“Silent witnesses: Handkerchiefs and aprons”
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus.
It seems that a car is just a car, and a dress is just a dress, unless it was once owned or worn by some celebrity.
Take, for example, this pair of Nike Air Jordan shoes which, according to the Guiness Book of World Records, is the most expensive pair of shoes in the world. After they were made sometime between February and April of 1985, they were worn by none other than basketball star Michael Jordan. Coming in at size 13 ½, with “moderate wear and abrasions consistent with game use,” complete with Jordan’s own signature, they were sold, back in May of 2020, for a whopping $560,000. Not bad for a pair of used, worn out tennis shoes!
Or how about this--it’s the very Darth Vader helmet worn by actor David Prowse in Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back. Back in September 2019, it went to an anonymous bidder for nearly $900,000!
Or if that’s not enough for you, maybe you could bid on Marilyn Monroe’s “Happy Birthday, Mr. President” dress, complete with 2,500 rhinestones. Word has it that it was so skin-tight, she had to be sewn into it on the day of the celebration. Back in November of 2016, Ripley’s “Believe It or Not” picked it up for just short of $5 million!
Or maybe just one more--it’s a chair, just a simple chair, that once belonged to J.K. Rowling. Long before she became famous, back when she was a divorced and an out-of-work single mom, she sat in this very chair to write the first two books in her Harry Potter series. When it sold back in April of 2016 for $394,000, she included a note that read, “Dear new-owner-of-my-chair, I was given four mismatched dining room chairs in 1995 and this was the comfiest one, which is why it ended up stationed permanently in front of my typewriter.” And she said, “My nostalgic side is quite sad to see it go, but my back isn’t.”
And strangely enough, some items that once belonged to the apostle Paul became pretty important too.
But before I tell you what they were and what they did, let me take you back to the words of Acts chapter 19. I’ll start at verse 1: “And it happened that while Apollos was at Corinth, Paul passed through the inland country and came to Ephesus. There he found some disciples” (Acts 19:1). Now let me drop down to verse 8: “And he entered the synagogue and for three months spoke boldly, reasoning and persuading them about the kingdom of God. But 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. This continued for two years, so that all the residents of Asia heard the word of the Lord, both Jews and Greeks” (Acts 19:8-10).
Nearly twenty years after Jesus died and rose again, in about the year 52 A.D., the apostle Paul went on his third and final missionary journey. By this time, he had already stopped to visit his hometown of Tarsus, then went on to Derbe, Lystra, Iconium, and Ephesus. And that’s where he would stay for the next three-and-a-half years, the longest recorded stay of any of his missionary journeys.
So what do we know about the city of Ephesus? Actually, quite a lot! With a population of well over two hundred thousand, it was not only a leading political and cultural center, it was the most important city in all of Asia for business and trade. Its theater held twenty-five thousand people. Its Library of Celsus held fifteen thousand scrolls.
But far and beyond all of that, the reason the city was proudest of all, was because of its great temple of Artemis--four hundred and twenty-five feet long and two hundred feet wide, with one hundred and twenty-seven hand-carved marble pillars, inlaid with gold and gems, each one standing a full sixty feet tall. It was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world.
And since Ephesus was such a large and important city, God sent Paul there to preach the gospel. As it says in verse 10: “This continued for two years, so that all the residents of Asia heard the word of the Lord, both Jews and Greeks.”
And along with Paul’s gifts of preaching and teaching came the miraculous gift of healing. Verse 11: “And God was doing extraordinary miracles by the hands of Paul, so 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” (Acts 19:11-12).
Wait a second. Did I hear that right? “Even handkerchiefs or aprons that had touched his skin were carried away to the sick”?!
Yup, that’s what the Bible says.
Let’s start with those two words--”handkerchiefs” and “aprons.”
It seems that, whenever Paul preached, he didn’t want to ever be a burden to any church, so he also worked on the side. So whenever and wherever he could, to support his own ministry, he fell back on the trade he once learned from his father--tentmaking, and along with it, probably weaving and leather working too.
And in that day and age, (just like today), when you work, you sweat. So just like anyone else, Paul would have wrapped a cloth, or a headband, or some kind of handkerchief around his head to keep that sweat off his face and out of his eyes.
Also, when you’re a craftsman, you have a lot of tools. And where do you put them? In an apron that’s wrapped around your waist.
And it’s these handkerchiefs and aprons, caked with Paul’s dirt and dust and sweat, that people took to the sick and the demon-possessed to help and heal them.
Is it strange that God would use Paul’s handkerchiefs and aprons to heal? You’d probably say, yes it is! But it might not be as strange as you think.
Let me take you back for a moment, to the Old Testament, to the book of II Kings. And there in chapter 13, we read that the prophet Elisha died. And just as soon as he died, his friends took him and buried him. So far, so good?
Then the Bible says it just so happened that a band of Moabites came to invade the land in the spring of the year, then killed one of Israel’s men.
So what should they do? They should bury him.
But just as his fellow soldiers were about to bury him, they saw some more Moabite troops on the horizon. And in their panic, since they didn’t want to die too, they quickly threw the man’s body into the closest grave they could find, which just happened to be Elisha’s.
And what happened? Listen to the words of II Kings chapter 13: “As soon as the man touched the bones of Elisha, he revived and stood on his feet” (II Kings 13:21).
Or let me take you to the book of Mark chapter 6. There it says that, just as soon as Jesus got out of a boat by the town of Gennesaret, people immediately recognized Him and began to bring all their sick to Him. Then it says: “They implored Him that they might touch even the fringe of His garment. And as many as touched it were made well” (Mark 6:56).
Or how about one more, in the book of Acts chapter 5. There the Bible says that Peter and all the apostles were performing many signs and wonders. And since there were so many who needed help, people “carried the sick into the streets and laid them on cots and mats, that as Peter came by at least his shadow might fall on some of them” (Acts 5:15).
So if Jesus’ clothes and Peter’s shadow can heal, and a prophet’s bones can bring a man back from the dead, maybe it’s not so strange to think that Paul’s handkerchiefs and aprons could bring healing too.
Now before I tell you what this text means, let me tell you what it doesn’t mean. It doesn’t mean, as some might have you believe, that you can slip a prayer cloth into your purse or wallet to attract more money, or hang one on the inside of your front door to protect you from intruders, or tie one on your car’s rear view mirror to keep you safe while driving, or hide one under your mattress to draw your spouse closer to you, or lay one on your head to get rid of headaches and troublesome thoughts.
And neither does it make any sense to mail in a gift of $1,000 for a faith seed or a package of miracle manna or a bottle of wonder-working spring water.
It’s fraud. It’s superstition. It’s a hoax.
So what does this text mean? It means God’s power to help and heal isn’t found in handkerchiefs or aprons or prayer cloths or bottles of miracle spring water. The power is in the hands of God. And He will heal who and how and when He chooses.
Think about it like this. When Paul’s friend Trophimus was sick in Miletus, Paul didn’t send him a prayer cloth. When young Pastor Timothy was worried sick about his life and ministry, he didn’t send him a handkerchief. And when Paul himself prayed to God three times to remove his “thorn in the flesh,” no apron did a bit of good for him either.
God heals who and how and when He chooses.
But He does heal. That is, after all, what He said in the book of Exodus: “I Am Yahweh Rapha, the God who heals.”
In February of 2005, American journalist, political commentator, and White House Press Secretary Tony Snow was diagnosed with stage 3 colon cancer. Yet in spite of undergoing surgery and six months of chemotherapy, he would die in July of 2008 at the age of 53.
But before he died, this is what he wrote: “Blessings arrive in unexpected packages--in my case, cancer. Those of us with potentially fatal diseases...find ourselves in the odd position of coping with our mortality while trying to fathom God’s will.”
What lessons did he learn? First, he said, we shouldn’t spend too much time trying to answer the why questions--”Why me? Why must people suffer? Why can’t someone else get sick?” Instead, he said, our maladies define a central feature of our existence: we are fallen. We are imperfect. Our bodies give out.
“But despite this--because of it,” he said, “God offers the possibility of salvation and grace. We accept this on faith so those who have been stricken will enjoy the special privilege of being able to fight with all their might, to live--fully, richly, and exuberantly--no matter how their days may be numbered...And the moment you enter the Valley of the Shadow of Death, you discover that Christianity is not something doughy, passive, pious, and soft. Faith is not only the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen, it also teems with thrills, boldness, danger, shocks, and triumphs. God doesn’t promise us tomorrow, but He does promise us eternity--filled with life and love we cannot comprehend.”
Then he said: “We don’t know much, but we know this: no matter where we go, no matter what we do, no matter how bleak or frightening our prospects, each and every one of us, each and every day, lies in the same safe and impregnable place--in the hollow of God’s hand.”
And best of all, when it came to our worst, our greatest sickness of all--our sin with all its guilt--He took it on Himself and carried it all to the cross. As it says in Isaiah 53: “It was our sicknesses that He Himself bore, and our pains that He carried; yet we ourselves esteemed Him stricken, smitten by God and afflicted” (Isaiah 53:4).
So we give thanks to God.
Dear Father, as You once worked in strange and mysterious ways, so work among us today. Grant us strength and faith as You, by Your grace, help and heal us by Your gracious hand, for Jesus’ sake. Amen