As you are no doubt aware, many evangelicals claim that we should often be experiencing the kinds of signs and wonders that we read about in our text. Since the early 20th century, the Pentecostals made such claims, but not many took them seriously. But in the late 1970’s, John Wimber and the Vineyard churches that he spawned began claiming that miracles should be the ordinary experience of the church. Jesus said that His followers would do greater works than He Himself did (John 14:12). Wimber asserted that the main reason that we do not see such works of power is our skeptical Western mindset.
Along with Peter Wagner and Charles Kraft, in 1982 Wimber began teaching a course at Fuller Seminary, MC510, popularly called, “Signs and Wonders.” Hundreds of students took the course, which ran until 1986, when the seminary halted the class and appointed a task force to evaluate the material from biblical, theological, scientific, and pastoral perspectives (published as Ministry and the Miraculous, ed. by Lewis Smedes [Fuller Seminary], 1987). Wimber did not believe that miracles will take place every time we pray, but he did teach that they are the necessary manifestation of the kingdom’s presence and advance. If we are not doing miracles along with our preaching, we are not preaching the gospel as we should, according to Wimber.
The hope of miraculous healing attracts many people to churches that claim to see such miracles happening, because there are many who are afflicted with serious, incurable illnesses. We have many in our church suffering from such diseases. I often pray for them, and I would rejoice if God miraculously healed them. Sometimes God does heal miraculously, and we should pray for it, if it is His will. If I thought that anyone in town, or even in the United States, had the God-given gift of healing, I would either try to bring him here or urge those who are sick to go wherever he was, so that they might be healed. But I question both the Vineyard’s theology and its claims of success in healing large numbers of those who are seriously sick. As the Fuller Seminary evaluation noted, not even the apostles did miracles on a par with those of Jesus. And “by any ordinary standard of equivalence, the healings reported by contemporary healing ministries hardly qualify as ‘greater works’ than Jesus did” (p. 31).
Luke notes that these miracles in Ephesus were extraordinary, even for the apostle Paul (19:11). They seem to parallel the extraordinary miracles that Peter performed for a brief period in his ministry (5:15-16). It is significant that apart from Stephen and Philip, who worked closely under the apostles, there are no miracles recorded as performed by anyone other than the apostles. And, it seems that all who were brought to them were healed (5:16). The purpose of these apostolic miracles (according to Heb. 2:3-4), was to confirm the message of salvation that Jesus and the apostles proclaimed. In fact, throughout the entire Bible, miracles are not uniformly sprinkled as everyday occurrences. Rather, they are clustered at key moments, such as the exodus, where God was working on behalf of His people. Those who lived after are often reminded of these former miracles to call them back to God.
In our text, Paul’s extraordinary miracles in Ephesus are contrasted with the attempts of some inept Jewish exorcists to duplicate the miracles. No doubt the early church often chuckled as it retold the story of these seven men running wounded and naked from the house after the demonic man overpowered them. By drawing this contrast, I think that Luke wants us all to learn a vital lesson that many “faith healers” and their followers need to learn:
We should allow God to use us according to His will for His glory, but we should not try to use Him for our own purposes.
That summarizes the main difference between Paul and these Jewish exorcists. Paul was allowing God to use him according to God’s will and for God’s glory. But these spiritual charlatans were trying to use God for their own financial profit, and those who hired the exorcists were trying to use God’s power for their own purposes. They had no intention to repent of their sins and submit their lives to God’s purpose. Rather, they wanted to use God as an Aladdin’s Genie, and then put Him back on the shelf until they needed His services again.
Even so, many—even many in the evangelical church—attempt to use God for health or wealth or whatever other favors they desire. When He doesn’t perform according to their expectations, they quickly look elsewhere for answers. But in their search for answers to their problems, Jesus Christ is not their Lord. They are their own lords, as seen by their quickly turning to the world when Jesus doesn’t seem to work as they had hoped.
The issue here is not whether or not God will bless those who come to Him in faith for salvation. The Bible shows that God delights to pour out His blessings on His people. As Paul exults, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ” (Eph. 1:3). When we come to Christ, He grants us “everything pertaining to life and godliness” (2 Pet. 1:3). Clearly, we receive all the riches of Christ when we come to Him for salvation. I’m not denying that.
Rather, I’m focusing on the issue of “Who is Lord?” and on the issue of repentance from our sins. If we come to God to use Him to see if He works, then we are still the lords of our lives, and we have not turned from our many sins. If God works, then we’ll use Him whenever we need Him, but we determine when and where that will be. Do we need a new job or a raise in our current job? Name it and claim it by faith, and it’s yours! Do you need healing from a disease? Command God and He must obey your word of faith! This is what many in the Word of Faith movement are teaching! For example, a prominent Word-Faith teacher has blatantly said,
Now this is a real shocker, but God has to be given permission to work in this earth realm on behalf of man. Yes, you are in control! So if man has control, who no longer has it? God. When God gave Adam dominion, that meant God no longer had dominion, so God cannot do anything in this earth unless we let Him. And the way we let Him or give Him permission is through prayer. (Fred Price, quoted by Christianity in Crisis Study Guide, p. 40; in The Signs and Wonders Movement—Exposed [Day One Publications], ed. by Peter Glover, p. 34).
That kind of heresy makes man the lord and God man’s servant. But the God of the Bible is the Sovereign Lord, who “does according to His will in the host of heaven and among the inhabitants of earth; and no one can ward off His hand or say to Him, ‘What have You done?’” (Dan. 4:35). These Jewish exorcists reveal three wrong ways that we all are prone to use God for our own purposes:
These false prophets went around from town to town making a living by supposedly casting demons out of those who were afflicted. Luke calls their father, Sceva, a Jewish chief priest (19:14). But since there is no record of any Jewish chief priest by that name, either he was a member of a high priestly family, or, more likely, he took the title for himself to impress his clientele. These men had a bag full of magic spells, rituals, incantations, oaths, and the like. They would try to gain power over the evil spirits by invoking the name of a more powerful spirit being. So when they heard about Paul’s success using the name of Jesus, they added it to their repertoire. But they found out that it was kind of like using a hand grenade without knowing how it works. It went off in their faces and they were glad to get away with their lives!
But the point is, for them spiritual power was usually an easy way to make a nice living. God had not called or sent them to do what they were doing. They weren’t doing it out of loving concern for hurting people. They were doing it for financial gain.
The Bible says that elders who rule well should be paid for their labors, especially those who work hard at preaching and teaching (1 Tim. 5:17-18). Those who go out as evangelists or missionaries have a right to be supported in their labors (1 Cor. 9:3-18; 3 John 7-8). But that is far different from those, like the prominent TV “evangelists” and “faith healers” of our day, who make a fortune peddling their spiritual wares on unsuspecting people. I have read that some of them send their appeals for funds to arrive at the same time that elderly people’s Social Security checks arrive! They often travel first class, insist on staying in five-star hotels, and demand large sums of money to come for their crusades (Signs and Wonders Movement—Exposed, p. 22). They live in personal luxury and promise their poor audiences that they, too, can live in luxury if they will just have the faith and, of course, give generously to their ministries! They are feeding themselves at the expense of the flock (Ezek. 34:2). They are serving mammon, not God!
These exorcists were not submitting their lives to God’s Word. In fact, they were in direct disobedience to the Word, which condemned false prophets who purported to speak in God’s name when He had not sent them (Ezek. 13:6). But clearly, they were in the business of using whatever worked. If one spell or incantation didn’t work, they would try another one. If Paul was having success using this name of Jesus, they would try it out. And, although the attempt to use the name of Jesus didn’t seem to work for them this time, they must have been having some other successes, or they couldn’t have stayed in business. Either through satanic power or the power of suggestion or hypnosis, they saw enough results to stay in business. But they didn’t live in submission to God’s Word.
But whenever we use what works without regard for the truth of Scripture, we’ve fallen into pragmatism. As John MacArthur (Ashamed of the Gospel [Crossway Books]) and others have so capably shown, pragmatism has flooded into the American evangelical church. We use marketing techniques to draw the crowds to our churches. We tone down the difficult parts of the gospel and emphasize the feel-good parts so that we don’t scare off potential converts. We avoid difficult doctrines and give shorter messages that focus on how people can succeed in life, because that’s what people want to hear. We use psychological counseling and 12 Step Groups instead of submission to the lordship of Christ to help people cope with life’s problems, because these techniques seem to work. Pastors flock to conferences that share the latest methods that are proven to build your church. These Jewish exorcists probably could have landed a job on the staff of many thriving evangelical churches in our day!
These exorcists were directly involved in the occult. They were trying to manipulate demons by demonic power for their own or others’ advantage. But they ended up getting hurt (literally), because they were playing with powers greater than they realized.
Many Christians and even some Christian leaders today dabble in the occult, sometimes without realizing what they are doing. Techniques of using visualization as a means of healing or financial success are an occult practice (Dave Hunt & T. A. McMahon, The Seduction of Christianity [Harvest House], pp. 123-169). Many of the “Word-Faith” teachers are really promoting the occult when they tell you to visualize and speak into existence whatever you want, assuring you that God will do what you speak in faith. Astrology, fortune telling, Ouija boards, and tarot cards are directly demonic, and yet many Christians think of them as innocent games.
Rather than attempting to use God for our own purposes, as these Jewish exorcists did, we should follow the example of Paul:
Paul was not building a following for Paul; he was pointing people to Jesus Christ. We read that “the name of the Lord Jesus [not Paul] was being magnified” (19:17). “The word of the Lord [not Paul’s techniques for healing] was growing mightily and prevailing” (19:20). Paul was willing to live or die, as long as now, as always, Christ would be exalted in his body (Phil. 1:21). In Paul’s experience in Ephesus and in the lives of those who responded to the gospel there we see four aspects of those whom God uses for His glory:
In contrast to the Jewish exorcists, who were using spiritual power for financial gain, Paul labored at his trade, making tents (20:34). Although Paul had a legitimate right to be supported by his labors in the gospel, he refused to use that right so that he would cause no hindrance to the gospel (1 Cor. 9:3-18, esp. v. 12).
These “handkerchiefs” that people carried from Paul to the sick were actually sweat-cloths that he tied around his head to keep the sweat from dripping into his eyes as he worked. The aprons were his work aprons. Can’t you see Paul coming into his shop and saying, “Now where did I put that apron last night when I took it off?” Modern TV “healers” send out little squares of cloth that they have “anointed.” They ask their audiences to touch them as a point-of-contact and, of course, to send in their donation.
I have one such letter in my files. The “healer” instructs me to hold the cloth reverently and listen as God tells me how He will grant me the healing or financial miracle that I need. Then I’m supposed to put this cloth inside the envelope, along with my generous gift, to prove in a tangible way that I believe God’s Word. He explains that the money is not to buy a miracle, but to express my thanks to God for His free gifts. He also adds (this was in the early 1980’s) that inflation has skyrocketed the costs of soul-winning abroad! He assures me that when he receives my prayer cloth along with my generous gift, he and his wife will lay my request and cloth before God in fasting prayer in their private prayer closet. He assures me that the Lord will grant my miracle.
How different was Paul’s ministry! These smelly rags were reminders of the toil that Paul was going through to make the gospel available in Ephesus. In comparing these cloths to Moses’ rod, Ray Stedman says,
There was nothing magic about the rod itself; it was the symbol of something about Moses which God honored. So these sweatbands and trade aprons were symbols of the honest, dignified labor of the apostle, his labor of love and humility of heart, his servant-character which manifested and released the power of God. God means to teach by this that it is through a man whose heart is so utterly committed that he is ready to invest hard, diligent labor in making the gospel available, willing to stoop to a lowly trade, that the power of God is released (Acts 13-20, Growth of the Body [Vision House], p. 163).
Even the demon recognized Paul’s integrity. He told the exorcists that he recognized Jesus and knew Paul, but he didn’t know them! Demons have no power over a man of integrity who is subject to God, as Paul was.
Here I’m focusing on the Ephesian people who had professed faith in Christ, but they had not genuinely repented until they heard about this incident (19:18-19). They were secretly holding on to their old occult practices, just in case Jesus “didn’t work” for them! But now they went public, confessing and disclosing their sinful practices. As a proof of their confession, they brought their magic books and made a huge public bonfire. The combined price of these books was huge. If the pieces of silver were drachmas (one drachma was a working man’s daily wage), at today’s wages it would have amounted to about $5 million! They could have sold them and financed the new sanctuary in Ephesus! But they didn’t want anyone else contaminated by this spiritual deception, so they rightly burned them.
Have you done that? Maybe it’s not books on sorcery and magic, but it could be filthy videos that are not edifying for you and that would keep others from God if you sold them. Maybe it means throwing out magazines with lustful pictures. Whatever it is, true repentance requires turning from our sin and taking the necessary steps so that we don’t go back to it again. We will stay as far away from the old sources of temptation as we can. If we claim to be believers, but hold onto our old sinful practices, God’s power will be hindered in our lives.
Paul didn’t name his ministry after himself or put his name on the marquee in Ephesus to advertise his nightly healing services. With John the Baptist, Paul lived by the principle, “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30). Seeing God do these sorts of miracles through you (or through your sweatbands), could have been pretty heady stuff! But Paul never let it go to his head. His aim was always to exalt Jesus Christ. If God heals you or uses you to heal someone else, give God the glory!
Again, Paul could have decided that doing miracles drew bigger crowds than preaching the gospel and teaching God’s Word. But he did not. Rather, “the word of the Lord was growing mightily and prevailing” (19:20). Miracles do not always or even usually result in conversions (John 11; Acts 4:16-17). The idol-making silversmiths in Ephesus surely heard about these impressive miracles. But rather than getting saved, they got worried that Paul’s preaching was cutting into their profits, so they started a riot. Their greed was their god, and they didn’t want to give it up.
While sometimes God uses miracles to bring unbelievers to faith (Acts 13:6-12), that is not the general rule. The gospel is the power of God for salvation to all who believe (Rom. 1:16). God uses the foolishness of the preaching of the cross to save souls (1 Cor. 1:18). We should stay focused on God’s Word and the gospel, rather than get distracted by signs and wonders.
Can God heal miraculously today? Of course! Does He heal miraculously today? Sometimes, but not nearly as often as those in the Signs and Wonders movement claim. In my experience, miraculous healings and deliverances from demons are very rare. While God does at times heal supernaturally today, I believe that the gift of healing that we see here in Paul was limited to the apostles and their close associates. None of the so-called faith healers see anywhere near the kinds of results that the apostles saw. They all seem to get sick and die, some of them at relatively young ages!
If God chooses in His will to use us to heal someone through our prayers or to deliver someone from demonic power, we should be available for Him to do it. But to try to use such powers for our own purposes is to be lord of our lives. We must be people of integrity, who live in daily repentance and humility, who seek to magnify the name of Jesus, the Word of God, and the gospel. We must be subject to God’s will, which often includes suffering. Rather than trying to use God, we should let God use us!
Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2001, All Rights Reserved.
Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation