The Deadliness Of Pragmatism In the Church
Topic: Seeker Sensitive Passage: Acts 19:11–19:20
God is sovereign and all-powerful to perform miracles in whatever way He may choose. Human beings may try to manipulate unseen spiritual forces, but this desire to be in control is in opposition to God’s sovereignty. In this passage, we see believers who are in process, growing, repenting, and being freed from practices like magical manipulations of the spirit world. But sadly, there are so many false teachers who proclaim that miracles like we see here ought to be normal. This teaching is steeped in man-centered sovereignty. The main lesson for us: get rid of any desire to control the unseen and the seen through magical sayings, and instead submit to the sovereign lordship of King Jesus.
The church is built on the foundation of the apostles (Eph. 2:20), and Jesus sent them out with confirming healings, signs, and wonders. These miracles in Ephesus were extra-ordinary (Acts 19:11), even for Paul. The purpose of these signs and wonders was to confirm the message of the apostles’ eyewitness testimony to the resurrection of Jesus (Cf. Heb. 2:3-4). Luke contrasts God’s confirmation of the gospel message through Paul’s miracles with the money-making fakes (the Jewish exorcists). That showdown brings the fear of God and further sanctification upon repentant Christians, who divulged their secret practices. The miracles mentioned in verse 11 are the first mention of miracles since Paul was at Philippi (Acts 16:16-18). This doesn’t mean there were no miracles since then, and in fact, we know that there were miracles (Cf. 2 Cor. 12:12). Notice in verse 11 that it wasn’t Paul who was noted as doing the miracles, but God who was doing them. The handkerchiefs and aprons that were used in the healings (Acts 19:12) were likely what Paul was using while he was working as a tentmaker.
Paul had a calling. He was not about building a following, but pointing people to Jesus. The end result is seen in Acts 11:20 - “So the word of the Lord continued to increase and prevail mightily.” This is so different than the deceptions of so many today, who in the name of Jesus promise healings and miracles because of a special anointing or through confessions and incantations.
The Jewish exorcists in verse 13 (Acts 19:13) traveled from town to town and made a living by driving out demonic spirits with spells and mantras. They claimed to be sons of Sceva (Acts 19:14), a Jewish high priest. But this could not have been true because we have the records of all the high priests’ names. Exorcism ceremonies in the first century had a lot to do with the right kinds of formulas and sayings to free people from evil spirits. That’s why Jesus’ ministry was shocking to the Jews (Cf. Luke 4:35). These Jewish exorcists thought they could use the name of Jesus to add to their many sayings and incantations. But it backfired on them (Acts 19:15-16). Instead, they were publicly humiliated, and the name of Jesus was extolled (Acts 19:17). This was bad news for their business. And this is bad news for religious master manipulators in our day who take advantage of people who are sick and hurting. Any teacher who makes God out to be a genie meant to do the bidding of man is in serious error. Paul was nothing like the seven sons of Sceva. He was not a pragmatist who thought the only goal was to draw crowds. Paul knew that God could do miracles, but that they wouldn’t save a soul. Only the gospel saves.
Finally, we see that the goal that God had for these miracles and the humiliation of the false exorcists was to bring fear upon the city and praise to the Lord Jesus. We see that these Christians had the grace of God poured out on them in the form of an appropriate fear of God that led them to repentance (Acts 19:18). Someone may object, can Christians really be caught up in occultic, magical mantras to manipulate the world around them? Obviously, yes (e.g. the word of faith movement). Here in this passage, the books that were burned (Acts 19:19) were worth at least five million dollars in our day’s money.
The church is always in danger of falling into the same pragmatism that the sons of Sceva lived by. Pragmatic wisdom tempts us to tone down the difficult parts of the gospel, only emphasize the feel-good parts, and keep sermons short and theologically shallow. But we must hold to Paul’s solemn charge in 2 Tim. 3:16-4:3 - to preach the Word.
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