The book of Acts does not contain direct discourses per se, or theological discussions concerning magic, sorcery, witchcraft et cetera. Rather, the book outlines scenarios in which the proponents of such arts were rebuked (judged) in person, or the spirit by which they were empowered was cast out. But also, in a public spectacle of rejecting their previous lives, and the demonic influences to which they exposed themselves, those who found salvation in the Gospel of Jesus Christ, disposed of all such influences.
A Magical Description
In Acts Greek words used for, or synonyms of, magic and like practices include mageuo, which relates to astrology, manteuomai, which relates to divination and fortune-telling, puthon, a mythical serpent slain by Apollo whose name is synonymous with divination. Apollo was regarded as the (Greek and Roman) god of prophecy. Also included is the Greek word periergos, the definition of which includes “a person who is middlesome or a busybody”, but in specific usage for the book of Acts is a substantive for magic arts, sorcery and witchcraft.
Concerning magic and magicians, Feinsy’s New Testament Introduction notes, that such persons were essentially trying to,
manipulate demons, deities, or [the goddess] Fate. In this manipulation of the unseen powers, sorcerers used various methods: philtres, the Evil Eye, amulets, magic wheels, magical symbols, conjurations and magical papyrus documents (called Ephesian Letters). Special objects were used in these processes such as parts of animals, herbs, precious stones and fluids of the human body (e.g. saliva). Amulets made of precious stones with magical poems carved on them were special favourites. These could be for protection or love amulets5.
Direct instances of magic, sorcery, witchcraft, etc. being referred or alluded to in the book of Acts include: Acts 8:5-24 in reference to Simon the Sorcerer and his desire to procure the gift of God with money; Acts 13:4-12 and Paul’s confrontation with the Jewish false prophet Bar-Jesus (or Elymas in Arabic); Acts 19:11-17 concerning attempted exorcism in the name of Jesus by the sons of Sceva; Acts 19:18-20 concerning the burning of books of magic in Ephesus; Acts 19:22-41 concerning the uproar over the success of the preaching of the Gospel in Ephesus and its impact on the makers of statues of Artemis.
It is worth noting of the Samaritan named Simon (the Sorcerer), Acts records him as believing Philip the evangelist’s message, that is to say, the “good news about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ” (Acts8:12), and Simon subsequently getting baptised (Acts 8:13). And yet when Simon sought to purchase with money the “authority” (Acts 8:19) to bestow the Holy Spirit upon whom he would lay his hands, he was rebuked in such a manner that the reader is told that Simon did not have the salvation of God, “your heart is not right” (Acts 8:21) and “you are in the gall of bitterness and in the bondage of iniquity” (Acts 8:23). Simon’s background, it seems, had led him to believe in the power of Jesus’ name – as if it were a mystical incantation – and not the essence of the Gospel. A name which, from a superstitious pagan and/or magical perspective, would have power and authority, and which might be able to be used for gain
On Cyprus, Barnabus and Saul encountered resistance from the Jewish false prophet Bar-Jesus (Elymas in Arabic) whilst preaching the Gospel to the proconsul, Sergius Paulus (Acts 13:7). As a result, judgement fell upon the false prophet for not only hindering the Gospel 6 but also for his sinful practice of astrology (which the Old Testament forbids). In his rebuke Saul (Paul) stated,
You who are full of all deceit and fraud, you son of the devil, you enemy of all righteousness, will you not cease to make crooked the straight ways of the Lord? - Acts 13:10 - NAU7
At Philippi (in Macedonia) Paul and his companions were harassed by a “damsel having a spirit of divination” (Acts 16:16- 18) or as David Fiensy notes, she was possessed by an evil spirit, literally, “‘The spirit of the python’ which means she was supposedly possessed by the god Apollo,” who was regarded, by the Romans, as being the god of prophecy. Tired of the constant harassment Paul told the spirit to leave the girl – which it did. Paul’s example shows that such prophecy is not real prophecy, least of all from God.
In Acts chapter 19, Paul came to Ephesus and we hear of a failed exorcism by the Sons of Sceva (Jewish high priest (Acts 19:14)). F.F. Bruce notes that it,
Was well known throughout the Near East that Jewish high priests had access to the secret name of the God of Israel and its true pronunciat on, and by all magical canons the command of such a secret carried with it enormous power over the spirit- world.
Endeavouring to include the name of Jesus in their repertoire, Sceva’s sons met with failure and humiliation (Acts 19:11-17). It is here that we see the (false) magical practice of secret names – as if the knowledge and pronunciation of such names might give power over spirits As Gundry notes,
…Christian exorcism does not depend on the recitation of magical names.
In an apparent response to hearing of such humiliating failure to use the name of Jesus in contrast to Paul's great success,
fear fell upon them all and the name of the Lord Jesus was being magnified - Acts 19:17.
Luke goes on to record in the verses that follow, the burning of a wealth of magical books. Clinton Arnold notes the,
incredibly high monetary value on the burned books (Haenchen: 50,000 days’ wages) which may indicate the vast number of books burned and/or that the books were extremely valuable, reflecting a high demand for them”.
In contrast to all its wealth and all its knowledge of magic, people recognised and acknowledged the superiority of the Gospel of Jesus Christ over Ephesian magic.
The impact of such recognition in Acts 19 led to an uproar over Paul’s message and the negative impact it was having on the cult worship of the goddess Artemis (called Diana by the Romans). Artemis was also worshipped in Colossae and Laodicea and supposedly possessed authority and control over the multiplicity of demons of the dead and also the demons of nature.
It is clear that the book of Acts delineates acceptable and unacceptable behaviour and practice in the Early Church. Magic unequivocally falls into that which is unacceptable. The actions and reactions by the apostles and those who turned from such arts to the Gospel states clearly that magic neither frees nor empowers, but, like all sin, enslaves (c.f. John 8:34).
The hermeneutical issues and implications for today should be obvious. Magic – in all its forms should be rejected and all instruments and books associated with such practices should be destroyed.
A key word in Acts 19:17 is “fear” from the Greek phobos, which includes the ideas of fear, terror, dread and alarm. Questions we, as Christians, should ask include, “Do we old the name of Jesus in high regard?”; “Do we dismiss the Acts’ example a being just a story and not a warning?”; Dare we blithely use the name of Jesus in either a dismissive way or as a clichéd are to be recited (much like ‘abracadabra’ or ‘open sesame’)?” And what do we do w th magazines and the like, which include sections on astrology, psychic “help", horoscopes, etc. – which are designed to rule, impact or otherwise influence apron’s day to day life? Then, of course, we come to entertainment and fiction: novels, movies and films.
The likes of Harry Potter (in book, movie and/or video game formats) are both influential and very dangerous; there is no denying that. But consider the audiences for a minute. Yes, Harry Potter is designed for all ages, but primarily the publishers have targeted children and youth; with even educators heaping praises on such novels, because children are reading more. But, surely the likes of such books would not have found their inroad if it weren’t for the generally dismissive opinion held over horoscopes and the like? “It’s just my stars for the day, I’m an Aries, what does it foresee for me?” Harmless fun is how many people in today’s “educated” world sees it. How is it that in spite of the biblical evidence and examples, some Christians, mostly nominal (though some “practicing” Christians and pastors may also) hold the same view?
The implications don’t stop with choosing not to read the horoscopes, psychic’s answers to letters, etc., but also the implications in passing-on such magazines and articles to those people “we” know because they want to read them. Arguments such as, we have free will and I’m not my brother’s keeper, tend to be a form of defence for some in justifying such propagation; as if the “it’s their choice” defence absolves us from responsibility. But does it?
Couldn’t we say that rather than destroy 50,000 days’ wages worth of books (on magic) the Ephesians could have, or should have, sold them to those unbelievers in Ephesus who wanted them? Fifty thousand dollars would go a long way to aiding a church. How much more so, 50,000 days wages (i.e. approximately 137 years wages). Yet what happened in Ephesus? All material was destroyed … the Ephesian disciples did not give aid to other people’s sins and sinful lifestyle. Surely Acts records such practice as an example for us to consider and follow.
What of those who, like the Sons of Sceva, seek to use the name of Jesus in recitations as if it is a magical name? Is that not a practice of some in the church? What of the preacher who yells, “Jesus!” at a sick persons’ infirmity? Where is the sovereignty of God? Where is the prayer for God’s mercy and grace? Or alternatively, where is the Spirit of God (cf. “full of the Spirit” throughout the book of Acts) for such miraculous things? Acts records that those “full of the Spirit” DID great miracles; compare this to the preachers of today, who claim to do the miraculous and yet fail (often publicly). Doesn’t this in effect mean that they are not full of the Spirit of God, but seem to be lacking the Spirit of God?
Too often do immature, misguided and/or foolish “Christians” use the verse of Scripture, “That at the name of Jesus every knee shall bow” (Rom 14:11) as a proof text for success. They practice the same sin as the Sons of Sceva. The Name of Jesus is not an incantation, recitation or magical word. Jesus Christ IS the King of kings and Lord of lords. Either people will come to Jesus, before the judgement seat of God is inaugurated and the books opened, and willingly bow their knee and heart; or when the Judgement comes at either death or the end of time, they will, and they will have no choice, but to bow the knee and confess the name of Jesus which GOD has elevated above all other names.
And what of such phrases as, “I plead the Blood, I plead the Blood”, etc. Aren’t they but a hair’s breadth from the same sin of using Jesus’ name as a magical incantation? Or is it exactly the same thing? Which blood, or whose blood are we pleading? Jesus’?
Reflecting on Today
Let us reflect on whether watching Harry Potter and the like is innocent, harmless entertainment. Answer this question: “Is it okay for a Christian to watch a pornographic movie, read a pornographic novel (including some so-called ‘romance’ novels), or look at pornographic magazines? No! Why not? Is it because God regards lust as adultery? Because the New Testament warns against fornication, et cetera? If we are so adamant about this ‘sin’, and think it sinful to watch, read or look at such sinful activities, then why is it okay to do the same with the sin of witchcraft, necromancy, idolatry etc.? Does God outline a scale of the degrees of sin in the Bible? “Oh, it’s okay, it’s only a minor sin.” Is this what we are saying? Does sin include shades of grey?
So in the end, what will we do with witchcraft? What did (King) Saul get in trouble for, when failing to dispose of all the property of the Agag, King of the Amalekites (1 Sam 15)? What was Samuel’s rebuke? “Rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft”! (1 Sam 15:23) Note how this is worded, rebellion is compared to witchcraft and not the other way round.
Continue on Christian parents, continue on Christian schools, and Christian educators; teach children that it is okay to ignore the Bible, ignore God and determine what is right in your (their) own eyes; after all, it’s not like God is going to judge us, is it? We’re saved; we’re the righteousness of God in Christ Jesus, aren’t we? We’re not like the people of the world, we’re not SINNERS! (Are we?)
About The Author
B. Michael Bigg