This is the third of a four-part series on the Spirit of God in the book of Acts
Paul’s vision of gospel advance is as large as his knowledge of the known world. This vision, together with the guidance of the Spirit will bring Paul to the epicenter of the Empire and before the world power.
For reasons unknown to us, the Spirit forbids Paul and his companions to speak the word in Asia and when they attempt to do so, “the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them.” Instead, the Spirit makes it clear to Paul, through a vision, that he is to go west into Macedonia. Once again, it is obvious the Spirit of Jesus is guiding and empowering the mission of God through the apostles.
The first-fruits of Macedonia arrives in the person of Lydia in the city of Philippi. The Spirit opens her heart to believe and she and her household are baptized. Also in Philippi, Paul casts out an evil spirit from a slave girl in the name of Jesus Christ and the ensuing riot results in Paul and Silas in jail. We see here once again the battle between the spirit of the world (evil spirits, riots, prison) and the Spirit of Jesus (healing, preaching, singing). The Spirit uses the occasion of Paul and Silas’ imprisonment to bring about the conversion of a jailer and his family who are baptized into the kingdom of God.
The ever advancing Paul and Silas move on to other cities in the region and are met with similar responses: riots and opposition, belief and acceptance. All through Thessalonica, Berea, Athens, and Corinth, we see intense resistance to the message of Jesus Christ, which means suffering and hardship for the messengers of Jesus Christ. However, we also read of many who embrace the message and eagerly study the Spirit-inspired Scriptures to understand the message more fully. In this pattern we see the modus operandi of the Holy Spirit: bold proclamation of the gospel, eager study of the Scriptures, patient suffering because of allegiance to Christ, and persistent prayer. It is true we also see miracles and visions, but they take a backstage to the message of the kingdom of Jesus Christ. Consider that Paul and the Apostles are commanded to preach Christ above all, not perform miracles and seek visions.
On Paul’s return trip back to Antioch he stops at Ephesus where he encounters some disciples of John the Baptist who have never heard of the Holy Spirit. Paul informs them of the one who is greater than John the Baptist, namely Jesus the Christ, and subsequent to their baptism, the Holy Spirit comes upon the disciples and they began to speak in tongues and prophesy. This marks another stage in the advance of the gospel. The Holy Spirit and the gifts he bestows is now indwelling followers of Christ far from Jerusalem and deep in Gentile territory.
During Paul’s lengthy stay in Ephesus, we read of another confrontation between the evil spirits of this age, and the life-giving Spirit of Christ. In Ephesus there were some Jewish exorcists who thought, along with Simon the Samaritan, the Holy Spirit could be used simply for his power. They were attempting to use the power of Jesus’ name, but instead of successfully driving out demons, the demons drove them away; naked! Again, the Holy Spirit is not a power to manipulate according to our desires.
The Spirit further shows his power in what happens next. Upon hearing of these events, many of the believers in Ephesus confess they are still holding on to pagan practices and literature. In response, they burn their very expensive scrolls, and as a result “the word of the Lord flourished and prevailed.” The Spirit, working through wonders and words, will not be stopped by counterfeit exorcists, violent demons, or pagan sorcery.
Neither will the Spirit of God be halted by the serious riot that ensues. The disturbance is stirred up by followers of the cult of Artemis as they sense a threat to their comfortable and profitable beliefs. The rioters refuse to let go of their dumb gods and take hold of the living God.
The uproar causes Paul to move on from Ephesus to Macedonia for a time. After another stay in Greece, Paul begins his return to Jerusalem, “compelled by the Spirit.” In a hurry to return in time for Pentecost, Paul pitstops in Miletus to address the elders of the church at Ephesus. Here we gain insight into how the Spirit would continue to live and move in the church, even after apostles like Paul are gone. Paul reminds the elders that they have been appointed by the Spirit to shepherd the church of God. They must be on guard for false teachers who distort the truth. Paul commits the elders to God and to His “word of grace” and ends their brief visit with prayer and many tears. Evidently, the Spirit will protect his church through loving shepherds who diligently discern the truth and are faithful to the Word.