Lessons for Teachers From the Sons of Sceva

Steven LevyThe CACE Roundtable, The Teachers' Lounge6 Comments

Bet you don’t know who they are. I didn’t remember, not until I reread Acts 19 this morning.

The Apostle Paul is in Ephesus. Author Luke writes that the Lord is doing extraordinary miracles through Paul: “[E]ven handkerchiefs and aprons that had touched him were taken to the sick, and their illnesses were cured and the evil spirits left them” (Acts 19:12).

Sceva, the Jewish chief priest, and his seven sons must have seen Paul perform these miracles. They would have heard Paul say to the demon-possessed, “In the name of Jesus I command you to come out.”

“Hey, let’s try it!” the sons said. “In the name of Jesus whom Paul preaches, I command you to come out” (Acts 19:16.) This mimicry doesn’t end well for them.

I can imagine the excitement of these men if they had been in Jerusalem when Jesus himself healed a blind man by spitting on the ground, mixing the spittle into mud, and applying it to the man’s eyes. Then He told him, “Go, wash in the Pool of Siloam.” So the man went and washed, and came back seeing (John 9:6.)

Sceva’s sons, had they seen this miracle, would surely proceed throughout the land trying to replicate it. They would make some mud with their spit, smother it on the eyes of the blind, and . . . NOTHING.

“Hmmm . . . we forgot to tell them to go wash in the pool!” 


It would be worse if some blind patient of the Sceva clan had faith, and God, by His grace, actually did heal him. Rumors would spread and magnify throughout the land. Others would try and reproduce this miracle.

Of course, the copied attempts wouldn’t work. The imitators would try to decipher all the variables that could have contributed to the powerful method’s success. Each of Sceva’s sons might have developed his own following. The Eartholics proclaimed it was the kind of dirt you used. The Watertants insisted it was the acidity of the spit. (They also sold jars of water from the Pool of Siloam). The Chronocostals claimed it was the time of day, the phase of the moon, the position of the stars. The Temperaturians believed it was the specific heat of the mud, the air, and the water. And to the Applicationists, it was all about the method of applying the mud to the eye. “Left to right, brow to lash!”

Of course the agent of the healing was not in the mud, the spit, the water, the time, or the method. The miracle happened through the power of God working through the faith of the believer. This is a point we learn, often through failure, over and over in the classroom. We “teachers of Sceva” hear about a new method for teaching reading, for creating community, for classroom management–we might even see a teacher employ it next door with great success. And yet, when we try this technique in our classroom, it just doesn’t work.

We tend to focus on methods rather than our deep hopes, procedures rather than relationships, techniques rather than understanding. We look for the curriculum that will motivate all students, the system that will ensure discipline and order, the Bible program that will lead all students to love the Lord.

When we adopt materials and methods without imagining their roots in God’s Story, we are like the man in the old tale looking at the finger pointing to the moon, rather than the moon itself. The more animated the finger, the more it attracts our attention. But the beauty, the mystery, the light, the power is in the moon–rather, in the One who created it. All we can do is bear witness. That’s what the moon does too. And that’s what Paul did.

Our pedagogy can swing with all the latest educational innovations. But if we try to serve the fruit without any knowledge of the root, we might deliver a tasty meal or two, but we will not sustain growth. When the fruit is gone, we will look for a new tree. There is no end to the “pointing fingers.”

If there is anything that actually works, it is the love God gives us for our students and the love we cultivate for God’s creation. When you love two dear friends, you long to have them meet–you will do everything you can to bring them together. Carol Ann Tomlinson called it the “love triangle.” (illustration mine)

Diagram depicting the relationship between teacher, student, and creation, around God's love

It’s the kind of love that never gives up, overcomes every obstacle, keeps finding a way like water inclined to the ocean or plants ascending to the sun. When one method doesn’t work, you try something else. And when that doesn’t work, you try something else. For a terrific example of this perseverance, watch how Mr. Holland (in the film Mr. Holland’s Opus) teaches Lou Russ to “find the beat.”

Think of this blog as a finger pointing to God’s love. Ask this Root for more love–love for God, for the world, and for the students he made, and for his plan to “unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth” (Ephesians 1:10).

Love finds a way. Love never fails.


  • Steven Levy

    After 28 years teaching in classrooms K-12, Steven Levy (steven.levy@cace.org) is now an educational consultant, working independently and with EL Education. He guides teachers in designing service-based curriculum, engaging instructional practices, student owned assessments, and character development. He was recognized as the Massachusetts State Teacher of the Year (1993), and honored by the Disney American Teacher Awards as the national Outstanding General Elementary Teacher (1995). Mr. Levy was the recipient of the Joe Oakey Award for his national impact on project-based learning, and received the John F. Kennedy Prize for the teaching of history. Mr. Levy and his fourth grade students were designated “Conservation Heroes” by the National Park Service for their study of the effects of a local bike path on the environment and the community. Mr. Levy has written various articles for educational journals, and his book, Starting From Scratch (Heinemann, 1996), details some of the projects and students he has worked with in his elementary classrooms.

6 Comments on “Lessons for Teachers From the Sons of Sceva”

  1. Steven’s article is delightful and very timely, reminding us that teaching is not first of all a utilitarian exercise, but is primarily relational, and that for the Christian teacher this relationship starts with our Heavenly Father and then, in the light of that, percolates selflessly to our interactions with fellow teachers, students, and parents.
    The article also reminded me of an important point made by Michael Fullan a couple of decades ago, when he talked about the challenge of transferability. Fullan suggested that the notion that we can go to a teacher development day, listen to a talk about a successful classroom innovation, and then pretty much straight away go and implement that innovation in our own classroom, is idealistic nonsense. The presenter, reflects Fullan, probably will have been working on the innovation for a long time, tweeking it and refining it into many different shapes and sizes before hitting on the pattern presented at the inservice. Maybe she also devoted hours of time and energy exploring the conceptual understanding or theoretical base of the innovation, and also had her ideas and practice observed and critiqued by trusted colleagues, all of which caused her to dynamically re-shape and consolidate this new practice. And finally, she probably had modified and verified the practice based upon at least informal feedback and calculable results from her students.
    In other words, suggests Fullan, the observation at the teacher development day may have been very useful, but the innovation described will not become ours in a practical and successful implementation sense, without us also doing much deep learning to understand it, filter it through our own worldview, testing and reshaping it according to our own teaching context and collegial community, thus finally being able to own it ourselves. Fullan doesn’t do this, but I’m reminded to slightly misquote Faust in Goethe’s famous play: “That which thy fathers bequeathed to thee, learn in anew if thou wouldst possess it.”
    Fullan’s actual comments can be found in pages 63-66 of his 1999 book, Change Forces – the Sequel.

  2. Thanks Richard, for your thoughtful comment. I’m OK being 20 years behind Michael Fullan, as long as I am on his track! Your response eloquently unpacks the actual dynamics of transfer in the classroom – a kind of x-ray into the inner workings of my metaphor. I’m sure CACE readers will appreciate!

  3. Good and attractive reflection
    We should love God with all of our heart and to love means to depend on Him only and not otherwise but to listen our teachers and to make sure that we are in the right relationship with the one who give us what to do and why and not to copy someone who is praying or casting out demons but to stand firm

  4. Am blessed by your writings; it’s very deep and inspiring, most especially, ”when we adopt materials and methods without imagining their roots in God’s Story”. Thank You Sir for sharing this beautiful piece; God blessed you abundantly!!!

    Kind regards!!!

  5. Am blessed by your writings; very deep and inspiring, most especially the part that says “When we adopt materials and methods without imagining their roots in God’s Story”. Thank You Sir for sharing this beautiful piece; God bless you abundantly. I am looking forward to receiving more of this write up via kusega@yahoo.com please.

    Kind regards!!!

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