The Difference between Magic and Miracle

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“The righteous shall live by faith” was initially a prophetic declaration by the prophet Habakkuk, this truth was then seized upon by the Apostle Paul as a cornerstone of the gospel of Jesus Christ. In two letters where the Apostle is trying to emphasize the radical nature of the free gift of righteousness that Jesus Christ has given believers through His death and resurrection Paul quotes the scripture. As he is writing to the Churches of Galatia who are in danger of succumbing to the religious obligations of the Judaizers Paul declares

“Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for “The righteous shall live by faith” (Gal 3:11)

Again when Paul is writing to the Church in Rome emphasizing that Gospel of Righteousness is a free gift for both Jew and Gentile alike he returns to this theme

“For in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed—a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith”. (Romans 1:17)

This was a critical message for the early church where returning to Jewish religious obligations as a means of atonement was a constant concern. It was a concern, not simply because of the specific nature of the threat of the Judaizing influence, but because attaining a right standing before God on the basis of our own religious works is an inherent temptation in all fallen human nature. Not only is it a temptation, but it is at the heart of every religious system as man reaches out to God and tries through his own ethics to attain right standing with the divine.

It is no wonder that the recovery of the message that the Gospel of Jesus is not based on such works righteousness, but rather as a free gift through faith became the cornerstone of the Protestant Reformation in the sixteenth century. The tenets of Sola Fide and Sola Gracia stood in stark contrast to the religious penitential system that had built up in the Roman Catholic firmament. The bumper sticker asserting it is about relationship not religion is correct. The righteous do not live by religion, the righteous live by faith, always have and always will.

However there is another temptation that is inherent in fallen human nature that draws us away from living a life of faith and it is this that I want to examine in a little more depth. It is the pursuit of magic. Many will object that this is not a real threat to any believers that they know. Witchcraft and occultism are indeed a growing temptation for a small minority of our community, but it is not as big a challenge for believers as the problem of works righteousness. I would agree. However witchcraft and occultism is merely an overt extreme, for the temptations towards magic do not start with spells and potions.

Let me start the examination of this problem with a question: what is the difference between magic and miracle? Both involve an outside force breaking into “natural” process and producing a remarkable outcome either through speeding up “natural” process or by producing something that would otherwise be impossible. From the externals magic and miracle look quite similar. In truth the outcome might look the same. You may object that miracle comes from God and magic does not, but I want to submit that the heart of the problem with magic doesn’t come primarily from the source of the power that is released (although please understand me that seeking power from demons is dangerous, sinful and extremely unwise), but rather the main problem of magic comes from deep impulses within the heart of man. The heart that pursues magic doesn’t ultimately care where the power comes from, so in one sense the power source doesn’t matter. Indeed the “magic-seeking” heart may be seeking power from God and this is where the problem comes for believers, for I want to contend that living by magic is as much an antithesis to faith as living by religious observance, and yet many believers are prone to fall into this temptation.

Let’s take a few biblical stories as examples to try and tease out this magic seeking impulse and explain it in more depth. The first story took place during the time when the Judges led Israel. Israel were fighting against their arch-enemies the Philistines. We learn in 1 Sam 4:

 Now Israel went out to battle against the Philistines… And when the people came to the camp, the elders of Israel said, “Why has the Lord defeated us today before the Philistines? Let us bring the ark of the covenant of the Lord here from Shiloh, that it may come among us and save us from the power of our enemies.”… As soon as the ark of the covenant of the Lord came into the camp, all Israel gave a mighty shout, so that the earth resounded. And when the Philistines heard the noise of the shouting, they said, “What does this great shouting in the camp of the Hebrews mean?” And when they learned that the ark of the Lord had come to the camp, the Philistines were afraid, for they said, “A god has come into the camp.” And they said, “Woe to us! For nothing like this has happened before. Woe to us! Who can deliver us from the power of these mighty gods? These are the gods who struck the Egyptians with every sort of plague in the wilderness. Take courage, and be men, O Philistines, lest you become slaves to the Hebrews as they have been to you; be men and fight.”

 10 So the Philistines fought, and Israel was defeated, and they fled, every man to his home. And there was a very great slaughter, for thirty thousand foot soldiers of Israel fell. 11 And the ark of God was captured…

The “magic-seeking” heart is at core selfish. It seeks power through “religious” practices and often through physical objects that can be seen and handled. In this story the military leaders of Israel (Hophni and Phinehas, the evil sons of Eli) knew that God’s presence resided in the ark of the covenant, they therefore called for the ark to be transferred into the camp of the Israelites. Unfortunately for the Israelites, they were not seeking God in their fight against the Philistines, they were seeking power from the “magic box”. It was not YHWH who was going to save them it was literally the box that would save them. Here we see the magic-seeking heart in full motion. Hophni and Phinehas were not living faithfully before YHWH, they just wanted to beat the Philistines, they wanted power, they wanted easy answers and they thought that the magic box would give that answer. Interestingly the Israelites had been given many warnings about diviners and sorcerers, yet here we see them trying to use God in like manner. The ark had simply become a magic charm. You cannot manipulate YHWH in the presence of His glory and it is not surprising that the Philistines subsequently captured the ark and Hophni and Phinehas were killed.

This is not the last time we encounter this “magical” approach to power either in scriptures or in church history. We see it again in the New Testament in several places. In Samaria a man by the name of Simon (who also happened to be a magician) saw the power of the Holy Spirit and offered money to receive such power. Peter’s denunciation of his actions was quick.

“May your silver perish with you, because you thought you could obtain the gift of God with money! 21 You have neither part nor lot in this matter, for your heart is not right before God. 22 Repent, therefore, of this wickedness of yours, and pray to the Lord that, if possible, the intent of your heart may be forgiven you. 23 For I see that you are in the gall of bitterness and in the bond of iniquity.” 

Likewise in Ephesus under Paul’s ministry we are told that “extraordinary miracles” were taking place. At this time we pick up the story where “Seven sons of a Jewish high priest named Sceva” were attempting to perform like miracles by speaking what was to them a magical formula “I adjure you by the name of Jesus whom Paul proclaims”. God presence was manifest in Ephesus and in the presence of His glory God will not be manipulated by magical charms and formulas, such that we find the demon in the possessed man whom they were trying to minister to answered them “Jesus I know, and Paul I recognize, but who are you?” And the man in whom was the evil spirit leaped on them, mastered all of them and overpowered them, so that they fled out of that house naked and wounded.

This example of the sons of Sceva is a startling confirmation of what Jesus had previously taught in the Sermon on the Mount

“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. 22 On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ 23 And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’ (Matt 7:21-23)

In this verse Jesus gives us the startling information that because the name of Jesus has inherent power it is actually possible to use the name of Jesus as a “magical formula” and it will work. This is shocking news to self-serving, self-deceived and  power-hungry hearts (and I am thinking firstly of myself when I say this). We all want answers to our pain, our needs and our ambitions, we all want answers quickly and we all live in a world of “seven secrets to a better life”. We yearn for the short cuts. We long for formulas. Humanity always has. And this is not just a modern phenomenon, throughout history we have looked to charms (relics, crucifixes, anointed objects and places) rather than seek the face and the hand of YHWH.

The righteous will live by faith. Having faith in the Genesis 1 God means that miracles will happen. God has shown time and time again throughout the scriptures and throughout history that He longs to walk and work with His people. He longs for us to ask, to seek and to knock in prayer. He longs for us to understand the position he has given us and the blessings that come from that position. Yet too often we seek the power independent of the relationship, we want our pain medicated, our pride soothed and the power released now. Faith is an ongoing trust in the absolute ability of God and one element of biblical faith that is consistent throughout scriptures is waiting. Will we learn to wait upon God, will we learn faithfulness/faith or will we succumb to the easy answers of magic, which are ultimately no answer at all. The righteous will live by faith – always have and always will.

About Jono Hall

Disciple of Jesus, Husband and Father, Intercessory Missionary, Senior Leader at International House of Prayer and Teacher at IHOPU
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