by Roger McCay
20 September 2020
Sermon Passage: Acts 19:1-20
Link to Audio Version
Have you ever noticed how some life lessons have to be learned the hard way? For example, playing with fire. Parents tell their kids not to play with fire; they’ll get burned. Yet, inevitably, in fascination with fire, kids play with fire and get burned. Fiery pain is a hard way to learn a lesson. But, after that, kids will usually be more careful (except for those particularly hard-headed ones—and I’m sure you know the type). Most kids, though, will think, “Mom and Dad were right, I don’t want to do that again.” Too bad they didn’t trust their parents in the first place, respecting them and their word. It would have saved them some unnecessary pain.
But people are like that. Adults are not much different. It’s a maxim that the best way to learn is to experience it yourself. Nevertheless, there are some things best not to experience. Authority tells us it’s bad for us. Just don’t go there.
A particular temptation is the temptation to play with the fire of insincere religiosity. What is insincere religiosity, you might ask? In a nutshell, it is using religion or religious elements for one’s own selfish gain (whatever that gain might be). Such lies diametrically opposed to sincere belief, which is expressed in genuine repentance, heartfelt worship, faithful obedience, and self-giving love.
Among religious communities you will typically find both positions, unbelief opposed to belief, diametrically opposed in relation to the real deal—the truth in Christ (Matt. 13:24-30). Hence, in our passage today, we see folks heading in both the way of belief and the way of unbelief, towards the predictable ends. We also see how the Lord uses believing and unbelieving encounters with the real deal (the truth in Christ) towards his good purposes.
In v. 1, we see that Paul finally made it back to Ephesus, now on his third and final missionary journey. He would end up spending over three years in Ephesus (Acts 20:31), working tirelessly, ministering the gospel of the Lord.
Ephesus was a powerhouse in the Roman Empire. It was a port city, located along the major route from Rome to the east. It was enormously wealthy, being the greatest commercial city in Asia, whereas “Asia was the empire’s “richest and most populous” province because of its natural resources, industry, and location on trade routes.” Ephesus was also, not surprisingly, politically important to the empire. So, while not the capital of Asia, the proconsul (the governor) of Asia kept his seat there. The city also boasted a very large population, as the fourth largest city in the empire, with plus and minus estimates of around 300,000 people. The population was extremely diverse, with numerous foreign population groups and ethnicities, numerous religions, and all socioeconomic levels, although “the city’s basic civic identity was Greek.” While religiously pluralistic, it had a major temple to Artemis, which was so magnificent it is labeled as one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. Ephesus also had a large Jewish population, whose synagogue Paul had once before visited, with some positive results, and it was there that Pricilla and Aquila met up with Apollos.
Thus it was, that Paul, arriving in Ephesus once again, providentially came across some disciples, twelve of them. Initially, he may have assumed they were Christians, but he quickly caught on that something was missing—the evidence of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.
Hence, Paul asked them (vv. 2-4):
“Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” And they said, “No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.” 3 And he said, “Into what then were you baptized?” They said, “Into John’s baptism.” 4 And Paul said, “John baptized with the baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in the one who was to come after him, that is, Jesus.”
So it was, these disciples were actually disciples of John, awaiting the fulfillment of John’s message, which was Jesus. They were believers in God, knew John’s message, had received John’s baptism, and awaited the hoped-for Christ. Paul, of course, took this opportunity to inform them of the good news that Christ had come and fulfilled his mission. Upon their hearing and believing the good news of Christ Jesus, Paul baptized these men in the name of the Lord. Paul then laid hands on them, and then the Holy Spirit came upon them in power, manifesting extraordinary Spiritual gifts of prophesy and speaking in tongues (other languages).