And it would be a great help if we had our bibles open please at the Acts 19 passage.
From my childhood I remember a playground rhyme,
“Sticks and stones may break your bones, but words can never hurt you.”
That is simply not true! Words can hurt dreadfully. Years later a thoughtless word, an unkind word, even a very trivial remark, can suddenly cause you to be in turmoil inside and wishing you had forgotten it. But words can also be used positively can’t they? There was a period of some eighteen months when Winston Churchill basically fought the Second World War with words. There was nothing else to fight with. If you listen to these speeches some seventy years later, the recording of these speeches in that great gravely voice, you can still thrill and you can still understand how in these dark days, people were inspired. What words they were! Words can be used positively, words can be effective. I will give you another example. Various times I have stood in front of a young couple and said, “I pronounce you husband and wife!” That doesn’t mean I can just go down into the street and pass a starry-eyed couple holding hands and say, “I pronounce you husband and wife”. The reason it worked in the situation I mentioned is because certain other things were in place, certain conditions, certain things that needed to be fulfilled. Similarly, I cannot say to you, “I appoint you to a job”, unless I have the authority to appoint you.
But when it’s God’s words there no conditions that need to be in place. God’s word itself creates the conditions. When God said “Let there be light!” there was light because God’s word is powerful and effective. We saw this in our Isaiah passage, “My word will not return to me empty”, said the prophet. The word creates, the word saves, the word judges. And the key to our passage this evening is verse 20, “In this way the word of the Lord spread widely and grew in power.” As Paul’s lengthy stay of two and a half years in Ephesus comes to an end, we have a number of glimpses of the power of that word; how the gospel is making progress; how the word is breaking down strongholds. And there are three episodes in this part of the narrative where we have a number of contrasts which show us how this word is effective.
First of all in verses 11 to 12, I am going to call this Miracle not Magic. This curious little episode of handkerchiefs, aprons and sweat-cloths which were used in healing. Now the first thing to notice is that there was nothing special about these handkerchiefs or sweat-clothes as aprons probably means. Paul contributed nothing to the sweat-cloth other than his sweat. Look at verse 11:“God did extraordinary miracles through Paul.” (Acts 12v11)
There is no power in the handkerchiefs, no power in the aprons or sweat-cloths! What is this curious little episode about? Now remember that this was pioneer missionary territory. Paul was preaching the gospel in Ephesus and its environs which were in thrall and in fear to the great goddess Diana or Artemis as you will be seeing next week. You can imagine the scene. Say a girl is converted and she goes home, and she says to her parents, “I have been converted. I am now worshipping the Lord Jesus Christ.” And her father, in great fury, places on her the curse of the goddess Diana. That kind of thing you would imagine would happen. She needed to know that there is a power greater than the power of Artemis, that the words of Artemis and Artemis priests are less powerful than the words of God. This is a frontier missionary situation and you do hear even today in pioneer missionary situations, where people have been in bondage to the occult, to witch doctors and to spiritism, that God sometimes does extraordinary miracles in order that people will hear, that people will listen. You see it’s not the miracles that heal; it is the word of God which transforms. Now of course there are charlatans who pretend that this can be reproduced today. One of my ministry colleagues in Glasgow was sent a very attractive little box in which was a green handkerchief, and this handkerchief says, “If you pray using this handkerchief your illnesses will be healed, and the spirit will come upon you in great power.”. But, of course, my friend was going to have to pay a hundred dollars. This was not free grace, this was charlatans who were trying to reproduce this. The agent of change is always the word in the power of the spirit. God in His mercy, in His providence will use extraordinary miracles if He wishes, but surely there is no greater miracle than someone converted, someone coming from darkness to life. So that’s the first thing in the story, Miracle not Magic. It’s the Word of God, the word which formed creation.
Now the second episode, verses 13 to 20, the main episode in the passage, I would call Transformation not Trickery. Obviously, as these things were happening, the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the power of that name was becoming a talking point. And when something like this happens, you always get those who want to jump on the band-wagon. And so we have it here, verse 13, “Some Jews who went around driving out evil spirits tried to invoke the name of the Lord Jesus over those who were demon-possessed.” And in particular those seven sons of Sceva, a Jewish high priest. Very probably this guy was not high priest at all. Probably these words would have been in inverted commas. He is claiming an authority he does not have, a self chosen title, further to deceive the gullible. And, however, the name of Jesus, an unfamiliar weapon, simply exploded in their hands. They were dabbling with something they didn’t understand. One day the evil spirit answered them, “Jesus I know and I know about Paul,” That’s very interesting. A slight difference in the words “Jesus I know,” The spirits tremble. When you read the gospels; when you read the companion book Luke’s gospel, you will find the evil spirits tremble when they are confronted with Jesus Himself. And the letter of James tells us that the demons believe, and they tremble as they believe. They recognised that this is the Son of God. “Paul I know about”. In other words they recognised Paul as his accredited spokesman, but these people were simply charlatans, verses 16, “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. Undoubtedly he had been totally discredited. Undoubtedly their claims would be laughed at.
So that if you like is the negative result. The negative result that happens when people try to use this name as a weapon; try to use it to bolster their own cause; try to use it to make themselves appear important. There is also a positive side. Verse 17, “When this became known to the Jews and the Greeks living in Ephesus, they were all ceased with fear, and the name of the Lord Jesus was held in high honour.” Now you will notice the progress here, “they were all ceased with fear.” The Old Testament tells us, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” They realised that this gospel was not another thing in the supermarket of the legends and the pick-and-mix that they could find, because as you know, the ancient world was absolutely full of gods. I have no doubt earlier on in this series you will have looked at Paul in Athens. It was said that in Athens it was easier to find a god rather than a man. And so in Ephesus the great goddess Diana, and other lesser deities held sway there. Not one of these god, not one of these local deities could change peoples lives. Not one of them could blot out peoples sins. Not one of them could make them a child of God and certainly not one of them could speak from the heavenly glory and say “I am Jesus”. This is something of a different order altogether. So first of all they feared the Lord. But it’d not be just simply a change of feeling. It’s a change of action, of life-style. Verse 18, “Many of those who believed now came and openly confessed their evil deeds.” Remember, Paul regularly calls the gospel believing, repenting towards God and believing in the Lord Jesus Christ. And even more significant, verse 19, “A number who had practiced sorcery brought their scrolls together and burned them publicly.” If all the occult books in the book shops were burned publicly in the middle of Newcastle, you would know that something very remarkable was happening. Interesting isn’t it, forty years ago or so, if you looked for occult books you would have to go down some back lane to some dingy bookseller, probably dressed in a threadbare cardigan, who would bring out some books from under the counter. Now, all you need to do is go to Waterstones and look at the mind, body and spirit section to look at the occult books there. This is very significant for the overall theme. The scrolls are in ashes. The magic books are burning, verses 20, “In this way the word of the Lord spread widely and grew in power.” As you read through Acts you will notice of course that Acts does not talk about church growth. Acts talks about the word growing, because it is the word of God that causes church growth. Read again the passage of Isaiah when you go home and see how the Word, coming down from heaven and working unseen, transforms not only individuals but one day is going to transform the universe, the mountains and the hills clapping their hands and so on. The word in the power of the Spirit transforms everything. So Transformation and not Trickery. Obviously, the people of Ephesus lived their lives in an atmosphere of fear. They lived their lives subject to trickery. They lived their lives in a situation where they were terrified. Fear of the dark, fear of the unknown, fear of the occult. And what is the occult? The occult is the attempt to manipulate isn’t it? To manipulate people. Spiritism for example. Manipulate people, vulnerable people at a time when they are grieving. And this was the kind of thing that was holding Ephesus in bondage and in slavery. And it is into this world that the gospel comes, a tremendous liberating power. verses 17, “..the word of the Lord spread widely and grew in power.” So we have Miracle not Magic, we have Transformation not Trickery.
What are we going to make of verses 21 to 22? I am going to call this Future not Frustration. Let me explain what I mean. If the beginning of this section seems a bit overdone with the excitement and magic, magic handkerchiefs and so on, this little section here, 21 to 22, seems a bit of an anti-climax. Because look, he is not writing a novel. Look he is not writing to entertain us. Look he’s writing to inspire us, but as so often in Acts and indeed in the narrative books of the bible in general, we have one of those little narrative snippets which shows us clearly what is happening. So you might well think after all this excitement things would die down. As those of you who know Acts, and you will be seeing this next week anyway, the excitement has certainly not died down. And yet, we have this pause for breath. But its not just padding. Paul decided as he said, “I must visit Rome also.” And the “must” here is not just, ‘Oh well, I’ve been everywhere else. I better go there’, it is the “must” of divine guidance and compulsion. Earlier on he had wanted to go eastwards, but the Spirit of the Lord wouldn’t allow him and turned him westwards, and of course it was Paul and his companions turning westwards that began the great movement that eventually brought the gospel to our shores. Humanly speaking this was the method that God used.
So two things here. First of all the narrative is now moving in the direction of Rome. Paul is determined, guided by the Spirit, and under the guidance of the word, that he must preach the gospel in the world’s greatest city. Now you know Paul’s strategy, to preach in the cities, and often to send his associates, rather than into the countryside. And it’s no accident that the letter he writes to the church in Rome is the letter about the power of God to salvation. The gospel is the power of God for the salvation of all who believe. Come back to verses 11 & 12 for a moment and see how that fits together. The gospel is not something accompanied by the power of God. The gospel is the power of God to salvation. At various times people have said to us, “You need signs and wonders and then people will believe!” People will not believe because of signs and wonders. If there are signs and wonders, very often the reaction of people is, “These people are nuts!” It’s the power of the word that changes people. If God chooses to do extraordinary things, in His providence he does. But the whole fabric of Paul’s gospel is the word of God. ‘I must visit Rome. That is the place where the centre of the empire and the centre of the empire of religion’, he says there is a greater power than that. The gospel is, “the power of God for salvation for everyone who believes.” Romans 1v16. And that great letter is showing both the eternal and the historically rooted gospel, preached in the world’s greatest city. So the narrative is moving towards Rome.
But secondly, the reminder of the work in Ephesus. He sent two of his helpers so that he stayed in the province of Asia a little longer. We don’t know how long, probably just only a few weeks. But it is very interesting that when he meets the Ephesian elders in chapter 20, verses 20 & 21, he says to them, “You know that I have not hesitated to preach anything that would be helpful to you but have taught you publically, and from house to house. I have declared to both Jews and Greeks that they must turn to God in repentance and have faith in our Lord Jesus Christ.” That was his message for Ephesus. That was going to be his message for Rome. The power of the Word of God! And that work in Ephesus was built on that. And that work in Ephesus was going to continue on that. So Miracle not Magic, Transformation not Trickery and the Future not Frustration.
I just want to say two things as we finish. The great lesson for us here is to trust the bible to be the bible, to unleash the bible. There is another silly phrase that’s sometimes used, ‘We must make the bible relevant’. We don’t! The bible is relevant. It’s our task to show that it’s relevant, not to make it relevant; because the bible is the living word of God. It is the power of salvation to all who believe. So we need to trust the bible to be the bible and we need to make it the centre of our lives, both our personal and our corporate lives. Churches grow, churches flourish as they are loyal to the word of God. And the church which abandons as its very central position the preaching of the word of God, will not long remain evangelical. It will not long remain truly biblical.
Brothers and sisters, as we come to the end of this passage this evening, trust the bible to be the bible and trust the Lord of the scriptures, speaking through our imperfect lips, speaking through our imperfect efforts, to spread that word for His glory and to continue building His church through the growth of His word. That is the message of this passage. Amen.