Magic or Pentecost’s Power?

“That most magical time of the year,” may be a commercialized takeoff on the song that Andy Williams popularized. You may think of good feelings — and buying things. “Magic” may bring to mind someone pulling a rabbit out of a hat or other sleight of hand. Some magic is far less amusing. It is an effort to manipulate super-human powers for one’s own advantage. Acts 8:9–25 contrasts that manipulative self-centeredness with the free, liberating gospel of God’s grace.

The gospel liberates those who believe. The free grace of God breaks the enslaving power of sin. As the good news expands in Samaria, the kingdom of God replaces the rule of magic. Magic enslaves its followers. For hundreds of years Samaritan worship had compromised the service of the true God. Note Jesus’ response to the woman in John 4. As believers in Jesus arrived in Samaria they found people deceived by Simon the Sorcerer, sometimes known as Simon Magus. People followed him and were under his authority. Some early sources link him with the rise of the Gnostic heresy, but Luke’s main focus is not on him, despite the high view his followers held, considering him divine or at least semi-divine. God had forbidden his people to use magic, Deuteronomy 18:9–13, as it inevitably turns people away from looking to God. The gospel liberates those who believe. Philip was simply preaching the good news of the kingdom and the name of Jesus Christ.

“One of the basic point I am wanting to bring out from Acts 1:6–8 is that the worldwide proclamation of the gospel by the apostles, the impending task of apostolic preaching to the nations, beginning Jerusalem is a manifestation of the kingdom of God. Reinforcing that point is the fact that all further references in Acts to the kingdom, with one exception (14:22), are in summary statements that specify the central content of preaching: 8:12; 19:8; 20:25; 28:30, 31. Each of these statements sums up the preaching taking place in fulfillment of the mandate to the apostles in Acts 1:8”

Richard B. Gaffin Jr., In the Fullness of Time: An Introduction to the Biblical Theology of Acts and Paul, page 93

The free grace of God breaks the enslaving power of sin. The power of the kingdom of Christ was evident in the casting out of demons miracles of healing. Significantly, the sacrament of baptism marks the entrance into the kingdom of God. Among those baptized was Simon, though his faith is questionable, Acts 8:21; and see John 6:2, 66.

Trust Jesus alone. The presence of the Spirit marks this significant expansion of Christ’s kingdom. This is not a “second blessing,” but rather God’s confirmation that the power of Pentecost was legitimately (and obediently to Christ’s command in Acts 1:8) now expanding to the Samaritans. The gift of the Spirit with his signs awaits the arrival of apostolic representatives, Peter and John (see Luke 9:51–56!). This anticipates and prepares for the extension of the good news to the gentile, Cornelius, in Acts 11. The kingdom of Jesus breaks down the barriers that separated people from one another. The work of the church and the presence of the Spirit are inseparable.

In the midst of this blessing listen to the warning. Do not try to manipulate God. Simon sees the results of the gift of the Holy Spirit, received through the laying on of hands of the apostles, and requests to purchase that ability. This, to him, was the ultimate magic! His attitude reflected that of Balaam, who also learned something about trying to manipulate God. The danger of trying to manipulate God continues. You see it in the Roman view of the sacraments, but also in in Protestant circles. Prayer can be done in a way that tries to manipulate God into doing what is requested. The means of grace, good in themselves, can be used with the idea that God has to respond because of what we are doing.

The Spirit is more powerful than magic — submit to the Lord Jesus Christ. Peter pronounces a stinging rebuke on Simon’s effort to purchase the Spirit. The language is strong enough that it leave us in doubt regarding his salvation, though the final word is his request for prayer, verse 24. But Luke’s focus is on the gospel going out as the apostles return to Jerusalem preaching in many Samaritan villages.

“We do not rule over God; He rules over us in His grace. That was the message Philip brought to Samaria’s capital. He told the Samaritans how God in His sover­eign grace had come to us again in Jesus Christ. And he called for sub­mission in faith to the Word of grace. Philip spoke by the Holy Spirit who in turn confirmed the Word through the signs and won­ders Philip performed. The Word of grace wrestled with magic, as it does to this day all over the world. Shall we acknowledge God’s supreme sovereignty over us or subordinate Him to our own machi­nations?”

S. G. De Graaf, Promise and Deliverance, Vol. 4, p. 161

The good news is spreading! God calls you away from any efforts to manipulate him. He offers free grace in the Lord Jesus Christ. In God’s ironic way, submission to the Lord is the only way to freedom.

The work of the Spirit is not a magical human effort to gain something. He cannot be manipulated. Rather, the Spirit is the free gift of God, and he does something more wonderful than magic. He brings you in the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ.