Paul in Ephesus

Rev. David Bast Uncategorized

READ : Acts 19:1, 8-10

Listen to the exciting story of how the Christian faith first reached one of the ancient world’s greatest cities.

Let’s look at the beginning of Paul’s ministry in Ephesus, the city where, as far as we know, he spent more time than any other place during the course of his active ministry. Luke’s account of Paul’s entire missionary career with its various journeys is often tantalizingly brief. For example, in just seven verses (Acts 18:18-23,19:1), he tells about how Paul went from Corinth to Ephesus, a period of time that must have included many eventful months full of travel and significant activity. We would love to know more details of Paul’s itinerary – what went on at each place he stopped, whom he met, what he did, and why. But the book of Acts was not written to satisfy our curiosity. The Holy Spirit inspired Luke the historian to use his space to record the advance of the gospel, not to write a biography of the apostle Paul. And the next chapter of that story is set in the city of Ephesus.


One of the significant principles that emerges from a study of Paul’s missionary career is his strategic focus on the great cities of the Roman Empire. Paul’s ministry was essentially an urban one, as he sought to establish bases for Christian influence and outreach in the chief cities of the areas he visited. This is a very important point for contemporary Christians to remember. Christians sometimes see the large cities as places of evil and temptation, to be avoided at all costs. But in a world that is experiencing urbanization as rapidly as ours, we need to be intentional in targeting urban centers with the gospel. More than any place, the great cities of our world are where Christians need to be living and witnessing. Nowhere is the gospel more needed.

Acts 17 and 18 trace Paul’s movements from Athens, small in population at the time but big in importance as an intellectual and cultural center, to Corinth, the leading political and commercial city of Greece, to Ephesus, which held a place of similar significance in Asia Minor. Ephesus, the capital of the Roman province of Asia, was one of the major urban centers of antiquity, inhabited by half a million people. It lay several miles inland near the west coast of Asia Minor, but was connected by water to its port on the sea. The city was important commercially and politically, but it was especially famous as a religious center, the home of the magnificent Temple of Diana or Artemis (the Latin and Greek names respectively for the goddess of the moon.) This temple was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. In Ephesus, dominated by the worship at this shrine, religious and commercial interests converged. You could say that the business of Ephesus was religion -pagan religion.

In addition to its temples and shrines, Ephesus was known in its own day as a hotbed of sorcery, witchcraft, and occult practices. So, clearly, this great metropolis, with its hundreds of thousands of inhabitants and countless thousands more visitors, with its booths and shops, its markets and stalls, with its outdoor theater seating 25,000 people (the ruins of which by the way can still be seen today) with its many temples and altars and sacrificial sights, and over all of it a thick spiritual darkness deceiving and oppressing people – clearly, this city needed to know the true and living God.


Luke mentions (18:19-21) that Paul stopped briefly in Ephesus on his way back to Antioch from Corinth at the end of his second missionary journey. During that short visit Paul promised to return to the city as soon as he could. In the meantime he left behind his friends Aquila and Priscilla, who, despite their Roman names, were Jewish Christians like Paul. This couple had been expelled from Rome along with the entire Jewish community by the emperor Claudius (18:2), an event that is independently confirmed by the Roman historian Suetonius. From Rome Aquila and Priscilla moved to Corinth, arriving in that city shortly before Paul did. A friendship among these three was natural because, not only did they share a common occupation as tent makers, they also shared the higher purpose of spending their lives in the service of Christ. So when the time came for Paul to leave Corinth, Priscilla and Aquila left with him, and they all traveled together to Ephesus. The apostle’s confidence in this mature Christian couple was such that when he could not remain to teach the gospel to the Ephesians he left them there to do the work in his place.

“Meanwhile,” Luke reports, “a Jew named Apollos, a native of Alexandria, came to Ephesus” (18:24). He too began to preach about Jesus. Luke tells us several things about this brilliant preacher, though he still remains a mysterious and intriguing figure. He was “a learned” man (or it could be translated “an eloquent man”), with a thorough knowledge of the Scriptures” (v. 24). To these natural abilities and the improvements he had made through education, Apollos brought an acquaintance with Christ and a zeal to make him known: “He had been instructed in the way of the Lord,” Luke writes, “and he spoke with great fervor” (v. 25). This was Apollos: gifted, intelligent, highly educated, eloquent, and on fire for Christ.

But something was missing. Luke says that Apollos only knew the baptism of John (v. 25), that is, a baptism expressing repentance from sin. He did not know the baptism of Jesus, the personal experience of the life of the crucified, risen, reigning Lord through his Holy Spirit. It’s not that Apollos’s witness to Jesus was wrong. No, what he taught was accurate, as far as it went. But it was defective because it was incomplete. Perhaps he knew about Jesus’ life and teaching but not the details of his death. Or maybe he proclaimed the cross of Christ without the resurrection, or the duty of faith and obedience without the promised power of the Holy Spirit. Whatever it was specifically, Apollos needed help. For all his outstanding talent, education, and eagerness, he needed a deeper, more accurate and complete knowledge and experience of Christ.

Priscilla and Aquila provided it. “When Priscilla and Aquila heard him,” Luke says, “they invited him to their home and explained to him the way of God more adequately” (v. 26). It is interesting that Priscilla is mentioned first here as Apollos’s teacher (perhaps because she took the lead?). What does seem clear from this example is that women can do far more in the church than help out with child care or serve in the kitchen! The other thing to observe is the tact this husband and wife team used in instructing their new friend Apollos. I can say from personal experience that no preacher enjoys being corrected or having his areas of ignorance pointed out to him. If it has to be done, it’s better to do it in private, as in Ephesus where Aquila and Priscilla took Apollos into their home. They must have done their work well because we next read of Apollos in Corinth where he exercises a great and powerful ministry.


Paul returned to Ephesus after Apollos had left for Greece. The first group of people he encountered in the city were even less well informed than Apollos had been.

Paul found some disciples and asked them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” They answered, “No, we have not even heard there is a Holy Spirit.” So Paul asked, “Then what baptism did you receive?” “John’s baptism,” they replied. Paul said, “John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance. He told the people to believe in the one coming after him, that is, Jesus.” On hearing this, they were baptized into the name of the Lord Jesus. When Paul placed his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they spoke in tongues and prophesied. There were about twelve men in all.

Acts 19:1-7

This rather unusual incident raises several questions that still puzzle many Christians today. For example, this story has been used by Pentecostal believers as evidence for what is called the “two-stage” experience of the Christian life. Some teach that while one becomes a Christian through faith in Christ, there must be a subsequent filling with the Holy Spirit for a complete Christian experience. They maintain that the baptism of (or in or by) the Holy Spirit is bestowed through the laying on of hands, and is confirmed by speaking in tongues. Without wishing to in any way deny the validity of the spiritual experience of these brothers and sisters in Christ, I believe this teaching is based on a misunderstanding or incorrect application of several of the stories in Acts, including this one in chapter 19 from Ephesus.

What seems to have been the case with the dozen Ephesian men with whom Paul shared the gospel is not that they were incomplete Christians, but that they weren’t Christians yet at all. They were “disciples” (v. 1) of John the Baptist, not Jesus. They appear to have been ignorant of Jesus himself, as well as of the Holy Spirit. That’s why Paul had to tell them about John’s witness to Jesus. Nor is there any indication of successive stages between the conversion, baptism, and reception of the Spirit of these new believers in Christ (vv. 5-6). The special sign of tongues, first observed among Jesus’ disciples on the day of Pentecost and later experienced by the Samaritans in Acts 8 and the Roman soldier Cornelius’s household in Acts 10, may have been granted by God in those unusual circumstances to underscore the truth that the blessing of full life in Christ and the gift of his Spirit is for Gentiles throughout the world as well as for the original Jewish disciples in Jerusalem. There are no second class citizens in the church of Jesus Christ. Nor is there any hard and fast rule about how one becomes a Christian, or what sequence of spiritual experiences a particular individual must undergo in order to be “Spirit-filled.”


So what are the specific lessons we can learn from the way the gospel came to the city of Ephesus? I will continue the study of this important city in future messages, but here I’d just like to underscore two points, one applying to the church (to Christians collectively), and the other to Christians individually.

The first point I want to emphasize is one I have already made. It is the tremendous need for the church to make the cities of our world its priority for mission in the 21st century. According to United Nations statistics, in 1850 there were only four cities of a million or more inhabitants in the whole world. In 1980, there were 225. By the end of the century -next year! – there will be 500. As recently as 1950 only two urban centers were megacities with a population of at least 10 million people: New York and London. Now there are 23 such cities, with Mexico City and its 30 million inhabitants the world’s largest. And consider this: all but four of those megacities are outside of Europe and the United States. Half of all the people in the world live in cities, and that ratio continues to rise rapidly. What is your church doing to reach these people and the cities where they live, to reach them throughout the world with the gospel of Jesus Christ?

The second lesson to be seen in the planting of the Christian faith in Ephesus is the importance of humility and the desire for spiritual growth in every believer’s life. None of us is perfect, no one is complete. Each of us, like Apollos, can profit from the sensitive and sensible teaching of wiser, more mature Christians. Do you want to know more about Christ? Would you like a deeper, richer, fuller experience of the Holy Spirit? We all should be eager to say yes to these things, and to seek out and learn from those who can help us receive them