“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. And there were seven sons of one Sceva, a Jew, and chief of the priests, which did so. And the evil spirit answered and said, Jesus I know, and Paul I know; but who are ye? 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. 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 many that believed came, and confessed, and shewed their deeds. Many of them also which used curious arts brought their books together, and burned them before all men: and they counted the price of them, and found it fifty thousand pieces of silver. So mightily grew the word of God and prevailed.” (Acts 19:13-20)
I would not choose to preach a sermon on the seven sons of Sceva but for the fact that I am working my way through the book of Acts. The details recorded by Luke are bizarre and far removed from my experience. I do not find it easy to comment upon the failed exorcism of Sceva’s sons.
All seven of Sceva’s sons were able to make a living from exorcism. It would be difficult for anyone to do that now. Exorcists at the time of Paul had plenty of work because so many illnesses were attributed to evil spirits. Any complaint accompanied by disturbed behaviour such as epilepsy, schizophrenia, malaria or depression was explained in terms of demon possession. So if a man had the power to cast out demons he could cure the disturbed person.
God was doing miracles in the name of Jesus through Paul –“illnesses were cured and the evil spirits left them.” It was believed that because illnesses were cured then what caused the illness, the demons, were cast out. The writers of the New Testament were influenced by current medical knowledge. There is nothing in the Bible about the real cause of disease. It does not, for example, provide an accurate explanation of how malaria is contracted. Jesus did not come to advance medical science. He came to save men from their sin.
The seven sons were men without authority. Their authority was questioned.
As the sons of Sceva tried to heal a very disturbed man his evil spirit answered, “Jesus I know, and I know about Paul, but who are you?” The man, troubled though he was, respected Jesus and Paul but cared nothing for Sceva’s sons – “Who are you?”
The seven exorcists were not genuine followers of Jesus and so lacked the authority and power to heal in Jesus’ name. They were trying to do good without the means. A painted fire provides no heat. A hungry man does not require a photograph of a good meal but the real thing.
It is futile to:
(1) Preach without belief. No preacher, notwithstanding his eloquence, exercises power without really believing what he says. We have to speak with conviction to convince others. I wasn’t the most personable or even the most amusing speaker in school assembly but I did speak from the heart. Sometimes my pupils were moved in spite of themselves!
(2) Sing gospel songs without belief. I would rather hear a solo from a true believer – sang from the heart – than a polished performance from a professional with no religious conviction. The song of a person with a true love for Jesus is an act of worship – not a performance.
(3) Pray without belief. We often go through the motions and say the things we think God wants to hear. What we pray for does not coincide with the dominant desires of our heart.
Prayer is the soul’s sincere desire,
Uttered or unexpressed,
The motion of a hidden fire
That trembles in the breast.
When my father contracted Parkinson’s disease I had three sincere desires. I prayed that my father would die before my mother! I prayed that my father would not suffer from dementia. I prayed that if the worst came to the worst I would be helped to look after my father. The last prayer was answered – just! [See: An eulogy]
They were punished for their presumption
The disturbed man punished the seven sons of Sceva. He gave them such a beating that they ran out of the house naked and bleeding. Nothing could have been more humiliating for the exorcists.
It is still possible for the world to punish false believers harshly. The tabloid press has been known to beat up and humiliate those who presume to call themselves Christian but whose conduct belies their profession. In the 17th century three successive Japanese Shoguns dealt with the Roman Catholic Church with great savagery because it dressed itself in Japanese clothes.
The Ephesian Christians were taught a salutary lesson.
The humiliation of the Sons of Sceva resulted in
(1) Respect for Jesus
Luke informs us that: 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 honour. Fear can be therapeutic. The humiliation of Sceva’s sons did mean that the name of Jesus was respected. I always believed as a schoolteacher that those who defied authority should be very firmly dealt with. Physical punishment is derided as uncivilised in our society. It is not as uncivilised as the revolting behaviour of the drunken louts in our city centres at the weekend. They care for no-one but themselves and jeer, sneer and spit at the police. Their behaviour is tolerated and therein lies the problem.
Elisha did not tolerate the disrespect of the youths from Bethel. They jeered at the prophet and cried, “Go on up, you baldhead!” (2 Kings 2: 23) Elisha cursed them in the name of the Lord. Then two bears came out of the woods and mauled forty-two of the youths.
God taught David a severe lesson on respect. The ark was being moved from the house of Abinadab to Jerusalem. David thought it was appropriate to move it on a cart. He had not consulted the regulations about moving the ark of God from one location to another. So when the ark was in danger of falling off the cart and Uzzah grabbed it: The LORD’s anger burned against Uzzah because of his irreverent act; therefore God struck him down and he died there beside the ark of God. (2 Sam 6:7) David was both angry and afraid. He abandoned his endeavour to move the ark. The next time David attempted it he did so according to the instructions the LORD gave to Moses.
(2) Sins confessed
Many of those who believed now came and openly confessed their evil deeds. We do not know for sure what these evil deeds were but probably it had to do with dabbling in magic and relying on spells and charms for good luck.
It is important to confess our sins to God and to admit them to one another. It is very wrong to pretend that we are better than we are. Jesus hated hypocrisy. The biography of a famous Christian should never omit the failings of its subject. I have just finished an account of the Charles Finney’s life. It was very instructive but it would have been more so if some of the great man’s faults had been aired. The Bible is ruthlessly honest in this respect.
(3) True repentance
Some of the Greek converts to Christianity, who had practiced sorcery, retained their books of magic spells as a sort of insurance against their new religion not working. This showed lack of faith.
After the rout of Sceva’s boys those who were slow to abandon the old ways repented to the extent that they brought their scrolls together and burned them publicly. This involved substantial financial loss. The scrolls were worth 50,000 drachmas or 50,000 days work by a labouring man. In today’s money that would be about 4 million pounds.
It is wrong to have a foot in both camps. That was the position of the Jews in the time of Jeremiah. They feared the LORD and served other gods. They worshipped the LORD in his temple in Jerusalem but the women kneaded the dough and made cakes of bread for the Queen of Heaven. (Jer 7:18). Jesus said, “You can’t serve God and mammon.”
We should be different from the World. Our values and life style should be distinctive. A Christian must not pursue ambition at work at the expense of serving the church. If necessary, promotion must be forfeited for the sake of the Kingdom. Jesus’ words are unambiguous: “Seek ye first the Kingdom of God.” Nor should elderly, retired Christians so devote themselves to leisure, recreation and pleasure that they are unwilling to accept responsibility for regular church activities. It is just plain wrong to take so many holidays that your fellowship cannot rely upon you for anything.
(4) Success for the gospel
The reaction of Christians to the treatment handed out to the seven exorcists resulted in the growth of the church. In this way the word of the Lord spread widely and grew in power.
Whenever there is visible evidence that men and women’s lives have changed for the better because of their Christian beliefs Jesus is always honoured and his Kingdom extended.
By Jim Reed
Sermons on the Acts of the Apostles