And he entered the synagogue and for three months spoke boldly, reasoning and persuading them about the kingdom of God. But when some became stubborn and continued in unbelief, speaking evil of the Way before the congregation, he withdrew from them and took the disciples with him, reasoning daily in the hall of Tyrannus. This continued for two years, so that all the residents of Asia heard the word of the Lord, both Jews and Greeks.
And God was doing extraordinary miracles by the hands of Paul, so that even handkerchiefs or aprons that had touched his skin were carried away to the sick, and their diseases left them and the evil spirits came out of them.
Then some of the itinerant Jewish exorcists undertook to invoke the name of the Lord Jesus over those who had evil spirits, saying, “I adjure you by the Jesus whom Paul proclaims.” Seven sons of a Jewish high priest named Sceva were doing this. But the evil spirit answered them, “Jesus I know, and Paul I recognize, but who are you?” And the man in whom was the evil spirit leaped on them, mastered all of them and overpowered them, so that they fled out of that house naked and wounded.
And this became known to all the residents of Ephesus, both Jews and Greeks. And fear fell upon them all, and the name of the Lord Jesus was extolled. Also many of those who were now believers came, confessing and divulging their practices. And a number of those who had practiced magic arts brought their books together and burned them in the sight of all. And they counted the value of them and found it came to fifty thousand pieces of silver. So the word of the Lord continued to increase and prevail mightily. (Acts 19:8-20)
Before we examine what was happening at this point in Paul’s ministry and the history of the Ephesian Church, I want to read two relevant passages in The Book of Ephesians. The first is found in Ephesians chapter 2, starting with verse 1:
And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience— among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. (Ephesians 2:1-3)
I know that I’m stopping before the best part. But before we can fully grasp the “immeasurable riches of [God’s] grace,” we need to understand the depth of our depravity as members of Adam’s fallen family (Eph 2:7).
Slaves To Sin and Satan
Every truly converted Christian knows that we are sinners. They know that we stand condemned before God apart from the atoning work of the Savior. But not everyone realizes how deeply we were plunged into corruption and iniquity when Adam rebelled against God in the Garden of Eden. Some would treat our sinfulness as though we are somewhat disobedient children. Sure, little Timmy broke the lamp, but look how cute he is. For the most part, he’s a good kid.
No, according to Paul, we were “dead in trespasses and sins.” In Romans chapter 3, he said that God would be righteous to inflict his wrath on us. Why? Because:
“None is righteous, no, not one;
no one understands;
no one seeks for God.
All have turned aside; together they have become worthless;
no one does good,
not even one.”
“Their throat is an open grave;
they use their tongues to deceive.”
“The venom of asps is under their lips.”
“Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness.”
“Their feet are swift to shed blood;
in their paths are ruin and misery,
and the way of peace they have not known.”
“There is no fear of God before their eyes.” (Romans 3:10-18)
Paul quoted something like ten different portions of Scripture in that one passage. Needless to say, our depravity is articulated all throughout the Bible.
But even more than being lifeless, worthless rebels worthy of God’s wrath, Paul told the Ephesians that we were once totally under the influence of Satan himself. “You once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience.” In 2 Corinthians 4, he said, “The god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers” (2Co 4:4). Jesus once told unbelieving Jews, “You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires” (Jn 8:44).
The Bible presents sin not as a minor obstacle to overcome on our path to heaven, but as a complete and total collapse of the road in front of us. It created a massive gulf that we could never bridge. God did not tell Adam, “For in the day that you eat of the forbidden tree you shall surely get sick.” Rather, he warned, “For in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die” (Ge 2:17). “The wages of sin is death” (Ro 6:23).
Maybe someone says, “I don’t think I’m that bad.” Maybe not, not according to your standards anyhow. But God doesn’t judge according to our standards. It’s not a matter of how good we are when compared to the worst human beings in history; it’s a matter of how good we are when compared to a perfect and holy God.
Recently, I heard about a time when Paul Washer warned a group of college kids that he was going to speak to them about the most terrifying truth of Scripture. He kept telling them and telling them that it was coming, and then he finally said, “The most terrifying truth of Scripture is that God is good.” It’s true. Of course, the students asked, “Why is that bad news? What’s the problem with a good God?” So he answered, “It is terrifying to know that God is good because we are not.”
“Okay, well, I’ll just do better,” you say. “I’ll try harder.” Fair enough. But here’s your challenge. First, you must read the entirety of God’s law in the Old Testament and keep every word of it. You must follow it completely, every last jot and tittle.
Second, you need to read the Lord’s sermon in Matthew 5 because you have to follow that too. So you’ve never killed anyone. But Jesus said, “Everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment” (Mt 5:22). So you’ve never committed adultery. But Jesus said, “Everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery” (Mt 5:28). Not only do you have to perfect your behavior, but you also have to perfect your heart and your thoughts.
Now there’s one last step in the challenge. Lastly, you have to go back in time and prevent Adam from committing the first sin. Romans 5:12 says, “Sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned.” David said, “I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me” (Ps 51:5). You see, the problem of sin is not limited to the sinful acts we commit. Sin has corrupted the very nature of mankind. We are not sinners merely because we sin; we sin because we are sinners.
In Romans 6, Paul made a bold statement that is unfortunately lost in many translations of the Bible. He said that we begin our lives as “slaves of sin” (Ro 6:20). Many translations (perhaps unintentionally) whitewash Paul’s expression by using the word, servants. Yes, by nature we serve sin, but we are also slaves to sin. Sin is our master having total control over our desires.
Apart from divine intervention, we are at the mercy of Satan, the god of this world. That is why casting out unclean spirits was such an important part of the Lord’s ministry while he was here on earth. He healed the sick and raised the dead to show his power over death. And he cast out devils and unclean spirits to show his power over sin and Satan. He was revealing to the world that even Satan could not be victorious over him.
That’s good news for us. Because of Christ’s power and authority over Satan, Paul could say, “You have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the fruit you get leads to sanctification and its end, eternal life” (Ro 6:22). Christ sets us free so that we are no longer slaves of sin. Satan may tempt us, and our flesh may sway us toward evil, but sin has lost its stronghold. The born-again person is now free to serve God. In Ephesians 2, Paul said, “You once walked…following the prince of the power of the air.” That’s past tense.
Now don’t get the impression that Satan is finished with us just because Christ has set us free. Peter said, “Be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. Resist him” (1Pe 5:8-9). But we’re not alone in this ongoing fight. God is always with us. Plus, he has given us the tools to defend ourselves. Most importantly, he has given us a single offensive weapon powerful enough to overcome any of Satan’s attacks, which leads us to the second passage in Ephesians that I want to read.
Our Weapon Against Spiritual Wickedness
In Ephesians chapter 6, Paul described what he called “the whole armor of God” (Eph 6:11). First, notice what he says in verse 10: “Be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might” (Eph 6:10). As I said, we’re not alone in this fight. We depend on God’s strength in our war against the devil.
Second, notice that it is the devil we’re fighting against. Verse 12 says, “We do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Eph 6:12). As you can see, the god of this world doesn’t work alone either. Rulers, authorities, cosmic powers, spiritual forces—these words are all plural. Satan has an entire army.
So Paul says, “Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil” (Eph 6:11). He goes on to describe this armor in detail, but I want to focus on the one offensive weapon that God has given us (verse 17), “the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God” (Eph 6:17).
That’s it. The most powerful, the most effective weapon we have against the devil and his army is the Word of God. That may seem less climatic than what we’d hope, but it’s true nonetheless.
Don’t romanticize the exorcisms we read about in the New Testament. Don’t assume that God has given us the power wave our hands and raise our voices with an expectation that unclean spirits will just flee from us. Casting out devils by command was a distinct sign given to Christ, the apostles, and perhaps a few others in the early days of the church. Second Corinthians 12 says, “The signs of a true apostle were performed among you…with signs and wonders and mighty works” (2Co 12:12).
But as we continue reading in the New Testament, these miraculous signs and wonders are described in the past tense. For instance, the writer of Hebrews says, “[Salvation] was declared at first by the Lord, and it was attested to us by those who heard, while God also bore witness by signs and wonders and various miracles and by gifts of the Holy Spirit” (Heb 2:3-4).
And as we continue reading, signs and wonders become a characteristic not of godly affirmation of the truth, but of demonic forces in the last days. Paul later wrote, “The coming of the lawless one is by the activity of Satan with all power and false signs and wonders” (2Th 2:9).
Casting out unclean spirits served an important purpose in the days of Christ and the apostles. And I’m not suggesting that God can’t empower a believer to do the same today. But we shouldn’t expect it, and we shouldn’t let ourselves be deceived by those claiming to have that ability.
No, the Word of God is our primary weapon against spiritual wickedness. That was true even in the days of Christ and the apostles. Read Matthew 4. What did Jesus use to overcome the temptations of Satan? He remembered and quoted Scripture. Read Acts chapter 6. What did the apostles feel was the most important thing they could devote themselves to? They said, “We will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word” (Ac 6:4).
Even here in Acts 19, though we see God doing extraordinary miracles through Paul, it was the Word of God that “[increased] and [prevailed] mightily” in the city of Ephesus (Ac 19:20).
Paul Labors With Mixed Results
With that in mind, let’s look at the text, beginning with verse 8:
And he [that is, Paul] entered the synagogue and for three months spoke boldly, reasoning and persuading them about the kingdom of God. But when some became stubborn and continued in unbelief, speaking evil of the Way before the congregation, he withdrew from them and took the disciples with him, reasoning daily in the hall of Tyrannus. This continued for two years, so that all the residents of Asia heard the word of the Lord, both Jews and Greeks. (Acts 19:8-10)
Try to imagine this ongoing scene. Paul returns to Ephesus and begins teaching regularly in the local synagogue. Every week, perhaps every day he is teaching the Jews about the kingdom of God. He reasons with them which means he was having conversations with them. The word is dialegomai from which we get the English word, dialogue. He did not limit himself to monologue lectures or what we typically think of as preaching. He allowed people to ask questions as he attempted to persuade them to believe the truth.
What does it mean to teach someone about the kingdom of God? Well, the Jews understood that concept in terms of their nation. What is a kingdom but a country of people governed by a monarch or a king? Paul, however, understood this concept in terms of God’s spiritual kingdom. The earthly kingdom of Israel as the Jews knew it was a foreshadow of what was to come.
The Jews were expecting a David-like king to rise up, rule over the nation once again, and restore Israel’s sovereignty by defeating their Gentile oppressors. And they had every reason to believe that would be the case. Prophecy after prophecy in the Old Testament said as much. But Paul knew better. Paul understood the new David to be none other than Jesus Christ. Paul understood the kingdom to be not an earthly kingdom, but a heavenly, spiritual kingdom. Paul knew that the Messiah would not conquer the Romans, but that he would conquer our real enemies: sin, Satan, and death.
So Paul stands up in the synagogue and attempts to move the Jews through the Old Testament showing them what the prophecies actually meant. Based on the style of his New Testament epistles, I imagine him being very systematic in his approach. Regardless, he “spoke boldly.”
According to non-biblical accounts, Paul was not an impressive man. He was short and balding. According to Paul himself, he was not a great speaker. But he did speak with power and authority. Some described him as having an angelic quality. There was something special about him. Apparently, his face seemed to shine when he preached the gospel. If nothing else, he commanded people’s attention.
I want you to notice that Paul continually and consistently labored with these people for three months straight. He didn’t pop in, preach one sermon, and expect to see the entire congregation converted. Paul always understood that evangelism takes time especially when you’re dealing with people who already have deeply ingrained ideas about God and salvation. It takes time and patience. But as long as someone is willing to listen, keep talking, keep teaching. Don’t give up.
As for Paul, he had mixed results. After three months, some of the Jews “became stubborn and continued in unbelief.” On the one hand, they never did believe. Paul never successfully persuaded them. On the other hand, they were willing to hear him out. It took them three months to become so hard-hearted that they began “speaking evil of the Way.” The imperfect tense of that word translated, “became stubborn,” shows us that this hardening of their hearts, their stubbornness was a process. They didn’t reject Paul’s message at first. But over the course of time, they resisted more and more until they were actually speaking out against it.
I can imagine what probably happened. In the beginning, Paul likely proved himself to be an excellent expositor of the Scriptures. The crowd was on the edge of their seats waiting to hear the full meaning of the next passage and the next. But Paul was leading them somewhere, wasn’t he? Eventually, it became necessary for him to show how all of those things were fulfilled in Christ. And that was the stumbling block.
“Are you kidding me, Paul? Are you really going to stand there and claim that all of God’s law and all of the incredible prophecies of the Messiah were pointing to Jesus of Nazareth, a poor carpenter’s son? We’re waiting for a mighty king like David, not some lowly crucified criminal.”
Ultimately, the gospel is to “those who are perishing…a fragrance from death to death” (2Co 2:16). The rejection of the gospel by the wicked produces a terrible stench. But the wicked not only reject the gospel, but they may also do everything they can to prevent it from spreading. You know, one of the remarkable feats of the early church was how they were able (no doubt by God’s providence) to keep the gospel moving throughout the world despite the great hostility and persecution against them. The same was true in Ephesus.
Paul wasn’t altogether unsuccessful. Some of the Jews tried really hard to undermine Paul’s teachings and probably his credibility, but at least a few people were still converted. And Paul was wise enough to take them elsewhere. If someone firmly and vehemently rejects the gospel after we’ve sufficiently and patiently reasoned with them, it’s time to cut ties and walk away. So Paul did.
From there, the disciples in Ephesus began meeting “daily in the hall of Tyrannus…for two years.” It would seem that Tyrannus was some sort of teacher or philosopher. Apparently, he owned his own lecture hall. We don’t really know anything about him. But if his name is any indication, he was a tyrant of a teacher. Perhaps his students gave him that name. If not, maybe his parents did which might tell us what kind of child he was.
Interesting enough, some Bible manuscripts include some additional information in verse 9. They say that Paul taught “from the fifth hour to the tenth,” or from approximately 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. You see, that’s right in the middle of the day. I know for me, that’s my least productive time of day. It’s the hottest outside (at least during the summer months), then I eat lunch, and my brain just slows to a crawl. If I have mindless busywork to do, that’s when I’ll do it.
Well, there is a reason the “hall of Tyrannus” was available during those hours. Tyrannus was well aware that eleven to four would not be a good time to teach, so he let Paul have the building. Of course, that says more about the determination of Paul and the disciples than it does Tyrannus. But what is even more impressive is the fact that they met there every day for two years. Some people won’t even show up once a week to hear the Word of God taught. Imagine meeting with the church for possibly five hours every single day.
Not surprisingly, it had a tremendous impact not only on the people in Ephesus but also on people all across Asia Minor. Both Jews and Gentiles “heard the word of the Lord.” And I suspect that Paul wasn’t the only one spreading the message. During this time, we have no indication that Paul ever left Ephesus, yet “all the residents of Asia heard the word of the Lord.”
As a point of reference, Asia Minor became the location of at least seven churches, not including Ephesus. There were churches in Colossae, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea. Despite Satan’s best efforts and the presence of false teachers, the Word of God prevailed.
Satan At Work in Ephesus
And God was doing extraordinary miracles by the hands of Paul, so that even handkerchiefs or aprons that had touched his skin were carried away to the sick, and their diseases left them and the evil spirits came out of them.
Then some of the itinerant Jewish exorcists undertook to invoke the name of the Lord Jesus over those who had evil spirits, saying, “I adjure you by the Jesus whom Paul proclaims.” Seven sons of a Jewish high priest named Sceva were doing this. But the evil spirit answered them, “Jesus I know, and Paul I recognize, but who are you?” And the man in whom was the evil spirit leaped on them, mastered all of them and overpowered them, so that they fled out of that house naked and wounded. (Acts 19:11-16)
Let’s be honest here. This story is as amusing as it is disturbing. There were some troubling things happening here, but there’s a hint of comical relief as well. I mean, the response of the evil spirit is a little humorous. Plus, the thought of these guys running through the streets of Ephesus naked—well, I suspect it was quite a sight.
But first, pay attention to what God was doing in Ephesus. Luke even makes it a point to say that the “miracles” being done “by the hands of Paul” were “extraordinary.” Among the miracles of the apostles, these miracles were even more miraculous if you will. Paul could touch a handkerchief, and that handkerchief could then touch a sick person, and that sick person would then be healed.
Even so, do you see how these miracles are presented as little more than a detail in a larger story? God was working “extraordinary miracles” in Ephesus, but that is neither the focus nor the central theme in this passage. Rather, it is the “word of the Lord” that is made the primary emphasis according to verses 10 and 20. Don’t get me wrong. The miracles being done through Paul were phenomenal. More than that, they were a crucial part of God’s plan to affirm the authority of his apostles. But his Word is even more important, especially today.
As for the Jewish exorcists and the sons of Sceva, we see just how rampant false religion was in the city of Ephesus. Obviously, these traveling exorcists saw what God was doing through Paul, and they decided to borrow his approach. Apparently, there was real power in the name of Jesus, so they “undertook to invoke the name of the Lord Jesus over those who had evil spirits.” Rather than merely fooling everyone into thinking they had special powers, maybe the name of Christ would actually give them special powers.
Now if you think men like these exorcists are frauds exclusively of a bygone era, think again. Right now, there are men on TV and in churches around the world selling the same lies. They claim to have power over the devils. They pretend to heal the sick. And they do so while invoking the name of Christ. In fact, some of them will sell you—I am not kidding—handkerchiefs which they have blessed, guaranteed to cure whatever disease you have.
Make no mistake. These men are liars. They are deceivers of the worst kind. Even if they could do what they claim, well, that only makes them merciless. There are people suffering and dying all over the world. And where are these miraculous healers? They’re not in hospitals. No, they’re at home in their multi-million-dollar houses which they’ve purchased by fooling thousands of people into sending them money. What did Peter say?
There will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing upon themselves swift destruction. And many will follow their sensuality, and because of them the way of truth will be blasphemed. And in their greed they will exploit you with false words. Their condemnation from long ago is not idle, and their destruction is not asleep. (2Pe 2:1-3)
You know, I don’t think it’s wrong or irreverent to laugh at what happened to the men in this story. Yes, it’s a serious issue, but God intentionally made these men look foolish.
They invoke the name of Christ, and the evil spirit (probably speaking through the person he had possessed) replies, “Jesus I know, and Paul I recognize, but who are you?” And before the sons of Sceva have a chance to figure out what’s going on, the possessed man leaps on them, beating them to a bloody pulp. One against seven and they still lose. And adding insult to injury, they are forced to run away “naked and wounded.”
So what are we supposed to learn from this event? I’ll give you two things to think about. First of all, demonic forces are real. Satan is real, and he’s at work all around us. Second, don’t mess with him. John tells us, “Test the spirits to see whether they are from God” (1Jn 4:1). Now you don’t have to fear the devil. John went on to say—I’m quoting from 1 John 4—”He who is in you is greater than he who is in the world” (1Jn 4:4).
You don’t have to fear him, but you will have to fight him. How? John says, “We are from God. Whoever knows God listens to us…By this we know the Spirit of truth and the spirit of error” (1Jn 4:6). What is our primary weapon against spiritual wickedness? “The sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God” (Eph 6:17). If your mind and heart are immersed in the Word of God, the teachings of the apostles, you are equipped to fight off the devil.
The Word of God Prevails Mightily
Now, let’s see what God accomplished in Ephesus by allowing an evil spirit to overcome the sons of Sceva. Verse 17:
And this became known to all the residents of Ephesus, both Jews and Greeks. And fear fell upon them all, and the name of the Lord Jesus was extolled. Also many of those who were now believers came, confessing and divulging their practices. And a number of those who had practiced magic arts brought their books together and burned them in the sight of all. And they counted the value of them and found it came to fifty thousand pieces of silver. So the word of the Lord continued to increase and prevail mightily. (Acts 19:17-20)
First, we see just how common satanic practices were in the city of Ephesus. Second, we see how godly fear led these people to genuine repentance. Do you have any idea how much value 50,000 pieces of silver had? Well, an average person probably made the equivalent of one piece of silver per day. So these people willingly sacrificed 50,000 days worth of income (previously invested in satanic literature) to prove their repentance. That’s nearly 137 years worth of income.
There was a time in the Lord’s ministry when he had people agreeing to follow him, but they kept coming up with excuses why they couldn’t just yet. And he said to them, “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God” (Lk 9:62). I hate to be the one to tell you this, but it is not the thought that counts in discipleship.
We cannot half-heartedly follow Christ. We cannot half-heartedly turn away from our sin. Listen, if we’re still hanging on to even a remnant of a life we lived before Christ, it’s past time to let it go, to throw into the fire once and for all. And if you say, “Well, I was never into magic arts or anything so clearly demonic,” sin is sin. It’s time to let it go. Let it be permanently consumed, and never look back.
As a result of Paul’s faithfulness to preach the gospel even in the face of hostility, the believers’ determination to learn all they could about Christ, and, of course, God’s power at work in the midst of the city, “the word of the Lord continued to increase and prevail mightily” in Ephesus and beyond.
Christ has already freed us from the bondage of Satan. Ephesians 2 says, “God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ” (Eph 2:4-5). It is now our task to “put on the whole armor of God, that [we] may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil” (Eph 6:11). Take up “the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God” (Eph 6:17). Read it, study it, memorize it, and immerse yourself in it. Where the Word of God increases, the devil is defeated.
Preached at Joy Christian Church (Benson, NC) on April 2, 2017