Thursday, October 1, 2009

Great Books: The Acts of the Apostles (Part Ten)

Parts 1-9 of this essay can be accessed in the archive to the right of the screen under September of 2009.

In some ways, Paul’s ministry at Ephesus followed the all-too familiar contour of beginning in the synagogue where he angered the devout Jews and peeled off followers from among the God-fearing Gentiles until he (symbolically or not) abandoned the Jewish audiences and taught only among the Gentiles. However, Luke also offers stark contrasts between Paul’s mission and that he shared before with Barnabas. First, as he had before at Corinth, Paul spends a good deal of time (over two years) in Ephesus. The early strategy of raising a ruckus, establishing a seedling church, and then get beat up or run out of town is replaced by another; namely, preaching in the synagogues until resistance reaches a certain level and then moving the ministry in the home of well-placed citizens in the city that can provide legal and social protection while deeply planting the teaching of the church into those followers over a longer period of time.

Luke emphasizes a more supernatural side of Paul’s ministry during his time in Ephesus. While this trend continues to surface as Paul’s ministry moves on from Ephesus, Luke’s description of some of his time there offers a tantalizing glimpse at the effect of Paul’s residence there over a longer period of time.

God did extraordinary miracles through Paul. Handkerchiefs and aprons that had touched him were taken to the sick, and their illnesses were cured and the evil spirits left them. Some Jews who went around driving out evil spirits tried to invoke the name of the Lord Jesus over those who were demon possessed…The evil spirit answered them, “Jesus I know and Paul I know about, but who are you?” Then the man who had the evil spirit jumped on them and overpowered them all. He gave them such a beating that they ran out of the house naked and bleeding. When this became known to the Jews and Greeks living in Ephesus, they were all seized with fear, and the name of the Lord Jesus was held in high honor. [19:11-13,15-17]

Neither of these stories highlight Paul’s own supernatural agency but more how people’s impression of him opened up the possibility of miracles through faith. The simplest explanation for this is that Paul’s reputation, in some cases, may have exceeded the reach of his own teachings and encouraged people on the outer ring of the circle of believers to project their own ideas and beliefs on to him. This could be and was only possible because Paul spent a considerable amount of time among the people of Ephesus and built up a certain cult of personality that had been lacking in his early missionary efforts.

After his successes at Ephesus, Paul decided that it was time to head back to Jerusalem, by way of Macedonia and Achaia. Before his departure, the obligatory riot against the believers there had to erupt but this time, the disturbance was instigated not by unconverted Jews but by the idols makers of the city who saw Paul’s teachings as dangerous to the future durability of the vocation. The details that Luke includes in the story are notable in their departure from nearly every other act of mob violence that had occurred up to that point. Paul’s disciples are dragged into the public theater and threatened. But, as Luke writes:

Paul wanted to appear before the crowd but his disciples would not let him. Even some of officials of the province, friends of Paul, sent him a message begging him not to venture into the theater. [19:30,31]

Most notably, Paul is increasingly shown as having friends in high places who can protect him from these mobs. In the end, it was not Paul but “the city clerk” [19:35] who calmed the Ephesians and not by the authority of God, but by the authority of Law, specifically Roman law.

"If then, Demetrius and his fellow craftsmen have a grievance against anybody, the courts are open and there are proconsuls…As it is, we are in danger of being charged with rioting because of today’s events, In that case we would not be able to account for this commotion, since there is no reason for it." [19:38,40]

Thus, indirectly, Paul is shown to be under the protection of Roman law and, more importantly, the Gentiles are portrayed as being intrinsically more reasonable than the “Jews” who mobbed up on Paul every chance they got.

After leaving Ephesus, Paul returned to Macedonia (Philippi) and, after spending some time “speaking many words of encouragement to the people” [20:2], he then moved on to Greece. His plans to sail to Syria were stifled “because the Jews made a plot against him” and so he returned to Macedonia again, this time collecting disciples to join him in his journey and, in time, they all met in Troas.

It is at this point that Luke resurrects the “we” voice in discussing their travels and, as before, the story of Paul’s journey makes an uncharacteristic shift towards the supernatural with Paul as the agent rather than merely the inspiration. Luke tells the story of Eutychus, a young believer in Troas, who, while listening to Paul’s teaching, fell asleep and, inconveniently, out of a third story window to the ground below. Though Eutychus “was picked up dead,” Paul rushed to him and, embracing the young man, cried out, “’Don’t be alarmed…he’s alive!’” [20:10]. While less dramatic than Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead after having been buried for some period of time, this is the first time that Paul is shown to raise the dead and, factual or not, strengthens the narrative ties that link Paul’s march toward Jerusalem with that of Jesus before him.

When Paul left Troas, he made a meandering journey from there to Miletus and then summoned the elders of the church at Ephesus to join him for a final meeting before he left for Jerusalem. This meeting is momentous in the Acts of the Apostles as it draws the book’s second act, as it were, to a close. Pragmatically, it is notable that Paul called for the elders of Ephesus as it shows that this was the congregation he considered to be his own or, more generously, the congregation of which he thought of himself most a member. His message to them can, itself, be broken into three parts: a declaration of his works among them, a prophecy of his impending arrest and eventual execution, and a moving recognition that this would likely be the last time they were see one another. The details of these speeches reveal not only a great deal about Paul’s ministry but also what elements of it Luke wants us to remember as the book moves into its final section.

I served the Lord with great humility and with tears, although I was severely tested by the plots of the Jews...I have declared to both Jews and Greeks that they must turn to God in repentance and have faith in our Lord Jesus. [20:19,21]

And now, compelled by the Spirit, I am going to Jerusalem, not knowing what will happen to me there. I only know that in every city the Holy Spirit warns me that prison and hardships are facing me. [20:22,23]

Now I know that none of you among whom I have gone preaching the kingdom will ever see me again…Now I commit you to God and to the word of his grace, which can build you up and give you an inheritance among all those who are sanctified. [20:25,34]

These passages bear all the hallmarks of a transition from one period into the next, careful recapitulating the important themes of Paul’s second mission while heightening the reader’s anticipation of what comes next. It should come as little surprise that the chapters following exhibit a marked shift in tone with the establishment of new formulas and altered perspectives and voices from which the story is narrated.

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