February 10, 1991
When faced with an entire city of people who don’t know the Lord, can one person really make a difference? Alistair Begg describes the apostle Paul’s method of evangelism and his trust in God for the transformation of Ephesus. Where there is great opportunity for the proclamation of God’s Word, there is often great opposition—but God also moves mightily in just such environments.
Sermon Transcript: Print
I wanted, tonight, to turn with you to a portion of Scripture which described for us the church of Jesus Christ reaching a city. Reaching a city. And foundational to that process is what we discover here in this account by Luke, whereby we see the ministry of the apostle Paul being exercised in the midst of an environment which was not exactly opportune for the gospel.
And what I’d like to do is to trace a line through this tonight, and hopefully it will be of guidance to us, encouragement to us, and perhaps strengthen us in some of our convictions, at least concerning the place of the proclamation of God’s Word, which I believe is one of the unique ways that we as a church are able to reach the city: that we do have a conviction—at least I believe it to be a shared conviction—concerning the place of preaching, which is largely in the shadows in many places. There are many churches that are seeking to reach the city, but they no longer believe that there is a place for preaching; they believe there is a place for drama, they believe there is a place for dialogue, they believe there is a place for music, they believe there is a place for all kinds of things, but largely, the place of preaching is something which is now in the shadows.
I want you to know that this is not something that I am committed to because God gave me the privilege of fulfilling this task. If I were not in this position, I would be seeking out a church where there was a commitment to the teaching and preaching of God’s Word, because I believe it to be a pattern which the New Testament establishes and which has never been and will not be rescinded.
And so tonight, we look, then, at what we’re told, beginning at the eighth verse, concerning the city of Ephesus. Those of you who know your New Testament will know that Paul spent the longest time that he spent anywhere on his missionary journeys in the city of Ephesus. Indeed, we’re told that the impact of Paul’s ministry in the city of Ephesus, in verse 20, was that “the word of the Lord spread widely and grew in power.” Indeed, elsewhere the word is translated that there was a mighty movement of the Word of God. A kind of relentless tidal wave swept through the city of Ephesus, bringing people into the kingdom of God, stirring up the believers, enabling them to share their faith, and transforming their lives.
Now, if we knew nothing other than that, we might be forced to assume wrongly that perhaps the people in Ephesus simply responded to the Word of God because they were sort of prone to it—that they were those gullible kind of people that you need to be if ever you’re going to listen to the Bible preached and certainly if ever you’re going to respond to what is said. That is purported to be the case many times in a week for many of us. People will say upon our profession of faith, “Well, you probably were just predisposed to believe. You’re kind of psychologically leaning that way. You’re the kind of person that it’s easy to con. You’re just the type for that kind of thing.” And sociologists, looking at the moving of the Spirit of God, would, many of them, be very pleased to encapsulate it in that way, certainly in the twentieth century, and, looking back into the first century, would want, perhaps, to say the same.
Now, the spread of Christianity, not only in Ephesus but throughout the world, buries such an idea. The spread of Christianity has not taken place in environments where there was a predisposition, if you like, to the gospel. And certainly that wasn’t true in Ephesus. When Paul writes to the Corinthian believers in 1 Corinthians 16:9, he says that he hopes to come and see them, but he’s going to be staying in Ephesus for a while longer because—and I quote him—“a great door for effective work has opened to me, and there are many who oppose me.” So there’s a strange contrapuntal experience, whereby he senses in his spirit that there is a great opportunity in Ephesus, but it is not because people are saying, “Go ahead, preach,” because at the very same time there are many people who are opposing the ministry which he seeks to exercise. So on the one hand he’s confronted by opposition and on the other by great opportunity. And we discover that God moves in just that environment.
Now, what I want to do is just give you the factors that are involved in this. But before I do, let me remind you of the nature of the city of Ephesus itself. Ephesus was regarded as the treasure house of Asia. Her geographic location made her strategic in trading at that time, and consequently, it was a pretty good place to have a business, and there were many people who were prosperous as a result of the trade avenues which converged in the city of Ephesus. It was at the same time an assize town where the Roman governor would come to hold court, in much the way that you see when you watch old western movies, and every so often the judge comes to town, and they have a bunch of people waiting in the jail, and eventually the judge comes and justice is exercised. In the same way, in the city of Ephesus, they would be waiting on the Roman governor to come and exercise his political and judicial responsibilities. It was also the place where the Panionian Games took place, and therefore, it was not unusual to see athletes on the streets and for the excitement of the city to build in the prospect of these great events. However, coupled with these things, there was also the less savory side to the city of Ephesus, and it was the home of a large criminal population. This was largely due to the fact that the Temple of Diana possessed the right of asylum, thus allowing criminals, if they could make it into the precincts of the Temple, to be safe and to be beyond the arm of the law.
And so, if you imagine the environment in which Paul was called of God to exercise ministry, it was not really very different from the average modern American city. You could see athletes in the streets, you could see business prospering, and there were places that criminals could go and hide beyond the arm of the law. And into that God propels a rather strange little Jewish man whose life had been radically changed and says, “Paul, okay, preach the gospel.” Nothing could be more ridiculous. Nothing could be more hopeless from a human perspective than that anything would ever happen as a result of such things. And yet it was in just such a framework that God prevailed in a mighty way.
Now, I want you to notice in verses 8–10 the proclamation of God’s Word. And let me ask three simple questions concerning this. In verses 8–10, we read of God’s Word being proclaimed.
First of all, where did this take place? The opening sentence answers it for us initially: “Paul entered the synagogue and spoke boldly there for three months.” Now, that’s not surprising, because that was his pattern: to go to the synagogue and to proclaim the Word of God to the Jews and to those who had become God-fearers and were on the environment around it. In that environment, he spoke the Word of God to them. However, as he “argu[ed] persuasively about the kingdom of God … some of them became obstinate,” in verse 9; “they refused to believe,” they “publicly maligned the Way”—that is, the whole approach of Christianity—and then you have a very short sentence: “So Paul left them.” “So Paul left them.”
There is a time for pastoral ministry to cease. There is a time when the proclamation of God’s Word must inevitably come to an end, when a pastor will pick up and go. Often it is for the wrong reasons. Often it is driven by desires for better, or for different, or for notions of the future. But there comes a time when it’s right, and the time is right, when from those into whose care he has been given there is an obstinance, there is a hard-heartedness, there is a stiff-necked response, and there is actually a maligning of the Way. And in one four-worded sentence, Paul closes the door of opportunity—does so unequivocally, does so without regret, and does so purposefully. And he moves on, still within the city, but now to a neutral place. Actually, he moves to a school. It’s interesting. He moves to “the lecture hall of Tyrannus.” And for two years he exercises a ministry in a school.
And a supplementary detail comes in one of the Greek manuscripts, telling us that he taught in this lecture hall of Tyrannus from 11:00 a.m. until 4:00 p.m. on a daily basis. Now, you need to think about the nature of life then and realize that in cities, work stopped, the shops closed at eleven o’clock, and the buildings stopped at eleven o’clock, and the routine of life concluded at that point in the morning, because it was now almost noon, and at noon we know that only mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the sun, right? That’s what the song says: “Mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the [noon]day sun.” So these people, being neither, knew you don’t work at that time, and they shut it up at eleven. They were going to kick it off again at four, but in the meantime, Paul seized the opportunity.
Now, this is what I’m talking about, about finding the opportunities that present themselves to us as a congregation. It would have been silly for him to be preaching at nine o’clock in the morning, because everyone would have been at work. It would have been daft to start again at five in the evening, because everyone was at work. And so he preached and he taught and he argued and he reasoned in the place and in the face of the folks at the optimum moment. And so it was that we see the eagerness of Paul to teach and the eagerness of Christians to learn. While others rested, they redeemed the time for learning of Christ.
And I cannot but say to you tonight, it is a great mystery to me that people can rejoice in the wonder of the work of God this morning and then absent themselves in such unbelievable numbers from the worship of God this evening. It is quite incredible to my heart. It speaks a word concerning the nature of much of what we’re dealing with in this place. I’m sorry, but I can see it in no other way.
But these people were not in that condition, and neither are you, or you would be absent. They were ready and eager to receive the Word. And as he taught them in these hours, his proclamation was very clear. Where was he? In a school. What did he proclaim? Verse 8 tells us he proclaimed “the kingdom of God.” The Jews were preoccupied with the notion that somebody would come and champion their cause, and Paul proclaimed to them the fact that the kingdom of Jesus Christ was internal, not external. What Jesus had said in John 18: “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jews. But now my kingdom is from another place.” And Paul must have proclaimed to them not only the nature of the kingdom of God but also the way of entry into the kingdom of God. And how repugnant it must have been to the Jewish people to be confronted with the notion of accepting this Jesus, whom they had heard had been crucified by some of their forebearers.
And so, where was he? In a synagogue and in a school. What did he proclaim? The kingdom of God. And what was the response? Well, I’ve already noted it for you in verse 9: there was obstinacy, there was a refusal to believe, there was a public maligning of the Way. And so, he, as it were, shook the dust from his sandals; he “left them,” and he took the committed ones with him. Will you notice that? “He took the disciples with him.” He took those who were the true followers of Jesus Christ. And these were the people that the impact on Ephesus was going to come through. And such has always been and will remain the way. God has always worked through minorities. He has always worked through small groups. He has always worked with a committed core. And having taken the disciples, he then completed this lecture program, and in verse 10 we’re told it “went on for two years,” and the impact of it was so tremendous “that all the Jews and [all the] Greeks who lived in the province of Asia heard the word of the Lord.”
Now, it’s interesting, isn’t it, that here, shut up in this guy’s lecture hall, was this man, speaking amongst the people on these events, and yet the Word began to spread throughout the province of Asia? Why was that? Because God honored the proclamation of the Word. He honored it in the lives of those who listened, and those who listened went and spread it abroad. And the word was not “Come and hear Paul.” The word was “Jesus is alive.” The word was not “Paul’s a great speaker.” The word was “Jesus is King.” The word was not “We’ve got a big crowd.” The word was “Jesus needs to be followed.” And it was this word that then began to spread.
It just simply underlines what Paul says in Romans chapter 10: “How … can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them?” And so we recognize the place, on a corporate level, of evangelistic preaching, if you like, and of the necessity of teaching those who are the believers.
So, the proclamation of God’s Word in verses 8–10 is then matched by the manifestation of God’s power in verses 11 and 12.
You’ll notice in verse 11—it’s very important, what we’re told—“God did extraordinary miracles through Paul.” And every time miracles take place, it’s because God chooses to do them. There’s a preoccupation in our day with people who are supposedly “miracle people.” You see them on the TV all the time. At least you do; I don’t. I’ve told you before, all those channels are tuned out on my television, so I’m now saved all of that. But in the times when I used to watch it, I used to be confronted by people and a preoccupation with people. But in the Acts of the Apostles, the preoccupation is always with God: “God did extraordinary miracles through Paul.”
And a miracle’s not a violation of a law. It’s actually an activity of law in the realm of laws that are higher than we know. A hundred years ago, people would have described as miraculous much of what we regard today as normal, simply because it was beyond their ken. And in the extraordinary events of verses 11 and 12, while they are a surprise to us and were perhaps surprising to those people, they were no surprise to God. God is not imprisoned tonight within the few laws that scientific discovery has cottoned onto. You know, God didn’t need to sit around and wait for an apple to fall off a tree to work things out à la Newton. God is not surprised when we found the law of aerodynamics, which could overcome the law of gravity. God knows all that. And God’s laws are higher and greater. And God is miraculous in his power, and he may choose at any time to do things that are beyond the ken of man. And the miraculous power of God which is manifested here in the bringing of these things is quite incredible. They brought handkerchiefs and they brought aprons that had touched Paul, they took them “to the sick, and their illnesses were cured and [their] evil spirits left them.”
“Aha!” you say. “Well, there you go! That’s why the fellow’s on the TV telling you to touch the TV with your hankie, and then send your hankie to him, he’ll touch it, send it back to you, and ‘Please send a minimum of twenty-five dollars with your hankie.’” Now, there’s two things that are different: one, no money passed hands in relationship to Paul’s activities; and two, Paul was an apostle, and whoever is asking you to send your hankie isn’t.
And what we have here in the Acts of the Apostles are the signs of the apostles. They are the foundational, verifying signs that God is at work, unique to this time and peculiar to these opportunities. And when we allow the rest of Scripture to speak to the whole miraculous activity of God, we will remind ourselves that the miracles of Jesus were never performed merely for effect. They were always performed to fulfill a certain purpose. And what we find here is that God simply intervenes in an extraordinary way in order to declare to these people that the wonders which they associated with their evil forms of religion, God could perform, and beyond. Indeed, if you like, he accommodated himself to the environment of the time.
Campbell Morgan, who preached at Westminster Chapel in an earlier generation, says of this: “God condescended to work not on a higher plane, but … a lower plane; for every miracle wrought in the material [world] is a miracle wrought on a lower plane than the miracles wrought in the spiritual [world].” And when we think that out, we realize it’s true. The greater triumph is not the healing of the body; it is the cleansing of the soul. That is not to denigrate God’s miraculous intervention in healing at any point in history, but rather, it is to give it perspective. ’Cause even if we are healed, we’re still going to die, right? So the great miracle is that God could change a heart, could take somebody who was not seeking him and turn him around, could turn them the right way up.
The father of C. T. Studd, who was Mr. Edward Studd, was, in the late nineteenth century, a very wealthy man, and he had a passion for sport, and especially for horse racing. Somebody invited him to a D. L. Moody crusade meeting, and although he was in the high echelons of society and wasn’t really interested in this wee guy called Moody, he decided to go. He’d heard that he wasn’t very articulate, he tended to preach the same sermons over and over again, but somebody prevailed upon him, and he went. And God reached in and changed his life.
And a guest who was later staying at the home of Edward asked the coachman, who was there welcoming the guests, about Mr. Studd’s becoming religious. And the coachman’s reply was this: “I don’t know much about him becoming religious, but all I can say is that though there’s the same skin, there’s a new man inside!” And that is the miraculous intervention of God. Two Corinthians 5:17: “If [any man] is in Christ, [they are] a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!”
And so, Ephesus was reached for Christ as God’s Word was preached and as God’s power was declared.
Thirdly, in verses 13–16, I want you to notice that when God’s power was manifested, the Evil One began to imitate God’s deeds. And you’ll read in 13 and following that “some Jews who went around driving out evil spirits tried to invoke the name of the Lord Jesus over those who were demon-possessed.”
Ephesus was full of pagan superstition, exorcism was not unusual, and a group of traveling exorcists who sound like a vague rock band, the “Seven sons of Sceva,” were trying to cash in on the name of Jesus. And the way they worked was, they had their incantations; however, if they hit on a hot number or a hot name, they would seek to roll that into their process, believing that if they fastened on the name and the power, they would be able to use it to great effect. And so, having discovered what they thought to be a more powerful spirit than that which had taken up residence in the afflicted person, they wanted to speak in his name.
And so we’re told here that they used to say, “In the name of Jesus, whom Paul preaches, I command you to come out.” And they didn’t do too good. In fact, they got a total hammering for even trying it. And in verse 16, “the man who had the evil spirit jumped on them and overpowered them.” Now, that should have told them something right there and then. That should have told them that the deal was not in phraseology. It was not in the humble-bumble-mumble-jumble stuff. Nobody can just go out and use the name of Jesus as a kind of fetish. And they discovered that, because the evil spirit answers from the man, and he says, “Hey, I know Jesus, and I know Paul, but who in the world are you guys?” And the seven sons of Sceva get “such a beating that they ran out of the house naked and bleeding,” telling us two things: don’t mess with the devil, except in the power of the Holy Spirit; and the devil is powerful, and these events are real.
And so, today and tonight, as we look on these events and as we see God at work, we may be assured of one thing: that whenever God’s power is displayed, the Evil One seeks to imitate God’s deeds, seeks to explain it in natural terms, seeks to deny it in its very essentials. Reminding us of what Paul says in Ephesians 6: that “our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.”
So, we have the proclamation of God’s Word, the manifestation of God’s power, the imitation of God’s deeds, and finally, in verses 17–20, the transformation of God’s people.
If we’re ever going to reach Cleveland for Christ, we cannot be naive concerning the spiritual conflict that we face. And we face these very things in our own areas. Do you realize that? Right down here on 43, wherever it is, right on the main street, sits the house, the shop front of whoever the lady is that will answer your questions, will read your palm, will gaze into the silver bowl, will describe your future—will totally devastate and destroy your life if you choose to walk in that door. When revival comes to a city, those places will be shut down.
See, when revival comes to a city, it’s not that people will sing the songs a wee bit louder. They may. It’s not ultimately that people will witness a little more strenuously. They may. But it is that the overt, antagonistic inroads of the Evil One will be nullified. And that, you see, is a work which only God can perform. So as long as those things exist in our towns and cities, I’m going to assume that revival has not come, and I’m going to pray that it might come, and I’m going to believe that this is the way whereby it comes, and no other way at all.
I wonder if some of us here tonight, in thinking this through, are then prepared to take upon ourselves the very burden to pray for revival—that is, to pray for a church that is moribund, that is corpselike, that has the stigma of death upon it and yet still breathes intermittently; to pray that God would come by his Spirit and take his people and fan into a flame all that he desires to do, and then that, raising them up like a mighty army, he might defeat the powers of darkness. For the little song reminds us that “in the name of Jesus, we have the victory.”
I want to say a word in passing as I draw to a close, as well, to any of you who, tonight, read your horoscope: don’t. To any of you who, tonight, at school, are tempted to go to a party and play with Ouija boards: don’t. To any of you who have crazy friends at school that want to read your palm and tell your future: don’t even give the devil the slightest foothold. Those of you who have been involved in things like this at all will know that these are real and dreadful and devilish, horrendous potentialities. And only the naive, the foolish, those who are falsely brave will believe that you would tamper with such things.
And if you have stuff in your house that relates to this and you are a believer, then take the way of Ephesus described for us in conclusion. What did they do? When God manifested his power so dramatically in this way, they brought the books. What books? Whose books? The believers brought the books. It was those who had believed who suddenly had their eyes opened up to the fact that they were still involved and still had, if you like, implications that ran through their lives and through their daily routine that would tear down the work of God and would hinder the moving of his Spirit. And they faced a tremendous cost. And so will all who are involved in genuine repentance.
And then we read that as a result of the tremendous moving of the Spirit of God in the lives of the unconverted and then in the lives of the converted, what happened? “In this way the word of the Lord spread widely and grew in power.” The word of the Lord will not grow in power nor in influence as long as the people of God continue to hold on to things from their preconverted experience that are actually counter to God’s purposes.
And I probably would be the last person to launch into anything approaching this tonight; those of you who know my lyrics know me well enough. But I want to tell you that some of the unbelievable garbage that is on vinyl and compact discs and plays in the Sony Walkmans of our young people is more than akin to the scrolls burned in the city of Ephesus. And there are youngsters whose lives, whose minds are permeated by godlessness while living in Christian homes, and parents are wondering why they can never seem to make forward movement. There needs to be a trashing of that which would hold me back, and there needs to be a commitment to that which would take me on, no matter what it costs, no matter what it means, for the glory of Christ.
When Bishop Ryle, the Bishop of Liverpool, described Whitefield, who was involved in this kind of preaching in the eighteenth-century revival here in the United States, he said of George Whitefield, “The great evangelist of [the eighteenth] century was a simple, guileless man, who lived for one thing only, and that was to preach Christ. If he did that, he cared for nothing [less].” Wouldn’t it be lovely if it could be said of the Chapel congregation, “They were a simple, guileless people who lived to proclaim Christ. And if they did that, they cared for nothing less.”
How will we reach a city for Christ? In the proclamation of God’s Word, in the demonstration of God’s power, recognizing that there will be the imitation of God’s deeds, and crying out for the transformation of God’s people.
Shall we bow in prayer together?
Just where we sit tonight, let us come to God and speak to him from our hearts. He knows us thoroughly. He knows our needs, our hopes, our dreams, our fears, our discouragements.
Gracious God, we thank you for sending your Son, Jesus. We thank you, Lord Jesus, for sending the Holy Spirit. We want to hunger and thirst after righteousness and be filled with all the fullness of God, so that we may not be involved in doing religious things but that our lives may overflow with the power of Jesus.
Tonight, Lord, we stand amazed in the presence of Jesus and wonder how it is that he could ever love us. And we pray that, reflecting upon this, we might lift our voices in praise, and we might go forward into the days ahead more zealous, more committed to tell others of his Word.
Remind us that the day comes when we will stand before you, and you’ll ask us what we did. And since we only have one life that passes quickly, may we work tomorrow—whether we push brooms around a factory, whether we write legal documents, whether we provide medical care, whether we write papers for school—may we do it all to the glory of Jesus.
 Noël Coward, “Mad Dogs and Englishmen” (1931).
 John 18:36 (NIV 1984).
 Romans 10:14 (NIV 1984).
 G. Campbell Morgan, The Acts of the Apostles (New York: Fleming H. Revell, 1924), 454.
 Morgan, 455.
 Norman P. Grubb, C. T. Studd: Athlete and Pioneer (1933; repr., Harrisburg, PA: Evangelical Press, 1943), 19. Paraphrased.
 Ephesians 6:12 (NIV 1984).
 John Charles Ryle, The Christian Leaders of the Last Century; Or, England a Hundred Years Ago (London: T. Nelson and Sons, 1869), 44.
 See Matthew 5:6.
Copyright © 2024, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.