Ephesus was a large city on the coast of Asia Minor (Turkey today). Paul previously visited it when heading home from Greece (Ac 18:19-21). Now he returns and stays for a long period, in order to establish a work which has an impact not only on the city but the entire area. Here will be planted a network of churches with Ephesus at the centre. They will be one of the strongholds for the kingdom when the churches of Judea are impacted by the coming Jewish war with Rome.
Already, Paul has seen converts (Ac 19:1-7) but now he returns to the Jewish Synagogue to reason about the kingdom of God (v8). At the start of Acts, Jesus ascended in the clouds (Ac 1:9-11) to rule a kingdom from heaven, as Daniel foresaw (Da 7:13-14). As Israel’s covenant fails (Je 31:31 -34), and she falls into ruin, Paul calls the Jews to find a place in Jesus’ new kingdom of God. But like his master before him (Mt 10:34-36), Paul meets a divided attitude. Some respond well, but others are hardened (v9). Their stubbornness is ominously like that of the ancient Pharaoh (Ex 9: 35) whose country was severely punished for his attitude towards God’s threats of judgement. Yet they, sadly, speak against the ‘way’ of salvation (Lu 3:4-6) which has been opened up by the Lord. So Paul leaves the synagogue, with the disciples the Lord has given to him, and establishes a teaching centre in the hall of Tyrannus. The impact of this goes far beyond the boundaries of Ephesus (v10) and the Lord supports Paul in it with striking miracles (v11). Some are even cured at a distance (v12), similar to Jesus’ own ministry (Lu 7:1-10). Local Jews then try to exploit the situation for their own benefit, thinking that Paul’s and Jesus’ names are magical (v13). But this backfires badly on a family exorcism business, linked to an important priest, when the troubled patient turns violently on the ‘healers’ (v14-16). In Jerusalem, Jesus was stripped and beaten by his enemies, but now the tables have turned. The priestly family end up in a terrible state and Jesus, rather than being despised, is held in awe right across the local communities (v17).
But what was Paul doing in those two years (v9,10) with the disciples? Indeed, what does it mean to be made into a disciple of Christ, as he commanded Christians to be (Mt 28:19-20)?
Firstly, this is a development beyond evangelism. When Paul first came to a town he announced Jesus as the king from heaven, to people who had not heard this ‘good news’. Such work is vital for the spread of the Lord’s kingdom and churches should still support today the pushing of the gospel into areas when it has never been heard or where it has been long forgotten.
But discipleship is a step beyond that initial call. It involves training a church for long-term living to the Saviour’s glory. Every church is an earthly outpost of Jesus’ heavenly kingdom and heavenly values are to be seen in each church (Mt 6:10). How does it work? In the gospels, Jesus trains his disciples like a Jewish Rabbi (Jo 1:38), except with a unique, divine authority (Mt 7:28, 29). This training involved memorising the key outline of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection (such as in Mark’s gospel). This is vital because our salvation is all built upon him. Layered onto this outline was then Jesus’ authoritative teaching (eg the Sermon on the Mount, Mt 5-7), his pithy statements and memorable parables. In Ephesus, Paul will have trained his disciples to remember these. But the goal was not to pass an exam in them, but to have their minds and hearts remade by the learning (Ro 12:1-2). So Paul will also have taught them how to understand what they had learned and what it meant for their lives. And then on top of all that, Paul will have put it all in the light of the Old Testament, seeing it through Jesus’ eyes since he fulfilled it (Lu 24:44,45).
No wonder Paul taught every day for 2 years! But Ephesus had to be intense to prepare it for its future; other churches probably learned more slowly. However, all churches must commit to this discipleship. We need to grow in our faith. We do that together, sharing our different gifts (1Co 12:7) and levels of maturity (Ti 2:7). And teaching is key, even in a culture like ours where preaching time is so tiny. Such learning can be hard work with all that needs covering. But the deeper we go in the knowledge of the Lord, the richer and more glorious our lives will become.