Last Lord’s Day in our congregation we were confronted by the unsettling figure of Simon the Magician in our series in the book of Acts (8.9-24). Luke seems to include his story in his treatment of the Samaritan church for the same kind of reason he includes Ananias and Sapphira in his chronicle of the Jerusalem church: to serve as a sobering warning to all churches. In particular he is a warning of at least three things:
1. The reality, power and danger of magic.
How many Christians think there is no such thing as magic? Listen to what John Wesley said on the subject, writing in his journal in 1768: ‘the giving up of [belief in] witchcraft is in effect giving up the Bible.’ The Bible affirms clearly the existence of supernatural power, and gives many illustrations of how people successfully harnessed demonic power. 1 Samuel 28 records the story of Saul trying to contact spirit of Samuel through the medium of Endor. Whatever else this episode tells us, it shows us the reality of a spirit world. Whether it was actually the spirit of Samuel who came up out of the ground, or an evil spirit pretending to be Samuel, there is no question that a spirit appeared.
Or remember how the magicians of Egypt were able to perform some genuine miracles. Pharaoh’s wise men, sorcerers and magicians were able to turn their staffs into snakes by their occult arts, and to imitate the first two plagues on Egypt.
Simon was a man steeped in the occult who practised real magic. Luke emphasizes just how successful he was in Samaria: They all paid attention to him, from the least to the greatest, saying, ‘This man is the power of God that is called Great.’ (Acts 8.10) He may not mean much to us, but he was a household name in Samaria—in the poorest and in the richest homes. Nor was Simon some cheap conjurer, pulling rabbits out of a hat or coins out of people’s ears: …they paid attention to him because for a long time he had amazed them with his magic. (Acts 8.11) You don’t keep a grip on the popular mind year after year by doing the same old tricks over and over. Simon had tapped into real supernatural, demonic power.
2. Believing the truth in your head is not the same as trusting it in your heart
The commentators debate back and forth whether or not Simon was a true Christian or not. The reason why some are prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt is because of Acts 8.13. When many people in Samaria were believing the message about Jesus Christ that Philip was preaching …even Simon himself believed, and after being baptized he continued with Philip. Simon believed the gospel. It’s not that he pretended to believe the gospel—he really did sincerely believe the message about the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. He of all people in Samaria had no problem believing in supernatural realities—he had witnessed them at work first-hand for many years.
But it becomes clear that although he believed the truth in his head, his heart was unchanged. Peter is given the ability by the Holy Spirit to look inside Simon’s heart and what he sees is very unpromising: ‘…your heart is not right before God. Repent, therefore, of this wickedness of yours, and pray to the Lord that, if possible, the intent of your heart may be forgiven you. For I see that you are in the gall of bitterness and in the bond of iniquity.’ (Acts 8.22-23)
Simon had the same faith as James says the demons themselves have: ‘You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder.’ (Jas 2.19). The demons are perfectly orthodox in their theology—and so are many people who think they are true Christians. Perhaps there could be a ‘Simon’ reading this blog—you like theology, you enjoy discussing it and reading about it and thinking about it. You have impeccable Reformed credentials—you hold to the five points of Calvinism without reservation. It's good to know and believe theology, but we must be on our guard that it doesn't become a substitute for trusting Christ. But Simon shows us you can have a sincere head knowledge of the truth without actually being saved, because you’ve never turned from your sins & trusted Christ to save you from the punishment you deserve.
3. The desire for power is powerful
When Simon sees the transformation the Holy Spirit brought about in his fellow Samaritans after Peter and John laid their hands upon them, he wants to buy the power to confer such life-altering blessing. ‘Give me this power also,’ he says (Acts 8.19). The old Simon hadn’t really gone away. He had simply discovered a greater power than the one he had tried to manipulate before.
‘Give me this power.’ Those words reveal a desire that is found in the warp and woof of the fallen human nature of every one of us—the desire for power. It’s this desire that is almost always behind every other desire we have. What is the desire for money but the longing to be able to control your environment? How many young women long for the kind of outer beauty that the world rates? But why? So they possess the power to turn the heads of men and have superiority over other women. Ever since Eden we have lusted after power, when Satan whispered that empty promise into Eve’s ear, ‘You will be like God’. Does this help explain in part the enduring popularity—and even proliferation—of superhero movies? Because it taps into a yearning we all have.
We need to be on our guard against this subtle and powerful desire. The desire to help others in ministry can be perverted into a desire to exercise power over them—that they become dependent on us, consulting us, looking to us, needing us. And we who are involved in ministry can unwittingly encourage people to depend on us rather than the Lord.
It's good to remind ourselves that our God is the source of all power and that all power belongs to him; but also that he gives his people strength and power. (Ps 68.34-35)