The Gospel and the Occult

Rev. David Bast Uncategorized

READ : Acts 19:11-20

At a time when there are increasing signs of occult interest and activity in modern society, let’s turn to a city in ancient Asia Minor where we learn how Christians ought to respond to such things.

Ephesus was the most important city in all of Asia Minor, and Paul invested a great deal of time and effort to see the Christian church established there. Paul stayed in Ephesus nearly three years; as far as we know, a longer period than he worked in any other place. He followed his usual custom when he arrived in the city, going first to the local synagogue where he preached and taught the gospel to the Jews and gentiles who regularly worshiped God there. Paul apparently had a great impact upon the congregation, and was very persuasive in his testimony about Jesus the Messiah. But after three months’ opposition in the synagogue to “the Way,” as the Christian faith was known in Ephesus, made the situation too difficult for him to continue there.

So Luke reports that Paul left the Jewish synagogue and rented space in a lecture hall belonging to a man called Tyrannus. This was a school with an auditorium where teachers of rhetoric and philosophy would give lectures in early morning. By about 11 a.m. all business shut down and people relaxed during the hottest hours of the day, as they still do throughout the Mediterranean world. Paul too probably worked during the morning, supporting himself with his job as a tent-maker. But he used the siesta time in the afternoon for his most important business: preaching and teaching the gospel. This continued, Luke tells us, with great success. Not only Ephesus itself, but the whole surrounding territory was evangelized. Many responded, and churches began in other cities in the province. The entire region eventually became a leading center of Christianity for centuries afterward.

SIGNS AND WONDERS

An important feature of Paul’s ministry in Ephesus is that it was accompanied by a tremendous display of divine power. Luke writes that “God did extraordinary miracles through Paul, so that even handkerchiefs and aprons that had touched him were taken to the sick, and their illnesses were cured and the evil spirits left them” (v. 11). Ephesus was a superstition-ridden place, a hotbed of black magic and demonic activity. The city had a widespread reputation for sorcery and occult practices, and it was most famous for its temple to the Greek goddess Artemis, the ancient moon goddess who was sometimes identified as “the Queen of Heaven.” In this environment the miracles God worked through Paul made a tremendous impact. The superstitious Ephesians no doubt thought the power resided in Paul’s person, not in his God, and so they took pieces of cloth – rags that had touched Paul as he worked in his tent-shop, headbands and aprons – and used them to cure the sick. Amazingly, God permitted this practice to heal and deliver many.

What can we say about Paul’s ministry of preaching the gospel in Ephesus, and the miraculous signs and wonders that accompanied it? The first and most obvious thing to say is that this was a wonderful demonstration of God’s power to save people from sin, and also to deliver them from the kingdom of darkness and the blighting effects of evil upon their lives. This was not magic; it was supernatural, divine intervention to set suffering people free from disease and from bondage to evil. The Ephesians may have acted superstitiously, but God honored the faith in Christ to which their actions bore witness.

But Luke suggests there was something unusual – even unique – about the miracles God worked through Paul in Ephesus, for he uses the adjective “extraordinary” to describe them. So the second point to observe is that this type of activity was not typical, even for the apostle. Nothing quite like this happened anywhere else in Paul’s career as a missionary-evangelist. The implication is that these were extraordinary measures which the Lord undertook to confirm the truth of the gospel in the face of unusual spiritual opposition. To establish the Christian faith in Ephesus demanded special measures. The miraculous way God worked there through the apostle Paul seems to have been specifically designed for that time and place. It would therefore be a mistake to think that we could imitate Paul by trying to heal people with pieces of cloth or trinkets that we have “blessed.” In fact, any attempt to mimic the power of God is fraught with danger, as the next incident in Paul’s ministry shows.

POWER ENCOUNTERS

Paul’s amazing activity soon attracted the attention of others – would-be wonder workers who were determined to gain for themselves some of what they thought of as Paul’s power. The ancient world was teeming with a multitude of sorcerers, wizards, magicians and exorcists. In some cases Jews were especially prominent as magicians. Such activity was strictly forbidden in the Old Testament law, but there were always those who were willing to ignore God’s commandments in order to make money. (Some things never change!) To the average citizen of Greece or Rome, the Jews were a mysterious and secretive people. They kept to themselves. Most significantly, they worshiped a God whose name they would not pronounce, and who could not be represented by any image. Ancient people believed there was great power in knowing a secret word or name. It was widely thought that the Jews possessed ancient secret spells, dating all the way back to King Solomon.

So Jewish exorcists and magicians were popular in Ephesus. Seven of them, all sons of a man named Sceva, tried to copy Paul by driving a demon from a man by using the name of Jesus. “In the name of this Jesus – the one Paul talks about – we command you. . . .” But the evil spirit wasn’t impressed. “I know Jesus, and I know Paul,” it replied -and no doubt it feared them both greatly – “but who are you?” Then the man who was under the evil spirit’s control beat these would-be exorcists all bloody. I can’t help but think that Luke included this as a partly comic story. It is funny; just try to imagine the look on those men’s faces when their “magic formula” backfired so disastrously and they had to flee naked and bleeding.

But there is nothing funny about demonism, magic or the occult. Nor was the sequel to this humorous incident anything to laugh about. It had a very dramatic and serious impact on the entire city. Luke relates how great fear came upon the citizens of Ephesus, and “the name of the Lord Jesus was held in high honor.” People realized that this was not a name to be trifled with. People learned the name of Jesus could not be manipulated or used for selfish ends, nor could it be invoked in a mechanical way as if it were magic. The power was not in the name, considered as a collection of letters or a set of syllables. The power was in the person of Jesus Christ, the Lord of heaven and earth. The power of Christ can only be experienced in knowing the person of Christ, by believing and trusting in him, and receiving his Spirit as you put your faith in him.

Many in Ephesus came to understand this truth for themselves, and as they did so they demonstrated their new understanding with a dramatic act of repentance.

When this became known to the Jews and Greeks living in Ephesus, they were all seized with fear, and the name of the Lord Jesus was held in high honor. Many of those who believed now came and openly confessed their evil deeds. A number who had practiced sorcery brought their scrolls together and burned them publicly. When they calculated the value of the scrolls, the total came to fifty thousand drachmas. In this way the word of the Lord spread widely and grew in power.

Acts 19:17-20, niv

Those Ephesians who had been involved in sorcery brought their magic books, charms, spells, amulets and the like, and publicly burned them as a symbol of their conversion to Christ. They thereby showed their resolve to live in a new way, to turn from darkness to the light. The Ephesians’ repentance was costly; Luke reports the value of the occult materials they publicly burned was 50,000 drachmas, a sum equivalent to between four and eight million dollars today!

CONCLUSIONS

For centuries the light of the gospel and the power of faith in Jesus Christ have kept the forces of darkness at bay throughout western society. But now, as the fires of faith seem to be flickering and dying in Christendom, those long-forgotten powers of evil are drawing close once more, like a ring of wild beasts creeping in towards sleeping travelers as their campfire dies down. All around us the evil eyes are moving closer in the dark. Everywhere we observe the revival of ancient pagan beliefs and practices, things we might well have believed were discredited forever. Reincarnation, the occult, astrology, witchcraft, goddess and earth worship, even demonism – these are evident once more, not just in Africa or Asia, but in Great Britain, Canada, and the United States.

What are we to think about such things? Some conclusions may be drawn from the experiences of Paul in Ephesus.

First, the Bible clearly warns us of the reality of these forces of darkness. These unseen evil powers are not just myths, or the creation of the imaginations of primitive writers and story tellers. As Paul wrote a few years later to the church in Ephesus, “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.” (Ephesians 6:12) The unseen world is real, though we sense little of it, and understand even less. But that is where the ultimate battle between good and evil, between light and darkness, is being fought. As participants in that battle we must, as Paul urges, “put on the whole armor of God,” that is, accept Christ’s salvation, put our faith in God, live righteously, pray continually, study, learn and memorize God’s word. Then we need not fear the evil powers.

Second, as Christians we must be careful to have nothing to do with any kind of occult activity. The Bible is very clear on this point. For example, Deuteronomy 18:10-13 says this:

Let no one be found among you who . . . practices . . . sorcery, interprets omens, engages in witchcraft, or casts spells, or who is a medium or spiritist . . . Anyone who does these things is detestable to the Lord . . . You must be blameless before the Lord your God.

Remember the Ephesians who, when they came to Christ, cast all their magic paraphernalia onto a pile and made a bonfire of it. The powers of darkness use many devices to gain access to our minds, not just occult practices like horoscopes or fortune telling or new age mysticism, but things like racist propaganda, hate literature, pornography. Are there some secret things in your life that you should burn?

Third, we must not become obsessed with the demonic. Some Christians seem to see a demon behind every bush – or bad habit. C. S. Lewis’s wise reminder of a generation ago is still appropriate. The two opposite errors we must avoid with respect to the devil are disbelieving in his existence on the one hand, or paying too much attention to him on the other. Not every supposed supernatural event is real; many have natural or psychological causes. Not every practitioner of the black arts is to be taken seriously; most are simple frauds and fakes, and should be scorned. (Think of the sons of Sceva.)

Finally, the most important thing of all to remember is that on the cross Christ has defeated all the powers of darkness and forces of evil. “Having disarmed the powers and authorities,” Paul wrote to the church in Colossae – neighbors to the Ephesians – “he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.” (Colossians 2:15)

If you belong to Jesus Christ, you need not fear any power or force in heaven or earth or under the earth. Your Captain is mightier than all. He has taken away their power to destroy you, and you are safe in his care.