Acts Lesson Forty: Paul in Ephesus and the Sons of Sceva

God was performing extraordinary miracles by Paul’s hands, 12 so that even facecloths or work aprons that had touched his skin were brought to the sick, and the diseases left them, and the evil spirits came out of them. 

13 Then some of the itinerant Jewish exorcists attempted to pronounce the name of the Lord Jesus over those who had evil spirits, saying, “I command you by the Jesus that Paul preaches!” 14 Seven sons of Sceva, a Jewish chief priest, were doing this. 15 The evil spirit answered them, “I know Jesus, and I recognize Paul—but who are you?” 16 Then the man who had the evil spirit leaped on them, overpowered them all, and prevailed against them, so that they ran out of that house naked and wounded. 17 This became known to everyone who lived in Ephesus, both Jews and Greeks. Then fear fell on all of them, and the name of the Lord Jesus  was magnified. 18 And many who had become believers came confessing and disclosing their practices, 19 while many of those who had practiced magic collected their books and burned them in front of everyone. So they calculated their value and found it to be 50,000 pieces of silver. 20 In this way the Lord’s message flourished and prevailed. (HCSB)

As Paul continues his work in Ephesus, we see God displaying His power. I’ll divide this lesson into two parts.

  • Miracles by God through Paul – verses 11-12.
  • The sons of Sceva – verses 13-20.

Miracles by God Through Paul

As we begin this section, let’s take a look at the history and characteristics of biblical miracles.

  • There are there special periods of miracles in biblical history.
    • The time of Moses.
    • The time of Elijah and Elisha.
    • The time of Jesus and the Apostles.
    • Each was less than 100 years.
    • The total number of miracles recorded for the three periods is around 100.
  • When Jesus performed miracles, there were usually at least three purposes for the miracle.
    • To show compassion and meet human needs.
    • To teach a spiritual truth.
    • To demonstrate that He was the Messiah.
  • The Apostles followed this same pattern, and the ability to perform miracles was proof of apostolic authority.
  • Miracles by themself do not save anyone. They must be connected to the message of the Word of God.
  • God empowered Paul to perform “special miracles” because Ephesus was a center for occult practices, and Paul displayed God’s power in Satan’s territory.
  • However, wherever God’s people minister in truth, Satan will send a counterfeit to oppose that work.
    • Jesus taught this in the parable of the Tares – Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43.
    • Peter in Samaria – Acts 8:9ff.
    • Paul in Paphos – Acts 13:4-12.

Now let’s look at the details surrounding the miracles Paul was performing.

  • The miracles were extraordinary.
    • The people would take clothing articles that had touched Paul’s skin and take them to sick people, who were then healed.
    • The “facecloths” could have been either handkerchiefs or sweatbands tied around the head.
    • The work aprons were normally tied around the waist and used for wiping the sweat from the wearer’s hands or face.
    • It didn’t matter which one was used; the result is the sick and possessed were healed.
  • The idea of an object, in the present narrative items of clothing, is a delicate issue.
    • Jesus’ garment healed a woman – Mark 5:27-34.
    • Peter’s shadow healing people – Acts 5:15.
    • However, the medieval church was plagued by an unhealthy fixation on relic worship.
    • Even today, believers journey to Israel and “worship” the various locations as if the location possessed power. When my wife and I visited Israel, one of the places we visited was Jerusalem and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. I witnessed first-hand people rubbing cloths of various types on the hole in the rock floor where some believe Jesus’ cross was planted. 
    • It is never the item of location that possesses the power. The only true source of power is God.
  • Today we have various “Christian” ministries that will tell people to “donate” a certain amount for a healing cloth or some other item.
    • These are almost certainly not wholesome or Christian ministries.
    • If God has blessed someone with the gift of healing, they should be doing that without charge. Maybe at most, the cost they incur if they travel. 
    • Most of these “healers” are living quite luxurious lives, in stark contrast to biblical standards.
    • The very fact that people will succumb to these false prophets is an indication of how dark and superstitious our culture has become.

The Sons of Sceva

This section of the narrative should cause us to remember back to Simon Magus and his infatuation with Philip’s miracles. The local Jewish exorcists likely were either first or secondhand witnesses to the work of Paul. Unlike Paul, they were motivated by greed and saw a threat to their livelihood. Therefore, they attempted to operate in the same manner as Paul by using the name of Jesus. Luke then goes on and gives a specific account, of the sons of Sceva, as well as how the population of Ephesus reacted to the events. Let’s look at this section in detail.

  • Jewish exorcists occupied a respected place in Greco-Roman society.
    • Judaism was a long-respected religion.
    • The incantations which the Jewish exorcists used were considered strange and exotic.
    • In Greco-Roman society, the more exotic the incantation, the more effective it was thought to be.
  • Jewish exorcists observed how Paul drove out evil spirits by using Jesus’ name.
    • The incantations used by Jewish exorcists were usually long and elaborate, invoking the various Old Testament names of God.
    • When they observed Paul using a name new to them and being successful in driving out evil spirits, they decided to copy Paul’s method.
  • We don’t know much about Sceva, but let’s look at what we do know.
    • Sceva doesn’t appear in any list of priests by the Jewish historian Josephus.
    • We should conclude that Luke wasn’t placing him in an official position by using the term “chief priest.”
    • It’s possible he came from a priestly family.
    • It makes more sense to conclude that Sceva occupied a prominent position among the charlatans and magicians who duped the people.
  • The sons of Sceva decided to invoke the name of Jesus during an exorcism, which went horribly wrong for them.
    • The response of the evil spirit to the sons is both interesting and humorous when the original Greek is read.
      • The evil spirit knew Jesus. We read the same thing in the gospels. The enemy clearly knows who the Son of God is.
      • The evil spirit respected Paul, realizing the power of God worked through him. 
      • The evil spirit didn’t recognize them or respect them. They had no authority or power over the evil spirit.
    • The evil spirit then attacked the seven sons.
      • This narrative demonstrates the power of evil spirits and the truth that battling evil spirits is not something to be done lightly. At the same time, if we are children of God, and have the Holy Spirit living within us, we have nothing to fear.
      • Not only did the evil spirit attack and overpower the sons, but during the battle, they were stripped naked.
        • We need to remember that extreme modesty was a characteristic of Judaism.
        • For the sons to run naked from the house symbolizes their complete failure and humiliation in the failed attempt to exorcise the evil spirit.
    • We learn two lessons from the failed attempt by Sceva’s sons.
      • Christianity has nothing to do with magic. Jesus’ name is not some magical formula by itself. It is the power of Jesus working through the Holy Spirit residing in a believer that drives out the evil spirit. It only works through those who are committed believers.
      • The evil spirit understood the power of Jesus over him. We read in James 2:19 that demons believe and shudder. 
  • The result of this one incident had a profound and far-reaching impact on the residents of Ephesus.
    • It was evident that Jesus’ name  was not some toy but was power.
    • They were seized by a reverent fear.
    • They magnified the name of Jesus.
    • The most significant impact is many became believers.
      • Not only did they become believers, they openly confessed they were previously involved in occult practices.
      • In addition to confessing their previous involvement with occult practices, many brought their magic books and publicly burned them.
      • The monetary loss was enormous.
        • The silver coin was most likely a drachma, the most common Greek silver coin.
        • The drachma was equal to an average day’s wage.
        • The bonfire that consumed the books was worth 50,000 days of wages.
        • The burning of the books was a decision made by individuals; the church didn’t suggest or enforce the action. The lesson for believers is that separation from sin should be normal practice.
    • The end result is the Gospel advanced and overcame the widespread practices of the occult in Ephesus. The advancement occurred through two avenues.
      • Paul’s preaching.
      • The witness of the Ephesian Christians.

Applications

  • Although this passage includes examples of “items” being used to heal and drive out demons, I believe it is descriptive and prescriptive behavior for the church and Christians. This was a power projection to show that God was mightier than occult practices. Although it could occur today in specific settings, it should not be expected as standard practice.
  • Our power comes from Jesus and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. Apart from that power, we should never expect to overcome the darkness in the world. The sons of Sceva learned this lesson in a most dramatic fashion. We need to immerse ourselves in the Word, prayer, and fellowship with God. As we remain attached to the vine, we can accomplish great works for God’s glory.
  • As believers, we need to separate ourselves from any type of occult practice. Those who became believers in Ephesus were heavily involved in the occult, as evidenced by the hefty value of the books which were burned. However, how many Christians read their horoscope or are engaged in some other type of “innocent” occult activity? 

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