God on the Move: “Fight the Good Fight” -Acts 19

Chuck-HagelRecently, many American Christians I have spoken to became deeply concerned with the lack of a coherent strategy to face the growing global threat of ISIS. The mission community is watching this crisis, especially those of us who work in the Middle East region. Watching with horror as journalists were brutalized, many around the world reacted in fear, and wanted the comfort of our governmental leaders – and some are noticeably bitter about not getting what they wanted in assurances from Washington. Others are more concerned with the startling outbreak of the Ebola virus, and the seeming lack of a cohesive plan to combat the illness’ steady sweep through parts of the African continent. In all of this time of crisis, something has become very clear to me, and I believe today’s lesson will bear it out. Many dear brothers and sisters in the Lord Jesus, seem are far less concerned about the lack of a coherent strategy by the church of our generation to “fight the good fight of faith”, as Paul implored Timothy to do. Let me explain…

We live in times of an assault on our faith in the west. We are fighting against pervasive and deadly spiritual enemies that espouse militant naturalism, moral pluralism and ethical relativism. They are taking the halls of our schools, shining into our living rooms night after night on our television sets and blaring through all the speakers of our culture. While ISIS has been around for a short time, the moral slide toward relativism has been occurring in a steady march since I was a child right in my own schoolyard. We wanted the Pentagon and President to articulate a strategy – but I wonder if we have grasped that we as believers have largely failed to project a strategy on our own battle lines. We are in a pitched battle within our own country, and rather than it being symbolized by the lopping off of heads, it is symbolized by the removal of the moral conscience. Yet the Bible offers answers. We don’t have to sit back and be victims.

In fact, I would argue that it is a time for positive heroes to emerge and defend our faith. The victories of the past are swiftly gathering dust, but these are days for God’s people to grab the Biblical strategies of men and women of yesteryear who marched into the pagan world as far back as the first century and turned the place upside down with the message of Jesus. Paul faced a battle doing just that, but he did it with confidence, generosity of spirit, and a positive approach. It is time to revive the old strategy and articulate it all over again!

Key Principle: We must anticipate the battle, and we must use the model to effectively combat the enemies of the Gospel – but God gave us a manual to accomplish the task.

The text for this lesson offers us a series of challenges Paul faced as he moved the Gospel forward, as well how he responded to each of them. They offer more than a history – they offer a pattern…

First, there was the challenge of UNTRAINED FOLLOWERS – people who are open to following God but don’t really know what God said (19:1-7).

Acts 19:1 It happened that while Apollos was at Corinth, Paul passed through the upper country and came to Ephesus, and found some disciples. 2 He said to them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” And they said to him, “No, we have not even heard whether there is a Holy Spirit.”3 And he said, “Into what then were you baptized?” And they said, “Into John’s baptism.” 4 Paul said, “John baptized with the baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in Him who was coming after him, that is, in Jesus.” 5 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 on them, and they began speaking with tongues and prophesying. 7 There were in all about twelve men.

Look more closely at the procedure Dr. Luke recorded when Paul met the men who were insufficiently trained in the faith:

• Paul found them in the course of his travels (19:1).
• He recognized them as “disciples” (19:1b).
• He examined their beliefs, and determined they were open-hearted, but lacking knowledge of some key parts of what God was doing (19:2).
• He pursued specifics of their background to determine where the breakdown occurred in their spiritual formation (19:3).
• Paul instructed them in specific Scriptures concerning the truths they were missing, and set them in context (19:4).
• The disciples accepted the teaching, and publicly displayed obedience (19:5).
• God empowered the people and led them to the next step of their journey (19:6-7).

I am thankful the story begins with the most enjoyable challenge of ministry – the open but untrained believer. There is no greater joy than working with this kind of follower. My teaching affords me the opportunity to work with disciples that have chosen to take a year of their young lives and learn the Bible. I wish I could explain how it feels to watch them embrace the Word of God!

I am blessed by these few verses, because they remind us of some important truths. First, as we are journeying through life, we will happen upon some who have been led to Jesus, but have not been properly instructed in the Word of God in a way that they can really follow the Lord obediently. They (in the best circumstances) will demonstrate willingness to learn (“teachability”), but they may be using the Bible’s sharp edges in a way that is liable to cut them and others around them. We must consider how careful Paul was to see them as disciples in 19:1, and offer respect and brotherly kindness, in spite of the fact that they may be very poorly taught. Respect is the first key.

A second key drawn from this short account is the inspection Paul made of what they were following. He questioned them as loving brothers, embracing them as colleagues, not chastising them for their lack. It seems clear enough to me that Paul based his treatment of them on their open heart, rather than their developed theology. That should be the signal for us. If someone knows the Lord, and they have the fruit of the Spirit – patience and an honest teachability – we should ask question, listen carefully, and show love. People don’t care what we know until they know that we care about them. If we share truth, it must be in the context of love, and to the point of weakness of their lives. We have limited time together, so we need to address the most important things with the time we have.

The third essential key to dealing with untrained followers beyond respect and inspection is instruction. Note that Paul guided them from the part of the Bible story they knew into the part they did not. They got John’s baptism – they accepted and understood its meaning. They knew repentance. What they didn’t know is that the Lamb John announced did His work, and there was something more they needed to accept. Here is where the fourth key is introduced – challenge. The growing disciples needed to be challenged to step forward and publicly embrace the truth God was making known to them.

Think about what we just saw in the Word. An untrained believer needs to be entreated to grow while being treated with respect. Training them requires that we really listen to them, and inspect what they are saying for Biblical adherence and truth. Where truth is lacking, there needs to be deliberate and careful instruction that is applied to the needy one. Finally, they need to be challenged to live the truth unapologetically. That was the method left to the church by our early church fathers, and recorded by the Spirit’s oversight.

Second, there are DELIBERATE REJECTORS – people who heard the message but were hardened against it (19:8-10).

Acts 19:8 And he entered the synagogue and continued speaking out boldly for three months, reasoning and persuading them about the kingdom of God. 9 But when some were becoming hardened and disobedient, speaking evil of the Way before the people, he withdrew from them and took away the disciples, reasoning daily in the school of Tyrannus. 10 This took place for two years, so that all who lived in Asia heard the word of the Lord, both Jews and Greeks.

Stop for moment and consider how Paul handled those who rejected the message of Jesus:

• Paul made sure there was sufficient time for explanation (three months of Sabbaths – 19:8).
• He made every effort to answer their honest questions, and deliberately tried to persuade them of the truth (19:8b).
• When it became clear that they were not truly interested and were bad-mouthing God’s work in their midst– he withdrew (19:9).
• Paul pulled out those who wanted to follow Jesus and who would have been harmed by remaining in the synagogue after his departure (19:9b).
• Paul carefully trained the followers over an extended period – focusing significant energy on building them up before he left them (19:9-10).

Perhaps much harder to face are those who grew up in Christian homes and walked away from the faith, or those who have been misled within our churches, schools and seminaries. One of the most heartbreaking situations to experience as a parent is to raise your child as best you can in the nurture and admonition of the Lord, and then watch them rebel against God – sometimes in overt agnosticism or even irate atheism. We have our war stories at the church where I serve – every church does. The problem is that we may spend too much time trying to figure out “where we went wrong” and forget that though we should be on the lookout for how to do things better, it might not be our fault they walked away, and they may not stay that way if we keep on loving them. Instead of focusing on failure, we should look to the model in the text before us.

First, Paul made sure they ACTUALLY HEARD the truth. Just because your child was in a Bible class does not mean the Bible was being carefully explained. The world is only too ready to gang up against any detail of the Word of God – are you sure they have been exposed to a real and systematic teaching of the truth? In Acts 19:8, Paul stood in the teacher’s place for three months before he judged some simply unwilling to hear the truth – but he gave them three months first. We are too quick sometimes, I believe, to write off rebels. They may have honest questions – and they may come right back into the fold if we both love them and offer honest answers to their queries. I am concerned because I run into so many young people that were given a “flannel graph” view of the Bible stories, and never shown how they answer the deepest struggles of the human experience.

• Who can explain pain and set it in context better than God in Job?
• Who can reason why God rooted sexual attraction deeply within man better than Solomon in his Song of songs?
• Who can explain what happened to humanity, why relationships fall apart and genetics are breaking down better than Moses?
• Who can make clear man’s need of a new life better than Jesus did to Nicodemus?

The problem is that many young people (and many older as well) aren’t really confronted with the true problem. Like the Pharisees of old, the “faith” they learned was about cleaning up their act and washing their hands and dishes according to the rules. The fluffy teaching didn’t explain the deep brokenness inside of the depraved human heart, and the solution for its killing effect.

After Paul was sure they were EXPOSED to the truth sufficiently, he made a very hard call. He didn’t keep battling forever to get the rejecter to listen. How many a parent keeps the conversation going LONG AFTER the young person has stopped listening? Paul cut off the discussion, period. He moved the class away from those who didn’t want to hear it. He WITHDREW with those he could continue to teach. I have several friends who represent the truth in tough places (some of them on Facebook where neither truth nor grammar are treasured). Some of them get regularly beat up, and don’t know when to politely withdraw and let people believe what they want to believe.

Christians don’t change hearts. In the mystery of God’s work within, the Spirit presses and the person responds – and much of that process is not really fully explained in the Word. What is clear is the fact that people are often not rejecting US, but rejecting the God we represent.

Not long ago a friend of mine was dealing with a teen who was a mess. He kept disrupting the youth group in the church, but he kept coming. My friend is a godly man, and he and his wife couldn’t figure out how to work with this young person. Gathered in a small circle of trusted friends, he expressed that he was almost at the point of giving up and walking away, dismissing this young fellow and telling him not to return. Don’t judge him harshly – the young person had twice been caught with drugs on the church campus, and had attempted to draw several other young people into sexual situations – and parents demanded a response. I admit that I was on the page of protecting the other children, when a large African American man sitting with us spoke up. He said: “Can you introduce me to that young man?” The youth leader agreed. Awhile later I asked the man, “What are you going to do?” He smiled and said, “When I was thirteen I was molested by an uncle who was a deacon in my church and a Sunday School teacher. I know this kind of pain, and I want this young person to at least have one solid opportunity to feel loved, trusted and then have an occasion where they can open up about why they are acting out.” This wasn’t long ago, but I am glad that man is taking on the challenge instead of writing off a young man. We’ll see where it goes as time passes. My point is that there comes a time when we cannot chase down those who choose to reject, but we need to be careful to really get the message through to their broken heart first, or we are robbing them of a response, and ourselves of watching God heal.

Third, there were FALSE FOLLOWERS – those who were not walking with God, but using His name (19:21-22).those who imitated God’s work (19:11-20).

Acts 19:11 God was performing extraordinary miracles by the hands of Paul, 12 so that handkerchiefs or aprons were even carried from his body to the sick, and the diseases left them and the evil spirits went out. 13 But also some of the Jewish exorcists, who went from place to place, attempted to name over those who had the evil spirits the name of the Lord Jesus, saying, “I adjure you by Jesus whom Paul preaches.” 14 Seven sons of one Sceva, a Jewish chief priest, were doing this.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. 17 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. 18 Many also of those who had believed kept coming, confessing and disclosing their practices. 19 And many of those who practiced magic brought their books together and began burning them in the sight of everyone; and they counted up the price of them and found it fifty thousand pieces of silver.

In addition to some who were ignorant of the truth but open to God, and those who were informed but openly resisted the message of Jesus, Paul also had to deal with people who claimed to be a part of the move of God, but who were not:

• Paul was being used by God in powerful ways that were clearly God at work (19:11-12).
• Imitators thought they could “co-opt” the work of God and began to try to imitate what the Apostle was doing (19:13).
• Messing with the spiritual world, the men said the right things, but didn’t have the relationship with God to deal effectively with the spiritual world (19:14-16).
• The enemy’s attack was used by God to spread the Gospel, and remind people that the evil one was real and at work (19:17).
• Paul confronted the spiritual darkness, and as people continued to be a part of the work, they surrendered their dark practices (19:18).
• God convicted people, and they destroyed their attachment to the old life in front of all (19:19).
• While magic books were being destroyed, the Word of God was growing and spreading (19:20).

Fake followers have always been around. Some of them lead large congregations and have TV shows, but their lifestyle, if examined, shows an incredible financial attachment to the Gospel. Others join what they view as a spiritual circus, because they think they can be performers.

Yesterday a friend of mine urged me to watch a YouTube of “American Idol” singers coming together to sing “Shout to the Lord!” He was excited. I wasn’t. I am glad there is a public place for truth, and I celebrate that. At the same time, my Lord didn’t come to make hits or draw TV audiences – He came requiring repentance and offering salvation. I personally would struggle watching a stage filled with people who have no real relationship with God, based on their open lifestyle choices, singing praise to a God they don’t serve. That may sound quite “judgy” but I think there is a point at which we need to expect some people to use our faith for popularizing their agenda, not for promoting God’s Word.

I will not thank the world for throwing scraps from my faith in order to keep Christians watching their show, or offer an occasional “hat tip” to Jesus. I lived through both the Jim and Tammy Faye and the Oprah periods, and I have seen the damage of mixing statements of worship with lifestyles that do not match the Bible. More people are turned to darkness when people who don’t know God masquerade as people who do. I don’t’ want to campaign to stop it, but I won’t support it either.

Look at what God did for Paul. The apostle focused on moving the ministry forward, and God stepped in to unmask the fakes. We cannot ignore the charlatans, but we don’t need to spend vital energy focusing on them. I have no problem with Al Mohler making clear that Joel and Victoria Osteen don’t speak the truth and don’t seem to know the Bible. At the same time, that is about all the energy I am going to give to that subject – because we have disciples to make and a Bible to teach…and frankly that is all I have the energy for these days! The charlatans and their ilk lead us to their offspring… the fourth challenge to Paul…

Fourth, there were ERRING BELIEVERS – people who began in a walk with God, but were drawn into sin and error that required correction (19:21-22).

Acts 19:21 Now after these things were finished, Paul purposed in the Spirit to go to Jerusalem after he had passed through Macedonia and Achaia, saying, “After I have been there, I must also see Rome.” 22 And having sent into Macedonia two of those who ministered to him, Timothy and Erastus, he himself stayed in Asia for a while.

In Acts 19, this group is hard to pick out if you don’t know the chronology of the life of the Apostle Paul – and that chronological approach is what we are following in this series of lessons. There is some background that will help explain this fourth challenge. Corinth, though a group among whom Paul spent significant time (a year and a half) during the second journey, erupted into division and disobedience. Meanwhile in Rome young believers seemed to be facing a need for a careful explanation of justification. At the very same time, across Galatia Gentile followers of Jesus were under attack by traveling Jewish teachers that were causing significant defections from the church. The church was getting pounded from all sides. How did Paul respond in these months to this “defecting challenge” by erring and attacked believers?

• He sent some men to carry a message to the people from God – offering them clear direction (cp. 1 Corinthians; Acts 19:21).
• He made plans to visit the center of the problem when God enabled him (19:21b).
• Many scholars believe he remained because he was dealing with other groups who were defecting from the faith because of pressure (cp. Romans and Galatians; 19:21b, in the upcoming studies we will examine these problems and Paul’s responses by letter).
• He remained in Ephesus, worked on instruction by letter to Galatia and again to Corinth. In each case he carefully listened to reports and responded with prayer and very pointed teaching directed to them about their situation (19:22).

The pattern God left us through Paul’s work and Luke’s record of it was this: when correction was needed, care had to be taken to settle down and systematically answer the attacks. Hours, weeks and months of Paul’s life were taken up behind closed doors in prayer and the construction of carefully worded letters to answer each defection situation. The work of correction is a major part of the work of pastoral leadership, and Paul was a Pastor’s pastor. It is a sacred duty, but it is also very much a privilege. In recent years I have begun more and more writing, because I believe that a legacy needs to intentional.

Now before we get any further, I don’t think I am a Paul, and I don’t think what I write will have all that much enduring quality. What I am saying is this…time matters. People matter. Discipleship matters. We have only so many years on the planet, most of us, to accomplish the calling God places on our lives. I feel called to do certain things, and that isn’t a statement of my goodness as much as it is a dramatic statement of God’s patience.

Paul took the time to write several letters during the period of time he lodged in Ephesus. Unlike his feelings during the second journey, when Paul was alone and pining for his team – this time he sent them away on important missions, and worked to build new teams. He wrote and wrote to explain the great doctrines of the faith, as well as to combat the error that was chewing up the hearts of younger believers. He taught, preached, wrote and prayed. He traveled and encouraged. He followed God’s lead and honored God’s Word. A man called of God could wish for little more.

There is a great error in taking one’s self too seriously. Yet, I have to admit, that a great number of friends I know have made a greater error not taking God’s call seriously enough. They have judged the call too big and themselves too small – and that helps them excuse shrinking back from the larger tasks. As we develop discipleship, grow Christian followers and even work to build called leaders for the coming generation, I don’t want to hear from our team about how much it costs – it is our privilege to serve God for the few years we have… and time matters. It matters not only in evangelism for the lost, it matters in growth of the saved. If we reach young people, but do not equip them for the storm that is coming in their university to tear their faith away, we will have done little to further the cause of Christ. We will leave them as sheep among wolves – undefended and easily wounded. Erring believers are a pain sometimes, but they are a privilege always.

Fifth, there was THE LOST WORLD – the confrontation with pagan religious systems that dominated his world (19:23-41).

Acts 19:23 About that time there occurred no small disturbance concerning the Way. 24 For a man named Demetrius, a silversmith, who made silver shrines of Artemis, was bringing no little business to the craftsmen; 25 these he gathered together with the workmen of similar trades, and said, “Men, you know that our prosperity depends upon this business. 26 “You see and hear that not only in Ephesus, but in almost all of Asia, this Paul has persuaded and turned away a considerable number of people, saying that gods made with hands are no gods at all. 27 “Not only is there danger that this trade of ours fall into disrepute, but also that the temple of the great goddess Artemis be regarded as worthless and that she whom all of Asia and the world worship will even be dethroned from her magnificence.” 28 When they heard this and were filled with rage, they began crying out, saying, “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!” 29 The city was filled with the confusion, and they rushed with one accord into the theater, dragging along Gaius and Aristarchus, Paul’s traveling companions from Macedonia. 30 And when Paul wanted to go into the assembly, the disciples would not let him. 31 Also some of the Asiarchs who were friends of his sent to him and repeatedly urged him not to venture into the theater. 32 So then, some were shouting one thing and some another, for the assembly was in confusion and the majority did not know for what reason they had come together. 33 Some of the crowd concluded it was Alexander, since the Jews had put him forward; and having motioned with his hand, Alexander was intending to make a defense to the assembly.34 But when they recognized that he was a Jew, a single outcry arose from them all as they shouted for about two hours, “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!” 35 After quieting the crowd, the town clerk said, “Men of Ephesus, what man is there after all who does not know that the city of the Ephesians is guardian of the temple of the great Artemis and of the image which fell down from heaven? 36 “So, since these are undeniable facts, you ought to keep calm and to do nothing rash. 37 “For you have brought these men here who are neither robbers of temples nor blasphemers of our goddess. 38 “So then, if Demetrius and the craftsmen who are with him have a complaint against any man, the courts are in session and proconsuls are available; let them bring charges against one another. 39 “But if you want anything beyond this, it shall be settled in the lawful assembly. 40 “For indeed we are in danger of being accused of a riot in connection with today’s events, since there is no real cause for it, and in this connection we will be unable to account for this disorderly gathering.” 41 After saying this he dismissed the assembly.

The final group that challenged the early believers in this text were found on the cobbled street lined with vendor’s shops and trinket salesman. Paul felt the heat of the battle with the enemy in a number of ways revealed previously in Acts 19, but among these shopkeepers Paul grappled with open conflict against an ingrained paganism backed by self-interested financiers.

• Note that in the midst of a two front battle between Galatia to the east and Corinth to the west, the enemy took that moment to spring into local disturbance (19:23).
• At the heart of the commotion was a financier and businessman, who had a financial motive to promote paganism (19:24-25).
• At the heart of the attack was not true religious belief, but rather a self-interest and wealth motive – but that will fade in the reasoning and be hidden behind some faked spiritual devotion (19:26-27).
• Watch carefully and identify the fingerprints of the enemy. First, there was a stirred “rage” (19:28), then a tumult and “confusion” all about (19:29). Crowds pounced on believers who were not doing anything to incite the people (19:29b), while the leaders were divided about the safety of helping the disciples (19:30-31).
• Paul went to stand as defender of the faith (19:30).
• The enemy used the “bandwagon effect” to draw a crowd that was not even specifically informed as to the nature of what they were “against” (19:32). They found themselves shouting down people without any guiding principles (19:33-34).
• The “moderate pagan speakers” offered their own conclusions as if they were obvious “facts” and anyone who opposed them clearly – but tried to get the people to follow just procedure (19:35-41). If you listen carefully enough, you will note there was nothing the individual believer was doing that caused the attack (19:40, note the phrase “no real cause”).

Demetrius’ logic was all about his wallet. The bandwagon goons jumped on without even knowing the depths of meaning in the cause or considering the reality of their positions and the consequences of their stand. We are seeing it more and more. Someone is gunned down. Riots ensue, and in the end looters steal from their own neighbors in the name of injustice. None of it fixes anything, and it doesn’t make sense. It is a display of self-interest masked as public good. Stay tuned, it will stay with us, and has been around since the first century. That’s ok, because we have a pattern to follow, and that is what we needed.

Black Bart was a professional thief whose very name struck fear as he terrorized the Wells Fargo stage line. From San Francisco to New York, his name became synonymous with the danger of the frontier. Between 1875 and 1883 he robbed 29 different stagecoach crews. Amazingly, Bart did it all without firing a shot. Because a hood hid his face, no victim ever saw his face. He never took a hostage and was never trailed by a sheriff. Instead, Black Bart used fear to paralyze his victims. His sinister presence was enough to overwhelm the toughest stagecoach guard. -Today in the Word, August 8, 1992.

We don’t need to be afraid; we know the face of our enemy very well. God’s Word unmasks his identity and makes clear his methods – so that we are not ignorant of his schemes… We must anticipate the battle, and we must use the model to effectively combat the enemies of the Gospel – but God gave us a manual to accomplish the task.