Studies in the Book of Acts

Acts 19:8-40

Spoke boldly in synagogue (Acts 19:8-9)

After Luke finished the story of the Baptist disciples, he dramatically switched the scene. Paul was now preaching in the synagogue. For three months Paul debated with the Jews “arguing persuasively about the kingdom of God” (19:8). Luke here emphasized the “kingdom of God” aspect of Paul’s message. However, we shouldn’t think Paul preached a substantially different message in Ephesus from his usual one. His gospel message was concerned with both Jesus and the kingdom (28:31), because one cannot separate the king from the kingdom. The message of Jesus is the message of salvation. But personal salvation is not obtained apart from God’s kingdom.

The fact that Paul continued in the synagogue for three months shows that the Ephesian synagogue elders were more tolerant than those in Thessalonica (or perhaps that Paul was becoming more careful in the way that he presented the gospel). But even here, Paul eventually outlasted his welcome. Some of the Jews began to publicly deride “the Way” (19:9). Paul then left the synagogue, took the disciples with him and began daily discussions in the lecture hall of Tyrannus (19:9). This is thought by some to be the auditorium of a local philosopher with the name Tyrannus. Others see Tyrannus as the owner of the building, who rented space to speakers such as Paul. (Tyrannus means “Tyrant,” and it was probably a nickname reflecting the man’s personality.) We know nothing else of Tyrannus. But he was introduced so casually that it’s possible Luke’s readers (especially Theophilus) would have known who he was.

All in Asia heard (Acts 19:10)

Paul’s work in Ephesus continued for two years, “so that all the Jews and Greeks who lived in the province of Asia heard the word of the Lord” (19:10). Most likely we are to add Paul’s three months of speaking in the synagogue to the total time (19:8), along with other events. The full time that he was in Ephesus might have been nearly three years (20:31). This may correspond to the years between A.D. 52-53 and 55.

Paul did not confine his ministry to the city of Ephesus. Luke says that Jews and Greeks throughout the entire province of Asia heard the word (19:10). People in a number of important cities in Asia would have heard the gospel during these years. We are familiar with some of these cities from other New Testament writings: Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, Laodicea, Colossae, Miletus, Hierapolis, and Magnesia. It’s possible the seven churches mentioned in the book of Revelation, chapter 2 and 3, were begun during Paul’s stay in Ephesus.

Paul did not necessarily go to every city himself, though he almost certainly evangelized in some of them. Paul’s associates, traveling converts, and word-of-mouth tales about such things as the miracles of healing would have spread the gospel message from city to city in the province of Asia. While Paul taught at the lecture hall of Tyrannus, his colleagues carried out missionary work in other cities. Epaphras appears to have been one of Paul’s associates who worked in Colossae, Laodicea, and Hierapolis (Colossians 1:7-82:14:12-13). These were cities of the Lycus valley, which Paul apparently did not personally visit.

Striking miracles (Acts 19:11-12)

During Paul’s stay in Ephesus, the power of God was demonstrated mightily, giving the gospel an attentive hearing. Luke wrote: “God did extraordinary miracles through Paul, so that even handkerchiefs and aprons that had touched him were taken to the sick, and their illnesses were cured and the evil spirits left them” (19:12). Luke’s emphasis was on God doing the miracles through Paul. Luke was highlighting the divine power at work.

Paul was able to “heal at a distance,” as it were. Cloth that Paul had touched could heal the sick. We are reminded of similar “at a distance” healings in the woman whose bleeding disease was healed when she touched Jesus’ cloak (Mark 5:27-34). Paul’s healing work was also equated with Peter’s, whose passing shadow could cause people to be healed (5:15). As was the Master, and Peter, the “chief of the apostles,” Paul also was given an extraordinary power of God. Paul himself referred to the signs that had accompanied his preaching of the gospel. These proved that God was using him as he was the other apostles—as such signs marked an apostle (Romans 15:18-192 Corinthians 12:12).

The Greek word for “handkerchiefs” referred to a face cloth used for wiping perspiration from the brow or a sweat-band that a workman tied around his head to absorb perspiration. The Greek word for “aprons” referred to a garment that a working man would place around the body to keep dirt off clothes. The “handkerchiefs” and “cloths” may have been articles Paul wore when making tents. That is, he could have tied the sweat-rags around his head and he would have tied the aprons around his waist.

It does seem odd that God would bring healings through such mundane and personal pieces of cloth. Some commentators find this so difficult to accept that they explain it away as a legend with no basis in fact. Yet Luke is not gullible; he knows that these are extraordinary healings. The unusual nature of these healings is meant to tell us an important thing: It is God who did the cures and exorcisms. He used such everyday items to make the point that it is he, and not the instrument through which he works, that brings about the cure.

Seven sons of Sceva (Acts 19:13-16)

The story above explained that God did extraordinary miracles through Paul in healing people and casting out demons, even at a distance. In his next scene, Luke gives a sharp and humorous contrast: the powerlessness of Jews who tried to usurp Paul’s name and the authority of Jesus to effect exorcisms. Apparently, Paul’s name and power had become so widespread in Asia that others were hoping to cash in on the exorcism bandwagon. This was becoming a major problem, as a number of Jews were trying to mimic the mighty demonstrations of God’s power that were being accomplished through Paul.

Luke cited the example of the seven sons of Sceva, who tried to perform exorcisms. According to Luke, “They would say, ‘In the name of the Jesus whom Paul preaches, I command you to come out’” (19:13). We don’t know who Sceva was. Luke called him a “Jewish chief priest” (19:14). It’s possible he did belong to a Jewish chief-priestly family. Perhaps either Sceva or his seven sons (or both) may have been renegade priests from a high priestly family. Some commentators speculate Sceva may have been an apostate Jew and the high or chief priest of some pagan cult. However, it is known that no individual named Sceva was ever the high priest in Jerusalem since the names of all the Jewish high priests in Jerusalem have been identified.

Another possibility is that the title “Jewish chief priest” was Sceva’s own self-designation, and Luke simply reported what he said about himself. If Luke would have been writing today he may have placed the title between quotation marks. On the other hand, Luke does not say Sceva was the one who was a professional exorcist. It was his seven sons whom Luke singled out as trying to use Paul’s name. It’s possible they even “believed” Paul’s message in the same way that Simon of Samaria had (8:9-24).

But in a somewhat comic sequel to this serious story, Sceva’s sons were unable to use God’s healing and exorcism power as a commodity to dupe innocent people. The finale occurred one day when they were attempting to exorcise an evil spirit. It said to them, “Jesus I know, and Paul I know about, but who are you?” (19:15). Then the man possessed by the spirit jumped on the seven and “gave them such a beating that they ran out of the house naked and bleeding” (19:16).

All became fearful (Acts 19:17-20)

Sceva’s seven sons were apparently so well-known for their magic and sorcery that the news of their drubbing quickly spread. It was now clear that Paul has a greater power than any of the sorcerers. One is reminded of the story of Moses and the magicians of Egypt during the Exodus. For a time, the magicians of Pharaoh seemed to match some of the plagues Moses was bringing on Egypt. But soon it was clear that a greater power was with Moses. Even the magicians finally told Pharaoh, “This is the finger of God” (Exodus 8:19).

The same thing happened in Ephesus when Sceva’s sons failed in their exorcism attempt. Both Jews and Greeks “were all seized with fear, and the name of the Lord Jesus was held in high honor” (19:17). Many even renounced their magic arts and burned their books or scrolls of magic incantations. Paul must have convinced them that these books were not just worthless—they were worse than worthless and ought to be destroyed rather than sold. Numerous people burned their magic books.

Luke tells us that the value of these scrolls was 50,000 thousand drachmas (19:20). It’s hard to determine the modern value of the drachma, anchored as it was in an ancient agrarian economy. The drachma was a silver coin worth about a day’s wages. Enough money to pay 50,000 workers for a day went up in smoke. Since a minimum-wage worker now makes about $40 per day, a modern equivalent would be about two million dollars.

This was the third confrontation between a preacher of the gospel and a practitioner of magic in Luke’s narrative. God’s servants encountered Simon Magus (8:4-25) in Samaria, Bar Jesus/Elymas in Cyprus (13:4-12) and now the seven sons of Sceva. In each case, the message of God and its messenger triumphed over the forces of darkness and evil. This is how Luke ended this section of his narrative, on a positive and upbeat mode. He summarized the growth of the church and gospel by saying: “In this way the word of the Lord spread widely and grew in power” (19:20).

After all this (Acts 19:21)

This summary of the progress of the gospel introduced what is probably the last panel or major division of Acts. (The six panels are: a) 1:1-6:7, b) 6:8-9:31, c) 9:32-12:24, d) 12:25-16:5, e) 16:6-19:20, f) 19:21-28:31.) The last panel begins with the statement: “After all this had happened, Paul decided to go to Jerusalem, passing through Macedonia and Achaia. ‘After I have been there,’ he said, ‘I must visit Rome also’” (19:21). This marks the final part of Luke’s story of the movement of the gospel from Jerusalem to Rome. It encompassed the years between A.D. 55-6 and 61-2.

The last section of Acts recounts Paul’s roundabout journey to Jerusalem, along with its consequences. In Jerusalem, Paul will be arrested and imprisoned for two years in Caesarea. Luke will devote a large amount of space to Paul’s defense before the Jews in Jerusalem and to his speeches before rulers and a king in Caesarea. Then will come the dangerous trip to Rome, and Paul’s ministry in the city. At that point, Luke abruptly ends his story.

When Paul wrote the letter to the Romans, he told them that he wanted to visit Rome, and he hoped to use Rome as a base for spreading the gospel even further west, to Spain (Romans 15:23-24). He thought that the eastern part of the Roman empire was sufficiently evangelized—he said the gospel had been fully preached “from Jerusalem all the way around to Illyricum” (Romans 15:19). Illyricum was a region along the Adriatic Sea reaching from northeast Italy south to Macedonia (the modern nations of Croatia, Bosnia, Montenegro, and Albania). Luke does not tell us when or how Illyricum was evangelized.

Getting to Rome was an important matter for Paul, but it was not the ultimate goal—Spain was. However, Luke was more interested in Paul’s visit to Rome than to Spain. Luke had him saying, “I must visit Rome also” (19:21). Luke ended his account with Paul in Rome, and omitted any reference to the Spanish project. We do not know whether Paul ever got to Spain or other parts of the western Roman Empire.

A trip to Jerusalem (Acts 19:21)

But Paul also wanted to visit Jerusalem, and he probably planned his trip near the end of his stay in Ephesus. It became such a driving desire that nothing could dissuade him. He probably thought that once he was in the far western part of the Empire, he might not be able to visit Jerusalem ever again. Perhaps he also thought about taking the gospel message into Gaul, or western North Africa.

But before going to Jerusalem, Rome or parts west, he wanted to revisit the churches of Macedonia and Achaia. The purpose of would be to make a final pastoral visit to these churches. More specifically, he wanted to gather from the churches a collection for the Jewish Christians of Jerusalem. This collection—and resultant trip to Jerusalem—seemed to become the central preoccupation of Paul’s mind.

There is some controversy about Paul’s decision to go to Jerusalem. Was it something that the Holy Spirit wanted Paul to do, or was the Spirit warning him against going there? The New International Version says Paul “decided to go to Jerusalem” (19:21); this reflects the translation of the Greek en to pneumati, which could mean “by his human spirit.” It could mean that Paul on his own decided to go to Jerusalem, without any specific guidance from the Spirit.

Luke, who frequently makes the direction of the Holy Spirit explicit, did not do so here. But later, Luke may have been implying the Spirit’s guidance when he had Paul saying he was “compelled by the Spirit” to go to Jerusalem (20:22). This is still a less-than-explicit statement about the Spirit’s role, however. Prophets of the church—who were speaking through the Holy Spirit—told Paul he would face grave problems if he went to Jerusalem (20:22-23; 21:10-11). Were they implying he should not go?

Paul’s motivation (Acts 19:21)

Whatever the case, Paul seemed to think it was God’s will that he go to Jerusalem—or for some reason, it was absolutely necessary that he go. Luke didn’t explain what strong motivation Paul had for wanting to go to Jerusalem. However, Paul did do so in his letters. He wanted to deliver a collection of money he had taken up to help the poor church members of Jerusalem (1 Corinthians 16:1-42 Corinthians 8:1-9:15Romans 15:25-32).

The desperate plight of the church must have been on Paul’s mind, and he hoped to do something about it. However, there was something else behind Paul’s interest in the relief fund, other than simply wanting to help the church. It was a strong desire to show Jerusalem that the Gentile churches stood solidly with their Jewish counterparts, even though they did not observe the same customs. He hoped that the gift of love would increase the solidarity and unity of the Jewish and Gentile elements in the church. Richard Longenecker writes, “Paul viewed it [the collection] as a symbol of unity that would help his Gentile converts realize their debt to the mother church in Jerusalem and give Jewish Christians an appreciation of the vitality of faith in the Gentile churches” (The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, “Acts,” 506).

Luke knew about the collection, since he vaguely referred to it later on (24:17). He even mentioned the representatives of the various church areas by name who were coming with Paul to Jerusalem to deliver the relief fund (20:4). Although this collection was important to Paul, it was apparently not important to Luke’s story of the expansion of the gospel starting from Jerusalem and going to the ends of the earth. The collection probably failed to live up to Paul’s expectations. Going to Jerusalem resulted in nothing but problems for Paul and accomplished very little within the church, so far as we can tell from Acts. For Luke, writing from the perspective of a later time, the collection was insignificant. Luke was interested in Paul’s Jerusalem experience only for its role in the expansion of the gospel—because it gave Paul an opportunity to preach before rulers and kings, and as the springboard for getting to Rome.

Paul apparently began preparing for the Macedonia-Jerusalem-Rome-Spain trip by sending Timothy and Erastus to Macedonia ahead of him (19:22). He wanted them to organize the offering so it would be ready when he came. Timothy was last mentioned when he was at Corinth (18:5). This is the first time that Erastus is in Luke’s story.  A man named Erastus sent his greetings to the church at Rome (Romans 16:23), and was Corinth’s director of public works. (This assumes Romans was written from Corinth.) However, Erastus was a common name, and the Erastus of Acts may not be the same man. A few years later Paul referred to an Erastus as one of his associates (2 Timothy 4:20), and he was probably the individual mentioned in Acts.

The cult of Artemis (Acts 19:22-27)

About the time that Paul was preparing for his trip, “there arose a great disturbance about the Way” (19:23). A man named Demetrius, probably the leader of a regional guild of silversmiths, called together not only his guild but also those in related trades (19:25-26). The silversmiths made a tremendous profit from selling silver shrines of the goddess Artemis. Tradesmen made their living supplying visitors with such religious trinkets, along with offerings and lodging. Ephesus was known for its profitable trade in such religious crafts (Dio Cassius, History of Rome, Ammianus Marcellinus, History 22.1339.20). Many terra-cotta and marble shrines have been unearthed, but no silver shrines have yet been discovered, perhaps because they were melted down for the precious metal.

The silversmiths of Ephesus regarded their guild as being under the special patronage of Artemis, in whose honor so many of their wares were manufactured. Among these wares were miniature silver niches, containing an image of the goddess, which her votaries bought to dedicate in the temple. The sale of these was a source of considerable profit to the silversmiths. (F.F. Bruce, The Book of Acts, revised edition, The New International Commentary on the New Testament, page 374)

Artemis of Ephesus (Latin, Diana) was the mother-goddess of fertility. She was depicted as a grotesque, multibreasted woman. Her image at Ephesus was believed to have been constructed in heaven and to have fallen from the sky—from the gods (19:35). The temple of Artemis was one of the Seven Wonders of the ancient world, and it supposedly could hold up to 50,000 people. It covered an area four times as large as the Parthenon in Athens, or 400 feet by 200 feet in size. (A field for American football is 300 feet long.) The temple and its cult is well documented in ancient literature. Some examples are: Strabo, Geography 14, 1, 22-23; Herodotus, Persian Wars 1:26, 92, Pliny, Natural History 16.213; 36.95-97, 179; and Xenophon, The Ephesians 1, 2, 2-7; 1, 11, 5.

Ephesus had declined since its heyday as a center of shipping, due in large part to the continual silting up of its harbor. The economy of the city had become increasingly dependent on the tourist trade associated with the cult of Artemis. Now, because of Paul’s preaching, people were turning away from the Artemis cult. The business of these miniature silver shrines must have fallen off, and the silversmiths were worried about their source of income. Paul was threatening the economy of Ephesus.

In his speech, Demetrius got to the nub of his complaint about Paul’s preaching, noting that Paul was preaching “that gods made by human hands are no gods at all” (19:26). In a skillful piece of oratory, Demetrius united the workmen’s economic concerns with their superstitious fears. “There is danger,” insisted Demetrius, “not only that our trade will lose its good name, but also that the temple of the great goddess Artemis will be discredited” (19:27).

City in an uproar (Acts 19:28-34)

Demetrius enlisted the silversmiths and craftsmen from some other trades to begin a riot. They hoped to turn the Ephesians against Paul, and at the same time, create an even greater devotion to Artemis. Naturally, this would translate into greater profits for the tradesmen. Paul had disturbed vested business interests, and now the “better business bureau” of Ephesus swung into action against him. On the pretext of religious devotion, they began a tactic sure to stir up the superstitious devotion of the populace.

The tradesmen apparently were assembled in an open-air theater, the usual place for public meetings (19:29). Perhaps they were in the theater on the eastern side of the city whose ruins are known. This theater could hold about 25,000 people, and it was in full view of the temple of Artemis. The tradesmen in the theater began shouting, “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!” (19:28). This attracted other people, and before long the entire city was in an uproar. A crowd joined the melee, many without even understanding what it was about. Luke wrote: “The assembly was in confusion: Some were shouting one thing, some another. Most of the people did not even know why they were there” (19:32).

While rushing to the theater, some of the crowd grabbed Gaius and Aristarchus, two men working with Paul (19:29). They were then dragged into the theater with the crowd. It’s not certain who Gaius was. He was a Macedonian (19:29); perhaps he was the Gaius Paul baptized in Corinth (1 Corinthians 1:14) and who was a host to him and the church (Romans 16:23). Luke mentioned Gaius as being from Derbe in Galatia (20:4). The individuals mentioned need not be the same person, as Gaius was a rather common name (3 John 1). Aristarchus was mentioned in 20:4 and in 27:2. He was referred to in Colossians 4:10 and Philemon 24 as being a native of Thessalonica.

Paul was concerned about the fate of these two men at the hands of a frenzied mob. He wanted to go before the crowd, but was forcibly restrained by some of the converts (19:30). Luke said, “Even some of the officials of the province, friends of Paul, sent him a message begging him not to venture into the theater” (19:31). Luke took this opportunity to again point out that Rome and its officials were not antagonistic to Paul and the gospel message.

Meanwhile, the Jews sent their own representative, Alexander, to the theater in order “to make a defense before the people” (19:33). Since Luke didn’t tell us, we don’t know exactly what point Alexander wanted to make or who he was. Presumably he wanted to disassociate the Jews from the Christians as the cause of this uproar. The Jews had something to worry about. Jews, like Christians, were monotheistic and posed a threat to the paganism of the times. It’s no surprise, then, that when the idolatrous mob realized Alexander was a Jew, they shouted him down. For the next two hours the crowd shouted, “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!” (19:34).

During the commotion, Paul had been restrained from heading for the theater to confront the crowd, presumably to try to reason with it. But there was no need for his presence, as city officials cooled down the mob and ended the riot. Once again, Paul had to sit on the sidelines to see events worked out in his and the gospel’s favor, and experience the salvation of the Lord.

Officials stop the riot (Acts 19:35-41)

The city clerk quieted the crowd by reassuring it that the worship of Artemis wasn’t being threatened (19:35). He chastised the mob for unjustly condemning Gaius and Aristarchus. “You have brought these men here,” he said, “though they have neither robbed temples nor blasphemed our goddess” (19:37). The officials of the province of Asia, the Asiarchs, had already expressed their friendliness toward Paul (19:31). Now the city clerk intervened on behalf of Paul’s associates. Vested business interests may not have liked Paul’s preaching, but the government was still a friend of the gospel.

What is especially interesting is that the Asiarchs came from the noblest and wealthiest families of Asia, and promoted the cult of the emperor and Rome. The league of Asiarchs was more of a religious than political organization, since they had little authority in governing the province of Asia. While, in a sense, the cult of Artemis was a rival cult to that of Caesar and Roma, the Asiarchs were themselves polytheists and interested in the economic welfare of Ephesus. That some of them should be Paul’s friends suggests that the intelligentsia was not hostile to Christianity, at least not in Asia. It also implies that the educated classes did not fully share in the superstitions of the common people.

The “city clerk” (an unfortunate translation) was the main executive officer of the town assembly, and the city’s chief magistrate. He was the most important local official of Ephesus, and would be held responsible for any riots within the city. The city clerk served as the liaison between the town council and the provincial Roman administration with its headquarters in Ephesus.

Realizing the potential penalties the city might receive from Rome, the city clerk implored the mob to take their grievances to the proper authority. He said Demetrius and the guilds could press charges in the courts and with the proconsuls (19:38). “It must be settled in a legal assembly,” he insisted. “As it is, we are in danger of being charged with rioting because of what happened today” (19:39-40). If the city was cited for rioting, the clerk pointed out, it was in trouble with Rome. There was no way the local officials could account for the disturbance. The chief magistrate urged the crowd to disband and go home, which apparently it did.

Unmentioned troubles

From Luke’s story of Paul’s two-year stay in Ephesus, one might assume that this was the only major problem he encountered. But that is not the case. Even here Paul did not directly suffer in the riot, as he remained on the sidelines waiting for events to work out favorably. Luke did refer in passing to some difficulty Paul had with the Jews at the beginning of his stay, but this was glossed over rather quickly in a phrase, with no details given (19:9). Otherwise, Luke made it appear as though Paul had an easy time of it in Ephesus, with success piled on success.

But when we turn to Paul’s letters, we realize that the successes at Ephesus came at the cost of great suffering. Paul wrote in one letter that he had “fought wild beasts in Ephesus” (1 Corinthians 15:32). Even if this is a metaphor for violent persecutors, it reveals something of the trials Paul endured during the two years at Ephesus. In the same letter, Paul spoke “about the troubles we experienced in the province of Asia. We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired of life itself” (2 Corinthians 1:8). Priscilla and Aquila, who were resident in Ephesus at this time (18:19), “risked their lives” for Paul (Romans 16:3-4).

Later Paul told the Ephesian elders that he had been “severe testing by the plots of Jewish opponents” during his work in the city (20:19). Paul later met with the elders of Ephesus in Miletus rather than in the city (20:17). Perhaps he did this because he felt it too dangerous for him to return to Ephesus.

During his time at Ephesus, Paul also had great concern about the troubled state of the Corinthian church. His first letter makes this worry abundantly clear. Some visitors from Corinth told him about the deep and bitter divisions within the church (1 Corinthians 1:11-12) and about blatant sexual immorality being tolerated in the congregation (1 Corinthians 5:1). However, if Paul faced such dangers and problems in Ephesus as his epistles indicate, then Luke chose to ignore them. He had already given us examples of the kind of persecution that Paul experienced. Perhaps he did not feel it necessary to belabor the point.

Author: Paul Kroll, 1995, 2012