Your Identity In Christ: A Controversial Identity

A Controversial Identity

Acts 19:8ff


For years, when accepting new members into the church, I would invite the new members to stand with me in front of the congregation and ask them two questions. The correct answer to both questions was “I will.” The questions were “Do you confess or affirm your faith in Jesus Christ?” and “Will you support the ministry of this church with your time, your talent, and your treasure?” Now, in all of my years of ministry, no one has ever stood in front of a congregation and answered “No” to one of those two questions. But I can promise you that some have said “Yes” and didn’t mean it.


Asian Access (or A2), a Christian missions agency in South Asia, listed a series of questions that some of their church planters have been asking new believers who are considering baptism. Due to safety concerns, Asian Access does not mention the country’s name. This particular country is predominantly Hindu, but over the past few decades Christianity has grown in popularity – especially among poor and tribal peoples. The following seven questions serve as a reality check for what new followers of Jesus might experience if they decide to “go public” with their decision to follow Christ:


Are you willing to leave home and lose the blessing of your father?


Are you willing to lose your job?


Are you willing to go to the village and those who persecute you, forgive them, and share the love of Christ with them?


Are you willing to give an offering to the Lord?


Are you willing to be beaten rather than deny your faith?


Are you willing to go to prison?


Are you willing to die for Jesus?


How would you answer if you had to stand up in front of your congregation and give an answer to those questions? Most places in this world, a decision to follow Christ is a very controversial, costly decision. Here in America, deciding to attend church isn’t controversial at all. But the decision to follow Christ still is.


Today, we’re starting a new sermon series on the book of Ephesians called “Your Identity In Christ.” Between now and the end of April, taking a break for Advent and Christmas and a few guest preachers along the way, we’ll be walking step by step through this letter that St. Paul wrote to the Christians in the city of Ephesus. But we aren’t starting in Ephesians. We’ll do that next week. Today, we’re going to the book of Acts and looking at St. Paul’s time in Ephesus, because understanding the city and the things that happened when Paul was there are critical to understanding what Paul is saying in his letter to that church, a letter he would write many years later. So turn in your Bibles to Acts 19. I’m going to start by reading Vv. 8-10 and we’ll work our way through the events described in the rest of the chapter. Remember, Acts is the second part, the continuation of Luke’s gospel.


Ephesus was one of the largest cities in the Roman Empire. As with most of the cities Paul visited and churches he started, Ephesus was located in what is known today as Turkey. In the earliest days of the church, that area was one of the most penetrated by the Gospel regions in the world. Sadly, it no longer is today. Ephesus had a population of at least 250,000, making it the third or fourth largest city in Rome. It was home to the great Temple of Diana or Artemis, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, and the worship of Artemis was centered there. And much like our economy here in Traverse City is largely based on tourism, the economy in Ephesus depended on both residents and religious pilgrims spending money in their city, buying images of their goddess, staying in inns while visiting the great temple. The temple itself was massive, roughly 4 times the size of the great Parthenon in Athens, and was supported by 127 pillars, each 60’ high and decorated by some of the leading Greek sculptors of the day. It was magnificent. And not only was the worship of Artemis centered in Ephesus, it was also filled with those who practiced witchcraft and all kind of sordid practices. People sacrificing goats and putting curses on other people and they got sick kinds of things. Demonic stuff.


Then Paul shows up. There was already an audience there, maybe a few Christians, because an eloquent speaker named Apollos and his mentors Priscilla and Aquilla had been teaching there. And Ephesus was one of the most successful times of ministry for St. Paul. It was always his custom to go into the Jewish synagogue in a new town and teach the Jews there first, until they rejected him. And he evidently made some friends among the Jews because unlike most places where he was run out of the synagogue after 3 weeks or so, Paul was able to preach and teach in the synagogue daily for three months. But after three months people started speaking evil of Christ and his followers or just stubbornly refused to listen, so he took those who began to follow Christ and rented the lecture hall of a man named Tyrannus, and he taught daily there for two years. This is one of his longest, most fruitful ministries, and it had an impact. In fact, Luke tells us that “all the residents of Asia (what we know as Asia Minor, the large region around Ephesus, including Corinth and Colosea and other places) heard the word of the Lord, both Jews and Greeks.” All the residents of an entire territory, and entire region, heard the word of God. It was a very fruitful ministry, and the good news of Jesus Christ was penetrating the hearts of many, many people.


Now, look at Vv. 11-16. Jesus is really flexing his muscles in Ephesus. Luke tells us that Paul was performing “extraordinary” miracles. Now I don’t know about you, but to may every miracle is extraordinary. But the demonic was very active in Ephesus, so people were in a sense used to seeing the supernatural at work. So ordinary healings and exorcisms wouldn’t suffice. Paul would be seen as just another one of the magicians, and Christ as just another of many gods to be worshipped. So Jesus really flexed his muscle. In the name of Christ, and for the sake of Christ, Paul is performing extraordinary miracles. Luke says that even the handkerchiefs or aprons that touched his skin were taken to the sick and oppressed and they were healed and delivered. These were the rags he used to wipe sweat and the aprons he used to hold the tools he used as a tentmaker, his profession, during the mornings and evenings, before and after his teaching sessions. People were swiping his stuff. And God was moving through it. Had nothing to do with Paul. It was all about the powerful name of Jesus.  And some of those who would place curses on people for you, who happened also to be Jews, seven sons of a Jewish “high priest” named Sceva (in my notes, I placed the words “high priest” in quotes because there was no high priest in Ephesus, only in Jerusalem at the Temple, so Sceva seems to have been a Jew who claimed to be a high priest so that he could use the personal name of God, Yahweh, in his incantations). And his 7 sons saw what Paul was doing, saw what was happening in the name of Jesus, and assuming that Paul was just another one of them, someone who spoke incantations in the names of the gods to bless or to curse, decided to add the name of Jesus to their repertoire and tried to cast out a demon in the name of Jesus. They ended up getting a lesson they would never forget. The demon possessing the man spoke to them saying “Jesus I know, and Paul I recognize, but who are you?” and then the man overpowered and beat up all seven of them (think about that … seven against one and one won) and Luke says they fled the house naked and wounded. The man had ripped the clothes off all seven of them and wounded them.


Now look at what happens. Look at Vv. 17-20. Everyone in Ephesus, a town of at least a quarter million people, heard about this. Without the internet. Without newspapers. Without television. Everyone heard about it. And two things happened: the people began to both fear and praise God. And many who had begun to follow Jesus but held on to their old practices too came and confessed and brought their incantation books and burned them “in the site of all.” The love of God and grace of God and the power of God in Christ had penetrated to their very core. In fact, Luke tells us that “the word of the Lord continued to (do two things) increase (in breadth and depth) and prevail mightily (over the powers of darkness in Ephesus).”


Pastor Steve Yeschek, Crystal Lake, Illinois, lost his sister, Judy, after a five-year battle with cancer. She was a woman who, as Steve described her, was a party animal—a big drinker with a self-contented lifestyle. She was someone everybody loved, because she exuded excitement and a thrill for life.

When Steve tried to share Jesus with her over the years, she would laugh it off and keep partying. But at the age of 44, her world caved in. She found out she had breast cancer. She later learned her husband had cancer, too. Adding to the devastation of these two blows, she discovered her husband was having an affair. He subsequently announced he didn’t love her anymore and left her. It was in that context that she began to ask eternal questions and soon prayed to receive Jesus as her Savior. From that time until her death, Jesus and his Word and purpose became her priority. With the same gusto she lived life as an unbeliever, she now approached her new life in Christ. Her greatest aim was winning others to Christ. She boldly shared her faith even as she was undergoing surgery after surgery, praying for a miraculous healing from the Lord.

Judy ultimately came to see that the greater miracle would be for her friends and family to come to know Christ. Even as she struggled for every breath, she talked her way out of the hospital about ten days before her death so she could be baptized and publicly proclaim Christ as the only way of salvation. Judy invited everyone she knew to come to her baptism service. Under the Spirit’s anointing, she powerfully and urgently shared her testimony. Her 84-year-old father came to faith in Christ that night and was baptized—along with her ex-husband, a number of nieces, a college roommate who was a New Age cultist, her aunt, her sister, and others.

Ten days later, Judy died. Even still, more people came to know the Savior. When Steve read the message she had prepared for her own funeral service, another 100 people prayed to receive Christ that day.


The love of Christ penetrates us deeply. And when it does, it transforms us, so that we are both transformed and always transforming. There is likely an immediate change, and people will notice a change of direction in our lives, but we’ll continue to grow into that change and deepen it throughout our lives. And as the gospel penetrates us deeply, it begins to penetrate our community and our culture deeply too. Jesus changes the way we do everything. And as the gospel spreads from person to person, and deepens in each person, our community and our culture are changed by Jesus too. And that leads to opposition. That’s when faith in Christ becomes controversial. Because there is a large group of people who aren’t drinking the culture’s Kool-Aide anymore. A large group of people who aren’t going with the flow anymore. In Ephesus, that had an economic impact. People weren’t paying to bless and curse others anymore. And they weren’t buying the religious objects to Artemis anymore. If you read the rest of this chapter, you’ll see that just as Paul was preparing to leave for the next place to which God was calling him (it was his desire to eventually visit the Christians in Rome and then move on to take the Gospel to Spain, the farthest westward reaches of the Roman Empire), Paul wound up with a riot on his hands. The local silversmiths guild was feeling the impact of Christ on their business bottom lines in a very negative way, and they weren’t happy. They wound up enraging the crowds who chanted “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians” over and over again for two hours. In fact, the situation was dire enough that the followers of Jesus and even the Asiarchs, not Christians but the wealthy and powerful in the city who Paul had befriended during his time in Ephesus, refused to let Paul speak to the rioting crowds for they feared for his life if he tried to do so.


Jesus began to challenge and change the culture and the economy and many weren’t happy. But Paul understood something. Something that he would remind the Ephesian believers of years later in the letter to the Ephesians we will be walking through this year. Paul understood that his battle was not against the seven sons of a so called Jewish high priest named Sceva. His battle was not against those who were stubborn and spoke evil against (that just might mean trying to curse) the followers of Christ and the Christian faith. His battle was not against those who worshipped Artemis and the many other Greek and Roman false gods. His battle was not against a silversmith named Demetrius who profited greatly from the worship of Artemis and who started an angry riot against Paul. Paul understood that “we do not struggle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Eph. 6:12). Paul understood that behind cultural and economic structures there is a spiritual power that must be battled. And we would do well to remember that. For neither do we struggle against any flesh and blood, but against spiritual powers. And those powers are subject to the name of Jesus. But in this fallen world we still must engage in the battle. Never against people, but against spiritual powers and against blindness, and we engage in the battle with the love and the grace and the mercy of Christ, in other words, what Luke calls “the word of the Lord.” The good news of Jesus. So this is not an excuse to be a jerk, to be condescending, to be mean. It is a call to deepening prayer for our neighborhood, our community, our nation, our planet, doing spiritual battle in the spiritual realm. And it is a call to walk more closely with Jesus, loving with his love and allowing his transforming power to do its work here in the physical realm.


In 1927, the famous English poet and essayist T.S. Eliot became a Christian and was baptized and confirmed. Prior to his conversion, Eliot belonged to London’s Bloomsbury Group, a small, informal association of artists and intellectuals who lived and worked in the Bloomsbury area of central London. But when news of Eliot’s conversion hit the news, the Bloomsbury Group responded with shock and even disgust. The writer Virginia Woolf, the de facto leader of the group, penned the following letter to one of her peers: I have had a most shameful and distressing interview with dear Tom Eliot, who may be called dead to us all from this day forward. He has become a [believer] in God and immortality, and he goes to church. I was shocked. A corpse would seem more credible than he is. I mean, there’s something obscene in a living person sitting by the fire and believing in God.


When Christ begins to penetrate us deeply, he begins to penetrate our community and our culture deeply as well. The problem is we have often tried to bring Christ to the culture without bringing him first to individual human hearts, and that is not how God works. He transforms us from the inside out, and communities from inside his people and outward from there. But when Christ begins to penetrate our society deeply through us, and begins to have an economic and cultural impact, there will be controversy. There will be opposition. For the decision to follow Christ has always been and will always be a counter-cultural, and therefore a controversial, decision.