Playing with fire

Don’t play with fire, the old wisdom goes, or you might get burned. Whether through ignorance, arrogance, or both, we think, “No problem, I got this” — and mess with things that we lack the skill or strength to control. 

“Don’t play with matches,” parents warn their children. But somehow, kids seem fascinated with fire. I once had a friend who enjoyed building model planes and ships from plastic kits. But if he made a mistake, he’d stuff the defective model with rags, soak them with lighter fluid, and set the whole thing ablaze. If he had them, he’d add firecrackers for a satisfying little explosion.

I suspect he made mistakes on purpose. (Be forewarned. Once they get a little older, you might want to think twice before accepting their invitation to a backyard barbecue.)

Adults play with fire in other ways, and sometimes get burned. Luke tells us just such a story in Acts 19:

There were some Jews who traveled around throwing out evil spirits. They tried to use the power of the name of the Lord Jesus against some people with evil spirits. They said, “In the name of the Jesus whom Paul preaches, I command you!” (Acts 19:13, CEB)

These people were not believers, but somewhat secularized Jews who mixed their heritage with the mystic arts. As we’ve seen, magic was a common practice in Ephesus. There, people respected Judaism, but their knowledge was filtered through their cultural superstitions.

They knew, for example, that among the Jews, only the high priest was allowed to speak the name of God aloud, and only once a year at that, on Yom Kippur. To the Ephesians magicians, this meant that the unutterable name was like a secret incantation that only the chief sorcerer could pronounce. Thus, we should think of the traveling exorcists Luke describes as having no relationship to Jesus, but using his name as one might cast a spell.

Against that background, Luke tells a cautionary tale about the seven sons of a high priest named Sceva. They thought they could simply use the name of Jesus like a magic word to command demons to flee. But they soon found themselves in over their collective head. In one instance,

The evil spirit replied, “I know Jesus and I’m familiar with Paul, but who are you?” The person who had an evil spirit jumped on them and overpowered them all with such force that they ran out of that house naked and wounded. (Acts 19:15-16)

This scene would make great theater. It could be played with menace and spine-tingling special effects (Let’s make his head spin in circles before he attacks!). But I read it as farce, as if Luke were to say, Look at these hapless clowns. Didn’t Daddy teach them not to play with fire? 

Indeed, the evil spirit seems to toy with them: You command me in the name of Jesus, “whom Paul preaches”? Well, let’s see. I know who Jesus is. He’s certainly no one to be trifled with. But for future reference, notice that I have no trouble using his name myself. And Paul? Yes, I’ve heard of him too. He’s been making quite a splash around these parts. But who the heck are you? Allow me to teach you how much authority you have here…

It was hardly a fair fight. Seven guys against one with a demon.

Guess who won. Maybe they were just having an off day?

The story spread quickly, until everyone in Ephesus, both Jews and Greeks “was seized with fear and…held the name of the Lord Jesus in the highest regard” (Acts 19:17). That doesn’t mean that they understood or accepted the gospel. But they learned the hard way that the name of Jesus was much more than just a Hebrew version of abracadabra. 

The problem with the magician’s mindset is that it treats the name of God as a means to an end, something to be manipulated for personal gain, as if God was obliged to be at the beck and call of those with the secret password. The fear that seized the people was the fear of God in its appropriate biblical sense — the realization that one was calling upon a power much greater than they had imagined at first.

And as we’ll see in the next post, not even believers are immune to that magical way of thinking.