The first half of chapter 19 looks at first sight to be a series of unrelated events – this shouldn’t be surprising, as the book of Acts is a genuine historical record, and sometimes in people’s lives a series of events happen that are important enough to remember, but don’t seem to have much connection to each other (as they probably would if the tale was fictionalised). However, in praying about this, I felt there was actually a theme that can be drawn through these events that tells us something important for today.
“God did extraordinary miracles through Paul” v11.
Indeed, some of the descriptions of Paul being able to heal people with handkerchiefs (v12) seem far outside of our current experience of Christianity as to seem incredible. We might ask ourselves why was Paul chosen for this, and how might Christians today be able to access this power?
I believe that the bible is the living word of God, and each passage is constructed in a way that contains multiple layers of meaning. I believe one of the things this passage is pointing towards is showing how Paul followed a pathway that allowed him to access the power and authority of the Holy Spirit.
Verses 1-7 describe a meeting with some people who were disciples of John the Baptist. The bible tells us two things about this group. Firstly, that they had been baptised in a baptism of repentance (they were committed to holiness and right living) and that they were disciples (they would have studied the scripture and tried to follow where it led). These are the only two things the bible tells us about this group, until it records that they received the baptism of the Holy Spirit, and met with God’s power. I believe that this passage is pointing to the preparation that all believers should do if they want to experience more of the Spirit – how many western Christians today want more of the Spirit, but are not willing to put in the hard work of holiness, repentance and submission to the dictates of scripture?
However, another meeting with a different group of Jewish disciples points to another step on the pathway to knowing more of the Spirit’s power.
In verses 13-20, we meet a group of Jewish exorcists. These would have been holy, righteous men, who would have known the scriptures, and who must have had at least some spiritual power: people don’t make a living as exorcists if they aren’t able to at least occasionally cast out demons. However, we hear in the story that they used the name of Jesus as an incantation; they treated the power of the Spirit as a “head knowledge” thing, a thing that they had mastery over and could control and use. They may have known about God, but they did not know God, and as the demon correctly surmised, God (and the wider spiritual world) did not know them.
There are some in the church today (maybe including the chap writing this blog post) who have learnt the lesson from the first group Paul met – they are disciples of the word, who are called to repentance. However, in their thirst for knowledge of God, they glory in intellectual understanding rather than outworked experience, just like the Jewish exorcists.
Paul however, had successfully navigated the pathway towards knowing the true power and authority of the Spirit. He was committed to holiness, and esteemed and valued knowledge, but he never relied on it, or let it get in the way of where the spirit was leading him. He was a man who was so given over to God that even the demon in v15 knew him by name.
That would be my prayer for the church, that we would know so much of the power and authority of the Holy Spirit, that even the powers of Hell will know us and shudder.