Our church reading plan has us in Acts for the next couple of weeks. Some parts of the Bible can be a little more difficult to grasp than others so here is a simple overview of the passages with some interpretive pointers.
Acts 19-20 - Paul in Ephesus
Acts is a history of the early church but it is written to tell us today about the journey of the Christian Gospel from the Jews in Jerusalem right out to the Gentiles in Rome. It's the opposite of a conquering: The Gospel is preached by Peter, James and Paul in weakness and it makes its way from the subjugated city of Jerusalem right to Rome, the greatest power in the known world.
Paul arrives in Ephesus during his third missionary journey and finds a community who had been formed by the preaching of Apollos (Acts 18:24-28). Apollos had not heard Jesus' words to the disciples to baptise people in "the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit" (Matthew 28:19) and so Paul's first task is to lead this community of believers into the truth of the power of God's Spirit. It seems that Paul understood the baptism in the triune name of God to be different in some way than John's baptism of repentance. John baptised to look forward to what was to come, to prepare people for the coming Kingdom. Since Christ inaugurated the Kingdom of God baptism becomes the sign that we are a part of this reality, not that we are waiting for it but that we have been buried with Christ and raised with him (Romans 6:4).
This power of God's Spirit is displayed through the miracles Paul works and then contrasted with those who sought this power but didn't want to repent and believe in Jesus. The sons of Sceva are Jews and the sons of a priest yet the demons do not respect them or fear their power. The power of God is shown, by their failure to exorcise the demons, to be bound to faith in Christ and not in being from one religious background or another. In the presence of the true power to expel evil, the whole people of Ephesus (who were both Jews and Gentiles) turn away from their old ways of seeking power. As Paul observes in one of his letter, there is now "neither Jew nor Greek...all are one in Christ Jesus" (Galatians 3:28).
There is almost a riot in Epehesus. The implications of this new Way are not received well by everyone and the remainder of chapter 19 tracks the tumultuous political atmosphere as the repentance of the city of Ephesus begins to affect Business As Usual. The city officials seem to know who the leaders of the church are and speak in their defence, knowing that they have not in their preaching been disrespectful or blasphemous. Paul did not walk into the temple and tear down their Artemis, rather he reasoned with the people and showed them the power of God by many wonders.
As Paul continues on his missionary journey we hear another story of how his ministry was accompanied by power and that power brought peace. A young man tragically falls as Paul is discussing and reasoning with the people about the Kingdom of God and Paul restores his life by the power of God.
Paul has a last opportunity to greet the elders of the Ephesian church and shows not only his love but also his knowledge that his missionary endeavours mean that his life is not his own and may be taken from him.
Acts 21-22 - Paul in Jerusalem
When he turns to return to Jerusalem many people offer the wisdom that he is walking into a situation he might not be able to get out of. These are words from the Lord and it is certainly wisdom yet in Paul's mind it is right to respond to these not by turning back but by having a sterner resolve.
Paul goes to speak with James who seems to be the leader of the Jerusalem church and James rejoices over how the Lord had worked in Paul's ministry. He makes every effort to bless Paul especially by giving him the opportunity to show that he is not preaching the destruction of the Temple or against Moses by having him participate in a Temple worship ritual.
This is not enough to placate the crowd who then go on to incite a riot in the Temple such that armed soldiers have to intervene. He is received by the rulers of the city, as in Ephesus, and by explaining to them that he is not a violent revolutionary he is allowed to speak openly in his defence.
Paul describes his experience of meeting Jesus and the work he had been entrusted with. The crowd become violent again when he mentions that Jesus had called him to reach the Gentiles. It seems that the people of Jerusalem could not stomach the idea of their God choosing to accept the people from all the nations of the world. The authorities of the city grow tired of this and propose to torture Paul to find out why the people are so offended by him. Once again Paul is spared violence (on account of being a Roman citizen) so that he might go on and speak again to more people. This is the beginning of a final journey for Paul. It will take him to Rome where he will proclaim the Gospel and it will take him to his death.