MESSAGE FOR JULY 24, 2011 FROM ACTS 19:11-20
This week, we continue to follow Luke’s account of Paul’s ministry in Ephesus found in Acts 19. As we said last week, Ephesus was a dominant commercial center. However, that was probably not this city’s most celebrated distinctive within the Roman Empire. When the name “Ephesus” was spoken, people probably thought first of what was then called “the magical arts.” The magical arts were part of satanic occult religions that draw upon demonic power to influence people. Ephesus was “occult central” in Asia and perhaps in the empire. This city was so identified with demonic, dark “magic” power that documents in the Ancient Near East containing spells, incantations or curses were all popularly know as “Ephesian writings.” That’s how well established was the reputation of Ephesus for its occult, demonically charged religious expressions. It’s no accident that Paul’s most in-depth discussion of spiritual warfare was written to the Ephesians in chapter six where he tells us “we do not wrestle 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.” These believers living in Ephesus needed to know the truth about their spiritual conflict with the powers of darkness.
The Bible repeatedly acknowledges the reality of satanic expressions of occult “magic” through practices like divination, fortune telling, sorcery and others. There is real spiritual power attached to these things and we know from the text we read earlier in Deuteronomy 18 that God considers these things abominable. Within these occult religions, deceived people seek after spiritual power and illumination from someone other than God and—whether they know it or not--there is only one alternative source of spiritual power—Satan. So, as a jealous God he abominates these practices. With that as background, let’s read our text that is dominated by a spiritual power encounter between Paul and forces of darkness.
Beginning with verse 10 Luke writes, “11 And God was doing extraordinary miracles by the hands of Paul, 12 so that even handkerchiefs or aprons that had touched his skin were carried away to the sick, and their diseases left them and the evil spirits came out of them. 13 Then some of the itinerant Jewish exorcists undertook to invoke the name of the Lord Jesus over those who had evil spirits, saying, “I adjure you by the Jesus whom Paul proclaims.” 14 Seven sons of a Jewish high priest named Sceva were doing this. 15 But the evil spirit answered them, “Jesus I know, and Paul I recognize, but who are you?” 16 And the man in whom was the evil spirit leaped on them, mastered all of them and overpowered them, so that they fled out of that house naked and wounded. 17 And this became known to all the residents of Ephesus, both Jews and Greeks. And fear fell upon them all, and the name of the Lord Jesus was extolled.”
Not surprisingly, in this occult center where so much demonic power was concentrated, it doesn’t take long for Paul to encounter evil spirits. Contemporary authorities on the occult have said that when we find ourselves in conflict with demons, we should not think about it as a “power encounter” but rather a “truth encounter.” That is—we should war against the devil primarily by speaking, claiming and praying the truth to liberate ourselves and others from the lies of the enemy more than by rebuking evil spirits. The prominent means through which Paul engaged the enemy was faithfully and fearlessly teaching the Word of God. However, so called direct confrontations with demons or “power encounters” are at times necessary in contexts where Satan doesn’t limit himself to lies and deceptions. In our culture, demonic expressions of power are fundamentally rooted in the subtlety of lies and deception, but in the Ancient Near East and in much of the third world today, Satan also works overtly through overt demonic manifestations to incite fear in people, holding them captive through intimidation. Because that is what was happening here in Ephesus, God shows his supremacy by working on that level of overt, raw spiritual power.
The first truth and the truth that expresses the main message of this passage is: God seeks to demonstrate his supremacy over the Adversary in all cultures. The details of this first encounter are very important in illustrating this. First, in verse 11 Luke says, “And God was doing extraordinary miracles by the hands of Paul.” Notice two things about that verse. First, Luke makes it clear that it is God who is doing the miracles. This is not fundamentally a conflict between Paul and these seven Jewish exorcists—but between God and the forces of darkness. Second, Luke uses the word translated “extraordinary” to describe the miracles Paul does in Ephesus. The irony is that ALL miracles are by definition extraordinary. Luke’s point is to say that these miracles were extraordinarily extraordinary. They were of a different nature than most of the miracles recorded in Acts and the gospels.
The extraordinary aspect of these miracles is seen in the fact that Paul did not have to be ministering or even physically present in order for the miracles to occur. Normally, miracles in the Bible occur in direct response to a person’s ministry. Another exception to this is in Second Kings 13 where we have an account of a dead man being thrown into the grave of the long-dead Elisha and “as soon as the man touched the bones of Elisha, he revived and stood on his feet.”[v.21] This certainly wasn’t willfully done by Elisha because he was dead! In Acts chapter five, we see that even the shadow of Peter brought healing when it fell across sick people laid on cots and mats. In Luke chapter eight Jesus healed the woman with a chronic discharge of blood when she touched his garment. Those are extraordinary miracles, but these miracles in chapter 19 are perhaps even more “extraordinary” than the others. Luke records in verse two, “…even handkerchiefs or aprons that had touched his skin were carried away to the sick, and their diseases left them and the evil spirits came out of them.”
There was nothing intrinsically special about these pieces of cloth—just the opposite. Handkerchiefs were pieces of cloth men wore around their head as they worked to keep the sweat from dripping into their eyes. This was a sweat rag. The aprons were clothes worn around their waste and were probably also sweat towels for their waste. The point is—there is nothing in this fabric that would cause anyone to think there was any intrinsic spiritual power in it to heal and deliver people. It’s important to know that this particular means of healing people remotely through cloths was NOT simply a random strategy God employed—he was making a very specific point. The scholars tell us that occult magicians often tried to heal others by having articles of their clothing come into contact with people. This was one way in which demonic power was expressed at times in this culture.
Here, God chooses not only to heal through these sweat rags, but also to deliver people from demons. We don’t know whether God told Paul to give these rags out for this purpose or whether someone who saw the miracles borrowed or stole them from Paul, but they were carried away from Paul and God used the touch of them to heal and deliver people. Don’t lose sight of the larger context here. Here is Ephesus—a city where the power and influence of Satan is present in a very in-your-face way. This was a very well-fortified stronghold of Satan. He had held oppressively ruled here for a long time through false pagan religions as seen in the temple of Artemis of the Ephesians we will see next time, Lord willing. He also ruled by intimidation because the many magicians with demonic power doubtless held many people in fear of being cursed or having a spell cast on them or in some other way being held captive to this occult power.
Into this den of spiritual darkness marches Paul, a servant of the Lord Jesus. Paul has been delivered from the realm of Satan into the kingdom of light. He has been filled with the Holy Spirit and power and given authority over the powers of darkness as we saw in chapter 16 when he cast the demon out of the slave girl who practiced divination. There is going to be a spiritual confrontation here because God was coming into Ephesus to spread his kingdom through the gospel and Satan does not give up his ground—either in a city or a person--without a fight. He is the Adversary and Paul compares our battle with him to a wrestling match. There are few contests where more energy is exerted than in a wrestling match. At the end of a close match, both parties are exhausted.
The supremacy of God in these first five verses is seen in the pushing back of Satan’s kingdom through the circulation of these sweat rags that had touched Paul. People were healed and evil spirits were driven out, not with the word of command, but by the touch of a sweaty piece of cloth. This is a humiliating defeat for Satan because God shows his supremacy by displaying that, even in this longstanding, entrenched satanic stronghold of Ephesus, he can easily prevail over satanic power through this utterly unimpressive means—a pair of Paul’s sweat rags. The second episode of this power encounter is seen in verses 13-14. Luke records, “13 Then some of the itinerant Jewish exorcists undertook to invoke the name of the Lord Jesus over those who had evil spirits, saying, “I adjure you by the Jesus whom Paul proclaims.” 14 Seven sons of a Jewish high priest named Sceva were doing this.”
The Jews were well aware of the reality of demonic power and so these men—seven sons of Sceva--sought to demonstrate their own power by delivering this man under demonic influence. As they witness Paul’s ministry, they know they have met someone who genuinely has authority over demons and it has not escaped them that this authority comes through the name of Jesus. Invoking secret names or words or incantations to try to control and defeat spirits was common among magicians. The magicians doubtless see the name of Jesus as just one more, albeit very powerful, magic word useful for defeating harmful spirits. Ironically, they are willing to use the name of Jesus as a magic word, while at the same time ignoring the gospel of Jesus that Paul preached.
In other words, they were in some detached way willing to use Jesus—in this case his name—but not worship him as their God and Messiah. As much as this may repulse us, we must remember that we use Jesus for our own selfish means every time we pray or preach or do a charitable act in his name or volunteer for a ministry with a motive to make us look good in the eyes of others. That’s using Jesus to make us look spiritual or holy in the eyes of others.
These exorcists said to one evil spirit who had infested a certain man in Ephesus, “I adjure you by the Jesus whom Paul proclaims.” The response from the demon in verse 15 was sobering and direct. “Jesus I know, and Paul I recognize, but who are you?” The demon exposes these men as imposters—wannabes in the exorcism department. The demon within the man exposes their spiritual impotence in verse 16. “ And the man in whom was the evil spirit leaped on them, mastered all of them and overpowered them, so that they fled out of that house naked and wounded.” God uses the demon within this man to thoroughly humiliate these Jewish exorcists. This is probably a judgment on them for using Jesus’ name to accomplish their own ends, but it also shows that the power of these exorcists is wholly, embarrassingly inferior to the power of God through Paul. The result of all this is in verse 17. Luke records, “17 And this became known to all the residents of Ephesus, both Jews and Greeks. And fear fell upon them all, and the name of the Lord Jesus was extolled.”
God moves into Ephesus--Satan’s back yard and manifests his utter supremacy over the forces of darkness that so many of these Ephesians had trusted in. Because this was a recognized stronghold for Satan, it communicated that if God could defeat the spirits here, he could defeat them anywhere. Fear came upon these people because they had never seen such power. They saw that it was Jesus’ name—when uttered by one of his followers that is so potent as God’s supremacy is plainly and powerfully displayed. People who have been held captive to disease and demonic influence are set free by the touch of Paul’s sweat rag and the spiritual counterfeits who had held sway are exposed as powerless charlatans.
That’s how God displayed his supremacy in a demonic nest like Ephesus, but we know that Christ desires to show his supremacy in ALL cultures including our own. Paul writes in Colossians 1:15, “15 He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. 16 For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. 17 And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18 And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent.” Christ wants his preeminence to be seen in all the world as his kingdom is extended through the saving power of the gospel.
The cultural demonic strongholds in our western world are not as in-your-face as in demon-ravaged Ephesus but they are here nonetheless. The way to discover the spiritual strongholds in any culture is to discover what it is the people are placing their ultimate trust in. In Ephesus, it was dark spiritual power through magicians, but what is it in our culture? David Wells, in his insightful and prophetic book, “No Place for Truth” names three areas of our culture among many where people are placing their trust and have been allowed a personal stronghold to develop within them as they allowed themselves to unduly influenced by the cultural stronghold. First, we so easily trust in materialism. That is—we look to money and things money can buy to bring us what only God can provide. We want inner peace, so we buy things that bring relaxation like alcohol or things connected with a hobby. We want joy and try to find it in leisure and recreation—most of which comes in the form of boats and cars and hobbies and trips requiring a lot of money.
Don’t misunderstand, money and material things are both spiritually neutral entities in and of themselves, but when we begin to look to material things to give us what God alone can supply, they can become a personal stronghold of sin that enslaves us. We can so easily move from enjoying these things to having to have them for our joy. These strongholds are zealously guarded by Satan and the culture in which we live is powerfully controlled by this materialistic stronghold. It’s so pervasive; it’s difficult for most of us to even see it—like fish that are unconscious of all the water they swim in.
A second area where people in the west look for things that only God can bring is technology. Again, there is nothing intrinsically sinful about technology. But if when you lose your IPhone, you feel absolutely naked or desperately disabled, you have been trusting in it and you have allowed technology to begin to become a stronghold. If, you simply cannot remove yourself from your Facebook account for a few days and feel a compulsive pull to get back on, you have allowed an idolatrous dependence to develop that Satan will rigorously try to maintain in you because it communicates that Christ is not preeminent in your life, social networking is. The same can be said for any technological advancement whether it be in the area of media—TV/ radio/ IPod, information or science or medicine. If we allow these things to decrease our dependence upon God by increasing our dependence upon technology, then it may very well be that you have allowed a personal spiritual strongholds to grow out of the cultural spiritual stronghold around us. And God wants to show his supremacy over that, just as he showed his supremacy in Ephesus over the powers and principalities.
Finally, Wells says that comfort is an area which we look to for what God alone can bring us. We believe the lie that if we are free from as much discomfort and suffering as possible—physical, mental and emotional—we will have joy. Frankly, the Bible teaches much the opposite. That trials and suffering are to be rejoiced in, given thanks for because they bring us closer to God and he uses them for our ultimate good by making us like Christ. We believe the lie that any need can be satisfied by buying something, fulfilling it through some new technology and/or by militantly preventing discomfort of all kinds from entering our world because all suffering must be carefully avoided. I think Wells is right in that these three entities are among the most pervasive cultural strongholds in the West and the lesson from Ephesus is that God wants to show his supremacy over them just as he did in there over the demonic powers.
God wants to show us and our culture that he is better, more satisfying, more precious than any possession, technology or source of earthly comfort or convenience. One way in which he mercifully works to reveal and help us to be rid of our strongholds is by simply taking away these things we are leaning on. He can cause our bank account to empty to show us we were looking to that for joy and for showing us that our joy is not found in money or what it can buy. He can drain our technology budget or cause our gadgets to break down to reveal to us that we have been trusting in them and cause us to see that our joy is not found in the techno-tools of modernity. Finally, he can take away our comfort through physical trauma—a disabling accident or some sickness or disease to show us how shallow our faith in him is when we spiritually crash and burn. He can bring an untold number of trials into our life to show us that he alone is sufficient to meet our needs and bring us incredible joy in the midst of great discomfort. As we learn that truth over and over, we can become more like Job who, though having great wealth—did not find his joy in it because when it was taken away from him he said, “The LORD gave and the Lord has taken away, blessed be the name of the LORD.”
Another way in which God shows his supremacy in Ephesus is through people who have come out of the darkness and who thoroughly repudiate it and all its trappings in favor of God. The account begins in verse 18. Luke writes, “18 Also many of those who were now believers came, confessing and divulging their practices. 19 And a number of those who had practiced magic arts brought their books together and burned them in the sight of all. And they counted the value of them and found it came to fifty thousand pieces of silver. 20 So the word of the Lord continued to increase and prevail mightily.” The truth manifest here is: Genuine repentance manifests the supremacy of God. There were believers in Ephesus who had trusted in Christ, but who had evidently hung on to part of their past life in the occult for at least a while. As God worked in their life, they realized that they could not follow Christ and serve the occult. They renounced in very concrete ways their old way of life. First, they confessed and divulged their evil practices. The spiritual power behind dark magic and its practices is rendered null and void when it is openly confessed. The word “occult” literally means “that which is hidden.” When these secrets are brought into the light, they lose their power.
Second, they renounced their former practices in a very sacrificial way. They burned all their scrolls filled with spells, incantations, curses and the like. They publicly repudiated the magic words and phrases on them in favor of the name of Jesus because they had found him to be infinitely more satisfying because he met their deepest need through the gospel—their sin and rebellion against God and the condemnation that brings. They had found joy in the Lord that was far beyond what they had known in the occult. The value of what they burned is astronomical—50,000 pieces of silver. In that culture, one piece of silver was equivalent to a year’s wages for a common laborer. This was the equivalent of 50,000 years of work for the average Joe. It was an enormously sacrificial act which greatly magnified the saving power of the gospel they had accepted and revealed the supremacy of God in a magnificent way.
When a believer genuinely repents, they have a desire to dispose of the evil trappings of their former life. They throw away their worldly CD’s or DVD’s. They throw out their porn and put a lock on the internet. If they are in a shady profession, they quit their job. If they are in an immoral relationship, they break it off. If a repentant person discovers there are things in their life—often very good things, that they are placing ahead of God, they get rid of them or radically re-prioritizing their lives. They sell their boat or their cabin or their car or their collections or their television or anything else that has a piece of their heart that God alone deserves. And this is not just something that happens at conversion. Repentance is a way of life for the believer. It is a lifelong process for all believers as we continue to discover areas where we are looking to something other than God for our ultimate joy. This is part of picking up our cross to follow Christ.
The result in Ephesus of this renouncing of their old life is the same as it is today for those whose lives are radically changed by Jesus. Verse 20 said, “so the word of the Lord continued to increase and prevail mightily.” One reason why it increased and mightily prevailed is because all these sinners around Ephesus saw the supremacy of God over the things of this world as witnessed in the life of every one of these believers that publicly declared that God and the gospel are worth giving up a fortune for. These people saw that Jesus was now the treasure of these people and that he was sufficient to meet their deepest needs. They saw first-hand that the power of gospel far exceeded the power of magic and that Jesus was a far greater treasure than even a very large amount of money. Genuine repentance always manifests the supremacy of God.
As we close, I think this text begs the question, “Do the people who know me know that my greatest treasure is Jesus?” Or, related, “How, if at all do I demonstrate the supremacy of Christ in my life?” Is it apparent in the way I live, the language I use, my regard for his Word and prayer and his people and the way and frequency of which I speak of my Treasure? Is it apparent in the way that I relate to my family and friends and possessions? The believers in Ephesus gave bold testimony to the supremacy of Christ by destroying what they had been putting first in their life—by jettisoning something they saw that was sinful and idolatrous. When was the last time you eliminated something from your life because it threatened the supremacy of Christ in your life? If we are believers and we have trample on his supremacy in our lives through the development of these idolatrous strongholds, the way to break down those strongholds is primarily through the gospel—which sets us free from enslavement to sin.
as we go back to the cross, confess our sins asking God to bring repentance—Its as we go back and immerse ourselves
in the goodness of God in sending his Son to cleanse us by his blood and make us acceptable to the Father through
his righteousness imputed to us—Its as we claim the promises of the gospel—that we are blood-bought children of
the King who God has pulled off the road to hell where we deserve to be and placed us on the road to eternal life
As we allow
the gospel truth to pierce through and reveal the superficiality and evil of the cultural strongholds we have allowed
to develop within us—as we do that, we by God’s grace can know freedom in Christ and our lives can increasingly
manifest the supremacy of Christ before a watching world. May
God give us the grace to manifest his supremacy in our lives in ways that are plainly evident for his glory and
 IVP Background to the New Testament, Electronic version—commentary on Acts 19:8-12.
 David Wells, No Place for Truth, p. 102-108.
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