Old Testament: 2 Samuel 17 & 18
Poetry: Proverbs 25
New Testament: Acts 19
Paul spent over a year and a half in Corinth, probably the fifth largest city in the Roman empire at the time, and in Acts 19 we read about the over two years he spent in Ephesus, which was in fourth place (v. 10; for those who are interested, Antioch was in third). I have seen estimates for Ephesus having as many as a quarter million people when Paul was there. You may not often visualize what it was like in cities of the Roman empire, particularly not in the largest ones, without mass transit or mass communication. Demetrius the silversmith managed to stir up a crowd, which created a mob, that stormed into the theater to complain about Paul. At that time the theater was probably still under construction, its initial seating ended up somewhere in the 17,000 to 22,000 range (the theater was expanded later). When the mass of angry people eventually left most of them were still unclear why they had come. In a mob setting a person could die without ever getting a hearing. You can see why Paul’s friends did not want him to try and defend himself. But perhaps in the days that followed the details filtered out, and God let the aftermath of the controversy give more awareness to the presence of Christianity in Ephesus.
When I read about handkerchiefs and aprons touched by Paul being carried to the sick and the possessed to give them relief (v. 11-12), I wonder about the practical reasons that may have been involved. He was “reasoning” in the school of Tyrannus every day (v. 9). I have to imagine that Paul would have found it difficult to also travel to all of the people in need of his help in that city. So, this solution developed. Maybe someone suggested the idea to him, or maybe he raised the possibility. The description brings several scriptures to mind. But first we need to recognize that this situation is about faith, not magic. There was not some kind of power being imbued into the cloth, and that matters. Taking the cloth from Paul to the person in need was intended as a symbol of trusting that Paul’s concern for the person mattered for them, which really related to the Holy Spirit power Paul wanted to be exerted on behalf of that person in the name of Jesus.
For relevant Bible examples one that is close at hand is Peter in Acts 5:15, when people put the sick on cots and pallets near his path so that “perhaps” his shadow would fall on them. It doesn’t suggest Peter was involved in organizing these efforts. Also verse 16 says that healing was occurring, but it is ambiguous whether this is about people Peter’s shadow fell on.
In Luke 8:43-48 Jesus encountered a woman who had hemorrhaged blood for twelve years and then tried to touch Jesus’ clothes to be healed. She succeeded, and Jesus knew power went out from him but not who received it. That text is well worth a discussion on its own, in part involving the feelings of unworthiness she felt and her not speaking up to Jesus at first, and her great faith that allowed her to seek healing. But she was able to get power by faith without Jesus knowing the details at first – God knew the details and took care of the problem while using Jesus as the path through which God’s power flowed. And in effect it all happened through contact with a piece of cloth.
In 2 Kings 4 Elisha sent his servant Gehazi with his staff to put it on a dead child to restore the child to life (v. 29-31). The attempt was not successful. We may be tempted to link that to Gehazi’s negative issues (see 5:20, 25-27 with Naaman), but Elisha was already following Gehazi and then became involved more personally to help, so while the desire for this to work was there on Elisha’s part maybe he wasn’t certain about the idea.
With 2 Kings 13:21 we have a particularly odd variation on a miracle taking place through an “object,” which doesn’t really fit the theme we are discussing. A dead body was put in the grave of Elisha and came back to life when it touched Elisha’s dead body. I think it likely that we are just not getting much of the story here, and that God raised this person for reasons specific to the situation. Perhaps God used the contact with Elisha’s body to make it clear that this was a miracle related to the God of Elisha, and nothing else.
Unfortunately, examples like these can get taken up in an unhelpful way and be used to support the tradition of “relics.” To briefly explain that idea, sometime after Christians began to be killed as martyrs others began to save remains from their deaths. These remains might be just ashes after they were burned at the stake. The extent of what people tried to save expanded over time, and along the way what people thought about what had been saved also changed. There developed the idea that access to these remains involved the potential for special power, because martyrs were “special” and went straight to heaven when they died – and that being in heaven and with God they were now prepared to give special attention to those who had access to their bones, or hair, or teeth, or clothing, or etc. And the relic system expanded beyond what the martyr had when they died – every one of those handkerchiefs and aprons Paul touched would still matter. The idea also developed that if the relics changed hands the special attention of the martyr would change focus to wherever the relics went. It is striking how aspects of this tradition came to be formalized.
The Council of Carthage in A.D. 401 determined that no shrines to martyrs were valid unless they contained relics of the martyr or were at sites known to be “hallowed” by the saint’s life or death, so all old shrines were to be destroyed unless those rules applied. In 787 the Second Council of Nicea said that every altar, in a church, a monastery, anywhere, needed to be consecrated by a relic. But by then it had been decided that a relic cut into small pieces still counted like the original whole. As far back as A.D. 430 Theodoret of Cyrhus expressed his support for cutting up the bodies of martyrs to provide relics. He described martyrs as the “ambassadors to the universal Lord” and said that the people of many cities gain benefits through them and “when a body has been divided, its grace remains entire, so that a small part has the same potency as the whole body” (quoted in The Oxford History of Byzantium, edited by Cyril Mango, p. 108). On the other hand the idea of moving martyr’s bodies around had not been accepted widely for quite a while, but it seems to have been fine as of 787. The fondness for relics peaked in the 9th to the 11th centuries when there were over one hundred recorded thefts of relics, taking them from one area to another in an effort to shift spiritual attention.
As I wrote earlier, the power that was working in Ephesus was never in the cloth, the power was from God’s Holy Spirit. And there are not thousands of ambassadors of the Lord from whom people can seek to receive assistance, there is one mediator between God and mankind, the man Christ Jesus (1 Timothy 2:5). Nor, as the seven sons of Sceva learned, is there power in the name of Jesus if you have no understanding of him or faith in him. His name is not a magic charm. We are to have an actual relationship with an actual person. When we read our Bibles, or even our devotions, it may sometimes feel like we are involving ourselves with a story. But as marvelous and powerful as the actions of Jesus are, and as generous and loving as his actions are, he is not invented, he lives, he is real. He wants to be engaged with my life and your life. Allow him to be.
Dear Lord, thank you again for allowing me to serve you through your son. I look forward to being with you in your kingdom and understanding so many things that I do not understand now. For the moment, please allow me to be patient, to continue to grow, and to be of use where I can. Please help me to be bolder, and kinder. Thank you. In Jesus’ name, Amen
- Some of the people Paul knew may have spent their entire ministries in just one city. How do you think things worked differently for Paul because he moved around so much?
- How do you think that Luke’s description of the disciples of John the Baptist in Ephesus compares with his description of Apollos? Does it seem like they believed basically the same things?
- If new converts brought out useless and somehow corrupt things valued at 50,000 days’ wages (v. 19) to be burned as a sign of now serving Christ, what sort of impact do you think that would have on your congregation? On your city?
- Right after the events of this chapter Paul left Ephesus. How do you think the Ephesian believers felt about Paul leaving the city?
- In Revelation 2:4-5 Jesus told the Ephesian church that they had left their first love and they needed to repent and do the deeds they did at first. From what you see in the chapter, what would you guess Jesus might be referring to?