Acts 8 – Philip, Simon, and Magic

After the execution of Stephen, Luke tells us that a great persecution broke out in Jerusalem, presumably led by Saul and other Hellenistic Jews from the synagogue of the Freedmen. Philip, introduced in Acts 6 as a deacon, now functions as an evangelist in Samaria. Like Stephen, he appears to have been a leader among the Hellenists. He goes into the region of Samaria and has great success as an evangelist.

Among those who believe is a man named Simon, who is described as a magician (verses 9-13). Justin Martyr describes Simon as a source of a great deal of heresy in the early church. While it is impossible to confirm anything he says, Luke describes him here as a man who had functioned as a first century magician who used these skills to draw people to himself. A Magus could be a respectable class of scientific advisers to leaders, but often they were quacks and charlatans.

This appears to be what Simon is, since he is amazing people for a long time in the Samaritan town. In Simon’s case, he seems to have been able to perform a number of miracles by which he was able to gain a following among the Samaritans. Luke does not tell us what is motivation might have been, but there is a connection between magic and money in other contexts in Acts (13:6-8, 16:18-19, 19:14-19), so it is possible that Simon was functioning as a miracle worker in order to make money.

My Favorite Magician

My Favorite Magician

Keener points out a number of comparisons between Philip and Simon. Both work wonders and draw crowds. Simon is a “great power” (8:10) and Philip preforms “great powers” (8:13). Both amaze the Samaritans, Simon with magic (8:9, 11) and Philip with miracles (8:13). Simon, however, attempts to make himself something great, while Philip acts only “in the name of Jesus” (8:12,16). This is the first of several confrontations with magicians Luke describes in Acts. Paul will be opposed by Elymas, a Philippian slave girl is possessed by “the spirit of python” so that she acts as an oracle, and the Sons of Sceva attempt to cast out demons and are beaten, resulting in the burning of magical scrolls by some Ephesian Christians (Keener 2:1499).

Why is there an interest in magic in the book of Acts? One reason is the ancient world was obsessed with magic. Magic was an attempt to manipulate spirits and force them to act in ways religion did not (Keener: 2:1500). While moderns think of magic as a “trick” or an “illusion,” the ancients understood magic as a way of dealing with reality. Love potions and curses were available for purchase in places like Ephesus, fortune-tellers were in the marketplace to help you make decisions, and people bought charms and spells to protect them against evil spirits. If Philip the Evangelist did miracles, it would be very easy to confuse them with magical practices.

How does the story of Simon the Sorcerer in Acts 8 function as a warning against magic? Or was the story intended to explain to Christians the source of the disciples’ power? Perhaps this is a good passage to think about application: Luke meant for his readers to understand something about the practice of magic in the first century, but how do we draw application to modern, western cultures where magic is not practiced? Is this a story which would be more quickly applied in an African environment than an American college campus?

14 thoughts on “Acts 8 – Philip, Simon, and Magic

  1. I preached through Acts last year and covered this section in two sermons. The titles were “How to Spot a Counterfeit” parts 1 & 2. The main points (which are also my application points) for the first sermon were: 1) To spot a counterfeit, I must first be able to spot what is genuine. Acts 8:4-8. 2) Spotting counterfeits can be difficult because they mimic the genuine. Acts 8:9-13. 3) When genuineness is questionable, confirmation is needed. Acts 8:14-17. For the second sermon, the main points were: 1) Counterfeit belief exists because of misunderstood truth. Acts 8:18-19. 2) Counterfeit belief exists because of misdirected hearts. Acts 8:20-24. 3) Genuine belief seeks to advance the gospel, to expand the kingdom. Acts 8:25.

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  2. Magic is an interesting topic that I didn’t realize had an influence on the book of Acts. The controversy is, “is the power of the early Christians coming from the Holy Spirit or magic? Something to understand is that the ancient world was obsessed with magic. Magic was an attempt to manipulate spirits and force them to act in ways religion did not. So in Acts 13:6-8 when a magician is met, is the sorcerer performing sorcery? I believe this is a warning to the disciples of magic and not an explanation for their ability to perform power. Going back to Acts 8 when we see Simon (a magician) having magic and Philip doing miracles, it’s very easy to assume that magic that didn’t come from God could have been in play regardless of Phillip saying “in the name of Jesus” (Acts 8:12).

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    • Troy, I think this topic of magic is very interesting because the apostles were performing miracles to show people the power of the Holy Spirit. The difference between Simon and Philip in Acts 8 was one worked for themselves and the other was a witness of Jesus Christ. I think that Simon could have tricked people into thinking what he was doing was a gift from God because of the miracles that people were witnessing from the apostles. Both Simon and Philip were great at gathering crowds and both amazed people with their magic and miracles (Long.) I think we both agree that in Acts 8 magic could have tricked people into thinking it was a miracle.

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  3. The reason people would compare magic and what the apostles were doing is that they were trying to make a comparison to something that was familiar (familiar just meaning they had seen it before, not practiced it themselves). This story, though, highlights the source of healing being the Holy Spirit and if someone tries to do magic, his/her actions will fail. But when God intervenes, plans prevail.

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  4. I find the topic of magic interesting especially in the book of Acts. In the book of Acts there are a lot of examples of the apostles preforming miracles and gathering crowds to witness. A thought that comes up when reading this is could people believe that this could be magic? When Peter and John performed the miracle in Acts 2 they lead thousands of people to be believers of Christ. Could people have been tricked others with magic during this time of the apostles performing miracles? I think Simon could have definitely been trying to make some money with magic because he was trying to make a name for himself unlike Phillip who was performing miracles in the “name of Jesus.” (Acts 8:13)

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  5. The magic performed by Simon in Acts 8 reminds me of the prosperity gospels that we so frequently hear about in our culture. Simon’s magic was not real magic, it was just a charade. When Simon saw Phillip’s “magic” he knew it was real, not just a trick. Simon knew that the miracles that Phillip did would be bad for his business. So Simon had two options: Find a new job, or learn how to do “magic” like Phillip. Of course, Simon did not truly understand the power of the Holy Spirit or its purposes. This is quite similar to many prosperity gospel preachers. Many of these preachers began their careers as motivational speakers (see T.D. Jakes) and as their careers progressed they realized that the promise of a better life on its own was not as appealing as a life where both your earthly and eternal destinies are provided for. The Simon is our warning against preachers of this theology. It warns us of those whose motivation is not centered in Scripture or the work of the Holy Spirit. Simon was impressive on the outside. He had power and reputation among the Samaritans. However, he was never preaching the gospel or using his gifts for the glory of God. That key difference is what separates teachers of the gospel of Jesus from teachers of the gospel of self. In the end, Simon revealed who he really was. He was a fraud who chose to use his gifts to serve himself and exploit others.

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  6. Was Simon a magician, or an illusionist? Or something else? We don’t know, what we know is what the Bible tells us. In our western society we give them the title “magician” but really they are optical illusionists. But in biblical or 1st century time the same people would have been thought to be sorcerers and magicians. Is this the case for Simon?
    Back in ancient times people were involved with many different things such as occult practices and black magic. Ancient cultures like the Egyptians practiced all sorts of bad things and experimented with the dark arts. An example of this is in Exodus 7:8-12, in this passage Moses and Aaron appeared before the Pharaoh. Aaron took his staff threw it down and it became a snake. Pharaoh summoned Egyptian wise men and sorcerers, and magicians who also threw there staffs down and they to became snakes. Verse 11 mentions they did it by their secret arts. Other cultures have also practiced some type of magic. In some parts of the world dark magic is practiced by different cultures and religions. Dark magic is associated with witchcraft, voodoo, and other such systems. So, the question is Was it possible that Simon the sorcerer could have practiced some type or form of dark magic?

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  7. I wonder what the difference is between magic and spiritual miracles. Based off my limited understanding, a magician is someone who is aware of the intricates of nature and how things happen and uses that for his advantage. Long mentions how generally Simon would preform miracles in order for financial gain. Acts 8:10 shows an interesting relationship between Simon and God, ““This man is the power of God that is called Great.” Maybe this was because those people never witnessed the physical miracles of Jesus Christ. At this point in time, they would have been aware of the experiences of the prophets and leaders in the Torah ( Moses parting the Red Sea, 10 plagues). It is hard to distinguish whether Simon was a miracle worker or a magician before his encounter with Philip.

    The fact that ancient magic was viewed as a coping mechanism for reality, is vastly different than our current 21st century idea of illusionist and escapist (Long). After reflecting on this passage, I think the primary difference between magic and miracles is the matter of the heart. Philip was teaching and preforming miracles based off the power of God and according to his commission. Simons actions in verse 19 are hard to label as selfish or thoughtful. He could have desired to have the power of the Holy Spirit in order to serve his brethren, or it could have been another business prospect.

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  8. Magic during the biblical era was commonplace. Nowadays, the thought of going to someone to get some sort of love potion or faux remedy seems silly, but back then it was the norm, which I think is why the Bible makes mention of it (and how it’s wrong). Modern society doesn’t need to worry quite as much about magic and its practice compared to citizens thousands of years ago, but that doesn’t make it right to gain “power” from anywhere but God. Even then, you don’t see miracles happen like what the Apostles did when they began their ministry.
    I think that this story with Simon has multiple purposes, firstly to display that magic is not of God, and second to show where the disciples’ power came from. God has warned about magic before this point in time, and those messages are still true. Simon wanted to use magic for his own monetary gain and notoriety. He would use it to amaze the people in Samaria and give them a reason to think he has “great power from God” (Acts 8:10). Simon even offered to purchase the power to grant the Holy Spirit from Peter. Peter then goes on to rebuke him for what he has said. What’s important to gather here is that the power that was granted to the apostles was from God and was used to further the message of Christ and the Holy Spirit. The apostles didn’t use it to further their own agendas or fill their wallets, but they used the power of the Spirit for God.

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  9. Magic back then definitely played a big part in the Biblical era. I think back to the time of Moses where the Pharaoh had sorcerers almost duplicate some of the plagues that God had placed on the Egyptians. I think that human’s have struggled with the same things even a thousand years ago, things are just approached differently. People back then used magic to try and manipulate or mock God, and instead of going to God for the answers it seems like they wanted to create their own results. With this being said I think that the story of Simon has a common theme that can be used all across cultures and that is that power does not come from our own doings it comes from God. Looking back into Acts all of the miracles that Philip did he made sure that the people were aware that it was the the Lord Jesus Christ, no human could inhabit the same power as God. All throughout the Bible God has overcome any earthly power or sorcerer, both the Old testament and New testament are proof to this.

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  10. I am reminded of what Samuel said to King Saul after his second major rebellion concerning the Amalekites, Samuel said “For rebellion is like the sin of divination, and arrogance like the evil of idolatry. (1 Samuel 15:23). Other translations will say “rebellion is witchcraft”. Paul makes a point in this in his letter to the Galatians “You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? Before your very eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed as crucified.” (Gal. 3:1). The Galatians had started believing a different Gospel than what Paul had preached and thus the Galatians were in rebellion and under witchcraft.
    Saul had sought the witch at Endor for advice on what to do next since the Lord would not answer Saul via dreams, lots, or prophets (1 Sam. 28:8).
    I the parallel I see is that Simon claimed to be someone great and people titled him “the Great One—The Power of God”. To be in such a position is to use what you have for the sake of power and attention. Polhill says of Simon, “he seems to have made some claim to at least embody the very power of God ” (Polhill. Acts. p. 215).

    Polhill continues in mentioning that Justin Martyr, one of the earliest writers says Simon, “was worshiped by “almost all” of the Samaritans of his day as “the first god. ” (Polhill. Acts. P.216).

    Once Simon was converted he still had this craving for power and attention. Which audiences should question the genuiness in his profession of Christianity. After offering money to Peter to have the power for others to receive the Holy Spirit Peter rebukes him and advises that Simon repent of his wickedness. More Specifically, Peter says that he can see that Simon is full of bitter jealousy and held captive by sin (Acts 8:23).

    It would be hard for western civilization to understand the power of magic as opposed to Africa and other countries that practice it. If they were to witness the miraculous power of Jesus Christ I think they would realize that their divination is only evil and not of God. This may be the emphasis in the chapter seeing how keener compares and contrast Phillip and Simon. Phillip does miraculous wonders in the name of Jesus and Simon does so in his own name and claiming to be God (Acts 19:14, Rom. 1:22).

    Hearing the name of Jesus is not the same as knowing and proclaiming the name of Jesus, otherwise the sons of Sceva would have not received the beating they did.

    In a way it is like a “get rich quick” scheme. You want to get rich quick because it will boost your reputation and status. Following Jesus requires forsaking your life and possessions for His sake and not your own. Magic is the counterfeit of God’s power, especially when has no access to God’s power such is the case of Saul and Simon.

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  11. This is a rather funny topic because as I came back into the dorms tonight after eating a lovely meal at panda express because the GCU food was like a normal Saturday night, I saw Mr. Broderick in the women’s lounge doing some of his usual magic tricks. I always love it when I get to see him do some of his awesome TRICKS, and I think that we view magic tricks in our western view as just that, just tricks, so I think that for us we read the scripture differently, but at the same time the exact same way as the people it was written to would have read it. we read it as a warning sign as to not do anything miraculous without putting Gods stamp on it, and I believe that was the original intent for the passage, that whatever you do you should always have Gods hand in it.

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