God did extraordinary miracles through Paul, so that when the handkerchiefs or aprons that had touched his skin were brought to the sick, their diseases left them, and the evil spirits came out of them.Then some itinerant Jewish exorcists tried to use 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 said to them in reply, ‘Jesus I know, and Paul I know; but who are you?’ Then the man with the evil spirit leapt on them, mastered them all, and so overpowered them that they fled out of the house naked and wounded. When this became known to all residents of Ephesus, both Jews and Greeks, everyone was awestruck; and the name of the Lord Jesus was praised. Also many of those who became believers confessed and disclosed their practices. A number of those who practised magic collected their books and burned them publicly; when the value of these books was calculated, it was found to come to fifty thousand silver coins. So the word of the Lord grew mightily and prevailed.
What a story! Magic, Miracles and exorcisms. J K Rowling eat your heart out!
Local context is everything in this story. We are in Ephesus; a significant centre of the magic arts in the ancient world.
Into this setting returns Paul, performing exorcisms and healing the sick. His reputation has evidently spread throughout the region and, given the Ephesian appetite for the magical, it is no surprise that he has been noticed and is being emulated. Is he Magical or miraculous?
How are the locals to distinguish between human magic and divine miracles? This story is written to make that distinction. It is God who did extraordinary miracles through Paul.
When the itinerant Jewish exorcists tried the same ‘trick’ by using the name of Jesus Christ, they did so as if it were an incantation like ‘Hocus Pocus’ or ‘Alohomora’. The purpose of a magic trick is for self-gain, for adulation, for the increase of power and status. These tricksters are using the right words, but with the wrong intention and with no foundation.
Paul has been challenged and changed by his relationship with Jesus, meaning that his desire to heal the sick and to free the soul from torment comes from a place of genuine selfless love and compassion. God works through him.
We can say that we do all manner of things in the name of Jesus Christ, but it doesn’t make it so:
TV evangelists can proclaim a prosperity gospel. Politicians can evoke words of scripture. Terrorists and extremists of all faiths can use God’s name. But if there is no relationship with Jesus, no following his way, no taking his word to heart, they perform self-aggrandising magic – not God’s miracles of compassion and grace.
Do we do magic or does God perform miracles through us as we follow Jesus? A question for the church as much as for each of us.
Compassionate God, as we go about our daily lives, help us to hear your word, to let it sink deep into our souls, that our actions may be of you. As we are filled with your compassion and love, may your touch, through us, be the miracle that another needs. In the name of Jesus Christ, we pray, so be it. AMEN
The Rev’d Martin Knight is minister of St Paul’s URC, South Croydon.