The city of Ephesus was one of the most prominent cities in the Roman Empire. It had long been a center of commerce and industry. Its architectural centerpiece was the Temple to Artemis, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. It had over 100 columns which encased a massive statue of the goddess. There was gold overlay everywhere and magical incantations had been carved into the glistening marble of her crown, girdle and feet. These became known as “The Ephesian Scripts” earning Ephesus the reputation as a center for the occult. The magical gibberish was believed to have great power.
Paul’s ministry in Ephesus took place during his second mission trip. He stayed there for almost three years. As was his usual practice, Paul began teaching in the synagogue first but when opposition to his teaching arose, he moved into the Hall of Tyrannus (Ac. 19: 8-10). Little is known about Tyrannus, but “halls” like this would have been vacant during the heat of the day (11 AM to 4 PM) and a convenient location for Paul who continued to run his tent-making business while in Ephesus (the terms used in v. 12 are items that were used by craftsmen to wipe off sweat). In contrast to the power displayed by those practicing magic, Paul’s ministry was empowered by the Holy Spirit, a fact attested to by miracles.
These miracles were so impressive that an interesting event occurs when some “Jewish exorcists” invoke the name of Jesus in order to cast out a powerful demon (Ac. 19: 13-16). This may sound confusing to us because we do not normally associate exorcism with Judaism. But John B. Polhill noted, “In the Greco-Roman world, Jewish exorcists were held in high esteem for the venerability of their religion and the strangeness of their Hebrew incantations. Magicians and charlatans were omnipresent in the culture, offering various cures and blessings by their spells and incantations, all for a financial contribution of course. The more exotic the incantation, the more effective it was deemed to be”. The exorcists in this case were supposedly of priestly lineage, so they should have been successful, but they failed miserably. While we don’t see it in the English, the Greek is filled with humor summed up by the demon’s declaration, “I know Jesus. I know about Paul. But who are you?” (v.15).
Although Paul’s ministry had a negative impact on the sons of Sceva, it had a far more positive impact on those who came to believe in Jesus under his teaching. No one comes to Jesus without some sort of baggage as we might say. We all come carrying something from our past that we must learn to let go of. The Ephesian believers were no different. Since they came from a culture filled with magic it is no surprise that there were still some “magic” leftovers in their lives. The utter humiliation of the seven exorcists compelled these Christians to make a full and final break from the influences of their past (vv. 17-20). Perhaps they had held onto these books because they were of great value in the ancient world, but the believers recognized that getting rid of them was worth it (It’s been estimated the cost of what they burned was about $35,000 today.).
Faith can be viewed as a growing process. Hanging on to the past only hinders that growth. Paul told the Ephesians that they were a work in progress (Eph. 2:10). And so are we! As one of the Lord’s construction projects we are to lay aside the old self, renew our mind and put on the new self (Eph. 4:22-24). Instead of living as we used to, we are to now imitate God, walk in love and offer ourselves to Him (Eph. 5:1-2). Most importantly we are not to take part in our former darkness but to live as children of Light (Eph. 5:7-9). Be careful how you walk Paul warns because it is easy to slip back into old habits and succumb to your former way of living (Eph. 5:15). Paul exhorts us to stay strong and stand firm by putting on the armor of God (Eph. 6:10-17). Take your cue from the Ephesian believers. You may not need to build a bonfire with your books, but what is the Lord asking you to place before him and to turn away from. That is your challenge today.
Ann H. LeFevre, M. Div.
Week of 7/2/2017