Holy Spirit, “Holy handkerchiefs”, and evil spirit thumpings

Devotional PicturesVerses Read: Numbers 32; Acts 19 (NIV, NLT)

I read through Acts 19 today as part of my devotional and there’s a number of verses that jumped out at me (from Acts anyway). In this post I think I’ll make a few “brief” comments on some observations I’ve made…(note to self, there’s gotta be an easier [and more search-friendly] way of entering these devotional thoughts – I have the “StructuredBlogging” plugin and I’m thinking sometime I may develop a microformat for devotionals…if anyone reading this knows of one that’s already developed let me know…it’ll save me time :lol:…in the meantime for lack of time I’ll keep publishing my devotional thoughts as a simple post!)

“Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” he asked them. “No.” they replied, “we dont’ know what you mean. We haven’t even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.” (Acts 19:2, NLT)

When Paul arrrived at the metropolis of Ephesus he discovered that there were already believers there (Paul wasn’t the only evangelist after all!) I find it interesting that one of the first questions Paul asked of these believers was whether they had recieved the Holy Spirit. Their response was telling – not only had they not received the baptism but they hadn’t even heard about Him (the Holy Spirit). Upon further probing Paul discovered that their knowledge of the gospel was incomplete in that they had only recieved the baptism of John. After Paul spent some time explaining the good news of Christ these believers were baptised in the name of the Lord Jesus and after Paul laid hands on them the scripture records that the Holy Spirit came on them, and they spoke in other tongues and prophesied.

What’s jumped out at me in this passage is that Paul considered it important to ask these believers if they had received the Baptism of the Holy Spirit. Obviously Paul thought it was integral to the life of a Christian and significant enough to pursue. In fact, one can infer from his conversation with these men that Paul considered the Baptism of the Holy Spirit to be an indicator of whether believers had a complete understanding of the gospel of Christ revealed by his question, “then what baptism did you experience?” (Acts 19:3). Certainly Paul seemed astonished that not only had they not been baptised in the Holy Spirit but that they hadn’t even heard about Him!

This past Pentecost Sunday is traditionally a celebration of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit in the upper room on the Day of Pentecost as recorded in Acts 2. This particular year also happens to be the 100 year anniversary of the more modern-day outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Azusa Street – an event that led to the incredible explosion of “pentecostal” experience in our world. Our Christian experience is incredibly enriched by the advent of Christ’s gift to the church in the person and work of the Holy Spirit. Without the work of this third person of the Trinity I’m convinced that Christianity would not have flourished as it has. The Holy Spirit convicts to repentance, enlightens to truth, and empowers to witness in His role as counselor, comforter, and coach. Every believer should ask of their church and church leaders, and themselves as Paul did, “Have you received the baptism of the Holy Spirit?”

Next verse,

God gave Paul the power to do unusual miracles, so that even when handkerchiefs or cloths that had touched his skin were placed on sick people, they were healed of their diseases, and any evil spirits within them came out. (Acts 19:11-12, NLT)

Recently, I was given a handkerchief by a lady in my church that she says has been anointed and prayed over by a team of evangelists. It is one of many that they had anointed and prayed over specifically for bearers of the handkerchiefs. She asked me to put it under my pillow at night and keep it with me so that I will be healed of my hearing loss. While I love her as a sister and admire her faith I’ve always been hesitant of such claims about the healing powers of such anointed cloths and such. Why? Because to me it comes dangerously close to replacing Christ as the healer and worker of miracles with an object as that source. It almost takes on a “magical” significance in its inherent healing properties because of it being “infused” with power.

This particular passage in Acts is probably one of the more significant supports used for the practice of anointed hankies. But when I read it a couple things stand out. First, while the cloths or handkerchiefs that had been taken to the sick had been in contact with Paul’s skin…there is no mention of Paul specifically praying over them or “anointing” them. Why is this important? I don’t deny that there’s something going on here but it’s worthwhile to mention that this was an exceptional circumstance….by no means a normative one. The description of this particular event begins with, “God did extraordinary miracles through Paul, so that…” In other words, God was working so powerfully through Paul that handkerchiefs and cloths that as word got out people were taking whatever pieces of cloth that had touched Paul’s skin they could find to the sick and these sick were becoming whole. It seems to me that this was recorded as an observation of something astonishing taking place rather than a description of a regular practice. Second, nowhere in the New Testament are there instructions given to the church or to believers to have leaders’ pray over objects for the purpose of distribution to the sick and ailing. Are we to pray for the sick? Certainly! Are we to lay hands on them? Yes! Are we to anoint with oil? Of course! Those are all explicit instructions found recorded in the letters to the churches and expressed as a normative practice of the church.

With all that said, does this mean that what is recorded here in Acts was not of God or cannot occur today? No, I believe it was of God and that it can (and does) occur today…however these are exceptional miraculous occurences and in my opinion should not be sought out as a regular practice (i.e. specifically anointing and praying over handkerchiefs, and cloths and the like). One biblical story that popped in my mind is the story of the “bronze serpent” recorded in the Old Testament.

In 2 Kings 18 we read about King Hezekiah and the renewal he intiates in Israel as a result of his conviction over their deplorable condition because of sin. In verse 4 it says this, “he removed the pagan shrines, smashed the sacred pillars, and knocked down the Asherah poles. He broke up the bronze serpent that moses had made becasue the people of israel had begun to worship it by burning incense to it. The bronze serpent was called Nehushtan.” (emphasis mine) What was this bronze serpent? The book of Numbers (21) records that as punishment for grumbling against God and Moses while journeying in the wilderness God sent poisonous snakes among the Israelites and some of them were bitten and died. The people came to Moses and repented for their sin and after he prayed for them God instructed Moses to make a replica of a posonous snake and attach it to the top of a pole. According to his instructions, God indicated that if those who had been bitten simply looked at the pole they would be healed and live. This was clearly an exceptional miracle that God worked through an “object” for that particular time and circumstance (and was also a prophetic pronouncement of the work of Jesus Christ – see John 3:14, but that’s for another discussion!). However, over the years this bronze snake became revered so much that by the time of Hezekiah it evolved into an object of worship and distanced people from God.

This is what I fear the practice of anointing handkerchiefs and cloths can become – simply another form of the “bronze snake”.

Finally, a third observation from Acts 19 (turning into a long post indeed :lol:),

…The incantation they used was this: “I command you by Jesus, whom Paul preaches, to come out!” Seven sons of Sceva, a leading priest, were doing this. But when they tried it on a man possessed by an evil spirit, the spirit replied, “I know Jesus, and i know Paul. But who are you?” And he leaped on them and attacked them with such violence that they fled from the house, naked and bodily injured. (Acts 19:14-16, NLT)

Some quick points:

  • The evil spirit knew who Jesus was and who Paul was. Obviously, Paul was known because of the difference Jesus made in His life and the clear mark of the Holy Spirit upon him. You can be sure that any believer in Christ who has the Holy Spirit resident in their lives is “known” by evil spirits as well!
  • The supernatural realm is not something to play around with. The name of Christ in of itself holds no “magical” power. It is only when the name is spoken in revelatory knowledge that it carries weight. In other words, these priests were using Jesus’ name kind of like a magician uses, “abracadabra” The only problem is, because they didn’t really know Jesus and hadn’t embraced the Christian faith there was no weight behind what they were saying. The evil spirit rightly recognized that they had no true authority over him.
  • The lesson is clear…don’t be fooled into thinking you can have authority over evil spirits by simple incantations, or special words…only when you have faith in Christ as your Lord and Savior and when you walk in His authority can you have the gall and confidence to command evil spirits to leave.

Well, that’s all my observations for this post…whew! I look forward to any and all comments 🙂

  1. Thanks for the expose; you made allot of great points-sensibly the reason Paul's hankies etc. healed people was due to the presence of God upon and flowing out of his spirit so that like Peter's shadow healed people/caused miracles so did Paul's radiance of Christ's spirit heal by flowing into his clothing, like medicine on a cotton swab I surmise…In the old testament the scriptures mention after dying that one of the prophets bones continued to be anointed…The points here indicate that, that is how strong
    God's presence was in them and remained in some 'while in the grave' as well can be in anyone of us to that degree or similar as long as we are called to walk in that type of power; it takes God's call to walk in that strong of an anointing, otherwise if we try to make it happen by formulas, or through our own efforts we will end up like the 7 sons of sceva.

  2. I am so thankful I decided to do some research before anointing a hanky that I wanted to placed under my husband’s pillow, which was also a tip from a dear friend. Your post makes alot of sense and I definitely do not want to displease my Father in doing something in my own strength. However, I will continue to pray on behalf of my husband. I will also share the points you have made as well as the references. Thank you.

  3. Paul didn’t ask if they received the Baptism of the Holy Spirit. He asked if they received the Holy Spirit. What you’re doing is eisegeting.

      1. Actually, I agree with everything else, but your About Me.. encourages comments if I don’t agree with something, so there it is.

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Man...that's gotta hurt!