Are You a Magician?

Posted: March 3, 2022

A few weeks ago I started the M'Cheyne Bible Reading plan after learning about it in a class lecture and being inspired by our class discussion about spiritual disciplines to go ahead with it.[1] It's four chapters a day, and if you stick with it, you end up reading through the OT once, the NT twice, and the Psalms twice. It's not a light plan compared to other bible reading schedules I've tried in the past. But I'm actually wondering if it will stick because it's a sizable amount. Time will tell!

The schedule had me reading Exodus in the past week; in particular it was the standoff between Pharaoh and the LORD (through Moses and Aaron), and one of the details I never noticed before was the posture of the magicians (and others of authority around Pharaoh) throughout the standoffs. Upon further reflection I started to see myself in them and how their abilities were related to their initial hardness of heart with Pharaoh (my implication from the narrative). Let me lay out the arch of the narrative before my personal reflections.

The narrative arch of the magicians and officials

The magicians first show up in chapter 7, with the staff-to-serpent and the Nile-to-blood signs:

11 But then Pharaoh called the wise men and sorcerers—the magicians of Egypt, and they also did the same thing by their occult practices.
22 But the magicians of Egypt did the same thing by their occult practices. So Pharaoh’s heart was hard, and he would not listen to them, as the Lord had said.

Exodus 7:11,22 CSB

The same happens again in chapter 8 with the frogs. But when we get to the gnats and the flies, they weren't able to do the same thing, and here we see the first sign that their hearts were softening, even if Pharaoh's was not. In Exodus 8:19, they are forced to confess, “This is the finger of God.” In chapter 9, the boils came upon the magicians such that they could not even stand before Moses. We also learn that some "messengers" (9:7) see God's judgment with their own eyes regarding livestock and have to bring that unhappy report to Pharaoh. Then some of "Pharaoh's officials" (9:20) demonstrate their growing fear of the LORD by bringing their own animals indoors before the announced hail. These details about the messengers and officials continue the narrative of those in power around Pharaoh that started with the magicians and I suspect there is some overlap between these groups.

In chapter 10, the messengers softly turn against Pharaoh's will and plead with him to submit to the LORD's (10:7); we get a sense of conflict within Pharaoh's ranks. Then in chapter 11, it's plainly said that Moses was "very highly regarded in the land of Egypt by Pharaoh’s officials and the people" and that they would ultimately bow down before Moses (11:3,8). And finally there's the death of the firstborn which brings cries all over the land.

Personal Reflections

I saw myself in these magicians. They were using their own methods to imitate the acts of God. In a way, this should be expected; humans who are made like God should be expected to act like God. But somehow their mimicking of God's power led them to disdain God rather than honor him; they, along with Pharaoh, prided themselves in their own abilities.

I saw myself in these magicians. How many times have I witnessed or experienced something good, but instead of worshiping God and his power at work, I thought, this isn't that great; anyone could do this! I'm not quick to glorify God or celebrate. My head and my heart quickly make it about me. Paul's words in his letter to the Roman church echoes here for me:

21 For though they knew God, they did not glorify him as God or show gratitude. Instead, their thinking became worthless, and their senseless hearts were darkened. 22 Claiming to be wise, they became fools 23 and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man, birds, four-footed animals, and reptiles.

Romans 1:21-23 CSB (emphasis mine)

I saw myself in these officials. In ministry, ministers can get quite good at imitating God. We know how to craft a sermon "for maximum impact." In worship (song) leading, there's always a conversation to be had about our ability to manipulate through music. When we get practiced at this, we can almost function like we don't need God. We can make our own serpents and perform our own signs. In ministry we can almost say, We've seen/done it all! I'm not that impressed. And though it may look like we are leading people to God, we are really leading them elsewhere: to ourselves. We want people to worship us and our ministry chops (though we may not say it out loud). The end of Romans 1, which is about misdirected worship,[2] so clearly applies to us and the recent reckoning ministers have had in the culture today. It's worth reproducing here in full:

28 And because they did not think it worthwhile to acknowledge God, God delivered them over to a corrupt mind so that they do what is not right. 29 They are filled with all unrighteousness, evil, greed, and wickedness. They are full of envy, murder, quarrels, deceit, and malice. They are gossips, 30 slanderers, God-haters, arrogant, proud, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, 31 senseless, untrustworthy, unloving, and unmerciful. 32 Although they know God’s just sentence—that those who practice such things deserve to die—they not only do them, but even applaud others who practice them.

Romans 1:28-32 CSB (emphasis mine)

Because of sin, it's impossible to avoid this completely. For someone who can do a lot of things in the church, this is especially dangerous for me. I hope that it won't take a plague-level experience for me to realize, "This is the finger of God," and that I would seek to cultivate a heart of humility as I seek to minister to others. I pray I will not be a stubborn magician ever practicing my tricks before the Holy God.

Holy Spirit, help me to see Jesus who did endure the plague of the cross for me. Help me to see Jesus so that I would better see "the finger of God" in my day-to-day. Help me see Jesus, and teach my heart to properly fear the LORD in humble service to the church as worship to you and not to myself.

1 I was only able to find a self-printable version here, but I didn't like the formatting and it didn't fit in my personal bible... so I reformatted it for myself. If you're interested you can download my revision here.
2 unfortunately we often read this primarily about sexual immorality -- it is about sexual immorality, but under the bigger topic/umbrella of false worship practices in Greek/Roman religious life... but that's a post for another day