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Grown-Up Bible Stories

Magic Versus Miracle

Samaria was the kind of city where a practitioner of the occult could find himself honored as a man of God. We know this fact about this city because history records that a man named Simon did just that. In a superstitious world where evil spirits are seen as gods, it doesn’t take a lot to sway people’s thinking. Even a sleight-of-hand artist might pass himself off as a spiritual superstar in such a setting. It does seem, though, that Simon did have at least some real influence with the unseen world. The record is that he practiced magic and amazed the locals who saw him as the great power of God.

Samaria had long been a confused place. Back in the days when Israel’s great kings and prophets had led the nation to serve the one true God, Samaria had become a center of idolatry. But even the idolatry was confusing because it passed itself off as worship of God. Common regional idols included Baal and Ashtoreth. But to those Hebrews living in and around Samaria, Baal and Ashtoreth were foreign gods. They worshipped golden calves that were said to represent the God of Israel. Never mind that God had forbidden such physical representations of Himself. They had begun to mix the true with the false, and they would never recover.

Later, an Assyrian king had overthrown that section of Israel, carried the bulk of the population away as prisoners, and resettled the land with victims of other conquests. Such two-way relocation served to totally overwhelm subdued nations. These pagan immigrants to Israel faced severe dangers and asked the king to import Jewish priests to teach them the religion of Israel for their own safety. He’d agreed, but the result was a mixture of true religion and the practices of old pagan culture. Samaria continued as a city of mixed national heritage and religious confusion into the days of the Roman Empire.

It was into this Roman-era mixture that Simon poured his skills. Engaging in activities similar to today’s occult, he’d gained himself a reputation as a spiritual man. The locals remained ignorant of the fact that God is too holy for involvement with the kind of thing that comes out of the occult. They assumed that a guy with this much spiritual power had to be Heaven’s representative. Simon enjoyed the status of a local celebrity.

Then, one day, a man named Philip walked into town. Philip was a Jew from Jerusalem. He was also a member of the new religion founded by Jesus Christ. As Philip preached it, the occupation government from Rome had executed Jesus. God had raised Him from the dead, and he’d bodily risen up through the atmosphere and returned to Heaven. According to Philip, Jesus had been God become a human. His death had been a sacrifice for the sins of mankind. Now, Jesus would give anybody who’d take it a real connection with Heaven and assurance that they could join Him there when they died. This being saved, as it would come to be called, proved an attractive package. There was something pure and holy about it, something that made Simon’s creepy methods inadequate. Besides, Philip’s holy lifestyle lent credibility to his words. Philip soon had a congregation of Christian converts.

Among them was Simon. We aren’t told what struggles Simon experienced. Stories from today’s missionaries who have dealt with witchdoctor types do give us an idea of what it means for such people to come to faith in Jesus Christ. Some admit they are fakes. The genuine practitioners may find their old powers unable to match those of God’s Spirit. Perhaps, others find freedom from what can be a tormented lifestyle.1 In any case, Simon saw something better than the occult. He recognized a real spiritual power that could outdo his black magic. He also saw a way to get his guilty soul cleared before God. At least that is the way it appeared. He testified to faith in Jesus by letting Philip baptize him.

Unlike the old Simon, Philip wasn’t interested in being “the great power of God” in Samaria. He wanted people to find the power of Jesus Christ for themselves. When two of Jesus’ original followers, Peter and John, came down to help, he seems to have welcomed them and stepped back so they could bring the people of Samaria further in their spiritual journey.

Bringing the people further was their objective. In addition to welcoming the often-despised Samaritans into the Christian family, they wanted to bring them all the way in. Part of the Christian experience includes having God come down in the person of the Holy Spirit to become a direct part of the believer’s life. This “spiritual birth” had first happened to the earliest Christians in a miraculous situation that we remember as Pentecost for the Jewish holiday on which it occurred. On that day, fire had seemed to burn on the heads of the Christians and they’d been given a miraculous ability to speak languages they hadn’t known before. Their lives had been marked by a new power since then. The church had also grown greatly. While there would be similar displays of spiritual power, it seems that most new converts received the Holy Spirit in less spectacular ways, and that most received Him--at least in some measure--upon their decisions to become Christians.

But the Holy Spirit wasn’t clearly present in the lives of the new Christians in Samaria yet. Peter and John laid their hands on them, and He came to them too. Scholars debate why it happened this way, but that discussion goes beyond what we’re considering at the moment. Whether they too spoke with tongues and did miracles or whether they found a quiet power to live holy lives, something wonderful had happened.

Simon, the man of former spiritual clout, watched and was impressed. Again, we aren’t told Simon’s motives or thoughts, but he went to Peter and John and offered them money to give him the ability to bring the Holy Spirit into the life of anyone he laid his hands upon. It sounds like a noble thing. Here was a man who’d been an evil spiritual leader converted and wanting to be a Christian leader.

Peter didn’t agree. With the Holy Spirit leading him, he refused. In fact, he rebuked Simon severely. There was something wrong with this man if he thought the gift of God could be purchased for money. In fact, Peter sensed that he wasn’t a Christian at all. He told him his money could go to Hell with him.

What had gone wrong? Was Simon still treating the new religion as sorcery, a new magical formula that could give some kind of status? Was it just another way of dealing with the spirit world to him? Had he always been more interested in the profit and popularity that went with being a spiritual leader than in real contact with a real God? Was he trying to gain back what he thought Philip had taken from him by buying a power bigger than Philip’s? The Biblical record isn’t written from Simon’s perspective, and we may never know.

Nor does the Bible really tell us the outcome of his confrontation with Peter. The account closes with Simon asking Peter to pray for him so he won't experience God's punishment. We aren’t told if he really understood the harm in treating God’s power as simply another magical formula, if he felt scared, or even if he just wanted to save face. He drops from the scene with no further mention. It would be nice to think that Simon really saw his error and got things right with God, but history doesn’t say. It’s an unsettling end to what started as a spectacular conversion story.


Over the years, other conversion stories have come to disappointing conclusions as well. Most people who pray to be saved experience God’s life-changing power. Some people who pray to be saved go on trapped in self-destructive sinful behavior as if nothing had happened. Others do show a changed life, but then sort of level off and just dabble in Christianity without much evidence of the Holy Spirit’s power. From the Bible and experience, we have to say that anyone who really believes the facts about Jesus Christ and trusts God to “save” him or her for Christ's sake becomes a Christian--is forgiven and given eternal life. But how to explain the ones who never quite seem to take as it were remains a mystery.

Some Bible teachers would say that such people need an additional experience with the Holy Spirit. Others would say that such people never truly believed. Maybe it’s a combination of factors, with some being Christians that never fully surrender themselves to the Holy Spirit and some being hypocrites.

One thing can be said for certain, though. Becoming a Christian is a real thing. God will forgive sin and give eternal life to everyone who believes in Jesus and puts himself or herself into His keeping. But it isn’t a magic formula. You have to really be reaching out to God. There is no prayer of accepting Christ and no baptism that will suddenly bring the power of God into your life if you don’t really believe or don’t really intend to let God save you. Even if you do really believe and really do get forgiveness and eternal life, if you don’t let God be your boss, then you’ll never experience the full power that the Holy Spirit can supply.

How about it? Are you a statistic with no reality? Or have you really opened yourself up to the saving power of God? It isn’t magic, but it is a miracle, and it’s one you have to ask for. Have you done so?

For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ: for it is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth; to the Jew first, and also to the Greek. (Romans 1:16)

But ye are not in the flesh, but in the Spirit, if so be that the Spirit of God dwell in you. Now if any man have not the Spirit of Christ, he is none of his. (Romans 8:9)

That if thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and shalt believe in thine heart that God hath raised him from the dead, thou shalt be saved. (Romans 10:9)

To learn how to be saved, click here: How to Have a Relationship with God.

1. Based roughly on audio tape presentations by Gerald Bustin and Elmer Schmelzenbach

This work is in the pubic domain and may be copied and distributed freely.


How to Have a Relationship with God

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