ONE OF THE MOST peculiar passages in the New Testament is an incident in the book of Acts where Paul's handkerchiefs were taken to people who were sick and their illnesses were cured (Acts 19:12).
Is this how God works? I hadn't thought so; but there it is in the heart of the Christian scripture. This could be the Next Big Thing to make the evangelical circuit and this one has a marketing and merchandising opportunity built right into it.
TWO THINGS RIGHT THERE in Acts prevent our going too far with this new form of "normal Christian ministry". As is often the case, balance is restored not primarily by dwelling more deeply on the short passage in question but rather by reading it in its larger context. Luke (the author of Acts) probably provides the very next story as a sort of antidote.
This too has a very peculiar plot-line, more suitable as a black and white 1920s film comedy script than a part of scripture, perhaps. Seven sons of Sceva, Jewish magicians, begin using the same techniques that the Christians used, even calling on the name of Jesus, the one who Paul preaches about. There's power in that name, they've heard it said. But the demon that they are trying to cast out in this name still has the upper hand.
"We've heard of Jesus and Paul," Satan's minion quips, "but who the hell are you?" (Demons are allowed to talk like that.) And then one demon-possessed man manages to thrash all seven faith-healers at once.
It's pretty clear what this second story is about: Christianity is not primarily a magical technique for manipulating spiritual realities. If your goal is spiritual mastery and if you think technique is the way to go, then whatever healings and exorcisms you've heard about, Christianity is not the vehicle you want. Don't get the wrong idea from this handkerchiefs business, Luke is saying. What we have in Christ is not a magical technique.
And the folks in Ephesus, where both these stories took place, might have been tempted to think that way. This is the second feature of the larger context that helps us understand the handkerchiefs.
Ephesus is full of magic. It is in Ephesus that the new Christians burn their magic books and scrolls (Acts 19:19). Ephesians ate, drank and breathed magic the way that the Athenians ate, drank and breathed philosophical argument. When Paul went to Athens, he performed no healings or exorcisms, he argued in the marketplace and on the Areopagus.
NOW WE CAN SEE what's going on. When Christianity meets Ephesus, magical-looking things happen, not because the miraculous is the hallmark of Christianity, but because magic is the language of the Ephesians. God is always willing to speak in ways that a culture understands in order to bring them further along.
In Athens, the Christians must reason; in Ephesus, they do works of power. And here's another clue: the author of Acts, describing the handkerchief event, calls it an extraoridinary miracle. Like there are different classes of miracles: extraordinary ones and common ordinary every-day miracles. And maybe there are.
In Ephesus, ministry starts with miracles; in Athens, it starts with discussion. What is an appropriate witness for Cambridge? What for Green Bay, Wisconsin? What for Nashville, Tennessee? What for Hollywood? What for your town? God starts where people are in order to take them further. Time for some extraordinary acts in whatever genre.
Dr Conrad Gempf is a lecturer in New Testament at London Bible College. He also writes for and edits the monthly webzine there.
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