While ministering in Ephesus, God performs miracles through Paul (Acts 19:11-12). Some itinerant Jewish exorcists attempt to replicate the apostle’s success by casting out evil spirits (Acts 19:13-17). Seven sons of a Jewish man named Sceva think that they have mastered an incantation and appeal to “Jesus whom Paul preaches (Acts 19:13 NASB).” They have bitten off more than can chew as the afflicted man questions their authority, famously responding:
And the evil spirit answered and said to them, “I recognize Jesus, and I know about Paul, but who are you?” (Acts 19:15 NASB)The man then proceeds to leave the would be exorcists battered and naked with their physical condition mirroring their spiritual reality (Acts 19:16). The seven sons of Sceva represent the most explicit case of spiritual counterfeiting in the New Testament (Acts 19:14-17).
Sceva is described as “high priest” (archiereus) though he is likely as much a high priest as his sons are exorcists. I. Howard Marshall (b. 1934) explains:
No person of that name ever was the Jewish high priest. Either Sceva was simply a member of a high-priestly family, or he assumed the title for professional purposes in order to impress and delude the public, since a high priest (or his sons) would have close contact with the supernatural; we may compare the way in which modern quacks take such titles as ‘Doctor’ or ‘Professor’. (Marshall, Acts (The Tyndale New Testament Commentaries), 311)Luke Timothy Johnson (b. 1943) deduces:
We know nothing about any Scaeva, and it is difficult to assess the characterization of him as a “chief priest.” There are two historical possibilities: a) Scaeva was part of a priestly family–he certainly was not one of the Jerusalem priests we know about from other sources; b) he advertised himself as such, the way Mark Twain [1835-1910]’s charlatan in Huckleberry Finn advertised himself as the “Lost Dauphin.” But it is also possible that: a) the Latin name Scaeva could bear some of its etymological weight of “untrustworthy,’ and that b) Luke had no historical information to deal with here at all. (Johnson, Acts of the Apostles (Sacra Pagina), 340)Some have wanted to legitimize Sceva’s status because the narrative itself gives no indication that his position is fabricated. While Sceva was certainly not the high priest, the term might be broader than typically thought as it is used in the plural in Luke-Acts (Luke 9:22, 19:47, 20:1, 19). It may better be thought of as “chief priest” (Acts 4:23). Ernst Haenchen (1894-1975) claims that the author believed Sceva to be authentic, rationalizing that the story would only be included if the author presumed Paul had triumphed over a legitimate priest (Haenchen, The Acts of the Apostles: A Commentary, 565).
Joseph A. Fitzmyer (b. 1920) adds another theory, speculating that Sceva was a Jew who defected to a pagan Roman cult (Fitzmyer, The Acts of the Apostles (The Anchor Yale Bible), 650).
F.F. Bruce (1910-1990) concludes that the most likely scenario is that the sons of Sceva are con men perpetuating a fraud:
It is possible that Sceva actually belonged to a Jewish chief-priestly family, but more probably “Jewish chief priest” (or even “Jewish high priest”) was his self-designation, set out on a placard: Luke might have placed the words between quotation marks had they been invented in his day. The Jewish high priest was the one man who was authorized to pronounce the otherwise ineffable name; this he did once a year, in the course of service prescribed for the day of atonement. Such a person would therefore enjoy high prestige among magicians. It was not the ineffable name, however, but the name of Jesus that Sceva’s sons employed in their imitate Paul’s exorcizing ministry. But when they tried to use it, like an unfamiliar weapon wrongly handled it exploded in their hands. (Bruce, The Book of Acts (New International Commentary on the New Testament), 368)Given their falsely citing Jesus’ name in the story, this interpretation fits the context. When a sin, such as duplicity, is present in one realm of a person’s life, it tends to leak over to others.
Whatever else they may be, French L. Arrington (b. 1931) concludes that the sons of Sceva are misinformed:
Sceva may have been a member of a high-priestly family, or he may have been a renegade Jew who had assumed the title to impress others and deceive the public. The exorcists themselves could have falsely claimed to be the sons of the high priest. Evidently, they do not know much about the life and the ministry of Jesus. These unbelieving brothers are simple magicians, and they fail to recognize that the name of Jesus is powerful only when it is pronounced by His authority and with faith in Him. (Arrington, The Spirit-Anointed Church: A Study on the Acts of the Apostles, 303)As Jews in Ephesus, the sons of Sceva are far from home both geographically and spiritually. It is possible that they are a religious order and not literal brothers. Presumably, the exorcism industry was substantial enough in Ephesus to support these practitioners. Their competitors were offering something they were not and the sons of Sceva opted to enter the Jesus market.
Acts is likely implying that the sons of Sceva are modeling Paul who had presumably invoked the name of Jesus. David G. Peterson (b. 1944) conjectures:
Paul’s apparent success at healing and exorcism prompted imitation...These itinerant Jewish exorcists, who were fascinated by Paul’s power and influence, recognised that his secret was the name of Jesus. But theirs was a fraudulent activity, since they were not Christians and used the name of Jesus like a magic formula. Although they sought to emulate Paul...they were unsuccessful. The implication is that the name of Jesus was effective to deliver and to heal only when used by those who genuinely called upon Jesus as Lord. These pretenders did not have the appropriate moral or spiritual integrity with which to engage the powers of evil. Luke further emphasizes the incongruity of the situation by revealing that seven sons of Sceva, a Jewish chief priest, were doing this. (Peterson, The Acts of the Apostles (Pillar New Testament Commentary), 538)The fact that they claimed connection to the high priest may demonstrate their interest in names. William J. Larkin, Jr. (b. 1945) explains:
Since the high priest was the only one permitted to utter the “unpronounceable name of God” and enter his presence in the Holy of Holies on the Day of Atonement, it makes sense that these brothers would use that title as part of their “hype” (m. Yoma 3:8, 5:1, 6:2)...The sons’ syncretistic appropriation follows the time honored practice of piling name upon powerful name so as to create incantations strong enough to require spirits to do one’s bidding. One such conjuration goes “I conjure you by the god of the Hebrews/Jesus, JABA IAĒ ABRAŌTH AIA THŌTH ELE ELŌ...” (Hans Dieter Betz [b. 1931] 1986:96). The name of Jesus, whom Paul preaches is these men’s newest and most potent “power name” (compare Ephesians 1:21). (Larkin, Acts (IVP New Testament Commentary Series), 277)Ephesus proves a hotbed of supernatural activity (Acts 19:1-41), so much so that the abnormal appears normal there. The supernatural aspects of this text (Acts 19:11-20) has proven difficult for some and many commentaries ignore the episode entirely. Kenneth O. Gangel (1935-2009) laments:
In this most difficult of chapters in Acts, readers find themselves with a “John the Baptist Cult,” healing through sweat towels, and now the bizarre account of the seven sons of Sceva. No less a conservative scholar than Sir William M. Ramsay [1851-1939] chokes right at this point. (Gangel, Acts (Holman New Testament Commentary), 324)The fact that the sons of Sceva are performing a cultic incantation is seen in the use of the Greek term horkizo (Acts 19:13), translated as “adjure” (ASV, ESV, KJV, NASB, NRSV, RSV), “command” (HCSB, MSG, NIV, NLT) and “exorcize” (NKJV) (Acts 19:13). Eric Sorensen (b. 1961) relays:
An important term in later magical texts, ὁρκίζω [horkizo] refers to the swearing of an oath, or putting one under the obligation to say or to do something. It appears, however, only once in the New Testament, in the sons of Sceva episode. When ὁρκίζω receives the intensifying prefix ἐξ we arrive at the basis for our own familiar terminology for “exorcism.” It is a compound, however, that also very nearly eludes the New Testament, with one occurrence of a substantive form (ἐξορκίστής), also found in the story of the sons of Sceva, and a single occurrence of the verbal form which appears in a non-exorcist context. The verbal form, “to exorcize” (ἐξορκίζειν) only begins to gain currency with reference to the removal of evil spirits during the second and third centuries of the Common Era, when exorcismus also entered as a loan word into the Latin language through the influence of Christian writers. Its use in this context in ecclesiological writings from the second century of the Common Era onwards led to its eventual adoption also into English, where it conveys the sense of casting out demons from its earliest occurrences. (Sorenson, Possession and Exorcism in the New Testament and Early Christianity, 132)The sons of Sceva are actually correct in identifying the name of Jesus as critical to Paul’s methodology but they wrongly assume that the name can be used haphazardly. C. Peter Wagner (b. 1930) comments:
The central issue here is the name of the Lord Jesus...As all who minister deliverance on a regular basis know, the use of the name of Jesus is crucial. Jesus said, “If you ask anything in My name, I will do it” (John 14:14). He also said that among the signs that follow believers, “In My name they will cast out demons” (Mark 16:17)... The only authority we have to cast out demons does not reside inside of us naturally; it is delegated to us by Jesus. This is similar to the authority a United States ambassador would have in a foreign country. Ambassadors do not go to other countries in their own names; they go in the name of the president of the United States. And only those whom the president so designates can use his name effectively. If I went to the Japanese Foreign Ministry, for example, and announced that I have come in the name of the president of the United States, they would laugh at me...This is exactly what happened to the seven sons of Sceva. The name of Jesus is no magic formula...Jesus had not authorized the seven sons of Sceva to use His name and, therefore, the power was absent...Because they used the Lord’s name in vain, the seven sons opened themselves to a ferocious spiritual backlash that they would not soon forget. (Wagner, The Book of Acts: A Commentary, 438-39)The sons of Sceva arrogate the authority of the name of Jesus. If one is not in communion with the owner of the name, she is not in a position to use it. Graham H. Twelftree (b. 1950) notes:
Through repeating the word ’Ιουδαιος (“Jew,” Acts 19:13, 14; cf. Acts 19:17), Luke draws attention to the sons of Sceva being Jews. This is not to be taken in any anti-Semitic sense, for all his major characters are Jews, but in the sense of not being Christians. In particular, in light of what he has just narrated about Paul, Luke is probably condemning these peripatetics in that they are not God or Spirit empowered. Luke describes Paul as letting God work directly through him (Acts 19:11), but the sons of Sceva are said to rely on a thirdhand source of power-authority...Thus Luke draws attention to the importance of the “spirit” identity of the exorcist. Unlike Jesus and Paul of Luke’s narrative, the sons of Sceva are not known in the spirit realm. Therefore, even though, by implication, the spirit would obey Jesus and Paul, their authority is obviated by the intrusion of an unqualified exorcist. (Twelftree, In the Name of Jesus: Exorcism Among Early Christians, 150)Paul produces miracles; the sons of Sceva perform magic. The difference is the authorized use of the name of Jesus. Spiritual liberation comes not from incantations but rather God’s spirit. Without this power source, we are left to battle with our own insufficient strength. As such, Bob Larson (b. 1944) views the story of the sons of Sceva as a cautionary tale:
Be careful not to presumptuously engage in spiritual warfare. If you do, the protection of God’s guidance might be excluded, as it was with the seven sons of Sceva (Acts 19:14-16). These arrogant exorcists tried to cast out demons without the apostle Paul’s knowledge and authority. They didn’t know Christ and acted in self-confidence. Demons attacked them and physically over powered and disgraced them. (Larson, Larson’s Book of Spiritual Warfare), 26)Bruce B. Barton (b. 1943) reminds that in matters of the spirit, using mere formula is ineffective:
The seven sons of Sceva thought they could manipulate God for selfish ends. If they just had the incantations right, the techniques down, and the process perfected—so they thought—they could “use” God for their own purposes. They failed to realize, however, that Christ’s power cannot be accessed by reciting his name like a magic charm. God works his power only through those he chooses and only at times he determines. Beware of thinking that you can control God by your clever prayers or by precisely following man-made schemes. God is free to do as he likes. (Barton, Acts (Life Application Bible Commentary), 330)How important are the right words in prayer? Have you ever thought if you found just the right phrase or prayer posture that God would respond as you desired? Conversely, have you ever known someone who said all of the right words but had no substance behind them? Have you ever known someone who tried to play themselves off as something they were not? Why are the sons of Sceva engaging in this activity? Are the sons of Sceva successful?
The sons of Sceva were presumably effective on some levels (Acts 19:13). J. Bradley Chance (b. 1954) realizes:
In some sense, the sons of Sceva do succeed in casting the unclean spirit out of its original victim. The man in need of cleansing is rescued—the narrator does not leave this demon-possessed man, with whom readers are likely to show sympathy, without deliverance. Yet the evil spirit is not conquered—it has found some new hapless victims, persons with whom the reader, however, is presumably not to be sympathetic. The victim is released while the villainous characters get what they deserve. (Chance, Acts (Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary), 347)Ajith Fernando (b. 1948) analyzes:
As Ed Murphy [b. 1921] points out, this was a case of evil spirits battling each other—that is, the evil spirit in the possessed person battled the demonized exorcists [ The Handbook of Spiritual Warfare, 349]. How can we harmonize this fact with Christ’s statement that Satan will not be divided against Satan [Matthew 12:25-28; Mark 3:23-26]? Demons can expel and attack other demons to enhance the control of demons over people. Such demon-to-demon attacks only increase Satan’s hold over people. (Fernando, Acts (The NIV Application Commentary), 468)The text’s real issue is the incomparable power of the name of Jesus and ostensibly the believer’s access to it. N.T. Wright (b. 1948) reminds:
The point is of course that Ephesus...was a centre of power: magic power, political power, religious power. And Paul’s ministry demonstrated that the power of the name of the Lord Jesus was stronger than all of them...Luke tells this splendid little tale of the exorcists who thought they could just add the name of Jesus to their repertoire of magic charms, only to discover that the demon they were addressing on this occasion respected Jesus (and Paul as well, as it turned out) but had no respect for them. Here is a vital principle, which Luke has emphasized already in chapters 8 and 13: the gospel does indeed provide power, but it is not ‘magic’. Magic attempts...to gain that power without paying the price of humble submission to the God whose power it is. But to reject the power, as some (alas) do, because you are afraid of magic, is to throw out the teapot with the old teabags. (Acts for Everyone, Part 2 (New Testament for Everyone), 117-119)How do you read the supernatural passages of the Bible? Do you believe that there is power in the name Jesus? Are you known in the spiritual realm? Do you wish to be?
“The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don’t have any.” - Alice Walker (b. 1944)