Ephesus

J. H. Large, Lesmahagow, Lanark

Part 7 of 7 of the series Churches in the Acts

Category: Exposition

Quotations are from the Revised Version

Forbidden at one time by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia, Acts 16. 6, Paul was now allowed to pay a fleeting visit to Ephesus the capital of that province, en route to Jerusalem and thence to Antioch in Syria, 18. 18-22, from which he had originally been commended. Although his stay was short he took the opportunity of reasoning with the Jews and surprisingly enough, in sharp contrast to the attitude of most Jews elsewhere, they wished him to stay longer. But just as Paul did not regard a prohibition operative at one time to be applicable to all time, neither did he allow his movements to be regulated by the reception he received. Although he could later say of the opportunities here ‘a great door and effectual is opened unto me’, 1 Cor. 16. 9, for the present he adhered to his plan which evidently included re-visiting the churches in Galatia and Phrygia, 18. 23.

Apollos

Soon after Paul left, a remarkable man appeared in Ephesus in the person of an Alexandrian Jew named Apollos. Everything said about him merits close study but it cannot detain us now. He was perhaps the one and only man who could have rivalled Paul and had he been disposed to make a ‘bid for power’ he would not have lacked opportunity. 1 Corinthians 3. 4 shows that some would have made his name a rallying point but he would have none of it. He was as little jealous of Paul as Paul was of him - what mattered to each was that the other was making a contribution to the cause of Christ. The apostle generously acknowledged his fellow-servant’s usefulness -‘I planted, Apollos watered ... we are God’s fellow-workers’, vv. 6, 9. With every confidence in the man’s integrity and ability he ‘besought him much’ to re-visit Corinth but Apollos was not at all disposed to go at that time, probably fearing that his presence might foster party spirit, 1 Cor. 16. 12. This beautiful instance of mutual appreciation and magnanimity on the part of two prominent and gifted servants of Christ is an example to us all.

Disciples of the Baptist

In fulfilment of his promise Paul returned to Ephesus where he found a little knot of disciples who had embraced the teaching of John the Baptist. Had they been influenced by the preaching of Apollos when he had known ‘only the baptism of John’ before Aquila and Priscilla had ‘expounded unto him the way of God more carefully’? If so, we are tempted to enquire why they too had not obtained further instruction but the narrative makes no attempt to supply the answer. Be that as it may, Paul sensed some lack in them, leading him to ask ‘Did ye receive the Holy Ghost when ye believed?’,

Acts 19. 2. Their reply ‘Nay, we did not so much as hear whether the Holy Ghost was given’ suggests that whilst they had been instructed as to the promise of the Spirit they were ignorant of the events of Pentecost. On receiving further enlightenment ‘they were baptized into the name of the Lord Jesus’ and when Paul had laid hands upon them the Holy Spirit came on them, and they spoke with tongues and prophesied - the last of the three mentions of ‘tongues’ in the Acts. ‘Tongues’ were evidently among the signs by which God bore witness with the apostles, testifying to the divine origin of their message, Heb. 2. 4. At the present time when many Christians are subjected to deliberate pressure from those who claim that the ‘gift of tongues’ should be sought for, it is important that those who take responsibility in assemblies re-examine the subject thoroughly. We must content ourselves here with stating our conviction that the New Testament ‘tongues’ served the special and temporary purpose indicated above, and that Paul’s letter to Corinth written about this time warned them that such manifestations would cease, 1 Cor. 13. 8.

The School of Tyrannus

During the ensuing three months Paul sought to reason with and persuade the Jews concerning the kingdom of God. Although they had earlier requested his prolonged presence, his teaching proved too much for some of them and becoming hardened in their unbelief spoke evil of ‘the Way’ - a term by which the Christian faith had become known. This made inevitable the separation of those who believed from the unbelieving as must always be the case when a work of God is done; cf. Acts 13. 44-48; 18. 6-7. Paul now made use of the school of Tyrannus (probably a lecture hall) where he daily discussed the Word of God. Far more use was made of discussion than is common among us, with the result perhaps that some who confine themselves to ‘preaching’ continue to use thought-forms which are unfamiliar to a contemporary congregation.

In his address to the elders, as recorded in chapter 20, he says ‘ . . by the space of three years I ceased not to admonish every one night and day with tears’, v. 31. Seeing that during this time he was working to maintain himself and his colleagues, v. 34, we wonder how much justification there is for the excuse we sometimes hear that men are ‘too busy’ to give sufficient time to ministering to the church.

The work spreads

The effect of this intensive ministry was that ‘all they which dwelt in Asia heard the word of the Lord’, 19. 10, a fact which the enemies of Paul had to acknowledge - ‘ye see and hear, that not alone at Ephesus, but almost throughout all Asia, this Paul hath persuaded and turned away much people’, v. 26. No doubt it was during this period that many churches in Asia were established - such as those named in Revelation 2 and 3. It is not to be supposed that all this was accomplished simply by Paul’s direct and personal efforts, massive though they were. No doubt Paul’s companions penetrated surrounding areas. In all probability, too, those who heard and believed the Gospel during visits to the capital city would carry the message back home. This we judge was the case with Epaphras who seems to have been the founder of the church in his own home town, Col. 1. 7; 4. 12.

All this was something Paul could hardly have foreseen when perplexed by the earlier prohibition against entering Asia. We get the impression from this fascinating book that Christ as Commander-in-Chief in the war against the powers of darkness carried out His over-all strategy by the Holy Spirit’s direction of His servants, choosing time and place in accord with a master plan into which the activities of His servants had to fit. Not infrequently these instructions seemed so strange that protests were made but the Lord always insisted on obedience - see, for example. Acts 10. 13-20; 22. 17-21. Philip must have wondered why he was commanded to leave a flourishing work in Samaria and to go to a desert place and it is greatly to his credit that he simply ‘arose and went’, 8. 27. It is possible for institutionalism so to stereotype our service that we lack the flexibility which response to the Lord’s directions sometimes requires.

Witch Doctors

The incident concerning the seven sons of Sceva shows that whilst there are imposters who pretend to magical powers and are even prepared to use religious jargon, yet evil spirits are a great reality as these charlatans found to their dismay. How modern all this sounds! The realization that dabbling in magic was a dangerous experiment awed many believers who had continued after their conversion to tamper with it. The genuineness of their repentance was shown by the burning of their books of magic when by the sale of them they might have realized a considerable sum. What they saw to be harmful to themselves they would not allow to harm others, even if it involved some sacrifice. This additional triumph of the Word of God is chosen by Luke as a suitable point at which to conclude another section of his book, by the pregnant remark ‘So mightily grew the word of the Lord and prevailed’, 19. 20; cf. 6. 7; 9. 31; 12. 24; 16. 5; 28. 31.

Vested Interests

Let the Gospel touch upon a social evil and it will infuriate men who make a gain from that evil. The effects of Paul’s preaching threatened the prosperity of the silversmiths’ thriving industry of making silver shrines for the goddess Diana, and so they aroused the populace by appealing to their superstitious fervour, whilst concealing their true concern - their own pockets. Evidently there had been a tense situation for some time and Paul’s remarks in 1 Corinthians 15. 32 and 2 Corinthians 1. 8-10 help us to realize the superhuman courage with which he and his companions were divinely endowed. We need not look very far to find similar evidence of the Spirit’s power in the courage with which many missionaries face similar perils in unsettled areas today.

The Ephesian Elders

The apostle’s affecting farewell address to the elders of the church affords ample material for profitable study but what impresses us deeply at the moment is his amazing realism. What a man of parts he was! With an over-whelming conviction of the absolute certainty of Christ’s eventually complete triumph over all the powers of darkness, he did not luxuriate in rosy dreams. He knew that conquest involved conflict and he resolutely faced the unpalatable truth that such a flourishing and promising work would suffer badly from the intrigues of Satan. He cherished no illusion but clearly foresaw the heart-breaking truth that not only would evil men insinuate themselves into the flock but that even from the midst of the elders, to whom he had given such counsel and such a splendid example, perverse men would arise. Here was part of his fellowship with the sufferings of Christ but he pressed manfully on - ‘perplexed, yet not unto despair . . . smitten down, yet not destroyed’, 2 Cor. 4. 8-9.

Is Teaching enough?

Despite the wealth of teaching which Paul imparted, publicly and from house to house, it was not long before the predicted decline set in and this suggests some grave warnings for us. His ‘Epistle to the Ephesians’, written perhaps only four or five years later, was probably intended for a circle of churches, but certainly included Ephesus. In it Paul is able to take for granted his readers’ ability to appreciate the sublimest truths, His first prayer in that Epistle, 1. 15-19, shows that he was as convinced as ever of the importance of spiritual enlightenment but we urge special consideration of the burden of his second prayer - 3. 14-21:

  • ‘that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith’,
  • ‘being rooted and grounded in love’,
  • ‘to know the love of Christ which passeth knowledge’.

Still the realist, Paul later left Timothy at Ephesus to combat the influence of false teachers and to ‘charge certain men not to teach a different doctrine’ but it is important to notice that the object to be kept in view in all this was ‘love out of a pure heart . . .’, 1 Tim. 1. 4-7.

Personal Exercise Essential

How permanent were the effects of Paul’s faithful teaching, his earnest prayers, Timothy’s later ministry and (we may safely believe) the later labours of the apostle of love - John? Let the Lord’s words spoken only a generation later answer. So far as soundness in doctrine was concerned these combined efforts were successful - the Ephesians could not bear evil men and they were able to test and to expose the pretentions of false teachers, Rev. 2. 2. Nevertheless the Lord called them a fallen church. Why? Because they had left their first love. Amid much that was commendable, the essential was missing and they were called upon to repent. Think again of Paul’s intense prayer-conflict for Laodicea. He prayed that ‘their hearts may be comforted., they being knit together in love’, Col. 2. 1-2. What had the Lord to say about them thirty years later? - ‘lukewarm . . . miserable . . . blind and naked’, Rev. 3- 16-17.

No generation can inherit from its predecessor the experience that only personal communion with the Lord can impart. Apostolic teaching, apostolic prayers, apostolic example may do much, but in the hearts only of those who are personally exercised to enter into the good of what God has provided in Christ.

The Lord’s verdicts about Ephesus and Laodicea are recorded for our instruction. What would be His verdict about us?