God’s Word for You
Acts 8:9-11 Magic and magical arts
by Pastor Timothy Smith on Wednesday, January 8, 2020
9 Now there was already a man named Simon in the city who was practicing magic and amazing the people of Samaria. He maintained that he himself was a great person. 10 They all paid attention to him, from the least to the greatest, saying, “This man is the power of God which is called the Great Power.” 11 And they kept paying attention to him because for a long time he had amazed them with his magical arts.
This is Simon Magus. A lot has been written about him by such sources as Justin Martyr (who was himself a Samaritan), Irenaeus of Lyon, Hippolytus, and Cyril of Jerusalem. Some of their writings (from the second and third centuries) claim that he was the founder of Gnosticism. I will relate only one story about him here, from Hippolytus of Rome:
Until he came to Rome also and fell foul of the Apostles. Peter withstood him on many occasions. At last he came [. . .] and began to teach sitting under a plane tree. When he was on the point of being shown up, he said, in order to gain time, that if he were buried alive he would rise again on the third day. So he bade that a tomb should be dug by his disciples and that he should be buried in it. Now they did what they were ordered, but he remained there until now: for he was not the Christ. (Hippolytus, Refutation of All Heresies, 6:15)
At this time, Simon was living in Samaria, in the city where Philip had begun preaching. He was a charlatan, a fraud. By being vague but boastful, he was able to intimidate people into thinking that he was “something great.” It wasn’t that they thought he was divine, but they thought he was used by a god, perhaps Zeus, to display his power among men.
What should we think of Luke’s report, that Simon was “practicing magic” that “amazed people with his magical arts”? The Bible warns of these things: “The coming of the lawless one (Antichrist) will be in accordance with the work of Satan displayed in all kinds of counterfeit miracles, signs, and wonders” (2 Thessalonians 2:9). Jesus said: “For false Christs and false prophets will appear and perform great signs and miracles to deceive even the elect—if that were possible” (Matthew 24:24; Mark 13:22). Isaiah also warned about “the signs of false prophets” (Isaiah 44:24). The question many people ask is whether it is possible for a human being who is not God’s servant (i.e., an unbeliever) to perform a real miracle such as healing. Certainly, this is possible. Consider the power and the will of Satan. A fallen angel, Satan has superhuman abilities. He is not God, but he can do many things that are miraculous. Since his only goal is to destroy faith and to thwart God’s plans, he can certainly enable human beings to do things that may lead weak Christians away from their faith and sway countless unbelievers into some new belief that has nothing to do with Christ. Satan also loves to set people on a path that seems Christian but really leads past Christ into some other belief, always ending up with good works as the way to heaven. What Satan would love is if people were led to think: If this Simon can do miracles, why not follow his teachings? But what were his teachings? Without the gospel of the forgiveness of sins, without the promise of the resurrection and of eternal life through Christ, false miracles are never anything but false. They are empty, and devoid of any real help.
If I had a terrible disease, and God told me he wanted me to endure it for Christ’s sake, but the devil said he would cure me without asking anything of me at all, I would still tell the devil no. Why? Because God wants me to endure it, and therefore turning to anything or anyone else would be a sin against God, a sin against Christ my Lord.
More than that: If I was uncertain of God’s will about my disease and then the devil said he would heal me without asking anything in return, I would still tell him no. Why? Because the devil is never my friend. He prowls around like a roaring lion, looking for someone to devour. If I accepted his free help, it would not be free. Why? Because someone else might be led to look to him, and then someone else, and tender souls would have been damaged and human beings would have been led away from Christ. The devil is never, ever, your friend. My prayer for every person is “That you may enjoy good health and that all may go well with you” (3 John 1:2), but Jesus says: “What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, yet forfeit his soul?” (Mark 8:36). So: “Take they our life, goods, fame, child, and wife, let these all be gone. They yet have nothing won; the Kingdom ours remaineth” (Luther, A Mighty Fortress, vs. 4).
No matter what our circumstances, we must rely on Christ for everything. He invites us to do this, and to trust in him. He will not let us down. “My Father,” Jesus assures us, “who has given them to me, is greater than all; no one can snatch them out of my Father’s hand. I and the Father are one” (John 10:29-30). We have something through Jesus that no demon or false prophet could ever give: Peace. Our Augsburg Confession says: “The conscience cannot come to rest and peace through works, but only through faith, that is, when it is assured and knows that for Christ’s sake it has a gracious God, as Paul says in Romans 5:1, ‘Since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God’ (XX,15-16). And again: “Whoever knows that in Christ he has a gracious God, truly knows God, calls upon him, and is not, like the heathen, without God. For the devil and the ungodly do not believe this article concerning the forgiveness of sin, and so they are at enmity [hatred] with God, cannot call upon him, and have no hope of receiving good from him…. In the Scriptures, ‘faith’ means confidence in God, assurance that God is gracious to us, and not merely such a knowledge of historical events as the devil also possesses.” (XX,24-26).
No number of magic tricks and false miracles should ever pull us away from faith in Christ. Jesus alone is the way to true and everlasting peace in heaven. Put your trust in him, and never let go of him.
Pastor Timothy Smith