Acts 19 – Exorcists in Ephesus

Acts 19:11-17 reports the amusing story of the Sons of Sceva who attempt to cast out demons in the name of Jesus and Paul. Jewish exorcists are well known in the ancient world. Legends about Solomon’s great power of demons were well-known. Josephus says God gave Solomon great wisdom, but also remarkable magical powers (Antiq. 8.42-49).

“God also enabled him to learn that skill which expels demons, which is a science useful and sanative to men. He composed such incantations also by which distempers are alleviated. And he left behind him the manner of using exorcisms, by which they drive away demons, so that they never return, and this method of cure is of great force unto this day.”

He goes on to describe a Jew by the name of Eleazar who cast out demons in the presence of the emperor Vespasian and many other witnesses. The method Eleasar used to cast out the demon was strange: “He put a ring that had a root of one of those sorts mentioned by Solomon to the nostrils of the demoniac, after which he drew out the demon through his nostrils; and when the man fell down immediately, he abjured him to return into him no more, making still mention of Solomon, and reciting the incantations which he composed.”

Solomon is not the only Jewish name thought to have magical powers. In Paris Papyri 574, the exorcist says to the demon, “I abjure you by Jesus the God of the Hebrews,” and “hail God of Abraham, Hail God of Isaac, hail God of Jacob, Jesus Chrestus, Holy Spirit, Son of the Father.”

seven-sonsIn Ephesus, at least some Jewish exorcists attempted to use the names of both Jesus and Paul as “power words” to cast out demons. This is the only place in the New Testament where the Greek ἐξορκιστής (exorcist) is used.  When commanded, the demon reverses the usual process and “exorcizes” the exorcists! This humorous scene shows that the God of Paul is not to be manipulated like the other gods of the ancient world.

The news of beating of the sons of Sceva spreads quickly.  The text says that the name of the Lord Jesus was held in high honor (μεγαλύνω).  This does not necessarily mean people became believers. The word appears in Acts 5:13 to refer to the reputation the apostles gained in Jerusalem (“held in high regard by the people”), but certainly in that context people were not converted to Christianity.

What are the implications for modern evangelism and/or church life? While I suspect this will have a different application in the West as opposed to other parts of the world where a belief in demons is more vivid, American Christianity is not immune from using the name of Jesus as a quasi-magical word that someone guarantees we “get what we wished for.” This kind of neo-paganism is common, but very dangerous.

19 thoughts on “Acts 19 – Exorcists in Ephesus

  1. And why have you not said something on the positive side of exorcism. You mean there are not demons in America? Maybe they existed in that world and in Africa, but not in America??

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    • Thanks for the comment, this is exactly the discussion I was hoping to encourage. I would not say “there are no demons in America,” however, people in the West likely diagnose a classic, biblical possession as a mental illness and medicate the person until the symptoms went away. I think there are many examples of Satanic activity in the West, but far more “masquerading as an angel of light” than the sort of thing described in Acts 19. As for the “preaching” of this passage, I might focus less on the practice of exorcism and more on the fact exorcists in a pagan culture tried to employ some element of Christianity to their advantage, and in the next story, former-pagan now-Christians thought they could continue to practice magic despite their relationship with Christ.

      From you comment and blog, I see that you are far more qualified than I to comment on contemporary African use of this passage – how would you, as a pastor and leader in Africa, teach this passage? Does the fact the Sons of Sceva are not believers caution against the use of t his passage as a model for contemporary exorcisms?

      I am not sure what you mean, however, by the positive side of exorcism. Possibly this is because my article was on the historical background of Acts, not contemporary exorcisms.

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    • Let me add this – everyone should read your blog! The three part article on African Theologising is very good and will challenge western Christians!

      “…self-proclaimed spiritualists have seized the opportunity and have established their own driven business empires that continue to swindle the ignorant of their hard-earned livelihoods.” This is as true in America as Africa!

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      • Am sorry if my comment is confusing. I would have expected a positive observation on the significance of exorcism after cautioning us from taking the passage as model for exorcism. I am in total agreeemt with you on that regard. Yet, the fact that such things are happening, whether in America or Africa, doesn’t negate the fact that there is need for practising the right thing. I think keeping quiet, especially within the Western world, continues to marginalise, while robbing Christians, important aspects of their chriatian life.

        Please, know that everyday I read your Acts blogs and have benefited greatly from them. Keep the good work.

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  2. It shows me that God’s not a show pony. He doesn’t turn up and do tricks on demand: not for unbelievers, but not even for believers! It’s a cautionary tale for everyone.

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  3. In Acts 19:17 it tells us that this story was known to those in Ephesus both Jews and Greeks. I believe that in modern evangelism it is important to look at the response this story created from the audience. The blog mentions that other cultures may take this verse more literally in using it against demons or other spirits. I would say that in a literal sense that may be more true but I think every culture struggles with that. Also , towards the end of the blog it mentions how as westerners we are not exempt from believing we can use Jesus’ name for our own magical purposes. I would have to agree that is true at times when we pray and end our prayers with in Jesus name. I believe that no matter where you live or what you believe just because people say Christ’s name does not mean they deserve to have whatever they are asking.

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  4. In Acts 19:13-17, we can see that it was common, especially among the Jews, for people to profess Jesus’s name and try to cast out evil spirits. The Seven sons of Sceva also tried to do this and it resulted in them being overpowered by the demon possessed man. The news of this incident spread throughout the city and people held the Lord in high esteem. Just because people use the name of the Lord, does not mean that they truly believe in him and have a relationship with him. The Lord promised that if we ask anything in His name, He will grant the request (John 16:23). As P. Long mentioned earlier in the blog post, we as Americans are not exempt from using the Lord’s name as a magical tool. We also use his name in hopes that we will get what we asked for. I believe that God will answer people’s requests out of His goodness and not because He is obligated to do so.

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  5. Using the name of someone powerful to evoke some sort of blessing or fix a problem seemed very prevalent during this time. Using Solomon, Jesus or Paul as a way to cast out demons, or even being baptised under a certain person’s name. People were baptised into Jesus’ name but also even into John the Baptist. However, using “power” names or references with regard to spiritual matters is also prevalent today. As Cahara mentioned, people often use God’s name as a magic word to receive things they need, even unbelievers. There is an understandably recognized power behind the name of God, that is not always used correctly.

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  6. I think that at the evangelism church of America dozens consider much with demon possession. I disagree that America things that’s using this is Jesus is name is quasi-magical, in fact I don’t think that’s America takes time to consider it at all. I do agree that’s doing with demon decision very serious matter and can be very dangerous. Lowes 16 I went on a mission trip to New York City and while I was there our group was advised. If we come across the person whose demon possessed we miss leave that area immediately. The magicians who thought that they could use the name are Jesus along with called name to cast of the demon was very foolish. I wonder if Paul thought that’s the Sons of Sceva were very foolish men who thought they could make an extra buck for casting out demons. As they say please demon casting out to the professionals.

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  7. It’s interesting to see the different reactions to exorcism in the different locations Paul travels to. In my major paper for this class, I discussed quite a bit about the possessed slave girl in chapter 16 and why liberating her was an offense worthy of beating and imprisonment. Having looked onto first century Roman law and its cultural context at the time, the most likely charges brought against Paul and Silas was the use of magic. Magic was illegal by Roman law, though it was only punished when it had harmed someone or their property or had disturbed the peace. We are well aware that exorcism and magic are two very different things, but to pagan cultures, exorcism was a sort of Jewish magic and, in a largely pagan city such as Philippi, this was deserving of a brutal scourging and maximum-security confinement. This in itself really goes to show the differences between Philippi and Ephesus, where this resulted in “high regard”.

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  8. In the modern Western world, we don’t often talk about the idea of demon possessions or exorcisms. In your comment above, you mentioned that more often we assume they are mental illnesses and medicate the person until the symptoms go away. But you also mentioned how we tend to use the name of Jesus as a “power-word” or “magical” term that can get us everything we want. I’m going to assume you meant this in the way of prayer, and write on that. What I see happening a lot in our culture today is prayers becoming very selfish. We don’t have an overly-active prayer life, but every time something big comes up, we ask Jesus to fix it. It’s like not studying for a test, but as the professor is handing it out, you say a quick prayer for Jesus to get you a good grade. It’s like we are using Jesus’ name as a prize box or an ATM. Yes, God wants us to come to him with the things we need, but that isn’t all we are supposed to pray for. Instead of just assuming that if we pray for something to Jesus it will happen, we need to remember Jesus isn’t just a magical word, and that our prayers need to be more focused on his will, and not our selfishness.

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  9. We invoke the name of Jesus in the wrong way in numerous ways her in America. In regards to exorcism, perhaps less than countries around the world–I, for one, have never experienced being in the presence of someone who is demon possessed. Having been sheltered in a city where the majority of the population is Christians, this topic doesn’t come up much in conversation or church, for that matter. However, considering the ways that Jesus’ name could be used as almost a “talisman” for getting what we want, we are able to see ways in which we invoke Jesus’ name incorrectly. For instance, we talked in class about the church that sends out symbolic objects, “in the name of Jesus” to encourage the sacrifice of money towards their ministry. These objects are supposed to help you succeed in life–giving you what you want through Jesus’ power. Thank God that we do not live in a world that is run like that–we wouldn’t last long. I can’t help, also to think of prayer nowadays. I don’t know if it’s just me, but sometimes we can use the name Jesus one too many times in our prayers. I know for me I say Jesus about every three word, as if I am trying to get and hold His attention, but I already have His attention. It takes the element of faith away when we are grasping after a miracle to give substance to our belief. Perhaps this is why we are told to “live by faith, not by sight” (2 Cor. 5:7). The Sons of Sceva wanted what was tangible and seeable, instead of the invisible, all-powerful God. Likewise, Americans today want what’s in front of us, those things that we can experience with all of our senses. We use Jesus’ name, whether it’s through selfish prayer or simply as an exclamation, to express a certain heart attitude, both of which are not Christ-like. As for modern evangelism, we need to fall in love with Jesus Christ, not His gifts to us. When we are in love with Christ, our lives will naturally express that love to others, then we just need to start talking.

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  10. I find it interesting that in verses 11 and 12 that God gave Paul power to perform unusual and extraordinary miracles. So much so that even a handerkerchief or apron Paul had worn were placed on sick people and were healed from any disease or evil spirit (Acts 19:11-12). This is similar to that of Jesus and Peter and is relevant in discussing the topic of healings and the Sons of Sceva (Mark 6:56, Acts 5:15).

    The miracles following Paul had given some of those witnessing them a wrong impression such as Simon Magus seeing Phillip’s miracles. Simon wanted that same power and was deceived because of his own selfish interest (Acts 8:9-24). These people wanted to use the name of Jesus to get what they wanted but, in all circumstance, it backfired for them.

    At this time in the Greco-Roman world, Jewish exorcists were held in high esteem for the venerability of their religion and the strangeness of their Hebrew incantations. Magicians and charlatans were omnipresent in the culture, offering various cures and blessings by their spells and incantations, all for a financial consideration. The more exotic the incantation, the more effective it was deemed to be (Polhill. Acts. p. 403). Those who practiced exorcism, whether pagans or Jews, would borrow terms from any religion that sounded strange and proven effective (Polhill. Acts. p.404). This may be why the Sons of Sceva failed miserably and made themselves to be a comedy sketch for those watching. The demon had responded to the Sons of Sceva, “I know Jesus, and I know Paul, but who are you?” According to Polhill, the two words for “know” are different here, in reference to Jesus the term is “Ginosko” meaning to be aware of, acknowledge or familiar with. Paul’s reference is along the lines of respect (Polhill. Acts. p.404). Regardless, the demons are aware of who Jesus and Paul are, but they want to know who they are.

    It is interesting to note also that when Jesus told his disciples not everyone who calls him Lord will be able to enter the kingdom of heaven. They will call him Lord and even do wonderful miracles, but Jesus will say “I never knew you depart from me you who practice lawlessness” (Matt. 7:21-23). The word for know here is ginosko. So, these two contrasts one another, in one they don’t know Jesus and don’t have his power to cast out demons, the other they do not truly know Him, but do cast out demons.

    I think, the western church does not really believe in miracles like this or the casting out of evil spirits. After the Sons of Sceva incident many heard what had happened and the fear of God descended upon them and as a result highly esteemed the name of Jesus and people repented of their sins and threw away their practice of sorcery. (Acts 19:17-20). The more we ignore or water down this form of ministry I think we allow spirits of deception to veil over the hearts of those in the nation. It is clearly harder to see the truth and power behind the Gospel and the nation has the attitude of the demons saying, “Jesus I am familiar with, and Paul I’ve heard of and respect what he did, but who are you?” (Author’s Paraphrase). Demons exist in all nations, and it is important that we grow in intimate fellowship with God as Paul did and be faithful with what we are given and perhaps be endowed with the ability to perform “unusual miracles” with our mere presence (God’s presence).

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  11. The implications that this passage has for the modern world, would be a warning. The name a Jesus may not carry the “magic” that people thought it did. Nonetheless, the name of God and His Son, are powerful names and should not be thrown around by people who do not completely understand the name they are saying. That is what I think happened to the sons of Sceva, they went to try to do the same sorts of things that Paul was doing and knew that he commanded demons out in the name of Jesus. So, they thought that they would use this name to do the same thing. Yet, it completely backfired on them, why? Because they did not really know who Jesus was, they were treating His name more like an incantation rather than the name of the Son of God.

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    • What do you think of Matthew 7:21-23?

      “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven. 22 Many will say to Me in that day, ‘Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonders in Your name?’ 23 And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness!’”

      Just wondering because in this circumstance it would appear that these “followers of Jesus” used Jesus’ name to prophesy, cast out demons and do wonders and yet they didn’t know Him. In this Acts passage, they used Jesus’ name for a similar thing and they got embarassed and beat up. Why is that?

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  12. I think nowadays it is so difficult to know what is spiritual warfare and what is just a side effect from sin. And I think it is a dangerous game to be playing to really get obsessed with spiritual warfare. I firmly believe that if you are a saved human being and the Holy Spirit has come upon you there is no way for a demon to posses you. I personally think that demon possession came be anywhere at any time, not only in the east. I just think that people nowadays have a harder time knowing the difference. Especially with all of the mental illnesses that are coming up today. People back in Biblical times with a mental illness was claimed that someone was demon possessed. I don’t think the name Jesus should be seen as a magical thing. The creator of the universe is more than just magic tricks.

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  13. It is humorous to hear the story of the Sons of Sceva and how they tried and failed to cast out demons. They misused the name of the Lord, thinking that they could harness God’s power foolishly, when in the end they did nothing and were, as you said, “exorcised” by the demon in this story. What’s interesting today is watching all of the ghost hunting shows you see on TV and online with people trying to either find proof of spirits, or just going to “haunted” locations. Many times, when they go to a place where there is a supposed demon, some of the people will try to get its attention, or try to cast it out. Many times, they foolishly use the name of God, but don’t really believe in His power. While modern day evangelism is quite different in how it deals with things like demons, thinking that we can harness God’s power in such a way to further ourselves or bring fame to ourselves is a terrible idea. Those who truly believe in God and understand their theology know that it is God’s power that drives out evil, not our own. The Name of God is something that shouldn’t be taken lightly like what the Sons of Sceva did, but rather something that should be held in high regard and respected.

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  14. I think the use of names has always been connected with a certain sense of assertion over someone. Whether that be something “magic” or something more mundane such as “I know ____, he/she said I can get this special treatment.” So, in the ancient world, it makes sense that the use of names held an amount of mysticism. Some of the “magic” that was practiced back then that involved names certainly could have been a placebo effect. I agree that many people use the name of Jesus as a quasi-magical word, as you put it, in modern times. They think that just because they use the name of Jesus, their prayer will be answered with a yes. That may be the case sometimes, but might also be a no. In modern times, I think the placebo effect of using “magic” for healing has dwindled because of modern medicine and science. We know what cures headaches or the cold, and what doesn’t. Certainly, God can heal a sickness, and I believe he still does, but I also think that God has provided the knowledge of modern medicine as a source of healing.

    In the case of exorcisms, I do think that the name of Jesus holds power. The demons know who he is, and when you let them know you are allied with Him, they are in fear. In America, I think that we are more skeptical of possessions and the like because of our modern advancements and our heavy Christian background. I am positive that things like demon possession still happens in America, but many people have faked it for attention that I think the fear of possession has lessened and therefore probable doesn’t happen as much anymore. In other parts of the world where mysticism is still prevalent, I think the supernatural holds a tighter grip on people and therefore the demons are more eager to act.

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