I can remember taking a look at this passage in seminary and one of my professors saying quite candidly, “This is the kind of verse (referring to verse 12) that you just wish had been left out.” What are we to make of a verse like this? It sounds an awful lot like pagan superstition, or perhaps even worse like the claims of a televangelist hawking his wares.
In a recent article in Time magazine entitled Does God Want You to Be Rich? we find the following quote. "Who would want to get in on something where you're miserable, poor, broke and ugly and you just have to muddle through until you get to heaven?" asks Joyce Meyer, a popular television preacher and author often lumped in the Prosperity Lite camp. "I believe God wants to give us nice things."
In Lauren Sandler’s book, Righteous, she quotes another popular preaching saying why would anyone want become a Christian if they see you driving a broken down old car? But if you are driving a Mercedes—well, now they would be interested in finding out more about your God.
It’s not too hard to see how a verse like this could be construed as playing into such thinking. Apparently, people believed that the sweat band and apron Paul wore while working (remember, Paul labored at a trade to support himself) carried Paul’s power to heal. Further, they believed that God didn’t want a person sick, diseased, or in bondage to any form of evil. Put the two together and you the makings of a “magic” business proposition that an unethical person could use to take advantage of people and make a fortune. Clearly, people have done just this.
But the rest of this passage shows why such an approach is antithetical to the Christian faith. What God was doing was not “magic”. When people simply tried to use Jesus’ name a magical incantation, it didn’t work.
The effect of all these things was to focus people back on God. Yes, God apparently did meet people where they were, in ways that may seem strangely superstitious and even inappropriate to us. But that was because God knew that Paul would not leave them thinking that Paul himself possessed some magic power. He knew that Paul would be exceedingly faithful in pointing people to the real source of his power: Jesus Christ.
And so when one reads these verses carefully, they find they point to the difference between miracle and magic. They show that the true work of God has a very different result: life change and even moral reform. Seeing the power of God at work (not self-centered magic!) led them to give up things that were of great value to them in order that they might be faithful to the word of the Lord.
That seems very different than the “prosperity gospel”. God doesn’t want us sick, diseased, or in bondage to any type of evil forces. But we trust Him to work in our lives according to His perfect will, not our own selfish and often corrupt desires.
So the real question comes to be—for us every bit as much as it was for the people of this passage: where do you and I place our trust? Money? Our abilities? People? Our job? Things?
Or Jesus Christ?