Most of the activity from Acts 18:19 has been set in Ephesus. First of all, Paul visited the city briefly and met Priscilla and Aquila. And he taught in the synagogue and reasoned with the Jews, trying to convince them that Jesus is the Christ and therefore they ought to believe in him.
Luke then told us about Apollos, a Jew from Alexandria who also came to Ephesus after Paul had left and began to teach the people about the Lord Jesus. And you’ll remember that Priscilla and Aquila were able to help him to come to a better understanding of the Christian faith so that he would become an even better preacher.
Then Apollos travelled to Corinth and while he was there, Paul arrived back to Ephesus. You’ll remember how he met that group of men who were disciples of John the Baptiser. And Paul explained to them the good news of the gospel and they were baptised into the name of the Lord Jesus and, after Paul laid his hands on them, they were filled with the Holy Spirit.
And then we read how Paul taught in the synagogue in Ephesus for 3 months. But some of the congregation became obstinate and they publicly maligned what Paul was teaching them about the Lord Jesus. So, Paul left the synagogue and went next door to the Hall of Tyrannus where he continued to teach the good news for another 2 years. It’s all happening in Ephesus. And there’s more to come.
Look with me at verse 11. Luke tells us about the extraordinary miracles Paul was able to perform in Ephesus. Now, miracles themselves are extraordinary. But these miracles were even more extraordinary than normal. And Luke goes on in verse 12 to describe some of the extraordinary things which were going on. So, people were taking the handkerchiefs and aprons which Paul had used and they were taking them to the sick.
Now, there may have been a bit of superstition behind what they were doing. You see, in those days, people believed that the bodies of certain people — and whatever touched the bodies of certain people — had healing powers. And so, it seems the people were thinking to themselves: ‘Here’s Paul and he’s able to do these mighty miracles. Here’s the handkerchief he used to wipe his brow; here’s the apron he used when he was working; I bet that I can use that to bring healing to my sick friend.’ And, of course, we’ve come across something similar before. Think of the woman in the gospels who was suffering with that haemorrhage for 12 years. And do you remember how she wanted to touch the Lord, because she believed that, by touching him, she would be cured? And then earlier in the book of Acts, in chapter 5, we read how people brought the sick and placed them along the way Peter was going so that his shadow might fall on them and heal them. Well, the same sort of thing was happening in Ephesus. Extraordinary things were taking place. And though there may have been a bit of superstition behind what they were doing, the remarkable thing is that the Lord, very graciously, healed the people in this way.
The theologians talk about how God accommodates himself to our way of thinking. In other words, he bends down and he speaks to us and he deals with us in a way that we can understand. Think of a parent who bends down to talk to his toddler, and the parent uses simple words which the toddler can understand. Well, the Lord God — who is far, far, far above us — bends down and he accommodates himself to our understanding and our expectations and he deals with us in ways we can understand. And so, he graciously accommodated himself to the way the people of Ephesus thought about healing; and he healed them of their diseases.
And, of course, we shouldn’t miss the fact that Luke ascribes these miracles to God. Look back to verse 11. He said: ‘God did extraordinary things through Paul.’ It wasn’t as if Paul possessed the power the perform miraculous signs. It wasn’t as if he had some secret power or that he knew magic. No, Paul was an ordinary man, just like you and me. And yet God was able to work through him to do these extraordinary things.
Verses 13 to 16
In verse 13 Luke tells us that there were some Jews in Ephesus at that time who used to go about, driving out evil spirits. Presumably this is how they made their living. And such people — and they weren’t believers — they would perform these exorcisms by running through a checklist of names of all the mighty and powerful men and gods they were aware of, hoping that eventually they would mention the right name or use the right formula of words to cast out the demons. It was a bit like saying ‘Open Sesame’ or ‘Abracadabra’. Well, Luke tells us that they decided to add the name of the Lord Jesus to their incantations. After all, they had seen what Paul was able to do in the name of the Lord Jesus and they decided to give it a try as well.
Luke tells us what happened to one group of exorcists. They were known as the Seven Sons of Sceva. Luke calls Sceva a Jewish High Priest. but there’s no record of any High Priest with that name. So perhaps Luke means he came from a high priestly family. Or perhaps the Seven Sons only claimed their father was a priest because it helped them to get business.
Anyway, the Seven Sons of Sceva were trying to cast out an evil spirit from a man by invoking the name of the Lord Jesus. And what happened? The evil spirit answered them and said:
Well, I know who Jesus is. And I know who Paul is. But who are you?
I know that Jesus is the Son of God and I have to listen to him. And I know that Paul is the servant of the Lord and I have to listen to him. But you’re nothing like them.
And the man who was demon possessed jumped on the Seven Sons and overpowered them all. He beat them up so that they had to run away, naked and bleeding. You see, they weren’t true believers in the Lord Jesus, and though they tried to work in the name of the Lord Jesus, the evil spirit knew that God was not working through them the way that he worked through Paul.
Verses 17 to 20
What an embarrassment for the Seven Sons and for all those Jewish exorcists who were working in Ephesus! The Lord Jesus was clearly much more powerful than anything they had encountered before and they were made to look very foolish.
Luke tells us that what had happened to the Seven Sons had two immediate effects upon the people in Ephesus.
First of all, all the people — both Jews and Gentiles — were seized with fear and they began to honour the name of the Lord Jesus. In other words, they no longer used his name as part of a magic formula which is what the Jewish exorcists had been doing. They now regarded the name of the the Lord Jesus with reverence and they used his name with care.
And, of course, the way so many people today misuse the Lord’s name is just another indication of how far we have turned away from the Lord. Instead of honouring his name, which is what everyone should do, so many people use it as a curse word. But here’s the thing: Whenever people have been convinced and converted to faith in Christ, they no longer use his name as a swear word, but instead they praise his name and they speak of him with reverence and with love because the name Jesus means ‘God saves’ and they love him because he has saved them.
But secondly, Luke tells us that there was an effect on those citizens of Ephesus who were already believers. Perhaps they’d come to believe during Paul’s first, brief visit to Ephesus. Or perhaps they’d come to believe through Apollos’s ministry. Or perhaps they’d come to believe during Paul’s present ministry among them. But they’re believers anyway and we read how they came and openly confessed their sins.
You see, we need to remember that the work of sanctification takes a life time, doesn’t it? And Christians are not made perfectly holy and obedient the moment they first believed. We remain sinners throughout our lives and our old sins still cling to us.
But God works in our lives and he uncovers our secret sins and he puts his finger on those parts of our lives which are not right. In other words, throughout our lives, he continues to convict us of our sins so that we have to confess them and repent of them and seek his forgiveness for them.
And that’s what happened in Ephesus once the Seven Sons of Sceva had been humiliated. And so we read in verse 18 that many of those who had believed now came and they openly confessed their evil deeds. These are believers. But they’ve been convicted by the Lord and they’re confessing their evil deeds.
And what kind of evil deeds were they guilty of? Well, look at verse 19: A number who had practiced sorcery — and you get the impression throughout this passage that Ephesus really was a dark place where superstition abounded — perhaps that’s why in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, he wrote about how they used to follow the ways of the ruler of the kingdom of the air (he’s referring to the Devil) and then he wrote to them about how they needed the armour of God in order to stand firm against the spiritual forces of evil. Anyway, a number who had practiced sorcery brought their scrolls together — and presumably these scrolls had something to do with sorcery — and they burned them publicly.
The depth of their repentance and the seriousness of their devotion is seen in the fact that these scrolls which they burned cost 50,000 drachmas. And if you look at the footnote at the bottom of the page, you’ll see that a drachma was worth about a day’s wage. In other words, you’d have to work an awfully long time in order to be able to afford to buy these scrolls which they have just burned.
And, of course, we should note that they burned them. They could have sold them and got some money for themselves. But no, they didn’t want anyone else to have these scrolls and to be led astray by them. So they destroyed them.
And we should note as well that, as far as we can tell, no one told them to burn the scrolls and no one compelled them to do so. It was God working in their hearts, by his Spirit, convicting them of their sin and putting in their heart such a sorrow for their sins and such a hatred of them that they, voluntarily, brought the scrolls and burned them.
And you see, that’s one of the things about the Christian religion. We’re naturally very concerned about the way people live their lives. And we’re rightly concerned about the laws that are passed and the way things are going in our society as more and more people turn away from the Lord and from his ways. And we want the government to uphold the ways of the Lord. But our Bibles teach us that men and women are sinners and they will go their own way. And they will keep going their own way until the Lord comes to them by his Spirit, and convicts them of their sins. And then, with sorrow for their sin and with shame for the way they have lived, they will turn away from it, gladly and freely, and they will turn to the Saviour, and they will being to walk in his ways.
Now, if that’s the case, what should we do? We should pray that the gospel of Jesus Christ will be preached widely across our nation, and that it will be preached with power and with deep conviction by the Holy Spirit so that more and more people will hear it and believe it and turn to Christ for salvation. And as Christ works in their lives, they will gladly give up their old sins and will be able, more and more, to obey him and to do his will here on earth.
So, look how this passage ends. The word of the Lord spread widely. And it grew in power. That’s our prayer: that the word will spread widely and it will grow in power in all our lives.