Appropriately for Pentecost Sunday we’re looking at this passage under the heading Word and Spirit. It’s a passage which is, in part, an example of what we’ve been learning from Acts in recent weeks – of persevering in proclaiming God’s life changing word in the power of the Holy Spirit and in strengthening in a certain way ‘disciples’.
Now, when this passage is written about and preached on the focus can so easily wholly fall on verses 2-7 of Acts 19. And sure they’re very important and in need of explanation and we’ll come back to them shortly. But let me take you first to the last verse of our passage for tonight - v10, it’s quite a remarkable verse but can so easily be missed:
All the Jews and Greeks who lived in the province of Asia heard the word of the Lord. (v10)
Let me ask you this: what do you dream about? Or ask yourself this – if you knew you couldn’t fail what would you attempt to do for God with your life?
Let me tell you about one dream, one prayer, I have. I dream of a day when it can be said that all the people who live in Newcastle and on Tyneside have heard the word of the Lord. Another dream and prayer I have from another passage in Acts is of seeing this city and region turned upside down for Christ. But let’s stick with my first dream and Acts 19 tonight – so what will keep this dream from remaining a dream?
For Paul, the dream became a reality. So what do we learn from him from Acts 19? What did he do under God that led to the word of the Lord being heard by all these people? Well in one way he simply preached the word boldly so that people could hear it and then tell it to others who could hear it. He was obedient to the leading of the Holy Spirit, trusted God’s sovereignty and believed that the gospel is powerful. But, as we’ll see, Paul was also willing to be flexible, to use different means in different places, all with the same aim of getting the word of the Lord to people.
Someone has called his approach 'principled pragmatism'. Paul was a man of principle, determined to do what was right. But he was also a pragmatist. That is, he did what worked. Now he wasn't just a pragmatist, so that he'd do anything so long as it worked and brought people in. No he was obedient and kept his word. But you know today we can so easily justify doing nothing out of a matter of principle. We shouldn’t forget what the evangelist D L Moody said to a critic who complained about his evangelistic methods: "Sir, I prefer the way I do my evangelism to the way you don't".
Under the guidance of God the Holy Spirit, eager to do God’s will and armed with God’s powerful word Paul went to the major centres of population – the cities – so that the word of the Lord could be heard by all the people. Which brings us to Ephesus, and to the strategic nature of cities in the spread of the gospel v1, which is my first point.
1. Ephesus and the strategic nature of cities in the spread of the gospel v1
I love the first part of v1 as it’s so understated.
While Apollos was at Corinth, Paul took the road through the interior and arrived at Ephesus. (v1)
Reading it today you could get the impression that Paul just jumped in the car and took the motorway from Pisidian Antioch to Ephesus. Just 5 hours to do the 300 miles - no sweat! But of course it took him days. Earlier in Acts 16 the Holy Spirit had forbidden Paul to visit Ephesus at that point. Back in Acts 18v21 Paul had promised that he would return to Ephesus if it was God’s will. And now it was God’s will. This was clearly a strategic city. And Paul was willing to obey God whatever the demands on his time and body. Is that true of you and me when a God given opportunity opens up? Are you and I, are we as a church, willing to obey God whatever the cost?
So Paul arrived in Ephesus. It was a key city with a population of up to half a million, on the west coast of what is now Turkey. Even today, the ruins are impressive. Paul had recently been in Athens (a great intellectual centre) and Corinth (a busy commercial centre), and now he’s arrived at Ephesus (a thriving religious centre - with its cult of Artemis/Diana, not to mention its
Why did Paul go for the cities? Because that's where the people were. And, if they didn't live there, it's where they'd come sooner or later. Those living around the cities would travel in on business or pleasure and perhaps hear the gospel, believe it and take the message back with them. It's not that the villages and towns aren't worth bothering with – don’t get me wrong. But what was true then is no less true today, with even more people living in cities than ever. In the world today there are 26 cities with over 10 million inhabitants. 50% of the world's population now lives in cities. Whereas back in 1800 only 3% of the world’s population did. This is a massive change and a massive opportunity for the gospel and a change and an opportunity which keeps on gathering pace around the world, especially in countries such as China and India. Shanghai, for example, which I had the privilege to visit last year, is now a city of 27 million people! That’s roughly 50% of the population of England in one what they now call mega city! And Newcastle, Gateshead and Tyneside with its universities, Champions League hopefuls football team, its hospitals and international businesses etc is a significant city and region with a population of 1million that is today largely unreached with the gospel. And rather like Jesus did we weep for this city as well as seeking the peace and prosperity of it. One of the aims of this church, laid down by its founders in 1861, is to promulgate the word of God in this city and region. That aim still stands today in a city of, for example, now 40,000 students with many from overseas who could take the gospel back to their country.
So what did Paul do first in Ephesus in sharing the word of the Lord with everyone? He made the most of the opportunity to teach those who were professing to be disciples. And he asked them the question that is my second heading:
2. Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed? v2-7
It’s a great question for Pentecost Sunday isn’t it? Let me ask it of everyone here tonight first of all. Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed? Well the answer is yes if you genuinely put your faith in Jesus Christ as your Saviour and Lord. When we put our trust in Christ we receive the Holy Spirit, the same Holy Spirit who’s already been active in our lives in convicting us of our sin and of our need of Jesus Christ and in bringing us to new birth in Jesus Christ. Romans 5v5 says this:
And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us. (Romans 5v5)
True Christian believers have received the Holy Spirit - the personal presence of God in their lives (assuring them of his forgiveness and producing his new life in them). And we’ve been given the Holy Spirit to make us more like Christ and to empower us to be his witnesses to the ends of the earth (Acts 1v8). And Paul writes in Ephesians 5v18 that we are not to get drunk with wine which leads to debauchery but instead to keep on being filled with the Holy Spirit because we quench and grieve the Holy Spirit.
But if you haven’t yet trusted Christ or you haven’t even heard of the Holy Spirit then you haven’t received the Holy Spirit and so you’re not yet a Christian. And that’s the same as with the ‘disciples’ Paul found. Look at v2:
There he found some disciples and asked them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” They answered, “No, we have not even heard that 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, in 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. (vv2-7)
Now this text has for some become a proof text. It’s been used to claim that there’s a two stage experience in the Christian life. Stage one: we come to faith in Christ. Stage two: we receive the Holy Spirit.
But that is to misunderstand the text. These disciples were not disciples of Christ but of John. That’s why they hadn’t received the Holy Spirit. They weren’t Christians. They had heard some of John the Baptist's teaching, and duly been baptised as his disciples, but they hadn't gone all the way in following his teaching, because that would have taken them to Christ. That's what Paul points out to them. Then they believe - and are duly baptised into the name of the Lord Jesus.
So there’s no justification here for claiming that believing and trusting in Christ and receiving the Holy Spirit are two separate stages of Christian experience. The New Testament is clear throughout that those who do not have the Spirit are not Christians. Romans 8v9: ... if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ he does not belong to Christ. Or 1 Corinthians 12v3: ...no-one can say 'Jesus is Lord' except by the Holy Spirit.
But some of you might be asking what about the disciples' experience when Paul laid hands on them (v6). They experienced a kind of mini-Pentecost. Better, Pentecost caught up on them. Better still, they were caught up into it, as its promised blessings became theirs. This was a special experience for this special group of John's disciples in Ephesus in order to demonstrate visibly and publicly that particular groups were incorporated into Christ by the Spirit. It wasn't the universal experience of all who became Christians, even in the book of Acts - as you can check for yourself.
Today we can expect to find people like these apparent disciples in churches. Not disciples of John, of course, but people who are church goers and who think they’re disciples but who don't yet have a living experience of God in their lives. I can think of people in this church who were like that and who have now put their confidence in Christ and know the joy of the Holy Spirit dwelling within them. But there might still be others who even now are disciples in appearance only. If that’s you, why not ask someone to help you to put your trust in Jesus Christ and so receive the Holy Spirit?
Next in v8-10 we read that Paul argues with the religious and discusses with the outsiders – the Jews and the Greeks – so that all in the province of Asia would hear the word of the Lord. Which brings us to my third & final heading
3. All the Jews and Greeks who lived in the province of Asia heard the word of the Lord v8-10
Paul entered the synagogue and spoke boldly there for three months, arguing persuasively about the kingdom of God. But some of them became obstinate; they refused to believe and publicly maligned the Way. So Paul left them. He took the disciples with him and had discussions daily in the lecture hall of Tyrannus. This went on for two years, so that all the Jews and Greeks who lived in the province of Asia heard the word of the Lord. (v8-10)
So next Paul goes to and argues with the religious (v8-9a). Paul entered the synagogue, where the Jews met to worship God and spoke boldly there not just for a day but for 3 whole months, not ashamed to argue persuasively about the kingdom of God and therefore about the King – Jesus the Messiah. Now I hesitate before using the word ‘arguing’ to describe what Paul did in the synagogue. It doesn't sound very good to our ears. We don't think much of people who are argumentative. But it's what the text says he did. The point is, not that he was argumentative by nature and loved to pick a quarrel, but that he had arguments for what he believed. He was like a barrister in court, able to marshal his evidence, to present and argue his case, calling on the jury for a verdict. His approach wasn't along the lines of: 'well that's what I think, take it or leave it'.
And we shouldn't think that such arguing is unspiritual. Paul saw no conflict between wanting people to receive the Holy Spirit and wanting them to know the truth. How could there be any conflict when he's the Spirit of truth? And that’s the preacher's and the evangelist's job still, to persuade and argue for the truth. Argument alone will never be enough to persuade anyone. But the Spirit does his convicting work as we do our persuading work. And we need to recover our confidence in arguing a case for the gospel. Especially in a day when it's considered bad manners to disagree with anyone unless they’re a Christian. A day when religion is seen as not only personal but private - and to try and argue anyone out of their beliefs and into yours is decidedly bad.
Perhaps the nearest we have to the people in the synagogue in our time are those who go to church. There are within churches not only those who think they’re disciples but who need to come to a true knowledge of Christ, but also those who are basically religious rather than Christian and need to be persuaded to put their trust in Christ as the fulfilment of all that God has promised. While we mustn't limit our evangelism to the confines of our churches it must take place there as well. Perhaps someone is here in that position this evening. Well why not trust Christ and receive the Holy Spirit and a new life? Of course sadly some people just want the stability of a religion which leaves them feeling comfortable and without too many demands on them, rather than a living and life-changing relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ. We might be sad about that but we shouldn’t be surprised. Some of those in the synagogue (v9) became obstinate; they refused to believe and publicly maligned the Way. So what did Paul do? Did he continue for another 3 months? No we’re simply told that Paul left them. And sometimes we just need to move on and share the word of the Lord with others. And that’s exactly what Paul did.
So next he discusses with outsiders (v9b-10). For Paul rejection doesn't mean he has to give up. It just means he has to go somewhere else to do it. In Corinth, he moved next door to the synagogue, into the house of a man called Titius Justus. Here, he uses the lecture hall of Tyrannus. This was probably where Tyrannus himself lectured his students. His name, like it sounds, means 'tyrant'. Perhaps he was called that by his students.
Tyrannus would have used the hall himself in the cool of the day, up until about 11am. Paul would then have the use of it after he'd finished his own tent-making for the day, probably until about 4pm when the temperature dropped once again. Whatever the precise arrangements, this was no hit-and-run mission. Paul spent a year and a half in Corinth. Now he spends over two years in Ephesus. This is serious, in-depth teaching evangelism. This is The Bible Talks in 600 sessions! Building such gospel ministry takes time and a good well known location even if the timing for Paul, in the heat of the day, wasn’t ideal humanly speaking.
When we're told that Paul had discussions, it's the same word translated as arguing in verse 8. Paul wasn't swapping opinions with those who came. That hardly sounds much like the apostle. But he gave them the chance to come back at him: to ask questions, to take issue with him, to ask for clarification – a bit like Christianity Explored and Discipleship Explored.
And Paul took the now true disciples with him to be part of this ministry at the hall of Tyrranus. Presumably now more than the twelve men he had with him at the start of the three months in the synagogue. Why take them with him? To teach them to spread the word of the Lord and to build them up and so to forward the mission and the church. That kind of on the job training and learning is often the most effective.
When we look at Paul's 'principled pragmatism' in sharing God’s word in the power of the Spirit, what does our evangelism look like as a church? Are we really going where the people are? Paul would go anywhere to tell anyone of Christ. What about hiring a room at the Civic Centre or a cinema at Silverlink or The Gate or a lecture theatre to discuss and persuade and argue the Christian faith? Sometimes we can ask people to respond to the message when they hardly know anything of Jesus, whereas Paul would reason with them, arguing and persuading. And sometimes we can be too superficial. We can expect people to understand the gospel after a single meeting or a short course, when Paul was prepared to spend years with people, teaching them and discussing with them. But like Paul let’s also have confidence in the power of God’s Word, in the work of the Spirit, to proclaim God’s word boldly in the power of the Spirit, to make the most of every opportunity such as the Jubilee celebrations next Sunday and pray for everyone in this city and region to hear the word of the Lord! Is that part of your dream and vision?