The Apostle Paul spent more time in Ephesus than in any other on his missionary itinerary. It became his Asian headquarters on his third church planting tour. For three years he labored among the Ephesians, teaching them the gospel both privately and publicly (Acts 20:20, 31). Why did Paul stay so long in this one location? Did he find in Ephesus a haven, a type of resort or respite from the normal rigors of ministry? Was his tenure there extended because the work was easier and less stressful than in other cities?
Paul answers these questions in the letter which he wrote to Corinth from Ephesus. He wanted to return to the Corinthian church and was making plans to do so as quickly as possible. “But,” he writes, “I will tarry in Ephesus until Pentecost. For a great and effective door has opened to me, and there are many adversaries” (1 Cor. 16:9). It was not easy living which kept Paul in Ephesus. Rather, it was his commitment to see the gospel established in that city that prolonged his stay there.
Paul’s assessment of his situation reveals an attitude which every contemporary pastor who is committed to the doctrines of grace needs to cultivate. This attitude might be designated a “reformation mindset” and it is especially important for the man who is facing a work of biblical reform in his church.
Reformation is never easy. Without a reformation mindset like Paul’s, it is virtually impossible for a pastor committed to this kind of ministry to stay the course; the opposition is too strong, the heartaches are too deep and, often, the progress is too slow. In short, the spiritual, doctrinal and moral problems which plague many churches today are so serious that one is tempted to judge them not worth a serious effort toward reformation. Yet, as Paul recognized, that which makes the work difficult is precisely what makes it necessary.
The two reasons that Paul cites for extending his stay in Ephesus reflect his reformation mentality. First, he was afforded a great opportunity there. Second, he was being opposed by many adversaries. By evaluating his reasoning we may uncover some essential ingredients in developing an outlook that is bent on the work of reformation.
Recognize the Opportunities
Paul was a preacher, an evangelist. His life’s ambition was that he “might by all means save some…for the gospel’s sake” (1 Cor. 9:22-23). In Ephesus he found an open door for the fulfillment of his calling.There were people there who were listening to him preach the gospel-both publicly and privately (Acts20:20). He had gained a hearing.
Paul found that the opportunities in Ephesus were “great.” This does not mean that his task was easy. Paul could not simply hang out a sign, throw open the doors and watch a church develop and grow. The opportunities were opportunities to work-to engage in diligent ministerial labor. Looking back on his time in Ephesus Paul could testify, “for three years I did not cease to warn everyone night and day with tears” (Acts 20:31). How many pastors today can say the same thing? How many would even consider this as a legitimate pastoral responsibility?
The door of opportunity which Paul judged to be great consisted of the privilege to spend and be spent for the sake of the gospel. It was the opportunity to weep for the souls of men and women; to preach and teach the gospel; to declare to the Ephesians “the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27).
What made Ephesus such a wonderful opportunity to Paul was not the ease of the work, not the climate, the education level of the people, nor the salary package. No, what made it so attractive to Paul was the fact that God had providentially placed him there in the midst of so many needy people. And, as a minister of Christ, he was convinced that he had the answer to their needs in the “gospel of the grace of God” (Acts 20:24).
The people to whom Paul had an opportunity to minister in Ephesus can be divided into at least three categories, each of which is still with us today.
The Partially Taught
Upon arriving in Ephesus Paul encountered twelve disciples who had been baptized “into John’s baptism” (Acts 19:1-3). Whether these individuals were actually converted or not is subject to debate. On the one hand, Luke’s designation of them (“disciples,” v. 1) seems to indicate that they were already believers. One the other hand, their ignorance of the Holy Spirit and Paul’s instruction to them suggest that they were in need of conversion (vv. 3-4). Whatever their case (and theologically it could be either), they had received only partial teaching about Christ and His salvation. They needed to be further instructed. Like Apollos, they needed to have “the way of God more accurately explained” to them (Acts 18:26). Once Paul did this, they embraced the truth and adjusted their lives accordingly.
Rather than becoming overwhelmed or discouraged by the difficulties which these disciples presented, Paul seized it as an opportunity to teach them more thoroughly the gospel of Christ. He corrected their erroneous thinking and added to their incomplete understanding.
This type of ministry is still needed today. In every church there are sincere, earnest followers of the Lord who have been only partially or inaccurately taught. Their understanding is not as good as their experience. They need to be established in the faith. When they come to a knowledge of the truth their outlook changes; they recognize more of the amazing grace of God in bringing them to salvation.
The Religiously Lost
Others that Paul encountered in Ephesus could best be described as unconverted religionists. These were the Jews, to whom (as was his custom), he took the gospel first (Acts 19:8). Like the religiously lost of every generation these individuals thought themselves safe because of their commitment to certain ceremonial duties.
They are like the older brother in Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son. They are convinced that their service and works (or positions and affiliations) merit acceptance with the Father (cf. Luke 15:29). Further,they are threatened and feel indicted by anyone who insists that salvation is wholly of God’s grace.
Paul did not overlook unconverted religious people. He saw them as a great mission field. After all, he had once been just like them. Having been saved by grace himself, he was convinced that God’s grace could reach them, also. Therefore he preached the gospel to them and set before them the one way of salvation.
There is evidence that some Jews were converted and became part of the church in Ephesus. But there is also the indication that “some were hardened and did not believe.” Further, they even “spoke evil of the Way before the multitude” (Acts 19:9). The true reformer will inevitably meet with recalcitrance and criticism on the part of some. Paul did not allow this to knock him off course, and neither should we. I fsome refuse to believe and become critical of the direction and content of the preaching, there are others who will receive it and who will be transformed by it. For the sake of the latter we must not be overwhelmed by the former. Like Paul, we must be willing “to endure all things for the sake of the elect, that they also may obtain the salvation which is in Christ Jesus with eternal glory” (2 Tim. 2:10).
The Openly Lost
Along with the impartially taught and the religiously unconverted, Paul had great opportunity to minister to many who made no profession of being right with God. The apostle had a deep love for those who were obviously unconverted. The presence of many Gentiles was no small part of the reason that he extended his stay in Ephesus.
Proper reformation mentality is never devoid of genuine compassion for spiritually lost people. It is not enough to straighten out ignorant believers and confront religious hypocrites. The pastor bent on reformation must also see the fields white unto harvest. He must cultivate a love for sinners that is reflective of our Lord’s own heart.
In the heat of the battle over God’s truth, while correcting mistaken notions about the gospel and exposing the fallacy of false belief, the temptation to lose sight of the harvest fields is great. The pastor and church who are committed to thorough, biblical reformation will never be satisfied with seeing a sanctifying work among believers that is not accompanied by a regenerating work among unbelievers.
The humbling yet hopeful truth about evangelism is that one sows and another waters but only God can give the increase. The work of regeneration is beyond human ability. It is the sovereign activity of God. “The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear the sound of it, but cannot tell where it comes from and where it goes. So is everyone who is born of the Spirit”(John 3:8). Evangelism-taking the gospel to the unconverted-is our responsibility. It is the gospel that the Spirit uses to regenerate unbelievers. Therefore, in complete dependence on the Sovereign Spirit we must promiscuously spread the gospel throughout our communities and around the world.
Paul preferred to preach the gospel to those who had never heard it (Rom. 15:20-21). He did not allow himself to be distracted from the great privilege and responsibility to make disciples of all nations. Evangelism must never be set against the work of reformation. The disciples in the book of Acts never did. They confronted and corrected problems in the church without setting aside their ongoing evangelistic efforts. Genuine reformation will always include a healthy emphasis on evangelism.
Rightly Assess the Opposition
A second key dimension in Paul’s reformation mindset was the proper assessment of his opponents. It may sound strange to some that a minister of the gospel would have opponents. We are, after all, called to live blameless lives and to strive for a conscience that is “without offense toward God and men” (Acts 24:16; cf. 2 Cor. 6:3; Philip. 1:10). Yet, even the minister who attains this to a large degree (and no one perfectly attains it) will inevitably meet with opposition.
Though we are not to give offense, the gospel is irreparably offensive. It is still a stumbling block and a scandal to various kinds of unbelievers. Make no mistake, where the biblical gospel is preached, there will be opposition. To think otherwise reveals not only an unrealistic naivete but also lack of familiarity with the book of Acts.
Paul faced strong opposition to his ministry. He had “many adversaries.” Now, it is certain that he took no delight in being opposed. There is a type of minister that seems to measure his effectiveness by the number of people who are mad at him. Paul was not like that. But neither was he like those who interpret every opposition as a failure or as a reason to pack up and leave town.
Notice what Paul says. He determined to stay in Ephesus not in spite of the presence of many adversaries, but because of them! He judged opposition to his ministry as reason to stay. We mobile moderns do not typically think this way. Pastors are often tempted to interpret opposition as divine indication that their ministry in that church is over. The man who readily yields to this temptation has not yet developed a reformation mindset and will inevitably find the work of reforming a local church an impossibility.
When we consider Paul’s adversaries in Ephesus there are two types that are easily identified.
In Ephesus the gospel challenged the prevailing false religions and related economic interests. As people were converted they, of course, abandoned their former false worship and ceased purchasing the handcrafted idols which were sold by the city silversmiths. Because the message was having an impact, anger was directed toward the messenger.
Demetrius became an outspoken opponent of Paul, rallying his fellow silversmiths against the apostle. His accusation reveals his animosity: “This Paul has persuaded and turned away many people, saying that they are not gods which are made with hands. So not only is this trade of ours in danger of falling into disrepute, but also the temple of the great goddess Diana may be despised and her magnificence destroyed whom all Asia and the world worship” (Acts 19:26-27).
The hostility against Paul became so great that a riot broke out in the city. Yet, the apostle was not compelled to end his ministry in Ephesus because of this. Rather, he saw it as reason to stay. Why? Was Paul simply hardheaded? Was he belligerent? Did he take some kind of perverse pleasure in seeing people angered against him?
No. The only way to make sense of Paul’s response is to understand his reformation mentality. We gain further insight into his thinking by considering his address to the Ephesian elders at Miletus. Speaking of the chains and tribulations that awaited him in Jerusalem, he said, “But none of these things move me; nor do I count my life dear to myself, so that I may finish my race with joy, and the ministry which I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God” (Acts 20:24).
What matters is the cause of God and His truth in the world. If opportunity to preach the gospel continues, then contempt and hostility from the unbelieving world, even of the most hostile sort, is insufficient reason to leave.
If opposition from pagans is difficult to handle, opposition from religious people is even more grievous. Paul’s greatest adversaries came from the Jewish leadership. These, very often, regarded themselves as paragons of virtue. They were the guardians of tradition and, consequently, resisted the “new” teaching of the early Christians (which in truth was a right understanding and fulfillment of the “old” teaching in theOld Testament).
Whereas the world is open and direct in its attack against the gospel and its messengers, religious opponents are always more subtle. Demetrius publicly instigated a riot against Paul. The Jews attacked him with carefully conceived plots (Acts 20:19). We have no way of knowing with certainty what those plots entailed, but the very idea suggests behind-the-scenes strategy and sinister aspirations.
Perhaps Paul had his religious opponents in mind when he warned the Ephesian elders of “savage wolves” who would come into the church and men from within their own ranks who would rise up and speak “perverse things” (Acts 20:29-30). His letters to Timothy, who was pastoring the church in Ephesus, indicate similar concern about opposition from religionists (cf. 1 Tim. 1:3-7; 4:1-5, 12; 2 Tim. 2:14-18, 23-26; 3;1-13; 4:15, etc.).
The sad fact is that from Paul’s day to our own, subtle, harmful opposition has always been mounted against the gospel by those who fancy themselves religious. And their hatred of the message manifests itself in contempt for the messenger. It is a painful and trying experience to endure. At times it can be completely deflating. But, it is no reason to stop laboring for thorough, biblical reformation in a church.
In this day when churches are in such spiritual disarray and doctrinal disrepair, the call of every pastor and every serious believer is to pray for and work toward reformation. To do this requires the development of a fresh outlook, a new perspective on the challenges and opportunities before us.
Paul gives us an excellent model to emulate. He looked upon his work with a reformation mentality. This same attitude is found in the great martyrs and reformers throughout church history. It is epitomized in Martin Luther and given expression in his great Reformation hymn.
And tho’ this world, with devils filled,
Should threaten to undo us,
We will not fear for God hath willed
His truth to triumph through us…
Let goods and kindred go,
This mortal life also;
The body they may kill:
God’s truth abideth still,
His kingdom is forever.
If we hope to see a recovery of the gospel in our day, we must embrace the attitude of this hymn. We must commit ourselves with apostolic tenacity to the task before us. Most importantly, we must commit ourselves afresh to remember Jesus Christ, “who endured such hostility against Himself, lest we become weary and discouraged in our souls” (Heb. 12:3).
[A helpful booklet, Reforming the Local Church by Ernest Reisinger, outlines some practical steps for pastors and church leaders. It is available through the Founders Journal.] It must be a sign that reformed preachers are rendering acceptable service when they are resented and resisted by the carnal in their congregation. This is not meant as a defense of ministerial indiscretion but as an encouragement to ministerial faithfulness. A young preacher is apt to blame it all on himself when the principal men and women of a congregation are aroused against him. It may indeed be that he is partly to blame. But the greatest sin might rather be in those who rise up against him because his application of God’s word is all too true. Religious sinners, when cut close to the bone, can react with incredible fury and they can spit like fire at the hand which wields the sword in the pulpit.
–Maurice Roberts, “Acceptable Service” Banner of Truth, July 1989, p. 3.