Acts 19:11–20 (ESV)✞: The Sons of Sceva
During Paul’s stay in Ephesus God keeps doing “extraordinary miracles” by his hand, “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” (vv. 11-12 (ESV)✞).
Hearing how much success Paul is having, some “itinerant Jewish exorcists” decide to try the same approach:
13 Then some of the itinerant Jewish exorcists undertook to invoke the name of the Lord Jesus over those who had evil spirits, saying, “I adjure you by the Jesus whom Paul proclaims.” 14 Seven sons of a Jewish high priest named Sceva were doing this.
The phrase “whom Paul proclaims” always made me chuckle. But as it turns out the name of Jesus is not just a magic incantation that one can use, so this approach doesn’t work well for them:
15 But the evil spirit answered them, “Jesus I know, and Paul I recognize, but who are you?” 16 And the man in whom was the evil spirit leaped on them, mastered all of them and overpowered them, so that they fled out of that house naked and wounded.
This has two effects in the city of Ephesus:
- The name of Jesus is spread even more far and wide, so even more people come to faith, and
- A number of people who had previously “practiced magic arts” (v. 19 (ESV)✞) not only renounce their ways, but they actually get together and burn their magic books, worth fifty thousand pieces of silver (which the ESV Study Bible calculates to be about $6 million in today’s currency (presumably USD)).
My first thought on this passage is to notice that so many exorcisms are happening in this time period that there are actually itinerant Jewish exorcists around! Making a living roaming the land, exorcising demons!
Does that mean there are actually that many demon possessions? Not necessarily. There are always charlatans out there claiming to provide other-wordly services, so it’s quite possible that these men are of that ilk. However, we also saw Jesus Himself casting out demons in the Gospels, so there were at least some genuine possessions that were happening.
Regardless of whether the men were genuine or not, however, one thing is clear: what Paul was doing, and the power everyone saw from the invocation of Jesus’ name, was of a much different nature from the magic that was being performed by others. Those in Ephesus who are practicing magic arts don’t see these things and decide that they’ve got a new tool they can use; “under some circumstances I’ll use this magic, and under some circumstances I’ll invoke the name of this Jesus fellow (though I’ll have to be careful because it’s powerful), and under some circumstances I’ll use this other magic.” They don’t see it as another form of magic or another form of power, they see it as something totally unique from anything they’ve seen before. So much so that they immediately decide to give up the entire profession of magic altogether!
And it probably goes without saying, but by no means is this passage promoting book burning. This isn’t an angry mob storming people’s houses to take their books and burn them; this is people getting rid of their own possessions, which they now consider to be sinful. It’s an application of Jesus telling his disciples that if your eye causes you to sin you should pluck it out and if your hand causes you to sin you should cut it off; we’re all very quick to point out that you shouldn’t take this too literally and start removing parts of your body, but giving up $6M worth of goods because you’re afraid keeping them might prove to be a temptation? That’s a wise application of Jesus’ principle.
To wrap this post up, though, it’s worth going back to the purpose and intent of all of this: God doesn’t display His power in such dramatic ways simply because He’s a show-off. If that were the case He’d be doing it all the time! Even in Acts, where miracles are happening quite a bit, we’re not usually seeing this level of God’s power displayed. To get to the reason as to why He works in this way in this time and place, we need only look to the result: a number of people who’d formerly thought they had a lot of power are suddenly confronted with what real power is, and as a result they come to saving faith and worship God. In a city with so many magicians, God chooses to display his power in a way that they will understand.