Acts 19 narrows the focus a bit for us as we hear about Paul’s ministry work in Ephesus. This is the city that we know of not only from here, but maybe even moreso from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians.
The Ephesian Christian church is not large in number at this point, only about 12 (19:7), but the Word of God is at work through Paul and His companions. Those who had believed and had been baptized had not undergone Christian baptism but John the Baptizer’s baptism, which was a forward-looking one, pointing people to Christ who was to succeed John (19:4). Just like John himself was his ministry; he was not the Christ, but was preparing the way for the Christ (Luke 3:15-17).
19:5 “in the name of the Lord Jesus” is a sort of shorthand here for Christian baptism in the name of the Triune God (Matthew 28:19).
19:6-7 Along with Pentecost, this is one of a couple of instances where signs such as speaking in tongues and prophesying accompany baptism. These are not regular occurrences, but special signs given in certain instances. We have no promise from God that these signs will ordinarily accompany baptism, but we do have the promise that baptism bestows the Holy Spirit, forgiveness, and salvation leading to eternal life.
19:8-10 As has ben his pattern, Paul begins ministry among the Jews in that place in the synagogue. But after three months of ministry work, he moves to a different place because of rejection in the synagogue. The Word of God isn’t bound to a certain building or location, but brings God’s gifts wherever it is. For two years, a long time in the context of Paul’s travels, he proclaimed the Word in this hall—likely a school building or lecture hall of some kind—to all who would hear it.
19:11-12 God works through means, and here we hear about an extra-ordinary instance of God choose to work through ordinary things for healing and exorcisms. Notice the language; it was clearly God doing the work, and Paul was the instrument with his garments and other fabrics being the means. Again, we have no promise that these kinds of specific things will continue to be used, but God does continue to work through ordinary things that do have His promise of grace attached to them when given together with His Word: water, bread, and wine.
19:13-17 While God was working through His chosen apostle Paul in these miraculous ways, others took it upon themselves to treat exorcisms as some sort of incantation or magic formula for their own gain. Luke tells us they were Jews, not Christians, and so their invocation of Jesus’ name didn’t bear fruit; it wasn’t born from faith in Jesus. We know this even from the brief description in the text: “...by the Jesus whom Paul proclaims” tells us this wasn’t a personal exercise of faith but an attempt to “cash in” on those miraculous things that were happening through Paul.
The result is that things are worse than before. The evil spirit knows Jesus, and even knows Paul, but is not overpowered by these men. In fact it’s the opposite. The Word of God, including the name of Jesus, isn’t something to be handled lightly. Taking the Lord’s name in vain includes not just those things that we easily think of, like using the name as a curse. It also includes all kinds of false teaching, that is, speaking as if God has spoken when He actually hasn’t. This is an example o that.
19:18-20 Hearing, receiving, believing the proclaimed Word leads to renewal. Those who had trusted in other powers now renounce those things, and a powerful demonstration of that renewal is given in the burning of these books. These were extremely valuable, but God’s Word is much, much more valuable.
The riot in Ephesus happens because of another example of this renewal of focus; there are some who saw their livelihoods were threatened because of God’s Word. These were those who profited off of false worship to false gods such as Artemis. Artemis was seen as a fertility goddess and if people turned away from worshipping her, these men’s riches were in jeopardy. So we might say that the opposition to Christianity here wasn’t primarily theological but more base in nature: how could these people ensure their income was sustained? (And as we consider our world today, there is much that is still similar in thought, isn’t there?)
So they start a protest, and things snowball quickly. A most interesting note is made that most people didn’t even know why they were there (19:32). This is a true mob mentality, which again we see in our day too, though in different forms!
Paul, being zealous for the Word of God, wants to get into the debate, but other disciples hold him back. A Jewish spokesman wants to make an answer, but he’s shouted down too. And then finally, a city official gets the crowd under control and is able to reason with them and get them to disperse.
In a very real sense, God is turning the world “upside down” through the proclamation of the Gospel and the fruit He produces by the Spirit! Hearts are transplanted by God, and lives and priorities are changed as people bear the fruit of repentance in their lives.