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Paul concluded his second missionary journey by arriving in Antioch (Acts 18:22), where he spent “some time” (vs. 23). Bullinger suggests that he remained there about three months before leaving on his third journey, but he probably spent most of 54 A.D. in Antioch.
This was the year 54 A.D. The Emperor Claudius died October 13 of that year. It had been his intention to have his son Britannicus succeed him, but when Claudius died, Britannicus was only 12, for he was born just three weeks after Claudius had became emperor. So Nero was proclaimed emperor at the age of 17. He was not the natural son of Claudius, but had been adopted by him in 50 A.D. Nero saw Britannicus as a serious potential rival and had him killed.
Nero had been born on Dec. 15, 37 A.D., the same year as the Jewish historian, Josephus. It was also the year that Tiberius Caesar died, under whom Jesus was crucified. It was also the year that Joseph of Arimathea arrived in Britain, settling in Glastonbury.
It was widely believed that Claudius died of poison. Suetonius says in his Lives of the Caesars:
“That Claudius was poisoned is the general belief, but when it was done and by whom is disputed.” (Claudius, XLIV)
The first years of Nero's reign are called by historians “the golden years,” for he was then a relatively good emperor and tried hard to do justice to the people. With the conquest of a part of Britain and the capture of the royal family already accomplished (in 52 A.D.), Nero “closed the two doors of the temple of Janus, as a sign that no war was left anywhere” (Suetonius, Lives of the Caesars: Nero, XIII).
In fact, Suetonius tells us also,
“So far from being actuated by any wish or hope of increasing or extending the empire, he even thought of withdrawing the army from Britain and changed his purpose only because he was ashamed to seem to belittle the glory of his father.” (Nero, XVIII)
Thus, the time of Paul's second and third missionary journeys were times of peace in the empire, and the Gospel was hindered only by Jewish opposition from the synagogues. Interestingly enough, there seems to have been little or no opposition in Jerusalem. There the believers conformed to the traditions of men in Judaism so well that they seem to have been left untouched after the first few years of persecution.
This condition of relative peace continued until Paul's arrival in Jerusalem at the end of his third missionary journey. At that time he was arrested and almost killed by the mob at the temple. Paul was taken to Caesarea by the Roman army for protection while awaiting trial, and was there for about two years (60-62) before he finally appealed to Caesar and was taken to Rome.
Shortly after that, the temple priests plotted against James, the head of the Jerusalem Church, forcing him to take a public stand one way or the other in regard to his brother, Jesus. Of course, he clearly stated his belief that Jesus was the Messiah, and for this he was cast off the platform and then, while lying on the ground injured, he was stoned to death (62 A.D.). This occurred about the time Paul appealed to Caesar, so it is likely that his escape from those plotting his death left them angry and frustrated. Unable to kill Paul, they took their revenge on James.
The Roman persecutions did not begin until July of 64 A.D. when Nero blamed the Christians for the great fire that destroyed much of Rome (while Nero played his fiddle, as they say).
With this overview in mind, let us return to Paul's third missionary journey, begun in 54 A.D. Acts 18:23 says,
23 And having spent some time there [Antioch], he departed and passed successively through the Galatian region and Phrygia, strengthening all the disciples.
We then read of the condition of the Church in Ephesus, because this is where Paul spent most of his time in this third missionary journey. The book of Acts gives us some background material, telling how a certain Jewish believer named Apollos (his Greek name) had been teaching in Ephesus. Apollos was born in Alexandria, Egypt and knew the Scriptures well. Yet he only knew about the baptism of John (18:25).
Apollos came to Ephesus shortly after Paul had left town. When he began to expound the Scriptures in the synagogue, Aquila and Priscilla, who had traveled there with Paul earlier, heard him and “took him aside and explained to him the way of God more accurately” (Acts 18:26). Apollos then went to Corinth, where the believers welcomed him.
Meanwhile, Paul's third journey now took him back to Ephesus. [See map in Appendix 6.] Because of Apollos, Ephesus had believers who were disciples of John the Baptist and who believed that Jesus was the Christ, but who had not heard of the events of Pentecost yet.
Paul then met these believers in Ephesus in 54 or 55 A.D. and informed them of Pentecost. Acts 19:5-7 says,
5 And when they heard this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. 6 And when Paul had laid his hands upon them, the Holy Spirit came upon them, and they began speaking with tongues and prophesying. 7 And there were in all about twelve men.
Paul spent three months in Ephesus on that occasion (19:8). At first, Paul ministered in the synagogue for three months (Acts 19:8), until he had found all those who had ears to hear and the rest of them were “hardened” (19:9). Then he set up his teaching center at “the School of Tyrannus,” headed apparently by a philosopher-teacher named Tyrannus, who had become a convert to Christ.
Paul continued his teaching at that location for another two years (19:10). It seems to have been a special time of miracles (19:11, 12). In a way, it was like an Ephesian Pentecost. People were healed and also delivered from evil spirits.
Thus, he spent about three years in Ephesus, teaching and establishing the Church there (Acts 20:31). This was longer than he spent in any other place. Ephesus served as his headquarters, for no doubt he often visited the other churches in Asia during that time. Ephesus was a provincial capital. After Paul's martyrdom, John moved there and continued to provide leadership not only for Ephesus but also for the whole region.
Though the School of Tyrannus was a safe place to teach about Christ, Paul was still in constant danger, mostly (it seems) from the Jews, who hated him primarily for opening up the Gospel to all men. They greatly opposed this “equality,” as is natural with those who have been taught that they are more beloved of God than ordinary men.
Some Jewish exorcists, “Sceva, a Jewish chief priest,” tried to duplicate Paul's miracles, attempting to cast out evil spirits in the name of the Jesus that Paul preached. Of course, they had no relationship with Christ, and so this did not work at all. One cannot use the name of Jesus as a magic formula or ritual with any chance of success.
15 And the evil spirit answered and said to them, “I recognize Jesus, and I know about Paul, but who are you?” 16 And the man, in whom was the evil spirit, leaped on them and subdued all of them and overpowered them, so that they fled out of that house naked and wounded.
Many, of course, saw this unusual sight—Sceva and his seven sons running down the street naked and limping—and so there was no way to hide the story. It served to discredit the Jewish view and empower Paul's Gospel. Verse 17 says,
17 And this became known to all, both Jews and Greeks, who lived in Ephesus; and fear fell upon them all and the name of the Lord Jesus was being magnified.
Men even brought their magic books (worth fifty thousand pieces of silver) and burned them in public, “so the word of the Lord was growing mightily and prevailing” (19:20).
Paul then took a quick trip back to Macedonia and Achaia (Greece), before returning to Ephesus, accompanied by Gaius and Aristarchus. He then sent Timothy and Erastus to Macedonia to continue to build the church there.
Back in Ephesus the church was growing, while idolatry was suffering. Once again, an economic crisis hit the idol-makers, and Demetrius, a silversmith, spoke to the trade union saying, “Men, you know that our prosperity depends upon this business” (19:25). After his speech, the men ran out and grabbed Gaius and Aristarchus, dragging them to the chief magistrate.
Paul heard what had happened and wanted to go to the scene, but his friends prevented him. The magistrate managed to calm the mob and told them that these men had done nothing wrong. In fact, he threatened the mob with civil action if they tried to start a riot.
Rome held the local authorities responsible if riots broke out. For this reason, when Demetrius incited the people to a near riot in Acts 19, the town clerk immediately calmed the situation and dispersed the rioters. That was the top priority. He told them that if the accused were guilty of some crime, they should be taken to court—not brought to the town clerk. The town clerk was the chief executive officer of Ephesus, responsible to Rome for maintaining order.
Ephesus was a free city. That is, the Romans had granted it “free city” status, and the Roman authorities only intervened when the public peace was disturbed. Rome valued peace above all else, and they were quite paranoid about it. Fifty years later, after a fire had broken out in Nicomedia, the proconsul Pliny asked permission from Emperor Hadrian to set up a fire brigade of 150 men. While that would seem like a reasonable request today, Hadrian would not hear of it. He wrote back a letter saying,
“Whatever name we may give them, and for whatever purposes they may be founded, they will not fail to form themselves into factious assemblies, however short their meetings will be.” (The Expositor's Bible, V, by W. Robertson Nicoll, p. 492)
And so when Ephesus was threatened with a riot, it was a serious political matter. Though Demetrius, the silversmith, was the one who incited the men of the shrine-makers' trade union (guild), Paul had some powerful friends of his own. Acts 19:31 says,
31 And also some of the Asiarchs who were friends of his [Paul's friends] sent to him and repeatedly urged him not to venture into the theater.
The Asiarchs were a class of rich men who were the official aristocracy of Asia. Years earlier, the Romans had united the worship of Diana (or Artemis) with the worship of the Roman Emperor, in order to unite patriotism with religion. The Romans then appointed certain rich men to preside over the celebrations. These Asiarchs, as they came to be called, funded the celebrations and in turn were given a title and a position almost equal to a proconsul.
Those people loved titles, but obviously, because of the great expenses involved, only rich men could become Asiarchs. An Asiarch's wife loved the position as well, for she was called an Asiarchess. There were many Asiarchs from year to year, and gradually, the title of Asiarch was given for life and became an aristocratic class in itself. All who had funded the celebrations of Diana in previous years became Asiarchs for life.
Paul apparently had made some converts among this class of people, and they sent word to Paul that he should stay out of sight and not try to reason with the mob or to intervene on behalf of his two friends, Gaius and Aristarchus. It may be also that they worked behind the scenes, sending a message to the town clerk.
This riot occurred about January of 58 A.D. Paul had already been contemplating his next trip to Jerusalem, and had written to the Corinthians, “I shall remain in Ephesus until Pentecost” (1 Cor. 16:8). This riot, however, appears to have brought about a slight change of plans. Paul departed for Macedonia (Acts 20:1), and from there to Greece, where he spent “three months” (20:3).
It was here that Paul met a new friend, a Greek doctor named Luke, who then accompanied the apostle on the rest of his third missionary journey, as well as his trip to Rome as a prisoner. Luke, of course, eventually wrote the history of Paul’s journeys that now comprise the book of Acts. Beginning with Acts 20:5, then, Luke uses the term “us” and (in verse 6) “we” when narrating the story. Up to that point in the book of Acts, Luke was telling the story as Paul had related it to him. But beginning with the 20th chapter, Luke told the story as an eyewitness and as Paul’s official record-keeper, and the narrative takes on greater detail.