Abra Cadabra - Acts 13:4-12

4 So, being sent out by the Holy Spirit, they went down to Seleucia; and from there they sailed to Cyprus. 5 When they arrived at Salamis, they proclaimed the word of God in the synagogues of the Jews. And they had John also to assist them. When they had gone through the whole island as far as Paphos, they met a certain magician, a Jewish false prophet, named Bar-Jesus. 7 He was with the proconsul, Sergius Paulus, an intelligent man, who summoned Barnabas and Saul and wanted to hear the word of God. 8 But the magician Elymas (for that is the translation of his name) opposed them and tried to turn the proconsul away from the faith. 9 But Saul, also known as Paul, filled with the Holy Spirit, looked intently at him 10 and said, “You son of the devil, you enemy of all righteousness, full of all deceit and villainy, will you not stop making crooked the straight paths of the Lord? 11 And now listen—the hand of the Lord is against you, and you will be blind for a while, unable to see the sun.” Immediately mist and darkness came over him, and he went about groping for someone to lead him by the hand. 12 When the proconsul saw what had happened, he believed, for he was astonished at the teaching about the Lord.
Acts 13 (NRSV)

I remember watching David Copperfield walk through the Great Wall of China.  I think I jumped off my couch; perhaps I was easily impressed.[1] Copperfield and his guild are masters of illusion.  Even as a boy I knew he wasn’t really walking through a wall.  The question wasn’t one of disbelief, it was, “how did he make it look like he did that?”  Elymas was not an illusionist.  He was a Jewish Magician—which meant that his customers hoped he really had the power to influence fate.  Magic was actually outlawed in ancient Rome, but was commonly practiced in secret throughout the empire.  What makes Elymas unique is that he apparently had the ear of Cyprus’s proconsul.  Most magicians were back-alley figures, not important political advisers.  

Ancient magic had to do with manipulating reality for the benefit of a person(s).  Most of the time that meant that a magician would make a protective amulet for a customer, cast a spell over them before a big event, or attempt to heal some kind of ailment.  All of the services had a cost, of course.  The cost is what got them a nickname throughout the Greek-speaking world, gotes, which basically means “swindler.” Con-artists have to live in continual fear that they’ll be unmasked and typically a series of well-crafted lies are the option of choice to keep the “customer” in the dark. So here is this guy Elymas, who’s made it big in Phaphos—I imagine the price of performing magic for a proconsul wasn’t cheap nor were the benefits of social power meager. And here are these other guys who are about to declare to his employer that there’s a God who doesn’t require a price.  Suddenly Elymas realizes the jig is up if he doesn’t interfere.   Thus, the sequence of events above.   

I could go into a long denunciation of magic or a detailed differentiation between Elymas and say, Gandalf, but I don’t think that’s a secondary or even tertiary point.[2]  Front and center for me is the vast difference between a magic worldview and the transformative, free love of Christ.  Do we offer something that’s for sale? Do we promise to manipulate people’s reality? In my understanding, the Gospel isn’t for sale.[3]  God’s love is not for sale.  God’s intervention in space and time is not for sale.  You cannot buy it with prayer, good looks, eloquence, purity, abstinence, education, great music, hymns, bang-up preaching, the right political allegiance, etc. It is not for sale.  We are not merchants.  We are not magicians. We gain access to God by his grace. Therefore, we are not the gatekeepers who know the admission fee. We are trusting servants of the free-loving, sacrificing God, who stands as a giant threat to those who would swindle people out of truth for the sake of their own personal power.  

[1] You couldn’t really do that sort of thing today, what with all our cgi abilities.  We’d simply chalk it up to a green-screen.
[2] But I will do it briefly in the footnotes :-). Many of you know that I love The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit.  I think magic firmly fixed in the realm of the imagination is absolutely no threat to my dependence upon and singular worship of Jesus Christ.  I know it isn’t real . . . when I pray, for instance, I have zero inclination to think, “What would Gandalf do.” It’s when we practice arts, dark or otherwise, in order to manipulate our circumstances that we set up false gods, thus wandering away from Christ.
[3] You might have had it explained to you like a sales transaction: give Christ your faith and he’ll provide you with forgiveness and a ticket to heaven.  The only purchasing language I’m aware of in the New Testament regards Christ as the purchaser not the merchant (Acts 20:28; 1 Cor. 6:20).  I think salvation is much better suited to relational imagery than the sterile environment of the marketplace.  Think back to times when your parents yelled at you when you were a child and at some point you hopefully reconciled with a warm embrace, reminding you that their love was bigger than your mistakes and you could not easily undo their desire to be present in your life.  The Gospel is a lot more like that embrace than going to the store to buy a water-gun or laundry hamper.  


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