The Beginning of the Church in Ephesus
Passage: Acts 19:1–20
I have to be honest, I’ve really been looking forward to getting to this chapter. Not because there are some really confusing things happening, and there are, but because we get to see the beginning of the church in Ephesus. We know more about this church than any other church from the first century. Luke tells us how it started, Paul writes a whole letter to them, then Paul writes two letters to Timothy as he’s pastoring the church in Ephesus, and John delivers a message in Revelation from Jesus to the church in Ephesus. So not only do we have a lot of information about Ephesus, we have information from very different stages in this church which gives us a more robust picture of them.
The church in Ephesus was a church planter’s dream. The whole city went from almost no one knowing anything about Jesus to literally everyone knowing about Jesus and many knowing Jesus personally in just about two years. But, I want to look at the end of the story before we look at the beginning. By the time Jesus delivered this revelation to John, the Ephesian church was known as a stronghold of good theology. We have one letter from the early church talking about how heresy cannot survive in Ephesus. Not only did Paul plant the church and Timothy pastor the church, likely John himself was there and wrote his gospel while at this church. A sort of Apostle in Residence. That’s a pretty all star cast. I mean, I feel kind of bad for y’all that you’re stuck with Robert and me when this church had Paul, Timothy, and John.
But, after complimenting some things that this church was doing well, Jesus has some hard words to hear. 4 But I have this against you, that you have abandoned lthe love you had at first. 5 Remember therefore from where you have fallen;repent, and do mthe works you did at first. If not, nI will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent. - Rev 2:4,5
You have abandoned the love you had at first. Repent and do the works you did at first. So, what was the love they had at first? What were the works they were doing? Well, that’s exactly what we see in this passage! And this is important because the Ephesian church wasn’t the first church to know all the right theology in their head, but feel spiritually dry in their hearts. It’s very common for Christians to walk with Jesus for decades and get to a point where they know the right answers, but feel dry in our hearts. We can look back at the passion we had when we started the Christian life and miss it.
Well, if that’s you, I hope this warning from Jesus is sweet. That might sound weird because it is a harsh warning. But it really is sweet. He’s telling them the truth and he’s calling them back. Back to joy, satisfaction, and purpose. And if he’s calling them back to the passion they had at first, then we know that’s the will of Jesus which helps us to know that it’s possible.
So, we are going to look at this passage through the lens of this warning in Revelation 2 and we are going to see where this love came from and what this love did.
- Where this love came from
In the first ten verses of the passage we can see this love coming from the Holy Spirit and the word of God. First, the Holy Spirit. This passage has confused Christians for a long time. How were there disciples who had not heard of the Holy Spirit? Why is Luke calling them disciples if they aren’t Christians? I mean, if you don’t have the Holy Spirit, which they did not, they aren’t Christians.
Here is what I think is happening. It is possible that they were disciples of John the Baptist and they have made their way to Ephesus. This would mean that they would have a positive feeling toward Jesus because John told them Jesus would come, but not be Christians. It’s possible that Paul met them and gave them the benefit of the doubt, but after talking to them realized that they did not have enough understanding about the gospel to truly be a Christian. They had heard of John’s baptism which is only a baptism of repentance, but had no idea what it meant to put their faith in Jesus. No clue why Jesus could atone for their sins. And no understanding of the Holy Spirit Jesus gives to change our hearts and conform us into his image.
So Paul shares all this with them and they do put their faith in Jesus for the very first time and they receive the Holy Spirit for the very first time. This is important because this is a proof text for our pentecostal friends about how we believe and are baptized, but then at some later point we are baptized by the Spirit and at that time we speak in tongues. Now, I’m not going to get in the weeds about the gifts here, because it’s not the main point of the text, but I just want to point out that these people in this passage received the Holy Spirit when they believed. That’s what we call the baptism of the Holy Spirit that happens to everyone when we believe. And they aren’t rebaptized, they are baptized with Christian baptism for the very first time. Just think about how many of the 3000 who believed after Pentecost had also been baptized by John the Baptist, but that didn’t stop them from being baptized as a Christian for the first time after Jesus’ resurrection.
As for the tongues and prophesying, generally speaking, in Acts, signs and wonders happen when the gospel goes to a new group of people AND an apostle is there. First to the Jews, then to those in Judea and Samaria, then to the gentiles, and then to the ends of the earth. It’s descriptive, not prescriptive and Luke is showing the power of the gospel as it goes into these new groups.
But, the point I want to make is that the Holy Spirit is the beginning point of their love and ours. We are given the Holy Spirit through faith and then we are told to walk in his power. In the book Joy Unspeakable, Martin Lloyd Jones describes the power of the Holy Spirit like this, “A man and his little child [are] walking down the road and they are walking hand in hand, and the child knows that he is the child of his father, and he knows that his father loves him, and he rejoices in that, and he is happy in it. There is no uncertainty about it all, but suddenly the father, moved by some impulse, takes hold of the child, picks him up, holds him in his arms, kisses him, embraces him, and showers his love upon him, and then he puts him down again and they go walking on their way.” That’s it! The child knew before that his father loved him, and he knew that he was his child. But oh! the loving embrace, this extra outpouring of love, this unusual manifestation of it—that is the kind of thing. The Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are the children of God.”
That’s what the Holy Spirit does. He gives us a love for Jesus that we could never muster on our own and it is in that love that we desire to give our lives to Jesus. We desire to honor him and we desire to continue in the faith. And in this passage we see that the Holy Spirit also gives them a desire for the word of God and that fuels the love the Spirit has given them.
In verses eight to ten, we see that Paul stops teaching in the synagogue…same old strategy…because of the unbelief there and takes the believers to another place. Here in Ephesus it is the Hall of Tyrannus. Not the Hall of Tyrannosaurus as some unnamed children in this church have proposed. And Paul taught there for two years! Now, we do have some very strong historical data that suggest that Paul taught there from 11am to 4pm. This is really interesting because in that day, people would work from dawn to about 11 am because the day got too hot. They would eat and take a long nap from 11am to 4pm and work from 4pm until dark. Scholars even go so far as to say that you would have seen more people awake at 1am than 1pm. So, Paul and these disciples are using this hall during the part of the day when it’s empty, enduring the terribly hot room, and forgoing their naps just to learn the word of God.
The Holy Spirit gave them this desire and then the Scriptures fueled their walking in the power of the Holy Spirit. I could go a lot of different directions here, but I want to speak again to those of you who have walked with Jesus for years or decades and you feel weary. You long for the feeling you had at first. Life has gotten busy, complicated, and hard. You’re tempted to see God as punishing you. Even though you might know in your head that isn’t true, you don’t feel that in your heart. You believe, but you want to feel like that child being picked up by his father out of the blue again.
I’ve had seasons like this. I remember as a 24 year old wanting to literally give my life to God and for God. I was fine if he wanted to take me across the world and make me a martyr. I was reading the Bible on any break I had during the day. Fast forward to my 30’s and I’m just trying to keep my faith in tact, keep my little kids alive, and not make any really bad decisions. If I could just listen to a sermon as I drove, that would be a banner day.
If we look at this passage through the lens of Jesus’ warning in Revelation two, we should hear that our desire to have that love again is not only a good and right desire, but it’s possible. Not only is it possible, but that is the very thing Jesus wants for us! So, how do we do it? If you’re like me, we look at our schedules and figure out how to make time for prayer and reading. We look at our lives and figure out what sin needs to be confessed. We look at our habits and see what needs to change. But, the very first step is we confess that our love is not what it used to be and ask the Holy Spirit to bring it back. That’s where the love comes from, now we get to see what that kind of love does.
- What this love did.
The overflow of this Spirit-filled love produced a powerful witness and heart transformation. First the powerful witness. Verse ten, again, says that Paul taught in the Hall of Tyrannus for two years and there came a point in time where ‘all the residents of Asia heard the word of the Lord.’ The entire region heard about Jesus! That alone is incredible! In just two years an entire region with no social media and no cable news went from never having heard of Jesus to everyone knowing the name of Jesus. And it wasn’t just that they heard of Jesus, the witness that went out went out with power.
This brings us to this very interesting group of itinerant Jewish exorcists. That had to be a very interesting group. Not only was the word of God going out, but incredible things were happening. Handkerchiefs and aprons that had touched Paul’s skin were being taken around town and healing all kinds of sicknesses. And Luke is clear to say that this isn’t Paul’s power or Paul’s doing. In verse eleven Luke says that God was doing extraordinary miracles by the hands of Paul. The word extraordinary means that this is not normal. Even by Christian standards. So, while I believe deeply that God can and still does do things like this, it also isn’t the norm. I’ve seen things overseas that I will never be able to explain, but I don’t expect this on the regular from God. He does what he wants when he wants how he wants.
So, these exorcists decide to do their thing in Jesus’ name to get more powers. They try and cast out a demon basically by Paul’s Jesus and right there is the problem. It isn’t their Jesus, it’s Paul’s Jesus. So these exorcists, they don’t want Paul’s Jesus, but they want Paul’s powers. They don’t believe his message, but they want to mimic his ministry. They want the benefits of Jesus without the relationship. They don’t realize that reality is not mechanistic, it’s relational. To them Jesus is a magic genie at best and an errand boy at worst. And this does not go well. This demon says, “Jesus we know and Paul we have heard of, but who are you?” And this one demon possessed man beats up seven exorcists and they run out naked. I heard one pastor say that as a rule of thumb, when you leave a fight without your pants, It really doesn’t matter what the other guy looks like, it’s safe to say that you lost..
Here’s the point. When we are filled with Spirit filled love, while God may or may not do extraordinary things, he does make us powerful witnesses. I’ll never forget fishing in Italy with an Italian unbeliever and an American friend. Honestly, to call it fishing is a stretch. You paid money to sit at a booth around a smallish square pond. After some significant period of time, we had caught nothing and this Italian said, “Well, I guess God is not with us today.” Honestly, in my head I was like, “Well, I guess not.” But my American friend would have no part of that and stood up and said, “Don’t ever say that. God is always with you and if he wanted you to catch the biggest fish of the day, you would right now.” And he pointed to the rod and at that very moment, it went down and he caught a huge fish. The biggest and only fish of the day. And later that week, this Italian professed faith in Jesus.
A natural by product of a Spirit-filled love is Spirit fruitfulness. And then, when you see that fruitfulness, it creates an awe inside of us that drives us closer to Jesus and his Spirit. And as we walk in the power of the Holy Spirit and our love continues to grow, we see the second thing that this love produces: heart transformation.
This brings us to verse 17. Everyone heard about the powerful witness of these Christians and fear fell upon them and the name of Jesus was extolled. Now, I want to camp out here on what this fear is and is not. We talked about this in our Wednesday night study. There is fear of the Lord which is good and there is being afraid of God which is bad. In Exodus 20 we see both of them. 18 Now when all the people saw wthe thunder and the flashes of lightning and the sound of the trumpet and the mountain smoking, the people were afraid4 and trembled, and they stood far off 19 and said to Moses, x“You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, lest we die.” 20 yMoses said to the people, “Do not fear, for God has come toztest you, that the fear of him may be before you, that you may not sin.” ex 20:18-20
Do you see that? The people are afraid of God and Moses says, “Do not be afraid of God.” But, then in verse 20 he tells them to fear God. So, what is the difference? When you combine this with Deuteronomy five, Moses seems to be saying, “You fear God, which is good, but don’t be afraid of him.” Being afraid of God pushes you away from God just like Adam in the garden after he sinned. God came out and Adam hid. He was afraid of God and that drove him away from God and that is not good. But, fearing him rightly drives you toward him. Living in awe of his greatness and the fact that he would come toward us in grace and kindness and even take on the penalty of our sins in the person of Jesus should drive us toward him. And he gives us his Spirit in our hearts to help us to trust him and continue to move toward him the rest of our lives.
The common denominator of all our fears is love. We fear losing what we love. We love ourselves, we love others, and we fear losing or seeing pain come to any of those things we love. Well, in the gospel we are given a love that is greater than any other love we have in this world and we are given a love that we can never lose. The only love that we can never lose. That’s why this is a love that can cast out all fears. This is why we just sang in one of my favorite songs “Come rejoice now, O my soul for His love is my reward. Fear is gone and hope is sure [WHY? Because} Christ is mine forevermore.”
This love is what causes us to fear God properly and not be afraid of God. It’s also the type of fear that drives us towards a mediator. The Israelites want to keep hearing from God, but just through Moses. Well, Jesus is the better Moses. So now, the fear that drives you towards a mediator and the fear that drives you towards God are both sending you to the same solution: Jesus.
This is the type of fear we see in the believing residents of Ephesus. And the result was radical heart transformation. They confessed their sin, they divulged their practices, they burned their books of dark arts. Now, that’s not talking about burning Harry Potter books. Honestly, I never understood why Harry Potter was so bad, but Lord of the Rings was good when they both have the same wizards, dark spells, witches, and goblins. But I digress. What is going on in Ephesus is a repentance of dependence on the dark demonic world for power and security. All dark magic is really about is pretending like reality is mechanistic - like there are certain words or actions I can do to get the blessings of God apart from God. Like we are actually the ones in control. That is what we must repent of if we are to find that first love for God again. And this repentance was costly as these books were greatly valuable. In the words of the great theologian, Taylor Swift, “It’s me, high…I’m the problem, it’s me.”
Do you see this divine pattern? We get the Spirit through believing in Jesus. The Spirit gives us a desire for the Word. The Word fuels our love we have in the Spirit. The overflow of this love is a powerful witness which makes us more grateful to the Spirit and this in turn causes us to repent of our sins and be transformed into the image of Jesus which makes us more joyful and satisfied in Him! This is the Christian life. It’s not do these things and God will let you in. It’s God has let you in through Christ and given you his Spirit and now you get to enjoy all these benefits, chiefly love, and that love will conform you more into what we were made to be. That love will make us more fully human.
So, if you are here today and you hear this warning of Jesus in Revelation to return to the love you had at first, please hear that as a sweet call, not a burden to “try harder” or “do better.” A call back to what we see in this passage. We don’t want to be a church that just has things facts in our head, but a church that has the right love in our hearts. That’s the only way you’ll ever even get right actions out of your hands. And hear that he has done everything to make that possible. If you trust Jesus as your Lord and Savior, you have the Holy Spirit inside of you and because he is in you, all of this is not only possible, but we can and should expect it. Even in and especially in hard times. A Spirit who gives us in our hard times a peace that surpasses our understanding because we have a love that we can never lose.
I feel like Matt created the song set today just for me:) In a moment, we are going to sing Hymn of Heaven and in that song, we are going to sing the words, “So let it be today”... Let it be today we shout the hymn of heaven. With angels and the saints, we raise a mighty roar. Glory to our God who gave us life beyond the grave. Holy, holy is the Lord. Let it be today that we return to the love we had at first.
After I pray, we will have a time of silent reflection and for some of us, we need to ask God to let us sing those words and be open, maybe for the first time in a while, to those words being true in our hearts. That’s what God wants and he’s given us everything necessary for that to be the case. And when that is the case, because God has sovereignly ordained it to be so, verse 20 will also be true. So the word of the Lordt continued to increase and prevail mightily. - Acts 19:20