Peculiar Passages: The Case of Paul and the Unexpected Handkerchief

Alison Mitchell | August 13th 2019

What do you do when you’re ill? Take two aspirin and lie down until you feel better? Go to see your doctor? Ask someone to pray for you? Maybe even all of those. But my guess is that you don’t wait for someone to bring you a special apron…

But that’s what happened at one time in the apostle Paul’s ministry:

God did extraordinary miracles through Paul, so that even handkerchiefs and aprons that had touched him were taken to the sick, and their illnesses were cured and the evil spirits left them. (Acts 19 v 11-12).

Hmm… What’s going on here??

It seems unlikely that Paul had multiple aprons, even if he had several handkerchiefs, so they probably belonged to the people who were ill. You can imagine a worried friend or family member might take an apron from a sick woman, bring it to Paul to touch, and then return it to the lady who was ill. Or borrow a child’s handkerchief (preferably one that hadn’t been blown in too much!), and again bring it to the apostle.

But why should this strange approach work? It doesn’t seem to have been a normal approach to healing - hence calling them “extraordinary miracles” in verse 11 - so why now?

To answer that we need to look a few verses earlier in Acts:

Paul entered the synagogue and spoke boldly there for three months, arguing persuasively about the kingdom of God. But some of them became obstinate; they refused to believe and publicly maligned the Way. So Paul left them. He took the disciples with him and had discussions daily in the lecture hall of Tyrannus. This went on for two years, so that all the Jews and Greeks who lived in the province of Asia heard the word of the Lord. (Acts 19 v 8-10)

In verse 9 we see that those in the synagogue, who Paul first told the gospel to, “became obstinate; they refused to believe and publicly maligned the Way”. So Paul instead began to teach “the Way” (Christian belief) to the Gentiles instead. During the next two years, “all the Jews and Greeks who lived in the province of Asia heard the word of the Lord”. That’s a LOT of people.

How did so many people come to hear gospel truth? They wouldn’t all fit into the lecture hall. But the “extraordinary miracles” Paul was doing would certainly get lots of attention. 

One of the results of all this attention was that other people tried to do the same thing, but with far different, and painful, results (v 13-16). Therefore “the name of Jesus was held in high honour” (v 17) and “the word of the Lord spread widely and grew in power” (v 20).

In the New Testament, miracles point to the truth about Jesus and his gospel (see John 20 v 30-31, Acts 3 v 16; 5 v 12-16). We now have that truth recorded faithfully for us in Scripture, which is why we can’t expect to be healed by any old apron today. But the great-apron-and-handkerchief-experience was greatly used by the Lord at the time to grow his church.

Alison Mitchell

Alison Mitchell is a Senior Editor at The Good Book Company, where she has worked on a range of products including Bible-reading notes for children and families, and the Christianity Explored range of resources. She is the author of the award-winning Jesus and the Lions' Den.