A Commentary by John Stott
Acts 19:11-20. c). Some power encounters.
In Corinth Christ encouraged his apostle and endorsed his teaching through a night vision; in Ephesus through signs and wonders by which Christ’s power over disease, demon-possession and magic was demonstrated. *God did extraordinary miracles through Paul (11). Handkerchiefs and aprons that had touched him* (‘the sweat-rags being used for tying round his head and aprons for tying round his waist’ while he was engaged in tentmaking) *were taken to the sick, and their illnesses were cured and the evil spirits left them* (12). Liberal commentators are embarrassed by these verses and tend to dismiss them as legendary. At least four points may be made on the other side. First, Luke himself was not content to describe these events as mere ‘miracles’, *dynameis*, demonstrations of divine power; he adds the adjective *tychousas*, which is variously translated ‘special’ (AV), ‘singular’ (NEB), ‘remarkable’ (JB) and ‘extraordinary’ (RSV, NIV). He does not regard them as typical, even for ‘miracles’. Secondly, he does not regard them as magic either, for he sets them apart from the magical practices which the Ephesians believers were soon to confess and renounce as evil (18-19). Thirdly, the wisest attitude to the sweat-rag miracles is neither that of the sceptics who declare them spurious, nor that of the mimics, who try to copy them, like those American televangelists who offer to send to the sick handkerchiefs which they have blessed, but rather that of Bible students who remember both that Paul regarded his miracles as his apostolic credentials (e.g. 2 Cor.12:12; Rom. 15:19) and that Jesus himself condescended to the timorous faith of a woman by healing her when she touched the edge of his cloak (Lk.8:43-44). Fourthly, as in the Gospels so in the Acts, demon-possession is distinguished from illness, and therefore exorcism from healing.
The mention of exorcism leads Luke to tell of some Jewish exorcists, who attempted to tap the power they believed to inhere in the name of Jesus, with disastrous consequences: *Some Jews who went around driving out evil spirits tried to invoke the name of the Lord Jesus over those who were demon-possessed. They would say, ‘In the name of Jesus, whom Paul preaches, I command you to come out’ (13). Seven sons of Sceva, a Jewish chief priest*, meaning probably that he belonged to the high-priestly family, *were doing this (14). The evil spirit answered, ‘Jesus I know and I know about Paul, but who are you?’ (15). Then the man who had the evil spirit jumped on them and overpowered them all. He gave them such a beating that they ran out of the house naked and bleeding* (16). To be sure, there is power – saving and healing power – in the name of Jesus, as Luke had been at pains to illustrate (e.g. 3:6, 16; 4:10-12). But its efficacy is not mechanical, nor can people use it second-hand. Nonetheless, in spite of this misuse of the Name, the incident had a wholesome effect. *When this became known to the Jews and Greeks living in Ephesus, they were all seized with fear (NEB, ‘awestruck’), and the name of the Lord Jesus was held in high honour* (17).
The power encounter of Jesus with the kingdom of Satan was not yet complete. After healing and exorcism came deliverance from occult practices. *Many of those who believed now came and openly confessed their evil deeds (18). A number who had practised sorcery brought their scrolls together and burned them publicly. When they calculated the value of the scrolls, the total came to fifty thousand drachmas* (19), the drachma being a silver coin representing about a day’s wage. We have already noted that Ephesus was famous for its ‘Ephesian letters’ (*grammata*), which were ‘written charms, amulets, and talismans’. That these young believers, instead of realising the monetary value of their magic spells by selling them, were willing to throw them on a bonfire, was signal evidence of the genuineness of their conversion. Their example also led to more conversions, for *in this way the word of the Lord spread widely and grew in power* (20).
Tomorrow: Acts 19:21-22. d). Paul’s future plans.
The John Stott Bible Study is taken from The Message of Acts. The Bible Speaks Today John Stott. Used by permission of Inter-Varsity Press UK, Nottingham. All rights reserved.