Paul was one of a long list of godly men and women, beginning with Joseph in Egypt, whose prison experience was used by God to bring forth His praises. Here is solid evidence that God makes the wrath of men to praise Him. So testified Asaph in Psalm 76:10.
W. M. Taylor has written what he calls The Prison Literature of the Christian Church. Beginning with the era immediately preceding the Reformation, Taylor cites such worthies as Savonarola who, during his month of imprisonment before his execution, wrote his commentaries on the Thirty-first and Fifty-first Psalms; and gentle Anne Askew who, holding that in the Lord’s Supper the bread, after consecration, remained bread, wrote on the night before she was burned at Smithfield:
Like as an armed knight Appointed to the field, With this world will I fight, And faith shall be my shield.
Faith is that weapon strong Which will not fail at need; My foes therefore among Therewith will I proceed.
I now rejoice in heart, And hope bids me do so, That Christ will take my part And ease me of my woe.
William Tyndale, to whom perhaps our English Bible is owed more than to any other one man, while imprisoned at Vilvorde, requested his Hebrew Bible, Hebrew Grammar, and Hebrew Dictionary. Defying the Pope and all his laws, he said: “If God spare my life, ere many years, I will cause a boy that driveth the plough to know more of the Scriptures than thou dost.” Thus Tyndale became known as “the man who hath translated the New Testament into English.”
Lady Jane Grey, on the eve of her execution, sent her Greek Testament to her sister with the prayer that God would give her sister grace to live in His fear and die in the true Christian faith.
Some of us cannot forget Pilgrim’s Progress, the fruit of John Bunyan’s labors while in the Bedford Jail; nor the letters of Samuel Rutherford, written from his confinement in Aberdeen; nor the hymns of Madame Guyon, written in similar circumstances, of which the following lines are but a sample:
My cage confines me round,
Abroad I cannot fly;
But though my wing is closely bound,
My heart’s at liberty.
My prison walls cannot control
The flight, the freedom of my soul.
These saints of God and countless others, like Paul, had learned to be content in whatever state they found themselves (Phil. 4:11). They proved that the grace of God is sufficient in every circumstance (2 Cor. 12:9). Realizing what God in grace had done for him, Paul accepted his long hours of confinement as an opportunity for a wider ministry for Him through the written word.
The city of Ephesus was the seacoast capital of proconsular Asia, and was one of Asia’s great religious, political, and commercial centers. The famous temple of Diana, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, was situated in Ephesus. This mighty structure had taken more than 200 years to build and was the center of Diana-worship, concerning which we read in Acts 19:23-41. As a huge temple it served as a fitting illustration to Paul, when he wrote his Epistle to the Ephesians, of the true Church of Jesus Christ, the abode of the Holy Spirit. The substance of the epistle is, indeed, the calling and conduct of the Church. When Paul wrote from his prison in Rome, he would show the saints that in the invisible Church they had a temple, not made with human hands, infinitely more glorious than Diana’s. Worshipers of Diana gathered in Ephesus from all over the Roman Empire, believing that their image of Diana had fallen from heaven (Acts 19:35).
Such was Ephesus, a religious center; and, as is every great religious center, it was a hotbed of cults and superstitions. Silver images of various sorts were made and sold at a profit. Magical arts were practiced, even the Jews erecting a synagogue in that place (Acts 18:19; 19:8). But one day something of supernatural origin happened in that great seaport city. The Gospel of Jesus Christ was preached and a smashing blow was dealt the pagan metropolis. From this it never recovered.
We cannot be dogmatic on all of the details as to just when and by whom the church in Ephesus was founded. Several possibilities exist. First, on the Day of Pentecost when the Holy Spirit descended in power, seventeen nationalities were represented, among them men from Asia, of which Ephesus was the capital (Acts 2:9). Possibly these men were the first to carry the gospel back to the region round about Ephesus. In the second place, there is a possibility that Paul’s visit to Ephesus, on his return from Europe during his second missionary journey, was the occasion for the founding of the church there. We do know that at that time he entered into the synagogue and reasoned with the Jews and, while he did not remain for any extended length of time, he left Priscilla and Aquila, well-taught Christians, to carry on there. A third contribution of Christian truth made to Ephesus was through Apollos, a converted Jew of Alexandria, who visited the city, speaking and teaching diligently the things of the Lord (Acts 18:24-26). How or when the seed of God’s Word was first sown at Ephesus we cannot tell, but we may be certain that Paul’s three years’ stay there (Acts 20:3 1) made deep and abiding impressions upon the inhabitants. It was during the great apostle’s extended visit to that wicked city that the mighty power of the gospel was demonstrated through his life and ministry.
When Paul arrived at Ephesus, he found “certain disciples” (Acts 19:1), professed followers of Christ who had received the teaching of John the Baptist but who were ignorant of the full message of the gospel and the Person and work of the Holy Spirit. These men were about twelve in number. Paul was quick to discern their lack of understanding and propounded two questions to them.
His first query was: “Did ye receive the Holy Ghost when ye believed?” (Acts 19:2). I have quoted the American Standard Version here, since Paul’s question was not, as the King James Version would suggest, whether at some time after their belief they had received the Holy Spirit. Actually Paul wanted to know if they had been born again. The answer was a sure indication that Paul had proper discernment in the matter, for they replied: “We did not so much as hear whether the Holy Spirit was given.” Again I have used the American Standard Version because the word “given” is added, and that word is necessary to complete the sense.
This small group had missed the real meaning of Pentecost. The condition of the Ephesian “believers” was akin to that of many church members today. They had a belief that was not unto salvation, since it lacked the genuine supernatural experience of regeneration by the Holy Spirit. Some of my readers may want to differ with me here and tell me that these “disciples” were saved but, like the Jews today, they were out of date. Indeed the basis of their faith and baptism was not in the Redeemer who had already come and died on Calvary’s cross for the remission of sins and had come forth from death and the grave. They did not know the true gospel, and that the Holy Spirit was the one who saves a man the moment that man trusts the Saviour.
Paul realized that he could not build a church at Ephesus on such flimsy material. Nor can we! The presence of the Holy Spirit in a man’s heart is the test of true Christianity, for “if any man have not the Spirit of Christ, he is none of His” (Rom. 8:9).A fragmentary gospel is a spurious and dangerous gospel of another kind. If a man, upon his believing, does not receive the Holy Spirit, he has not believed unto salvation at all.
Eager to help the Ephesians, Paul asked his second question: “Unto what then were ye baptized?” (Acts 19:3). They answered: “Unto John’s baptism.” Notice, he did not ask if they had been baptized. He took that for granted. The unsatisfactory answer to his first question raised suspicion in his mind about their baptism. What might have prompted his question concerning baptism? I see an answer that is highly probable. Paul could not conceive of any one receiving true Christian baptism and yet being so ignorant about the new birth. If they had received the true believer’s baptism, they should have known something about the gospel and its power to save.
Now we are not to hold these disciples responsible for their ignorance. They were doubtless willing to learn but had been taught by Apollos who, while an eloquent man and mighty in the Scriptures, knew only the baptism of John (Acts 18:24, 25). With all of this man’s knowledge, all of his eloquence, all of his fervency, and all of his boldness, he was sadly lacking in the truth of the finished work of our crucified, risen, and ascended Lord.
Apollos taught a preparatory baptism unto repentance, which looked forward to the coming of the King. Christian baptism looks back to His coming and sees the accomplishments of our salvation in Christ’s virgin birth, virtuous life, vicarious death, victorious resurrection, and visible ascension to the Father’s right hand. Christian baptism is the identification of the true child of God with his Lord in death, burial, and resurrection.
The result of Paul’s kind and straightforward approach is disclosed in these words: “When they heard this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus” (Acts 19:5). At first thought I was inclined not to comment upon this verse at this point. But as I pondered it more I was impressed with the many who have been robbed of the truth of the gospel, yet who have submitted to certain rites such as infant baptism, confirmation, and the like. Perhaps it might help someone who reads these lines and who has come to a personal knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ, but who was baptized before conversion, to look further into this matter. Many persons have asked if they should be re-baptized. I shall quote from J. C. Macaulay who has written well on The Acts: “I doubt the validity!? of an ordinance administered apart from personal, living faith. Therefore, while I cannot lay down a law of procedure, I should point to this incident and encourage a following of the impulse of the renewed heart.” This has been well said and it expresses fully the mind of the present writer.
Paul’s next move at Ephesus found him in the synagogue where he spoke boldly for three months, reasoning and persuading concerning the things of the kingdom of God (Acts 19:8). Here he witnessed to his Jewish brethren but they only hardened their hearts and refused to believe. His action at this point is of interest. Luke says: “He departed from them, and separated the disciples” (verse 9). Paul refused to linger where Christ was denied. Any true servant of Christ would hesitate in fear and trembling before dividing a church, but light can have no communion with darkness (2 Cor. 6:14), hence the only action remaining is to come out from among those in darkness and be separate. Personally, I believe it quite likely that this might have been the formation of the local assembly at Ephesus. Many local evangelical churches that are greatly blessed of God today exist as the result of some such movement. When men are determined to oppose the teaching of God’s Word, it is useless to continue with them.
The church at Ephesus continued for two years in a schoolhouse (Acts 19:9, 10), of which one Tyrannus was the headmaster. Many a rural church in our own country had its beginning in a public schoolroom. God wanted Asia to hear the gospel and the matter of a meeting place was no problem with Him. A man like Paul needs no fancy edifice in which to preach. For two years the ministry of teaching and preaching God’s Word flowed ceaselessly to all Asia from the local schoolhouse. Mighty spiritual movements need not emanate from great cathedrals. A Spirit-filled man may be the instrument of revival, no matter the environment in which you place him. Such was Paul.
The seal of God’s approval was obviously upon this zealous apostle in the notable miracles which were performed through him (Acts 19:11, 12). The very handkerchiefs which he touched brought healing to the sick. From other victims demons were cast. Observe please that these are called “special miracles” and that “God wrought” them. This was not God’s usual method but rather a special demonstration in a transition period before the Bible was completed, and the Jews were neither on legal ground nor on full New Testament ground.
Not until “divers were hardened, and believed not …” did Paul begin to feel satanic resistance. After that, some who heard Paul speak the gospel “spake evil of that way before the multitude” (Acts 19:9).
Before examining more closely the conflict in Ephesus, recall Paul’s mention of it in the following descriptive words: “I will tarry at Ephesus until Pentecost. For a great door and effectual is opened unto me, and there are many adversaries” (1 Cor. 16:8, 9). Later, in his second epistle, he adds: “For we would not, brethren, have you ignorant of our trouble which came to us in Asia, that we were pressed out of measure, above strength, insomuch that we despaired even of life” (2 Cor. 1:8).
Two antithetical reactions to the preaching of the Word in Asia appear. Be assured that God’s Word did not return unto Him fruitless. It never does. When we come to examine the conquests in Asia we shall see, then, how the Word of God grew and prevailed. But the sword of the Spirit is two-edged (Heb. 4:12), affecting those who will not accept it as well as those who do. The antagonism between light and darkness, truth and error, is always sharp wherever and whenever a man preaches the whole council of God. Because he preached only a half-truth, the ministry of Apollos never created a stir, although he spoke boldly. But when Paul came among them they heard the Word of the Lord Jesus in all its fullness, and the struggle between the force of righteousness and sin became more open.
In the city an attempt to imitate the work of God was begun by one of the evil priests and his seven wicked sons. “Then certain of the vagabond Jews, exorcists, took upon them to call over them which had evil spirits the name of the Lord Jesus, saying, We adjure you by Jesus whom Paul preacheth” (Acts 19:13). Little did those imitators, dealing in sorcery and witchcraft, know how terrible is the name of our Lord Jesus Christ against those who misuse that holy name. They thought they imitated the ministry of Paul, but they were ignorant of the fact that Paul did nothing of himself. God wrought the miracles by the power of the Holy Spirit. God did not tolerate those blasphemous imitators but dealt a hard blow to Satan’s emissaries and their sinister practice of the black arts. Paul had many adversaries, not the least of these being “the rulers of the darkness of this world” (Eph. 6:12).
The apostle faced opposition in still another form. Professional sculptors made silver images of the goddess Diana and sold them for profit in Ephesus. The leader of the silversmiths’ “union” was Demetrius, who seemed to have the power to call together those workmen of like occupation (Acts 19:24, 25). When Paul went throughout Asia teaching that “they be no gods, which are made with hands” (verse 26), sales for the silver shrines dropped and a trade riot broke out. Gaius and Aristarchus, Paul’s companions in travel, were dragged to the public theatre to be made a spectacle of (verse 29). Since the preaching of Paul had not only hurt the sale of images but had challenged the right of the Ephesians to worship Diana, wild excitement continued for the space of two hours amidst the shout of the natives of Ephesus: “Great is Diana of the Ephesians” (verse 34). Note their chief concern. When Demetrius spoke to his fellow-craftsmen, he said: “Sirs, ye know that by this craft we have our wealth” (verse 25). The honor of their goddess Diana was a secondary interest; financial gain was their main concern. Pious and religious shouts were but a cover-up for their real interests. Into the midst of this frenzied mob Paul would have gone to defend his companions, but some of his friends, who resided in Asia, restrained him (verses 30, 31).
Such are the conflicts where the true gospel is preached. Unfair and illegal business enterprises cannot survive where the Word of God goes out in power. As A. B. Simpson has said: “A gospel that goes down to the heart of Wall Street and turns business upside down must have some power in it.” The incident with the tradesmen and the public demonstration climaxed the conflict in Ephesus.
We will conclude our introductory study to the Book of Ephesians by glancing briefly at the extent of the victory wrought by God through Paul in Asia. First, “all they which dwelt in Asia heard the word of the Lord Jesus, both Jews and Greeks [Gentiles]” (Acts 19:10). The conquest reached far beyond the city limits of Ephesus. Even Demetrius testified that “not alone at Ephesus, but almost throughout all Asia, this Paul hath persuaded and turned away much people” (verse 26). Such geographical gains are not appreciated until one realizes that it was to those seven churches in Asia, Ephesus being one of the seven, that the ascended Lord sent those last letters through John in the Book of The Revelation. To witness to Ephesus alone would never satisfy the heart of the Apostle Paul. This aggressive missionary of the early Church would not rest until all within reach of the gospel had heard. The noteworthy advance of the gospel in a pagan land was a remarkable stride in the founding of the church at Ephesus. The Church in our day cannot boast of such an accomplishment. Multitudes have not yet heard.
The measure of the conquest is seen in a demonstration of supernatural power in the performing of miracles. This was brought to our attention earlier in this chapter when we considered the conflict, namely, Satan’s attempt to imitate the work of the Lord (Acts 19:13).
Through Paul, God had wrought special miracles in healing the diseased and casting out evil spirits. All miracles are the exercise of the direct power of God, performed sometimes through various instruments, and at other times apart from any instrument. In the case before us, God wanted to bear witness to both His messenger and His message, so He worked the miracles of healing through His servant. Thereby He authenticated the message in a special way. Any attempt on man’s part to duplicate these miracles is a poor imitation indeed.
The people at Ephesus had been held in superstition and trickery for many years, so God exhibited His might in a manner that would both confirm Paul’s ministry and condemn as preposterous the work of the exorcists and the evil powers of darkness. This was a mighty victory for the gospel. The victory is seen still further in the punishment which had fallen upon the wicked sons of Sceva.
A final glance at the extent of the conquest brings us to the great consecration service where “many that believed came, and confessed, and shewed their deeds. Many of them also which used curious arts brought their books together, and burned them before all men: and they counted the price of them, and found it fifty thousand pieces of silver” (Acts 19:18, 19). Thus these new converts showed the sincerity of their confession. The gospel had triumphed and they got right with God without weighing the cost. “So mightily grew the Word of God and prevailed” (verse 20).
It was with genuine believers, such as some of these, with whom Paul had the joy of working in the day of the church’s beginning in Ephesus. Oh, that a mighty wave of conviction of sin might sweep through our congregations today, and that men and women might destroy openly their tools of sin and vice!