Acts 18 - IVP New Testament Commentaries

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Witness at Ephesus: Planting the Church

In the business world competition is the name of the game: "Lead, follow, or get out of the way!" The religious/spiritual environment of first-century Ephesus was not much different. Nominal Christians clinging to "the baptism of John," Jews steeped in their tradition, pagans and even Christians practicing magic all seemed to be saying in their own ways, "Can you match this?"Filling Out an Incomplete Gospel (18:23--19:7)

Paul's fifteen-hundred-mile journey begins with an orderly revisiting of churches in the region of Galatia and Phrygia (literally, "the Galatian region and Phrygia"). Luke is probably pointing here to the portion of Lycaonia in the province of Galatia and the ethnic region of Phrygia, also located within the province. Here Paul had planted churches during the first missionary journey (Acts 13--14; see note at 16:6). With exhortation Paul "shores up" all the disciples, making them firm to face persecution from without and false teaching from within (14:22; 15:32, 41; compare Ex 17:12 and Judg 16:26, 29 LXX). Paul's continuous practice should be ours: to continue to affirm and confirm converts in their faith so that they may become lifelong disciples.

Luke now catches us up on Apollos's ministry at Ephesus and Corinth in the interval between Paul's visits (18:24-28). Apollos (short form of Apollonius), an Alexandrian Jew, had evidently taken advantage of the education of that city and especially its Jewish community. Alexandria, known for its museum, library and ancillary learning facilities, boasted a Jewish population containing scholars who had produced the Septuagint and later counted Philo the philosopher among their ranks. Luke characterizes Apollos as learned and proceeds to specify his area of competence: a thorough knowledge of the Scriptures (literally, "being mighty in the Scriptures"). Luke further defines his expertise: Apollos has been instructed in the way of the Lord and is able to teach about Jesus accurately.

If Luke had not added the qualification he knew only the baptism of John, we would be inclined to think Apollos was a Christian, for he knew the gospel, the way of the Lord, which is to be identified with "things about Jesus" (compare Bruce 1988:358-59). When we understand with great fervor (zeon to pneumati) in the same way as Romans 12:11, "aglow with the Spirit," the picture of a regenerate Apollos lacking only Christian baptism seems complete. Luke normally presents Christian baptism as the outward sign that the inward reception of the Spirit at conversion has taken place (Acts 2:38-39; 9:17-18; 10:44-48). To present Apollos as having the Spirit without having obtained Christian baptism would be an anomaly. Of course some see the lack of reference to Christian baptism as an indicator that Apollos is considered to have the Spirit and therefore not to need the rite (Krodel 1986:355).

We encounter less difficulty, though, if we take Apollos to be a knowledgeable, fervent but unregenerate disciple of John the Baptist who believes Jesus is the Messiah but does not understand the present saving significance of his death and resurrection. Further, he is unaware of what Pentecost means for all who are baptized in the name of Jesus. The way of the Lord that he knows, then, is not the gospel, but God's way of salvation set forth in the promises of the Old Testament (Is 40:3-5/Lk 3:4-6; compare 1QS 8:13-14). The "boiling over of spirit" with which he speaks is the fervor of his own spirit (NIV) and not the Holy Spirit's glow. Apollos preaches boldly from the perspective of promise and preparation, an "underrealized eschatology" if you will, as if Ezekiel 36:25 had occurred but not verses 26-27.

The best analogy to Apollos today is a nominal, cultural Christian raised in the liberal theological tradition of the West. Such a person may display the same fervor and the same knowledge about the earthly Jesus' life and teachings. Whether in the "social gospel" of a prior generation or current calls to work for peace, justice, human rights and a safe, clean environment, there are echoes of the preparatory repentance preaching of John (Lk 3:10-14). These concerns rightly answer the venerable question "What would Jesus do?" But since they focus only on human effort, they trap the adherents in, at best, a life of humanly induced goodness and, at worst, the emptiness of dull religious practice. Salvation by grace and the blessing of the indwelling Holy Spirit are completely missed.

Priscilla and Aquila, having heard Apollos's preaching, invited him to their home (also possible: "took him aside") and explained to him the way of God more adequately. This couple's grace in considerately instructing Apollos out of the limelight and his grace in receiving their words mean that another person has entered the kingdom of the Messiah. Apollos needed and received "what all religious people desperately need--an experience of the substitutionary sacrifice of Calvary as the only basis of righteousness with the Lord, and an infusion of His Spirit as the only source of power to live life as He meant it to be lived" (Ogilvie 1983:271).

Complete in gospel and truly incorporated into the faith, Apollos desires to go to Achaia. The church encourages him and writes letters of commendation (compare 2 Cor 3;1). There Apollos proves a great help . . . by grace to the believers (1 Cor 3:6; 16:12; compare Acts 6:8; 14:26; 15:40; 20:32). Through a very effective apologetic ministry, completely refuting the Jews in public debate (compare 6:10), Apollos clearly demonstrates from the Scriptures (literally, "through the Scriptures") that Jesus was the Christ (literally, "that the Messiah is Jesus"--the word order shows the direction of the argument; compare 18:5).

Apollos now bears the unmistakable marks of a Christian: recognition and encouragement within the body of Christ, divine grace suffusing his natural abilities so that the effect is powerfully of God, and a clear witness to the person and work of the Lord Jesus Christ. Here is the standard for any knowledgeable professing Christians who with ability and enthusiasm are trying to follow the teachings of Jesus in their own strength. If such persons are teachable like Apollos, they will learn the whole gospel and come to the Spirit and eternal life.

Luke picks up Paul's itinerary with the note that the apostle takes a hilly, higher-elevation route west to Ephesus. This was more direct than the regular trade route down the Lycus and Maenander valleys. Ephesus, "the principal trading center of Asia" (Strabo Geography 12.8.15), with its harbor and network of roads reaching into the interior, has caught Paul's strategic eye. It will serve well his purposes for penetrating a whole province evangelistically (19:10, 26).

From Paul's diagnostic questions and the response of the Ephesian disciples we quickly learn what Paul evidently suspects: these persons are not truly regenerate. Luke labels them disciples probably because at first their outward identification with the Christian believers led Paul to take them for true Christians. Does Paul's first question about receiving the Holy Spirit indicate that he sees none of the Spirit's fruit or giftings in their lives? The combination of questions certainly tells us that Paul assumes that saving faith, the reception of the Spirit and Christian baptism converge at conversion (see references at the discussion of Apollos, above, for Luke's accord with this view).

The disciples' response about the Spirit, which the NIV translates literally, should probably be taken to mean that they have not heard of the Holy Spirit's contemporary presence (compare Jn 7:39). If they do not know the Old Testament's witness to the Spirit's existence (Num 11:16-17, 24-29; Is 63:10-11; Joel 2:28-32), they certainly would know such a witness from the preaching of John the Baptist, whose baptism they had received (Lk 3:16). In fact, John's preaching of the imminent arrival of a Messiah in eschatological judgment tied closely together the baptism "with the Holy Spirit and with fire." His followers, even if they had heard about Pentecost, probably would not have seen it as the fulfillment of John's prophecy, for the purifying fire of final judgment had not immediately followed Pentecost. As Paul's corrective steps show (Acts 19:4-6), these disciples, like Apollos, are at best nominal Christians, and at worst simply disciples of John. In either case they are living without either the truth or the power of the Christian gospel.

How many professing Christians today could make the statement these twelve made: we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit? Perhaps they heard the good news of the Spirit's presence but did not really hear it, because they were resistant or not ready. Maybe they have not been taught a whole gospel, so that they do not expect to find the Spirit active today.

Paul's corrective is to preach the gospel to the twelve by pointing out the preparatory and therefore partial nature of the baptism of repentance and of John's message pointing to the Messiah who was to come. Though the Gospels never explicitly state that John called for faith in Christ, the status and role he gave to Jesus certainly imply it (Lk 3:16-17; Jn 1:27; 3:23-30). Paul makes the point that Jesus is this "coming one."

To receive the gospel qualifies one to be baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus, and this is what the twelve do (Acts 2:38-39). This is no "rebaptism," for after the triumph of Easter and the provision of full salvation blessings at Pentecost, a preparatory baptism of repentance is more than incomplete--it is obsolete (Lk 16:16; Eph 4:5).

Not as part of baptism but in order to communicate to these twelve that they are now incorporated into the church and the Spirit has indeed come, Paul lays hands on them (compare Acts 8:17). The Lord in his mercy gives outward manifestations, "other languages" (the NIV margin should be followed if the parallel to Pentecost [2:4] is to be fully shown) and prophecy, confirming to them that full salvation blessings are indeed theirs now.

As we reflect on conversion experiences at Pentecost, in Samaria and at Caesarea with Gentile God-fearers, what is unique to the various first-century situations and what is normative for all time? Unique items, given to demonstrate to various groups and to Jewish Christian observers the direct incorporation of various groups of non-Jews into the body of Christ, are the apostolic laying on of hands and the extraordinary manifestations of the Spirit's presence, speaking in other languages and prophecy. Necessary precedents having been set, there is no need in God's economy for their normative repetition in every Christian's experience (Acts 15:7-11). But "repentance, faith in Jesus, water baptism and the gift of the Spirit . . . belong together and are universal in Christian initiation" (Stott 1990:305; Lk 24:46-47; Acts 2:38-39).Separating from Unbelieving Tradition (19:8-10)

Following the strategy perfected on his previous journeys, and in fulfillment of his promise (18:21), Paul engages in synagogue preaching. For three months he speaks boldly, holding nothing back (20:20, 27). Arguing persuasively (literally, "reasoning and persuading"), he pursued his customary method of rhetoric in formal address and the give-and-take of dialogue (see comment and notes at 17:2-4). Marshaling arguments from the evidence--Old Testament promises and New Testament eyewitness reports of fulfillment--he removed all obstacles to his hearers' being convinced (18:4). Luke sums up his message's content as the kingdom of God. Later, reporting Paul's farewell discourse to the Ephesian elders, Luke is more expansive: Paul's message was "repentance" toward God and "faith in our Lord Jesus" Christ, "the gospel of God's grace" (20:21, 24). These themes in cosmic, ethical, sanctification and soteriological dimensions all speak of the reign of God in the lives of those for whom Jesus is Lord.

The Jews' reaction--becoming obstinate (literally, "being hardened" or "hardening themselves"; compare Ex 8:15; 9:35; Ps 95:8; Acts 7:51) and refusing to believe (literally, "disobeying"; see comment at 14:2)--shows the negative effects of rejecting the gospel over a period of time. We cannot remain neutral; we are either softened toward or hardened against an oft-repeated message. Their rejection was expressed in a public maligning of Christianity (the Way). This may mean a formal rejection, since publicly translates a phrase that literally means "before the assembly." Paul's withdrawal is also described in semiformal terms. He took the disciples may present a type of self-excommunication (aphorizo; Lk 6:22).

As always, Paul's withdrawal leads to further advance, for he now reasons daily in the lecture hall of Tyrannus (either the teacher or the proprietor). The Western text has an interesting time reference, "from the fifth to the tenth hour" (Acts 19:9). The Mediterranean "siesta" occurred from the fifth hour (11:00 a.m.) onward, and we know from Acts 20:34 that Paul worked at his trade while in Ephesus. This gives us a picture of a tireless apostle and an eager audience. Each is willing to give up the normal time of rest in order to speak and hear of the kingdom.

Only where there is such commitment to teach and such hunger to receive the word of the Lord will there be advances like that portrayed in the next verse. For two years, during a mission lasting as Bruce estimates from fall 52 to summer 55 (1988:366), Paul keeps up this pace, and as a result--probably via his converts--an entire province hears the gospel (Col 1:7; 2:1; 4:13). The churches of the prison epistles, the letters to Timothy and the book of Revelation are proof of the mission's effect (1 Cor 16:19; Rev 2--3).Mastering Magic (19:11-20)

The private side of paganism in the ancient world was the attempt to manipulate spiritual forces via magical incantations, ritual acts and paraphernalia in order to ward off evil and bring well-being. Ephesus was a city most hospitable to magicians, sorcerers and charlatans of all sorts. Attached to the statue of Artemis, the city's chief goddess, were certain symbols, ta Ephesia grammata, which had been turned into a magical formula (Plutarch Moralia 706E; 85B; Arnold 1989:15-16).

In a divine initiative, God weds extraordinary miracles with the spread of the Word of the Lord throughout Asia, a territory that Satan had firmly and manifestly in his grasp. We have met such strategic "power advances" before in Acts: in Jerusalem and its Judean environs, Samaria, and Macedonia (5:16; 8:7; 16:16-18). Now, at the climax of Paul's efforts as a missionary free to move about as he will, Luke presents another. These evidences of the presence of the reign of God (19:8) in liberating wholeness occur through a unique means. The application of handkerchiefs (soudaria, sweatbands for the head; compare Jn 11:44; 20:7) and aprons (better "belts"--simikinthia, a loanword from the Latin semicinctium; Martial Works 14.153; Petronius Works 94.8; Leary 1990), carried away from contact with Paul's skin during his leatherworking, bring healing and release from evil spirits (compare Lk 8:43-48; Acts 5:15).

The skeptic and the mimic will immediately draw the wrong conclusions about these happenings: either they did not occur, or they should be copied. Neither response is the intention of Luke or the rest of biblical teaching (Stott 1990:306). Paul, by his own testimony, was a miracleworker; this was part of his credentials as an apostle (Rom 15:19; 2 Cor 12:12; Gal 3:5). These healings did occur, but to imitate them--as some media evangelists have been wont to do with "prayer cloths" or other "prayed-over" trinkets sent through the mail--is to reduce miracle to magic, or impersonal manipulation (contrast Lk 8:43-48). Following James's instructions is still the best way to call on the Lord for healing (Jas 5:14-15).

Power encounters can sometimes lead to syncretistic responses (Acts 8:19). Though the Old Testament expressly forbade dabbling in the occult, Jews in ancient times played an important role in mediating the magical wisdom of the East to the Greco-Roman world (Lev 20:6, 27; Deut 18:10-11; Josephus Jewish Antiquities 8.45-49; Lk 11:19). In fact, some Jews were apparently familiar with the magic formula "the Ephesian letters" (Testament of Solomon 7:1-8; 8:11). So it is not surprising to find seven sons of Sceva, a Jewish chief priest, acting as exorcists. Since the high priest was the only one permitted to utter the "unpronounceable name of God" and enter his presence in the Holy of Holies on the Day of Atonement, it makes sense that these brothers would use that title as part of their "hype" (m. Yoma 3:8; 5:1; 6:2; compare Mastin 1976).

The sons' syncretistic appropriation follows the time-honored practice of piling name upon powerful name so as to create incantations strong enough to require spirits to do one's bidding. One such conjuration goes "I conjure you by the god of the Hebrews/Jesus, IABA IAE ABRAOTH AIA THOTH ELE ELO . . ." (Betz 1986:96). The name of Jesus, whom Paul preaches is these men's newest and most potent "power name" (compare Eph 1:21).

As the evil spirit responds to their attempted exorcism, the power encounter is transformed into demonic manhandling. Neither the exalted Lord Jesus nor Paul is directly involved. Yet the results reveal the unquestioned superiority of Jesus, whom Paul preaches. The demon displays spiritual insight: he knows both Jesus and Paul (compare Lk 4:34, 41; 8:28), but he does not recognize the magicians.

From the mouth of a demon we learn the valuable lesson that Jesus will not allow his name to be reduced to a magical formula (Ex 20:7). Only those with a personal relationship with Christ and who invoke his name in humble faith are in the correct position to see God act to drive out demons.

The evil spirit's mastery of the sorcerers now turns physical. Galvanized by superhuman strength, the demon-possessed man pounces on them and overpowers them (ephallomai, often indicating overpowering by superior spiritual beings; 1 Kingdoms 10:6; 16:13; Moulton and Milligan 1974:269). They receive such a beating that they barely escape with their lives. The magicians, powerless to command the demon, are defenseless against his assault.

From "power advance" to syncretistic response to demonic manhandling to respect and repentance: such is the progress of power encounter at Ephesus. Fear seizes (literally, "fell on") all who hear about the incident, and the name of the Lord Jesus is accorded respect. Here again, demonstrations of divine power do not automatically produce conversions (see comment at Acts 9:35, 42, where they do). They do, however, demonstrate the reality of the Lord's spiritual power and its superiority to, and difference from, magic. Realizing that Jesus' name is not to be manipulated, the populace is now in a better position to hear the good news of repentance and forgiveness of sins declared in that name (Lk 24:47). And for Christians who have believed for a while (perfect tense of pisteuo so indicates), it is now time for a final break with their past.

They make the break in word by coming and openly confessing (literally, "confessing and announcing") their evil deeds, their magic practices, possibly revealing the spells themselves. Then they collect books of magic spells and burn them. Their repentance is costly. Fifty thousand drachmas, the fees for all the formulas in the books, was thirty-five thousand dollars in today's U.S. currency. The repentance is complete: these believers have removed any temptation to go back to the old life.

Today the temptation is still present to syncretize a newfound faith with pre-Christian ways of using "power" to cope with life. Whether it be worship and manipulation of the new power levers of secularization--money, education, science, technology--or the traditional practices of occult magic in their time-honored or New Age form, those who live under Jesus' lordship must sooner or later come to terms with any compromise in these matters and follow the Ephesian Christians' example of making a clean break with their "power" past.

In a summary statement declaring the gospel's complete triumph over the competition, Luke stresses the life-giving nature of God's saving message by personifying it: The word of the Lord spread (literally, "grew") widely and grew in power (Acts 6:7; 12:24). Luke highlights the power of the message through adverbial phrase and verb (kata kratos, NIV widely; ischyen, NIV grew in power, possibly "prevailed"; compare Lk 1:51; Eph 1:19; 6:10). Luke's theology places proclamation of the gospel message at the center of any "power advance" in the church's mission, and so should ours.Preparing for Future Advance (19:21-22)

To set in bold relief the final episode at Ephesus, Luke, as he has done before (18:21; compare 15:36), breaks in with an overview of Paul's future movements expressed though his desires. Though there is a description of the intervening stops on the itinerary--Macedonia, Achaia, Jerusalem--the emphasis is on the final destination, Rome (23:11; Rom 1:13-15; 15:30-32). The NIV presents these plans as simply Paul's human desires and purposes: Paul decided. This translates the admittedly ambiguous phrase "he purposed in the spirit" (his spirit or the Holy Spirit?--compare the equally ambiguous Acts 20:22 and the definite 21:4). When this phrase is taken in combination with the must of the next sentence (dei, a term often used by Luke to indicate divine necessity--for example Lk 4:43; 9:22; 17:25; 22:37; Acts 1:21-22; 3:21; 9:16; 23:11; 27:24), Luke seems to be declaring Paul's conviction by the power of the Spirit that it is God's will for him to continue pursuing his calling by preaching the gospel in Rome. Once the northeastern portion of the Mediterranean basin is evangelized, there will be no more room for the apostle to the Gentiles to work (Rom 15:23). What better way to fulfill a calling to all the nations, to "kings" and the small and the great, than to proclaim the message of the kingdom at the very center of it all, the capital of the Empire? Through his converts, in centrifugal fashion, he can then reach to the ends of the earth, even the regions of the west, including Spain, which he also hoped to evangelize personally (Acts 9:15; 26:22; Rom 15:24). Ever the strategic thinker, ever under the Spirit's guidance, Paul plans for this divinely ordained "new Macedonia." And he works his plan by sending Timothy and Erastus to get a collection for him to take to Jerusalem (Rom 15:26).

Today the church desperately needs to listen to visionary strategists whose "mission advance and church growth" eyes help them define and articulate the task in doable terms. They call the church to finish the task: "It can be done; it ought to be done; it must be done--a church for every people and the gospel for every person."

Previous commentary:
The Third Missionary Journey

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