Many also of those who had believed kept coming, confessing and disclosing their practices.
And many of those who practiced magic brought their books together and began burning them in the sight of all; and they counted up the price of them and found it fifty thousand pieces of silver.
So the word of the Lord was growing mightily and prevailing.
Can you imagine the scene? Somewhere in the midst of Paul’s two year sojourn in Ephesus, the Holy Spirit so convicted the hearts of the people, Jews and Greeks, that they repented of many things, not least of which was their secret practice of witchcraft. They were so eager to follow the Lord with all of their lives, that they burned the evil that had most consumed them. The footnotes in my Bible identify the piece of silver as the Greek drachma: a day’s wage of a laborer. I don’t know how many people were burning magic books, or how much each one had cost, but it would take an average person of that day one hundred and thirty-seven years to earn that much money (with only five days off in that time).
These people have been freed from the curse of their wickedness, and yet, so many times when I have read this passage in the past, it has caused me to… hesitate. I know that they were devoting their lives to the Lord, and that burning the magic books was very important to their following the Lord, but it took me a long time before I truly understood, beyond the textbook answer, why it was so vital. A part of me would read it and think as the disciples did in Matthew twenty-six: “Why this waste?” Of course, I knew it would be wrong for them to sell the books to others, and lead others into sin in so doing, but isn’t their some way that money could have been redeemed? One hundred and thirty-seven years wages! It’s bothered me that I think of it, but I would still think of it.
In my last read-through of Acts, it struck me in a different way, and it does even more now that I am reading this chapter for the sake of this post. The first thing that I came to realize is that these people were not just burning fifty thousand paychecks they had received that morning. This bonfire was built on one hundred and thirty-seven years of bondage. It was fifty thousand days of trudging through muck under a heavy burden that only gets heavier the further you go all washed clean and healed by the fire of the Holy Spirit.
Suddenly, this is all such a precious scene. None of us alive today is old enough to have sinned for fifty thousand days. But even if we had, Jesus would still be able and eager to cleanse us and give us His joy and a sparkling white robe the moment we will surrender our chains to Him. None of us has small sins, but look at how vast the forgiveness of our Lord is when we come to Him and repent of all of the times in our lives that we have devoted to evil. What and sweet and humble God we serve!
The other aspect of this scene that stands out to me now begins earlier in the chapter.
“And God was performing extraordinary miracles by the hands of Paul,
so that handkerchiefs or aprons were even carried from his body to the sick, and the diseases left them and the evil spirits went out.
But also some of the Jewish exorcists, who went from place to place, attempted to name over those who had the evil spirits the name of the Lord Jesus, saying ‘I adjure you by Jesus whom Paul preaches’
And seven sons of one Sceva, a Jewish chief priest, were doing this.
And the evil spirit answered and said to them, ‘I recognize Jesus, and I know about Paul, but who are you?’
And the man, in whom was the evil spirit, leaped on them and subdued all of them and overpowered them, so that they fled out of that house naked and wounded.
And this became known to all, both Jews and Greeks, who lived in Ephesus; and fear fell upon them all and the name of the Lord Jesus was being magnified.”
This is the rest of the story. Whenever we think that we can purify and redeem ourselves by “repurposing” our sins and the things that pull us away from Jesus, it is like this new believers trying to get rid of their sin by selling their books of witchcraft, or leaving them on a shelf and “promising” not to look at them again. Left to ourselves, we cannot cleanse a single day of our lives, no matter how Christian we try to look, or how hard we honestly try. Like the Jewish exorcists, we will try to do good, but will only end up being beaten down by the evil we face, and those who are enslaved to evil will also be worse off when we try to help them! From the time of Adam and Eve’s first sin, the devil’s play was to say, “you can be God, and you can do it yourself.” “Don’t burn the magic books; just leave them on the shelf.” “Giving up that hobby? What a waste! You could use that to glorify the Lord once you get famous and people start noticing you!”
That is why it is so vital that we always be as willing to give up what we love in this world as Jesus is to give up Himself for us. Fifty thousand days devoted to serving the devil, all just a shadow in the past when we kneel before Jesus today. And we can’t claim a single day of credit for it, thank God! As with Paul, after He pays our one hundred and thirty-seven year debt, Jesus will give us His Holy Spirit, so that we will be able to help others who are still slaving to pay the debt themselves. Do not hesitate to surrender your chains to Jesus.