(13) 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.
(14) And there were seven sons of one Sceva, a Jew, and chief of the priests, which did so.
(15) And the evil spirit answered and said, Jesus I know, and Paul I know; but who are ye?
(16) 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.(17) 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.
While this is not specifically a prayer passage, what we see here is mock prayer, prayer in which someone is just going through the motions in hopes of getting some sort of answer. We’re quick to criticize these men for doing something so foolish, but how often do we do exactly the same thing when we pray before a meal, or pray for a need? How often do we just “go through the motions?” Prayer can’t be half-hearted. It must come as the outgrowth of a personal relationship with God. It must be first person.
These “vagabond Jews” made their trade as exorcists – read “con artists.” The word is the Greek word exorkistōn and as it is used here it denotes “those who went about pretending to…expel evil spirits, or to cure diseases” (Barnes commentary). Like most con artists they likely knew they were selling a scam, but then here came this apostle named Paul who was doing all kinds of real miracles and he was doing it in the name of this person named Jesus. The “excorcists” probably thought: Why not cash in on that by doing the same? How hard could it be?
So they tried and “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 they failed. “The evil spirit answered and said, ‘Jesus I know, and Paul I know; but who are ye?” And with that, the evil spirt attacked those seven sons of Sceva and put them to the worse.
Like Paul they tried to call on the name of Jesus, but they did it second-hand and they were just going through the motions: “Paul called on Jesus’ name. So will we. It should work. We’re saying, ‘in Jesus’ name.’ That’s how Paul does it.”
Aren’t we also guilty of going through the motions, using thoughtless, formulaic prayers that end in something like: “in Jesus’ name. Amen?” I know I have found myself doing that, and what we can see from this passage is that not even evil spirits have any respect for that sort of thing. How much more is God offended by it?
Paul had power to do great things for God, because he had a powerful relationship with God. He had power over the forces of evil, because they too knew that Paul had a powerful relationship with God. When Paul prayed, he had a direct line to God, nothing half-hearted or second-hand. It could be argued that when Paul prayed to cast out demons, he spoke with the authority of the Lord Himself because he was on the same page as the Lord.
You and I have no excuse to be any less powerful in our prayer life or our testimony. Our prayers also need to be first person and directly connected to God. It is the only means by which we can truly engage the enemy.