Have you ever gotten several minutes into a conversation having missed the subject and now feel like it's too rude to ask what it is that we were meant to be talking about? Or have you ever drifted over to sleep during the critical point in the plot of film? Being both deaf in one ear and the sleep-deprived father of three-week old I can relate to both of those scenarios pretty easily.
That feeling of having not quite grasped the critical piece of information runs right through our text for this evening; the first part of Acts 19. The good news about Jesus is rapidly expanding throughout the known world but not everyone is keeping up. Perhaps you can relate to that feeling; you've heard about Jesus and what he's done but somehow you feel like you haven't quite grasped what it means to know and follow him.
Our big idea is simply what chapter 19 says we need to do in order to do that:
Big Idea: Repent, believe and be baptised into the name of Jesus.
In Acts 19 we'll meet four sets of people, three of whom haven't quite grasped what it means to be a follower of Jesus and one group who are a model for us of how to respond to the good news about Jesus and to be united to him.
1. Incomplete: The disciples in Ephesus (v1-7)
Jesus has died for our sins, been raised to life again and has given us his Spirit so that we can be united to him.
While Apollos was at Corinth, Paul took the road through the interior and arrived at Ephesus. There he found some disciples
Paul is back inEphesusagain after visiting the church inAntiochand strengthening the disciples throughout Galatia and Phrygia(18.23).Ephesusis an important city it has become very wealthy particularly through manufacturing idols for worshipping at the greatTempleofArtemiswhich could be found there. It was quite literally an idol factory. As Paul returns he finds some disciples who verse 2 tells us haven't received or even heard about the Holy Spirit. They have only received, verse 3; 'John's baptism'.
Why does Paul ask these disciples first; have you received the Holy Spirit? Is he checking out how charismatic their church is? And what do they mean when they say they have only received John's baptism?
Well it seems that these disciples living inEphesussome 650 miles fromJerusalemhave heard something about Jesus but not the full story. John's baptism is simply the message that John brought to the Jews to repent and turn back to God. It seems that these disciples want to do that and perhaps know something about this Jesus who claims to be the Messiah but are not yet fully following him.
They've repented of their sins but are yet to believe in the name of Jesus, the one whose sacrifice on the cross has guarantees forgiveness of their sins. In addition they don't know about what happened at Pentecost. They don't know that Jesus has returned to heaven so that his Spirit can come and make his home in the hearts of those who trust in Jesus, binding them to him.
So when Paul asks them if they've received the Holy Spirit he isn't asking how charismatic the church they go to is, he's asking if they are truly Christians. In Paul's mind receiving the Holy Spirit and believing in Jesus are inseparably linked, the question; 'Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?' could equally be rendered 'Have you believed in the name of Jesus and so received the Holy Spirit?' This isn't idiosyncratic of Paul either, Peter in the first ever Christian sermon, back in Acts 2.38 tells the crowds to:
Repent and be baptised, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.
Paul himself says in Ephesians 1.13,14:
13 And you also were included in Christ when you heard the message of truth, the gospel of your salvation. When you believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit,
Receiving the Holy Spirit is the necessary consequence of having believed in the name of Jesus Christ. Hold that in mind as you read v5-7:
5 On hearing this, they were baptised into the name of the Lord Jesus. 6 When Paul placed his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they spoke in tongues and prophesied.7 There were about twelve men in all.
These disciples are becoming Christians! Paul has filled in the rest of the story, he's told them the wonderful news about Jesus and now they are publicly confessing him as Lord. And as they do so those words of Peter's from Acts 2.38 come true, they receive the Holy Spirit.
In this case it's in a very dramatic and obvious way, though that is not always the case in the New Testament. The critical thing here is that these disciples who had only heard half the story have now got the whole picture.
Jesus has died for our sins and risen again
- Repent of your sins like these disciples and trust that Jesus has dealt with them on the cross.
- If you've done that then say so publicly, tell someone, get baptised - that's what it's for!
Jesus has returned to heaven to give us his Spirit
- Know that if you have trusted in Jesus then you are united to him by his Spirit.
- Continue to ask God the Father to fill you with the Holy Spirit.
Repentance is not enough it must be accompanied by trust in Jesus and should lead to joyful receiving of his Spirit. Nevertheless humble repentance is required as we'll see in point two. Obstinate: The religious Jews (v8-10)
2. Obstinate: The religious Jews (v8-10)
Responding to Jesus is more than an intellectual decision it is a continual act of the will. So watch your heart.
Paul moves now to the synagogue to tell God's people about his son; Jesus. Paul argues persuasively but instead of belief Paul is met with hard-heartedness. Look at v9:
But some of them became obstinate; they refused to believe and publicly maligned the Way. So Paul left them. He took the disciples with him and had discussions daily in the lecture hall of Tyrannus.
They became obstinate. Notice that it doesn't say that they found Paul's arguments unconvincing, that Paul was defeated in debate or that they proved he was wrong. No 'they refused to believe', they decided in their hearts not to accept the word of the Lord which had come to them.
Jacob, our two year old, loves fish fingers. So much so that at tea time he will go and fetch them from the freezer, open the packet and turn on the oven himself. Despite this there are some days, when he will not even open his mouth to those same fish fingers. Now just to clarify Jacob doesn't have fish fingers every night but you can see the point. A toddler's reaction to food is not always rational.
Similarly our reaction to God's Word is not always rational; in fact it is never purely rational. That's why the bible so often speaks about our hearts potential for both deception and for hardening. So we need to watch our hearts, we need to examine ourselves honestly.
Are you rejecting the message about Jesus not because it's untrue but because you don't want it to be true for you, because you want God's position in your life? Stop it. Stop it because knowing Jesus is better than anything you could possibly lose and stop it because one day Jesus' offer of forgiveness will no longer be on offer. Paul left the synagogue, left the religious, the church-goers and went instead to the local university to those who would listen, to those who could repent. One day Jesus will return and repentance then will be too late.
Similarly for those of us who have repented and are trusting in Jesus we need to keep watch over our hearts. Are their sins which we are becoming comfortable with, is their bitterness, envy or cynicism creeping into our hearts which we need to weed out. These Jews allowed themselves to 'become obstinate' give someone else permission to ask us the hard questions which help us to keep a check on our heart's attitude.
3. Self-Interested: The sons of Sceva (v11-16)
The name of Jesus is our master to submit to not our tool to abuse.
In verse 9 Paul leaves the synagogue and begins a staggeringly successful university mission so that:
v10 All the Jews and Greeks inAsiaheard the Word of the Lord.
v11 Paul's teaching is accompanied by miraculous healings both physical and spiritual.
So we come to the Seven sons of Sceva (try saying that quickly) in v14. These sons of a Jewish priest were amongst others driving out demons by invoking the power of Jesus' name. Now perhaps this seems quite alien to you, exorcism is not a big trade here in the UK though if we were in the Congo I'd be speaking quite differently. But behind their exorcism trade is an attitude which we are all vulnerable to.
The sons of Sceva are attempting to use the power of the message about Jesus without becoming followers of Jesus. They want the privileges of being associated with Jesus without actually knowing him. That same dangerous attitude is evident in us when: religion is used as a tool for gaining power and influence or when we treat church as a place to meet our needs or the Gospel as a mere worldview to explain the world or as a religion to satisfy our own self-righteousness, making us feel better about ourselves.
The sons of Sceva want the benefits of Christianity but they don't want Christ and certainly they don't desire to be united to him. But that is a very dangerous place to be as v14, 15 reveal:
15 One day the evil spirit answered them, Jesus I know, and I know about Paul, but who are you?
16 Then the man who had the evil spirit jumped on them and overpowered them all. He gave them such a beating that they ran out of the house naked and bleeding.
Their experience is a bit like you running from a war-torn country into the safety of the British embassy brandishing a British passport. Your safe, your home in one sense. But that's only going to do you any good if your name is the one printed on the inside of the passport.
The demon knows Jesus, he is God's son and he knows Paul who preaches Jesus but he does not recognise these who seek to use Jesus' name but who are not united to him. The point being this those who are united to Jesus are given the privileges of his name; God sees Christ's perfect record not their sin, God calls them his sons, they are safe none who are Jesus' can be plucked from his hand. These sons of Sceva are not united to Jesus and so they are in great danger.
As has been said; Christianity is about Christ. It's not about power, it's not about us doing things to make us feel less guilty or a worldview by which we can understand the world, it's not even about building a loving community committed to mercy and justice it's all about Jesus.
Christianity does explain our world; beautifully and wonderfully but it is not a philosophy to agree to. The church should be an incredible community to be part of. But those things are just the side show, the by-products of the real prize; knowing Jesus. Knowing Jesus, being united to him, loving and enjoying him that's the goal, he is worth pursuing above all else. But too often we miss the real prize by focusing on what we can gain. Jesus is not a genie in a lamp that can be rubbed to fulfill our wishes; he is the greatest treasure, the prize, the goal.
So can I ask you; do you belong to Jesus? Have you repented and trusted in him and is your name graven as we sometimes sing; in his heart? What are you pursuing as you come here week by week? Are you pursuing community and friendship, knowledge and influence or are you here to pursue Jesus, to know him more deeply, to love him more sincerely and to obey him more completely?
Let's meet a set of people who are willing to give up everything in order to do that in our forth and final point: 'Genuine: The Sorcerers'
4. Genuine: The sorcerers (v17-20)
Responding to message about Jesus requires appropriate respect and genuine repentance of sin.
In verses 17 to 20 we see an example of right responding to the name of Jesus. Verse 20 tells us that in this way the word of the Lord spread widely and grew in power, so here is a model for us of rightly responding to the message about Jesus.
Look at verse 17. When this became known. When the sorcerers heard the full story and saw in action the power of the risen Lord Jesus through Paul's preaching and miraculous acts, how do they respond? Verse 17 tells us that:
17 ...they were all seized with fear, and the name of the Lord Jesus was held in high honour.
The sorcerers respond appropriately to the Word of the Lord. They didn't allow themselves to become obstinate, they didn't 'refuse to believe' like the synagogue-goers. No all the people both Jews and Greeks are seized with fear. Fear is the correct response to the name of Jesus. By fear we don't mean terror but right respect for Jesus' office and his power. Jesus is the Son of the living God, the one who has been given all authority on heaven and earth. He deserves awe and reverence and respect. That's what happens here and so the name of the Lord Jesus is held in high honour.
Read on to v18:
18 Many of those who believed now came and openly confessed what they had done.
As we saw earlier belief in Jesus requires repentance and that's what we see happening here. Notice that it's not a grudging admission that they got things wrong but a public admission of guilt done openly. This is not a politician or journalist making a tactical retreat to save their skin, this is genuine. Becoming a Christian is very simple it doesn't require rituals or a certain ethnicity but it does require an open and honest admission of our guilt before God. But sincere repentance is more than an admission of guilt, look at v19.
19 A number who had practiced sorcery brought their scrolls together and burned them publicly. When they calculated the value of the scrolls, the total came to fifty thousand drachmas.[c] 20 In this way the word of the Lord spread widely and grew in power.
Some of those who practiced sorcery burned the tools of their trade. They are ransacking their own careers for the sake of following Jesus. To repent means to 'turn away from', here those who have believed in Jesus don't just admit their past mistakes they take radical action get away from that wrongdoing. Fifty thousand drachmas is something like £3.5 million - imagine a group of bankers burning their bonuses in the street and you get some idea of just how incredible this is.
These sorcerers are not like the self-interested sons of Sceva they are willing to give up even the very things that make their living in order to follow Jesus.
Jesus is the greatest prize; he is the pearl of greatest price, the only thing that can ever satisfy our hearts. Being united to him is the greatest offer that will ever be made and he has made it entirely possible by his death and resurrection and by his gift of the Holy Spirit to us.
So will you recognise who Jesus is and rightly fear and respect him. Will you trust in his willing death for your sins on the cross and will you gladly set fire to anything that would get between you and the one who is more wonderful, more beautiful than anything else so that you can enjoy the privilege which is there for the taking; a life lived with Jesus living inside you. Will you sing as Charles Wesley did: Jesus and all in him is mine!