Acts 19 Bible Commentary

McGarvey and Pendleton

(Read all of Acts 19)
Verses 1-7.   Having sketched briefly the visit of Apollos to Ephesus, and thus prepared the way for an account of Paul's labors in the same city, the historian now reaches the point for which he had so hurriedly passed over the apostle's journey from Antioch through Galatia and Phrygia and around to Ephesus.{1} The appointment which he left in Ephesus, as he passed through on his way to Jerusalem,{2} is now to be fulfilled. (1) "Now while Apollos was in Corinth, Paul, having passed through the upper districts, came to Ephesus, and finding certain disciples, (2) said to them, Have you received the Holy Spirit since you believed? But they said to him, We have not so much as heard that the Holy Spirit is given. (3) He said to them, Into what, then, were you immersed? They said, Into John's immersion. (4) Then Paul said, John indeed immersed with the immersion of repentance, saying to the people that they should believe on him who would come after him, that is, on the Christ Jesus. (5) And when they heard this they were immersed into the name of the Lord Jesus. (6) And when Paul laid hands on them, the Holy Spirit came upon them, and they spoke with tongues and prophesied. (7) All the men were about twelve."

This passage is valuable chiefly because it shows how the apostles dealt with parties who, at that time, were immersed with John's immersion. This, no doubt, was Luke's object in introducing it. In order to understand the case, it is necessary to keep distinctly in view the facts stated of the parties previous to and subsequent to their immersion by Paul. They are called disciples, and were known as such when Paul found them; for it is said "he found certain disciples." They were disciples, not of John, but of Jesus; for the uniform currency of the term disciple, throughout Acts, requires us to so understand it. This is further evident from Paul's question, "Have you received the Holy Spirit since you believed?" The term believed evidently refers to Jesus as its object. They were known, then, as disciples of Jesus, and were so recognized by Paul.

Up to the moment of his conversation with them, Paul knew nothing of any irregularity in their obedience; for this was made known, to his surprise, during the conversation. When, therefore, he asked the question, "Have you received the Holy Spirit since you believed?" he could not have referred to that gift of the Spirit which all disciples receive; for he would take this for granted, from the fact that they were disciples. He must, then, have had reference to the miraculous gift, which some disciples did not receive.

It is inconceivable that these disciples were ignorant of the existence of the Holy Spirit, hence a literal rendering of their reply, "We have not so much as heard that there is a Holy Spirit," would convey a false idea. The supplement given is necessary to complete the sense, as it is in John vii: 39, where it is said, "The Holy Spirit was not yet, because Jesus was not yet risen." The term given must be supplied, in the latter case, in order to avoid the denial of the existence of the Spirit previous to the resurrection; and, in the former, to avoid the declaration of an ignorance on the part of these men inconsistent with the fact that they were disciples.

This answer at once revealed to Paul that there was some irregularity in their religious history; for no one could be properly discipled without learning that the Holy Spirit was to be given. He at once perceived, too, that the irregularity must have been connected with their immersion; for he inquires, "Into what, then, were you immersed?" If the gift of the Spirit had no connection with immersion, this inquiry would have been inapposite, and Paul would not have propounded it. But the apostles taught as Peter did on the day of Pentecost, when he said, "Repent and be immersed, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ, for the remission of sins, and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit." It is only on the supposition that Paul knew this to be the universal teaching of rightly-informed brethren, that he inferred something wrong about their immersion, from their ignorance of the gift of the Holy Spirit. This supposition, however, which is a necessary, not an optional one, makes the whole matter very plain. Paul's first question had reference to the miraculous gift of the Spirit; but when they said they knew not that the Holy Spirit was given, he saw that they were ignorant of even the ordinary gift, which is promised to all who repent and are immersed, and that they were immersed without proper instruction.

Their reply, that they were immersed into John's immersion, relieved the case of all obscurity, and Paul then understood it perfectly. He explained, that John's immersion was one of repentance, to be followed by faith in the Messiah when he should come. Those immersed by him believed that the Messiah was coming; but they did not, until after their immersion, believe that Jesus was the Messiah, nor did they have a promise of the Holy Spirit. They were not, therefore, immersed into the name of Jesus or that of the Holy Spirit. This is further evident from the fact that Paul commanded these twelve to be "immersed into the name of the Lord Jesus," which the authority of the commission requires us to understand as equivalent to the expression, "into the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit." These points of defect, however, were not peculiar to the immersion of the twelve, but attached also to that of the twelve apostles, the hundred and twenty disciples, and the five hundred who saw Jesus together in Galilee after the resurrection,{3} none of whom were reimmersed. What, then, led to the immersion of these parties? If their immersion had taken place, like that of all the others just named, while John's immersion was still an existing institution, no reason could be given for their reimmersion. This, then, forces us to the conclusion that they had been immersed with John's immersion after it had ceased to be administered by divine authority. Apollos had been recently preaching this obsolete immersion in Ephesus, and these persons may have been immersed by him. If so, they submitted to an institution which had been abrogated more than twenty years, and this was the defect that led to their reimmersion. The general conclusion, from all the premises, is this: that persons who were immersed with John's immersion, while it was in lawful existence, were received into the Church of Christ without reimmersion. But persons who were thus immersed, after the introduction of apostolic immersion, were reimmersed. The reason why Apollos was not reimmersed as well as the twelve, was, doubtless, because, like the apostles and the other original disciples, he was immersed during the ministry of John.

Verses 8-12.   It is worthy of note that Paul commenced his labors in Ephesus by rectifying what he found wrong in the few disciples already there, before he undertook to add to their number. It is an example worthy of imitation to the full extent that may be found practicable. When he had accomplished this, he was prepared to grapple with the Jewish and pagan errors which pervaded the community. (8) "Then he went into the synagogue, and spoke boldly for about three months, discussing and persuading the things concerning the kingdom of God. (9) But when some were hardened and unbelieving, and spoke evil of the way before the multitude, he departed from them and separated the disciples, discussing daily in the school of one Tyrannus. (10) This continued for two years, so that all who dwelt in Asia heard the word of the Lord Jesus, both Jews and Greeks. (11) And God worked unusual miracles by the hands of Paul, (12) so that handkerchiefs or aprons were carried from his person to the sick, and the diseases departed from them, and the wicked spirits went out of them." This scene in the Jewish synagogue is quite uniform in its details, with other which we have noticed. Here is the same earnest argument and persuasion upon the one invariable theme; the same increasing obstinacy and evil speaking on the part of the unbelieving Jews, and the same final separation of Paul and the few who believed, from the synagogue and the majority who controlled it. As the private house of Justus had been his retreat in Corinth, the school-house of Tyrannus was his resort in Ephesus. Such incidents have their counterpart in the history of all men who have attempted, from that day to this, to correct the religious teachings of their cotemporaries. All such attempts are regarded by prevailing religious parties as troublesome innovations, and the houses erected for public worship are often closed against them. But such petty annoyances are not sufficient now, as they were not then, to suppress the truth. Paul, in the school-house of Tyrannus, had access to the ears of many who would never have entered a synagogue, and who were conciliated by the very fact that it was the Jews who persecuted him. The circumstances gained him a favorable hearing from the Greeks, while the unusual miracles wrought gave overwhelming attestation to the words he spoke.

Verses 13-17.   It is difficult to imagine how men could witness miracles so astonishing and not acknowledge the presence of divine power. We would suppose that even atheism would be confounded in the presence of such manifestations, and that the most hardened sinner would tremble. How deep the depravity, then, of men, even Jews by birth and education, who would see in them nothing but the tricks of a skillful and designing magician. Simon the sorcerer had offered to purchase this power with money, and Bar-jesus had sought to convince Sergius Paulus that it was a cheat; but the former was made to tremble under the withering rebuke of Peter, and the latter had been smitten with blindness by the power which he reviled. A similar display of human depravity, followed by a castigation equally severe, occurred in connection with the unusual miracles just mentioned. (13) "Then certain of the wandering Jewish exorcists undertook to call the name of the Lord Jesus over those who had wicked spirits, saying, We adjure you by the Jesus whom Paul preaches. (14) And they were seven sons of Sceva, a Jewish high priest, who did this. (15) But the wicked spirit answered and said, Jesus I know, and Paul I am acquainted with; but who are you? (16) And the man in whom the wicked spirit was, leaped upon them, and overcame them, and prevailed against them, so that they fled, naked, and wounded, out of the house. (17) And this became known to all the Jews and Greeks dwelling in Ephesus, and fear fell upon them all, and the name of the Lord Jesus was magnified." Nothing is more mortifying, or better calculated to provoke the contempt of the community, than the unexpected exposure of mysterious pretensions such as were assumed by these exorcists. The spirit was enraged at their insulting pretensions, and doubtless enjoyed the joke of exposing them. The seven resisted until they were stripped and wounded, when they fled, presenting a very ludicrous aspect as they passed along the streets. While all Ephesus was laughing at them, it was remembered that the spirit acknowledged the authority of Jesus, and of Paul, and that a licentious use of the name of Jesus was the cause of all their trouble. The mirth awakened by the event was soon changed to reverence for the name of Jesus, which they now saw was not, as the exorcists had pretended, a mere conjurer's talisman.

Verses 18-20.   The exposure of the seven exorcists reflected discredit upon all the pretenders to magic in Ephesus, while the name of Jesus was magnified. The effects upon the public mind were immense and astonishing. (18) "Then many of those who believed came and confessed and declared their practices. (19) And many of those who practiced curious arts, brought together their books, and burned them before all. And they counted the value of them, and found it fifty thousand pieces of silver. (20) So mightily did the word of God grow and prevail."

The believers who "came and confessed and declared their practices," had not, till now, realized the impropriety of those arts, which their heathen education had taught them to regard with reverence. That others, who were not yet disciples, did the same thing, and even burned up their books, is a striking proof of the fear that fell upon them all. The pieces of silver in which the value of the books was computed were doubtless the Attic didrachma; for it was a Greek city, and this was the most common silver coin among the Greeks. It was worth fifteen cents of Federal money, and the value of all the books was seven thousand five hundred dollars; a sufficient indication of the extent to which these arts prevailed, and of the number and value of the books written in explanation of them. This whole account is in full accordance with the profane history of Ephesus, which represents it as the chief center of magic arts in the whole Roman empire.{4}

Verses 21, 22.   The conclusion of the preceding events brought Paul to a period of comparative quiet, in which he began to think of leaving Ephesus. (21) "When these things were accomplished, Paul purposed in spirit to pass through Macedonia and Achaia, and go to Jerusalem, saying, After I have been there, I must also see Rome. (22) So he sent into Macedonia two of those who were ministering to him, Timothy and Erastus; but he himself stayed in Asia for a season."

It is supposed by some that, previous to this period, Paul had made a short visit to Corinth, and returned again to Ephesus. This supposition is based upon expressions in the Second Epistle to the Corinthians, which are understood to imply such a visit. I regard the evidence, however, as insufficient for a safe conclusion, and will, therefore, treat the narrative as though no such visit had taken place. The reader who is curious to investigate the question should refer to Mr. Howson on the affirmative,{5} and Paley on the negative.{6}

The First Epistle to the Corinthians was written from Ephesus, as we learn from the remark, (chapter xvi: 8, 9,) "I will tarry in Ephesus until Pentecost; for a great and effectual door is opened to me, and there are many adversaries." It was also during the present visit that it was written, for, during his first visit, he did not tarry at all.{7} The exact date of the epistle is best fixed within the period covered by the words "he himself stayed in Asia for a season;" for it was then that "a great and effectual door" was first opened to him. Other evidences of the date concur with these, and are fully stated by Mr. Howson.{8}

This is not really the first epistle Paul wrote to the Corinthians; for in it he speaks of another, which he had previously written, upon the subject of fornication. He says: "I wrote to you in an epistle not to keep company with fornicators."{9} This is all we know of the subject-matter of the epistle, which is lost; and perhaps it was for the reason that it treated of this subject alone, and in a less detailed method than does the epistle now called the first, that it was not preserved with the other two.

Subsequent to the date of the lost epistle, some members of the household of Chloe had brought him information of great disorders and corruption in the Church in Corinth.{10} He learned that the congregation was distracted by party strife;{11} that fornication, and even incest were still tolerated by them;{12} that some of them were engaged in litigation before the civil courts;{13} that his own apostolic authority was called in question;{14} that their women, contrary to the prevailing rules of modesty, took part in the worship with unvailed faces;{15} that some confusion and strife had arisen in reference to the spiritual gifts among them;{16} that some among them were even denying the resurrection;{17} and that the Lord's supper was profaned by feasting and drunkenness.{18} Besides all this, he had received a letter from them calling for information in reference to marriage and divorce, and the eating of meats offered to idols.{19} To answer their questions, and to correct and rebuke these disorders, was the object of the epistle. The temper in which it is written appears calm and stern; yet it is not conceivable that Paul could hear of corruptions so gross in a Church which had cost him so much labor and anxiety, without intense pain. Though no such feeling was allowed to manifest itself in the epistle, he was constrained afterward, to confess it, and say to them, "Out of much affliction and anguish of heart, I wrote to you, with many tears."{20} It was, therefore, with a heart full of anguish in reference to some results of his past labors, but buoyed up by the opening of a wide and effectual door in his present field, that he sent Timothy and Erastus into Macedonia, but remained himself in Asia for a season.

Verses 23-27.   (23) "Now, about that period, there arose no small stir concerning the way. (24) For a certain man named Demetrius, a silversmith, brought no little employment to the artisans by making silver shrines of Diana, (25) Calling them together, and the workmen employed about such things, he said, Men, you understand that by this employment we have our wealth. (26) And you see and hear that not only at Ephesus, but in almost the whole of Asia, this Paul, by his persuasion, has turned away a great multitude, saying that they are not gods which are made with hands; (27) and not only is this our business in danger of coming into contempt, but also the temple of the great goddess Diana will be despised, and the majesty of her whom all Asia and the world worships will be destroyed." This is the most truthful and candid of all the speeches ever uttered against Paul. The charge that he had said these were not gods which were made with hands, was literally true, and free from exaggeration. The appeals, too, by which he sought to stir up the passions of his hearers, were candid; for he appeals directly to their pecuniary interest, which was suffering; to their veneration for the temple, which was counted one of the seven wonders of the world and to their reverence for the goddess who was the chief object of their worship. The statement of the effects already produced by Paul's preaching throughout the city and the province, endangering their whole system of idolatry, was equally truthful. Whether he is entitled to the same degree of credit in reference to the motive which prompted him, is more doubtful; for the fact that the class of men in Ephesus had the greatest pecuniary interest in the worship of Diana were the first to defend her sinking cause, is a suspicious circumstance, especially when we remember that these artisans had better reason than any others to know that the pieces of silver which they had molded and polished with their own hands were not gods. It appears to have been a corrupt determination to save their traffic at all hazards, which made them ignore the evidence of their own senses, and rendered them impervious to the arguments and demonstrations of Paul.

Verses 28, 29.   The prospect of pecuniary ruin enraged the artisans, while their veneration for the goddess suggested the best theme on which to give vent to their wrath before the people. (28) "And when they heard this they were full of wrath, and cried out, saying, Great is Diana of the Ephesians. (29) And the whole city was filled with confusion; and having caught Gaius and Aristarchus, Macedonians, Paul's companions in travel, they rushed with one accord into the theater." The outcry, "Great is Diana of the Ephesians," awakened the old enthusiasm of all the idolaters who heard it, and the tone of rage with which it was uttered, suggesting some assault upon the honor of the goddess, threw the gathering mob into a frenzy. It was a kind of providence in reference to Paul, that he happened to be out of their reach. Not finding him, they seize his companions, and rushing into the theater, where criminals were sometimes exposed to wild beasts, they are about to take the part of the wild beasts themselves. What was the fate of Gaius and Aristarchus is not here stated, though both names occur afterward in the history, and probably designate the same individuals.{21}

Verses 30, 31.   When Paul heard the tumult, and knew that his companions had been dragged within the theater, he could but suppose that they were torn to pieces. This thought alone was intensely harrowing to his feelings; but it was still more so to know that they were suffering in his stead. He could not endure to remain inactive at such a crisis, but resolved to die with them. (30) "But Paul, having determined to go in to the people, the disciples would not permit him; (31) and some of the Asiarchs,{22} also, who were his friends, sent to him and entreated him not to trust himself within the theater." By such means he was restrained from his desperate purpose, after having fully made up his mind to die. The desperation to which he was driven he afterward describes to the Corinthians in this touching language: "We would not have you ignorant, brethren, of our trouble which came to us in Asia, that we were exceedingly pressed down beyond our strength, so that we despaired even of life: but we had within ourselves the sentence of death, that we should not trust in ourselves, but in God who raises the dead."{23} Giving up all hope of life, as he started toward the theater, and trusting in Him who raises the dead, when the tumult had subsided, and he was assured of safety, he felt much as if he had been raised from the dead. He therefore says, in the same connection, "Who delivered me from so grievous a death, and is delivering, in whom I trust that he will even yet deliver us: you also helping by prayer for us, that for the gift bestowed on us by means of many persons, thanks may be given by man on our behalf."{24}

Verses 32-34.   Leaving the apostle, for a time, in the cloud of sorrow which we will find still enveloping him when we meet him again, we turn to witness the proceedings within the theater. (32) "Now some were crying one thing and some another; for the assembly was confused, and the greater part knew not on what account they had come together. (33) And they put forward Alexander out of the crowd, the Jews urging him forward. And Alexander, waving his hand, wished to make a defense to the people. (34) But knowing that he was a Jew, all with one voice, for about two hours, cried out, Great is Diana of the Ephesians." There were two reasons why the Jews should feel some anxiety to defend themselves before this mob. First, It was well known in Ephesus that they were as much opposed to idols and idol worship as were the disciples. Second, The fact that the apostle and many of his brethren were Jews, naturally attracted toward all the Jews the hatred which had been aroused against them. A courageous and manly adherence to their own principles would have prompted them to share with the disciples the obloquy of their common position; but they were endeavoring to persuade the multitude that Paul and his party should not be identified with themselves. The cowardly trick was perceived by the multitude, as soon as they perceived that it was a Jew who was trying to address them, and they gave it the rebuke it deserved by refusing to hear him.

Verses 35-41.   The rage of an excited multitude, unless it find some new fuel to keep up the flame, will naturally subside in a few hours. While it is at its height, it becomes only the more furious the more it is opposed; but when it begins to subside, frequently a few well-chosen words are sufficient to restore quiet. Acting upon this principle, the city authorities had not, thus far, interfered with the mob; but when they were exhausted by long-continued vociferation, the following well-timed and well-worded speech was addressed to them. (35) "But the public clerk, having quieted the people, said, Men of Ephesus, what man is there who does not know that the city of Ephesus is a worshiper of the great goddess Diana, and of the image which fell down from Jupiter? (36) Seeing, then, that these things can not be spoken against, you ought to be quieted, and do nothing rashly. (37) For you have brought hither these men, who are neither robbers of temples nor blasphemers of your goddess. (38) If, then, Demetrius, and the artisans who are with him, have a complaint against any one, the courts are open, and there are proconsuls; let them accuse one another. (39) But if you are making inquiry concerning other matters, it shall be determined in a lawful assembly. (40) For we are in danger of being called to account for this day's tumult, there being no cause for which we will be able to give an account of this concourse. (41) And having spoken thus, he dismissed the assembly."

This is evidently the speech of a man well skilled in the management of popular assemblies, and, doubtless, its happy adaptation to the circumstances is what suggested to Luke the propriety of preserving it. It is probable that the speaker, like the Asiarchs who interfered to keep Paul out of danger, was a friend to the apostle, and a man of too much intelligence to receive with blind credulity the popular delusion in reference to the temple and image of Diana. The speech, indeed, has a ring of insincerity about it, indicating that the speaker was merely humoring the popular superstition for the special purpose before him. Upon this hypothesis the speech appears the more ingenious. The confident assumption that the divine honors bestowed on their goddess, and the belief that her image fell from heaven, were so well known that no man would call them in question, was soothing to their excited feelings, and the remark that the unquestionable certainty of these facts ought to make them feel entirely composed on the subject, brought them, by a happy turn of thought, to the very composure which he desired, and which they fancied was the result of a triumphant vindication of their cause. Advancing, then, to the case of the disciples, like a trained advocate, he ignores the real charge against them, that of denying that they are gods which are made with hands, and declares that they are neither temple robbers, nor revilers of their goddess. Then, as for the men who had excited them to this disturbance, the proconsular courts were the proper place for complaints like theirs, and they had no right to disturb the people with such matters. Finally, he gives them a gentle hint as to the unlawfulness of their assemblage, and the probability that they would be called to account for it by the Roman authorities. This last remark had special force with the majority, who, according to Luke, "knew not on what account they had come together;" and the whole speech was well aimed toward the result which followed, the dispersion of the mob. The city authorities had reason to congratulate themselves that so fierce a mob had been so successfully controlled, and the disciples could but be thankful to God that they had escaped so well.

      {1} Acts xviii: 23.
      {2} Acts xviii: 21.
      {3} 1 Cor. xv: 6.
      {4} See Life and Ep., vol. 2, p. 21.
      {5} Ib. p. 26.
      {6} Horæ Paulinæ on 2 Cor xiii: 1.
      {7} Acts xviii: 19, 20.
      {8} Vol. 2, p. 33.
      {9} 1 Cor. v: 9-13.
      {10} 1 Cor. i: 11.
      {11} 1 Cor. ch. i, ii, iii.
      {12} 1 Cor. ch. v.
      {13} 1 Cor. ch. vi.
      {14} 1 Cor. ch. iv. and ix.
      {15} 1 Cor. xi: 1-16.
      {16} 1 Cor. ch. xii, xiii, xiv.
      {17} 1 Cor. xv: 12.
      {18} 1 Cor. xi: 17-34.
      {19} 1 Cor. vii: 1; viii: 1.
      {20} 2 Cor. ii: 4.
      {21} Acts xx: 4; xxvii: 2.
      {22} This was the title of officials chosen to preside over the annual games in the province of Asia.--HOWSON, ii: 83.
      {23} 2 Cor. i: 8, 9.
      {24} 2 Cor. i: 10, 11.