“Paul, the Magicians, and the Holy Spirit”
Acts 19:1-20 “Paul, the Magicians, and the Holy Spirit”
Baptism of the Lord
Before reading: In the liturgical year, you may have already gathered with the Gospel reading and the title at the top of the bulletin that this is “Baptism of the Lord” Sunday. My, my, they grow up so fast don’t they! It was only less than three weeks ago we were celebrating the birth of Jesus. Paul encountered a problem about baptism in his ministry, when he came to Ephesus.
In today’s story from “The Acts of the Apostles,” I think we may learn something about our own baptisms and what baptism means for our Christian lives. There are three different scenes in twenty verses. I have added verses 8 through 20 to the lectionary reading for two reasons: first, because I find verses 11 through 20 intriguing; secondly, I think these verses help us understand what it means to be filled with the Holy Spirit as compared to some other spirit.
Listen to the Word of God from Acts 19:1-20.
1. Paul has a relationship with the Ephesians. He had visited Ephesus earlier, after teaching in Corinth for a year and six months. At that time he left to go to Antioch and then Jerusalem with the farewell: “I will return to you, if God wills.” (18:21b) While Paul was away, a Jew named Apollos who had been instructed in the Way, that is, in being a follower of Jesus, taught about Jesus. The problem was that Apollos only knew the baptism of John the Baptist. He received some remedial instruction from Priscilla and Aquila, who explained the way of God more accurately. (18:25-26) Apollos left Ephesus and went to Achaia. He continued to preach and refute the Jews by showing by the Hebrew Scriptures that the Messiah is Jesus. (18:27-28)
In our passage, Paul returned to Ephesus, the fourth largest city in the Roman Empire and the center of culture and religion in Asia Minor, to find the Ephesian Church not quite as he expected. (Walaskay, Westminster Bible Companion, 176) Something wasn’t quite right. Paul determined that the Holy Spirit was missing. How did Paul surmise that the Holy Spirit was absent?
2. Let’s start with a discussion of the two different baptisms. The Gospel of Mark is very straight forward about the two different baptisms. John the Baptist talked about the powerful one who was to come after him. John then said, “I have baptized you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” (1:8) There are two different baptisms: John’s one of repentance and Jesus’ one of Spirit.
3. The Scripture says, “Paul came to Ephesus, where he found some disciples.” These were probably disciples of Jesus no matter how inadequately their instruction in the Way had been. (265, Acts, Abingdon New Testament Commentary, Gaventa) These were disciples of Jesus who had not been properly baptized because they were taught and baptized by Apollos into a baptism of repentance only.
4. But how did Paul know these disciples in Ephesus were missing something? What prompted Paul to ask the question in 19:2:
“Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you were baptized?”
What did Paul see or hear? Were they lacking that loving spark in their eyes? Did they seem wearied by the weight of ministry, the constant, daily burden of being in a loving, kind community in a hateful, mean world? Was their faith anemic, not enough Holy Spirit coursing through their life to carry the Breathe of life, the very Ruach of God, through the body of Christ?
If you ever saw the movie O Brother, Where Art Thou? from a number of years ago, then you may remember Delmar. Delmar was as rascally a criminal on the chain gang as they come. Delmar broke out of prison with two others. While running away as fast as he could, he encountered by happenstance a group of people being baptized to the song, “Down in the River to Pray” at the riverside,
“As I went down in the river to pray studying about that good ol’ way and who shall wear the starry crown Good Lord, show me the way.
O sisters, let’s go down, let’s go down, come on down; O sisters, let’s go down, down to the river to pray. (The song goes through brothers, fathers, mothers and then hits everybody)
O sinners, let’s go down, let’s go down, come on down. O sinners, let’s go down, down in the river to pray.
As I went down in the river to pray studying about the good ol’ way and who shall wear the robe and crown, Good Lord, show me the way.” (from lyrics.com, Alison Krauss)
In a good Calvinistic way, irresistible grace drew him down to the river and to his baptism. After his baptism, Delmar was a changed man. The other escaped convicts knew Delmar was a different man than the convict they knew.
I think Paul did not see any difference between the pagan Ephesian and the Christian Ephesian. Paul saw that the Ephesian Church lacked life. If they were alive with the Holy Spirit, then their worship would be full of life. (Texts for Preaching – Year B, 102) Now, don’t get me wrong, I do not mean a lively spirit produced with either a rock ‘n roll or folksy music, or with emotional hand raising and ringing “Amen’s,” or stirring testimonials, prophetic tongues and eloquent sermons. I am talking about a lively spirit created by the work of the Holy Spirit in worship:
a desire to give praise and glory to God, a heart focused on singing for an audience of One, a time of silence in awe in the presence of the Almighty Creator, gratitude for the gift of love we know in Jesus’s birth, life, death, resurrection, and ascension. A worshipper can feel the life of the Spirit in the worshipping body of Christ in the still silence as well as the soaring song or the stirring sermon.
That’s the Spirit that Paul did not sense in the Ephesian Church. Paul sensed that there was a defect in the knowledge of the Way in Ephesus. (Bruce, New International Critical Commentary of the New Testament, 363) The missing knowledge of the Ephesian Church was that they were not baptized into Jesus, the Giver of the Holy Spirit. The Ephesus Church was suffering from spiritual anemia. God breathed life into the Church through their baptism in the name of the Lord Jesus. Immediate evidence of the efficacy of their baptism and receiving the Holy Spirit was their speaking in tongues and prophesying. Thus, these twelve disciples in the Ephesus Church spoke and lived now by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.
5. We can also see the Holy Spirit’s working in the life of the Apostle Paul. God worked miracles though inanimate objects that had touched Paul’s skin. Handkerchiefs and aprons that had touched Paul’s skin, when touched by the sick or possessed, healed them. (Acts 19:11-12) There was no doubt about Paul being filled with the Holy Spirit. The problem came when some itinerant Jewish exorcists tried to use the name of the Lord Jesus to cast out evil spirits. The resolution comes when this band of traveling Jewish exorcists tried to us the magical incantation, “I adjure you by the Jesus whom Paul proclaims.” The evil spirit, knowing these seven sons of Sceva had no authority over them, said, “Jesus I know, and Paul I know; but who are you?” The evil spirit knew the ones who had authority over them, both Jesus and Paul. The man with the evil spirit jumped on them, mastered all seven of them, beat, and stripped them. If the seven Jewish sons had been baptized into Jesus, then they would have received the Holy Spirit and the man with the evil spirit would have known them, too. But, as it is, the seven sons of Sceva fled the man’s house wounded and naked physically and spiritually. The basis of a relationship with God is receiving the Holy Spirit given through the baptism of the Lord Jesus, not John.
6. The reaction of the residents of Ephesus, both Jews and Greeks, was awe and praise of the name of the Lord Jesus. People became believers and confessed and disclosed their practices. Eugene Peterson’s version The Message in contemporary language translates verses 18 and 19 like this: “Many of those who thus believed came out of the closet and made a clean break with their secret sorceries. All kinds of witches and warlocks came out of the woodwork with their books of spells and incantations and made a huge bonfire of them.”
During this awful time of global pandemic, I find it interesting that a couple of the TV shows we have watched are about witches, magical creatures, sorcerers, and wizards. We found “Merlin” first, the story of King Arthur’s wizard. Then, we have also watched the latest seasons of “Sabrina.” If you like fantasy shows and getting away from reality with a very creative, engaging story line about good and evil, check both of these TV shows out. If only, some good sorcery could get us out of where we are today with respect to Covid-19 and the torn fabric of our world. But we know that is only creative fantasy. Though there is a magical feel to the extraordinary miracles that Jesus and Paul did and the life of faith, our faith in Jesus Christ is so much more than magic. Our only true hope is to trust in God first, to observe the CDC protocols next, and then to receive the vaccine.
The power and the witness of the word of God for the Lord Jesus in Ephesus is shown in the last verse of the passage: “So the word of the Lord grew mightily and prevailed.” (19:20) May the Word of God we know in Jesus Christ grow mightily and prevail within our church and community.
Conclusion: To be a Christian, a follower of Jesus, a person must be filled with the Spirit of Jesus, the very Holy Spirit, God God’s self. If there is no Holy Spirit in the life of a person or the Church, there is no life in either. Where there is the Holy Spirit, there is life: faithful, thoughtful worship of God with heart; diligent, desired study of the Scripture individually and in groups; necessary conversational prayer and meditation; just, compassionate service of the oppressed, poor, sick, sojourner, and marginalized.
We have been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. We have received the Holy Spirit.
My hope is that when the One greater than John the Baptist and the Apostle Paul comes, He will not have to ask us, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you were baptized?” Let the presence of the Holy Spirit be seen in your life and the life of Pineda Presbyterian Church. Be passionately filled with the Holy Spirit and thus life abundant, bearing the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Then, there will be no doubt that we are faithful, fruitful disciples of Jesus.