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  • Writer's picturePaul Cottington

A Great Burning for Jesus


 

"God did extraordinary miracles through Paul, so that even handkerchiefs and aprons that had touched him were taken to those who were ill, and their illnesses were cured and the evil spirits left them." Acts 19:11-12


In Acts 18, Paul stayed for a short while in Ephesus before returning to his home church in Syrian Antioch via Jerusalem. Before he left Ephesus he said, ‘I will come back if it is God’s will.’ It was. Paul’s back, and now in Acts 19 8 he returns to the synagogue. There, for a while, he ‘spoke boldly’ and argued ‘persuasively about the kingdom of God’, which the life and death and rising again of Jesus had made an emerging reality. But eventually, ‘some of’ Paul’s audience ‘became obstinate; they refused to believe and publicly maligned the Way’. ‘What’s the Way?’ we might well ask.


This term first appeared in Acts 9 2. At that time, Paul was, himself, ‘obstinate’ - he refused to believe. He knew about Jesus but didn’t know him. But Jesus knew Paul. Paul was on a mad mission with letters of authority permitting him to arrest any ‘who belonged to the Way’. That expression clearly meant believers – Christians. ‘The Way’ was a name given to the church, those who believed that Jesus was ‘the Way’ to restored relationship with God. In Acts 9, Paul was intent on arresting followers of Jesus - but Jesus arrested him. Hell-bent met heaven sent – light shined into his once dark heart. This man who once persecuted ‘the Way’ was now on it and in it.


Here in Ephesus, in Acts 19 9, the church – ‘the Way’ – again faced opposition. Here it is malicious words – the spreading of lies. This must have been so discouraging. But Paul didn’t give up. The door to the synagogue might have closed but God’s hand stayed open. We read, ‘So Paul left them. He took the disciples with him and had discussions daily in the lecture hall of Tyrannus’. Here we see the church in Ephesus really starting to take shape. A shape that seems somewhat familiar!


They were meeting in a ‘lecture hall’ - so some kind of educational facility belonging to a person called ‘Tyrannus’. At certain times when it wasn’t in use by its owner, the church in Ephesus borrowed that facility – a bit like Riverside! This is important. It’s so easy in our church thinking to believe that we must have our own building. Now, that is a commendable aim for a local church body, for various practical reasons – I’m not knocking it! But what I am knocking is the idea that, unless that happens, we, as a church, aren’t quite proper. Because, here, in Acts 19 the church in Ephesus is in a borrowed building and that church looks proper to me.


What makes a church proper then? Well, in Matthew 18, Jesus talks about church life. He gives instructions about how to proceed when sin arises and causes problems within our church relationships. He refers to an Old Testament principle found in Deuteronomy 19 15 where the truth of a matter was to be established by the testimony of two or more witnesses. Jesus takes that principle and magnifies it under a New Testament lens. He says that when the church operates correctly it has an awesome authority and power – ‘where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.’ Jesus’ focus there is on discipline but that truth has far reaching implications that should encourage us in all aspects of our church function.


When we come together is our aim to put Jesus at the centre of our church worship. Do we gather in his name? Then Jesus says, ‘there am I with’ you. And if Jesus is here, there is no church that is more proper.


The shape of the church in Ephesus should encourage us - so should their success. This out-of-hours arrangement continued for at least ‘two years’, in verse 10. We read of Jews and Greeks – we know that ‘Greeks’ is used in this type of context, in Acts, to mean non-Jews who were sympathetic to the Jewish faith – who believed in Israel’s God. What we read about this group is amazing. Through that Ephesus church, operating from a rented building, that group was reached in its entirety. Not some of them – all of them - ‘all the Jews and Greeks who lived in the province of Asia heard the word of the Lord’.


The whole of Asia – wow! Actually, hold your horses, this isn’t the continent of Asia, it’s the Roman province but, even so, that is a sizeable area. The seven churches in Asia which John addresses in Revelation 1-3, are all in this province. Again – wow! That’s some leaflet drop! That is like Riverside doing the whole of West Yorkshire! We really would be thankful for those tight rows of terraced miner’s cottages! But how was this achievable? One reason was the position of Ephesus in that province. It was a major centre of commerce with people coming and going. It was the capital city. The region was governed from Ephesus. It got its news from there. Now, through the efforts of Paul and this infant church, it got the Good News from there.


It’s so impressive and so encouraging what this small group were able to achieve on their own… except they didn’t do it on their own and verse 11 really highlights this. We don’t read that Paul did extraordinary miracles. We do read that ‘God did extraordinary miracles through Paul’. For a brief moment in verse 10, in the Grand Theatre of Acts, the lights were set to flood the whole stage of Asia but now the focus is narrowed to one city and one street and one man. It’s a man busy at manual labour - let me explain what I mean.


What Paul had previously done in Corinth, where some of the time he had engaged in his trade of tent making to gain income to supply his needs, he evidently did in Ephesus too. Because, in the next chapter Paul will call the elders of the church in Ephesus for a farewell meeting. He tells them, in Acts 20 34, that ‘you yourselves know that these hands of mine have supplied my own needs and the needs of my companions’. And this manual work is related to verse 12 here where we read of ‘handkerchiefs and aprons that had touched Paul’ being used to miraculously cure others of illness. This is not so obvious in our English translation but the words in the original New Testament Greek are helpful.


The word translated ‘apron’ is ‘simikinthion’, where ‘simi’ relates to our English prefix of ‘semi’. It was a semi, or half-girding, a particular type of narrow apron which servants or manual workers wore. The word translated ‘handkerchief’ is ‘soudarion’, which was literally a sweatcloth - something which a tradesperson, like Paul, would use to wipe perspiration from their face while carrying out their hot and thirsty work. So, what’s happening in verse 12 is people are borrowing these items, perhaps when Paul hung them up to dry while having his coffee break. ‘Those who were ill’ were touched with these items and they were cured. Now we may be thinking, ‘I’m not sure I’d want to be touched with anyone else’s sweaty cloth’. Maybe, in these circumstances, it would all depend on how poorly you were!


So why did God do these miracles through Paul’s work items? Why don’t we see this happening now as an everyday occurrence – people’s illnesses being removed by miraculous healing? But it wasn’t an everyday occurrence then. The book of Acts covers an approximately thirty year period. It is a very condensed account. These miraculous highlights are just that – they are standout events. They weren’t happening ordinarily and everyday – that is the reason that verse 11 highlights them as ‘extraordinary’ – they were outside of what normally happened, even then.


But God chose to do this at that moment. He was giving a powerful lesson to these people in this city. Just as we considered recently that Corinth was a city with a particular reputation, so Ephesus, here, also had a reputation of its own. In the wider Roman world there was a phrase – Ephesia Grammata, or Ephesian Writings. If someone said that they had an Ephesian Writing they meant something – they meant ‘I have a magic spell’. Ephesus was renowned for its dark and mysterious behaviour. Occult practices were rife. In verse 13 we even read of ‘some Jews who went around driving out evil spirits’. These people travelled from place to place practicing exorcism. The ESV calls them ‘itinerant Jewish exorcists’. They claimed to be able to drive out evil spirits – Why? For one reason. If this was happening today, they would be driving around in a white van with a motto on the side - ‘Give us your money and we’ll set you free’! But the opposite was true. People weren’t being freed. In Ephesus, people were trapped in a cycle of perpetual darkness. Something needed to be done.


But what was the church in its weakness going to do against such an ingrained culture? Surely they didn’t have the power to change what everyone around them believed? Wasn’t it more likely that believers themselves would be overthrown in their own faith and be forced to fall back in step with everyone else? Yes, they would, if they tried to prevail on their own. But believers aren’t on their own – not then, not now.


When Jesus came to our world of sin and darkness, God’s angel said this, ‘they will call him Immanuel (which means ‘God with us’)’ (Matthew 1 23). When Jesus died for sin on the cross that huge barrier to relationship with God was gone. When Jesus rose from the dead, God’s message to humankind was sounded loud and clear to the ends of the earth. If we put our trust in Jesus, and know him as our Saviour then ‘Immanuel’ – God is ‘with us’ forever. Believers are not alone. Our lives are not meant to be lived dependant on whatever drive we can muster up from within at 7am after a rough night. We have access to something much greater than inner strength.


The apostle Paul will later write a letter to some believers about this. He tells them, ‘be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on the full armour of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. Therefore put on the full armour of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground…’ Who does Paul write those words to? This church here in Ephesus. It needed those words in the first instance. But we need them too. The culture that we live in may be very different to that which we find in Ephesus. But the reality is the same. If we are depending on our own resolve then we will be quickly swallowed up. But if we are ‘strong in the Lord and in his mighty power’ then we will ‘be able to stand our ground’.


How could these believers in Ephesus expect to make any headway in changing hearts and minds for Jesus, against the backdrop of the place in which they lived? And how will we do the same against the backdrop of our own culture, where God no longer exists in the worldview of so many. We may be oh-so-ordinary, but our God is anything but. ‘God did extraordinary’ in Ephesus. God has not changed.


That city lay trapped within a culture of spiritual superstition and religious ritual and devilish darkness and paranormal power. Then God showed them some real power. He works in mysterious ways. Look at how the scene unfolds. These travelling exorcists realise the power that was in the name of Jesus. They decide to use it themselves to expel demons. Their command is recorded in verse 13 – ‘In the name of the Jesus whom Paul preaches, I command you to come out’. Their language is the giveaway. They knew that Paul knew Jesus. But they didn’t know him for themselves. They use the name ‘Jesus’ as if it is a magic word. In fact, that is similar to the way that people now will exclaim, ‘Oh Jesus’. It’s a word which is used to convey the seriousness of a situation, particularly when things go wrong. It sounds like people are calling for God’s attention, but really they’re just calling for the attention of those around them.


In Ephesus, these exorcists, who use the name ‘Jesus’, don’t have faith. Consequently, they don’t have access to the awesome equipment that Paul lists in Ephesians 6, which he calls, ‘the full armour of God’. These people are dabbling in spiritual things empty handed and so it soon proves. They receive an answer to their ‘Jesus’ incantation in verse 15. ‘Jesus I know, and Paul I know about, but who are you?’ They are quickly ‘overpowered’ and then we are given this picture of how exposed we really are if we only have ‘Jesus’ as some kind of magic word. In verse 16, ‘they ran out of the house naked and bleeding’. It does not end well!


Repeating the word ‘Jesus’ holds no power. Knowing him as Lord and Saviour holds awesome power. Because our God is awesome. Look at the effect in Ephesus. In verse 17 people ‘were all seized with fear’. God uses this bruising encounter to good ends. People seem more affected by this than by those initial extraordinary miracles that God did through Paul. Even among those that lacked lived-out faith, such was the impact of this misadventure, ‘the name of the Lord Jesus was held in high honour’.


And look at the effect on believers in verse 18-19. ‘Many of those who believed now came and openly confessed what they had done’. The gospel has an ongoing effect. The good news of Jesus had already brought light and life, but now their minds are further illuminated. Practices, that had seemed ok, are now judged to be anything but. Their hearts are burning bright for Jesus, and that isn’t the only thing that’s burning. Ephesian Writings – ‘sorcery… scrolls’ – are ‘burned… publicly’. What a scene! What a witness to those around them of the transforming effect of Christ.


And this is no small thing – it’s huge. Verse 19 tells us that the ‘total’ ‘value’ ‘came to fifty thousand drachmas’. One drachma was about one day’s wage then. So, what would that be worth now? Well, according to government figures, in the UK in 2023, the average daily wage is £130. If we multiply that by the fifty thousand, we get today’s value of those scrolls - £6.5 million, a huge amount!


Now, those things are given a new value – no value – they are bonfired! In their old way of life these things were worth a fortune. In the new ‘Way’ of life in Christ they were worthless. They could have sold those items but chose not to. The danger to others was too great so they gave them up. How like their Lord and Master, Jesus Christ, who gave up so much to rescue his people from danger and deliver them from eternal ruin? Their actions highlighted Christ, and highlighted the cost of faith.


Sometimes this can be what keeps people from turning to Jesus - things will have to be given up, while other things will have to be taken on. As Paul says in 2 Corinthians 5 17, ‘if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: the old has gone, the new is here!’


Will that stop you? Let’s go back a little - think of those who were cured by the touch of Paul’s sweaty ‘handkerchief’. They could have objected. They could have said, ‘keep that away from me’. But some of them had heard that a cure lay within that touch. Some of them were suffering enough that they humbled themselves. Those people were made whole again. So it is with Jesus.


Yes, when Christ touches a person’s life it brings change. We may consider that change to be too great to commit to - but it will depend on our need. Our greatest need is the shortcoming and failure of our lives, which the Bible calls ‘sin’. Jesus is ‘the Way’ of cure. We may think, ‘I want to come to Jesus, but there’s no point. I know what I am. I know that I cannot make it all the way as a Christian being what I am’. No, not on your own you won’t – you don’t have the strength or the power. But God does. And God tells us how we’ll make it even when the future day of evil hits us ever so hard. His word says, ‘put on the full armour of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand’.


Look at how ‘God did extraordinary miracles’ in people’s lives in Ephesus when the good news reached that place – People that were once proud in their lives of dark, dark rebellion, were humbled - were bowed down in confession – were saved by the grace of God which is in Christ Jesus the Lord. Let’s combine their reality with four lines of verse written by Jim Reeves:-


It is no secret what God can do

What he's done for others he'll do for you.

With arms wide open, he'll pardon you

It is no secret what God can do.

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