In the book of Acts, many challenged the authority of God in different ways. While Paul was in Ephesus, the seven sons of Sceva, a group of magicians, mistakenly believed that if they emulated what Paul said, they could do what Paul did. In a world where there were too many gods to count, what role did magic have in daily life? How does magic compare to the power of God? Can Christians do magic?

To give us a better cultural understanding of this passage, we’ll be consulting the IVP Bible Background Commentary.

Acts 19:13-20 | The Inadequacy of Magic

Although some Ephesians who knew no better may have regarded Paul as a magician, God seems to have healed them anyway to draw their attention to his message (19:11-12); but God did not bless unauthorized use of Jesus’ name. Ephesus was widely reputed for its trade in magic and the need for exorcisms and protection against evil spirits.

The Sons of Sceva

13Then 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.”

14Seven sons of a Jewish high priest named Sceva were doing this.

19:13. Magic was widespread, but Ephesus had a reputation as one of its centers. Magical exorcists often invoked the names of higher spirits to cast out lower ones. According to magical theory, exorcists could coerce a deity or spirit to do their will by invoking its name. Exorcists sometimes “adjured” spirits (cf. Mk 5:7). Ancient magical texts show that many exorcists were Jewish or drew on some knowledge of Judaism, and these texts include every possible permutation of vowels as guesses for pronouncing the unpronounced name of God (cf. 2:20-21). Others invoked Solomon’s name in expelling demons (Josephus, Jewish Antiquities 8.47). Some later ancient magical texts invoked the name of Jesus alongside other formulas, recognizing, as do the exorcists in this narrative, its efficacy when employed by Christians to expel demons.

19:14. “Sceva” is a Latin name; although Judeans used “high priest” loosely for the highest members of the priestly aristocracy, it is possible that Sceva simply appropriated the title for himself, since few in the Diaspora could have easily checked. Inscriptions and texts testify to other irregularities in Jewish priestly claims outside Jewish Palestine. Because Jewish chief priests would be thought to have access to the sacred name (v. 13) and hidden names, especially of the supreme god, were thought to wield great power in magical circles, Sceva is probably highly reputed in those circles. “Sons” could mean they were part of Sceva’s guild, although it is probably meant literally.

The Evil Spirit Replies

15But the evil spirit answered them, “Jesus I know, and Paul I recognize, but who are you?”

16And 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. 17And this became known to all the residents of Ephesus, both Jews and Greeks. And fear fell upon them all, and the name of the Lord Jesus was extolled.

19:15. Spirits behind oracles could grant recognition to inquirers (cf. 16:17); these spirits instead insult the exorcists. Ancient literature reports that demons were typically unimpressed with orders from those who had no power over them, although they feared God and could be controlled by the manipulation of spirits more powerful than themselves (who may have appreciated the influence this gave them with the magicians).

19:16-17. Paul has more power than the magicians (cf. Gen 41:8, 39; Ex 7:11). Both in antiquity and today, some of those thought to be spirit-possessed can act violently, sometimes demonstrating feats of pain immunity or unnatural strength.

The People’s Response

18Also many of those who were now believers came, confessing and divulging their practices.

19And a number of those who had practiced magic arts brought their books together and burned them in the sight of all. And they counted the value of them and found it came to fifty thousand pieces of silver. 20So the word of the Lord continued to increase and prevail mightily.

19:18. When people recognize that Paul’s Jesus cannot be manipulated like lower spirits, they understand that he is a servant of God and not a mere magician. Some translate “confessing practices” (NASB, NRSV) as “divulging spells,” a possible meaning; divulging secret spells was believed to deprive them of their power.

19:19-20. Magical papyri contained spells; Luke’s term “books” or “scrolls” (NIV) may refer to such papyri. Briefer charms were rolled up in small cylinders or lockets used as amulets around the neck. These magical incantations were so common in Ephesus that some concise magical terms used in charms and amulets were apparently called Ephesia grammata, or Ephesian writings. Books were commonly burned in antiquity to repudiate their contents (in the Old Testament, cf. analogously the destruction of idols in Deut 7:5, 25; 1 Chron 14:12). The total price of what is burned comes out to about fifty thousand days’ wages for an average worker.

In the above verses, we saw what happens when the power of God, the work of the devil, and the vanity of man interact. The sons of Sceva thought they could cast out demons for their own honor just by invoking the name of Jesus. What they failed to realize is that, without God-given authority (Matt 28:18-20), they are just weak humans. The devil, also known as the “god of this age” (2 Cor 4:4), is not to be taken lightly.

The onlookers in Acts 19:17-20 modeled a response that we too should have regarding magic, spells, and spirits. We should want nothing to do with cultic practices. As Christians, we must take verses like these as a warning not to get wrapped up in something over our heads. It’s not enough to simply say the name of Jesus – we must walk in his authority as well.

IVP Bible Background Commentary

IVP Bible Background Commentary Sons of Sceva

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