We began the story of Paul in Ephesus in the last post, and today we continue Luke’s narrative of that two-year period. This passage (Acts 19:11-20) opens with the Jewish leadership in Ephesus already having hardened their heart, and Paul having withdrawn from the synagogue to the school of Tyrannus with those who had believed.
But Paul was still dealing with the unbelieving Jewish leadership, who were not only practicing their Hebrew religion but some leaders had also become involved in the practice of the black arts. Ephesus apparently supported a large community of sorcery, which had crept its way into the practice of Judaism. So Paul is once again in a position of needing to fight fire with fire, and God enables him to perform miracles as evidence to those who “always seek after a sign” (Matt. 12:38-40, 16:1-4; I Cor. 1:22). While we understand from Paul’s later writings that such ”sign gifts” at the hands of human actors have been set aside today, such was not the case during Paul’s stay in Ephesus. As we have often said, the Book of Acts is the history of a transition period between the Kingdom program for Israel and the Age of Grace for all people today.
If you have not taken the time to read today’s passage (Acts 19:11-20), I urge you to do so now and to pay careful attention to the words that the Holy Spirit impressed upon Luke as he wrote.
Please note the grammatical order of verse one. Luke might have written, “And Paul was performing miracles…” But he didn’t! He gave credit where credit was due. It was always God Himself who performed the miracles, and Paul is merely identified as the tool in God’s hands.
Every English translation I checked indicated that these were not “miracles,” but rather required two words to describe them. The Greek literally says, “Dunameis te ou tas tuchousas,” or “power not the ordinary.” The NASB translates it as “extraordinary miracles.” It was important for Luke to make a distinction between the extraordinary miracles of God through Paul’s hands from the “ordinary miracles” of those he describes in the following story.
Verse 2 gives us a clue concerning what Paul was dealing with. At the very end of the verse it says, “and the evil spirits went out.” The mechanism that God used is interesting in that it did not require Paul to touch those who were healed or even be in their presence. Apparently small articles of cloth (the NASB refers to them as handkerchiefs and aprons) that had been carried by Paul on his person (“from his body”) were sent to those afflicted. These evil spirits and the diseases they brought with them were driven out by the mere presence of these bits of clothing. Aside from the fact that it was God Himself doing it, this “long-distance” aspect of the miracles was one of the things that made the miracles extraordinary.
John 11:44 and 20:7 refer to the same “handkerchief” as this verse. If you guessed these are the verses referring to the cloths around the dead faces of Lazarus and Jesus, you were right. They were the separate “face-wrapping” cloths used for burial. Perhaps the demons recognized them and saw in them their own judgement and raising of their victims to newness of life. In more common daily use, these cloths were used for wiping the sweat off of one’s face. (Remember, there weren’t any air conditioners in those days!) Whether the ones Paul sent were new, clean ones or he had used them for wiping his sweat away the Scriptures don’t tell us clearly. But this verse does tell us that they were carried from Paul’s “body” to the sick, suggesting something of his physical body was imparted to the cloth.
The word translated “apron” appears only in this verse, but it suggests the same thing as a tea-towel wrapped around the waist of a short-order cook in a diner. Perhaps in some cases a larger cloth was needed — one large enough to go completely around the afflicted recipient.
Before moving on to the next verses, we should remember that Luke, aside from being a consummate historian of his day, was a physician. His terminology in these two verses is precise and professional. In a scientific sense, his description is adequate for anyone who wants to duplicate these miracles to give it a try — and fail completely.
Verse 13 gives us a clue to the involvement of the Jewish leadership community in the “black arts.” (Ultimate proof of it will come later.) Nowhere else in Scripture is the Jewish community described as having exorcists. These were apparently men who traveled from synagogue to synagogue, if not from town to town, seeking those who were afflicted by evil spirits. They had become aware of Paul’s ability, in the name of the Lord Jesus, to drive the spirits away. Although they did not believe in Jesus, they coveted this power for themselves and tried to exorcise the evil spirits by invoking the name of “Jesus whom Paul preaches.”
Verse 14 gets specific. Luke identifies a Jewish chief priest by the name of Sceva, who had seven sons, all exorcists, who were trying to invoke Jesus’ name in their rituals. It is curious that Sceva was not only a priest, but a “high priest,” and suggests the level of involvement in the black arts within the Jewish community in Ephesus.
Here is an example of how the artifically-imposed system of numbered verses can be misleading. Luke, of course, did not break his story up into verses! The previous verse ends by saying that Sceva’s seven sons “were doing this.” The Greek tense for “doing this” means they were in the immediate process of doing it, probably for the first time as an experiment. And in the immediate process, the evil spirit they were trying to exorcise rebuked them by replying, “I recognize Jesus, and I know about Paul, but who are you?”
Boy, did that backfire! The evil spirit not only told them off, but immediately turned into the biggest, baddest kitchen blender set to frappe they had ever encountered. Luke says he leaped on all seven of them and drove them out of the house bruised, bleeding and with their clothing in shreds. I’ve always thought God had a great sense of humor in this situation. Of course it’s not funny, it’s dead serious. But don’t you want to just pump your fist in the air and holler, “Yay, God! Go for it!!” Little did the evil spirit realize he was going the work of God that day — the second backfire!
Did you notice that the evil spirit spoke of Jesus and of Paul in different terms? He said he “recognized” Jesus, and he “knew about” Paul. They are two different words in the Greek, with two different meanings. ”Recognized” is ginosko, while “knew about” is epistamai. Ginosko involves more than simple recognition. I might ask you if you recognize the name “Walt Disney,” and you would probably answer that you did. However, that doesn’t mean you understand Walt Disney completely and that understanding defines your relationship to him, as any of Mr. Disney’s close employees did. This evil spirit had that level of understanding of Jesus! Sometimes we say we “recognize authority,” meaning that we make ourselves subservient to it. That is the sense in which this evil spirit “recognized” Jesus.
On the other hand, epistamai implies a thorough familiarity with a subject. We speak of our understanding of the Bible as a “systematic theology.” The thousands of details of scripture are brought together into one all-encompassing harmonious concept. The same is true in the sciences of Physics and Chemistry. Once you get the big picture, all of the details “hang together.” We have become well-versed in the subject. This evil spirit described his knowledge of Paul as well-versed.
We might summarize the evil spirit’s reply like this: I bow to the authority of Jesus, and I’m well-versed in Paul’s ministry, but you are a bunch of nobodies!
This “backfire” became quickly known everywhere in Ephesus, both among Jews and Gentiles. Two things happened as a result. (1) Fear (Gr. phobos, terror, dread, fright) — not necessarily a reverential fear of God, which is a good thing (and a different word in the Greek language), but that which puts one to flight. (2) The name of the Lord Jesus was being magnified (Gr. megalunow, to amplify or enlarge).
As a result, many believers in Ephesus (whether they were believers prior to this episode or believers because of this episode isn’t clear) were coming (presumably to Paul or the church) and confessing their own dabbling in such matters, having realized the seriousness of what they had been doing (v18). Apparently sorcery was culturally acceptable in Ephesus, and without realizing it many believers in Ephesus were practicing a blend of faith in Christ and sorcery — until this wake-up call. Blending of Christianity and other practices is called syncretism. The classic example is the blending of Catholicism with Native American beliefs in the American southwest. But any body of believers is capable of syncretism in some form, as individuals, whole churches or whole denominations. It is well worth asking the question of ourselves from time to time: ”Are we practicing pure faith in Christ alone?”
Beyond this effect among believers, many of those who were actual practitioners of magic and sorcery, convicted of their Satanic origin, brought their books together and began burning them publicly as a repudiation of their former involvement (v19). Books in those days were not churned out by printing presses or computers, of course. They were hand-written and hand-copied, making them rare and expensive. A marginal note in my NASB translation suggests that these silver coins were Greek drachmas, typical payment for a whole day’s wage. In modern terms given a $7.50 hourly wage and an eight hour workday, a day’s wage is about $60.00. Multiply that by 50,000 and you arrive at a modern value of of about six million dollars.
Luke sums up the evidence and events that had been catalyzed by Sceva and his seven sons (not to mention the evil spirit who knew far more than all of them put together). The “word of the Lord” was “growing mightily” and “prevailing.” ”Grow mightily” is the Greek word auskanow, which invokes the idea of cause and effect. Paul uses the same word in I Cor. 3:6-7 where he writes, “I planted, Apollos watered, but God was causing the growth. So then neither the one who plants or the one who waters is anything, but God who causes the growth.” (NASB) ”Prevail” is the Greek word ischus, a synonym of dunamis that was used for “miracles” at the beginning of this passage. Both words imply power, but with dunamis it is the external power and its effects that are in view. Ischus refers to the ability or quality of the power before it is released. If you are familiar with the scientific concepts of kinetic and potential energy, dunamis is kinetic — energy in action. Ischus is potential energy, inner unreleased energy that makes one strong and powerful.
The bottom line of this fascinating episode is that God caused the Word of the Lord in Ephesus to grow mightily, and as a result the believing community was enlarged, solidified and strengthened.
We’ll discover in the next lesson that Paul wants to take a journey, and even sends Timothy and Erastus ahead to make arrangements. But all is not well in Ephesus, and Paul is left to deal with a new crisis — “Great is Diana of the Ephesians!”