The Real Deal – Acts 19:1-20

by Roger McCay
20 September 2020
Sermon Passage: Acts 19:1-20
Link to Audio Version

Have you ever noticed how some life lessons have to be learned the hard way? For example, playing with fire. Parents tell their kids not to play with fire; they’ll get burned. Yet, inevitably, in fascination with fire, kids play with fire and get burned. Fiery pain is a hard way to learn a lesson. But, after that, kids will usually be more careful (except for those particularly hard-headed ones—and I’m sure you know the type). Most kids, though, will think, “Mom and Dad were right, I don’t want to do that again.” Too bad they didn’t trust their parents in the first place, respecting them and their word. It would have saved them some unnecessary pain.

But people are like that. Adults are not much different. It’s a maxim that the best way to learn is to experience it yourself. Nevertheless, there are some things best not to experience. Authority tells us it’s bad for us. Just don’t go there.

A particular temptation is the temptation to play with the fire of insincere religiosity. What is insincere religiosity, you might ask? In a nutshell, it is using religion or religious elements for one’s own selfish gain (whatever that gain might be). Such lies diametrically opposed to sincere belief, which is expressed in genuine repentance, heartfelt worship, faithful obedience, and self-giving love.

Among religious communities you will typically find both positions, unbelief opposed to belief, diametrically opposed in relation to the real deal—the truth in Christ (Matt. 13:24-30). Hence, in our passage today, we see folks heading in both the way of belief and the way of unbelief, towards the predictable ends. We also see how the Lord uses believing and unbelieving encounters with the real deal (the truth in Christ) towards his good purposes.

In v. 1, we see that Paul finally made it back to Ephesus, now on his third and final missionary journey. He would end up spending over three years in Ephesus (Acts 20:31), working tirelessly, ministering the gospel of the Lord.

Ephesus was a powerhouse in the Roman Empire. It was a port city, located along the major route from Rome to the east. It was enormously wealthy, being the greatest commercial city in Asia, whereas “Asia was the empire’s “richest and most populous” province because of its natural resources, industry, and location on trade routes.”[1] Ephesus was also, not surprisingly, politically important to the empire. So, while not the capital of Asia, the proconsul (the governor) of Asia kept his seat there. The city also boasted a very large population, as the fourth largest city in the empire, with plus and minus estimates of around 300,000 people. The population was extremely diverse, with numerous foreign population groups and ethnicities, numerous religions, and all socioeconomic levels, although “the city’s basic civic identity was Greek.”[2] While religiously pluralistic, it had a major temple to Artemis, which was so magnificent it is labeled as one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. Ephesus also had a large Jewish population, whose synagogue Paul had once before visited, with some positive results, and it was there that Pricilla and Aquila met up with Apollos.

Thus it was, that Paul, arriving in Ephesus once again, providentially came across some disciples, twelve of them. Initially, he may have assumed they were Christians, but he quickly caught on that something was missing—the evidence of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.

Hence, Paul asked them (vv. 2-4):

“Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” And they said, “No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.” And he said, “Into what then were you baptized?” They said, “Into John’s baptism.” And Paul said, “John baptized with the baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in the one who was to come after him, that is, Jesus.”

So it was, these disciples were actually disciples of John, awaiting the fulfillment of John’s message, which was Jesus. They were believers in God, knew John’s message, had received John’s baptism, and awaited the hoped-for Christ. Paul, of course, took this opportunity to inform them of the good news that Christ had come and fulfilled his mission. Upon their hearing and believing the good news of Christ Jesus, Paul baptized these men in the name of the Lord. Paul then laid hands on them, and then the Holy Spirit came upon them in power, manifesting extraordinary Spiritual gifts of prophesy and speaking in tongues (other languages).

Now, we’ve seen the coming of the Spirit upon people who were already believers, people whom the Spirit of God had already enabled to believe, and who had been saved by grace through faith. We’ve seen this situation before, in Acts. We saw it happen first in Acts 2, at Pentecost. We further saw it in Acts 8, “the Samaritan Pentecost.” Here, in Acts 19 these disciples of John now experienced what is called by some a “mini-Pentecost.”

Today, I’m not going into all the theology as to the coming of the Spirit in power, as we covered that in detail back when we looked at Acts 8:5-25. Although, if you want to review that info, which I preached on 1 September 2019 – the audio and manuscript are on my website for your convenience. So, even though I’m not going into great detail today, please understand that what we see here, the coming of the Spirit after belief in Jesus (like in Acts 2 and 8), is not the norm for the Christian experience. It does not represent the pattern of the coming of the Holy Spirit we see today. Like with the Samaritan Pentecost, as Wayne Grudem, in his Systematic Theology, puts it, “It was simply part of the transition between the old covenant experience of the Holy Spirit and the new covenant experience of the Holy Spirit.”[3] He further goes on, concerning the situation in Acts 19:

These disciples at Ephesus are certainly not a pattern for us today …, for we do not first have faith in a Messiah that we are waiting for, and then later learn that Jesus has come and lived and died and risen again. We come into an understanding of the gospel of Christ immediately, and we, like the Corinthians, enter immediately into the new covenant experience of the power of the Holy Spirit. [4]

Thus, the times of transition, as represented by these various Pentecosts, are gone with the Apostles.

Considering the thrust of today’s sermon, in these twelve men we have a picture of sincere belief in Jesus. Their faith, which was a work of God’s Spirit, brought them into a powerful encounter with the Spirit of God. Hence, they were blessed, and the blessings of God flowed forth from them. The situation even provided a particular blessing for Paul. The manifestation of the Spirit’s coming upon these disciples in power was plain for all to see. So, not only were they themselves blessed by the Spirit, but the Spirit’s work brought instant validation to Paul, as an Apostle of Jesus Christ and the veracity of his gospel message. This was the real deal, and people recognized the truth in Christ.

Sincere belief in Jesus was also the motivator of the Apostle Paul, which likewise lead to some extraordinary manifestations. Paul, as usual, went to the synagogue and reasoned and persuaded with the Jews about Jesus as the Christ and his Kingdom. As usual, some Jews responded negatively, and started speaking evil against the Way of Christ. Paul then, as usual, abandoned the synagogue and took the gospel to the Gentiles. However, in this case, Luke mentions Paul “took the disciples with him.” Thus, the church, the Christians, broke away from the synagogue in order to worship the Lord in truth and without the controversy and harassing Jews.

Maybe it was at this point that the church began congregating and worshipping at Pricilla and Aquila’s home (1 Cor. 16:19), if they were not doing so already. As it was, Paul, arranged for a regular time to teach in the hall of Tyrannus, which was a school. For two years, he there proclaimed the gospel, reasoning and dialoguing with whoever showed up. He was tireless in his work, and people flocked to see him. “All the residents of Asia heard the word of the Lord, both Jews and Greeks” (v. 10), as a result of his work in the hall of Tyrranus.

Even more, vv. 11-12 tell us the Lord brought about some extraordinary miracles through Paul’s ministry:

11 And God was doing extraordinary miracles by the hands of Paul, 12 so that even handkerchiefs or aprons that had touched his skin were carried away to the sick, and their diseases left them and the evil spirits came out of them.

As you can see, the Lord was working in extraordinary ways in Ephesus. First, the Spirit’s manifestation at the mini-Pentecost, and now the Lord healing people and casting out demons through the means of their being touched by Paul’s handkerchiefs and aprons. Extraordinary! This is mind-blowing stuff.

Yet, none of it is without precedent. We spoke to the various Pentecosts. But consider the healing and casting out demons. What was Jesus constantly doing during his earthly ministry? Yes, healing people and casting out demons. Do you remember the woman who was healed by touching Jesus’ clothes (Mark 5:24-34)? Why was she healed? Jesus said it was her faith that made her well. She believed in Jesus, trusted in him, and thought that if only she could touch his garments, she would be healed. And so she was.

That’s what’s going on here. The power of Jesus was manifesting itself in the faith of the hearers of the gospel. Jesus was also accommodating his miracles to the level of the believers, like he did for the woman who touched his robe. Many of the Ephesians, as we’ll see, were into magic. Jesus merely showed them what real power actually was, the real deal, compared to the false superstitions around them, and in which many of them were involved. So, in their sincere belief, the Lord blessed them in a way that was not the norm, but was tailored for their need.

But the last is not so unusual, is it? The Lord is continuously blessing his people, you and me, in ways that are tailored for our needs. I don’t mean those handkerchiefs you can buy from false preachers on TV. What I mean is everyday things. Answers to prayer, even for the little things, sometimes even for healing. Providential happenings that take you by surprise. Needs taken care of that you didn’t even know you had, until you realized he had taken care of them. Doors opening that could only be opened by an act of God. Evil thwarted when you were powerless against it. Even his bolstering you through the troubles in your life. Have you pondered these things? Have you lately pondered his tailored blessings for you? You ought to. In those blessings we find much reason to rejoice and praise his name. Jesus is the real deal.

Now, in contrast to sincere belief and the blessings of the Lord, there is insincere religiosity and the consequences of evil. Accordingly, Luke shifts the scene to the tragic comedy of the brothers of Sceva. Verses 13-16:

13 Then some of the itinerant Jewish exorcists undertook to invoke the name of the Lord Jesus over those who had evil spirits, saying, “I adjure you by the Jesus whom Paul proclaims.” 14 Seven sons of a Jewish high priest named Sceva were doing this. 15 But the evil spirit answered them, “Jesus I know, and Paul I recognize, but who are you?” 16 And the man in whom was the evil spirit leaped on them, mastered all of them and overpowered them, so that they fled out of that house naked and wounded.

This is a masterfully told story, and the point is clear. These Jewish charlatans, playing with formulaic magic for the purpose of casting out demons for profit, made a serious mistake. They decided they could use the name of Jesus as a tool for their work. They decided to use the name of the Lord for their own gain. Unsurprisingly, these fools neither fooled the Lord nor the Evil One. Their lesson was a beating and humiliation.

I suppose it could have been worse, like it was for Ananias and Saphira (Acts 5). However the sons of Sceva were not enfolded into the body of Christ, as professing believers, like that pair. So, instant death, killed by God, was not their fate. They were unbelievers operating outside the church, trying to capture, for their own purposes, the power of the true miracles that were occurring in Jesus’ name. What they learned, from this experience of playing with fire, was that they were not dealing with a controllable magic force. They were misusing the name of the living and true God, the real deal, taking his name in vain.

Since they were outside the body of Christ, there may have been hope for them. They were not condemned like Simon the Sorcerer, a professing believer, who wanted the Spirit of God for his own gain (Acts 8). So, who knows? The door, perhaps, remained open to them. Perhaps their encounter with a malevolent, evil spirit, a demon, led them to repentance and belief in Jesus. Maybe getting burned taught them not to play with the fire of insincere religiosity.

Now, when folks heard about what happened, their response was like the people’s response to Ananias and Saphira’s being struck dead. Fear. Verse 17:

17 And this became known to all the residents of Ephesus, both Jews and Greeks. And fear fell upon them all, and the name of the Lord Jesus was extolled.

This incident actually caused Jesus’ name to be lifted up, to be glorified. This was fear of the Lord. And not only were the unbelievers terrified, but new believers were also further convicted of the truth of Christ. Maybe with all the miracles and blessings, the excitement, fear of the Lord had been, if not forgotten, then just deemphasized, pushed into a back corner of their minds; more of a focus on Jesus as our friend, and little focus on the fact that he is also the all-powerful, holy, creator-God, the ruler and judge over all. It served as a reminder, a wake-up call, as to the fact that Jesus is the real deal, the Lord.

So, in the fear of the Lord, they realized they better stop playing around with foolishness. Verse 18:

18 Also many of those who were now believers came, confessing and divulging their practices. 19 And a number of those who had practiced magic arts brought their books together and burned them in the sight of all. And they counted the value of them and found it came to fifty thousand pieces of silver.

Now, that’s an act of true repentance. There are various figures as to how much those magic books would cost in today’s economy. One person I read figured it was the equivalent of an average worker’s wages for 137 years, another figured it to be about 5 million (but that was based on a $25,000 yearly salary, which is dated. It’d be much more today). Regardless, the main thing is these believers burned a fortune’s worth of books (their own books, by the way), as an act of repentance to their fooling around with the sinful practices of magic.

Repentance is an acknowledgement of sin, a turning away from it, and a moving away from it. The Westminster Shorter Catechism defines repentance unto life this way:

Repentance unto life is a saving grace, whereby a sinner, out of a true sense of his sin, and apprehension of the mercy of God in Christ, doth, with grief and hatred of his sin, turn from it unto God, with full purpose of, and endeavour after, new obedience.[5]

And that’s what we see here, as these magic books burned in the fire. Having learned their lesson from the experience of others, these believers rightly figured it better to burn their books than to play with fire and get burned.

Notice how the Lord has worked in situations of both sincere belief and insincere religiosity. In either case, the Lord prevailed; the truth of Christ prevailed. The actions of sincere belief in Christ brought more people to sincere belief in Christ and the blessings of Christ. Insincere religiosity led God’s people to repent certain sins they had held onto. The Lord used both situations to advance his Kingdom, glorify his name, and used them towards the good of his people (Romans 8:28). Hence, as v. 20 puts it, “So the word of the Lord continued to increase and prevail mightily.”

There is tremendous hope for us in this. The Lord prevails regardless of what we do, in both our sincere belief and in our failings. The Lord’s Kingdom and name cannot be damaged by our weakness and sin, much less the foolish machinations of unbelievers. He can use anything, even insincere religiosity and demonic actions, towards the sanctification, the spiritual growth, of his people. The Lord always wins. He has overcome the world (John 16:33). He has secured his people (that means you if you are a believer), to himself for all time (1 Pt. 1:3-5). Praise the Lord for that! I don’t know about you, but without such reassurances, I probably would not get much sleep at night.

As it is, we need to be wise to insincere religiosity today. It is pretty easy to spot when it crops up outside the church. It can be a bit more difficult to recognize when it crops its head up within the church in blatant and subtle ways. It can be done by people flying a false flag, saying they are Christians, but are not. Or it can be done by true believers, as sinful acts that need full repentance. Both the wheat and the tares can get caught up in this.

Remember how I defined insincere religiosity? It is using religion or religious elements for one’s own selfish gain (whatever that gain might be). What are some examples of selfish gain that motivates this sin? The obvious one is money. Other examples might be social standing, prestige, and building up the ego. Whatever it is, insincere religiosity is not sitting humbly at the feet of Christ. It is not following him in denial of self. It is not living a life of self-giving love towards God and neighbor.

Perhaps a revealing question we might ask ourselves is this: Why do I go to church? What are my underlying motivations?

If you look deeply and find some insincere religiosity staring right back at you, repent. The Lord forgives you. Ask for his help in turning away and realigning your heart after his will. If it takes burning some books, or whatever equivalent of the magic books of the people of Ephesus might be considering your particular sin, then burn the books. It may be costly, but such is nothing compared to the eternity of glory the Lord has freely given you.

Playing with fire can be a dangerous thing. Any sin, not just insincere religiosity … any sin we keep around, not turning away from it in repentance like we should … in fact, every sin is playing with fire.

Look closely at your life. Is your belief sincere? Are you playing with fire?

Because the truth of Christ is the real deal, we must repent.


[1] Craig S. Keener, Acts: An Exegetical Commentary: 15:1–23:35, vol. 3 (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2014), 2790.

[2] Ibid., 2791–2792.

[3] Wayne A. Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2004), 774.

[4] Ibid., 775.

[5] The Westminster Shorter Catechism: With Scripture Proofs, 3rd edition, (Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1996), Question 87.