Facing Evil Spirits

Acts 19:8-29

Do you believe in evil spirits and demons? The NT certainly takes them seriously – Satan and his demons are ever present and constantly at work.

The ancient world was filled with superstition and sorcery and magic. Both religion and science were intertwined with a fervent belief in the supernatural and the mystical. Everyday life revolved around checking the stars and saying the right incantations and consulting with the mediums. Magicians and sorcerers were highly esteemed because it was believed that they were skilled in calling forth and manipulating these supernatural forces. There is a whole body of literature from the ancient world dealing with magical spells and recipes and formulas.

People believed that if you had the right formula and invoked the names of the right gods you could secure control over them and force them to do your bidding. And so great lists of gods and demons and deities were compiled, leaving out no deities whose names might be called upon to gain the desired results.

In the ancient world, no city had a greater reputation for magic than Ephesus. In fact, those books of magical spells and incantations were called the “Ephesia grammata” – the Ephesian letters. Ephesus was the hub of the supernatural world.

We also ought to be aware that the Jews enjoyed considerable notoriety as magicians in the ancient world – a fact represented even in several places in the NT. Among those Jews (and Christians) in the Mediterranean world there was this odd mixture of monotheism and superstitious mysticism – the worship of the most high God, but also a place allowed for these other lesser gods and demons. And you can imagine the tremendous confusion and doctrinal heresies that created among the believers.

The real stinger in all this is that I don’t read this passage in Acts 19 and think – boy, that sounds long ago and far away – we’re too sophisticated for things like that.

The truth is, that fascination with the occult and magic and sorcery is still going strong and gaining momentum every day. In fact, it’s not just a fascination anymore – it’s gone mainstream – it’s a multi-billion dollar industry.
• Pop culture has fallen in love with all things vampire, werewolves, sorcerers and magic. They are the best selling books, the highest grossing movies.
• The New Age movement is one of the fastest growing religions in the US. It is a combination of eastern religions, magic and occult, with just enough “Christian” language thrown in to make it appealing to average Americans – and people from all walks of life are jumping into it with enthusiasm and giving it an air of normalcy and respectability.
• And then there is the dark side of all this – occultism and Satanism and witchcraft – they aren’t just the stuff of horror movies and nightmares. If you want an eye-opener, just type Church of Satan into your search engine and find the more than 1.2 million entries devoted to the topic. Or the Church of Wicca and the 700,000 entries it brings up. And their most vulnerable prospects are our teens who are sucked into it through the influence of movies, music and drug culture. It is pervasive.
• Ephesus didn’t have anything over on us.

And you might be thinking – but those things aren’t real, and it’s just a load of superstition and fraud. It’s just a little harmless make-belief. But is it harmless? Not on your life. We can’t just dismiss Satan and demons and evil spirits as ancient superstition – Luke isn’t just accommodating an ignorant, unsophisticated world. The NT writers took these forces seriously, and I believe, so should we. Not that we begin looking for demon possession and hunting for witches and boycotting books and movies. But that we should take seriously the supernatural powers that are at work in the world around us, and not casually and carelessly leave ourselves open to their influence.

As Luke writes, he wants us to make no mistake about the powers involved in this supernatural struggle. He creates this stark contrast between the power of demons and the power of God. He contrasts the miraculous power worked by God through Paul with the self-proclaimed power of some ancient day “ghost-busters.”
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. Some Jews who went around driving out evil spirits tried to invoke the name of the Lord Jesus over those who were demon-possessed. They would say, “In the name of Jesus, whom Paul preaches, I command you to come out.” Seven sons of Sceva, a Jewish chief priest, were doing this. One day the evil spirit answered them, “Jesus I know, and I know about Paul, but who are you?” Then the man who had the evil spirit jumped on them and overpowered them all. He gave them such a beating that they ran out of the house naked and bleeding. Acts 19:11-16

Notice that this is not Paul conjuring up these magical powers, but – and Luke is very precise about how he words this – “God did extraordinary miracles through Paul.” Paul is the agent through which these miracles are worked, not the magician who extrapolates these powers from a deity.

And the contrast is then made with these seven sons of Sceva. Now, we can’t help but notice the element of humor here – “Jesus I know, Paul I know, but who are you?” – but this is deadly serious.
These evil spirits are nothing to be trifled with. While they are not the ultimate power, they are not powerless.

The ultimate power belongs to God. In fact, Paul makes this point over and over to Christians who are surrounded by this social fascination with spirits and the occult – or who live in fear that these powers will be too great and have influence over them that even God can’t match.
There is only one power:
• I pray also that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, and his incomparably great power for us who believe. That power is like the working of his mighty strength, which he exerted in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms, far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every title that can be given, not only in the present age but also in the one to come. Eph. 1:18-21
• See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the basic principles of this world rather than on Christ. For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form, and you have been given fullness in Christ, who is the head over every power and authority. Col. 2:8-10
• The power of God is not just another power to be added into a cast of deities. It is not just that he is more powerful than the others – his is the ultimate power of creation and judgment and salvation and punishment.
• That is why, in the book of Revelation, when the great battle of Armageddon is staged, it is never fought. The battle has already been won at the cross – Satan and his forces are swept up and cast into the lake of fire – the battle is over before it is begun.

When God’s power is revealed – when God’s power is set in contrast to the frail and futile attempts of men to harness magical powers – look at the results – let’s make sure we see what kind of outcome is possible – 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.

And today – I am convinced that the fascination with astrology and mysticism and sorcery and the occult is in large part because we have so watered down the power of God with our mediocre, un-extraordinary lives, that people hungering to experience something beyond themselves look to the peddlers of it – the modern day sons of Sceva.

But when we start displaying what God is capable of doing in peoples’ lives, there are going to be bonfires, as people start throwing these worthless, deceptive practices away to experience the true power of God.

The victory in Ephesus was not without consequences. We need to be aware that this isn’t just a matter of opposing philosophies – we are talking about a multi-billion dollar industry – and people resent it when you affect their pocketbooks. They did in Ephesus – they will today – About that time there arose a great disturbance about the Way. A silversmith named Demetrius, who made silver shrines of Artemis, brought in no little business for the craftsmen. He called them together, along with the workmen in related trades, and said: “Men, you know we receive a good income from this business. And you see and hear how this fellow Paul has convinced and led astray large numbers of people here in Ephesus and in practically the whole province of Asia. He says that man-made gods are no gods at all. There is danger not only that our trade will lose its good name, but also that the temple of the great goddess Artemis will be discredited, and the goddess herself, who is worshiped throughout the province of Asia and the world, will be robbed of her divine majesty.” When they heard this, they were furious and began shouting: “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!” Soon the whole city was in an uproar. Acts 19:23-29a – Satan doesn’t easily roll over and give up.

When Paul later wrote to the Ephesian church, he would describe it as a war with the principalities and powers – Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on the full armor 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. Eph. 6:10-12.

In Ephesus, there was no room for compromise – the battle lines had been drawn – the war was fought by Christians daily against these spiritual forces of evil. And I don’t believe the battle lines are any less distinct today. We cannot afford to ignore the spiritual battle being fought daily between the forces of evil and the army of God.

And that’s why I think it is to our spiritual peril when we flirt with the toys of evil and have a casual curiosity about these seemingly harmless things like astrology and horoscopes and psychic hotlines and occult movies. We need to be aware of the dangers of blatant Satanism as well as the more subtle seductions in the popular culture around us.

The danger is like that of any other addiction. It begins with a harmless flirtation and once it has its foothold, it takes over more and more of your life. Satan’s power is not something to be taken lightly. Peter’s words written 2000 years ago are just as relevant today – Be self-controlled and alert. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. Resist him, standing firm in the faith… 1 Peter 5:8-9a.

This is a war that is still being fought. And yet we walk around unaware of any conflict, oblivious to the battle and the eternal consequences. The cost is the souls of people around us – hungering to hear the powerful word of God – to hear the life giving message of the gospel – to see us living victorious lives at the foot of the cross on the spiritual battlefield. Instead they see us at ease, on the sidelines of the battle, unconcerned, uninvolved, unaware – and they hear the seductive voices of spiritual forces promising them things that only God can deliver.

As Paul thought back on the battle being fought in Ephesus, and the battle we fight even today – he penned these words – Therefore put on the full armor 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. Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the saints. Eph. 6:13-18.