Paul’s first missionary journey consisted of a loop passing through Cyprus into southern Turkey, a region called Asia in the New Testament, then returning to Antioch in Syria. Paul’s second missionary journey commenced with strengthening the young Christians in Asia that had been saved on his first journey. This was followed by a wider sweep into the areas of Macedonia and Achaia, in modern-day Greece, where he pioneered evangelistic efforts in that region. For Paul’s third missionary journey, the focus was to consolidate God’s work carried out on the first and second journeys with less pioneering gospel work being carried out. This third journey highlights the value of the slow and steady work of building up and encouraging God’s people, especially new believers. Hence, the journey begins in Acts chapter 18 verse 23 with a single verse, no doubt summarizing extensive efforts, where we read that Paul, ‘went over all the country of Galatia and Phrygia [regions in Asia visited on the first and second journeys] in order, strengthening all the disciples’.
Many of the verses covering this third journey record Paul’s stay of two to three years at Ephesus, Acts 18. 24 - 20. 1. He had visited Ephesus briefly on his second journey, 18. 18-21, and left Aquila and Priscilla, promising that he would return soon. Paul’s extended time at Ephesus was followed by some visits to confirm and encourage the Christians in Macedonia and Achaia (called Greece here), 20. 1-5. Although brief (less than fifty days, compare chapter 20 verse 6 and chapter 20 verse 16) the return leg of this third journey is described in some detail in chapter 20 verse 6 to chapter 21 verse 17. Paul is compelled to make it to Jerusalem in time for the feast of Pentecost despite repeated warnings that he would face intense persecution and incarceration on his arrival.
Since the scriptures focus on Paul’s time at Ephesus, we shall review this in detail in the remainder of this article.
Being both a seaport and located on major trade routes, Ephesus was the political and commercial centre in the region, which is apparent today from the extensive ruins found in Ephesus. If we compare Paul’s time at Corinth, the capital city of Achaia, 18. 11, Paul appears to strategically spend extended periods of time in busy, well-connected centres to maximise the spread of the gospel. Ephesus was also the centre of a world religion, being the place where the temple of Artemis (or Diana) was found, one of the seven wonders of the world. In many ways, Ephesus was like the world we live in today - interconnected, materialistic and a place of moral darkness and confusion. To this formidable city Paul came, chapter 19, a man who by his own confession was neither impressive to look at nor hear, 2 Cor. 10. 1. Yet God would use this seemingly insignificant man to bring about a mighty deliverance in Ephesus. In this stronghold of Satan, God would plant the Ephesian church, an assembly we know more about than of any other New Testament church.1 At its zenith, it was perhaps the most flourishing and enlightened church described in the scriptures. A study of Paul’s visit to Ephesus highlights to us that we should not limit what God can do, even in the hostile environment we find ourselves in today.
The letter Paul would write several years later to the church at Ephesus parallels some of the key experiences of this visit.
The first mention of Ephesus on Paul’s third journey is really a prologue to Paul’s arrival, with Apollos coming to Ephesus in Acts 18. 24-28. This zealous, probably newly saved Christian was keen to speak to others, ‘diligently the things of the Lord’, v. 25. As can sometimes be the case with young Christians, the zeal of Apollos was not quite matched by his knowledge. Recognizing the potential of Apollos, the godly couple Aquila and Priscilla patiently took him ‘unto them and expounded unto him the way of God more perfectly’. The incident reminds us of the exhortation of the Lord Jesus to Peter to ‘feed my lambs’, John 21. 15, and of the importance of providing individual and often bespoke teaching to newly saved Christians specific to their needs.
The problem with Apollos was that he knew ‘only the baptism of John’, Acts 18. 25. When Paul eventually arrived in Ephesus, he also encountered twelve individuals in a similar position, vv. 1-7. In addition to having incomplete knowledge of the Lord Jesus, these individuals were also unaware of the arrival of the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost, Acts 2. 1-13. Paul brings them up to speed and speaks to them of the One whom John said would follow him, on whom they must believe, ‘that is, on Christ Jesus’, v. 4. On believing and being baptized, they received the Holy Spirit, v. 6, an event which was accompanied by a visible demonstration they had done so with them speaking in tongues and prophesying.2
During his extended stay of at least twenty-seven months,3 Paul witnessed some remarkable events at Ephesus as it became a place of an extraordinary spiritual awakening, described in Acts chapter 19. Consistent Biblebased preaching and teaching in both Jewish and Gentile gathering places (the synagogue and school of Tyrannus, respectively, vv. 8-10), were consolidated by spectacular miracles performed by God through Paul, vv. 11, 12. This led to a great number of people believing, v. 18. Genuine faith led to action with many in the city turning to the living and true God from idols.4
A large public bonfire was held in the city with the Ephesian believers burning the books they had owned containing instructions about witchcraft and occult practices. This was a costly act, with the price of the books worth 50, 000 pieces of silver.5The Ephesian Christians were nailing their colours to the mast. The bonfire was a visible demonstration to others in the city that their lives had been changed and they were new creations in Christ. Old things had passed away and all things had become new, 2 Cor. 5. 17.
Whenever God is at work, it invariably leads to satanic opposition. Paul and these new believers met with overt and intense satanic resistance as the work of God progressed. Two events are highlighted in Acts chapter 19 which are examples of strategies Satan frequently uses today. The first is counterfeit. Certain travelling Jewish, so-called exorcists, tried to replicate the actions of Paul in casting out evil spirits, 19. 13-17. Satan often uses imitation and is even able to transform himself into an angel of light, 2 Cor. 11. 14. The Jewish exorcists ended up biting off more than they could chew, underestimating the power of the dark forces they were dealing with. An evil spirit they were trying to exorcise had no knowledge of them and the encounter resulted in them being overcome, wounded, and degraded as they fled from the scene naked, v. 16. We should not underestimate the power of Satan in inflicting harm on individuals and robbing them of their dignity.
The second strategy Satan uses is conflict. The loss of profits and reputation to the city as Diana-worship is hit hard, becomes the motivation for an uprising with Paul being the focal point of attack. The words of Demetrius, the idol-maker, against Paul are a testimony to the way God had greatly used him, ‘Moreover ye see and hear, that not alone at Ephesus, but almost throughout all Asia, this Paul hath persuaded and turned away much people, saying that they be no gods, which are made with hands’, v. 26. Demetrius incites a terrifying riot with the whole city being filled with confusion, v. 29, some crying one thing and some another, v. 32. A crowd can be easily incited to hatred and violence, often with those involved not really knowing why. The situation is aggravated today through social media which gives polarizing and extreme opinions a voice.
Paul’s preservation comes from two places as the believers in Ephesus prevent him from entering the fray, v. 30. Sometimes, it takes a believer with our best interests at heart to talk some sense into us.6 The second is the moderate and practical actions of the town clerk causing the angry mob to be dismissed, v. 41. It is an example of how God can use government as a moderating influence on society. Paul later instructed the Roman Christians, that authorities can be ‘the minister of God to thee for good’, Rom. 13. 4.
Like Paul’s time at Ephesus, we find ourselves in a place of spiritual conflict in the world we live in today. Paul wrote later to the Ephesian Christians that, ‘we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places’, Eph. 6. 12. However, Paul also points out that we have been fully equipped with the whole armour of God so that we can stand against the enemy, Eph. 6. 13-18. God is on our side and ‘greater is he that is in you, than he that is in the world’, 1 John 4. 4.
The story of Ephesus does not end with Paul leaving the city, Acts 20. 1. On his return journey, we read of him calling the elders of the church to Miletus, vv. 17-38, as he makes his way speedily to Jerusalem. We will cover these events, along with others, in part 2 of this article.
In addition to the verses here in Acts chapters 18 and 19 and his conversation with the Ephesian elders at Miletus in Acts chapter 20 verses 17 to 38, the Ephesian church as described in the letters to the Ephesians, is the background to 1 Timothy, and is the first of the seven churches described in Revelation chapter 2 verses 1 to 7.
This is one of four distinct and unique times when the Spirit of God is given, with the others being: (i) on the day of Pentecost, Acts 2. 1-7; (ii) to Samaritans, 8. 14-17; and (iii) to Gentiles, 10. 44-48.
Compare Acts 19. 8, and 10.
See the words of Demetrius in verses 24 to 27.
Assuming a piece of silver was a Roman denarius silver coin or equivalent (= 4g weight) then this is about 200kg weight of silver worth over £100, 000 today.
Perhaps Paul refers metaphorically to these ‘beasts of Ephesus’, 1 Cor. 15. 32. The believers recognized he would be ‘eaten alive’ if he had entered into the crowd.