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Magic and Christ

Elymas the Sorcerer

(Acts 13:6-12 NIV) They traveled through the whole island until they came to Paphos. There they met a Jewish sorcerer and false prophet named Bar-Jesus, {7} who was an attendant of the proconsul, Sergius Paulus. The proconsul, an intelligent man, sent for Barnabas and Saul because he wanted to hear the word of God. {8} But Elymas the sorcerer (for that is what his name means) opposed them and tried to turn the proconsul from the faith. {9} Then Saul, who was also called Paul, filled with the Holy Spirit, looked straight at Elymas and said, {10} "You are a child of the devil and an enemy of everything that is right! You are full of all kinds of deceit and trickery. Will you never stop perverting the right ways of the Lord? {11} Now the hand of the Lord is against you. You are going to be blind, and for a time you will be unable to see the light of the sun." Immediately mist and darkness came over him, and he groped about, seeking someone to lead him by the hand. {12} When the proconsul saw what had happened, he believed, for he was amazed at the teaching about the Lord.

It is interesting to note that this is the first episode recounted in Paul’s first recorded missionary journey.[1] The very first obstacle encountered by the classic missionary is -- magic. If we are to understand the importance of this passage, we must first understand magic, and its twentieth century twin: science.

Concept of Magic

Most of us today think of magic as being a form of entertainment. We often refer to it as sleight of hand. In fact, it was not until the 1700s that the art of magic, as we understand it today, was described in printed form. The tricks of sleight of hand were known long before then.[2] It is difficult for most middle class Americans to conceive of the word “magic” as anything other than entertainment or a belief long extinct. If we are to understand this passage, and its meaning to us today, we must reexamine this thought.

Magic and Science - Twins

Most of us rely on the imaginary history painted by those who view science as salvation: that magic was the staple of the “Dark Ages”; that science came along and struggled with it; and that science eventually conquered. This is the accepted view. It is also factually incorrect. Virtually all the early scientists were also, by our modern view, magicians of one sort or another. Chemistry came out of alchemy, the search for the “Philosopher’s Stone” which would turn ordinary metals to gold. Astronomy came out of astrology, and most early astronomers earned their daily living as astrologers. Magic and science were born as twins; it’s just that one is no longer around in Western civilization.

Why do I call them “twins?” Because they have the same method and the same object.

Method: If-Then

All of science is, as my English teacher would put it, “in the indicative tense.” That means that all of science may be reduced to “If - then” logic. For example, “if you add thus and such a liquid to such and such a powder, an explosion results.” That the explosion results in moving earth for some beneficial project, or the death of other human beings, is not the province of science. It is the province of morality. As Miss Hornbuckle (the English teacher in question) used to say, “there is no way to get from the indicative to the imperative.” In other words, there is no way to get from “If A, then B” to “do B” without the proposition “B is a good thing to do.” And the latter is, of course, a moral judgment.

Magic works exactly the same way. Like science, it tries to explain the universe in terms of laws understood by men, and produce results of the “If-then” variety. For example, “If the great god unga-bunga is pleased with us, the crops will grow very well this year. If the crops grow well, we will eat well. Unga-bunga is particularly pleased with human sacrifice.” At this point we have an interesting theory. If you add the moral judgment, “It’s better to sacrifice a few small kids than the rest of us should starve,” then human sacrifice becomes obviously a “good” idea. (The economics of scientific abortion are not much different than unga-bunga’s appetites.)

Object: Power

It’s often stated, and occasionally believed, that the object of science is knowledge. It is not. The object of science is power. The object of those who fund science (like the those who hired magicians[3]) is also power. In particular, the power of one person, or group of persons, over others. Does the U.S. government fund all that research out of a benevolent heart, or out of a desire for military supremacy? Indeed, it has often been argued that the pursuit of science is Faust’s bargain: sell your soul to the system of science, and receive the material rewards it brings.[4] We need not take it as far as that, but the temptation of power is always present -- in science or in magic.

Religious Magic

It sounds like an oxymoron: “religious magic” -- a term like “jumbo shrimp.” But think: do not many Christians practice religious magic? “If I just say my prayers every night..... if I go to church every Sunday..... if I tithe...... THEN God will be pleased with me and things will go well.” See the logic? IF-THEN again. This way of thinking reduces God to a trained animal, performing good things for our benefit. If only we could find the right way to train him for our benefit! See the object? Power -- power over things, and ultimately power over others. This is God submitting to us, not the other way around.

So we see that Elymas the Sorcerer is not an antique character at all -- but rather a very contemporary person, disguised in ancient, occult art. It remains to see how this man was conquered, and how we might do the same.

The Ultimate Failure of Magic (and Science)

Ultimately, science and magic are failures. They succeed only as long as they stay within their bounds. Indeed, they are dependent upon their boundaries:

·         The essence of science being the “IF-THEN” logic, as coded in theory, science must utterly fail if the rules change. If science could change its own rules, it would be essentially self contradictory.

·         The one rule which stands therefore out of reach is this: (Heb 9:27 NIV) Just as man is destined to die once, and after that to face judgment, or, in other words, we’re going to die. Science may delay it, but the fact of death is in the rules -- and science cannot change the rules.

More to the point of magic, neither science nor magic can change the ruler. We do try, of course:

·         We try by denying the existence of God. But no matter how many times we assert this, does it change the ultimate fact of the universe?

·         We try by denying the existence of some of the rules -- like the ones regarding morality. Does it matter which rules we change -- do we not continue to get a self contradiction here?

But say what we like, science is still a potent force in our world. Indeed, the temptation is to throw ourselves in the arms of the scientist, begging the favors of technology in return for the slavery of the soul.

The Overcoming of Magic

If you are to rightly overcome magic, of any kind, I submit that you must have

·         the power to do it

·         the authority (or else you become just the next magician)

·         the right “theory” -- or message

·         an end result which matches your power, authority and message.


The power we exert is in the name of Jesus. Witness Peter:

(Acts 3:2-8 NIV) Now a man crippled from birth was being carried to the temple gate called Beautiful, where he was put every day to beg from those going into the temple courts. {3} When he saw Peter and John about to enter, he asked them for money. {4} Peter looked straight at him, as did John. Then Peter said, "Look at us!" {5} So the man gave them his attention, expecting to get something from them. {6} Then Peter said, "Silver or gold I do not have, but what I have I give you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk." {7} Taking him by the right hand, he helped him up, and instantly the man's feet and ankles became strong. {8} He jumped to his feet and began to walk. Then he went with them into the temple courts, walking and jumping, and praising God.

“What I have” = Power. And what power? The name of Jesus.

This brings up one particular point. For most of us, the fear of rejection is very great, and our commonest excuse for “not mentioning sacred subjects.” But the rejection of the missionary (that’s all of us) is not the rejection of us, personally; it is the rejection of Christ:

(Luke 10:16 NIV) "He who listens to you listens to me; he who rejects you rejects me; but he who rejects me rejects him who sent me."

So then, all power being given to Jesus, we are to take that power to the world, and overcome the world.


Where does authority come from? For the Christian, the answer is given in Matthew 28:18, in the Great Commission.[5] Our authority, then, is derived authority. Derived authority comes in many ways:

·         Sometimes it comes by knowledge of something (doctor knows best).

·         Often, it is by direct command of the real authority.

·         Occasionally, it is by personal influence.

·         {Class suggestions}

But, whatever the method, it is clear that ours is derived from Him. Indeed, as the Scripture says,

 (1 Cor 6:19-20 NIV) Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; {20} you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your body.

The Message

I said that you must have a better “theory.” In the sense of the times in which the New Testament was written, you would have to have a better “message” - logos, or “word” in the Greek.

It is not sufficient to offer “my personal testimony.” If that is all you have to offer, you are basing salvation upon yourself, and that is a weak reed indeed.

·         Consider Peter’s sermons, as we studied them last week. What was his message to the world, but

·         Jesus is the one prophesied of the Old Testament as Messiah

·         He was crucified, died, buried and raised -- for your forgiveness

·         Go, therefore, repent and be baptized.

·         Indeed, the Scripture clearly states that preaching is by the world’s standards (i.e., by “modern” or “scientific” thinking) nothing but foolishness:

(1 Cor 1:21-25 NIV) For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. {22} Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks look for wisdom, {23} but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, {24} but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. {25} For the foolishness of God is wiser than man's wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man's strength.

In fact, our message, our theory, is not an explanation of things but a person - Jesus Christ.

(John 1:1-5 NIV) In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. {2} He was with God in the beginning. {3} Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. {4} In him was life, and that life was the light of men. {5} The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it.

The Result

All theory, all power, all authority -- these are nothing without results. And our result is the redemption by Jesus Christ.

·         It is not wisdom as the world seeks it, but the source of wisdom.

·         It is not power, but the One without whom no power would exist.

·         It is not joy, but its fountain.

It is, in fact, grace. Grace -- “the unmerited favor of God” -- is what we are to deliver. We deliver it with the power of God; in the authority of God; as the message of God. We must therefore deliver it God’s way. Among many passages about delivery of God’s grace, I would point out these three:

Not to the healthy, but to the sick

(Mark 2:15-17 NIV) While Jesus was having dinner at Levi's house, many tax collectors and "sinners" were eating with him and his disciples, for there were many who followed him. {16} When the teachers of the law who were Pharisees saw him eating with the "sinners" and tax collectors, they asked his disciples: "Why does he eat with tax collectors and 'sinners'?" {17} On hearing this, Jesus said to them, "It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners."

If your only acquaintances are those who are in church, how can you be bringing his grace?

In service, not in pomp

(Mark 10:42-45 NIV) Jesus called them together and said, "You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. {43} Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, {44} and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. {45} For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many."

Even our Lord did not come in splendor, but in service. Should we not do likewise?

In grace, through faith

(Eph 2:4-10 NIV) But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, {5} made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions--it is by grace you have been saved. {6} And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, {7} in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus. {8} For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith--and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God-- {9} not by works, so that no one can boast. {10} For we are God's workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.

Whatever we do, it must be with the fullest realization that we do not deserve what we are getting -- and we are not getting what we deserve.

Twila Paris put it this way, in song:

We are made a channel, where His grace is poured;

witness of salvation - for the glory of the Lord.

[1] I say “first recorded” due to the last verse in the preceding chapter: (Acts 12:25 NIV) When Barnabas and Saul had finished their mission, they returned from Jerusalem, taking with them John, also called Mark.

[2] (Exo 7:11-12 NIV) Pharaoh then summoned wise men and sorcerers, and the Egyptian magicians also did the same things by their secret arts: {12} Each one threw down his staff and it became a snake. But Aaron's staff swallowed up their staffs.

[3] (Num 22:4-6 NIV) The Moabites said to the elders of Midian, "This horde is going to lick up everything around us, as an ox licks up the grass of the field." So Balak son of Zippor, who was king of Moab at that time, {5} sent messengers to summon Balaam son of Beor, who was at Pethor, near the River, in his native land. Balak said: "A people has come out of Egypt; they cover the face of the land and have settled next to me. {6} Now come and put a curse on these people, because they are too powerful for me. Perhaps then I will be able to defeat them and drive them out of the country. For I know that those you bless are blessed, and those you curse are cursed."

[4] See, for example, C.S. Lewis’ essay, “Is Progress Possible?” (copied in God in the Dock, Walter Hooper, ed., Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, 1970)

[5] (Mat 28:18 NIV) Then Jesus came to them and said, "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.

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