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Bible Commentaries

MacLaren's Expositions of Holy Scripture

Acts 19

Verses 1-12

Acts

TWO FRUITFUL YEARS

Act_19:1 - Act_19:12 .

This passage finds Paul in Ephesus. In the meantime he had paid that city a hasty visit on his way back from Greece, had left his friends, Aquila and Priscilla, in it, and had gone on to Jerusalem, thence returning to Antioch, and visiting the churches in Asia Minor which he had planted on his former journeys. From the inland and higher districts he has come down to the coast, and established himself in the great city of Ephesus, where the labours of Aquila, and perhaps others, had gathered a small band of disciples. Two points are especially made prominent in this passage-the incorporation of John’s disciples with the Church, and the eminent success of Paul’s preaching in Ephesus.

The first of these is a very remarkable and, in some respects, puzzling incident. It is tempting to bring it into connection with the immediately preceding narrative as to Apollos. The same stage of spiritual development is presented in these twelve men and in that eloquent Alexandrian. They and he were alike in knowing only of John’s baptism; but if they had been Apollos’ pupils, they would most probably have been led by him into the fuller light which he received through Priscilla and Aquila. More probably, therefore, they had been John’s disciples, independently of Apollos. Their being recognised as ‘disciples’ is singular, when we consider their very small knowledge of Christian truth; and their not having been previously instructed in its rudiments, if they were associating with the Church, is not less so. But improbable things do happen, and part of the reason for an event being recorded is often its improbability. Luke seems to have been struck by the singular similarity between Apollos and these men, and to have told the story, not only because of its importance but because of its peculiarity.

The first point to note is the fact that these men were disciples. Paul speaks of their having ‘believed,’ and they were evidently associated with the Church. But the connection must have been loose, for they had not received baptism. Probably there was a fringe of partial converts hanging round each church, and Paul, knowing nothing of the men beyond the fact that he found them along with the others, accepted them as ‘disciples.’ But there must have been some reason for doubt, or his question would not have been asked. They ‘believed’ in so far as John had taught the coming of Messiah. But they did not know that Jesus was the Messiah whose coming John had taught.

Paul’s question is, ‘Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?’ Obviously he missed the marks of the Spirit in them, whether we are to suppose that these were miraculous powers or moral and religious elevation. Now this question suggests that the possession of the Holy Spirit is the normal condition of all believers; and that truth cannot be too plainly stated or urgently pressed to-day. He is ‘the Spirit, which they that believe on Him’ shall ‘receive.’ The outer methods of His bestowment vary: sometimes He is given after baptism, and sometimes, as to Cornelius, before it; sometimes by laying on of Apostolic hands, sometimes without it. But one thing constantly precedes, namely, faith; and one thing constantly follows faith, namely, the gift of the Holy Spirit. Modern Christianity does not grasp that truth as firmly or make it as prominent as it ought.

The question suggests, though indirectly, that the signs of the Spirit’s presence are sadly absent in many professing Christians. Paul asked it in wonder. If he came into modern churches, he would have to ask it once more. Possibly he looked for the visible tokens in powers of miracle-working and the like. But these were temporary accidents, and the permanent manifestations are holiness, consciousness of sonship, God-directed longings, religious illumination, victory over the flesh. These things should be obvious in disciples. They will be, if the Spirit is not quenched. Unless they are, what sign of being Christians do we present?

The answer startles. They had not heard whether the Holy Ghost had been given ; for that is the true meaning of their reply. John had foretold the coming of One who should baptize with the fire of that divine Spirit. His disciples, therefore, could not be ignorant of the existence thereof; but they had never heard whether their Master’s prophecy had been fulfilled. What a glimpse that gives us of the small publicity attained by the story of Jesus!

Paul’s second question betrays even more astonishment than did his first. He had taken for granted that, as disciples, the men had been baptized; and his question implies that a pre-requisite of Christian baptism was the teaching which they said that they had not had, and that a consequence of it was the gift of the Spirit, which he saw that they did not possess. Of course Paul’s teaching is but summarised here. Its gist was that Jesus was the Messiah whom John had heralded, that John had himself taught that his mission was preliminary, and that therefore his true disciples must advance to faith in Christ.

The teaching was welcomed, for these men were not of the sort who saw in Jesus a rival to John, as others of his disciples did. They became ‘disciples indeed,’ and then followed baptism, apparently not administered by Paul, and imposition of Paul’s hands. The Holy Spirit then came on them, as on the disciples on Pentecost, and ‘they spoke with tongues and prophesied.’ It was a repetition of that day, as a testimony that the gifts were not limited by time or place, but were the permanent possession of believers, as truly in heathen Ephesus as in Jerusalem; and we miss the meaning of the event unless we add, as truly in Britain to-day as in any past. The fire lit on Pentecost has not died down into grey ashes. If we ‘believe,’ it will burn on our heads and, better, in our spirits.

Much ingenuity has been expended in finding profound meanings in the number of ‘twelve’ here. The Apostles and their supernatural gifts, the patriarchs as founders of Israel, have been thought of as explaining the number, as if these men were founders of a new Israel, or Apostolate. But all that is trifling with the story, which gives no hint that the men were of any special importance, and it omits the fact that they were ‘ about twelve,’ not precisely that number. Luke simply wishes us to learn that there was a group of them, but how many he does not exactly know. More important is it to notice that this is the last reference to John or his disciples in the New Testament. The narrator rejoices to point out that some at least of these were led onwards into full faith.

The other part of the section presents mainly the familiar features of Apostolic ministration, the first appeal to the synagogue, the rejection of the message by it, and then the withdrawal of Paul and the Jewish disciples. The chief characteristics of the narrative are Paul’s protracted stay in Ephesus, the establishment of a centre of public evangelising in the lecture hall of a Gentile teacher, the unhindered preaching of the Gospel, and the special miracles accompanying it. The importance of Ephesus as the eye and heart of proconsular Asia explains the lengthened stay. ‘A great door and effectual,’ said Paul, ‘is opened unto me’; and he was not the man to refrain from pushing in at it because ‘there are many adversaries.’ Rather opposition was part of his reason for persistence, as it should always he.

There comes a point in the most patient labour, however, when it is best no longer to ‘cast pearls’ before those who ‘trample them under foot,’ and Paul set an example of wise withdrawal as well as of brave pertinacity, in leaving the synagogue when his remaining there only hardened disobedient hearts. Note that word disobedient . It teaches that the moral element in unbelief is resistance of the will. The two words are not synonyms, though they apply to the same state of mind. Rather the one lays bare the root of the other and declares its guilt. Unbelief comes from disobedience, and therefore is fit subject for punishment. Again observe that expression for Christianity, ‘the Way,’ which occurs several times in the Acts. The Gospel points the path for us to tread. It is not a body of truth merely, but it is a guide for practice. Discipleship is manifested in conduct. This Gospel points the way through the wilderness to Zion and to rest. It is ‘ the Way,’ the only path, ‘the Way everlasting.’

It was a bold step to gather the disciples in ‘the school of Tyrannus.’ He was probably a Greek professor of rhetoric or lecturer on philosophy, and Paul may have hired his hall, to the horror, no doubt, of the Rabbis. It was a complete breaking with the synagogue and a bold appeal to the heathen public. Ephesus must have been better governed than Philippi and Lystra, and the Jewish element must have been relatively weaker, to allow of Paul’s going on preaching with so much publicity for two years.

Note the flexibility of his methods, his willingness to use even a heathen teacher’s school for his work, and the continuous energy of the man. Not on Sabbath days only, but daily, he was at his post. The multitudes of visitors from all parts to the great city supplied a constant stream of listeners, for Ephesus was a centre for the whole country. We may learn from Paul to concentrate work in important centres, not to be squeamish about where we stand to preach the Gospel, and not to be afraid of making ourselves conspicuous. Paul’s message hallows the school of Tyrannus; and the school of Tyrannus, where men have been accustomed to go for widely different teaching, is a good place for Paul to give forth his message in.

The ‘special miracles’ which were wrought are very remarkable, and unlike the usual type of miracles. It does not appear that Paul himself sent the ‘handkerchiefs and aprons,’ which conveyed healing virtue, but that he simply permitted their use. The converts had faith to believe that such miracles would be wrought, and God honoured the faith. But note how carefully the narrative puts Paul’s part in its right place. God ‘wrought’; Paul was only the channel. If the eager people, who carried away the garments, had superstitiously fancied that there was virtue in Paul, and had not looked beyond him to God, it is implied that no miracles would have been wrought. But still the cast of these healings is anomalous, and only paralleled by the similar instances in Peter’s case.

The principle laid down by Peter Act_3:12 is to be kept in view in the study of all the miracles in the Acts. It is Jesus Christ who works, and not His servants who heal by their ‘own power or holiness.’ Jesus can heal with or without material channels, but sometimes chooses to employ such vehicles as these, just as on earth He chose to anoint blind eyes with clay, and to send the man to wash it off at the pool. Sense-bound faith is not rejected, but is helped according to its need, that it may be strengthened and elevated.

Verse 15

Acts

WOULD-BE EXORCISTS

Act_19:15 .

These exorcists had no personal union with Jesus. To them He was only ‘Jesus whom Paul preached.’ They spoke His name tentatively, as an experiment, and imitatively. To command ‘in the name of Jesus’ was an appeal to Jesus to glorify His name and exert His power, and so when the speaker had no real faith in the name or the power, there was no answer, because there was really no appeal.

I. The only power which can cast out the evil spirits is the name of Jesus.

That is a commonplace of Christian belief. But it is often held in a dangerously narrow way and leads to most unwise pitting of the Gospel against other modes of bettering and elevating men, instead of recognising them as allies. Earnest Christian workers are tempted to forget Jesus’ own word: ‘He that is not against us is for us.’ There is no need to disparage other agencies because we believe that it is the Gospel which is ‘the power of God unto salvation.’ Many of the popular philanthropic movements of the day, many of its curbing and enlightening forces, many of its revolutionary social ideas, are really in their essence and historically in their origin, profoundly Christian, and are the application of the principles inherent in ‘the Name’ to the evils of society. No doubt many of their eager apostles are non-Christian or even anti-Christian, but though some of them have tried violently to pluck up the plant by the root from the soil in which it first flowered, much of that soil still adheres to it, and it will not live long if torn from its native ‘habitat.’

It is not narrowness or hostility to non-Christian efforts to cast out the demons from humanity, but only the declaration of a truth which is taught by the consideration of what is the difference between all other such efforts and Christianity, and is confirmed by experience, if we maintain that, whatever good results may follow from these other influences, it is the powers lodged in the Name of Jesus, and these alone which can, radically and completely, conquer and eject the demons from a single soul, and emancipate society from their tyranny.

For consider that the Gospel which proclaims Jesus as the Saviour is the only thing which deals with the deepest fact in our natures, the fact of sin; gives a personal Deliverer from its power; communicates a new life of which the very essence is righteousness, and which brings with it new motives, new impulses, and new powers.

Contrast with this the inadequate diagnosis of the disease and the consequent imperfection of the remedy which other physicians of the world’s sickness present. Most of them only aim at repressing outward acts. None of them touch more than a part of the whole dreadful circumference of the dark orb of evil. Law restrains actions. Ethics proclaims principles which it has no power to realise. It shows men a shining height, but leaves them lame and grovelling in the mire. Education casts out the demon of ignorance, and makes the demons whom it does not cast out more polite and perilous. It brings its own evils in its train. Every kind of crop has weeds which spring with it. The social and political changes, which are eagerly preached now, will do much; but one thing, which is the all-important thing, they will not do, they will not change the nature of the individuals who make up the community. And till that nature is changed any form of society will produce its own growth of evils. A Christless democracy will be as bad as, if not worse than, a Christless monarchy or aristocracy. If the bricks remain the same, it does not much matter into what shape you build them.

These would-be exorcists but irritated the demons by their vain attempts at ejecting them, and it is sometimes the case that efforts to cure social diseases only result in exacerbating them. If one hole in a Dutch dyke is stopped up, more pressure is thrown on another weak point and a leak will soon appear there. There is but one Name that casts a spell over all the ills that flesh is heir to. There is but one Saviour of society-Jesus who saves from sin through His death, and by participation in His life delivers men from that life of self which is the parent of all the evils from which society vainly strives to be delivered by any power but His.

II. That Name must be spoken by believing men if it is to put forth its full power.

These exorcists had no faith. All that they knew of Jesus was that He was the one ‘whom Paul preached.’ Even the name of Jesus is spoiled and is powerless on the lips of one who repeats it, parrot-like, because he has seen its power when it came flame-like from the fiery lips of some man of earnest convictions.

In all regions, and especially in the matter of art or literature, imitators are poor creatures, and men are quick to detect the difference between the original and the copy. The copyists generally imitate the weak points, and seldom get nearer than the imitation of external and trivial peculiarities. It is more feasible to reproduce the ‘contortions of the Sibyl’ than to catch her ‘inspiration.’

This absence or feebleness of personal faith is the explanation of much failure in so-called Christian work. No doubt there may be other causes for the want of success, but after all allowance is made for these, it still remains true that the chief reason why the Gospel message is often proclaimed without casting out demons is that it is proclaimed with faltering faith, tentatively and without assured confidence in its power, or imitatively, with but little, if any, inward experience of the magic of its spell. The demons have ears quick to discriminate between Paul’s fiery accents and the cold repetition of them. Incomparably the most powerful agency which any man can employ in producing conviction in others is the utterance of his own intense conviction. ‘If you wish me to weep, your own tears must flow,’ said the Roman poet. Other factors may powerfully aid the exorcising power of the word spoken by faith, and no wise man will disparage these, but they are powerless without faith and it is powerful without them.

Consider the effect of that personal faith on the speaker-in bringing all his force to bear on his words; in endowing him for a time with many of the subsidiary qualities which make our words winged and weighty; in lifting to a height of self-oblivion, which itself is magnetic.

Consider its effect on the hearers-how it bows hearts as trees are bent before a rushing wind.

Consider its effect in bringing into action God’s own power. Of the man, all aflame with Christian convictions and speaking them with the confidence and urgency which become them and him, it may truly be said, ‘It is not ye that speak, but the Spirit of your Father that speaketh in you.’

Here then we have laid bare the secret of success and a cause of failure, in Christian enterprise. Here we see, as in a concrete example, the truth exemplified, which all who long for the emancipation of demon-ridden humanity would be wise to lay to heart, and thereby to be saved from much eager travelling on a road that leads nowhither, and much futile expenditure of effort and sympathy, and many disappointments. It is as true to-day as it was long ago in Ephesus, that the evil spirits ‘feel the Infant’s hand from far Judea’s land,’ and are forced to confess, ‘Jesus we know and Paul we know’; but to other would-be exorcists their answer is, ‘Who are ye?’ ‘When a strong man armed keepeth his house, his goods are in peace.’ There is but ‘One stronger than he who can come upon him, and having overcome him, can take from him all his armour wherein he trusted and divide the spoils,’ and that is the Christ, at whose name, faithfully spoken, ‘the devils fear and fly.’

Verse 21

Acts

THE FIGHT WITH WILD BEASTS AT EPHESUS

Act_19:21 - Act_19:34 .

Paul’s long residence in Ephesus indicates the importance of the position. The great wealthy city was the best possible centre for evangelising all the province of Asia, and that was to a large extent effected during the Apostle’s stay there. But he had a wider scheme in his mind. His settled policy was always to fly at the head, as it were. The most populous cities were his favourite fields, and already his thoughts were travelling towards the civilised world’s capital, the centre of empire-Rome. A blow struck there would echo through the world. Paul had his plan, and God had His, and Paul’s was not realised in the fashion he had meant, but it was realised in substance. He did not expect to enter Rome as a prisoner. God shaped the ends which Paul had only rough-hewn.

The programme in Act_19:21 - Act_19:22 was modified by circumstances, as some people would say; Paul would have said, by God. The riot hastened his departure from Ephesus. He did go to Jerusalem, and he did see Rome, but the chain of events that drew him there seemed to him, at first sight, the thwarting, rather than the fulfilment, of his long-cherished hope. Well it is for us to carry all our schemes to God, and to leave them in His hands.

The account of the riot is singularly vivid and lifelike. It reveals a new phase of antagonism to the Gospel, a kind of trades-union demonstration, quite unlike anything that has met us in the Acts. It gives a glimpse into the civic life of a great city, and shows demagogues and mob to be the same in Ephesus as in England. It has many points of interest for the commentator or scholar, and lessons for all. Luke tells the story with a certain dash of covert irony.

We have, first, the protest of the shrine-makers’ guild or trades-union, got up by the skilful manipulation of Demetrius. He was evidently an important man in the trade, probably well-to-do. As his speech shows, he knew exactly how to hit the average mind. The small shrines which he and his fellow-craftsmen made were of various materials, from humble pottery to silver, and were intended for ‘votaries to dedicate in the temple,’ and represented the goddess Artemis sitting in a niche with her lions beside her. Making these was a flourishing industry, and must have employed a large number of men and much capital. Trade was beginning to be slack, and sales were falling off. No doubt there is exaggeration in Demetrius’s rhetoric, but the meeting of the craft would not have been held unless a perceptible effect had been produced by Paul’s preaching. Probably Demetrius and the rest were more frightened than hurt; but men are very quick to take alarm when their pockets are threatened.

The speech is a perfect example of how self-interest masquerades in the garb of pure concern for lofty objects, and yet betrays itself. The danger to ‘our craft’ comes first, and the danger to the ‘magnificence’ of the goddess second; but the precedence given to the trade is salved over by a ‘not only,’ which tries to make the religious motive the chief. No doubt Demetrius was a devout worshipper of Artemis, and thought himself influenced by high motives in stirring up the craft. It is natural to be devout or moral or patriotic when it pays to be so. One would not expect a shrine-maker to be easily accessible to the conviction that ‘they be no gods which are made with hands.’

Such admixture of zeal for some great cause, with a shrewd eye to profit, is very common, and may deceive us if we are not always watchful. Jehu bragged about his ‘zeal for the Lord’ when it urged him to secure himself on the throne by murder; and he may have been quite honest in thinking that the impulse was pure, when it was really mingled. How many foremost men in public life everywhere pose as pure patriots, consumed with zeal for national progress, righteousness, etc., when all the while they are chiefly concerned about some private bit of log-rolling of their own! How often in churches there are men professing to be eager for the glory of God, who are, perhaps half-unconsciously, using it as a stalking-horse, behind which they may shoot game for their own larder! A drop of quicksilver oxidises and dims as soon as exposed to the air. The purest motives get a scum on them quickly unless we constantly keep them clear by communion with God.

Demetrius may teach us another lesson. His opposition to Paul was based on the plain fact that, if Paul’s teaching prevailed, no more shrines would be wanted. That was a new ground of opposition to the Gospel, resembled only by the motive for the action of the owners of the slave girl at Philippi; but it is a perennial source of antagonism to it. In our cities especially there are many trades which would be wiped out if Christ’s laws of life were universally adopted. So all the purveyors of commodities and pleasures which the Gospel forbids a Christian man to use are arrayed against it. We have to make up our minds to face and fight them. A liquor-seller, for instance, is not likely to look complacently on a religion which would bring his ‘trade into disrepute’; and there are other occupations which would be gone if Christ were King, and which therefore, by the instinct of self-preservation, are set against the Gospel, unless, so to speak, its teeth are drawn.

According to one reading, the shouts of the craftsmen which told that Demetrius had touched them in the tenderest part, their pockets, was an invocation, ‘Great Diana!’ not a profession of faith; and we have a more lively picture of an excited crowd if we adopt the alteration. It is easy to get a mob to yell out a watchword, whether religious or political; and the less they understand it, the louder are they likely to roar. In Athanasius’ days the rabble of Constantinople made the city ring with cries, degrading the subtlest questions as to the Trinity, and examples of the same sort have not been wanting nearer home. It is criminal to bring such incompetent judges into religious or political or social questions, it is cowardly to be influenced by them. ‘The voice of the people’ is not always ‘the voice of God.’ It is better to ‘be in the right with two or three’ than to swell the howl of Diana’s worshippers,

II. A various reading of Act_19:28 gives an additional particular, which is of course implied in the received text, but makes the narrative more complete and vivid if inserted.

It adds that the craftsmen rushed ‘into the street,’ and there raised their wild cry, which naturally ‘filled’ the city with confusion. So the howling mob, growing larger and more excited every minute, swept through Ephesus, and made for the theatre, the common place of assembly.

On their road they seem to have come across two of Paul’s companions, whom they dragged with them. What they meant to do with the two they had probably not asked themselves. A mob has no plans, and its most savage acts are unpremeditated. Passion let loose is almost sure to end in bloodshed, and the lives of Gaius and Aristarchus hung by a thread. A gust of fury storming over the mob, and a hundred hands might have torn them to atoms, and no man have thought himself their murderer.

What a noble contrast to the raging crowd the silent submission, no doubt accompanied by trustful looks to Heaven and unspoken prayers, presents! And how grandly Paul comes out! He had not been found, probably had not been sought for, by the rioters, whose rage was too blind to search for him, but his brave soul could not bear to leave his friends in peril and not plant himself by their sides. So he ‘was minded to enter in unto the people,’ well knowing that there he had to face more ferocious ‘wild beasts’ than if a cageful of lions had been loosed on him. Faith in God and fellowship with Christ lift a soul above fear of death. The noblest kind of courage is not that born of flesh or temperament, or of the madness of battle, but that which springs from calm trust in and absolute surrender to Christ.

Not only did the disciples restrain Paul as feeling that if the shepherd were smitten the sheep would be scattered, but interested friends started up in an unlikely quarter. The ‘chief of Asia’ or Asiarchs, who sent to dissuade him, ‘were the heads of the imperial political-religious organisation of the province, in the worship of “Rome and the emperors”; and their friendly attitude is a proof both that the spirit of the imperial policy was not as yet hostile to the new teaching, and that the educated classes did not share the hostility of the superstitious vulgar’ Ramsay, St. Paul the Traveller , p. 281. It is probable that, in that time of crumbling faith and religious unrest, the people who knew most about the inside of the established worship believed in it least, and in their hearts agreed with Paul that ‘they be no gods which are made with hands.’

So we have in these verses the central picture of calm Christian faith and patient courage, contrasted on the one hand with the ferocity and excitement of heathen fanatical devotees, and on the other with the prudent regard to their own safety of the Asiarchs, who had no such faith in Diana as to lead them to joining the rioters, nor such faith in Paul’s message as to lead them to oppose the tumult, or to stand by his side, but contented themselves with sending to warn him. Who can doubt that the courage of the Christians is infinitely nobler than the fury of the mob or the cowardice of the Asiarchs, kindly as they were? If they were his friends, why did they not do something to shield him? ‘A plague on such backing!’

III. The scene in the theatre, to which Luke returns in Act_19:32 , is described with a touch of scorn for the crowd, who mostly knew not what had brought them together.

One section of it kept characteristically cool and sharp-eyed for their own advantage. A number of Jews had mingled in it, probably intending to fan the flame against the Christians, if they could do it safely. As in so many other cases in Acts, common hatred brought Jew and Gentile together, each pocketing for the time his disgust with the other. The Jews saw their opportunity. Half a dozen cool heads, who know what they want, can often sway a mob as they will. Alexander, whom they ‘put forward,’ was no doubt going to make a speech disclaiming for the Jews settled in Ephesus any connection with the obnoxious Paul. We may be very sure that his ‘defence’ was of the former, not of the latter.

But the rioters were in no mood to listen to fine distinctions among the members of a race which they hated so heartily. Paul was a Jew, and this man was a Jew; that was enough. So the roar went up again to Great Diana, and for two long hours the crowd surged and shouted themselves hoarse, Gaius and Aristarchus standing silent all the while and expecting every moment to be their last. The scene reminds one of Baal’s priests shrieking to him on Carmel. It is but too true a representation of the wild orgies which stand for worship in all heathen religions. It is but too lively an example of what must always happen when excited crowds are ignorantly stirred by appeals to prejudice or self-interest.

The more democratic the form of government under which we live, the more needful is it to distinguish the voice of the people from the voice of the mob, and to beware of exciting, or being governed by, clamour however loud and long.

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Bibliographical Information
MacLaren, Alexander. "Commentary on Acts 19". MacLaren's Expositions of Holy Scripture. https://studylight.org/commentaries/eng/mac/acts-19.html.