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In Acts 19, there were a few traveling Jews that had heard Paul was removing demons by the name of Jesus, so they attempted to do the same:

"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 preacheth.

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 ye?

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.

And this was known to all the Jews and Greeks also dwelling at Ephesus; and fear fell on them all, and the name of the Lord Jesus was magnified." Acts 19:13-17

However, in Luke 9 (assuming this is the same author), we are told:

"And John answered and said, Master, we saw one casting out devils in thy name; and we forbad him, because he followeth not with us.

And Jesus said unto him, Forbid him not: for he that is not against us is for us." Luke 9:49-50

The Jew in Luke 9:49 was casting out demons by the name of Yeshua with success, but the exorcism in Acts 19:13 went wrong. Does anything in these texts explain the difference?

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  • Jesus' command of Luke 9:49 is not disobeyed in Acts 19:13, as the Jewish exorcists did not directly use the Name.
    – Betho's
    Feb 15, 2023 at 1:25

6 Answers 6

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I think the full story isn't told and some details are left out. This is my impression: These traveling exorcists were initially implementing their traditional practices when they realized they were in over their heads. In a desperate attempt they tried to emulate what the disciples have done but these Jewish exorcists had not received the spirit (they weren't born again), so they failed miserably. Even the following phrase they use is a little strange: "I adjure you by the Jesus whom Paul proclaims". Also, Remember Matthew 7:22? Apparently some can cast out demons in Christ's name even though they don't have the spirit. But then look at Mark 9:29 - there are apparently different types of demons that require different levels of faith (I'm assuming)...apparently they picked the wrong demons to play around with without Christ living within them.

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  • Hello Helzgate, thank you. I like this answer. You mentioned Mark 9:29, and I agree that it shows not all demons can easily be removed. But the Jews in Acts were attacked, and I don't understand what they did so bad that would cause these terrible things. The apostles couldn't remove the demons, but they were simply ineffective; and they also hadn't received the spirit at this point because it wasn't given until after Yeshua's resurrection. I'm wondering if John 9:3 might explain what I'm thinking. Anyways, great answer and you've got me thinking which always makes me happy.
    – Cannabijoy
    Aug 20, 2016 at 14:46
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The answer, I believe, is contained in the latter passage: Forbid him not: for he that is not against us is for us. The Apostles complaint, according to one ancient interpretation, was based somewhat on envy:

What therefore is the meaning of his “not walking with us,” or what is the force of the expression? Look then; for I will tell you as well as I can.* The Saviour gave the holy Apostles authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to heal all disease and all sickness among the people. And so they did; nor was the grace given them ineffectual. For they returned with joy, saying; Lord, even the devils are subject to us in Thy name [Luke 10:17]. They imagined, therefore, that leave was given not to any one else but to themselves alone to be invested with the authority which He had granted them. For this reason they draw near, and want to learn, whether others also might exercise it, even though they had not been appointed to the apostleship, nor even to the office of teacher.

Cyril of Alexandria, A Commentary upon the Gospel according to St. Luke, Sermon LV

The Lord, however, is able to see into the hearts of all and clearly understood that the one casting out demons in His name was, in fact, for Him and not against Him - even though he was not numbered as one of the Apostles.

"We must," however, "examine such things carefully," Cyril writes.

He says; for he who is not against you is on your part.” For on the part of us who love Christ, are all who wish to act to His glory, and are crowned by His grace. And this is a law to the churches continuing even to this day. For we honour only those who lift up holy hands, and purely and without fault or blame, in Christ’s name, rebuke unclean spirits, and deliver multitudes from various diseases: for we know that it is Christ Who worketh in them.

For there are verily men, who have not been counted worthy of Christ’s grace, but make the reputation of being saints and honourable an opportunity of gain. Of such one may say, that they are bold and shameless hypocrites, who seize honours for themselves, even though God has not called them thereto; they praise themselves, and imitate the bold doings of the false prophets of old, of whom God said: I have not sent the prophets, yet they ran: I have not spoken unto them, yet they prophesied [Jeremiah 23:21]. And so too may He say of these, I have not sanctified them, but they falsely assume the gift for themselves: they have not been counted worthy of My grace, but wickedly seize those things which I bestow on such alone as are worthy to receive them.

Ibid.

The sons of Sceva belong to this latter class described by Cyril. Their motivation was entirely impure. John Chrysostom wrote (4th c.):

So entirely did they do all by way of trade! Observe: vagabond, or, itinerant, Jewish exorcists. And to believe indeed, they had no mind; but by that Name they wished to cast out the demons.

On the contrary, he writes, they had no faith whatsoever in Christ:

Then not the Name does anything, unless it be spoken with faith. (h) See how they used their weapons against themselves! (j) So far were they from thinking Jesus to be anything great: no, they must needs add Paul, as thinking him to be something great. Here one may marvel how it was that the demon did not coöperate with the imposture of the exorcists, but on the contrary exposed them, and laid open their stage-play.

Homily XLI on the Acts of the Apostles

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    The only exegetical bit of Cyril's theological musings concerns the word 'vagabond' from which he draws a huge, unsubstantiated conclusion. What can we conclude, if anything, from the actual texts?
    – Schuh
    Aug 19, 2016 at 20:02
  • Thank you @Schuh, I was going to ask why being a traveler was such a terrible thing. And thank you for the edit, that is exactly what I wanted to ask. NonTheologian, thank you for the answer, but nothing about Acts 19 indicates that the Jews were any different than the Jew in Luke 9:49. The Jew in Luke 9:49 knew Yeshua was teaching, and the apostles don't say this man "wasn't numbered among us the apostles", but that he didn't even "follow with us". So what did the Jews in Acts 19 do that was so bad- not only were they unsuccessful- they were attacked?
    – Cannabijoy
    Aug 20, 2016 at 3:56
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It is such a good question , and the answers I went through are profound.

I believe that it must also be noted that the authority to cast out devils was given them that believe in Jesus Christ of Nazareth (Mark 16:17). The Sons of Sceva had no relation with Jesus, but only heard what Paul had proclaimed about him. Had they followed Paul through Jesus' instructions, it could be argued that they would not have been saying, "We adjure you by Jesus whom Paul preacheth", but by the Christ personal to themselves, because they would have received Him -- Christ in them, and them in Christ.

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Right here is your answer. And the evil spirit answered and said, Jesus I know, and Paul I know; but who are ye? They were using Jesus' name but did not believe in him. They had no faith in Jesus.

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  • In short, they were using magic, by Frazier's definition. They were attempting to use words to control spiritual powers instead of trustng in God. You get straight to the heart of the matter. Feb 14, 2023 at 8:11
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    Feb 14, 2023 at 13:38
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At the beginning of the second book, Herodotus offers a kind of policy statement, which has been taken as central to the understanding of these passages, though it may well be thought to mystify things rather than explain them (2.3.2):

Τὰ μέν νυν θεῖα τῶν ἀπηγημάτων οἷα ἤκουον, οὐκ εἰμὶ πρόθυμος ἐξηγέεσθαι, ἔξω ἢ τὰ οὐνόματα αὐτῶν μοῦνον, νομίζων πάντας ἀνθρώπους ἴσον περὶ αὐτῶν ἐπίστασθαι· τὰ δ’ ἂν ἐπιμνησθέω αὐτῶν, ὑπὸ τοῦ λόγου ἐξαναγκαζόμενος ἐπιμνησθήσομαι.

Now, such stories as I heard about the gods I am not ready to relate, except their names, for I believe that all men are equally knowledgeable about them; and I shall say about them what I am constrained to say by the course of my history.

A similar statement is found at 2.65.2, where Herodotus mentions “matters of divinity, which I am especially averse to treating; I have never touched upon such except where necessity has compelled me”. These passages have been adduced as evidence that Herodotus’ approach is one of agnosticism, empiricism or scepticism, by for instance Linforth, Lloyd, and most recently Scullion: “Herodotus ... aligns himself with the intellectual tradition of scepticism about the gods going back to Xenophanes”.3 This intellectual tradition is perhaps not so religiously uncontaminated as some would hope, though (we will take a brief look at Xenophanes towards the end of this article, where the first “policy[5|6] statement” will also be further treated), —and in the case of the present passages, where an explicit taboo forbids Herodotus the mention of certain religious matters and names, I cannot understand to what possible use any talk of “scepticism” or “agnosticism” could be. One scholar who has made a positive contribution towards the understanding of these passages is Sourdille (1925), who suggested that the taboo concerned matters which Herodotus identified with the Greek Mysteries and therefore was forbidden to utter (cf. especially 2.171.1, cited above). This explanation is in fact accepted by Lloyd, albeit grudgingly: “Sourdille’s suggestion ... is quite untenable as a general rule, though in some cases it does operate (II, 61, 86, 132, 170, 171; ...)”.4 But these happen to be the very cases that interest us—the ones where Herodotus explicitly states that it is forbidden for him to utter something. For certain reasons, which I will come back to, I believe that Sourdille’s suggestion is incorrect, or at least comes into play only as a secondary explanation. Robert Parker, seemingly unaware that there was a problem, cites Hdt. 2.86 as an example of it being “sacrilegious to mention Dionysus in connection with death” (my italics).5 He further adduces Demosthenes 60.30 and Plato, Menexenus 238b, both of which are examples of funerary orations. The latter passages are also cited, together with E. Hel. 1307, by Thomas Harrison as examples of a “taboo concerning the naming of gods in certain contexts”. 6 Harrison declines to discuss which contexts this is, however. The passage from Helen mentions an ἄρρητος κόρη, an unspeakable girl: this is Persephone,7 about whom more later. The passages from Demosthenes and Plato read as follows:

οὐκ ἐλάνθανεν Οἰνείδας ὅτι Κάδμου μὲν Σεμέλη, τῆς δ’ ὃν οὐ πρέπον ἐστὶν ὀνομάζειν ἐπὶ τοῦδε τοῦ τάφου.

It was not unkown to the Oeneidae that Semele was the daughter of Kadmos, her son he whose name it is not proper to mention by this grave.

θρεψαμένη δὲ καὶ αὐξήσασα πρὸς ἥβην ἄρχοντας καὶ διδασκάλους αὐτῶν θεοὺς ἐπηγάγετο· ὧν τὰ μὲν ὀνόματα πρέπει ἐν τῷ τοιῷδε ἐᾶν – ἴσμεν γάρ – οἳ τὸν βίον ἡμῶν κατεσκεύασαν πρός τε τὴν καθ’ ἡμέραν δίαιταν, τέχνας πρώτους παιδευσάμενοι, καὶ πρὸς τὴν ὑπὲρ τῆς χώρας φυλακὴν ὅπλων κτῆσίν τε καὶ χρῆσιν διδαξάμενοι.

And when she had nurtured and reared them up to man’s estate, she introduced gods to be their governors and tutors; the names of whom it behoves us to pass over in this discourse, since we know them; and they set in order our mode of life, not only in respect of daily business, by instructing us before all others in the arts, but also in[6|7] respect of the guardianship of our country, by teaching us how to acquire and handle arms. (Bury 1929) Herodotus, Dionysus, and the Greek death taboo. The Homeric Hymn to Demeter and the construction of the “chthonic” in Greek literary tradition

The syntactic unit "ὀνομάζειν ἐπὶ" of Acts 19:13 is pertinent to understand what went wrong.

"whose name they were not to declare those who had spirits, the evil ones" Acts 19:13

The phrase ὁρκίζω ὑμᾶς Acts 19:13 represents the second part about the error of the exorcists. Appears in Genesis 50:6; 1 Ki. 2:42; 22:16; 2 Cr. 18:15; Song of Solomon 2:7; 3:5; 5:8; 8:4; Dan. 6:13 and Mk. 5:7, where it is possible to understand that the supplication is a verbal contract subordinated to the strongest, which in the case of the exorcists were the evil spirits for the simple fact that there was an unauthorized outsourced exorcism described in the phrase "to whom Paul preaches" ( Acts 19:13 KJV)

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The motive that drawn these Jews to do exorcism was given in Luke 19:11-12;

11 God did extraordinary miracles through Paul,

12 so that even handkerchiefs and aprons that had touched him were taken to the sick, and their illnesses were cured and the evil spirits left them. (NIV)

It has to say, even Jesus never did a miracle without his knowing. Therefore the miracles as described in verse 12 is more amazing than the bleeding woman who healed by touching the edge of Jesus cloak (Luke 8:44).

If the Lord allowed, a miracle can only be done in two further conditions;

  • The faith of the one who perform the miracle, (Matthew 21:21 - Jesus replied, “Truly I tell you, if you have faith and do not doubt, not only can you do what was done to the fig tree, but also you can say to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and it will be done.)
  • The faith of the one who receive the miracle, (Luke 8:48 - Then he (Jesus) said to her, “Daughter, your faith has healed you. Go in peace.”)

Then, what went wrong did the Jewish exorcists in Acts 19:13?

The answer is in their word: “In the name of the Jesus whom Paul preaches, I command you to come out.” (Luke 19:13 NIV)

The additional word "whom Paul preaches" indicated they did not directly know Jesus, and their faith was not on Jesus, and therefore they failed.

Regarding Luke 9:49-50, the demons was casted out directly by the name of Jesus. But the use of these verses as a parallel to the question may not be appropriate. I have a suggested explanation to Luke 9:49-50 in this link;

How could the person in Luke 9:49 cast out demons without Jesus' mandate?

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