Magic or Miracle?

“And God was doing extraordinary miracles by the hands of Paul, 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. 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.” Seven sons of a Jewish high priest named Sceva were doing this. But the evil spirit answered them, “Jesus I know, and Paul I recognize, but who are you?” 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. 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. Also many of those who were now believers came, confessing and divulging their practices. 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. So the word of the Lord continued to increase and prevail mightily.” (Acts 19:11-20 ESV)

Last week we looked at how a group of John’s disciples in Ephesus came to faith in Christ through the ministry and teaching of Paul. It appears, to me, that they had listened to Apollos’ teaching but had never progressed beyond the teachings of John the Baptist and a baptism of repentance. The most obvious thing they were missing was the presence and power of the Holy Spirit in their lives. We looked at how the presence of the Holy Spirit will cause a desire and pursuit of obedience to Christ (John 14:15-16). We also saw that evidence of the Holy Spirit’s presence in our lives is a faithful witness of the gospel and the truth of God’s word (John 15:26-16:15). Finally, we also saw how the life of a believer must be focused on living a life that is seeking God and our living lives for Him (Rom. 8). This week, I want to focus on the stark contrast between a life lived with the power and presence of God’s Spirit and a life lived without Him.

As Luke tells the story of Paul’s ministry in Ephesus, he seems to make a point of highlighting the work of God’s Spirit in the lives of true followers of Christ and in their work and ministry. As you may recall, Apollos was very eloquent and a dynamic and charismatic leader. However, his abilities fell short of presenting a true gospel message and Aquila and Priscilla pulled him aside (or took him into their home) and taught him the “full truth” regarding Christ. We then see Paul encounter a group of twelve “disciples” that seem to have heard and followed the early teachings of Apollos, knowing “only the baptism of John.” As we learned last week, Paul recognized the absence of the Holy Spirit and led them into full knowledge of the gospel and faith in Jesus and the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit.

With both of those ideas clearly outlined, Luke then begins to show us the real power of God at work through the Holy Spirit in the ministry of Paul. Notice, we are told that God was “doing extraordinary miracles by the hands of Paul.” It is important, here, to understand the background and setting for these miracles because it will help us understand God’s intent in these “out of the ordinary” miracles and events. Ephesus was the chief city of Asia Minor and the third largest city of the Roman Empire (behind only Rome and Alexandria).

In addition to the worship of Artemis (or Diana) of the Ephesians, which we will consider next week, this city boasted of its cult worship of many other gods and the possession of the “Ephesian Letters.” These “letters” were a collection of “magical incantations” inscribed on the image of Artemis (which supposedly fell from heaven) and, thus, were closely associated to the worship of Artemis. These letters and their use in the worship of Artemis obviously contributed to the reputation Ephesus had as a hub of magical arts in the ancient world.

Since Ephesus is a hub of “magic” in the ancient world, she attracted a large number of people who practiced magic and those seeking help from those same magic practitioners or magicians. It is in the midst of this culture of magic that Luke introduces us to God’s work of “out of the ordinary” miracles at the hands of Paul. Paul is teaching and preaching the extraordinary power and authority of God in and through the ministry of Jesus the Messiah among a group of people who were steeped in the belief that their “gods” worked through these magical “letters” or incantations. This is the cultural context for these “out of the ordinary” miracles. In many ways, this is very similar to the story of Moses in Pharaoh’s court and the ten plagues. God demonstrated His power and authority through Moses’ hand, then, and He does the same for Paul, now.

It is important to note that God’s use of unusual miracles is not intended to draw attention to the miracles, themselves, or even to Paul. God’s use of these unusual miracles, or any miracle – for that matter, is intended to draw attention to Himself and His power and authority that He demonstrates through His Son, Jesus. While this is evident throughout Paul’s ministry, it is most evident in this story through the response by those observing these miracles and their attempts at mimicking them. Luke notes that a group of “itinerant” or traveling Jewish exorcists take notice of these extraordinary miracles and the ministry of Paul by invoking the “name of Jesus, whom Paul preaches” in their exorcisms.

Why is that important? Because it clearly shows the focus of Paul’s miracles and ministry. Today, we often lose sight of this very issue. We focus on the sign instead of the object of the sign. In reality, we know and understand this principle. If we saw a sign that simply said “Notice: Event Tomorrow” we would walk away wondering about the purpose of the sign. Sure, it told us that an event would occur tomorrow but it told us nothing else about the event. We don’t know what event was occurring, where the event would occur, when the event would occur or who was the intended audience for the event. However, if you’ll notice what I mentioned above, the people observing Paul’s unusual miracles were not left wondering these same questions about the miracles. It is obvious, they were clearly informed that JESUS was the focus, source and underlying power and authority for these unusual miracles.

We often desire to see these miracles in our own day, in our own town, and in our own churches. However, you should recognize that we often desire these things for our own purposes and our own glory, not God’s. We are often told that the lack of miracles in our own lives is due to a lack of faith. But it should be noted that while a lack of faith can certainly be a factor, it is certainly not the only factor and may not even be the primary factor preventing these miracles. The primary factor may very well be “where we want the sign to point” or the reason we seek the miracle. A sign NEVER exists for its own benefit, but it exists to point towards the one for which it was created. This is clearly illustrated in our story when the exorcists use the phrase, “I adjure you by the Jesus whom Paul preaches.” Their use of the name and authority of Jesus was in no way intended to point towards Jesus, it was intended to point towards themselves.

Next, notice that Luke gives us a very specific account of this very thing. He tells us that one particular group of these itinerant exorcists was a group of seven sons of a Jewish high priest, named Sceva. Luke tells us that they attempted to add the powerful tag line of “in the name of Jesus, whom Paul preaches” to their magical incantations. It is quite interesting to note that the phrase “abracadabra” which is often used in magical incantations today, is thought to be of Hebrew or Aramaic origin and is found in 2nd century writings. The phrase is thought to be composed of words meaning, “in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.” It is easy to see how early Christian usage of this phrase in the first and second centuries could lead someone to assign a “magical” quality to the phrase (see also Acts 8:9-25) and to try and use it to invoke the power of God, at will. We still tend to do this…

So, what’s my point in all of this? We often try and use God’s power for personal benefit, gain or fame and then we are left wondering why we don’t see miracles in our lives or in our churches. I would suggest that it is often because God’s glory is not our aim. We want the sign, but we want and expect the sign to point at us and our authority, abilities or efforts. Notice how the evil spirit in this story responds to their efforts at invoking God’s power: “Jesus I know, and Paul I recognize, but who are you?” He KNOWS Jesus and he recognizes Paul, but he’s never heard of them. In other words, the exorcists try to invoke the power of a name they have no claim upon nor right to use. When Jesus is challenged by Satan to use God’s power for personal benefit, Jesus responds: “It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.'” (Matthew 4:4 ESV)

If you’ll recall, this response is at a time when Jesus has been fasting for forty days and is very hungry. Satan calls upon Him to use His power to turn the stones into bread to satisfy His own hunger. Surely, God wouldn’t deny His own Son the privilege of using a little of His power to meet His own basic, human needs. But, our Lord recognizes this challenge for what it truly was… make your personal needs more important than God’s glory and obedience to His Word. This is the very challenge we face, today. When our culture ridicules Vice President Mike Pence for choosing to follow the “Billy Graham rule” regarding dining or socializing alone with a woman other than his wife, then we clearly see the direction our culture says we should take. Fulfill your personal needs and desires, above all else. Perhaps if we would learn to live on every word that comes from God’s mouth we might begin to desire God’s glory over our own and we might see miracles like this in our churches and our lives, again.

So, the contrast Luke presents is between the work of Paul displaying the glory of God and the foolish, failed attempts by the Jewish exorcists and the seven sons of Sceva. The lesson is quite clear, the “so-called” magical arts and Ephesian Letters of the people of Ephesus were nothing and completely devoid of power in contrast to the Word of God and the authority and power of Jesus Christ in setting people free from the “evil spirits” that enslaved them.

Finally, the outcome of this “battle of magic” in Ephesus is seen in the lives of the Ephesian Christians. Luke tells us that, because of what happened, many of the believers came and confessed their continued use of magic and they burned their magic books. This is critically important for us to understand. Many of these Christians in Ephesus had continued to secretly practice their magical arts and retain their magic books. It is hard for us to abandon our personal desires, cultural habits and social practices that stand in direct opposition to the gospel message and commands of Christ. We often try and take our existing habits and beliefs and try and make them more palatable to the church.

For example, I have noticed a large number of “ghost hunter” type shows on television that seem to involve Christians and they invoke the “name of Jesus” in their activities. Let me state this directly and very, very strongly… Anyone who claims to be in contact with the dead while also claiming to be a follower of Jesus Christ is simply deceived and walking in disobedience to Christ. While I certainly believe we live in world that has both a physical and a spiritual aspect, the spirits we encounter are NOT the spirits of the dead. The Bible is very clear that the spirit of man goes immediately to the place of eternal joy or punishment upon death (see Luke 16:19-31). It is also quite clear that the spiritual battle that we are engaged in during our physical existence is not one that involves the souls of men but rather angels and demons. So, any spirit that a “spiritualist” is invoking or communicating with is an evil spirit.

In conclusion, we must be willing to recognize any habits, practices, or desires that are in direct opposition to the commands and teachings of Christ and to repent of them and “burn the books,” even at great expense. This might involve things that are considered culturally acceptable, and even popular. For example, I know how easy it would be for me to become addicted to certain activities, like video game playing, and this would distract me and prevent me from putting much needed time into reading, studying and serving others. In this sense, I must be willing to “burn the books” that would pull me into these addictive activities even though they may not be evil, in themselves. What do you need to be willing to burn? What are you holding onto that Christ has freed you from? Are you holding onto some past hurt or pain? No magic, but there is a MIRACLE available… just ask, Jesus.

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