Paul’s years in Ephesus are perhaps his most fruitful times in ministry. Witherington comments that Luke intends this unit to be a “lasting model of what a universalistic Christian mission ought to look like” (Acts, 573). It is perhaps strange to think of this as the third missionary journey, since Paul stays in Ephesus for three years. This is Paul’s longest period of settled ministry and perhaps the most fruitful time in his entire career. Christianity does in fact spread throughout Asia Minor and Ephesus becomes a center for Christianity into the early middle ages.
As is his usual pattern, Paul begins at a synagogue (19:8-9). As we have come to expect by this point in Acts, Ephesus had a large Jewish population as well (Josephus, Antiq. 14.225-227, 16.162-168, 172-173). That Paul meets several important Jewish Christians in Ephesus (Aquila and Priscilla, Apollos, as well as some disciples of John) indicates the importance of Ephesus to the Jews.
Paul is able to spend three months in the synagogue arguing persuasively about the kingdom of God. Paul is described as speaking freely (παρρησιάζομαι), the same verb used to describe Apollos in the synagogue (18:26) as well as Paul and Barnabas in the synagogue in Psidian Antioch (13:46). The word refers to boldness or fearlessness in speech. Paul is not holding anything back in his time in the synagogue. The phrase “kingdom of God” likely refers to a whole range of topics Paul preaches on in synagogues. This would include arguing Jesus is the messiah, but also that the messiah would die and rise again.
Luke chooses an important word to describe the negative response of the synagogue to Paul’s preaching. The NIV’s “obstinate” (σκληρύνω) is used in the Septuagint to describe hard-heartedness toward the word of God. For example, this the word used in Exodus for Pharaoh’s hear (4:3). In LXX Jer 7:26 the prophet describes resistance to the word of the Lord as “stiffening the neck.” In the Second Temple period, the writer of PsSol 8:28-29 says the nation “stiffened their neck” and was sent into exile as a result.
These Jews are acting like their forefathers, a point made also by Stephen in Acts 7. The word describes a choice not to believe something, but also the fact that this stubbornness leads to a stronger unbelief. This can be seen in the “hardening” of Pharaoh’s heart in Exodus (or Rom 9:18). He chose to be stubborn, and then the Lord increased his stubbornness as judgment.
Unlike Paul’s previous experience in Philippi or Thessalonica, he is able to remain in the city of Ephesus for a long time, perhaps as long as three years. In fact, Paul’s time in Ephesus might be his most successful ministry described in the book of Acts. What contributes to this success? Does Paul do anything different in Ephesus? Or is this a matter of being at the right place at the right time?