After leading the disciples of John the Baptist to Christ, Paul remains in Ephesus for roughly three years proclaiming the gospel in and around the city. As a result of his ministry the gospel reaches all of Asia, and Jews and Gentiles throughout the province believe. Because of this enormous success two significant events occur in the city. In one God shows His superiority over evil spirits and in the other He shows his superiority over the designs of men.
Paul begins his ministry in Ephesus the same way he begins most every place he goes. He enters the synagogue and speaks boldly about the gospel, reasoning and persuading the Jews and God-fearing Gentiles about the kingdom of God. When he briefly visited Ephesus on his last trip the Jews were open to his teaching and even asked him to stay longer (18:20). This time, however, – perhaps after hearing more of what he has to say and realizing the full implications of his teaching – the Jews react as they almost always react. They become hardened and disobedient and speak evil of the Way before the multitude.
As a result of the Jews’ reaction Paul withdraws from the synagogue and takes the disciples – the ones who have believed his teaching – with him to a place called the school of Tyrannus. There is no way to know who Tyrannus is, but it could be that he allows the believers to use his facility during the heat of the day (11:00 AM to 4:00 PM) when formal teaching does not typically take place. Paul teaches in his school for two years and through his teaching the gospel goes throughout the entire province of Asia (all who lived in Asia heard the word of the Lord). This is the longest Paul has been able to teach in one place during any of his journeys and the effect of his teaching is significant. Paul is passionate and committed in his own strength – remember that his conversion ended the persecution of the church in Palestine (9:31) – so when he ministers in the power of the Spirit the results are amazing.
The gospel spreads so far and to so many people that these two years are perhaps Paul’s most fruitful in ministry. One of the ways the gospel goes forth so powerfully is through the signs God performs through Paul. Luke describes them differently here than in any other of his accounts (thus showing that these are not acts future ministries should expect to replicate). He says God performs extraordinary miracles by the hands of Paul. The Spirit works through Him in such an incredible way that even handkerchiefs with his sweat or aprons that he has worn can be taken from him (perhaps without his knowledge – nothing is said in the text about him approving this practice) and used to heal the sick and cast out demons. Paul does not even have to be there. As long as something has touched him it can facilitate miraculous healings and exorcisms (this is similar to when Peter’s shadow was enough to heal the sick in Jerusalem when the church was just starting – 5:12-16).
These incredible miracles spawn copycats. Itinerant Jewish exorcists who are in the area – nothing more is said about these men but they apparently go from place to place attempting to cast out demons – try to incorporate the names of Jesus and Paul to replicate Paul’s miracles. They use the names as magic words to gain the power Paul has over the spirits. In one specific case, seven sons of a Jewish priest named Sceva (a Latin name typically meaning “left-handed”) use the names against a particular spirit. The spirit responds that it knows Jesus and Paul but does not know them. It then – acting through the man it possesses – overpowers all seven men and beats them such that they run out of the house bleeding and naked. Instead of the exorcists driving out the demon, the demon drives out the exorcists.
The effect of this episode is to strike fear in the citizens of Ephesus and cause them to magnify the name of Jesus. They realize that Paul is not a magician using a magic name. He is the Spirit-empowered servant of God. He does not have access to a special word but actually has the power of God working through him. The name of Jesus is not part of a formula and the handkerchiefs and aprons are not magic charms. Evil spirits recognize the power of Jesus, not third-hand references to His name. Jesus is magnified by the people because they realize it is He Himself who works so wondrously through Paul.
God thus uses the selfish ambitions of men to glorify Himself. He takes the desire on the part of the exorcists to make a name for themselves through the name of Jesus and turns it around such that the name of Jesus is magnified at the expense of their own. Man’s sin never limits God’s purposes.
Magic is prevalent throughout the Roman empire and Ephesus has many who practice its arts. As a result of the episode with Sceva’s sons many who have believed the gospel come forward and confess their practice of magic and disclose the spells they have used. By exposing the spells they make them ineffective as secrecy is required for them to be potent. They also bring their books (scrolls) of magic and burn them. There are so many who come forward and so many books burned that the cumulative value is estimated at fifty thousand pieces of silver (if the piece of silver is the same as a Greek drachma the amount equals roughly 137 years of wages). Since many of the books are probably unique – no easy way to make copies – the value of some of them is likely very large.
The voluntary book burning – nothing is said about anyone being coerced – and confessions show how the gospel changes the priorities of the new believers. Not only do they forsake their magic but they willingly forego any profits from liquidating the associated books. They stop practicing the dark arts but also make sure that no one else has access to their resources. They are changed wholly and completely. What used to be important is now worthy only of burning. This is what the gospel does. It does not add to life or change life or redirect life. It fosters NEW life. It IS life to the one who believes. The Ephesians see everything differently, to the point that burning valuable books makes perfect sense because the books are objects of sin. Money is no longer important. Status and power that the magic brings are no longer important. All things have become new. What they used to value they now count as loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus (Phil 3:8). Belief affects EVERYTHING. The unchanged man is the unbelieving man.
The actions of the Christians in regard to forsaking their old way of life and burning their books has a profound effect on the city. The word of the Lord was growing mightily and prevailing. People know something powerful has happened to cause the converts to change so dramatically. Their actions lend validity to the gospel. Those who turn away from magic are strong testimonies to what the gospel is about and what it does. God changes the new believers and uses them to exemplify His power to others in Ephesus. Changed hearts lead to changed actions which lead to unbelievers noticing the gospel. The strongest testimony for the gospel is a visibly changed life. God glorifies Himself through the new lives of His disciples.
Paul decides that his time in Ephesus is nearing an end. He determines to revisit the churches he started in Macedonia and Achaia on the second trip. He then wants to go to Jerusalem and eventually to Rome. His reason for going to Jerusalem is to take back an offering he will gather in Macedonia and Achaia. And his ultimate destination is Spain. He wants to take the offering to Jerusalem and then visit Rome on his way to Spain – the westernmost area of the empire (see Romans 15:22-29 for an explanation of Paul’s plans).
As a first step toward this direction he sends Timothy and Erastus (the city treasurer of Corinth, apparently on leave in Ephesus – Rom 16:23, II Tim 4:20) into Macedonia. Paul stays in Ephesus for a while longer. He will stay in Ephesus until Pentecost for a wide door for effective service has opened, and there are many adversaries (I Corinthians 16:8-9). He cannot leave the city because there is so much more ministry to do and so much opposition to overcome. He apparently does not want to leave the new church to the wolves just yet.
Before Paul leaves one last major event occurs. Paul’s teaching has been so effective throughout the province that a leading silversmith named Demetrius calls together his guild of like craftsmen and lays out a frightening scenario for them. He tells them that so many have converted to Christianity that the livelihood of the workmen is threatened. The craftsmen make silver shrines to Artemis (Diana), the patron goddess of Ephesus. If enough people convert to Christianity then sales will go down as the Christians do not believe in idols and certainly will not buy shrines made by the silversmiths.
Demetrius makes it very clear that their prosperity and way of life are in danger. Everything is at risk if something is not done. He implies that Ephesus itself is endangered because if people stop believing in Artemis then one of the main reasons Ephesus is on the map ceases to exist. The huge temple to Artemis and the huge stadium become worthless. If enough people convert, everything the craftsmen depend on and live on could go away. He appeals not only to their economic well-being but also to their civic pride.
The silversmiths respond dramatically. They begin shouting defiantly, “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!” They throw the whole city into confusion as their chant calls the populace into action to defend the goddess of the city. A large number of people join the craftsmen and grab two of Paul’s companions from Macedonia – Gaius and Aristarchus (see 20:4 where the text lists Aristarchus as being from Thessalonica and Gaius from Derbe; this could mean that the Gaius seized by the Ephesians is a different man since Derbe is in Galatia, not Macedonia) – and all rush into the theater (the huge theater that seats over 24,000).
The text is not clear as to why Gaius and Aristarchus are seized and not Paul. It could be that the mob looks for Paul but finds his two friends first and so just grabs them so as not to delay. Whatever the reason Paul does come on the scene and begins to go into the theater presumably to defend his ministry and save his two companions from harm. However, the other believers do not let him go and even some city officials with whom he has become friendly – the Asiarchs – send word that he should not go in. The mob is in such a state that Paul could not address them safely.
The scene inside the theater is chaotic. Many of the people who make up the mob do not even know why they are there. Some assume it is because of a Jew named Alexander who comes to the front and tries to speak (Luke gives us no background or context for Alexander – he just suddenly appears in the story). No reason is listed for his speaking but it could be that the Jews are worried they will be lumped in with the new movement – since they also teach that no god other than the one true God can be worshiped – and so seek to distance themselves from Paul. However, once the crowd realizes that Alexander is a Jew they begin shouting even more and do not stop for about two hours – “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!”
The two hours of shouting are not simply spontaneous. The length of time is likely a measure of defiance. The crowd does not want anyone who might defend the new movement or hurt their cause to speak. Thus they collectively filibuster and shout down any opposition. Their energy and organization are admirable as two hours of shouting and chanting have to take a toll on the participants.
After two hours the town clerk finally gets the attention of the mob and calls for quiet so he can speak. Perhaps the mob is worn out and welcomes a new voice. He points out that the two men they have brought in have done no wrong. No one in the new movement has blasphemed Artemis or robbed her temple. Even more, if Demetrius and his group have official complaints they should be heard by the courts instead of being subject to mob justice. He also says the people are close to being guilty of rioting – something that could bring the full power of the Roman empire down on them – and should disperse as soon as possible as a result. He finishes by dismissing the crowd. What was a raging mob leaves the stadium with no one punished and nothing changed.
The effect of this episode is to give the new movement immunity from state persecution in Asia. It is very similar in this respect to what happened in Corinth. In both cases Paul’s ministry was brought up for condemnation before the city authorities and in both cases the authorities effectively refused to get involved. They decided the controversy surrounding his activities was religious instead of civic. Thus God protects Paul and the new movement in two of the most important cities he ministers in.
The timing of the episode with Demetrius and the silversmiths is important. It happens just before Paul leaves Ephesus and the new church has to survive without him. Now the disciples know where they stand with the state and do not have to worry about state-sanctioned persecution. They will continue to face opposition from the Jews but they do not have to worry – at least initially – about the Roman authorities. God provides for the new body of believers.
Luke’s purpose in recounting this incident was clearly apologetic or political. He wanted to show that Rome had no case against Christianity in general or Paul in particular. In Corinth the proconsul Gallio had refused even to hear the Jews’ charge. In Ephesus the town clerk implied that the opposition was purely emotional and that the Christians, being innocent, had nothing to fear from duly constituted legal processes. Thus the impartiality of Gallio, the friendship of Asiarchs and the cool reasonableness of the city clerk combined to give the gospel freedom to continue on its victorious course. (John R. W. Stott, The Message of Acts; The Bible Speaks Today, 311.)
So again God uses the sinful designs of men to carry out His will. If Demetrius does not rouse his fellow silversmiths in a bid to protect their wealth, the church does not become immune from the state. Instead the craftsmen cause a riot and the church gains protection it otherwise would not have had. God uses their selfishness as a means to protect His church. Man’s sin never limits God’s purposes.