Acts 19:8-41

Text Comment


By now we are used to this as the usual pattern of events upon Paul’s entrance into a new city. Paul’s boldness and persuasiveness produced converts and that produced a strong reaction from the Jews.

The lecture hall or school building of Tyrannus. The Western text of the book of Acts, an early text that is fully one sixth longer than the text that is translated in our Bibles adds the detail, that many believe is an authentic piece of information, that Paul lectured from the 5th to the 10th hour, that is, from 11:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. That would make sense because those were the hours of the siesta, when the lecture hall would not be otherwise occupied. There would be more people asleep in Ephesus at 1:00 p.m. than at 1:00 a.m. Paul must have been a captivating teacher if he could hold an audience at that time of day!


Apparently this was the time when the churches in Colossae and Laodicea were founded, perhaps all the seven churches of Revelation 2-3. Paul never visited Colossae, but his assistants may have been sent out to evangelize the cities of the province.


Always keep in mind the truly extraordinary, the undeniably supernatural character of NT miracles.


There were lots of magicians in those days, invoking all manner of gods, often many in one incantation to make sure the right one got mentioned. Pagans invoked the name of the Jews’ God and here the Jews are using the name of Jesus. But they borrowed an unfamiliar weapon and shot themselves in the foot! The Lord shows himself more powerful than the “gods” as on Carmel, when Yahweh bested Baal at his own game: lightning.


Paul’s tactics were directed by his larger strategy. He was on his way to Jerusalem to bring “the collection” that Luke has not mentioned, but knows about (24:17), and then wanted to head west, actually to Spain, but with hopes of stopping in Rome along the way. He says that this was his plan at this time in Romans 15:24-25.


This was not so matter-of-fact a decision. He was, as it happens, sending Timothy to Corinth to find out how the church there had received his hard letter (1 Cor. 4:17). News had reached him during his time in Ephesus of the problems in Corinth and he had addressed them in that letter and now wanted to know how his rebuke had been received. Paul would meet Timothy in Macedonia coming back with a good report from Corinth and write 2 Corinthians from there.


Now the opposition arises from pagan not Jewish sources.


The Christian preachers no doubt made that argument with all the force and with the same reasons as Isaiah had used.


They were most concerned about the loss of revenue to themselves! But, everyone wouldn’t be equally concerned about the jobs in the idol manufacturing business so it was politic to introduce the threat the new faith posed to some of the patriotic symbols of Ephesus and to her special place in the worship of Artemis. Christianity not a polite thing — it disrupts, it divides, it destroys even as it heals and saves.


The theater in Ephesus has been excavated and is estimated to have held 25,000 people.


The kind of generalized resentment one often finds in mob actions; this would have been as much anti-Jewish as anti-Christian, for both were against idolatry and both condemned the worshipping of images.


The Jews wanted to make clear that they had nothing to do with the Christians.


The city clerk or mayor was not so much interested in protecting Christianity as he was in promoting law and order. The Romans were generally interested in getting rid of the democratic assemblies that remained in some of the old Greek towns and getting a reputation for disorder would hand them the excuse they needed.

Now, I want to take note this evening of the way in which this historical narrative reminds us of what happens when the Spirit of God is at work, what are the evidences of his presence and working. Remember, one of the great purposes of Acts is to show us the life of the church in the world. We have, of course, tongues speaking in v. 6 and miracles in v. 11, but I am speaking of those things that are the permanent and characteristic evidences of the Spirit’s presence in all times and all places. No matter what your view of charismatic manifestations, it is certain that they have not been in evidence in most places at most times in church history. (Think of how modern missions might have advanced if accompanied with such manifestations as these! American Congregationalists went to Thailand in 1831 and withdrew in 1849 without having seen a single conversion. The Presbyterians arrived in 1840 determined to stick it out. They got their first convert 19 years later! Morrison waited seven years in China; Carey the same in India!)

But there are many other evidences and these are more useful to us for the purposes of self-examination (is the Spirit at work in me; among us, or have I quenched the Spirit, grieved the Spirit?) and for the purpose of evaluating other groups and movements which claim to be of God.

  1. The fear of God and Conviction of Sin. vv. 17-18

We have seen this, of course, all through Acts. 2:37: “They were cut to the heart and said to Peter…what must we do to be saved.” 16: the Philippian jailer.

You see this always in the great revivals — when the permanent realities of salvation and the kingdom of God are accentuated and seen more easily. [Revival — ideal Christianity, because most powerful ministry of Spirit — so in OT: revival & conviction of sin.]

Jonathan Edwards described the later months of 1734 and all of 1735, when the rains of the Spirit fell on his church and town (Northampton) this way: “never so full of love, never so full of joy, and yet so full of distress as it was then.” He says,

“It was then a dreadful thing amongst us to lie out of Christ, in danger every day of dropping into hell; and what person’s minds were intent upon, was to escape for their lives and to fly from wrath to come.”

“Men have been taken from a loose and careless way of living, and seized with strong convictions of their guilt and misery, and in a very little time old things have passed away, and all things have become new with them.” [“A Narrative of Surprising Conversions,” Works, vol. 1, pp. 348, 350]

In much the same way, here in Ephesus it took the form of the need to confess sin publicly and to repudiate it in their lives by burning their magical texts (“Ephesian letters” those texts were called in those days; so much was Ephesus the center of that business.) Here is Luther’s explanation:

“God works by contraries so that a man feels himself to be lost in the very moment when he is on the point of being saved. When God is about to justify a man, he damns him. Whom he would make alive he must first kill. God’s favor is so communicated in the form of wrath that it seems farthest when it is at hand. Man must first cry out that there is no health in him. He must be consumed with horror…. When a man believes himself to be utterly lost, light breaks.” [Cited in Bainton, pp. 82-83]

So, it is a serious problem, raising serious questions, when it becomes widespread in the church to have conversion without serious conviction of sin and without the sort of repudiation of sin that occurred here. Richard Baxter put it this way: “He that truly discerns that he hath killed Christ, and killed himself, will surely, in some measure, be pricked to the heart. If he cannot weep he can heartily groan; and his heart feels what his understanding sees.” On the contrary, “Never was a thief more careful lest he should awaken the people, when he is robbing the house, than Satan is not to awaken a sinner.”

But, if that is true, then something is lost, something very important, when gospel preaching does not aim for real conviction of sin and when conversions do not seem to produce it. Here is Charles Spurgeon bemoaning this development in his own day.

“Do you know why so many professing Christians are like the thorny ground? It is because processes have been omitted which would have gone far to alter the condition of things. It was the husbandman’s business to uproot the thorns, or burn them on the spot. Years ago, when people were converted, there used to be such a thing as conviction of sin. The great subsoil plough of soul-anguish was used to tear deep into the soul. Fire also burned in the mind with exceeding heat: as men saw sin, and felt its dreadful results, the love of it was burned out of them. But now we are dinned with braggings about rapid salvations. As for myself, I believe in instantaneous conversions, and I am glad to see them; but I am still more glad when I see a thorough work of grace, a deep sense of sin, and an effectual wounding by the law. We shall never get rid of thorns with ploughs that scratch the surface….” [vol. 34: 473-4; cited in Murray, Forgotten Spurgeon, 106]

None of these men — from Baxter to Edwards to Spurgeon –, however, thought that everyone’s experience would be or should be the same. Here is Edwards in the same work from which I quoted earlier [I, p. 351, col. 1]:

“There is a very great variety, as to the degree of fear and trouble that persons are exercised with, before they attain any comfortable evidences of pardon and acceptance with God…. Some have had ten times less trouble of mind than others, in whom yet the issue seems to be the same.” [He goes on to say that some have been unable to sleep for their spiritual terrors which was not true of others; etc.]

The Puritans were masters at questions like these. Here is William Gurnall dealing with the person who fears he may not be a Christian because his conviction of sin was not as horrifying as that of some other believer he knows.

“It is strange, to hear a patient complain of the physician (when he finds his prescriptions work effectually), merely because the operation did not affect him so violently as in some others. Soul, thou has the more reason to bless God, if the convictions of his spirit have wrought so kindly on thee, without those extremities of terror, which have cost others so dear.” [Cited in BOT 232 (Jan. 1983) 32]

But he is not denying that conviction will be present to some real and noticeable degree — if not in so terrible a fear of wrath as in a loathing of one’s sins and a great burden to be rid of them.

  1. Second, the Spirit produces a great esteem for Christ. v. 17

This is what the Savior said the Comforter would do, remember, throw a bright light on Jesus Christ, his power to save, his grace, his perfections, his love.

I have had the experience of many people, and, alas, of my own heart far too often, when Christianity seems divorced from any genuine personal affection for, devotion to, and honor paid to Jesus Christ himself, as my Redeemer, the lover of my soul. Christianity is a life-style, a purpose for living, an ethic, a fellowship, a hope for the future — it is all of that — but if our hearts are not actually taken up with Christ himself in love and thanksgiving and devotion, we are not living the Christian life or experiencing the influences of the Holy Spirit. (Always in varying degrees!)

Edwards tells us in his narrative of the revival that during the time of Spirit’s greater presence the people would “spend the time in talking of the excellency and dying love of Jesus Christ, the glory of the way of salvation…the sweetness of Christ’s perfections, etc.” That is what the Spirit produces, always produces, must produce. You remember that fateful conversation that John Bunyan overheard when “upon a day, the good providence of God did cast [him] to Bedford” and he found himself listening to some women sitting at a door in the sun, their morning’s work done, speaking about spiritual things, and seeming, Bunyan said, to speak as if joy did make them speak. Well among those things they spoke of, that he realized he knew nothing about, what just this: “how God had visited their souls with his love in the Lord Jesus.” [Grace Abounding, paragr. 37] That is the subject the truly godly always return to, because when the Spirit is at work in hearts, that is what he produces — a fascination with the love of God in Christ and a preoccupation with the Savior himself.

Read Bernard or Rutherford, men in whom the Spirit dwelt richly, and what do you hear: of the soul and Christ, of a relationship tender, intimate, powerful, all-consuming, infinitely interesting. Or listen to Bach’s cantatas. The Soul and Christ in conversation: “When will you come to me? I am coming quickly!

When the Spirit is mightily at work, Christ becomes great and precious to our souls.

  1. Third, the Spirit produces repentance and new obedience. v. 19

Men save themselves in order to rescue them from some danger. The Spirit saves men to do that, but also to conform them to Christ, to be in truth a people for his own possession, zealous for good works. All of that required immense and seemingly very expensive changes for these Ephesian converts — but the Spirit of God compelled them to make the sacrifices immediately. (Missionaries to India used to make Hindu converts eat beef immediately, so that there would be no question about the commitment or the break that had been made with the past.) I wonder if we do not do nearly enough of this any more. It is a blot on our evangelical profession that it does not produce more immediate and dramatic change, but that is hardly a unique problem to our day and time.

William Burns [Revival Sermons, 161-162] gives an anecdote from Whitefield.

“I remember to have read of the great Whitefield, that one day, as he was returning from preaching, he overtook a man, who was intoxicated, driving a cart. When the carter recognised Whitefield, he called out, ‘O Mr Whitefield, is that you? I’m glad to see you. I’m one of your converts.’ ‘Yes,’ said Whitefield, ‘I see you are one of my converts, and not one of the Lord’s.”

Coming to faith in Christ is a matter of dying to sin and rising to new life, the life of the Spirit — that reality should be noticeable at the beginning of this new life, but it should be observable all along the way as well! When the Spirit of holiness is at work, holiness is produced!

  1. Fourth, the Spirit produces opposition. vv. 23ff.

Christ and his Spirit have an adversary and another in the sinful hearts of human beings, even in our sinful hearts. Whenever the Spirit is at work producing the evidences we have mentioned so far, this last will not be missing.

You have heard me speak of our Dr. Buswell, for many years the professor of theology at Covenant Theological Seminary, years before the president of Wheaton College, indeed, the president that put Wheaton on the map as a school with an academic reputation. Dr. Buswell’s father was a minister also and at one point in his life became concerned about an area of northern Wisconsin that was largely unevangelized and unchurched. Quite on his own initiative and without denomination financial support he moved there in 1899. As people were converted and gathered to the new church men were diverted from the saloons. Men began giving their money to the church instead of to the saloon keepers. Mellon, where they lived, had 600 inhabitants and about 60 saloons to service the nearby villages, lumber mills, and farms.

Some strong hints were given to the preacher that he ought to leave town. Once walking down the street Mr. Buswell heard the crack of a rifle from an alley across the street, a bullet had whizzed by his head. He was not intimidated. He built a home a few miles out of town. The head carpenter, who was approximately the same size as Mr. Buswell, had gone to town and just returned, so he was dressed in street clothes, standing next to the missionary who was dressed in overalls. A rifle shot rang out and the carpenter was shot and killed, certainly a mistake, the bullet being meant for the minister. Having built the home, he set off on an evangelistic tour through the lumber camps. While he was away he got news that his home had been burned down, his wife had managed to get his four sons out in time, into a night where the temperature was 40 degrees below zero. The story of the fire was reported in the national press as there was evidence of arson. He and his family stayed, turned a saloon into another home and a rescue mission. [You will not be surprised to learn that Dr. Buswell had strong views about alcoholic beverages!]

I say, whenever the Spirit is at work, his adversaries will surface and do their best to obstruct. I would say that, looking back over this century, one of the most damning indictments of the evangelical church is precisely that it did not suffer nearly enough opposition, it was not living so as to goad the Enemy into open action against it. Faithfulness always produces opposition. Acts, indeed, is a story of opposition to the gospel as much as a story of its progress, and that progress was always a matter of fighting through opposition. And so in church history since. It is no coincidence, for example, that the martyrs were, as a rule, a much higher class of Christian — that is why they provoked others to kill them, the Spirit was in them and working through them and so they became the target of the Devil’s and the world’s opposition to Christ.

We can hardly be either surprised or much worried when opposition surfaces when we are serving Christ — it is the inevitable consequence of the Spirit’s being at work. If they hated Christ, they will hate us. So our Savior himself said.

And such opposition, such persecution has its own rewards, both immediately and ultimately.

William Burns put it this way: “…believe the testimony of all the saints, that any suffering, when borne along with Christ, is sweeter than any joy enjoyed without him.” And Rutherford said the same: “He was always sweet to my soul; but since I suffered for him, his breath hath a sweeter smell than before.”

And Bunyan, you remember, has Mr. Valiant for truth say when it comes his time to cross the river:

“My sword I give to him that shall succeed me in my pilgrimage, and my courage and skill to him that can get it. My marks and scars I carry with me, to be a witness for me, that I have fought his battles, who now will be my rewarder.” [Offor, III, p. 242]

These, then, are the things that come to pass when the Spirit is at work — in your heart, in the church, and in the world –: the fear of God and the conviction of sin; the lifting up of Jesus Christ himself; repentance and new obedience eagerly put on; and opposition rising. This is a way for us to judge how much of the Spirit we have at any moment, how much more we need, and a way to set ourselves to praying for the Spirit, taking care not to grieve him, and seeking to be filled with Him as the Scripture teaches us to do!