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Acts 18:1-19:20

11.18.2010

After writing to the Thessalonians, Paul checks in with the church at Jerusalem and then ‘home’ to Antioch.  Before too long, however, he’s off again, this time swinging back through Galatia on his way to visit Ephesus, on the western coast of modern Turkey.

From this selection, I want to focus on 19:13-20. 

Then some of the itinerant Jewish exorcists undertook to invoke 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 answered them, ‘Jesus I know, and Paul I recognize, but who are you?’  And the man in whom was the evil spirit leaped on them, so that they fled out of that house naked and wounded. 

And this became known to all the residents of Ephesus, both Jews and Greeks.  And fear fell upon them all, and the name of the Lord Jesus was extolled.  Also many of those who were now believers came, confessing and divulging their practices.  And a number of those who had practiced magic arts brought their books together and burned them in the sight of all.  And they counted the value of them and found it came to fifty thousand pieces of silver.

There are three elements of this story that struck me as I read it.  The first is, whether we see exorcism as a figurative term for spiritually curing mental illness or something more literal than that, the Sceva brothers were dabbling in some twisted stuff.  Ultimately, when you engage with evil either on a lark or in an effort to make money, it goes badly for you. 

Secondly, I found this article by Baptist theologian Albert Mohler to be an interesting take on the differences between Catholics’ and Protestants’ approach to demonology and exorcism.  The key takeaway for me:

So, we should respect the power of the Devil and his demons, but never fear them.  We do not need a rite of exorcism, only the name of Jesus.  We are not given a priesthood of exorcists — for every believer is armed with the full promise of the Gospel, united with Christ by faith, and indwelt by the Holy Spirit.

Exorcism seems outdated, like alchemy or witchcraft trials.  I think it’s another one of these cases where it’s hard to describe a spiritual reality in physically-bound language.  Importantly, Mohler also notes that demon possession shouldn’t really preoccupy us all that much:

Furthermore, there is absolutely no New Testament evidence that a believer in Christ can be possessed by demons.  Tormented and tempted?  Sure.  But never possessed.  Once we are united to Christ by faith and given the gift of the indwelling Holy Spirit, there is no way a demon can possess us.

Lastly, notice how many people in Ephesus, a prominent city in the civilized world, have books on magic they want to discard after having been convicted by the Holy Spirit.  The Gospel was reaching a world hungry for answers to spiritual problems.  Christianity did not invent the supernatural or introduce it to the civilized world.  The freedom in Christ liberated many pagans enslaved by the chicanery and exploitation of itinerant magicians and sham healers.  It may be discomfiting to defend doctrinal beliefs about spiritual warfare, but the truths of the Gospel, no matter how embarassing,  have truly been good news to believers throughout history.

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