The first half of Acts 19 is a spiritually-charged passage. The story takes place in the city of Ephesus, which in Paul’s day had become “a collecting place for superstition and the dark arts.” In Ephesus, disciples received and lived in the Spirit, and an evil spirit attacked people who failed to respect spiritual powers.
These verses remind us of what we sometimes ignore—we are in a spiritual war. To the Ephesians, Paul wrote that we wrestle against “the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Eph. 6:12; cf. Gen. 3:15). There is no neutrality in this war. Whoever is not for Jesus is against him (Matt. 12:30). So how can we be for Jesus in our spiritual conflicts?
Receive the Spirit
Paul met a dozen genuine disciples in Ephesus who had never “even heard that there is a Holy Spirit” (Acts 19:2). By the Spirit’s blessing, they were sorry for their sins and believed that, in Jesus, God had provided an atoning sacrifice. But they lacked the Spirit’s full influence. So, for the fourth time in the book of Acts, God baptized believers in the Spirit and led them to confess Christ.
We, too, need the Holy Spirit. We don’t need the peculiar signs that God poured out on believers in a transitional era. But for our spiritual battles we need spiritual strength. And every believer has the Spirit: “No one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except in the Holy Spirit” (1 Cor. 12:3). The same Spirit enables believers to live out their confession of Jesus’ lordship despite fierce opposition. Only through the Spirit can we know that we are right with God, take refuge in God’s glory, and rejoice in sufferings with patient endurance (Rom. 5:1–5). If you aren’t trusting in Jesus, you lack the ability to fight the good fight of faith. In fact, you’re fighting on the wrong side.
Rally and Retreat in the Spirit
Like those who had just received the Spirit, Paul was prophesying, preaching in the Spirit in an Ephesian synagogue. He drew on his training and trusted the Spirit to help him say the right words. For three months he rallied in the Spirit.
But, in the Spirit, he also knew when to retreat. “He withdrew from them and took the disciples with him, reasoning daily in the hall of Tyrannus.” Why? Because “some became stubborn and continued in unbelief, speaking evil of the Way before the congregation” (Acts 19:9). Paul wasn’t quitting. Endowed with spiritual wisdom, he was refocusing his labors to increase his effectiveness. To continue laboring in the spiritually toxic atmosphere of the synagogue would have diminished the return on his limited energy.
In a similar way, Christians and congregations today need to depend on the Spirit to help them make hard choices about ministry efforts. Has a ministry run its course? Have new opportunities arisen that we should not pass up? These questions are hard to answer. But we can trust the Spirit to help us to combat spiritual warfare on the right fronts in the right way.
Respect Spiritual Powers
God was doing extraordinary work through Paul in Ephesus. People were healed through cloth that simply touched Paul’s skin. To some, it seemed that Paul had discovered a magic word—Jesus. Seven Jewish brothers declared Jesus’s name in an attempt to cast out demons. Instead, the demons turned on them. “When they tried to use [Jesus’s name], like an unfamiliar weapon wrongly handled, it exploded in their hands.”
The spirits’ attack should teach us not to play with evil. For this reason, many Ephesian believers burned their magic books. In our day, dark spirituality has infiltrated the world of entertainment. Christians should refuse to play along. Dark arts should be avoided, not enjoyed.
In a similar way, we must respect the name of Jesus. The devils fled before Paul because, by faith, Paul was connected to Jesus Christ, before whom Satan trembles. Conversely, the devils thrashed the seven sons of Sceva because they had no organic connection to Christ. They simply used his name. Don’t do that. The only way to experience the power and blessing of God is to know Christ personally.
Reconcile Your Doctrine and Life
God’s judgment against religious hypocrites produced Christ-exalting fear. Those who believed in Jesus realized that he deserved full allegiance. So they “came, confessing and divulging their practices” (Acts 19:18). They realized that what they believed about Jesus did not dominate how they lived. Some believers “who had practiced magic arts brought their books together and burned them in the sight of all” (Acts 19:19). Their consciences wouldn’t let them serve Jesus half-heartedly or inconsistently, no matter the immediate cost.
Do we have the same convictions? Does our fear of God affect even our finances? A recent study indicates that “just 21 percent of Christians set their church giving at 10 percent or more of their income.” Christians say that Jesus is Lord but withhold from him his due. Like these early believers, let’s confess our sins, change our ways, and commit to costly discipleship.
 R. Kent Hughes, Acts: The Church Afire, 254.
 F.F. Bruce, The Book of The Acts, 368.