As Paul – a tentmaker turned persecutor of Christians turned disciple of Christ – traveled and taught on his way from Greece to Jerusalem, he stopped in the city of Ephesus. Ephesus was part of Greece at the time and was located near present-day Selçuk, Turkey. He spent two years in this area teaching the people about Jesus and performing miracles.
During this time there was a chief priest among the Jews in Ephesus named Sceva. Seven sons of his worked as exorcists, trying to cast out evil spirits in the name of Jesus Christ. I’m sure they tried casting out spirits in whatever way they could think of but they knew the success Paul and other believers had so they thought they would try to cast out spirits in the name of Christ. It’s also possible that they were charging for their priestcrafts. With that context, here’s the short story of the sons of Sceva.
“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; emphasis added).
Not that priestcraft or violence are humorous but the story is almost funny. One man injures seven who were trying to cure him and they end up fleeing from him naked and hurt. Ignoring the possible motives of the sons of Sceva (they were likely “curing” people through trickery to try and make money and now had a new, popular, and actually effective method to try – doing so in the name of Christ), what this story shows is the importance of authority.
Many of the evil spirits that were cast out of individuals in the scriptures were not necessarily spirits; they were, rather, unknown medical conditions at the time. However, there are clearly instances when individuals were possessed by evil spirits and had the spirits cast out through the power of God. Some of these are relevant here because the evil spirits or those possessed by them testified of Christ and His power (see Matthew 8:28-33; Mark 1:34; Mark 3:11-12). Jesus always commanded those possessed to remain silent because what good comes from the testimony of an evil spirit?
The sons of Sceva were faced by a similar testimony but one that ridiculed their ineffectiveness. The spirit said, “Jesus I know, and Paul I know; but who are ye?” These men did not perform the act with real faith in Christ; they also lacked authority (i.e., priesthood). Now if they had been acting in good faith (but still without authority) and honest faith in Christ, they might have been successful or at least commended for their efforts by Paul as another was under similar circumstances by the Savior (see Luke 9:49-50). However, the sons of Sceva were not only ineffectual without faith and priesthood authority, they were humiliated. Much good did come from their actions though. Many saw the power and authority Paul had in contrast with these sons of Sceva and believed his teachings: “And many that believed came, and confessed, and shewed their deeds.” (Acts 19:18).
Thus, authority is important. This authority to cast out devils in the name of Christ is called the priesthood. It is conferred by the laying on of hands by those in authority, those who have been given authority to do so by Christ. Jesus had this authority, He gave it to His apostles. They gave it to certain other men, Paul included (Paul was called as one of the apostles). This authority was no longer found on the earth after the death of the apostles due to general apostasy throughout the church. This authority and power was restored to the earth to the Prophet Joseph Smith (see for example, Joseph Smith – History 1:66-75) and is directed today by the Prophet, Thomas S. Monson.