4/26 Devotion

Magic and Money

Every year in May droves of people would descend upon the bustling city of Ephesus.  A port city on the western shore of Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey), Ephesus was a hub for trading and home to one of the 7 wonders of the ancient world. The famous Temple of Artemis, over 400 feet long and surrounded and supported on all sides by 60-foot pillars of pure marble. Ephesus was a major tourist destination for its day. People took pilgrimages from all corners of the Roman Empire to worship at the Temple of Artemis. Most of them left with a silver statue of the goddess, as a souvenir or keepsake. The economy of the city was built on polytheism.  Then something strange happened.

            This radical sect of Judaism calling itself “The Way” entered the region, and people started to spend money differently. They started to rearrange their priorities. The more this “Way” caught on the more people started to abandon the things they always did before. Unexplainable things started happening, evil spirits and illness were driven out of people by touching sweaty handkerchiefs and aprons! Incredible things started happening when people said, “In the name of Jesus whom Paul proclaims”. But then something strange happened again.

            The sons of this Jewish big wig tried to drive out spirits by saying the magic words, but it didn’t work! The evil spirit attacked them and drove them out of the house naked! When the news spread many people praised Jesus, but others panicked. People started burning their books of magic in public. They stopped supporting the temples of the gods. No one bought books of magic. No one bought idols or statues from the temple. People started to lose money! So, they rioted!

            Beloved, this is our story for today out of Acts 19. In our second week on Paul’s time in Ephesus, today we will dissect a story of the spread of Christianity interrupting the economy of the places it spreads to. We will look at the original context and how The Way impacted Ephesus. Also, we will ask some questions of ourselves, of our money spending habits and of our “magic words”. Take a few minutes to read the story out of your bible Acts 19:11-41.

            In the first part of our passage (V. 11-20) we see that God is working so powerfully through Paul that people could wipe Paul’s sweat off on a rag and heal sick or possessed people with that rag! This is utterly amazing, God working in ways that far beyond our ability to comprehend. It is in this mystery that the flawed thinking of “magic words” happens. People see something they can’t fully wrap their minds around, so they grasp for an explanation.  We see a group of seven brothers try to use what they saw as magic words to drive out evil spirits. But the name of Jesus does not work miracles simply through it’s being uttered. The brothers missed the point that Paul wasn’t wielding magic or power, he was being used as a vessel for God to work miracles, for His glory!

             As the text tells us the magic words did not work, the spirit replied they knew the name of Jesus and Paul but who were they to call on their names? The spirit attacked them and drove them out of the house. Luke adding, they fled naked. Some would argue that the brothers weren’t trying magic words since they were Jewish, but this is not supported by the text. There were two responses to this occurrence. Firstly, people rightly worshipped God and gave glory to the name of Jesus. Secondly, people who practiced magic burned their books. This is because they saw the futility of magic words in comparison to Christ. They did not want to try a “spell” and be attacked by spirits.  It is also important to point out that the brothers were trying to use the name of Jesus to gain notoriety or fame for themselves where Paul always uses it to refer acclaim and praise back to God.

            Ephesus was an urban melting pot and supporter of polytheism (Much like America). This led to some confusion and blurring of lines. The sons of Jewish elite testing magic words are no different than the large portion of American Christians who believe in Karma. A wrong belief should not always be condemned but often simply corrected and explained more fully.  A chief historical example of this is the origin of the famous magic words “Hocus Pocus”. The term comes out of a mispronunciation of the Latin phrase hoc est corpus meum which means “this is my body”.  The laypeople in the medieval church didn’t speak Latin and yet all the services were entirely in Latin. This led to many well-intentioned misunderstandings, including thinking that what turned the bread into the body of Christ at the communion table was the phrase Hocus Pocus.  Therefore, the phrase must be special and holy somehow.

SMALL GROUP QUESTION: Can you think of something spiritual/biblical that you used to think was correct by now do not because you have a better understanding?

This was just the first disruption of the status quo in Ephesus due to the spreading of Christianity. Our passage goes on to tells us that the word of the Lord spread and grew in power. Due to this in verse 23 “there was a great disturbance.” We know the impact that Christianity had on the region was dramatic because Roman historical records show that the Roman governor Pliny the Younger wrote a letter to the Emperor. In it, he reports that the temples had been “almost entirely deserted for a long time” and also that “scarcely anyone could be found to buy” sacrificial elements. The great disturbance comes when a man named Demetrius rallies his fellow silversmiths to voice a complaint that Paul and the followers of The Way are costing them their livelihood. They made their income off people buying silver idols at the temple of Artemis.

He stirs up a crowd by saying Paul is misleading people all over the province and is threatening their way of life. The good name of the idol-making profession is at risk, and so too is the good name of the Temple of Artemis. This is not the first time Luke brings us an account like this in Acts. In Acts 16 Paul drives the evil spirit out of a slave girl, but when her owners see their loss revenue they are furious.

When her owners realized that their hope of making money was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the marketplace to face the authorities. They brought them before the magistrates and said, “These men are Jews, and are throwing our city into an uproar by advocating customs unlawful for us Romans to accept or practice.” Acts 16:19-21

The men in Acts 16 accused Paul of unlawful customs, the men in Acts 19 of robbing divine majesty. The underlying issue was the damage to their earning potential. Demetrius is angry because he is losing money and insists worshipping Artemis is essential to their culture.

SMALL GROUP QUESTIONS: What “gods” are essential to the culture of America? How much do you value money? PLEASE pray and think about your answer before giving it. Many of us value and desire money more than we are willing to admit and more then we realize at first glance.

            After 2 hours of the crowd chanting “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians” the Jewish population push one of their own, Alexander out in front of the crowd. “The Jews in the crowd pushed Alexander to the front, and they shouted instructions to him. He motioned for silence in order to make a defense before the people.Acts 19:33. The crowd is not silenced and chant over him after realizing he is Jewish. This is because of the type of motion he made, which is important to understand. He was not merely trying to calm them down and resolve the issue, the verse says he motioned for silence in order to make a defense. This means that he signaled, many believe by certain hand gestures, that he would be defending Paul and the followers of The Way if given the floor.

Like many of us, when we feel wronged, the last thing we want to hear is why the person who wronged us is right. The crowd denied him the silence to speak his peace, but the gesture itself shows the impact that Jesus and his followers had made on the Jewish community in Ephesus. They lived in Ephesus and would be impacted negatively by the economic recession. But they recognized the good The Way was doing in the region, despite the finical impact.

The passage ends with the clerk silencing and admonishing the crowd. He points out that Paul never robbed the temple or preached collapsing the economy. So they must share their grievances with the courts. He tells the crowd they are in danger of being charged with rioting, and if they were they would be guilty, for no reason could be found for the commotion. Our passage ends with a striking comparison of two groups. The Ephesians assembly, angry and causing an uproar, and the ekklesia or church having no part in the commotion. Paul, upon advisement never addressed the crowd or stirred them up in any way. Paul never preached toppling the economy of the region. He declared Jesus as Lord and let the consequences of that truth play out. The riot was not caused by Jesus or Paul but by the power grab of a polytheistic culture.

Beloved, I leave you with this takeaway, our so what moment for the week. Paul preached the Lordship of Jesus and amazing things started to happen. People were healed, people burned their magic books, they reprioritized their lives. Then the region went into recession and chaos. Just as Jesus did not come as a military leader conquering the Romans through force and violence, He also did not wield power and crush the pagan economy. This is not a story of Jesus bringing chaos on the Ephesians. It is a story of Jesus as Lord, reigning, and leading people into a new life. So evidently impactful that even the Jewish community saw its benefit despite the financial instability that followed. The chaos and the riot were the doing of the polytheistic culture, who saw their neighbors freely choose to stop participating in the economic system. Jesus as Lord does not mean wielding power, but rather leading us in speaking truth and love in such a manner that we are found not at fault for the crumbling of the fallen world around us; but as the calming presence in the midst of it.

SMALL GROUP QUESTION: Does God use force to advance the Gospel? Why or Why not?

Reflection Song - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G-g4uwQlXKw - Your Love is Strong by Jon Foreman