This July 31, 2015
Commentary on the Acts of the Apostles
By: Tom Lowe
Topic #IV: The Church Advancing to the End of the Earth (Acts 13-28)
Subtopic D: The Third Missionary Journey (18:23-21:14)
Sub-subtopic 3: Paul in Ephesus (19:1-41)
Lesson: IV.D.3.d: Seven Sons of Sceva (Acts 19:13-17)
Acts 19:13-17 (KJV)
13 Some Jews who went around driving out evil spirits tried to invoke the name of the Lord Jesus over those who were demon-possessed. They would say, “In the name of the Jesus whom Paul preaches, I command you to come out.”
14 Seven sons of Sceva, a Jewish chief priest, were doing this.
15 One day the evil spirit answered them, “Jesus I know, and Paul I know about, but who are you?” 16 Then the man who had the evil spirit jumped on them and overpowered them all. He gave them such a beating that they ran out of the house naked and bleeding.
17 When this became known to the Jews and Greeks living in Ephesus, they were all seized with fear, and the name of the Lord Jesus was held in high honor.
It was common, especially among the Jews, for individuals to attempt to cast out evil spirits. If we resist the devil by faith in Christ, he will flee from us; but if we think we can resist him by using Christ's name, or His deeds, as a spell or charm, Satan will prevail against us. Where there is true sorrow for sin, there will be free confession of sin to God in every prayer and to man whom we have offended, when the case requires it. Surely if the word of God flourished among us, many vulgar, agnostic, and wicked books would be burned by their owners, and converts would rise up in judgement against professors, who write such works for the sake of financial gain. If we desire to have a part in the great work of salvation, every pursuit and pleasure—which hinders the effect of the gospel upon the mind, or loosens its hold upon the heart—must be given up.
13 Then certain of the vagabond Jews, exorcists, took upon them to call over them which had evil spirits the name of the Lord Jesus, saying, We adjure you by Jesus whom Paul preacheth.
“THEN CERTAIN OF THE VAGABOND JEWS—frauds; con men; sometimes called snake oil salesmen—who went from place to place, pretending to tell fortunes, cure diseases, and dispossess devils, by conjuring up spells, performing magic tricks and applying fake potions.
The word "VAGABOND" is now commonly used in a bad sense, to denote “a vagrant; a man who has no home; a hobo, bum, panhandler, and a worthless person.” The word, however, properly means “one wandering from place to place, without any settled habitation, from whatever cause it may be.” Here it denotes “those Jews who wandered from place to place, practicing exorcism.” Such wanderers and pretenders are common in Oriental countries even now. So were they called who cast out demons by forcing them to leave in the name of God: and in the beginning of the Church, those who had the gift of working miracles, and laid their hands on those that were possessed with demons, were called the same.
That such a power did exist, for some time at least, seems implied in Matthew 12:27: “And if I drive out demons by Beelzebul, by whom do your people drive them out? So then, they will be your judges.” But no doubt this would breed deception; and the present case is very different from that referred to in Luke 9:49, 50. "Master," said John, "we saw someone driving out demons in your name and we tried to stop him, because he is not one of us.""Do not stop him," Jesus said, "for whoever is not against you is for you."The men in the case before us, belonged to a lower section of the class of which we have already seen representatives in Simon of Samaria or Elymas of Cyprus (See Acts 8:9; Acts 13:6.). They practiced exorcisms as a profession.
These Jewish “EXORCISTS” pretended to have the power to cast out evil spirits by magical arts derived from Solomon. We learn also from Josephus, that forms of exorcism, said to have been invented by King Solomon were used with great effect in his days; in fact, they were so effective that the devils cast out by them could never come back. He adds that he himself knew of an instance in which one of his own countrymen, Eleazar by name, had cast out devils in the presence of Vespasian and his sons and officers and a number of his soldiers. The method used was this: The exorcist applied to the nose of the possessed the bezil of a ring, under which was a certain root prescribed by Solomon, and so drew out the evil spirit through the man's nostrils. The possessed then fell to the ground, and the exorcist commanded the evil spirit in the name of Solomon never to return, and then recited one of Solomon's incantations. To give full assurance to the bystanders that the evil spirit had really left the man, the exorcist placed a vessel full of water at some distance off, and then commanded the ejected spirit to overturn it, which he did.
Satan cannot be frightened off by anything said nor by works of any kind, but only by faith in the Word of GOD. In this case, the very cunning spirit, seeing that these pretend “EXORCISTS” have no faith, nor the word of GOD secure in their hearts, laughs at their attempt. The expulsion of Satan from demoniacs is representative of the expulsion of Satan in ordinary cases from the hearts of all men. But even here, as he made fun of those who attempt to expel him from demoniacs by merely evoking the name of Jesus without faith: and in the present day laughs at those who have attempted by works to deliver themselves from his power, for he had dominion over them, and treated them as he pleased. Satan is a most crafty spirit, but his cunning cannot be known except through the Holy Ghost; and he will not be expelled except by the exercise of true faith, and by the most spiritual.
“TOOK UPON THEM TO CALL OVER THEM WHICH HAD EVIL SPIRITS, THE NAME OF THE LORD JESUS.” They imitated the Apostle Paul, and attempted to do as he did, using the same name; hoping to get money or applause, or both, in this way; and it may be observed, that there were some who really did cast out devils in the name of Christ, who did not belong to Him. We read about this in Matthew’s Gospel, where it says: “Many will say to me in that day, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in your name? and in your name have cast out devils? and in your name done many wonderful works? (Matthew 7:22). The reasons why they attempted to cast out devils in Christ’s name were (1) That Jesus had expelled many evil spirits; and, (2) that it was in His name that Paul had performed his miracles. Perhaps they supposed there was some magical power in this name to expel them.
During the times of Christ and His apostles Satan was more active than at any other time, and there were many diabolical possessions—the victims having the qualities of a devil were devilish, fiendish, outrageously wicked, and actuated by a demon or the devil himself. There is no doubt that they were allowed in order that Jesus might have an opportunity of showing His power over Satan, by depriving him the bodies, as well as the souls of men, and casting him out, and giving proof of his deity, divine Sonship and Messiahship. And this power of casting out devils was given to others, not only to the twelve apostles (including Judas, who had the same power as the rest), and to the seventy disciples; but even to some who did not follow Him and his disciples: “And John answered him, saying, Master, we saw one casting out devils in your name, and he follows not us: and we forbade him, because he follows not us” (Mark 9:38). Some did this in the name of Jesus, who do not appear to have any true faith in Him, and knowledge of Him; men such as the vagabond Jews, exorcists, and the seven sons of Sceva (19:13-14). It is awful to consider such a thing, that men were able to cast out devils, but in the end were themselves cast to the devil.
“SAYING, WE ADJURE YOU BY JESUS, WHOM PAUL PREACHETH,” that is, to come out of the bodies of those men which they had possessed. There is a story I read that goes like this: “There was a man who swallowed something that got stuck in his throat and caused him to gasp for air. He was choking and in serious trouble when a man came and muttered something to him in the name of Jesus, and immediately he was well.'” The Jews also made use of the name of Jesus for healing diseases.
“WE ADJURE YOU”—we bind you by an oath; we command you as under the solemnity of an oath (Mark 5:7; 1 Thessalonians 5:27). It is a method of putting one under oath, (1 Kings 2:43; Genesis 24:37; 2 Kings 11:4; Nehemiah 13:25).
14 And there were seven sons of one Sceva, a Jew, and chief of the priests, which did so.
“A Jewish chief priest” is a better rendering than “CHIEF OF THE PRIESTS.” It seems that a man by the name of Sceva, who was a prominent member of the Jewish priesthood, had seven sons. The word “CHIEF” might mean that he was at the head of one of the twenty-four courses (see below) into which the priests of the Temple were divided. This cannot mean, however, that he was high priest among the Jews, since it is entirely improbable that his sons would be wandering exorcists. But it denotes that he was of the sacerdotal order. He was a Jewish chief priest; a priest of distinction, and had held the office of a ruler. The title "chief priest," in the New Testament, usually refers to men of the sacerdotal order who were also rulers in the Sanhedrin. It is highly improbable, however, that one in that position would have participated in this dishonorable calling, and it seems more likely that the title itself was part of the deception. He called himself a chief priest, and that is how Luke described him; but, it does not necessarily follow from the words, that Sceva himself was there, and that all seven were present in the case we are about to examine, but only that all those present were exorcists. The scene is brought vividly before our mind’s eye. The seven exorcists, relying partly, we may believe, upon the respect that their father’s name and title would garner, stand face to face with a demoniac—frenzied, hysterical, and strong like the Gadarene of Matthew 8:28—“When he [Jesus] arrived at the other side in the region of the Gadarenes, two demon-possessed men coming from the tombs met him. They were so violent that no one could pass that way.”
The Twenty-Four Priestly Courses
There were twenty-four priestly courses that administered the services in the temple. These are enumerated in 1 Chronicles chapter 24. Each course had a title associated with it. These were the names of the leaders who headed each course in the time of David. Samuel and David were the persons responsible for establishing the twenty-four courses of priests (1 Chronicles 9:22). Originally in the time of Moses the priesthood was confined only to Aaron and his immediate sons. But by the time of Samuel and David, that family had grown to such proportions that they could not all officiate together at one time in the temple. That is why Samuel and David divided the priests into twenty-four separate groups, which were called “orders” or “courses.” The course in which Zechariah served was the eighth, that of Abijah (1 Chronicles 24:10). Josephus, the Jewish historian, was also a priest and he mentioned that he was a member of the first course called that of Jehoiarib.
The original twenty-four priestly families established by David performed their services in the temple until the Babylonians destroyed the sanctuary in the 6th century B.C.E. When the Jews returned to Palestine, they rebuilt the temple, but they discovered that representatives of only four courses of the original twenty-four were still accounted for (Ezra 2:36–39). Something had to be done to restore the twenty-four courses to their ordained service in the temple as commanded by David. Under the authority of Ezra, the remaining four were divided back into the former number. Thus, a new set of twenty-four courses commenced their administrations in the temple. And though these family courses were different from the ones established by David, it was decided that each course was to retain the name of the family which headed each course back in David’s time. The re-establishment of these twenty-four courses was accepted as proper by the New Testament authorities, because John the Baptist’s father was reckoned to be of this new arrangement. The twenty-four elders mentioned in the Book of Revelation also reflected this new arrangement.
15 And the evil spirit answered and said, Jesus I know, and Paul I know; but who are ye?
“AND THE EVIL SPIRIT ANSWERED AND SAID”—evil spirits, unlike men, always recognized the power of Jesus and some even knew who He was: “What do you want with us, Son of God?" they shouted. "Have you come here to torture us before the appointed time?” (Matthew 8:29). The ‘seven’ had taken upon themselves to use the name of Jesus, but the result was far-removed from their wishes and intentions. “EVIL SPIRIT” is used for the man whom the spirit inhabited, abused, controlled, and spoke through.
“JESUS I KNOW” (better, “Jesus I acknowledge”)to be the Son of God and Messiah, and I admit that He has the power to dispossess spirits, which He did many times while in human form. The two verbs are different in the Greek, the one (KNOW) implying recognition of authority, the latter (acknowledge), as commonly used, denotes a more familiar acquaintance, though originally it had a stronger meaning. The possessed man, identifying himself with the demon, as the Gadarene did, stood in awe of the Name of Jesus, when uttered by a man like the Apostle Paul; but who were these seven pretenders, that they should usurp authority over him?
These pretend exorcists had no personal relationship with Jesus. To them He was only “Jesus whom Paul preached.” They spoke His name tentatively, as an experiment, and attempted to imitate the apostle. To command “in the name of Jesus” was an appeal to Jesus to glorify His name and exert His power, and so when the speaker had no real faith in the name or the power, there was no answer, because there was really no appeal.
Great Crowds Followed Jesus, “for He had healed many, with the result that all those who had afflictions pressed around Him in order to touch Him. Whenever the unclean spirits saw Him, they would fall down before Him and shout, ‘You are the Son of God!’ And He earnestly warned them not to tell who He was” (Mark 3:10-12).
“AND PAUL I KNOW” to be a servant of the most high God, by whom miracles of this kind have been created. It seems like everyone knew who Paul was and of his miraculous power to heal the sick and to cast out demons—“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 19:12).
“BUT WHO ARE YE?” What power have you over evil spirits? What gives you the right to expel them? The meaning is, "You belong neither to Jesus nor to Paul, and you have no right or authority to attempt to work miracles in the name of either one. You are not the disciples of Jesus, nor the servants of God, but the children of the devil, and have no power over us, but instead are subject to us.
16 And the man in whom the evil spirit was leaped on them, and overcame them, and prevailed against them, so that they fled out of that house naked and wounded.
Take note of the clear line of demarcation here between “THE EVIL SPIRIT WHICH ANSWERED AND SAID” (19:15), and “THE MAN IN WHOM THE EVIL SPIRIT WAS” (19:16). The reality of such possessions could not be more clearly expressed.
“AND THE MAN IN WHOM THE EVIL SPIRIT WAS LEAPED ON THEM,” by the power of the evil spirit, which by the permission of God acted in him with great agility and force (Matthew 8:28; Mark 5:4; Luke 8:29). Satan still retains his natural power, though he has lost his moral or spiritual power to do any good. We should thank God that his violence can go no further than the bounds which God had set for him—it was not for his lack of trying or the absence of wickedness, but because he lacked the power to do so.
Several similar instances are recorded of the extraordinary power and rage of those who were possessed with evil spirits (Mark 5:3; Mark 9:29; Luke 9:42). Demonic possession brought with it, as in the case of the Gadarene, the unnatural strength of frenzy,
“NAKED AND WOUNDED”—the first word does not necessarily imply anything more than that the outer garment, or cloak, was torn off of them, and that they were left with nothing but the short tunic (Matthew 5:40; John 21:7). The cloak is a loose outer garment, extending from the neck downwards, and commonly without sleeves. It is longer than a cape, and is worn both by men and by women. Whether the sons of Sceva were entirely naked, or merely stripped of their upper clothing, remains an undecided point.
“AND OVERCAME THEM, AND PREVAILED AGAINST THEM,” though they struggled furiously against each other; but it ended when the “possessed man” laid hold on them, and beat and wounded them, and stripped them naked. He tore their clothes to shreds, and their bodies bore the marks of their vicious brawl. Thus we find that one man was more powerful than these seven brothers, which is a proof that he derived his strength from the evil spirit that dwelt in him?
The Alexandrian copy, Beza's most ancient one, and some others, and the Vulgate Latin version read, "and overcame both"; as if only two of these seven sons took part in this attempted exorcism; though the Ethiopic version reads, "and overcame them all"; all the seven sons. Here, then, we have an unusual deviation from the texts of the oldest manuscripts, which read, “both of them,” a reading which seems to preserve for us the information that only two of the seven sons were present on this occasion. There is no objection to the acceptance of this old reading, despite the fact that other words in the verse referring to these brethren are plural, and not dual. Plural verbs and adjectives are not unfrequently used for dual subjects.
Now the seven impostors were demoralized by the violent outbursts of the man’s passionate rage, and they only wanted to get as far away as they could—men of that class being commonly more or less cowards—“SO . . . THEY FLED OUT OF THAT HOUSE NAKED AND WOUNDED”
It may be noted, as an indication of the truthfulness of the account that the narrative stops here. A writer inventing miracles would no doubt have crowned the story by representing the man who battled the impostors as healed by the power of the Apostle.
17 And this was known to all the Jews and Greeks also dwelling at Ephesus; and fear fell on them all, and the name of the Lord Jesus was magnified.
“AND THIS WAS KNOWN TO ALL THE JEWS AND GREEKS ALSO DWELLING AT EPHESUS.” “These men, both Jews and Greeks that dwelt at Ephesus” is a bit easier to understand. Though it happened in a private house, yet there might be many spectators and witnesses, both Jews and Greeks, who spread this factual account about the city, and who, were to be depended upon to tell the truth. Exorcists were plentiful in Ephesus, and an event as unusual as this was would be looked on as a warning to those who dabbled in the supernatural.
“AND FEAR FELL ON THEM ALL, AND THE NAME OF THE LORD JESUS WAS MAGNIFIED”—The incident just narrated had shown that the sacred Name stood on quite a different level from that of the other names which exorcists had employed. It was a dangerous thing for men to use it rashly, men who lacked faith in all that the Name implied. Men thought more of the Name than they had before, because they saw the punishment that fell on those who had profaned it.
“FEAR FELL ON THEM ALL”; on the enemies of Christ and His Gospel; they feared—after this example of God punishing those that had taken His name in vain—to profane the name of Christ, and even more to blaspheme or speak evil against it.
“THE NAME OF THE LORD JESUS WAS MAGNIFIED,” that is to say, He acquired increasing honor from them that believed in Christ, who thought and spake more highly of Him; and who believed more strongly in Him, and so magnified Him, and gave more glory to Him; Christ is great in himself, and he is magnified and made great, when he is declared to be so, and is treated as such.. The incident showed that the miracles performed in the name of the Lord Jesus by Paul were real, and were performed to confirm the truth of the doctrine which he taught. Impostors could not work such miracles; and those who pretended to be able to do it only exposed themselves to the rage of evil spirits. It showed that there was a real, vital difference between Paul and these impostors, and their failure only served to extend his reputation and the power of the Gospel.
These exorcists were treated more severely than that person, who was casting out demons in Luke 9:49-50: “And John answered and said, Master, we saw one casting out devils in your name; and we forbade him, because he follows not with us. And Jesus said to him, Forbid him not: for he that is not against us is for us.” But the same persons, though not forbidden by Paul, yet by the very disaster which they suffered, helped the Christian cause (in spite of themselves). The harsh treatment cast on those who act in a menacing manner is subservient to the Divine glory, and to the assessment of the servants of GOD endowed with real power.