5-17 Child Of The Devil / The Sons of Sceva
Acts 13:10: “And said, O full of all subtilty and all mischief,
thou child of the devil, thou enemy of all righteousness, wilt thou
not cease to pervert the right ways of the Lord?”
See exposition of John
8: 44 and section 2-4 “The Jewish Satan"
Acts 19:13-16: “God wrought special miracles by the hands of Paul: So that from his body were brought unto the sick handkerchiefs or aprons, and the diseases departed from them, and the evil spirits went out of them. 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 preaches. 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 you? 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”.
The passage begins with the statement that “the diseases departed from them, and the evil spirits went out of them” (Acts 19:12). Clearly diseases and “evil spirits” are paralleled. There are a number of parallels between the language used of 'casting out' demons, and that used about healings. Jesus "rebuked" demons in Mk. 9:25, and yet He "rebuked" a fever (Lk. 4:39) and the wind (Mt. 8:26). Demons are spoken of as having "departed" (Mt. 17:18), yet we read of leprosy 'departing' (Mk. 1:42) and here of the diseases 'departing' after cure (Acts 19:12).
The diseases were thought to be caused by evil spirits inhabiting the people. The disease in view here is clearly mental, because “the man in whom the evil spirit was” (:16) had a violent episode involving the display of great strength, typical of a psychotic episode observed amongst the mentally ill. But people experiencing those episodes do not have superhuman power; their mental disposition enables the release and mastery of physical strength not normally in their power to use, just as a mother seeing her young child trapped beneath a heavy car can find [apparently] superhuman strength to lift the car up and release the child from beneath it. Her strength is psychologically released and not superhuman in origin. I mentioned elsewhere the way that the language of “demons” decreases over the period of the New Testament; the miracles of the Lord Jesus demonstrated that if they existed, then they were effectively of no power. Here, we read of “evil spirits”, and Biblically, the spirit refers to the mind. Understanding was improving by this point, although far from accurate still. The mental illness of the man was indeed a problem of the ‘spirit’.
Throughout Old and New Testament times there was the belief that by calling the name of a god over a sick person, demons could be exorcised. And this incident is an example. There is much emphasis on the use of the name of Christ to cast out demons/heal diseases (Mk. 16:17; Acts 3:6; 4:10; 16:18; 19:13–16; James 5:14). This has some similarity with the way in which the pagans repeated the names of their gods to exorcise what they believed to be demons. We can therefore come to the conclusion that in the demonstration of His power as being greater than that of other ‘gods’ and so–called ‘demons’, Yahweh is very indirect about it, and does so through alluding closely to the style and language which those false systems used. If this is truly appreciated, it will be evident that just because the New Testament sometimes uses the style and language of the surrounding paganism, this is no proof that those pagan beliefs have any substance. The point of the incident here in Acts 19 was to prove that the name of Jesus was no mere talisman, but was only powerful in the mouths of those who genuinely believed in Him.
When we read that “the evil spirit” replied to the seven men (Acts 19:15), this is clearly parallel with “the man in whom the evil spirit was” (Acts 19:16) who jumped on the men after first stating that he does not recognize their authority, whereas he does recognize the authority of Paul and Jesus. We read in 1 Jn. 4:1 of ‘spirits’ who should not be believed, and the reference clearly is to human teachers whose message should be analysed and rejected if it were false. A ‘spirit’ can therefore refer to a person- the Lord Jesus is called “the Lord the Spirit” in 2 Cor. 3:18 RV.
We note that Sceva is called “high priest” (Acts 19:14- this is the word usually used for the singular “High Priest”). His claim was fraudulent, but again we find the New Testament describing things from the perspective of how they appeared to people, without a footnote, as it were, pointing out that the understanding or claims were incorrect. And this explains why there likewise is no specific note to the effect that the understandings of demons and evil spirits were not in fact correct.
In the Jewish Testament of Solomon Chapter 18 there is extensive information about the practices of the itinerant exorcists in the area of Ephesus and this provides a clearer picture of what Sceva was about (1). The Jewish itinerant exorcists claimed to heal by calling the names of Angels over the sick, claiming they had access to the heavenly areas where demons supposedly existed, and there had power to expel the demons. The way that these men were beaten and their powers and belief system exposed as so powerless is surely intentional; indicating that the whole idea of evil spirits, battles in Heaven etc. was being deconstructed by the whole incident. The man “overpowered” them; the power of his illness was greater than their powers. The sick man claimed that he did not recognize the power of these men and therefore their belief systems were powerless. In contrast the name of Jesus as believed by Paul was powerful. The theme of deconstruction continues when we discover that the man’s question “Who are you?” (:15) is in fact part of the very formula used by the Jewish exorcists (2); they asked this question of the [supposed] demon and then claimed to cast it out. The man was turning things around, implying that the exorcists were the ones who were spirit possessed and he was the one with power to cure them. This is why the seven men are described as running away naked and traumatized [:16 Gk.]- the behaviour and situation associated typically with the ‘possessed’. It may well be that the Jewish heresy of worshipping Angels which Paul warned the Colossians against was in fact the work of Sceva and his itinerant Jewish teachers- Colosse was 120 miles from Ephesus, so Sceva’s itinerant influence may well have been there too. In that same context, Paul teaches that Christ has “disarmed” the supposed [demonic] rulers and authorities which the Jews thought brought sickness (Col. 2:15); if they existed, then they are powerless and therefore effectively non-existent. Christ is in any case “head over every power and authority” (Col. 2:10 NIV).
The record in Acts 19 goes on to record how exactly because of this incident, there was a huge turning away from the practice of such ‘magic’ and towards the word of God. This completes the victory of Christ through Paul, both practically and intellectually- the wrong ideas concerning demons, Angels and exorcism have been publically demonstrated to be wrong, and people turn to Christ in spirit and in truth: “This became known to all that dwelt at Ephesus, both Jews and Gentiles; and fear fell upon them all. And the name of the Lord Jesus was magnified. Many also of those that had believed came, confessing and declaring their sinful deeds. And not a few of those that practised magical arts brought their books together and burned them in the sight of all; and they counted the price of them, and found it fifty thousand pieces of silver. So the word of the Lord spread widely and grew in power” (Acts 19:17-20).
(1) This is demonstrated at great length in Arnold Clinton, ‘Sceva, Solomon and Shamanism’, Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society Vol. 55 (1): 7–26.
(2) Pablo Torijano, Solomon the Esoteric King. From King to Magus (Leiden: Brill, 2002) pp. 51,52.