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Bible Commentaries

James Nisbet's Church Pulpit Commentary

Acts 19



Verse 2


‘And they said unto him, We Have not so much as heard whether there be any Holy Ghost.’

Acts 19:2

Such is the condition of many at the present day in Christian England, and that not by reason of the practical heathenism in which too many of our children grow up in our large cities, but because, sweep as she may, search as she will, the Church is unable to find all those lost coins which belong to the King, which lie hidden beneath the dust and rubbish of a material age. This is sad enough. But there is a sadder fact even than this. Many of our children are being deliberately brought up in ignorance of the Holy Spirit, of His grace and work, because some are pleased to call this great doctrine which God Himself has revealed ‘denominational.’

I. Modern panaceas of regeneration are more extravagant than the Divine remedies of heavenly medicine.—It is power that we want, and in the spiritual world knowledge is not necessarily power. We have no power of ourselves to help ourselves: our sufficiency is of God. What we need for our advance, what England needs in her system of education, is place for God, place for that power from on high, which God is willing to bestow on a nature which, left to itself, is very much as if we surrounded our fires with muslin, or deposited gunpowder on our hearths. This world makes short work of the unprotected, unassisted nature. If we are sinking back, baffled and disheartened, because our hereditary taint is too much for us, listen to the advice which the Apostle gives you: ‘Stir up the gift of God that is in thee.’

II. Temples of the Holy Ghost.—That is what God designed us to be, temples in which the presence of God should drive away what was bad, and attract what was good.

III. All life is one.—We cannot divide up our lives into sacred and secular. What God desired was that religion should be supreme. We need to exhibit the sacredness of secular knowledge, not to secularise religion. Religion is what we want; progress, development, science—all part of the one life of man as God designed it to be. That is what makes the Bible such a wonderful book. The Bible displays to us all life viewed on the side of God—national life, family life, intellectual life, viewed on the side of God in its oneness and in its fullness. That is one meaning, surely, of that wonderful saying, ‘Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty.’ Without the Spirit of the Lord it is impossible to live in an environment like this. Unify your lives, brethren, in the power of the Holy Spirit. Seek to know the religion of common life and the fullness, and not the deadliness, of an advancing civilisation. Union with Christ, high effort, noble desires. Sacramental indwelling—these are the necessities, not the luxuries, of life.

IV. Let us rouse ourselves to the realisation of the purpose for which we were created.—‘I believe in God the Father Almighty’ means a great deal in the purpose of a life. ‘I believe in Jesus Christ’ means an acceptance both of His salvation wrought for us and of His sanctification offered to us. ‘I believe in the Holy Ghost’ means a living co-operation with that saving influence which alone can keep us safe in view of our heredity and environment. So full of peril is our life, and it is this that the Church has in view when she so mercifully warns us. Without God you cannot be the man you might be here. It is to fail of our great end to be left without God, hereafter to be left to ourselves, to be left to our own choice. What does that mean? Will any expurgation of creeds, will any closing of the Bible, alter the result? To be without God is that eternal loss which is hell. To be with God is that eternal gain which is heaven.

—Rev. Canon Newbolt.


‘What, as a Christian, has the Holy Ghost been to me? What do I owe to that pledge so manfully made, to that vow so courageously renewed: “Dost thou believe in God the Father, Who made thee and all the world? Dost thou believe in Jesus Christ, Who redeemed thee and all mankind? Dost thou believe in God the Holy Ghost, Who sanctifieth thee and all the elect people of God?” Yes, all this I steadfastly believe. It is true of each one of us that, if we wish to be saved, if we wish that body of our humiliation to be preserved blameless and entire unto the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, if we wish to keep that mind with all its powers unspotted and clear, if we wish to guard the spirit as the unsullied mirror of God’s holiness, the unstained dwelling of His majesty, we must believe in the Holy Ghost.’



No wonder that they had no firm hold on spiritual realities; no wonder that duty was little better than drudgery, that faith was torpid, that endeavour was but half-hearted! No wonder that it is so with us! What did Paul do for them when he brought them the knowledge of the Holy Spirit? Just what the same knowledge shall do for us. ‘He shall take of Mine and shall show it unto you,’ Jesus had said. Yes, the work of the Spirit is to make Jesus vividly real to men.

I. He makes our beliefs real and vital.—We realise what Christ was and is, and as we realise power is added to us, the truth of the message of Jesus, ‘Ye are the sons of God.’

II. He makes our duties no longer the drudgery of compulsion, but glad service done as unto the Friend and Saviour Himself. Behind duty he sets the Christ, so that every labourer has the strength, the courage, the incitement to fidelity, which comes from working for One Whom the worker knows and loves.

III. It is for this knowledge that we pray, for this power of enthusiasm, this power without and above, that comes to reinforce the capacities that are within, ensuring their effectiveness, guaranteeing their permanence. For this—that we may know God, not only as our Creator and Preserver, as our Saviour and Redeemer, but as the inspirer and sanctifier of our souls.

—Rev. F. Ealand.


‘Perhaps the most helpful interpretation of the working of the Holy Spirit is that given in Ecce Homo. It is the enthusiasm of humanity. “A single conception enthusiastically grasped is found powerful enough to destroy the very root of all immorality within the heart. As every enthusiasm that a man can conceive makes a certain class of sin impossible to him and raises him not only above the commission of them, but beyond the very temptation to commit them, so there exists an enthusiasm which makes all sin whatever impossible” (and all goodness possible). “This enthusiasm is emphatically the presence of the Holy Spirit. It is called here the enthusiasm of humanity, because it is that respect for human beings which no one altogether lacks, raised to the point of enthusiasm. Being a reverence for human beings as such, and not for the good qualities they may exhibit, it embraces the bad as well as the good, and as it contemplates human beings in their ideal—that is, in what they might be—it desires not the apparent but the real and highest welfare of each; lastly, it includes the person himself who feels it, and loving self only in the ideal, he differs as much as possible from the selfish man, for it produces self-respect, humility, independence, while selfishness is allied with self-contempt, with arrogance, and with vanity.”

Verse 8


“He went into the synagogue and spake boldly.’

Acts 19:8

St. Paul did not turn from the Jews until they had persistently rejected his testimony concerning Christ.

I. The earnestness of his effort.—He continued it for three months, attempting by argument and persuasion to lead them into the Kingdom of God. And he did this fearless of all consequences to himself. Knowing how the Jews had treated him elsewhere, he yet ‘spake boldly.’ May not clergy and others to-day learn the lesson?

II. The result.—The statement concerning some is a very solemn one. They were ‘hardened,’ became less impressible, until their hearts were as adamant. This resulted from their not believing. One of these results must follow in those who hear the Word. No one can resist a good impression without being injured by it. And this led to something worse. They denounced that way (see John 14:6) as evil; not because the way was wrong, but because they were resolved not to tread in it. Yet, in contrast with these, some became true disciples, who not only believed, but ‘separated’ themselves.

Every Christian worker may look for these results.

Verse 11


‘And God wrought special miracles by the hand of Paul.’

Acts 19:11

There was special reason in Ephesus for the performance of miracles. The city abounded in magicians and sorcerers, who deceived the people. Among the disciples were some who had evidently practised soothsaying, and who did not at first entirely abandon it. There was something ‘special’ about St. Paul’s miracles which the people could not fail to notice.

I. They were wrought by God.—St. Paul was but the instrument; God was the worker. No Apostle could work miracles at will. Where they were necessary, God wrought them.

II. They were special in character.—Whatever article of dress was taken from the Apostle’s body proved effectual in doing what the pretenders to sorcery could not do.

III. They were beneficent.—It was not enough to excite the wonder of the multitude. Sickness and disease and demon possession were miraculously cured. The Gospel has always cared for the sick in body, as well as for the spiritually diseased.

The story of what resulted is full of interest. The burning of the books of the sorcerers; the uproar raised by Demetrius, witness to the success of the Apostle’s work.

Verse 16


‘They fled out of that house naked and wounded.’

Acts 19:16

There is a striking analogy between these circumstances and the failure of Gehazi to bring back life to the son of the Shunamite woman. Why did Gehazi fail whereas Elisha succeeded? Subsequent events proved that Gehazi was a man steeped in covetousness and falsehood. Such a character had no spiritual power, but just because Elisha was a pure, holy man, who lived in close spiritual communion with God, he had the power which the other lacked. So it was with the exorcists and St. Paul. They failed because they were worldly, carnal men. St. Paul possessed a power which they had not. It was gained by communion with God, Who could use him as His agent, because he was holy and pure in heart.

I. In our modern life we have daily experience of many forms of evil.—We see people in utter bondage under evil influences, the origin of which we cannot explain. The magistrates and the police can and do restrain much evil-doing, but we are not asking about evil desires and evil habits which have been bound with the chain of the law, but about such desires and habits as have been so cast out of the man that he can live again in true liberty and freedom as master of himself. That power can come only from God, but He sends it generally through the hands of some faithful and good person who works as His agent.

II. Systems of human law and secular philosophy seem to be most helpless.—Many a criminal, if he had the power, would leap on the judge and rend him, as he hears the sentence pronounced which is intended for his reformation. Often when the discipline of a prison has failed, the ‘Prison gate mission’ has succeeded, yet the latter is the work mostly of quiet, gentle, good women whose power is only this, that they are holy and pure in heart, and that their lives are reflections of the life of Christ. Philosophy has no message for the wretched.

III. The battle between Christ and the powers of darkness was fought out once for all on the cross at Calvary, and the Lord emerged from the conflict a conqueror for ever. His pleasure is to make His people who believe in Him and who obey Him partakers in His victory. His power alone gave that spiritual strength to St. Paul so that he could face evil and subdue it by a word.

IV. Ought it not to be our highest ambition to be possessed in some measure of this strength? There could be no more glorious use made of our one earthly life than to be in our own persons by the strength of our words and examples, a source of firmness to the weak, of bravery to the coward, and of hope to the despairing. And this may be our possession if we ask the Lord to give it to us out of the treasury of His eternal strength.

Dean Ovenden.


‘I have received personal testimony from missionaries who have worked in China that they have met there cases in every way analogous to the possessions referred to in the Gospels and the Acts, which cases were entirely distinct from lunacy, mania, or epilepsy, and much more like a dual personality in one individual. At the present time the people bring these cases of possession to the Christians, who simply pray for them in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the missionaries testify that they have witnessed many cases in which the possessed persons were delivered by this means alone from the dreadful bondage which they hated, and how rejoiced and thankful they were at this deliverance, and how many were thus led to believe in the spiritual power of the Lord Jesus Christ. I have no reason to doubt the validity of this testimony, even though it is altogether outside my personal experience. No more reason have we to reject the honest record of the events which took place in the times of the Apostles, which were moreover very different from the age in which we live.’

Verse 19


Many … brought their ‘together, and burned them in the sight of all.’

Acts 19:19 (R.V.)

One of the results of the preaching of St. Paul was the abandonment by his converts of those ‘curious arts’—magical practices by which a superstitious populace had been deluded. A whole cabalistic literature had, in course of time, grown up, professing to interpret and apply to all the ills that flesh and spirit are heirs to, certain mystic characters covering parts of the hideous image of Artemis, worshipped in the great Temple, portions of which have found a shelter in our British Museum. The public abandonment of these malpractices was common to dupes and professors. These last brought their books together, to the probable value of some £2000 of English money, and burned them, making of them, as one writes, a ‘monte della pieta’ ‘in the street, as at the bidding of the great Florentine centuries later.

If our Faith is to have its due influence in the moulding of our lives in their entirety, if its sway is not to be over a certain circumscribed domain of life, leaving whole tracts unoccupied, uncontrolled by it, if it be true that ‘as a man thinketh, so is he,’ and that ‘every thought’ is to be ‘brought into captivity to the obedience of Christ,’ then the selection of the sustenance we offer to our thoughts is no trivial matter.

I. Of directly vicious literature, little is said beyond reminding you of the deplorable amount that issues from the prostituted presses of this professedly Christian England of ours—from 200,000 to 250,000 copies of distinctly pernicious publications in a week. Testimonies are abundant that bad reading and crime are closely related.

II. What constitutes the difference between a harmless and a harmful book of fiction is not so much the matter and staple of the story, as the manner of its treatment.

III. If thought be a function of spirit, and when the spirit returns to God Who gave it, it passes in the maturity of its intelligence, it is no question of little moment on what the intelligent faculty has been habitually employed through the training time of the earthly life. If ‘for every idle word we speak we shall give account in the Day of Judgment, for by our words we shall be justified and by our words we shall be condemned,’ we must harbour the fear that the idle thoughts of which those words are the expression will be condemned also.

IV. When the pilgrim life begins with us, we may leave nothing behind of our God-given endowments. We are not suddenly to be reduced to a dead dull level of uniformity of character. Individuality is not crushed, but expanded by the Faith. Christianity rejoices in the enlargement of a man’s mental horizon, in the broadening of his views of life, in the enriching of the field of his experience. In fulfilling ourselves we are fulfilling our Creator’s and Redeemer’s purpose concerning us.

Bishop Alfred Pearson.


‘In the streets of Vienna is a statue erected in 1807 by Francis I., to the memory of his predecessor, Joseph II. On the pedestal are these words in Latin: “To Joseph II, who, for the weal of the State, lived a whole life, though not a long one”—a succinct testimony to the single-heartedness of a career which politically was something of a failure. Whether your lives and mine shall be long or short rests with God. It belongs to us to resolve that they shall be whole. “Time wasted is existence: used, is life.”’



Though times have changed, the words of the Lord Jesus are as true to-day as they were in the first ages: ‘If any man will come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow Me.’ Sacrifice and self-denial are required of Christ’s followers still.

I. What are you going to give up?—What sacrifice are you going to make, in time, money, sleep, labour, for Jesu’s sake, for the good of others, for your soul’s health?

II. The scene in Ephesus.—Picture it, the broad street, the crowded thoroughfare, the burning pile of evil books. Listen to some of the scoffers, ‘fools’ and ‘lunatics’ they are calling these men whose conscience God has awakened. But the air is purer, the city healthier, the atmosphere is clearer, after the fire has done its work; even as London was after the great fire had burnt out the lingering plague and purified the air. Young men, have you, literally, burnt your bad books? If you have not, then do so the moment you get home. Burn them. Do not pass them on, do not sell them, or get rid of them in any way. Those books are only fit for the fire. Go and burn them! Then what about those betting books, the only books some men ever look into, the only ‘books’ some consider worth calling by the name? Your gain is another’s loss, and you are glad of that other’s loss. Go and burn your betting books and your gambling records, and you will never regret the day in which you did so.

Rev. J. B. C. Murphy.


‘Like Savonarola in later times, Paul bade the Ephesians decide between the world and God, and the believers in Ephesus who up to this time had kept a lingering belief and a lingering hold upon their former worship now confessed and showed their deeds, and as a proof of their renunciation brought their books of magic and of sacred incantations and burned them publicly before all the people, just as the followers of Savonarola renounced their worldliness and burned the tokens of their folly in the market-place. Recent discoveries have shown how widespread the use of these magical papyri was in Ephesus, and the value set upon them. Books of any kind were valuable in those days, but none so rare and precious as books of magic and incantation; and the sacrifice which was made was very great.’

Verse 21


‘I must also see Rome.’

Acts 19:21

St. Paul has become more of a power, his authority is recognised in so many of the Asian cities, that he determines to visit the great capital, and to preach his view of Christianity in the famous centre of the world. This Roman journey and work no doubt for years entered into St. Paul’s prayers. And his prayer was granted. The long ‘agony’ and wrestling with the Holy Spirit was successful. The Lord heard His servant’s wish. St. Paul found himself at Rome; but how? in what position? He saw Rome, but disappointed. His earnest prayer granted, his life-wishes realised, but all so altered with him.

I. Many an one of us win our heart’s desire, and find it so different from what we hoped, dreamed of, longed for.

(a) The man may win his post—the coveted post; he may—probably will—find it full of anxieties, perplexities, cares, even disappointment. He may win wealth, station, high consideration, all those things once he thought so desirable; and with these, perhaps, he will find the hour of health and strength gone, the power of enjoying and even of using the much-coveted possession. Rank, consideration, wealth—gone, hopelessly gone. At Rome, the longed-for Rome, like St. Paul; but, like St. Paul, a captive, hemmed in, hampered, hindered, bearing about a dying body. Like St. Paul, he must forget himself; he must set to with the weary work, the restless anxieties, the weak and fading health, and do his best for his Master and his Brother. He must never lose heart, but bravely struggle on. He must, as did St. Paul, remember it is the Lord’s hand leading him. Perhaps he himself has been unwise in coveting the higher post, the more exalted rank, the ampler fortune; but now he has won these so-called golden gifts, and with the gifts the chains of increased painful care, of ceaseless worry and anxiety, perhaps of broken health, which makes all life, all living, a weary burden. He must take up his heavier cross bravely, and carry it to the end for his Master’s sake uncomplainingly, as did St. Paul.

(b) Are there no women among our worshippers to-day who in past years have longed for another, a more stirring, a brighter life; have longed for a home, as it is called, of their own; for husband and children, for a so-called independent life; and finding these, have found many a trouble, many a care, many a sorrow? The Rome they longed for is very different from the Rome of their girl-dreams. Dear sisters, if you are disappointed, disillusionised, if robed in many sorrows, be brave. You wished these things, you know. Now do your duty lovingly, uncomplainingly, training up little souls for Christ; teaching them by the silent, golden example of your own self-denying life, how lovely a thing it is to be a Christian, that in coming days, when God has called you home, these may oftentimes call to mind their mother’s sweet, calm life of trust, of love, of prayer! oftentimes call to mind how she told them of her Redeemer, who had helped her bear her sorrows, who had given her her glorious hope, and who, she said, was waiting for her!

II. How did St. Paul behave under his heavy sorrow?—As a brave Christian should. He braced himself up to new and fresh work. Debarred from his old free toils in the worship by day and in the ‘upper room’ by night, debarred from those missionary circuits which had done so much in old days, when Ephesus was his head-quarters, now comparatively alone and friendless, he did his best. He gathered new congregations as best he could—soldiers, camp followers, court attendants—and spoke his Master’s words to these. But it was a very different audience which listened to the prisoner St. Paul, to the chained and suspected plotter against the empire, to the congregations he dreamed of swaying when once he could get to queenly Rome. He wrote, too, the Ephesian Epistle, and the Colossian and Philippian letters, and the touching request to Philemon. Noble expositions of doctrine, but two of them coloured with a prison colouring, with a sad hue tinging every thought.

So passed two years, perhaps more, at Rome—his dream-city. Yes; God had heard his prayer.

—Dean Spence-Jones.


‘We all, I think, “long to see Rome.” Do we not? On in front we see, like St. Paul, a dream-city, far different from the one in which our lot is cast. What do we want there? Is it gold, or leisure, or power, or pleasure? Do we, in our plans for the future, in our hopes for what will happen “after long years,” at all think of the Kingdom of God, of the advancement of His glory, of the being able better to help our sister and our brother in their need and trouble, in their sickness and sorrow? Or in our dream-city of the future do we only, or even chiefly, see one figure—ourselves? If our hopes and aims are coloured with a noble colouring drawn from heaven, if our building of the future is raised up story upon story, the corner-stone of which is Christ, then God will surely hear our prayer, and we shall too, like St. Paul, see Rome, the dream-city we so long for.’

Verse 24


‘A certain man named Demetrius, a silversmith, which made silver shrines for Diana.’

Acts 19:24

Demetrius is a type of those who debase religion by their covetous-ness. He sold silver shrines made by the operatives of Ephesus. These shrines were probably representatives of the famous temple, with the figure of the goddess. They sold freely, not only to worshippers, but also to strangers who were constantly visiting Ephesus. They paid well. This was the chief importance of them, and shrewd, and long-headed, and calculating, there was a keen perception of the danger which was involved in the success of Paul’s preaching. There was no care for the truth as truth. There was no interest in the effects of the truth. The whole matter began and ended with the trade of the silversmiths, which was endangered; and so Demetrius, like other false zealots who pretend to care for the errors of men or the true doctrine of religion, began to make a great stir in favour of the great goddess. But, secretly his only desire was to preserve his own livelihood and fortune. How many men there are who are zealous for God and for righteousness just in the same way that Demetrius was for Diana. This zeal is not according to knowledge. We should learn to distinguish between false and true zeal.

I. False zeal is always selfish.—It sets the individual uppermost and foremost and in the midst of the life.

II. False zeal is fitful.—There is no abiding property in it. It cannot stay. Men cannot depend upon it, and God does not. It endures but for a little while, and then it becomes dull, and it smoulders itself into coldness or death.

III. False zeal is full of duplicity.—It never gives the true reason either for its activities or for its cessation of works in which it was visibly engaged. The craft was in danger, but Demetrius did not say so. All that he said in private was meant to arouse the prejudices and excite the animosities of the workmen. Their cry was not ‘we are in danger of losing our maintenance,’ but ‘our Church is in danger; the great goddess is being reviled, her worship will be neglected, her temple will be deserted.’

IV. False zeal is destructive.—It has no respect for even the most sacred things, if they stand in its way. It rushes on blindly, heedlessly, and allows no considerations, human or divine, to restrain it in its course. Truth and righteousness harmonise together, and harmonise all conflicting interests. God loves sacrifice. But if a man despise mercy in his blind zeal, God says, ‘I will have mercy and not sacrifice.’

V. A true zeal is intelligent because it is the earnestness of real convictions.—It is like a sunbeam—it has both light and heat in it. There is no one-sidedness in it. It is fair, as remembering the manifoldness of human interests and the place and power of each. It is deliberate, calm, self-contained, mighty, and it holds on to the end. It says with bated breath, not in proud boastfulness and arrogance, ‘This one thing I do’; but, while it does it, it remembers how much else is to be done and is being done, and it is tolerant, patient, much-enduring.

Verse 34


‘Great is Diana of the Ephesians.’

Acts 19:34

The craftsmen are types of those who yield to feeling and cupidity what should only be yielded to reason and God. Demetrius appealed to the passions of the workmen, and they were at once on his side. They never reasoned about the things involved in St. Paul’s procedure at all. Their act, as is so often the case in such instances, was utterly irrational; and they yielded to interest and passion what should only have been given up to the highest qualities and exercises of manhood. They cried out, ‘Great is Diana of the Ephesians!’ They did not consider, and refused the supreme God and the supreme good for Diana and the wages of their craft.

What a folly and infatuation that men blindly yield themselves and their wills to false gods—to Diana instead of Christ!’

I. The counterparts of these men live to-day.—There is no abuse, however hoary, however injurious to the state or the Church, that does not rally some crowd of unreasoning, passion-led mortals for its defence.

(a) It is the world’s cry concerning all its false gods; concerning wealth and its tyranny; concerning fashion, concerning pleasure, concerning misgovernments and oppressions, concerning armies and their needless extravagance and bloodshed.

(b) It is the world’s cry concerning the immoral principles which are cursing and ruining it; concerning infidelity, concerning intemperance, concerning fleshly sin, concerning the wild whirl of excitement and gambling and horrible licentiousness into which it has plunged. The characteristic all these have in common is their unreason. Great are the false gods of the diseased imagination, and of the enslaved appetites and the false will!

II.—What led to this manifestation of human blindness and folly is the only thing which can cure them.—St. Paul’s preaching of Jesus is the only answer to the world’s infatuation. It says ‘Great is Diana,’ and we say, great is the Almighty Saviour, great is His cross, great is His salvation, great is His grace, great is His victory over the powers of darkness, great the blessedness of pure hearts in heaven.

We meet this folly with the Gospel of God’s grace.


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Bibliography Information
Nisbet, James. "Commentary on Acts 19:4". Church Pulpit Commentary. 1876.

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