The passage in front of us today is a case study in making war on the darkness. Any time the gospel advances into a new area – whether it is a new culture or a new place deep within our hearts – the darkness will reveal its ugly head.
John Calvin – commenting on this passage – says that “the heavenly doctrine [the gospel] has this particular power, that it either turns the reprobate [rebellious sinner] into a fury [for the Lord] or [it] makes them more obstinate [more rebellious] … because when the truth presses hard on them, their hidden venom breaks out.”2
The truth of the gospel does have a peculiar way of shaking up the darkness within us and around us. But it also has a miraculous way of attacking, and dividing, and defeating the darkness within us and around us as well.
You may remember how the gospel began to advance into the city of Ephesus last week as Priscilla and Aquila strengthened Apollos and sent him to Corinth to continue ministering there while Paul led twelve men to salvation in Christ Jesus (18:18 – 19:7). The core team for planting the church in Ephesus was now set at fifteen people; twelve of whom were brand new baby believers!
We also cannot miss the cultural moment in the city of Ephesus. Understanding the culture of a given place is absolutely vital to any evangelistic endeavor. One commentator says that “Ephesus was the waterhole for every kind of magician, witch, clairvoyant, and criminal. Con artists, murderers and perverts all found the climate of Ephesus, unusually agreeable.”3 Ephesus was a place that was overflowing with darkness.
I think it is also helpful to remember Ephesians chapter six, which instructs the Ephesians to “Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil. For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Eph. 6:11 – 12).
That passage was written by the apostle Paul to the Ephesians against the backdrop of the Temple of Artemis (Artemis was a pornographic multi-breasted goddess of fertility) not to mention the presence of black magic, occultism, and temple prostitutes.4 Ephesus was as dark as the middle of a moonless night; a ripe place for the gospel to shine brightly.
I want you to think with me for a moment about the darkness that not only surrounds us but also lives within us. In Ephesians 4:17 – 20, Paul tells the Ephesians to “no longer walk as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds. They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to the hardness of their heart. They have become callous and have given themselves up to sensuality, greedy to practice every kind of impurity.”
Why would Paul say these things to Christians in Ephesus unless he knew that Christians would still struggle with darkness deep down inside their very hearts? When you hear these words from Paul to the Ephesians, are you not humbled by the realization that darkness is alive and well inside of you? Are you not humbled when you think about how often the darkness raises its ugly head from within the contours of your own heart even though you follow Jesus?
It is difficult to wrestle with the reality of the darkness within us. I think it is easier to look around us and see the cultural darkness we live in. Unspeakable horrors are happening as we speak across the globe as nations war against each other. Untold numbers of babies have been murdered senselessly in the womb for the sake of momentary pleasure. Sexual perversion of every kind is absolutely out of control – even as many within our culture are attempting to add sexual attraction to children to the list of what is acceptable.
It is easy to see that we live in very dark times and that we are also personally prone to having darkness alive and well within us, even as believers. What is God’s plan for the darkness and how do we wage war against it?5 Look at the text with me…
8And he entered the synagogue and for three months spoke boldly, reasoning and persuading them about the kingdom of God. 9But when some became stubborn and continued in unbelief, speaking evil of the Way before the congregation, he withdrew from them and took the disciples with him, reasoning daily in the hall of Tyrannus. 10This continued for two years, so that all the residents of Asia heard the word of the Lord, both Jews and Greeks.
11And God was doing extraordinary miracles by the hands of Paul, 12so 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. 13Then 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.” 14Seven sons of a Jewish high priest named Sceva were doing this. 15But the evil spirit answered them, “Jesus I know, and Paul I recognize, but who are you?” 16And 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. 17And 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. 18Also many of those who were now believers came, confessing and divulging their practices. 19And 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. 20So the word of the Lord continued to increase and prevail mightily.
#1: LAUNCH A FULL-SCALE ATTACK ON THE DARKNESS (VV. 8 – 12)
In verses 8 – 12, Paul spent three months preaching the gospel, reasoning with the gospel, and persuading with the gospel in the synagogue; he literally preached powerfully, reasoned logically, and persuaded forcefully against the darkness that was alive and well inside the hearts of his listeners and in the culture they lived in.
But despite his efforts, some stubborn, hard-hearted unbelievers began to say evil things about Christians – Christians are bigots, narrow-minded, hypocritical, believers of fairy tales, judgmental, etc. So, Paul did not stand his ground fighting against those who rejected him, instead, he withdrew from the synagogue (as a man who waged war peacefully) and he continued preaching, reasoning, and persuading with the gospel in a rented public hall of philosophy that was owned by a man who was known as “The Tyrant”!6
Paul basically used a local secular university to set up a rescue mission within a yard of hell where he would preach, and reason, and persuade with the gospel for about five hours a day (11am – 4pm), six days per week!7 You can never convince me that preaching is not one of the main ways to launch a full-scale attack on the darkness!
Alongside Paul’s preaching, God chose to do some extraordinary or “out of the ordinary”miracles in a dazzling display of power that would have rivaled any magician or practicing witch in Ephesus, as he healed the sick and cast out demons with sweaty rags and work aprons. The sweat of Paul’s hard work literally became a weapon of mass destruction in the hands of our reigning King against the darkness that was oppressing his listeners! Let us not forget too that Paul kept up this full-frontal assault on the darkness for two years and the result according to verse 10 is that “all the residents of Asia heard the word of the Lord” regardless of their background.
Launching any full-scale attack against the darkness within us or around us must be centered on preaching, and reasoning, and persuading with the gospel and it should also be accompanied by hard work and sweat. Our responsibility to sit under the preaching of God’s Word and to also proclaim God’s Word to ourselves and everyone around us, should not be an easy task.
Our “verse of the day”, fifteen minutes of Scripture reading with morning coffee, lack luster attendance to study the Bible with other believers on a weekly basis, prolonged absences from Sunday gatherings, and our general boredom with Scripture memorization – that seems to characterize the western church – is like showing up for a fight with darkness with water guns instead of fully loaded assault rifles.
My prayer is that the Lord would soften our hearts if we are guilty of any of the hard hearted sins I just listed and that we would turn in repentance and fall in love with hearing the gospel preached, being reasoned with the gospel, and being persuaded by the gospel. When this happens, the darkness divides against itself because imposters will always fail in the presence of true believers.
#2: THE DARKNESS DIVIDES AGAINST ITSELF (VV. 13 – 16)
In verses 13 – 16, we meet some Jewish exorcists who attempt to imitate what God was doing through the apostle Paul. Jewish exorcists were spiritual posers who attempted to fleece God’s people for money in exchange for spiritual benefits – much like the health, wealth, and prosperity preachers of our day.8
The seven sons of Sceva were those kinds of spiritual posers; they were renegade Jewish exorcists operating under the demonic influence of greed, fame, and power (at least) who tried to invoke the name of “Paul’s Jesus” and wound up getting attacked by the very man whose evil spirit they were attempting to exorcise.
The moral of the story here is that you cannot fake it until you make it! No amount of spiritual posing will defeat the darkness within you or around you. The light of the gospel cannot be imitated by the darkness to produce kingdom results; when fakers – under the cover of darkness – attempt to imitate the light, the results will always be erosion from within because a house divided against itself cannot stand.
Part of God’s plan for defeating the darkness is to use the darkness against itself. Nowhere can this be seen more clearly outside of our current text than at the cross of Christ where a dark and demonic instrument of death was used to divide Satan, Sin, and Death against themselves as Jesus won our salvation once and for all. Satan – the Poser of all posers – thought he had won the war, but the reality is that Jesus left him choking on the blood that ran down his cross – as one of my favorite worship songs lately says!!
As I thought about these principles of waging war on the darkness within me and around me, I asked the Lord to reveal any areas of duplicity in my heart; any areas of double mindedness, pride, lust, unforgiveness, jealousy, coldness, anger, self-reliance, or bitterness.
All of that darkness inside of me would love to pair up with my religious language because the darkness deceptively believes it will win the war. But thanks be to God, when we humble ourselves and ask God to reveal duplicity and double mindedness within us, he will faithfully show up and divide the darkness against itself as he leads us to repentance which is the final death blow to the darkness.
#3: DEFEAT THE DARKNESS WITH REPENTANCE (VV. 17 – 19)
In verses 17 – 19, Luke tells us that when news of the fakers who tried to make it but wound up naked in the street, reached the ears of everyone in Ephesus, they were struck with fear; they were filled with fear because the darkness had been divided against itself by the light of the gospel.
This citywide fear resulted in “the name of the Lord Jesus” being magnified (v. 17) and a whole bunch of brand-new believers confessing their sins (v. 18) and repenting publicly in a radical and costly way as they literally burned fifty million dollars worth of witchcraft literature (v. 19)!9 Can you imagine repentance costing you this much?
Repentance – beginning with confession of sin and ending with the costly destruction of any items that promoted that sin – is what ultimately defeats the darkness in us and around us because repentance is completed at the foot of a bloody cross, in the doorway of an empty tomb, in light of the hope of Heaven.
Our salvation was costly, therefore our repentance should be costly as well. Half-hearted repentance (which is no repentance at all) will not beat the shoes off the darkness within us or around us; it will only lead to further slipping into the darkness until the light can no longer be seen.
In conclusion, I am not sure what level of darkness you struggle with, but let me be clear: Satan, Sin, and Death will not be held at bay through half-hearted religion. They will not be beaten with a fake it until you make it type of Christianity. They certainly will not be fazed by imitation repentance. Condemnation, temptation, and oppression are very real tactics used by our enemy and we cannot submit to them.
- Submission to Satan’s condemning lies will always produce downtrodden Christians who live in the prison cells of tortured minds.
- Submission to temptation will always produce double – minded Christians who cannot stand against evil because their secret lives are rotting with sin.
- Submission to the oppression of death’s taunting threats will always produce weak Christians who live only for the pleasures of today as they do the bare minimum to get by.
The only reason our closing verse (v. 20) says that “the word of the Lord continued to increase and prevail mightily” is because the gospel was waging war against the darkness in the hands of a tiny team of authentic believers (no fakers in this core team) who were committed to the costly hard work of preaching, reasoning, persuading, and repenting.
I have often experienced heavy seasons of spiritual condemnation, temptation, and oppression and wondered why it seemed as though the darkness was winning. I have witnessed this same pattern in other brothers and sisters too. And every time, the underlying issues were the same: The gospel was not being preached, religious fakery had become part of the norm, repentance had been replaced with generalized confessions, and the Word of God was not increasing and prevailing powerfully in our lives.
We had lost our love for hearing the Word preached, we had lost our love for studying the Bible with other believers, we had begun to do the bare minimum, we had become spiritual posers, our times spent in Sunday gatherings or Bible studies were dismal at best and the cost of our repentance was like left over pocket change; we had become spiritual posers in danger of being kicked out in the street by demonic forces of darkness.
If you are experiencing any kind of darkness in your life and you are wondering how to overcome it, the answer simply is: Repent in an authentic and costly fashion for your lack of love for God and his gospel and ultimately for your lack of love for the point of the gospel which is God’s only Son: Our crucified, risen, and returning Savior.
The cross was bloody for you. The tomb was left empty for you. The promise of heaven is for you. Let the realization of the gospel motivate you to a newfound fear and awe of the Lord and let that newfound fear and awe motivate you to fall in love with the Word of God who became flesh and dwelt among us and was crucified, risen, and promised to return so that we might be with him forever.
Lay down your water guns of gospel boredom, spiritual fakery, and false repentance, and pick up a fully loaded assault rifle that is loaded with the bloody cross, the empty tomb, and the promise of heaven and get in the war against the darkness inside and outside of you with the power of the gospel! – Amen!
1 Unless otherwise specified, all Bible references in this paper are to the English Standard Version Bible, The New Classic Reference Edition (ESV) (Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers, 2001).
2 Esther Chung-Kim, Todd R. Hains, Timothy George, Scott M. Manetsch, Reformation Commentary on Scripture, New Testament VI: Acts, (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2014), 267.
3 Kent, Hughes, Acts: The Church Afire, (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 1996), 254.
5 Ibid., 253 – 260 (The main body of this paper is based largely on this reference).
6 Ibid., 255.
8 Ibid., 257 – 258.
9 Derek W. H. Thomas, Acts, (Phillipsburg, New Jersey: P&R Publishing, 2011), 548.