Bible study: Acts 19 – Magic

Some thoughts from my personal Bible study, mainly asking questions of the text and pondering some potential answers.

What’s wrong with ‘pretending’ to be a Christian?

I’m focusing in on just a few verses of chapter 19 today, because it seems particularly interesting. In this account, some “itinerant Jewish exorcists” try to use the name of Jesus to drive out an evil spirit, who proceeds to mock them, overpower them, and send them fleeing naked. It’s interesting because various disciples are recorded to have done exactly the same thing and successfully cast out the spirits, but it doesn’t appear to work the same for everybody.

It’s perhaps useful to remember that names were significant in their culture, more so than in ours today. I’m not convinced that there is anything scientifically special about the sound of the name – the sound waves themselves don’t do anything clever. It’s what is identified by the name that is important, which is why there is power in the name even after it’s been translated into a different language and sounds completely different. When Peter or Paul or any of the disciples called upon the name of Jesus to bring about a miracle, it was to make it clear to those listening that the source of the power was in Christ, not in themselves. It’s a public thing – it’s important because it is heard. I’m pretty sure that if Paul had prayed silently in his room, the miracle would still have happened, it doesn’t need to be audible.

And this is perhaps what the Jews missed. They thought that the power working through the Christians was some sort of magic, that by performing the same routine or combination of rituals that the same outcome would happen for them too. It was a power they sought to master, to control. They wanted the miracle, but without the relationship with the source.

I wonder if there are ‘pretenders’ in our churches, sometimes. People who come to church because they think that attendance will win them points, and if they rack up enough points then they’ll get into heaven. I certainly think that’s why some people only ever set foot in a church on so-called “high days a holidays” – they’re not interested in a relationship with God, but they want the benefits of eternal life nonetheless. There may even be people who attend church every Sunday for the same reason. Of course that’s not the case for everyone, I’m generalising here. But it seems such a shame. They’re missing the point. It’s like sex without love – selfish gratification that misses out on something even more wonderful. The challenge for us, I suppose, is identifying who these pretenders are, and working out how to show them what they’re missing.

Why were the people awestruck by the evil spirit?

That’s perhaps a misleading question. The events with the evil spirit and the Jewish exorcists leaves people in wonder, but it’s not actually the evil spirit they’re amazed by. I think there’s an understanding amongst the people that the Holy Spirit, and indeed all the power that is implied in the name of Jesus, is not something trivial, or something to be played with. It was a clear demonstration that Jesus is not a computer program – you can’t just put in a command and expect an answer. And I think that makes God more real, for me at least. God isn’t a series of rules and traditions, God isn’t something we can tame or control, God isn’t a magic spell that always produces the same effect if you do it right. God is wild, dangerous, unpredictable, spontaneous. Not in a vindictive way, of course, but just in the sense that the most real things in life are not formulaic.

I need to watch out that I don’t fall into this trap by accident, though. As much as I might like to think I have an awesome relationship with God, and a flawless understanding of his greatness, at the end of the day I’m only human, and a pretty rubbish one at that. I need to be careful that I don’t just expect God to turn up on a Sunday. I need to watch out that when I pray before preparing a service or a sermon, I’m doing it because I actually want to have a conversation with a friend, not just as a way of ensuring my preparation goes well. When I write these Bible study notes (which you’re reading), I need to be careful that I’m not just writing to show off my knowledge of the Bible, but that it helps me draw closer to my Saviour.

What prompted the people to give up magic?

Yes, magic is in the Bible. Which means that magic is real. Weird, unexplanable, mysterious things can indeed happen, without the power of God behind them. Miracles aren’t the sole reserve of Christians. The difference is the source of the power, and if it’s not coming from God then clearly it must be coming from somewhere else, somewhere similarly spiritual and powerful. And if verse 19 is anything to go by, those other powers are quite happy to be used programmatically, using spells to conjour an outcome rather than a personal relationship with a deity.

I met a witch once. He seemed like a nice enough chap. He helped me with my Mini. I told him I was a Christian, and he said that people like me didn’t like people like him. And I guess there’s an understandable conflict. For people like him, the success of a spell depends on how well he performs the ritual. For people like me, the success of a prayer depends entirely on the will of God – we actually have no direct control over the outcome. It’s easy to see why someone like him would feel like he’s on the winning side.

So to read that all those magic books were publicly burned is significant. Clearly those who practiced magic realised that there was something more important than mere power. Invoking the name of Jesus is meaningless unless you understand who is behind that name. And once you understand that Jesus isn’t confined to rituals and spells, you realise that there is so much more – relationship with the One True God puts everything else in the shade.

Today, magic comes in a different package. Spell books have been replaced by self-help paperbacks. Rituals have been replaced by diets. Magic words have been replaced by fashion. The witch’s hovel has been replaced by the local gym. I’m not saying all those modern examples are inherently wrong or evil or anything like that, but the way we sometimes use them is eerily similar to the way people used to use magic. We use various techniques to transform ourselves, to change the way people perceive us, to influence how people react to us, to empower us with confidence and self-esteem. I have a friend who ‘religiously’ goes to the gym, always striving to be fitter; she jokingly refers to it as her ‘church’. But it’s just magic. If we really want to understand the world we live in, if we really want to live our lives to the full, if we really want to be filled with strength and wisdom, we’ll find it in our relationship  with Jesus. Everything else is just a poor imitation, won’t last, and might as well be burned on a fire.

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