Chaos and Salvation In Ephesus
Acts 19 : 8 - 21
Paul conducted a three month evangelistic campaign in Ephesus, speaking daily in the synagogue. That he lasted that long in that environment is significant. They gave Paul a good hearing. He gave them worthwhile sermons and lectures. The text says that he argued ‘persuasively’. Eventually though, the tension caused by asking for conversions and decisions for Jesus Christ meant that opposition hardened against Paul and His Gospel message. A point came when a poisonous atmosphere permeated relationships and the ground was no longer fertile or productive for missionary zeal to be effective. It is possible that the group of new converts had grown so that it became a threat to the synagogue congregation. The Christians had outgrown their lodgings. Paul found an alternative venue. He rented a private lecture hall owned by someone called Tyrannus - no relation to Tyrannus Rex and continued to meet, preach and teach there for a further two years. Verse 10 indicates that his ministry became well known throughout the province of Asia. Ephesus was an important cross-roads city. It was busy and cosmopolitan and Christianity was such an interesting and novel phenomenon that it got talked about far and wide. Converts travelled back home to towns and villages taking the Gospel with them. People journey to Ephesus to attend Paul’s revival meetings.
But Paul himself was carried by the Holy Spirit in his work. God was moving in that place and among those people. Paul didn’t have to limit himself to person to person hard won evangelism. Things were happening around him and independent of him which confirmed his ministry. Healing miracles abounded without in some cases Paul even needing to visit those who were ill. Members of families took handkerchiefs and aprons to Paul to bless and when these were taken back and given to sick people they recovered in mind and in body. As you know the medieval Church dealt in relics of saints for the same kinds of purposes. However by the time of the Reformation the practice had become corrupted by money and so had lost any semblance of integrity. Protestant Christianity disavowed the selling of relics and the associations with particular saints as we do to this day. We may be doubtful about what we read in these verses of Acts but we take Christianity’s presence in our collective history for granted. Christianity is part and parcel of the life of this nation and has been for many centuries. Lots of people found spiritual strengthening even if they never went to Church because Jesus Christ was embedded in our culture and society. It is hard for us to imagine what a society without any Christianity might actually be like. Some might say that it will not be long before we know well enough in this country due to the large scale abandonment of Christianity in our politics. And we see places like North Korea with its institutional idolatry as a great contrast to our freedoms and way of life. We may learn from the history of the 20th century what it is like to have no Christianity, from Russia, from Nazi Germany, from Japan and from Cambodia. These nations projected great strength for a time but in the end were shown to be weak. They fell apart. They were defeated. If we think about the spiritual state of these peoples and their leaders, we see that they were vulnerable because they were misguided, foolish, wicked and wrong. They were much worse of course showing levels and scale of inhumanity never seen in the human community before or since.
The point to grasp is that people in that part of Turkey lived lives of spiritual poverty and confusion, vulnerability and mistakenness which meant that Christianity contrasted significantly and distinctly and effectively with what they knew and practised. That was why taking a hankie blessed by Paul could be such a healing presence to someone who was ill. The story is told that when Pope John Paul II visited Scotland in 1982 he was taken to bless a number of sick people but one of them refused his blessing saying, ‘No thanks - I don’t want to lose my invalidity benefit’. In Ephesus and the surrounding areas, due to the Holy Spirit, blessing swept through people and families and cleansed them of their sins and brought comfort to their aches and pains and brought peace to troubled minds and simple healing to limbs and muscles. If only the Holy Spirit would move for us in our time how much easier it would be to spread the Gospel. But - of course - things would be a bit scary and unpredictable and there would be arguments and difficulties. Chaos and salvation accompany one another in Christian mission. Peace and quiet and order we have and they are worth much - but - if we try things for Jesus Christ - if we move out of our comfort zones - we find that spiritual strife may not be far away.
This passage of Acts tells us then about some of the unintended consequences of the Holy Spirit moving in power among people and communities. There were Jewish exorcists who made money by seeking to heal people of mental illnesses. In the ancient world, Jews and Judaism were distinguished by their moral principles and personal conduct. But some on the fringes sought to make money out of the superiority of Judaism. They were not genuine pious Jews. They exploited their faith. They were frauds and quacks who no doubt occasionally had some success in helping stricken people. The parallel in our society today is to be found among spiritualists who claim to be possessed by healing disincarnate spirits and offer ministry in that way - a very dangerous and spurious practice. It seems bizarre to us that these Jewish exorcists would invoke the name of Jesus whom they did not believe in or recognise and to whom they were not committed. But they were just seeking an advantage for themselves. They witnessed miracles in the name of Jesus and heard testimonies of healing in His name and so they tried to use His name for themselves. They even had a kind of second hand, got off eBay type of incantation, 'In the name of Jesus whom Paul preaches, I command you, evil spirit, to come out of this person'. We are told of a special family of seven sons of a Jewish high priest called Sceva. It is unlikely that he was a genuine high priest but that was his professional ‘stage’ name. He was a kind of ‘shaman’ we might say. A shaman is someone who mediates between the visible and the invisible world and these kinds of people have been present in most societies throughout history. Christianity stands against such practices and offers a safe environment for contact with God through Jesus Christ, in the Church and with the saving power of the sacraments of baptism and Holy Communion.
So these seven sons who made a professional living from the performance of exorcisms apparently had offered their ministry to some man stricken with mental illness. But a very strange thing happened. The deep subconscious of this suffering person recognised that these men were frauds. The man gave voice to this and said, 'Jesus I know, and I know about Paul, but who are you?' Whether voluntarily or involuntarily - the man had given money after all - this person then physically attacked these quacks and knocked them about quite seriously. In confusion some of them lost their cloths and other banged their heads on doors and walls. Such was this man’s strength and such was their knowledge of their fraud that they ran for their lives. This is not such a far fetched story that we cannot believe it.
Some years ago in the town of Bielefeld in Germany, four muggers set about a 70 year old man on the street. The first grabbed the man by the throat and demanded his money. A second came at him also. What the young thugs did not know was that this senior citizen was a retired SAS soldier who had fought against guerrillas in Aden and against Triad gangs in Hong Kong. He threw the first attacker over his shoulder and he landed on a fence, injuring himself; he grabbed and twisted the leg of the second who was trying to kick him and wrestled him to the ground. The other two muggers fled. They had picked on a harmless looking person who turned out to be very strong and able. Something similar happened in this episode in Ephesus. Fraudulent fleecing was met with a powerful physical reaction and this resulted in exposure, shame and defeat. But second hand Christianity is much present today. People may attend the Church all their lives and still be second hand Christians. They may be well content to keep Jesus Christ at a safe distance. The penny may never have dropped. They may never have put two and two together. They may have chosen to live in the shadow of faith rather than in the sunlight of the real thing. I remember attending church at a Christmas Eve service many years ago. I think it was in Whitekirk in East Lothian. Some people came in and sat in the pew in front and I heard a well spoken man turn to the person next to him and say, ‘One tends to go to Church at Christmas time’. There is second hand Christianity. The bidding starts at 99p.
The escapade in Ephesus became well known and the text says that it caused people to think more carefully about the use of the name ‘Jesus’. In fact, it made some people afraid. Others became reverential. The name of Jesus is not revered in our society. It is a daily oath. It accompanies many sentences. The story tells us that a negative consequence is necessary sometimes to make people aware of what they are doing. The fear of God can be helpful in turning people from bad living to better ways. If you’ve ever met Jimmy McEwan on the street, then you’ll know what it is like to listen to an expletive permeated one way tirade. Jimmy nearly died a few years ago as a result of the infection caught during an operation. He suffered a lot of pain and has dealt courageously with it. I said to him one day, ‘Never mind Jimmy, it’s made you a nicer person’. By that I acknowledged that now his tirades do not contain as many oaths as they had done before.
This incident provoked a revision of practice among the spiritualists, exorcists and shamans of Ephesus. Many gave up their interests in these things and became Christians. They brought their wizard manuals and burnt them in public witness to their conversions. The value of the occult books and scrolls today would be perhaps about £2,000,000. This was a huge spiritual event and it helps us to understand why Christianity became established in the ancient world, why it survived and why it prospered over the years, decades and centuries. It was inspired by power greater than human power, ingenuity and capacity. It was the work of God, the power of the Holy Spirit; it was not Paul himself though he was instrumental in mission and teaching and evangelism. We are crying out today for God to move in and with and around us for we do not have the means to bring revival. It is beyond our strength to defeat the idols of the time we live in. We can therefore pray that the Living Lord will do so. We will be organising a mission here in October this year. Will you start praying that it will have some impact. The Holy Spirit brings unpredictable and unintended consequences but it is only the Holy Spirit that can bring distinct revival. Temporary chaos is sometimes essential for salvation to be brought into our midst. It is worth it. We need to be awakened and we need to give up our idols and raise the Name of Jesus up in His redeeming power and love.