The book of Acts records that, in Ephesus, God was performing “extraordinary miracles through Paul” (Acts 19:11). These apostolic miracles were to substantiate Paul’s message. Some of these miracles involved casting out demons from those who were possessed (verse 12). Jesus had earlier given His apostles specific authority over demons (Mark 3:15). Paul, as an apostle, had received that authority as well (see 2 Corinthians 12:12).
There were some religious charlatans in Ephesus who pretended to have special, miracle-working powers. Sceva, who is identified as “a Jewish chief priest” (Acts 19:14), had seven sons “who went around driving out evil spirits” (verse 13). Seeing the success that Paul had in exorcising demons, the seven sons of Sceva began using a new formula invoking the name of Jesus. They would say to the demon, “In the name of the Jesus whom Paul preaches, I command you to come out” (verse 13).
This ploy of Sceva’s seven sons backfired one day. A demon they were trying to cast out refused, saying, “Jesus I know, and Paul I know about, but who are you?” (Acts 19:15). The demon then turned on them viciously. The demon-possessed man “jumped on them and overpowered them all. He gave them such a beating that they ran out of the house naked and bleeding” (verse 16). The seven sons of Sceva were no match for the demonic power they were toying with (see Mark 5:1–4).
The result of the demon’s attack on the seven sons of Sceva was that everyone in Ephesus was “seized with fear, and the name of the Lord Jesus was held in high honor” (Acts 19:17). In comparing the work of Paul with that of the seven sons of Sceva, the Ephesians could readily see the difference between the power of Christ and the impotency of pretenders. The gospel made great inroads into that city (verses 20 and 26).
We learn several things from the account of the seven sons of Sceva. First, demons are dangerously powerful spirit beings—much stronger than we—who can cause the people they possess to do incredibly violent and uncontrollable things. The seven sons of Sceva obviously didn’t have the proper respect for demons (see Jude 1:8–9). Second, demons recognize valid authority, and they fear God (see James 2:19). It’s important to note that the authority over demons belongs only to Jesus (see Luke 8:28, 31) and to those to whom Jesus gave it. The demon in Acts 19 says that it knows Jesus and Paul (one of Jesus’ chosen apostles). It refused to recognize any other authority in Ephesus. The demon’s question “who are you?” is chilling in its implications to the seven sons of Sceva and their total lack of authority. Third, demons cannot be cast out via a formula or a ritual or invoking Jesus’ name. There is no power in incantations, even if they include the name of Christ. The power belongs to Jesus alone. Probably the greatest mistake the seven sons of Sceva made was their failure to realize that Paul was not doing the exorcisms. Jesus Christ was doing the exorcisms through Paul.
The problem faced by the seven sons of Sceva was that they had no power over the demon they confronted. They were not apostles. More than that, as religious as they were, they had no relationship with God. They were not believers in Christ. They did not possess the power or the presence of the Holy Spirit. There was nothing in them or their words that would cause a demon to pay them the slightest heed. One proud demon in particular seems to have been fed up with their stage show and gave them a beating they would remember.
At one point in Jesus’ ministry, He sent out 70 disciples to whom He had given His authority over demons. When they came back to report to the Lord what had happened, they were excited about being able to exorcise evil spirits: “Lord, even the demons submit to us in your name” (Luke 10:17). Jesus immediately provided some perspective: “Do not rejoice that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven” (verse 20). What is greater than authority over demons? Knowing God is your Father and heaven is your home.