Spiritual Warfare

A Study of Acts 19 and the book of Ephesians

Introduction: It seems to me there is heightened interest in the subject of spiritual warfare in these days. The existence of an ultimate personality of evil – the devil – and a vast world of other evil personalities of different types and ranks in the unseen realm… all this seems to be reflected in the brutal, self-destructive, sinful nature engulfing our world. How else do we explain the headlong plunge into Marxism that seems to enchant our cultural elites despite its century-long record of horrendous failure? How do we explain the societal determination to massacre millions of innocent preborn babies? And when it comes to the atrocities of war, how do we explain the evil of groups like ISIS? And the sexual perversions that are dominating our culture, with many of our educators wanting to make sure our youngest children are acclimated to these debaucheries?

All these things go beyond the human capacity for evil, as great as it is. What we’re seeing today is supernatural evil, and the Bible’s primary laboratory for studying it is found in the ancient city of Ephesus—both in the account of Paul’s ministry in Ephesus and in the letter he later wrote to the Ephesians. 

Today we’re continuing our study called Unstoppable, the story of the book of Acts. As we saw last time, in Acts 19, Paul began preaching and evangelizing in the port city of Ephesus, the magnificent ruins of which you can still visit along the coast of Turkey. Paul began with twelve men and stayed in the city about three years. He faced Jewish opposition, yet planted a church, which evangelized the entire region after his departure. You can’t miss the parallel with Jesus’ ministry. Now, let’s pick up the story in Acts 19:8. As usual, Paul began his ministry by taking the Gospel into the Jewish quarter of the city.

Paul entered the synagogue and spoke boldly there for three months, arguing persuasively about the kingdom of God. But some of them became obstinate; they refused to believe and publicly maligned the Way. So Paul left them. He took the disciples with him and had discussions daily in the lecture hall of Tyrannus. 10 This went on for two years, so that all the Jews and Greeks who lived in the province of Asia heard the word of the Lord.

This is the single longest period of stable ministry in the revealed life of the apostle Paul; and as a result, the church in Ephesus is the strongest model for a local church in the entire New Testament. The lecture hall of Tyrannus was a public auditorium, and some of the old texts say that Paul taught here every day from 11 A.M. to 4 P.M.  It may have been owned and operated by a local teacher named Tyrannus, or it could have been an auditorium named for him. Apparently, Paul rented this space. He, in effect, opened a seminary. I happen to believe every local church should have some form of a School of Tyrannus. Every church should have a way of providing Bible-college level teaching for believers at a time when it is convenient for them.

For the Ephesians, that was in the afternoons. According to Witherington, in the Greco-Roman world, the typical work or school day took advantage of the cooler morning hours, and usually ran from dawn until about 11 a.m. So the hall would have been free beginning at 11. And the same is true for Paul’s listeners. They would have worked or been in class all morning, but by about noon, they’d be free for the day. Paul lectured there in this auditorium like a philosopher or academic would have done, in this lecture hall.

Supernatural Power in Paul’s Ministry in the City of Ephesus (verses 11-12)

But now, I want to show you how Luke devotes the rest of the chapter to various situations involving spiritual warfare. First, in verses 11-12, God gave Paul the ability to perform miracles and to have authority over evil spirits. Look at verse 11:

11 God did extraordinary miracles through Paul, 12 so that even handkerchiefs and aprons that had touched him were taken to the sick, and their illnesses were cured and the evil spirits left them.

This is truly amazing. If someone had a rag and it brushed against Paul or brought it up to him to touch in the School of Tyrannus, they could take it to their sick loved one, wipe their brow with it, and the person would be healed. There’s nothing quite like this elsewhere in the Bible. Why is this? Because of the nature of the city of Ephesus. As we’ll see, it was a city enthralled with magic and with the magic arts. It was a city full of invisible, evil forces, and so God gave Paul authority over them.

Paul’s success, especially over evil spirits, was so amazing that some Jewish exorcists tried to duplicate what he was doing. Before I read this, let me go ahead and give you the background, because this is essential for understanding not only the book of Acts but also the epistle to the Ephesians. Apart from the Bible, my primary source for studying this is a book entitled Power and Magic: The Concept of Power in Ephesians by Clinton E. Arnold and published by Baker Books. It was recommended to me years ago by my friend, Jim Weaver, who was actually the publisher for this book at Baker. He later became my publisher at Thomas Nelson for a series of projects. Power and Magic is a very important work on the background and contents of the book of Ephesians.

According to Arnold and others, the city of Ephesus was the capital of magic and the center of the occult for all of Asia Minor. It was a city filled with magic, with superstition, with evil spirits, and with all kinds of demonic forces. When I use the word magic, I don’t mean performances of illusion, but dark and demonic powers. Arnold defines magic as “the belief that supernatural powers…could be harnessed and used by appropriating the correct technique.” It was “a method of manipulating supernatural powers to accomplish certain tasks.”

Another authority wrote, “Of all the ancient Greco-Roman cities, Ephesus…was by far the most hospitable to magicians, sorcerers, and charlatans of all sorts.”

We know this, in part, from the discovery of the magical papyri, specifically the Ephesia Grammata (literally, the Ephesian Letters), which were associated with the goddess Artemis of Ephesus. I don’t have time to go into the nature of this goddess, but her temple in Ephesians was a wonder of the world and the entire city operated in her shadow. This created an atmosphere for the magical arts to thrive.

Now, in antiquity there were many books of magical spells and charms. The best known extant papyri about this are the Greek Magical Papyri, which had their roots in ancient Egypt. Papyri was the ancient Egyptian form of paper. The Greek Magical Papyri contained many magical spells and formulas and rituals. These books spread from there throughout the entire Greco-Roman world, and these magic formulas influenced every part of the daily life for most Ephesians and apparently led to the Ephesian Grammata and to many other books and scrolls filled with incantations and spells.

As we’ll also see a bit later in Acts 16, the new Christians in Ephesus burned all their magical books and paraphernalia; and as people came to Christ all around the Roman Empire, these people also burned their books of demonism and magic. As a result, the magical writings moved underground and were kept in secret. The magic arts became mysterious and cryptic and esoteric for hundreds of years. For 1800 years, magic was a dark underground movement that terrorized the world with fears of evil spirits.

In the 1800s, an Armenian man named Jean d’Anastasi traveled through the world locating and purchasing collections of ancient Egyptian papyri that had been discovered. He shipped these to Europe and sold them to places like the British Museum and the Louvre in Paris. These documents sat in these museums for another century before scholars really began to study and translate them. Somewhere around the year 1900, some of these materials were published. In the meantime, other discoveries were made. So we have a large body of ancient material now, which helps us understand the demonic hold that magic had over the world of Paul’s day, especially in Ephesus, the home of the temple of the goddess Artemis. 

I’ve read a few samples from the magical papyri. Remember, this is demonic, magical, and addressed to false gods, idols, and forces of evil. These samples are from The Greek Magical Papyri in Translation, edited by Hans Dieter Betz and published by the University of Chicago Press in 1986.

For someone facing a great distress, this magical formula was written: “I call upon you, lord. Hear me, holy god who rests among the holy ones, at whose side the Glorious Ones stand continually. I call upon you, forefather, and I beseech you eternal one, eternal ruler of the sun’s rays, eternal ruler of the celestial orb, standing in the seven part region….”

And there follows a long series of syllables that are something akin to words like abracadabra – just made-up words of magic. 

Then the distressed one would say, “I call upon you, lord of the universe, in an hour of need; hear me, for my soul is distressed and I am perplexed and in want of everything…. Shield me against all excess of magical power of aerial demons and fate….”

And following that is another series of strange syllables. Now that was a relatively simple incantation, almost like a prayer offered to dark unseen powers. But other magic spells had elements that remind us of the movies. For example, another entry in the magical papyri contains a formula for invisibility. It says:

“Take fat or an eye of a night owl and a ball of dung rolled by a beetle and oil of an unripe olive and grind them all together until smooth, and smear your whole body with it and say to Helios: ‘I adjure you by your great name…’ [and there follows another long series of magical words. And if you do it correctly and the god agrees, you’ll be invisible in the presence of any man until sunset.]

Here is one more. To achieve a good memory, the spell said: “Write on a leaf of cinquefoil the following character, written with myrrh ink, and keep it in your mouth while you sleep.” And there followed a special symbol, something like our letter “l” in script form. 

Well, this pervasive atmosphere of magic and invisible forces engulfed Ephesus and it also seeped into the Jewish quarter. In fact, there were elements of Judaism everywhere that were caught up in matters of angels and demons and speculations as to the nature of the supernatural realm. Back in Acts 13, Paul had encountered a Jewish sorcerer named Bar-Jesus or Elymas who tried to turn away Paul’s first convert in Europe, and Paul struck him blind for a time and said, “You are a child of the devil and an enemy of everything that is right! You are full of deceit and trickery. Will you never stop perverting the right ways of the Lord” (Acts 13:10).

Well, here in Ephesus, there were other Jewish sorcerers and they were in for a shock. Let’s continue our reading of Acts 19, resuming at verse 13:

13 Some Jews who went around driving out evil spirits tried to invoke the name of the Lord Jesus over those who were demon-possessed. They would say, “In the name of the Jesus whom Paul preaches, I command you to come out.” 

14 Seven sons of Sceva, a Jewish chief priest, were doing this. 15 One day the evil spirit answered them, “Jesus I know, and Paul I know about, but who are you?” 16 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.

This event marked a turning point for the Gospel in Ephesus. Verse 17 continues:

17 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. 18 Many of those who believed now came and openly confessed what they had done. 19 A number who had practiced sorcery brought their scrolls together and burned them publicly. When they calculated the value of the scrolls, the total came to fifty thousand drachmas. 20 In this way the word of the Lord spread widely and grew in power.

These magic papyri and books of magic were very valuable. Some were old and rare. Apparently thousands of them were burned. Fifty thousand silver coins may have amounted to a million dollars or more in today’s terms.  

Another thing happened too. Since Ephesus was the worldwide center for the worship of the goddess Artemis, there were statues of her everywhere for sale, each one handmade by artisans. It was like a Disneyworld for Artemis. The Gospel came with such supernatural power during the three years of Paul’s ministry there that sales of these figurines dropped dramatically, and that’s what led to the riot described in the latter part of the chapter.

So what I’m wanting you to know from Acts 19 is the Lord equipped Paul with supernatural influence in Ephesus. It was a power ministry, because this city was the center for the magical arts as no other city he ever visited. Now, why is it so important to know that? Because it gives us some needed background when we study the letter Paul later wrote to the Ephesians.

Supernatural Power in Paul’s Message in the Book of Ephesians

There’s one final thing I want to say about this. When you read the book of Ephesians against this background it comes alive.

Earlier I mentioned the book, Power and Magic: The Concept of Power in Ephesians by Clinton E. Arnold. In its original form, this book was based on a doctoral dissertation presented to the  Faculty of Divinity at the University of Aberdeen in June 1986. Arnold points out that Ephesus was a beehive of demonic powers, as we’ve seen. When Paul later wrote to the Ephesians, he constantly referred to the infinite power of God, far above all other authorities and powers.  

Arnold says, “(There is) a substantially higher concentration of power terminology than in any other epistle attributed to Paul (the sole exception is 1 Corinthians—but it is nearly three times longer). When these occurrences of power terminology in a given book are considered in proportion to the size of that book, Ephesians is found to contain a greater percentage of power terminology than any other New Testament book…. The devil and various categories of ‘powers’ are mentioned sixteen times in the epistle…. Ephesians is also loaded with many concepts and theological constructs conveying the notion of divine power.”

This is why the book of Ephesians is ground zero when studying spiritual warfare from a biblical perspective. Much of the power terminology Paul uses would have been familiar to readers of the magic papyri. 

Let’s turn over to Ephesians and I’ll give you some examples.

Look at the way the book opens in Ephesians 1:3: Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ.

The heavenly realms are the unseen realms, the supernatural realms, the realms occupied by the Eternal. We are blessed in these realms when we belong to Christ. We have nothing to fear.

Paul goes on to pray for us to understand God’s incomparably great power for us who believe.

That power is the same as the mighty strength 20 he exerted when he raised Christ from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms, 21 far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every name that is invoked, not only in the present age but also in the one to come. 22 And God placed all things under his feet…

All the ranks and rivals in the spiritual world – all the forces good and bad – are under Christ. And His supreme ultimate cosmic power is available to help us. Our personal power is bestowed by Christ, who ascended far above all other spiritual forces in the seen and unseen realms, both now and forever.

Let’s go on to chapter 2: 

As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient.

The air or the atmosphere was thought by people in the first century to be the realm of these invisible forces of evil, and they are ruled over by Satan, who is also working in the unsaved culture. Quoting Clinton again: “The air was regarded as the dwelling place of evil spirits in antiquity. This is well attested in the magical papyri.” Jews believed the air was the abode of demons. And from what Paul writes in Ephesians, there is truth to that.

But we have been delivered from all this. Clinton wrote, “(Paul) seeks to demonstrate to his readers that there are two possible realms in which people exist. One is the realm of death, which is controlled by an evil angelic prince, and the other is the realm of life, entered by faith in Christ Jesus. The believer has experienced a transfer from one realm to the other.”

In chapter 3, Paul says that the spirits in the unseen realm—both good and bad—learned about God’s triumphant plan by hearing it in the apostolic teaching. Verse 10 says:

10 His intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms. 

And look at Paul’s prayer at the end of chapter 3:

14 For this reason I kneel before the Father, 15 from whom every family in heaven and on earth derives its name. 

In other words, every group in the human race and every group in the heavenly realm—both good and evil—is under the authority of Almighty God. Paul continues:

16 I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, 17 so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, 18 may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ. 

Arnold points out that the phrase, “wide, long, high, and deep” would have been familiar to the magicians of Ephesus. These four dimensions are found in the papyri. It’s called dimensional terminology. In one of the magic spells, for example, the magician is instructed to call on the name of a certain god and request his power so that the secrets of the power of the god may be known. The incantation says: “Let there be opened for me the house of the all-powerful god Albalal, who is in this light! Let there be light, breadth, depth, length, height, brightness….”

The four dimensions refer to all space, everywhere, in every realm. They have to do with the vastness of power.

20 Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, 21 to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.

Going on to Ephesians 4:6, we read about the “one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.” The next verse refers to the moment of Christ’s ascension, when “He ascended on high, (and) He took many captives.”

Ephesians 4:27 tells us not to give the devil a foothold.

In Ephesians 5:8 we’re told that we were once in darkness, but now we are children of light.

And, of course, the great climax of it all comes in Ephesians 6 when Paul says:

10 Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. 11 Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. 12 For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. 

Arnold points out that the first century readers would have understood that rulers, authorities, powers, and forces were referring to various levels of invisible spirits that pervaded the unseen atmosphere around them. And we have the incredible instructions about the armor of the believer. I don’t have time to delve into all that, but my point is that when we read the book of Ephesians, we have to read it against the backdrop of the story of the establishment of the church in the city of Ephesus in Acts 19. And from the historical study and from the written letter, we gain incredible insights for knowing what it means to confront spiritual warfare.

Let me just end with these ensuing verses in Ephesians 6:

 13 Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand. 14 Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, 15 and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. 16 In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. 17 Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.