followers of John the Baptist apparently developed their own movement apart from the followers of Christ; this sect lasted into the fourth century AD. But John could not be rightly followed unless one received Christ, to whom John pointed.
Paul entered the synagogue and spoke boldly there for three months, arguing persuasively about the kingdom of God. But some of them became obstinate; they refused to believe and publicly maligned the Way. So Paul left them. He took the disciples with him and had discussions daily in the lecture hall of Tyrannus. This went on for two years, so that all the Jews and Greeks who lived in the province of Asia heard the word of the Lord.—19:8-10
For the first three months of Paul’s stay in Ephesus he preached in the synagogue with success. When his opponents turned to character assassination and (perhaps) blasphemy regarding Christianity, Paul ceased formal debate. The vitriol against him was evidence of a hardened attitude. Paul took the disciples he had made to the lecture hall of Tyrannus. All education was private in antiquity. Philosophers would recruit students to pay to listen to their lectures. This lecture hall either belonged to Tyrannus or he was the most famous lecturer there. Paul was using it when Tyrannus was not. Apparently, it was a great arrangement, for Paul spoke there for two years with great success. All those in the province of Asia heard the gospel, which probably means that the gospel was proclaimed throughout the province. This spread happened through believers obediently taking the gospel to the towns there. The notation is also a signal that another movement in the geographic spread of the gospel was about to take place.
God did extraordinary miracles through Paul, so that even handkerchiefs and aprons that had touched him were taken to the sick, and their illnesses were cured and the evil spirits left them.—19:11-12
Paul’s ministry was one of unique power. In verse 12, the handkerchiefs and aprons are Latin loan-words from the commercial world (suggesting Paul was doing leatherwork in Ephesus as well). One can only imagine Paul’s surprise and joy when he heard of such healings and exorcisms. Paul’s apostolic ministry was one of unique power beyond anything seen today.
Some Jews who went around driving out evil spirits tried to invoke the name of the Lord Jesus over those who were demon-possessed. They would say, “In the name of the Jesus whom Paul preaches, I command you to come out.” Seven sons of Sceva, a Jewish chief priest, were doing this. One day the evil spirit answered them, “Jesus I know, and Paul I know about, but who are you?” Then the man who had the evil spirit jumped on them and overpowered them all. He gave them such a beating that they ran out of the house naked and bleeding.—19:13-16
The success-fueled fame led to the unauthorized and illegitimate attempt to appropriate Christian authority. Roaming exorcists were not uncommon in antiquity. Seven sons of a high priest named Sceva were among them. Sceva was probably a member of the priestly aristocracy living outside Jerusalem. These people attempted to use the name of Paul and Jesus as incantations to control a demon. They are left beaten and naked, a shameful result for them.
When this became known to the Jews and Greeks living in Ephesus, they were all seized with fear, and the name of the Lord Jesus was held in high honor. Many of those who believed now came and openly confessed what they had done. A number who had practiced sorcery brought their scrolls together and burned them publicly. When they calculated the value of the scrolls, the total came to fifty thousand drachmas. In this way the word of the Lord spread widely and grew in power.—19:17-20
The reputation of the Lord found greater fame. The great movement of the Spirit in Ephesus led to repentance from occult practices. Believers made a clean break with such things (amulets, incantations, etc.), and those who practiced magic began burning their books of magic. Ephesus was particularly noted for such occult writings (some of the books were known as “Ephesian writings”). The denunciation and burning of the books (voluntary actions) demonstrated the power of the gospel in a hotbed of demonic activity. All, told, these books were worth 50,000 pieces of silver. At a drachma a day, the amount was almost 137 years of work; it was a vast fortune. To burn these works (and not sell them) was an admission that these works were dangerous. It was also a demonstration of the converts’ commitment to Christ.
After all this had happened, Paul decided to go to Jerusalem, passing through Macedonia and Achaia. “After I have been there,” he said, “I must visit Rome also.” He sent two of his helpers, Timothy and Erastus, to Macedonia, while he stayed in the province of Asia a little longer.—19:21-22
From this point forward, the focus is on Paul’s journey to Rome even though he would spend a long time in the province of Asia and Judea. Paul’s last days in Ephesus establish how profoundly Christianity had spread throughout Ephesus and prepare us to hear of future opposition. From a theological perspective, it demonstrates the providence of God as he fulfilled his plan through the believers. And that is where we will pick up tomorrow, as we see the riot that Christianity caused in Ephesus.
Tomorrow’s Bible Readings:
Nehemiah 7:73-9:21, 1 Corinthians 9:1-18, Psalm 33:12-22 and Proverbs 21:11-12
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