Episode 19: Casting Out Demons With the Name of Jesus. (And failing?)

Happy Lord’s Day to you, friends and family! Today is episode 19, and we are reading about Sarah’s rescue from Abimelech in Genesis 20 (because Abraham lied again!); The great prayer of confession from Nehemiah 9 (that makes TWO amazing prayers in this book!); The Rich Young Ruler in Matthew 19, and a botched exorcism in Acts 19 that leaves the would be exorcists naked, bleeding and profoundly embarrassed. Those people who say the Bible is boring have most likely only skimmed the surface – so let’s dig into the depths!

Today’s featured passage is Acts 19, and the main topic we are focusing in on is the attempt by the foolish sons of Sceva to exorcise a demon. It’s a very funny story in many ways:

13 Now some of the itinerant Jewish exorcists also 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 high 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 jumped on them, overpowered them all, and prevailed against them, so that they ran out of that house naked and wounded. 17 When this became known to everyone who lived in Ephesus, both Jews and Greeks, they became afraid, and the name of the Lord Jesus was held in high esteem.

Acts 19:13-17

I’ve been in few fights in my day, and I’ve seen a few more, but I have never in my life seen somebody beaten so badly that they run from the fight NAKED. When I was a kid, one of my earliest memories was of a dream that happened over and over and over again for several years. I lost track of how many times it happened because of the fog of age, but I recall this dream haunting me for an inordinate amount of time. In the dream, I would be in my bed, and Satan would come up into my room – usually through my closet, because we all know how scary closets can be! He would come through my closet, pick me up, and start to take me away. The whole time, I KNEW WHAT I HAD TO DO. If I could only utter the name ‘Jesus,’ I know I would be rescued! But, each time, Satan would take me down my non-existent closet stairs into Hell, and my voice would absolutely fail me. No matter how hard I tried – in my dream – I could not say the name ‘Jesus.’ I still get a shiver of terror thinking about that dream.

In Acts 19, we have a real life version of a demonic encounter where these impostering sons of Sceva vainly try to imitate Jesus and Paul the apostle. They encounter a demon possessed man, and try to…control the man? Cast the demons out? It’s not very clear in the text, but they try to challenge the wickedness with the name of Jesus…and presumably, they are able to pronounce the name just fine. BUT THE MERE SAYING OF THE NAME OF JESUS DOES NOT HELP! What gives?

And the answer is this: The name of Jesus is not magical, in and of itself. I still remember the shock I had as a child when I pulled out a Jesus Alou baseball card from a Topps wrapper, and thinking how horrid that a family had named their child Jesus, when there should be one and only Jesus! Of course, it turns out that the name Jesus is actually quite common in Latin America, and the name Jesus (Hebrew Yehshua) was extremely common in the first century in Israel – there were literally hundreds of people in Israel named ‘Jesus’ during the ministry of Jesus Christ, son of Joseph and Mary. And thus we see here why the mere mention of a name that is quite common did not have the power to control a demonic entity…because it is not the NAME of Jesus (i.e. the word ‘Jesus’) that is powerful, but it is the PERSON of Jesus that is powerful. Yes! At the NAME OF JESUS, every knee will bow, and every tongue confess, but read that whole passage in Philippians 2:

For this reason God highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
10 so that at the name of Jesus
every knee will bow—
in heaven and on earth
and under the earth—
11 and every tongue will confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.

Philippians 2:9-11

See how in verse 11 – the reference is to a PARTICULAR Jesus. Consider Acts 4 – a person is miraculously healed in the NAME of Jesus:

Then Peter was filled with the Holy Spirit and said to them, “Rulers of the people and elders: If we are being examined today about a good deed done to a disabled man, by what means he was healed, 10 let it be known to all of you and to all the people of Israel, that by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified and whom God raised from the dead—by him this man is standing here before you healthy. 11 This Jesus is the stone rejected by you builders, which has become the cornerstone.12 There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to people by which we must be saved.”

Acts 4:8-12

What is the difference? The sons of Sceva knew the name Jesus, but Peter KNEW JESUS. Not just the name, but the specific Jesus – Jesus Christ of Nazareth. The power in the name of Jesus is not about the KNOWLEDGE of the name it is about the KNOWING of the person. Thus was Paul able to cast out a demon in Acts 16:

Paul was greatly annoyed. Turning to the spirit, he said, “I command you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her!” And it came out right away.

Acts 16:18

He did not merely know the way to pronounce the name of Jesus – HE KNEW JESUS. It is not mere knowledge that has power, it is in the KNOWING of Jesus. Facts have no power over dark spirits, and no power to accomplish spiritual work. This is why it is possible to go to seminary, learn the Bible, and have great knowledge, but no fruit…because it isn’t about knowledge it is about the knowing of Jesus. Consider the chilling words of Jesus in Matthew 7:

21 “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. 22 On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, didn’t we prophesy in your name, drive out demons in your name, and do many miracles in your name?’ 23 Then I will announce to them, ‘I never knew you. Depart from me, you lawbreakers!’

Matthew 7:21-23

More positively, consider His description of Christianity in John 17:

23 I am in them and you are in me, so that they may be made completely one, that the world may know you have sent me and have loved them as you have loved me.

John 17:23

Christianity is not about knowledge, it is about Jesus in us, and we in Him – “Christ in us, the hope of glory, as Paul describes in Colossians 1. There was no Jesus in the sons of Sceva – they knew the name, they did not know the person, and therefore there attempts fell flatter than flat. May that not be true of us! Allow me to close with these great words of Charles Spurgeon:

We long to see the people saved; but in order to that, they must be born again, and this we cannot accomplish ourselves. Change a stone into flesh! Try that at home with a piece of stone on your table, before you attempt it with the hard hearts of men. Create a soul between the ribs of death! Try that in a charnel-house before you pretend to create within a sinner, dead in sin, the spiritual life. Of regeneration we may say, “This is the finger of God.” If our religion be not supernatural, it is a delusion. If the Holy Spirit be not with you, you are like Jannes and Jambres, attempting to work a miracle without Jehovah’s aid; and you will be baffled, and detected for an impostor. You will fail, like the seven sons of one Sceva, a Jew, who tried to cast out devils: the devils do not know you; they would know Jesus; they would know the Holy Spirit; but at your idle efforts they mockingly laugh. Only those people who never do any spiritual work talk about what they can accomplish. When you get into the sacred service, you find how great your weakness is; you feel out of your depth when you come to deal with souls, and you must have the Holy Spirit or fail.
We must not conclude that because so many good people give their time to God’s work, that necessarily the work is done. No, there is nothing done unless the Holy Spirit does it. We never personally go a step towards heaven, and we never lead another one inch on the way, apart from the Holy Spirit. We must have the Holy Spirit, and if we have him not, all our machinery will stand still; or if it goes on, it will produce no effect whatever.

C. H. Spurgeon, “‘Is the Spirit of the Lord Straitened?,’” in The Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit Sermons, vol. 37 (London: Passmore & Alabaster, 1891), 433–434.

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