The Methods - Acts 19:1-10

This is a sermon by Chris Hobbs from the morning service on 5th December 1999.

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Acts 19v10: all the Jews and Greeks who lived in the province of Asia heard the word of the Lord.
I dream of a day when we can say that all the people who live in the parish of Newland have heard the word of the Lord. But why stop there? Let's keep dreaming: why not all the people who live in the city of Hull? Or, since I'll soon be moving to Birmingham, perhaps you'll allow me to take my dream with me and long for the time when all the people who live in the parish of Selly Park heard the word of the Lord, everyone in the city of Birmingham?

But what will keep this dream from remaining a dream, a pipe-dream? What will make it into reality, so that we can wake up and find it taking place?

Is it a possibility, or are we just living in cloud cuckoo land, in dream-land?

For Paul, the dream became a reality. We'd be wise to see how he did it if our dream is to be a reality. What did he do that led to the word of the Lord being heard by all these people? In one way, it was nothing special. He just preached the word so that people could hear it and then tell it to others who could hear it. But in another way, he did something very unusual - in his willingness to be flexible, to use different means in different places, all with the same aim of getting the word of the Lord to people.

We might call his approach 'principled pragmatism'. There can be little doubt that Paul was a man of principle, determined to do what was right. But he was also a pragmatist. That is, he did what worked. He wasn't just a pragmatist, so that he'd do anything so long as it worked and brought people (and their money) in. It frightens me how quickly people will pick up the latest package or jump on the latest bandwagon just because it seems to work, without looking to see whether it is right. But I'm equally frightened (perhaps more so because that is the way I would tend myself) to justify doing nothing out of a matter of principle. I don't want to forget what D L Moody said to a critic who complained about his evangelistic methods: "Sir, I prefer the way I do my evangelism to the way you don't".

So, we find Paul in Ephesus, a city of as much as half a million, on the west coast of what is now Turkey. Even today, the ruins are impressive. It was clearly a great city. He's recently been in Athens (a great intellectual centre) and Corinth (a busy commercial centre), now it's Ephesus (a thriving religious centre - with its cult of Artemis/Diana, not to mention its emperor worship.

Why did Paul go for the cities? Because that's where the people were. And, if they didn't live there, it's where they'd come sooner or later. Those living around the cities would travel in on business or pleasure and perhaps hear the gospel, believe it and take the message back with them. It's not that the villages and towns aren't worth bothering with, and we shouldn't bother with small churches. But think of it this way: if you're forced to choose between planting a church in Hull and in Bishop Burton, which would you go for? What was true then is no less true today, with even more people living in cities than ever. A this second millennium draws to a close, there are something like twenty-five cities with over 10 million inhabitants. About one half of the world's population lives in cities.

Paul's principled pragmatism has taken him to Ephesus. Let's see how it governed his work there, how it led to the word of the Lord being heard throughout the Roman province.

1. Teaching the 'believers' (v1-7) Paul took the road through the interior, verse 1. He'd been in Galatia and Phrygia in the southern part of Asia Minor. He now travels overland to Ephesus. There he found some disciples. That is, he found some people who appeared to be disciples. That's how they presented themselves. Just as the disciples in the Gospels were often doubtful and confused, and one of them was even a traitor, so the word disciple doesn't mean any more than that's how they seemed. And so that's how Paul takes them, at face value. He treats them as if they are what they say they are. But he isn't so naive as to presume that they've got it right.

That was one of the first lessons I learned in working with teenagers at summer camps. We were taught to say that so-and-so had professed faith in Christ. We would take them at their word. At the same time, we recognised that, for many, they wouldn't really have understood what they were doing.

These professed disciples quickly revealed how defective their understanding was. Paul had apparently noticed something which caused him concern and led him to ask two searching questions, questions designed to probe and to find out if they were what they professed to be. So, verse 2.... Paul assumes that true believers have the Holy Spirit - the personal presence of God in their lives (assuring them of his forgiveness and producing his new life in them).

This text has been used to show that there is a two stage experience in the Christian life. Stage one: we come to faith in Christ. Stage two: we receive the Holy Spirit. It is possible to translate the verse as the footnote does ....after....., but that doesn't make with what follows. Paul goes on to show his second assumption that Christian baptism is the sign of the Spirit's presence, but if they haven't received the Spirit, then their baptism wasn't Christian. That's why he asks, Then what baptism did you receive?

There is, then, no justification here for claiming that receiving the Holy Spirit and believing are two separate stages of Christian experience. The New Testament is clear throughout that those who do not have the Spirit are not Christians. For instance, Romans 8v9: ... if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ he does not belong to Christ. Or 1 Corinthians 12v3: ...no-one can say 'Jesus is Lord' except by the Holy Spirit. These professed disciples it seems had heard some of John the Baptist's teaching, and duly been baptised as his disciples, but they hadn't gone all the way in following his teaching, because that would have taken them to Christ. That's what Paul points out to them, what they now believe - and they are duly baptised into the name of the Lord Jesus. There is another ground for controversy here, though! It is the disciples' experience when Paul laid hands on them, verse 6... They experienced a kind of mini-Pentecost, as the experience of the day of Pentecost was repeated for them. We can only say that this was a special experience for this special group of John's disciples. It wasn't the universal experience of all who became Christians, even in the book of Acts - as you can check up for yourself. Sadly, because some Christians have insisted that this must be the experience of all Christians, other Christians have over-react and said that it should be the experience of none, thus dividing the church. We would do better to follow Acts and see that it's the wonderful experience of some, but not the necessary experience of any.

I take it that we can always expect to find people like these professed disciples in our churches. Not disciples of John, but people who profess faith, but who don't yet have a living experience of God in their lives. I can think of people in this church who were like that and who have now put their confidence in Christ and know the joy of the Holy Spirit dwelling within them. But there might still be others who even now who are disciples in appearance only. If that describes you, why not ask one of us to show you how to become a real Christian?

2. Paul argues with the religious (v8-9a) Next we find Paul in the synagogue, where the Jews met to worship God. That's probably where he met the twelve men originally. Now he gives himself to the synagogue as a whole, not just a group within it. I hesitate before using the word arguing to describe what Paul did in the synagogue. It doesn't sound very good to our ears. We don't think much of people who are argumentative. But it's what the text said he did. Verse 8: Paul entered the synagogue and spoke boldly there for three months, arguing persuasively about the kingdom of God. The point is, not that he was argumentative by nature and loved to pick a quarrel, but that he had arguments for what he believed. He was like a barrister in court, able to marshal his evidence, to present and argue his case, calling on the jury for a verdict. His approach wasn't along the lines of: 'well that's what I think, take it or leave it'.

And we shouldn't think that such arguing is unspiritual. Paul saw no conflict between wanting people to receive the Spirit and wanting them to know the truth. How could there be any conflict when he's the Spirit of truth? And that is the preacher's and the evangelist's job still, to persuade and argue for the truth. Argument alone will never be enough to persuade anyone. But the Spirit does his convicting work as we do our persuading work. And we need to recover our confidence in arguing a case for the gospel. Especially in a day when it's bad manners to disagree with anyone. A day when religion is seen as not only personal but private - and to try and argue anyone out of their beliefs and into yours is decidedly bad form.
Perhaps the nearest we have to the people in the synagogue in our time are those who go to church. There are within in our churches not only those who are professed disciples and need to come to a true knowledge of Christ, but also those who are basically religious rather than Christian and need to be persuaded to put their trust in Christ as the fulfilment of all that God has promised. While we mustn't limit our evangelism to the confines of our churches, as we'll see shortly, it must take place there as well. I'd be surprised if there isn't someone here in that position this morning. I do know of some, sadly, who have left St John's because they wanted the stability of a religion which left them feeling comfortable and without too many demands on them, rather than a living and life-changing relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ. I also, sadly, know of ministers who have been forced to leave churches, not because of anything they've done wrong, but because the people refused the message of the gospel. In one case they didn't want to hear so much about Jesus. In another, they found references to Jesus' death offensive.

3. Discussing with outsiders (v9b-10) For Paul, such a rejection doesn't mean he has to give up. It just means he has to go somewhere else to do it. In Corinth, he moved next door to the synagogue, into the house of a man called Titius Justus. Here, he uses the lecture hall of Tyrannus. This was probably where Tyrannus himself lectured his students. His name, like it sounds, means 'tyrant'. We don't know if he was called that by his parents or his students. I suppose you know you're getting through when they start calling you that!

Tyrannus would have used the hall himself in the cool of the day, up until about 11am. Paul would then have the use of it after he'd finished his own tent-making for the day, probably until about 4pm when the temperature dropped once again. Whatever the precise arrangements, this was no fly-by-night, hit-and-run mission. Paul spent a year and a half in Corinth. Now he spends over two years in Ephesus. If we reckon on one meeting a day for six days a week over those two years, that's the same as one meeting a week (which is pretty much what most people today would come to) lasting for... twelve years. This is serious, in-depth teaching evangelism. Jesus 2000 is a big effort, and we're going to need everyone's help. Do be ready next Sunday when we hand out some more precise details as to what you can do to help. But it's really only a beginning, our dozen or so meetings, when compared with Paul's six hundred.
When we're told that Paul had discussions, it's the same word translated arguing in verse 8. Paul wasn't swapping opinions with those who came. That hardly sounds much like the apostle. But he gave them the chance to come back at him: to ask questions, to take issue with him, to ask for clarification. It's a method we try to follow in our Christianity Explored course. Only about one-third of the meeting is a planned talk. The rest is spent answering questions.

And Paul took the disciples with him. Presumably now more than the twelve men he had with him at the start of the three months in the synagogue. Why take them with him? For a start, for their own safety. It wouldn't be safe to leave these young believers in the midst of those who refused to believe. What a disaster that would be! Young believers shouldn't just to go to the nearest church, or to the one they were brought up in, if they won't hear the word of the Lord there. But these young disciples would also learn from Paul how to do this work of spreading the word of the Lord.

It's never too soon to learn that.

When we look at Paul's 'principled pragmatism', what does our evangelism look like? I fear it's just too ecclesiastical - too bound by what we do in church, inviting people into our services and expecting them to fit in with us and the way we do things, when Paul would go anywhere to tell anyone of Christ. I fear we're too emotional, asking people to respond to the message when they hardly know anything of Jesus, when Paul would reason with them, arguing and persuading. And I fear we're too superficial - expecting people to understand the gospel after a single meeting or a short course, when Paul was prepared to spend years with people, teaching them and discussing with them.

Do you share this dream of everyone in the parish hearing the word of the Lord? It's one of the surest signs that we ourselves belong to the Lord. It will be hard work. It will be a long haul, way beyond Jesus 2000. But Jesus isn't only Lord until the end of February 2000, he'll be Lord in March 2000 as well - and in 2001, and in 2002, and forever.

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