Ultimately a commitment to rightly contextualize the gosple must be rooted in a confidence in the power of the gospel. Luke teaches us about that power in Acts 19.
Ephesus was a city of great power. This city boasted a population of 500,000 people and was a major center of travel and commerce. It was situated on the Aegean Sea at the mouth of Cayster River, and was one of the greatest seaports of the ancient world.
The market and trade area in the city was 360 ft square with hundreds of shops and booths for people to sell their goods. The city had the largest theater in the world at the time, capable of holding up to 50,000 people.
The city was known for its knowledge and ingenuity. It boasted of a huge library and likely had the first instance of indoor plumbed toilets.
But nothing displayed the great power of Ephesus better than the massive Temple to its patron goddess, Artemis. The Temple of Artemis was 425 long, 220 ft wide, and 60 ft high. Imagine the size of a typical sports stadium; this Temple was just a little bit smaller than that. It was made almost entirely of marble and was surrounded by 127 massive pillars. Thousands of people came to the city each year to pay tribute to the goddess in this impressive structure. This temple was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, along with the Great Pyramid and the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. Antipater of Sidon, the man who compiled the list of the seven wonders, said this about the Temple of Artemis:
I have set eyes on the wall of lofty Babylon on which is a road for chariots, and the statue of Zeus by the Alpheus, and the hanging gardens, and the colossus of the Sun, and the huge labor of the high pyramids, and the vast tomb of Mausolus; but when I saw the house of Artemis that mounted to the clouds, those other marvels lost their brilliancy, and I said, Lo, apart from Olympus, the Sun never looked on aught so grand.
Ephesus was a city of great power, and its people were captivated by power. The city was filled with magicians and sorcerers and healers — people infatuated by power.
Ephesus was a center of magic power and political power and religious power, but the power that the people of Ephesus enjoyed and pursued was nothing compared to the power they would experience with the arrival of the apostle Paul.
Paul’s three years in Ephesus mark the climax of his public ministry, and in Acts 19 Luke highlights the powerful effects that resulted from this ministry.
Luke summarizes Paul’s ministry in Ephesus in verse 20. The verse literally reads this way:
So because of power the word of the Lord grew and was strong.
This statement is very similar to other summary statements made by Luke throughout the book of Acts. For instance, 6:7 says, “And the word of God continued to grow” — same word translated “grow” in 19.20. Or in 12.24, “But the word of God grew” — again, same word.
Luke’s summary statements often emphasize the growth of the influence of the gospel.
The difference here in chapter 19 is Luke’s emphasis is on the reason for the growth — power! In fact, in the Greek, the verse begins with the phrase, “Because of power.” There is no doubt that Luke is emphasizing the power of the gospel in this chapter. There were certainly hundreds of events that Luke could have recorded about Paul’s three year stay in Ephesus, but he chose certain specific events to make a central point. In recording the events that he does, Luke sets up this power of the gospel in contrast to the infamous “powers” of the city of Ephesus.
So I’d like to notice in this chapter evidences of the power of the gospel.
The Gospel has power to save
The gospel grants membership in Christ’s Body
The first account of Paul in Ephesus has to do with his encounter with these twelve disciples of John the Baptist in verses 1-7. These men had evidently been taught by John and had left the area without knowledge of Jesus Christ or the Holy Spirit. Paul’s reply to them is key in verses 4-5:
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.” On hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus.
Paul essentially gave them the gospel of Jesus Christ, and it had a powerful effect — they were baptized into the name of the Lord Jesus.
Now we need to remind ourselves of a few things regarding spirit baptism. 1 Corinthians 12.13 will remind us what exactly spirit baptism is and who participates in it:
For in [with] one Spirit we were all [who are the “all”? those who have trusted Christ] baptized into one body— Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit.
So who is it that experiences spirit baptism according to this verse? Well, in context it is “brothers” — believers in Jesus Christ. Anyone who believes, regardless of race, may be spirit baptized. What is it? According to the verse, spirit baptism places believers into one body — whose body? Christ’s body. So those who are spirit baptized are immersed into Christ — united together in Christ’s Body, which is the Church. When does it happen? Well, the verse says, “were all baptized,” which indicates a point of time in the past. And because all believers are placed into the Body of Christ, it must occur at the moment of salvation.
So spirit baptism happens to all believers at the moment of their salvation, and it places them into the spiritual Body of Jesus Christ.
So what is clear then in Acts 19 is that these disciples of John the Baptist were not believers in Jesus Christ, but when Paul preached the gospel to them, they believed and were spirit baptized. And just like we see several times in the book of Acts, this baptism was accompanied by tongues and prophesy in order to authenticate their union in the Body of Christ.
So here we see the first example of the power of the gospel — the gospel has power to save, and particularly, the gospel grants membership in the Body of Christ.
Now just stop for a moment and consider the impact of what this means. The gospel has the power to take individuals who are not only of different races and backgrounds and personalities, but who are also rebels and God-haters, and fit them together into the spiritual Body of Jesus Christ. It has the power to take sinful, selfish rebels and make them the hands and the legs and the fingers of Jesus Christ’s spiritual body on this earth. Now that’s power!
And as a side note, this is why visible water baptism and visible local church membership are so important — they picture the wondrous realities of spirit baptism and membership in the spiritual Church. Being physically baptized and visible joining a local church are the most important first acts of obedience for a Christian because they put on display the power of the gospel!
The gospel grants citizenship in Christ’s Kingdom
But there is another aspect of the power of the gospel in salvation beyond membership in Christ’s Body, and it is illustrated in verses 8-17.
In verse 8 we find some of the content of Paul’s gospel message — he argued “persuasively about the kingdom of God.” The gospel not only has the power to grant us membership in the spiritual Body of Christ, but it also has the power to grant us citizenship in the Kingdom of Christ. That Kingdom is not yet here, but when someone repents and believes in Jesus Christ, he is made a citizen of that future Kingdom.
And this is illustrated by the “extraordinary miracles” that God did through Paul. What are the purpose of miracles? 2 Corinthians 12.12 tells us that miracles were the mark of an apostle, and Hebrews 2.3-4 tell us that miracles confirm the truthfulness of the gospel. So the purpose of these miracles performed by the apostle Paul were to confirm the gospel message.
But how do miracles confirm the gospel? It directly relates to the power of the gospel to grant citizenship in the Kingdom. Hebrews 6.5 calls miracles “powers of the coming age.” In other words, these kinds of blessings that the people in Ephesus were experiencing — healings, freedom from evil spirits — were foretastes of Kingdom blessings and therefore proof of the power of the gospel to grant citizenship in the Kingdom.
Again, stop for a moment and consider the significance of this. What does it mean to be a citizen of a kingdom or country that is not the one in which you are currently living? It means that you possess all the rights and privileges of that kingdom or country even though you don’t live there.
In the summer of 1999 I traveled with a choir in Europe. Once when we were in Russia, we were driving down the road (I was driving one of the three vans), and we noticed a road block up ahead. We were pulled over by the military — jeeps and machine guns and uniforms and all. They demanded that the drivers of the vans (I being one of them) get out of the vehicles and follow them. We didn’t have much choice since they had guns! Thankfully we also had a Russian translator with us, so he went along. We followed the soldiers into a large bus on the side of the road. All the seats had been removed, and in the very back of the bus was a large couch with a table in front of it and a greasy, “Godfather” looking man with an open white dress shirt and gold chains around his neck seated there surrounded by some guards. We walked to the back of the bus, and saw on the table in front of the man various syringes and needles. Our translator began talking with the man on the coach, and pretty soon he got a little bit agitated and then turned to us and said, “We’re leaving.” And we followed him out of the bus, got in our vans, and drove off.
We found out later that this was simply a routine drunk driving road block, and the authorities were pulling over all of the vehicles and making the drivers give blood for alcohol testing. So they wanted to stick us with one of those needles to test our blood and see if we had been drinking alcohol.
Well our translator wisely told them, “These men are citizens of the United States of America, they have their rights, and they will not submit to this test!”
You see, as citizens of another country, we enjoyed the rights and privileges and protection of that country even thought we were not actually in that country. There are some limits to that protection, and we still have to abide by the laws and regulations of that country. But we do still possess the rights of our citizenship.
The same is true for anyone who is a believer in Jesus Christ. We are citizens of a future Kingdom. We do not yet live in that Kingdom, but in many ways we enjoy the rights and privileges and protection of that Kingdom!
The gospel has power! It has power to save — it grants us membership into the Body of Christ and it grants us citizenship in the Kingdom of Christ.
This is great power. And this is not some kind of cheep magical power that can be sold like the magical power that fascinated the Ephesians. This is illustrated in the next event that Luke records. Here are some men — sons of a Jewish chief priest, no less — who see Paul casting out demons and are so fascinated by it that they decide to try it themselves, no doubt charging money along the way. But instead of being successful, they are left naked and bleeding.
The gospel provides power, but it is not magic. It is true power in the message of Jesus Christ to save sinners, and it is authenticated here with miracles. But the miracles are not ends in themselves — they simply testify to the truthfulness of the gospel.
The gospel has power to sanctify
The power of the gospel is not limited only to salvation, however. Here we have people coming to salvation through the power of the gospel — it grants them membership in Christ’s body and citizenship in Christ’s Kingdom. But the power of the gospel extends beyond merely these point-in-time moments of salvation. The power of the gospel has even further-reaching results.
And this became known to all the residents of Ephesus, both Jews and Greeks. And fear fell upon them all, and the name of the Lord Jesus was extolled. Also many of those who were now believers came, confessing and divulging their practices. And a number of those who had practiced magic arts brought their books together and burned them in the sight of all. And they counted the value of them and found it came to fifty thousand pieces of silver. So the word of the Lord continued to increase and prevail mightily.
Because of power, the word of the Lord grew and was strong, “in this way.” In what way? By saving sinners, and by sanctifying them. The gospel not only has power to save, but it also has power to sanctify.
Believers will be transformed
These people did not just believe and then continue in their sinful lifestyles. These people were transformed! Notice all the ways that these people were transformed by the gospel:
Verse 18 says that they openly confessed their evil deeds. This power had moral impact. Verse 19 says that those who had practiced sorcery burned their scrolls publicly. This power had religious impact. The burning of these scrolls was very expensive, but these normally greedy Ephesians didn’t care. This power had economic impact.
“In this way, because of power, the word of the Lord grew and was strong!”
Many people think that we need the gospel only for our salvation. But the power of the gospel extends far beyond our salvation to every aspect of our lives! Ephesians 3.16 says that believers are strengthened with power [same Greek word] through he Spirit in the inner man. That’s sanctification. Titus 2.11-12 says that the same grace that brings salvation also teaches us to say no to ungodliness.
The power of the gospel that saves is also the power that sanctifies! It completely transforms the unbeliever. Someone does not have to reform his life in order to experience the power of the gospel, but where there is no transformation, there is no power, and where there is no power, there is no gospel. Someone who is living in sin cannot claim to have experienced the power of the gospel.
If the gospel were some unremarkable thing, then maybe someone could experience it without any lasting effects. But the gospel is not unremarkable. The gospel is like an atom bomb — When its power is released, you will see evidences of its impact.
When the atom bomb was dropped on Hiroshima near the end of World War II, that 130 pounds of uranium created a blast equivalent to about 13 kilotons of TNT. The radius of total destruction was about 1 mile, with resulting fires across 4.4 square miles. Infrastructure damage was estimated at 90 percent of Hiroshima’s buildings being either damaged or completely destroyed. No one doubted the power of that bomb. The power was evident in the results.
To deny that the gospel has the power to transform lives would be like if I insisted that I set off an atom bomb in your town, but you saw absolutely no evidence of its power.
Unbelievers will notice the transforming power of the gospel.
The gospel has power to sanctify — to transform believers, and unbelievers will notice. That is the reason behind the riot at the end of the chapter. If the gospel didn’t change anyone, then Demetrius and the sliver smiths would have had no reason to be upset. But the powerful effects of the gospel to change lives gave them good reason to worry. Look at the heart of his concern in verse 27:
And there is danger not only that this trade of ours may come into disrepute but also that the temple of the great goddess Artemis may be counted as nothing, and that she may even be deposed from her magnificence, she whom all Asia and the world worship.
Demetrius recognized that the gospel had a powerful impact upon the commercial and religious so-called “power” of the city of Ephesus. Even the term they used to describe Christianity — “The Way” — reveals that even unbelievers knew that believing in the gospel implied a change in lifestyle.
The power of the gospel so threatened the very fabric of the Ephesian society that it caused a violent riot that lasted for hours. This city that was so infatuated with power — commercial power and political power and religious power and magical power — was thrown into confusion by the power of the gospel. And Luke highlights the fact that it was not power in Paul himself — he didn’t even go to theater. Ephesus was literally turned upside down simply by the power of the gospel itself.
I want to conclude by narrowing in even closer on the exact nature of this power, and to do so, I would like to look at Paul’s own words to these very people who were saved in this chapter. I want to turn to the first chapter of Ephesians. Here Paul addresses the believers in this city that is so enamored by power, but he reveals to them a greater power in the gospel, and explains just how powerful it is. Begin reading in verse 15-19.
For this reason, because I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints, I do not cease to give thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers, that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of him, having the eyes of your hearts enlightened, that you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power toward us who believe, according to the working of his great might.
Now let’s stop here for a moment in verse 19. This verse literally reads, “And his incomparably great ability [same word in Acts 1.8 where Jesus said we would receive ability to witness] for us who believe.” So all believers are given an incomparably great ability. But then the verse continues by saying literally, “That ability is because of the working of his mighty power” — that’s the exact same phrase as we saw in Acts 19. So this ability given to all believers is because of God’s mighty power. This power is what we’ve been witnessing in Acts 19.
And now in verse 20 is where Paul describes the nature of this power that is at the heart of the gospel:
[That ability is because of the working of his mighty power] that he worked in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places.
Do you realize the significance of that statement? The exact same power that God exerted in raising Christ from the dead is the same power that is at the heart of the gospel. It is a power that reverses all other powers.
This power reverses the power of death — not only the death of Christ (verse 20), but also the condition of death that characterizes all sinners (Ephesians 2). This power reverses the great power of Satan over the world and sets up Christ as the supreme King of all (verses 20-22). This power reverses Babel and unites people from all races in one Body (verse 23). And this power reverses the sinful habits of believers and conforms them to the image of Jesus Christ.
The power of the gospel is a power that reverses all other powers, and it is available to you if you believe in the gospel. If you do not believe, then the gospel is simply foolishness to you. 1 Corinthians 1.18 says that “the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” And if you have experienced that power, then you should be able to affirm with Paul in Romans 1.16,
For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.
At the end of the day, it is not our cleverness or our efforts or our contextualization that leads a person to accept Christ. It is the life-changing power of the gospel of Jesus Christ.