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The latter end of the foregoing chapter informed us how Apollos was employed at Corinth: the beginning of this acquaints us how St. Paul spent his time at Ephesus. He finds there twelve disciples, he catechizes them, lays his hand upon them, and God confers the gift of the Holy Ghost.
Here observe, 1. The question put by St. Paul to the twelve disciples: Have ye received the Holy Ghost since ye believed? He doth not mean in its sanctifying operations, but in its miraculous gifts; as speaking with tongues, the gift of prophecy, and the gift of healing.
Observe, 2. The disciples answer, We have not so much as heard whether there be any Holy Ghost; not that they were ignorant of the essence or person of the Holy Ghost; but had not heard of the effusion of the extra-ordinary and miraculous gifts of the Holy Ghost; for it was a received opinion among the Jews, that after the death of Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi, the Holy Ghost, or the spirit of prophecy, departed from Israel. And they never heard that he was returned, or of his being given anew with his miraculous gifts.
Observe, 3. How the apostle sets them right; they tell him they were baptized unto John's baptism. The apostle tells them, that John's baptism and Christ's were the same for substance, and had both the same end, though they differed in some circumstances. The disciples of John believed in Christ to come, the disciples of Jesus believed in Christ as already come, and were baptized in that faith; and the ordinance sealed unto both the remission of sins. Yet it being essential to Christian Baptism, to baptize in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, which is the essence of Christian baptism.
Observe, 4. How the apostle lays his hands upon these disciples, to confirm them in the faith they were baptized into; where-upon the miraculous gifts of the Holy Ghost were immediately conferred on them, and they spake divers tongues, which before they understood not, and were endued with the gift of prophesying; that is, of declaring things to come, and interpreting the writings of the prophets, that they maybe fit to teach and instruct others.
Hence learn, That at the first planting and propagating of the gospel, the wisdom of God thought fit to furnish the preachers and dispensers of it with extraordinary gifts and miraculous powers, to qualify them for, and to give them assurance of, the success of their ministry; and also to assure those whom they preached unto, that their doctrine was from heaven. Almighty God never setting the seal of his omnipotence to a lie. Such miraculous gifts are long since ceased in the church, the cause of them, and the occasion for them, being long since ceased.
St. Paul being now come to Ephesus with a design to stay there for some considerable time; as the manner was, he enters into the synagogue, and preaches the gospel first to the Jews, and this for the space of three months; but when, instead of embracing of the gospel, they opposed it, blaspheming Christ the author, and the apostle the dispenser of it, and vehemently contending with him for preaching the gospel, (which some conceive he calls his fighting with beasts at Ephesus, 1 Corinthians 15:32) he left the Jews and their synagogue, separating the Christians that were in Ephesus from them, whom he daily instructed in a certain place, called the school of Tyrannus.
Here note, 1. The vehemency of St. Paul's affection to his own countrymen the people of the Jews, notwithstanding all the opposition they made against his doctrine, and the virulent reproaches which they cast upon his person: he continues to preach the gospel first to the Jews, and, upon their rejection of it, to tender the word of life unto the Gentiles.
Note, 2. As great an apostle and as faithful a minister as St. Paul was, yet he wanted to see the success of his labours. Many of his hearers at Ephesus believed not his word, but were hardened under it. The same sun that softens the wax, hardens the clay: the same doctrine of the gospel becomes the savour of death unto some, which is the savour of life unto others. Woe be unto that people, who by their habitual hardness, through their actual resisting the impressions of God's word, do provoke the Almighty to superadd judicial hardness of heart unto them, making their sin to become their punishment.
Note, 3. How upon this opposition, which St. Paul met with in the Jewish synagogue, he leaves it, and retires to a more private place, the school of Tyrannus, where he had more freedom, and less opposition.
Learn hence, That such places of public worship, where nothing but contradiction to the pure Christian doctrine can be met with, may be lawfully withdrawn from. The apostle separates himself and the disciples from the Jews' synagogue, where he had preached three months, meeting only with contradiction to his doctrine, and blasphemy against his dear Redeemer.
Note, 4. How it pleased God Go confirm St. Paul's ministry at Ephesus by his working miracles: and the miracles he wrought were special, that is, very extraordinary, insomuch that even handkerchiefs or aprons having but touched St. Paul's body, and being brought unto the diseased, became a miraculous means both to cure diseases and to cast out devils.
Thus, according to our Saviour's promise, his apostles did greater miracles than himself, John 14:12 not greater in regard of the manner, but in regard of the matter of them: Christ wrought his miracles in his own name, and by his own power; but the apostles wrought theirs in the name and by the power of Christ; yet it ought to be observed and considered, that although it pleased God, at the first plantation of the gospel by the apostles, to confirm Christianity by many special miracles, (as new-set plants are well watered till they have taken fast rooting,) yet that church which wants miracles may be a true church: because,
1. There is no promise made in the scriptures to the church for her perpetual enjoying the gift of miracles. That promise, Mark 16:17 These signs shall follow them that believe, &c. was only a temporary promise.
2. We are forbidden to expect miracles, John 4:48 and forbidden to trust to miracles without scripture, or to regard such miracles as are wrought to confirm any doctrine that is contrary to scripture, Deuteronomy 13:3 because the miracles of the last times are declared to be the signs of Antichrist, 2 Thessalonians 3:9-10.
From all which it follows, that miracles are no infallible note of the true church, as the Papists would make it; who also produce St. Paul's handkerchiefs here, and St. Peter's shadow, Acts 5:15 as a warrant for their superstitious relics; but the text assures us, it was God that wrought the special miracles, not St. Paul, nor his handkerchiefs, but God by his hand. The miracles in the church of Rome, pretended to be wrought by the relics of saints and martyrs, are no better than lying wonders.
Here observe, 1. That we read not of any in the Old Testament that were bodily possessed with devils and evil spirits: but, in the New Testament, we meet with many both in our Saviour's time and also in the apostles', to the intent that the power of Christ might more signally appear in their ejection and casting out.
Observe, 2. How some of the Jewish exorcists, like our jugglers, who make it their trade to wander up and down, to get a livelihood by pretending to cure diseases, and cast out devils, seeing what great miracles Paul had wrought in the name of Jesus, attempted to cast a devil out of a possessed man, by using the same name, though in Jesus they believed not. But Satan was so far from obeying them, that he made the possessed man fall violently upon them and wound them.
Thence learn, 1. That Satan scorns all human attempts, as weak and impotent, and is conquered only by a divine power; Jesus I know; but who are ye?
Learn, 2. That the devil would gladly be God's ape. The Jewish jugglers would by all means imitate the apostles in casting out devils; accordingly they use the name of Jesus as a charm; but saying the same word with the apostles signified nothing, without exercising the same faith and grace. These exorcists soon found that words without faith would not work to cast out devils, and that Christ would not give power to his name when used as a charm.
Learn, 3. That the devil, by God's permission, has power over those who profane the name of Christ. Satan here was too hard for these conjurers; he rushes upon them, and masters them, tears their clothes, wounds their bodies, and, had not God restrained him, had unavoidably destroyed them. Satan's malice is infinite, but his power is limited and bounded.
Lord! abate his power, since his malice cannot be abated.
Observe, lastly, How this execution of divine vengenance wrought wonderfully for the conviction and conversion both of Jews and Greeks, ver. 18. Many believed, and came and confessed their sinful deeds. And as an evidence of their detestation of their former faults and follies, they make a bonfire of all their magical books; burning so many of them, as the learned say, the price amounted to eight hundred pounds. Thus these conjurors evidenced themselves to be real converts, by plucking out their right eye, and cutting off their right hand; that is, sacrificing their bosom and best beloved lust and corruption.
Thence learn, That there is no better evidence of the truth of a person's conversion, than cheerfully to part with a very profitable and pleasing lust.
Observe here, 1. How angry the devil grows at the success of the gospel, mentioned in the foregoing verses: there we read how the whole college of diabolical conjurors were brought over, by the apostles' preaching at Ephesus, to burn their books, and leave their wicked course of life.
Hereupon the devil bestirs him, and raises a persecution against the apostle. Those that will disturb Satan in the quiet and peaceable possession of his kingdom, shall be sure to meet with trouble and disquiet from him. Let not any of the saints of God in general, nor any of the faithful and zealous ministers of Christ in particular, expect any long continuance of their outward tranquility and peace in this world, where they are every day up in arms against Satan, and meditating the ruin of him and his kingdom; for which he will certainly seek revenge.
Observe, 1. The instruments which the devil employs to raise the storm of persecution against the apostle, namely, Demetrius the silversmith, and his craftsmen; they looking upon St. Paul as one that impaired their profit, and spoiled their trade of making silver shrines for Diana's temple, by his crying down the worship of idols.
"But what were their silver shrines, made for Diana's temple?"
Answer, The temple of Diana was at that time one of the seven famous structures of the world; and the silver shrines made by these silversmiths, were certain models or images of this temple, wherein their idol goddess Diana was set forth; which shrines or portable temples, all the people of Asia carried about with them, to stir up the more their own devotions towards this idol.
So that this shrine-making must needs be a very gainful trade, when all Asia was addicted to this superstition. No wonder then that Demetrius, upon the sight of the loss of his gain, made an horrible outcry, and set the city in an uproar: for carnal men, whose gain is in their god and their godliness, account themselves undone when their god Mammon is in danger. If you take away their gods, what have they more.
Learn hence, That gain-getting, and maintaining of men's livelihood, are mighty temptations to carnal men, to use impious means for supporting superstition and idolatry.
Observe, 3. The arguments which Demetrius used to stir up the people against the apostle; and they are three,
1. The plea of profit, By this craft we get our gain: if this man's doctrine obtain, our trade will quickly fall under disgrace, and die. This was the most cogent, the most pungent argument, that could be used; for, though an argument drawn from our own interest is not the most weighty, yet usually it is the most persuasive.
2. The pretence of piety: not only are we like to lose our livelihood, but our religion too; Our goddess Diana will be despised, her temple profaned, and her worshippers scorned. This easily heated the rabble's blood, put the multitude into a ferment, and caused an hideous outcry for two hours together, Great is Diana of the Ephesians.
3. The plea of the antiquity and universality, and the common consent of all worshippers: Diana, whom all Asia, and the world worshippeth. As if Demetrius had said, "What! shall we suffer the temple of Diana to be set at naught by the preachments of this babbler Paul; a place so magnificent for structure, being some say one hundred, others two hundred and twenty years, a building; so renowned for the oracles of the gods, so magnified for the image that fell down from Jupiter, so honoured by the oblations of the Asiatic potentates, and crowded with the devotions of the Ephesians, and admired throughout the whole world?"
Lord! what danger was the life of the great apostle now in! how did this popular tumult threaten the present destruction of him and his companions, Gaius and Aristarchus! Now is supposed to be the time when the apostle says, That after the manner of men he had fought with beasts at Ephesus; and this is probably the deliverance which he gratefully commemorates in Who hath delivered us from so great a death, and doth deliver; in whom we trust that he will yet deliver us. 2 Corinthians 1:10
Observe here, 1. The undaunted courage of St. Paul in the cause of Christ: he resolves to adventure his life, by going into the theatre, there to make an apology for himself and his companions, and in defence of the Christian religion. He did not account his life dear unto him, but was willing not only to be bound, but to die for the name of Jesus.
Observe, 2. How the divine Providence is to be admired, and awfully adored, in directing to ways and means for the Apostle's preservation in this time of imminent danger. God now made use of the advice, not only of the apostle's fast friends or by foes; for he can make enemies become benefactors at his pleasure, and command deliverance for his people, sometimes by opposite and contrary means.
Lord! who would not trust thee in a time of imminent or impending danger, who hast all created nature at thy back, the hearts of all in thy hands, the tongues and hands of the most unruly and outrageous in thy power; and wilt deliver thine in six troubles, and in seven, and there shall no evil touch them! Thou canst and wilt deliver as often as thy children need deliverance, and save them from evil, even when they are in the midst of trouble!
Observe, 3. How the rabble at Ephesus treated Alexander being in the theatre, (the place where they judged offenders, and cast them to the wild beasts:) they would not suffer him to make any defence for himself, or the people of the Jews. This Alexander is supposed by many to be that Alexander, who St. Paul afterwards told Timothy did him much evil: if so, we find here he was first a proselyte, then a professor, next a confessor, almost a martyr; yet, after all, an apostate; making shipwreck of the faith, for which he was excommunicated by the apostle, Of whom is Hymenaeus and Alexander, whom I have delivered unto Satan. 1 Timothy 1:19-20
This excommunication of the apostle probably was the provocation that occasioned him to do so much mischief to the apostle, of which he complains, Alexander the coppersmith did me much evil; of whom be thou ware also. 2 Timothy 4:14
Learn thence, 1. That it was possible for a glorious professor to turn a furious persecutor. This Alexander did not only withstand the apostle's person, but his doctrine also; for which being excommunicated, he sought revenge.
Learn, 2. That excommunication not only angers but enrages wicked and impenitent men; so that, instead of being reformed, they seek revenge: yet must the censures of the church be executed and inflicted without either fear or favour.
Observe here, 1. The instrument which God stirs up to stem the tide, and to stop the stream, of this hair-brained assembly; and that is, the town-clerk, who was always present at their public meetings, and registered all their city acts. His presence and eloquence God made use of, to appease this tumult, to preserve the apostle, and to dismiss the assembly.
Observe, 2. The town-clerk's oration was full of craft and policy, of fraud and fallacy; for he tells the multitude, that St. Paul and his friends are against images only that are made with hands; whereas theirs was not such, but one that fell down from Jupiter. It was his duty, by office, to appease the rabble's rage, with reason and authority; he ought not to have done it fallaciously. But we must consider he was a Pagan, and his design was only to still the people; accordingly, he encourages the credulous multitude to believe what the crafty priests had insinuated into them, that the image which they worshipped was not made with hands; but fell immediately down from heaven; hoping thereby to gain more veneration to their idols, and get more pounds into their own purses. Thus God made use of the worldly and (somewhat) wicked eloquence of this heathen to preserve St. Paul.
Observe, 3. How God opens the mouth of this man to vindicate the apostle's innocency and his companion's also; These men, saith he, are neither robbers of churches, nor yet blasphemers of your goddess. It is very likely, that the apostle and the Christians in Ephesus had in wisdom asserted Christianity, without saying much against Diana, which would have but enraged the multitude; much less did they offer any violence to her temple or her image.
Here note, That although the apostles were great enemies to these men's idolatry, yet did they offer no outward violence ot their idol-temples, neither to demolish them, or deface any image on them: they well knew, that such a work of public reformation was not their business, but the magistrates'; therefore they endeavoured by preaching to cast idols out of the people's hearts, but not by violence to throw them out of the temple.
Thus ends this chapter, with the account of St. Paul's marvellous, if not miraculous preservation at the city of Ephesus; where being surrounded with difficulties and dangers on all hands, yet being found in the way of his duty, and in the work of his master, he escapes all perils. Safety evermore accompanies duty: when we are in God's way, we are under God's wing: preservation and protection we shall have, if God may thereby be glorified; but sometimes danger is better than safety, a storm more useful than a calm.
And blessed be God for the assurance of his promise, that all things, be they mercies or afflictions, comforts or corrections, dangers or deliverances, life or death, all shall work together for good to them that love God, and are found steadfast in their obedience to him. Romans 8:28
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Burkitt, William. "Commentary on Acts 19". Burkitt's Expository Notes with Practical Observations on the NT. https://www.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 8 / Ordinary 13