At that time, Asia was a coastal region of present-day western Turkey, with Ephesus as its capital. At the beginning of the second missionary journey, the Holy Spirit had forbidden to go to Asia at that time (16:6), while at the end of the same journey the apostle had happened to land there in passing and had found a good reception by the Jews, but he did not stay long, intending to return with more tranquillity (18:19-21), a purpose which he then accomplished with his third journey.
At the beginning of the chapter (vv. 1-7), Paul describes his meeting with twelve disciples of John the Baptist, whom he asked: «Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?». The teaching we draw from here is one already seen at Pentecost (chap. 2) and in the evangelisation of Samaria (8:14-17), namely, that every true Christian must be the dwelling place of the Holy Spirit.
It seems, however, obvious that Luke is not so interested in reaffirming what has already been said about the Holy Spirit, but since in Samaria it seemed that the faculty of receiving the Spirit by the laying on of hands was exclusive to Peter and the Twelve, here Luke points out that Paul is on the same level. Another clear parallelism is between Peter’s extraordinary miraculousness, emanating even from his shadow (5:15), and Paul’s equally extraordinary one, which also made his handkerchiefs miraculous (v. 12). Later, with Further Insight n. 12 placed before chapter 21, we will summarise the parallels between Peter and Paul highlighted by Luke.
The good welcome given to him by those in the synagogue as in the first time at Ephesus was confirmed, and so Paul was able to work there for three months (v. 8). As usual, however, the unbelieving Jews proved to be quarrelsome, and so Paul «took the disciples with him» and continued to teach in a private school. It is the first case reported of a place of encounter other than private homes and this is a sign that, in the three months of intense preaching, the number of disciples was already such that they could not enter a house.
An example worthy of note is the episode in which Paul, seeing that the conflict in the synagogue is not modular, avoided unleashing a war to throw out the others, retiring and thus leaving a free field to the adversaries, in obedience to what Jesus taught: «if anyone would sue [quarrel with] you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well.» (Mt 5:40).
Also at Ephesus there was a re-shuffling of cards, with a part of Jews and a part of Greeks who united in Christ (disciples), effectively provoking an alliance between those Jews and Greeks who had rejected the Gospel. The “first phase” of Paul’s sojourning at Ephesus lasted two years (v. 10), but then he returned for another year, as the apostle would later recount how he had devoted himself to teaching «night and day» for three years (20:31).
Luke again marks the conclusion of his “expository series” with what we have defined as a kind of chorus: «So the word of the Lord continued to increase and prevail mightily» (v. 20). Then the program that is set before Paul is drawn: to go through the areas of Greece previously evangelised (from Macedonia to the North, from Achaia to the South), and then to be in Jerusalem at Pentecost (cf. 20:16), to finally achieve a goal that felt increasingly urgent: evangelise in Rome (19:21; 20:16; cf. Rom 1:9-13).
The chapter ends with the revolt promoted by the craftsmen who lived producing shrines of the «great goddess Artemis […] whom all Asia and the world worship» (v. 27). The crowd dragged into the open-air theatre two collaborators of Paul, who, as usual, sensing battle wanted to jump into the fray, but this time the disciples and the magistrates prevented him (vv. 30-31). The unbelieving Jews, meanwhile, collaborated with the idolaters, pointing to them the believer Alexander, who tried to speak to defend the Gospel, but when the Ephesians realised that he was… Jewish, they kept in mind the Jewish rejection of idolatry and began to cry «Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!» (v. 34). This time, in short, the covenant between unbelieving Jews and pagans did not work, but the episode shows well how the believer in Jesus appeared to be a Jew to the Gentiles and a Pagan to the Hebrews! (cf. 16:20; 18:2).
The crowd calmed down only when it was reassured that the greatness of Diana and the proof of her image «fallen from the sky» were indisputable (vv. 35-36). Also contributing to the pacification was the fact that Paul had not set his preaching “in negative”, that is against the cult of Diana (v. 37), but exalting in positive «the name of the Lord Jesus» (v. 17) and his work of salvation, allowing for the “anti-idolatrous” consequences to mature spontaneously (v. 19).
That unquestionable goddess whom the whole world worshipped, we know that it was all a frame and Paul did not really think to propose to those craftsmen to make different statues, which he would have then thought to give a “Christian” meaning (on the model of what Aaron had done in his time, who came to “sanctify” nothing less than the golden calf, Ex 32:5). As in the case of Paul’s contrast with the Athenian philosophers on the resurrection, however, his opponents would have later taken some revenge, to the point that Christian churches would become full of statues (and then back to being absent in the Protestant churches).
Further Insight n. 10
THE BINOMIAL ACTS-ROMANS
Paul’s desire to go to Rome (Acts 19:21; Rom 1:9-13) was delayed because of his arrest. On that very occasion Jesus assured him that he would bear witness even in the empire’s capital (Acts 23:10-11), but then Paul would spend at least two more years in prison (Acts 24:27), during which he would have certainly fret.
To begin to satisfy his desire to evangelise Rome, Paul thought of writing his most precious Letter, that is, to the Romans, on which we now spend a few words because it seems to us that Acts and Romans form a whole.
The Acts show how it was Paul who gave Christianity its final form, but Acts only reports the conversion and teachings which Paul imparted at the beginning of preaching in the various environments (for example, synagogue of Antioch of Pisidia, pagans of Lystra, philosophers of Athens). The Acts tells us little or nothing, instead, of that systematic teaching that Paul communicated during his stay in some place (in the two years of Corinth and in the three years of Ephesus, for example).
Certainly, we find traces of Paul’s thought in those Letters written to the churches formed from his preaching, but in them Paul tends to overlook what has already been taught in person, focusing instead on specific circumstances and questions. Precisely the fact that he had not been in Rome, thus, urges him to anticipate to those believers a synthesis of his overall vision of the Gospel and how unity in Christ is possible between Jews and Gentiles.
In summary, not only are Acts and Romans indispensable to a better understanding of the New Testament, but these two books complement each other and one requires the other. For example: the Acts show the importance of the Letter to the Romans exalting its author; Acts provides the “reading key” of Romans, placing that letter in its appropriate context of church history; as aforesaid, the Letter to the Romans fills the gap in Acts on the systematic teaching of Paul, a gap that Luke evidently did not see as such, taking for granted the knowledge of the Letter to the Romans. In fact, Acts, with all evidence, was written after the Letter to the Romans, because the latter was written before the arrival of Paul in Rome, while the Acts recount his arrival (cf. Rom 1:10 with Acts 28:16).
Since Luke accompanies Paul on his journey to Rome (Acts 28:16) and assists Paul during his imprisonment (2 Tim 4:11) which lasted at least two years (Acts 28:30), then it seems evident that Luke wrote Acts during his forced sojourning in Rome; from this we can deduce that, in addition to a general purpose, Luke should also have had a contingent one: to make the Roman believers understand well the importance and authority of that prisoner who could appear of little account.
In addition to the believers of Rome, however, it seems that Luke also thinks of the authorities that in Rome are preparing to judge that Jewish prisoner unknown to them. The Acts in fact emphasise that Paul is not only a Roman citizen, but is by birth (16:37; 22:28); it is very significant that Paul asks for the protection of Rome against those “barbarians” of Jews who would kill him without cause (25:10-12).
From this perspective, Luke’s dwelling on the reasons for Paul’s arrest and his judicial affairs with the Roman authorities of Judea is also justified, from which Luke brings out the inconsistency of the accusations and the fact that Paul is taken prisoner to Rome not because he is found guilty, but because of the opportunism and lack of courage of the local authorities (23:10; 24:22-27; 25:24-27; 26:32). The importance of the juridical aspects, which Luke emphasises in the last eight chapters (that is, from 21:27), is also very present in the Letter to the Romans, in which the juridical aspects of the relationship between God and man, such as the law, guilt, the condemnation, the atonement, and the deliverance (Chap. 1-8): a much less prominent view in the other parts of the New Testament.
The details of the journey to Rome, then, show Paul’s good relations with the Roman centurion in charge of his custody (27:3,43), with Paul who makes himself an instrument of salvation for all the occupants of the ship (27:44), without taking advantage of the confusion to flee.
In short, some people think that the Acts were also written as an instrument to be given to Paul’s defence lawyer in the trial before the emperor: certainly it is not the only reason, but there are good reasons to believe that Luke had also this purpose.
Acts and Romans, in summary, form an inseparable couple, as much as Luke wanted to be inseparable towards Paul: his teacher and his friend, to whom he wished to build a majestic memorial, although using those subtle tones of those who know that it is not necessary to emphasise and embellish what the reality of the facts makes in itself unequivocally clear.