Menu Close

“Your Part is Simple Faithfulness”

Acts 19:1-20
Bob DeGray
May 15, 2005

Key Sentence

When we are faithful in ministry, God may move in power.


I. Faithfully distinguishing Jesus (Acts 19:1-7)
II. Faithfully proclaiming the Way (Acts 19:9-10)
III. Faithfully not manipulating God (Acts 19:11-6)
IV. Faithfully honoring his Name (Acts 19:17-20)


        Power. Don’t you long to see God work powerfully? To change lives? Do miracles? Save multitudes? Revolutionize hearts and minds? I do; sometimes I ache to see God break through like that. And in the Bible it seems to us he does that all the time; we get the idea that’s the normal way he works. But while we know he has the freedom to work that way, and we would welcome it, he doesn’t always, and whether he does or not is his choice. We can’t create the power. It belongs to him. Our part is to be faithful in the work he’s given us, and rejoice when we do see him at work.

        This morning we’re going to look at Acts 19:1-20, in which the power of God is very evident. He saves, heals, frees, rebukes, convicts with great power. But there is an underlying truth at work for us when he works. His people’s role is to live with integrity, faithfully, true to his calling, true to his word. That is all that is asked of them; the power, miracles, changed lives are not their part in this; their part is simple faithfulness. When we are faithful in ministry, God may move in power, Or he may not. That’s his decision. Our calling is simply to faithfulness.

        Some years ago I read a series, called the Chronicles of Prydain, about Taran, a young boy who at first knows himself only as an assistant pig keeper on Dalben’s small farm. But this pig keeper has many adventures and in the fourth book, as he begins to mature, he longs to find out his true identity, and for some kind of greatness. But as he travels Prydain, he keeps finding people with a different kind of greatness, which we could call integrity or faithfulness or perseverance in their calling. The first person he encounters is a homesteader named Llonio, whose family seems to live hand to mouth on whatever they find in their fields or their weir in the river or in the orchards. But they never lack and often have abundance, and Taran comes to think that Llonio must be the luckiest man alive. But Llonio says “My luck’s no greater than yours or any man’s. You need only sharpen your eyes to see the opportunity that comes, and sharpen your wits to use what falls into your hands.”

        Next Taran works with a blacksmith name Hevydd, and learns the hard labor of finding the ore and making the iron and forging the sword. And the blacksmith’s wisdom is this “Life’s a forge, say I. Face the pounding; don’t fear the proving, and you’ll stand well against any hammer and anvil!” The third person Taran meets is Dwyvach the weaver. Fascinated by her beautiful designs, Taran attempts to learn weaving. “Hevydd told me life was a forge,” Taran sighed as he laboriously tried to reckon the countless threads, “and I think I’ll be well-tempered before my cloak is finished.” “Life a forge?” said the weaver-woman. “A loom, rather, where lives and days intertwine, and wise is he who can learn to see the pattern. But if you mean to have a new cloak, you’d do better to work more and chatter less.”

        Finally, Taran spends a year or so with Annlaw the Clay Shaper, the greatest potter in the land of Prydain. He finds that this too is hard and exacting work, and only after great labor does he produce a small bowl that the potter considers worth firing. But he learns a lot. “Llonio said life was a net for luck, to Hevydd the Smith life was a forge; and to Dwyvach the Weaver-Woman a loom. They spoke truly for it is all of these. But you,” Taran said, his eyes meeting the potter’s, “you have shown me life is one thing more. It is clay to be shaped, as raw clay on a potter’s wheel.”

I. Faithfully distinguishing Jesus (Acts 19:1-7)

        These are great characters. Each embodies faithfulness to their task. They shape their lives by integrity to their calling. And as we look into Acts 19 this morning, I want us to be sensitive to the underlying integrity and faithfulness shown by God’s people as God does his powerful work. Let’s begin with Paul and his ministry in Ephesus. Acts 19:1-7 While Apollos was at Corinth, Paul took the road through the interior and arrived at Ephesus. There he found some disciples 2and 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." 3So Paul asked, "Then what baptism did you receive?" "John's baptism," they replied. 4Paul 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." 5On hearing this, they were baptized into the name of the Lord Jesus. 6When Paul placed his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they spoke in tongues and prophesied. 7There were about twelve men in all.

Last week we studied the preceding verses where Paul left Priscilla and Aquila in Ephesus and went on to complete his second missionary journey. But as we said, Paul didn’t sit still very well, and soon he was off again, strengthening the churches in Phyrgia and Galatia, modern day Turkey. This task leads him back, Luke says, by the overland route to Ephesus, the second largest city in the Roman empire. On his arrival Paul almost immediately runs into a group of Jews that Priscilla and Aquila had not yet met. Luke calls these people disciples, which is probably what they called themselves, but its clear that they were not believers when Paul met them. As Stott explains “On arrival in Ephesus Paul found some disciples. At least, that is what they claimed to be. In reality, however, they were disciples of John the Baptist, and were decidedly less well informed than Apollos had been.”

        Paul at first assumed they were believers, but seems to have seen no evidence in their lives or words of the indwelling Holy Spirit. So he asked his two leading questions, whether they’d received the Spirit when they believed, and into what they had been baptized. These questions expressed his conviction that those who have believed have received the Spirit, and his assumption that such believers are soon baptized. To have believed and been baptized and not to have received the Spirit constitutes an extraordinary anomaly. Yet in answer to the first question these ‘disciples said that they had ‘not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit'. Whatever their teaching had been, it had not included the full range of Jesus’ promises - or even John’s.

        In answer to Paul's second question, they explained that they had received John's baptism, not Christian baptism. They were still living in the Old Testament which culminated with John the Baptist. They didn’t understand the way of salvation and forgiveness that had been given by Jesus, nor that those who believe in him receive the indwelling Spirit. Once they came to understand this, they put their trust in Jesus of whose coming John had spoken. They were then baptized into Christ.

        Before we go on, notice Paul’s faithfulness in ministry. His heart’s desire was to bring the Good News about faith in Jesus to those who didn’t know it. He could not let these disciples fail to understand Jesus. He said “Woe is me if I do not preach the Gospel.” So wherever he goes, and whatever circumstances he meets, he is faithful to this ministry. He is a little bit like the Llonio character in Taran Wanderer; he sharpens his eyes to see the opportunity that comes, and sharpens his wits to use what falls into his hands. Paul’s Faithfulness and integrity means having a fixed goal, and working creatively toward that goal, without giving up. I wonder if the same thing could be said about me. Am I watching for opportunities and using all my wits in the service of God? And how about you? We are to have this sold out for God’s work attitude, and to take the adventure that comes to us.

        Paul was faithful. That didn’t necessarily mean God would respond with a display of power, but in this case he did. In the process of baptizing these new believers Paul naturally enough laid his hands on them, and as he did so the Holy Spirit came on them, and they spoke in tongues and prophesied. In other words, they experienced a mini-Pentecost, as its promised blessings became theirs.

        We ought to ask, at this point what parts of what we’ve seen are universal, and which are particular to this situation. Clearly the weight of New Testament Scripture teaches that faith in Christ is the universal requirement for salvation. Paul assumes this in his first question: ‘Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?’. Belief in Jesus was the core of his gospel message, he says “John told the people to believe in the one coming after him, that is, in Jesus’. Salvation is by grace through faith. And notice that in this case salvation, as is appropriate, is accompanied by baptism. When you believe you ought to publically testify to that faith by baptism. We’ll be having one in a few weeks, and if you’ve trusted Jesus as your Savior and not been baptized as a believer, you ought to seriously consider it. I’d love to talk to you.

        Notice also that salvation is accompanied by the presence of the Holy Spirit. They are saved and they receive the Spirit - it’s not two separate events. In fact I believe the two are inseparably linked. Ephesians 1:13 says “And you also were included in Christ when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation. Having believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit.” So the use of Acts 19 to prove that the Holy Spirit indwells people as a second and separate event from salvation isn’t justified.

        Finally, there are two things here that are clearly not universal, but particular to this situation. The laying on of hands by an apostle is no where else cited as part of a salvation experience, and in only one other place where the presence of the Holy Spirit is manifest, when Peter and John lay hands on the first Samaritan converts. Laying on of hands is usually associated with healing or seen when people are commissioned for ministry. Furthermore, tongues and prophecy do not always accompany salvation. In fact only here and in the conversion of Cornelius are the two so closely linked. And in these cases God’s power is shown this way essentially as a witness to the apostles and to the church that ‘these people are part of the plan’. But these signs are not universal to salvation.

II. Faithfully proclaiming the Way (Acts 19:9-10)

        So we’ve seen that Paul is being faithful and God is being powerful. That’s the pattern in the rest of this text. Listen to Acts 19:8-10. Paul entered the synagogue and spoke boldly there for three months, arguing persuasively about the kingdom of God. 9But 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. 10This 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.

        In Ephesus, Paul continues to be faithful to the ministry God has given him. As is his habit, he begins in the synagogue, which he had already visited on his first brief trip to Ephesus. He speaks boldly, for three months, arguing and pleading about the kingdom of God. Paul doesn’t often talk about it this way, but this kingdom is clearly the one proclaimed by Jesus and foretold in the Old Testament prophecies of the messiah. But as in Corinth so in Ephesus, some of the Jewish people rejected the good news, becoming obstinate, refusing to believe, and publicly maligning the Way, as the Christian message is ca1led six times in Acts.

        Paul’s faithful presentation of Jesus as the only way to God polarized the Jewish community, and strong resistance developed. So Paul left the synagogue and took the disciples to hold discussions, Greek dialegomenos, dialogs, in the lecture hall of Tyrannus. The text literally says ‘the school of Tyrannus’, and that’s probably what it was. Like many church plants today, Paul’s Ephesian church plant met in a school. Tyrannus, a name meaning tyrant, or possibly a student-given title, would have lectured in the cool of the day, in the morning, and his building would have been available in the afternoon. Possibly this ‘tyrant’ had become a subject in Christ’s kingdom, and donated the use of the building.

        In any event, this outreach to the Gentiles, this dialogue evangelism went on for two years, so that Luke tells us all the Jews and Greeks who lived in the province of Asia heard the word of the Lord. Now all of this sounds very exciting, and I’m sure it was, but do notice that Paul invested two years in this process. It wasn’t sudden, it wasn’t always glamorous I’m sure - it was diligence and persistence in the task.

        Luke tells us that because of this persistence, all of the surrounding region had the opportunity to hear the word of the Lord. Don’t miss that phrase. When Paul is explaining ‘the kingdom’, and discussing ‘the way’, he is teaching ‘the Word of the Lord.’ He is faithfully saying again what God has said, through the Old Testament and through Jesus. And that faithfulness to the Word, that integrity is something you and I are called to exhibit today. Our task is to be faithful, to share with one another and with others the truth God has revealed in his Word. The work his Word does, the power his Word applies is a God thing, dependant on a person’s heart condition and the Holy Spirit. God doesn’t ask us to be God - he’s fully capable of that job; he does ask us to share with integrity and faithfulness.

III. Faithfully not manipulating God (Acts 19:11-6)

        In fact the text makes it clear that no matter how God works in response to our ministry, we have to avoid trying to manipulate Him. Verse 11 to 16: God did extraordinary miracles through Paul, 12so that even handkerchiefs and aprons that had touched him were taken to the sick, and their illnesses were cured and the evil spirits left them. 13Some Jews who went around driving out evil spirits tried to invoke the name of the Lord Jesus over those who were demon-possessed. They would say, "In the name of Jesus, whom Paul preaches, I command you to come out." 14Seven sons of Sceva, a Jewish chief priest, were doing this. 15One day the evil spirit answered them, "Jesus I know, and I know about Paul, but who are you?" 16Then the man who had the evil spirit jumped on them and overpowered them all. He gave them such a beating that they ran out of the house naked and bleeding.

        In verses 8 to 10 Luke didn’t record any works of power, only Paul’s faithfulness in ministry. Now he informs us that during that time God was at work - God did extraordinary miracles. It’s interesting that even to Luke, who wrote a Gospel about Jesus, and who documented God’s many works through the Acts of the Apostles, these miracles are extraordinary. He uses a Greek word that basically means ‘unusual’, not typical. This miraculous intervention by God was not the norm even for Paul’s ministry. Instead this was a time of unusual miracles, clearly meant to reinforce the Gospel message in a society rife with magic and occult practices.

        So Luke tells us that even handkerchiefs and aprons that had touched Paul were taken to the sick, and their illnesses were cured and evil spirits left them. It’s likely these articles were the things Paul used while tent-making, the sweat rags he wiped his brow with and the aprons that collected his dust. God can use even ordinary things for miraculous purposes. Liberal commentators are embarrassed by these verses and dismiss them as legendary, pagan myth rather than historical reality. Others try to mimic these miracles, like the preacher who, for a price, will send you a ‘Bible red blood of Jesus’ handkerchief to cure you or your finances. The mature approach to these miracles is certainly not to dismiss them, because God has the power to heal and to rule demons however he chooses to do so. But attempting to manipulate God into such miracles is an equally dangerous undertaking.

        Luke makes this point by telling the story of some Jewish exorcists, who attempted to tap the power. They tried to invoke the name of the Lord Jesus over those who were demon-possessed. ‘In the name of Jesus, whom Paul preaches, I command you to come out'. In particular this was attempted by seven sons of Sceva, who either belonged to a high-priestly family, or that claimed such for professional purposes, the way a purveyor of quack medicine might use the title ‘Professor’ or ‘Doctor’. But their attempt to manipulate God through the use of Jesus’ name failed. The evil spirit in the man confessed to knowing Jesus, and knowing about Paul, but challenged their right to use Jesus’ name for their own ends. Thus the evil spirit was free to attack them, so they were glad to escape with only some wounds and the loss of their clothes. The mere mechanical use of the name of Jesus, or any attempt to manipulate God or gain his power can have disastrous consequences.

        Now I recognize that those who made this attempt were not believers. But even believers have to be careful to recognize what’s their part and what’s God’s part. It’s legitimate for us to pray for healing and for freedom from spiritual oppression, and we as a church have often seen God answer those kinds of prayers. But it is never legitimate for us to try to manipulate, as is so often done today. I keep thinking of the preacher I forced myself to watch on TV a few months back who said that real evidence of faith that could heal was shown by how much you sent to his ministry. It’s common today for people to view God as some kind of spiritual coke machine, into which you put a coin of faith and out of which you get your healing or riches. What we are seeing isn’t a magical quotient of faith, but simple faithfulness. Paul was faithful to the ministry God had set before him. God did respond in power, but Luke is at pains to show us that it was not the result of manipulation. Instead, Luke emphasizes the depth of this commitment and ministry. As Taran Wanderer learned from the Weaver Woman, life is a loom, and it takes long careful labor to make a pattern in the cloth. At the forge of Hevydd the Smith, Taran learned to work hard with anvil and hammer. The exhausting toil showed him the value of persistence.

IV. Faithfully honoring his Name (Acts 19:17-20)

        The last episode in our text shows the response of the believers in Ephesus to the works of God - and it’s a response of integrity. Verses 17 to 20: When this became known to the Jews and Greeks living in Ephesus, they were all seized with fear, and the name of the Lord Jesus was held in high honor. 18Many of those who believed now came and openly confessed their evil deeds. 19A number who had practiced sorcery brought their scrolls together and burned them publicly. When they calculated the value of the scrolls, the total came to fifty thousand drachmas. 20In this way the word of the Lord spread widely and grew in power.

        God used what had happened to the seven sons of Sceva in the process of purifying the Ephesian Christians from paganism. I. Howard Marshall points out that “Christians are not fully perfected in an instant, and pagan ways of thinking can persist alongside genuine Christian experience.”

        But sooner or later there comes a point where believers realize the need to confess the sinfulness of their practices, and take decisive action to remove the temptation. The incident with seven sons of Sceva showed the Ephesians, some of whom had been believers for two years, that the pagan magic to which they were still attached was both useless and sinful. They therefore brought their magical handbooks and compilations of incantations, and made a final break with them by publicly burning them. The particular fascination of this kind of rubbish for the Ephesians is seen in the fact that magical books were known as ‘Ephesians Letters’. The value of the ‘rubbish’ was high, equaling the wages of 50,000 days labor, which sounds like a lot until you realize how many billions Western culture spends on ungodly pursuits.

        So what we’re seeing is the faithfulness of Paul’s converts in Ephesus. At this time their calling was to faithfulness in discipleship - not imitating their culture’s fascination with manipulating the gods, but being sanctified by ridding themselves of the sins that entangled them. Like Annlaw Clay Shaper, they had discovered that the Christian life is like clay, and that it must be shaped each day to God’s design. And was this not a work of power? Yes. Just as powerful as a healing or excorcism, God demonstrated his power through the individual choices of believers. They chose to fear God in practical ways in their daily lives and to hold the name of Jesus in high honor. And God used these decisions and the witness of their changed lives, Luke says, to spread the good news about Jesus, the word of the Lord, widely, so that it grew in power. Their small individual faithfulnesses were powerfully used by God.

        And I think that’s true today. God has never asked anyone to perform a miracle. That’s his part. No human being can help him with that, nor does he need any help. But God does ask his people to be faithful, to do the ministry that is before them, to plug away over the long term even when the outcome is in doubt, to leave the results to God, and maybe most especially, to examine ourselves and see what sins cling to us, and to ruthlessly get rid of them, so that we might be sanctified and God might be glorified. He’s asking us for these kinds of simple faithfulness, and he doesn’t promise miracles of power, though sometimes he’ll do them. Like Paul we need to let faithfulness in ministry drive us to share the good news about Jesus and disciple others along the way. And like the Ephesian believers we need to pursue personal integrity by identifying and rooting out our characteristic sins. And God may use that to bless others - he will certainly use it to bless us.
        A man was sleeping one night in his cabin when suddenly his room filled with light, and God appeared. The Lord told the man he had work for him to do, and showed him a large rock in front of his cabin. The Lord explained that the man was to push against the rock with all his might. So, this the man did, day after day. For many years he toiled from sunup to sundown, his shoulders set squarely against the cold, massive surface of the unmoving rock, pushing with all of his might.

        Each night the man returned to his cabin sore and worn out, feeling his whole day had been wasted. He began to think “You have been pushing against that rock for a long time and it hasn't moved. This task is impossible. You’re a failure." These thoughts discouraged and disheartened the man, and he decided to make it a matter of prayer. "Lord," he said, "I have labored long and hard in your service, putting all my strength to do that which you have asked. Yet, after all this time, I have not even budged that rock by half a millimeter. What is wrong? Why am I failing?"

        The Lord responded compassionately, "My friend, when I asked you to serve Me and you accepted, I told you that your task was to push against the rock with all of your strength, which you have done. Never once did I mention to you that I expected you to move it. And now you come to Me thinking you have failed. But, is that really so? Look at yourself. Your arms are strong and muscled, your back sinewy and brown; your hands are callused from constant pressure, your legs have become massive and hard. Through opposition you have grown much, and your abilities now surpass that which you used to have. True, you haven't moved the rock. But your calling was to be obedient and to push and to exercise your faith and trust in My wisdom. That you have done. Now, I, my friend, will move the rock."

        Our part is simple faithfulness. God will take care of his part.