The word of God condemns and justifies. Practices not in harmony with its teachings are condemned, but the same word provides the means of justification for humble souls willing to change their practices. One practice that God has always condemned is sorcery (Deut. 18:10-12; Mal. 3:5; Gal. 5:20; Rev. 21:8). The New Testament speaks of two sorcerers who were blessed with the opportunity to hear the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Thus, they were blessed to know that their practices were condemned and to know what the means of their justification were.
As Paul and Barnabas traveled through the island of Cyprus on Paul’s first missionary journey, they met with the proconsul of the province, a “prudent man,” or “man of understanding” (American Standard Version), named Sergius Paulus (Acts 13:6-7). A Roman inscription in Cyprus identifies the proconsul as Quintus Sergius Paulus. The proconsul demonstrated his understanding and prudence by having two men of God preach the Gospel to him. However, the proconsul had with him a man who was not so prudent or understanding—a sorcerer named Elymas.
The biblical account indicates that Elymas had an important position with the proconsul, likely as a highly trusted advisor. However, his advice on this occasion was not such as to benefit the proconsul, but such as to benefit his own position of prominence. Elymas “withstood” Paul and Barnabas, particularly their preaching, “seeking to turn away the deputy from the faith” (13:8). The Gospel which Paul and Barnabas were preaching, though it was the word of God, went against the practices of Elymas and threatened his position of prominence.
By inspiration of the Holy Spirit, Paul rebuked Elymas:
O full of all subtilty and all mischief, thou child of the devil, thou enemy of all righteousness, wilt thou not cease to pervert the right ways of the Lord? And now, behold, the hand of the Lord is upon thee, and thou shalt be blind, not seeing the sun for a season (13:10- 11).
And indeed Elymas was struck blind for a period of time, to further rebuke him for his stubbornness and pride. Elymas had heard the Gospel, understood that it condemned his practices, and therefore “withstood” it.
The Holy Spirit describes Simon as a very prominent and powerful man in a city of Samaria—but a sorcerer:
But there was a certain man, called Simon, which beforetime in the same city used sorcery, and bewitched the people of Samaria, giving out that himself was some great one: To whom they all gave heed, from the least to the greatest, saying, This man is the great power of God. And to him they had regard, because that of long time he had bewitched them with sorceries (Acts 8:9- 11).
Despite the complete sway that Simon and his sorcery held over the city, a Gospel preacher from Jerusalem named Philip was able to “preach Christ unto them” and “when they believed Philip preaching the things concerning the kingdom of God, and the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptized, both men and women” (8:5, 12). No longer were the people of Samaria under the sway of Simon; as a matter of fact, they had completely turned away from him. When this took place, one can only imagine the effect it had upon Simon’s pride. So did Simon plot a way to regain his prior status? Did he plot a way to “get even” with Philip? No. “Then Simon himself believed also: and when he was baptized, he continued with Philip, and wondered, beholding the miracles and signs which were done” (8:13). One who had duped others for years with false miracles knew true miracles when he saw them. Although he had been dishonest, he was willing to admit honestly that the Gospel of Jesus Christ had a power far exceeding “the great power of God” that the people of Samaria had believed Simon held.
As with all new converts, Simon did not yet understand all that pertained to Christianity. The apostles had the special ability to transfer miraculous gifts to other Christians, and Simon offered Peter money to purchase this ability (8:18-19). For sorcerers to purchase the secrets to the tricks of other sorcerers was a common practice. However, Christianity was not akin to sorcery, and Peter gave Simon a scathing rebuke for equating the two (8:20-23). Peter was only an “unlearned and ignorant” fisherman of Galilee (4:13), yet he dared to rebuke this prominent citizen of Samaria? Again, Simon demonstrated his humility before God, as he answered Peter and John, “Pray ye to the Lord for me, that none of these things which ye have spoken come upon me” (8:24). The practice of Christianity was absolutely contrary to what Simon’s practices had been when he lived as a sorcerer, yet he was willing to humble himself and change to live as a Christian.
Those in positions of earthly prominence often find it difficult to humble themselves before God. “For ye see your calling, brethren, how that not many wise men after the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble, are called” (I Corinthians 1:26). As the apostle Paul preached the Gospel to mighty King Agrippa II, the king mocked Paul, “With but little persuasion thou wouldest fain make me a Christian” (Acts 26:28). Yet some in positions of prominence have obeyed the Gospel: Crispus, the chief ruler of the Corinthian synagogue (18:8); certain members of Caesar’s household (Phlp. 4:22); and the proconsul Sergius Paulus believed as he heard and saw the testimony of Paul and Barnabas (Acts 13:12).
The Gospel opposes the practices of all those not walking in harmony with it. Elymas was both a man of prominence and was completely out of harmony with the will of God. Having both of these factors in place made Elymas unwilling to conform his practices to the Gospel, even though the Gospel held the very means of justification for the wrong which he had done. However, Simon was a man in a very similar position, yet was able to make the effort to do what was right. While each of our own positions in life might make us more or less receptive to the Gospel and willing to change ourselves as it instructs, each of us can. This applies whether rich or poor; well-known or relatively anonymous; Christians, erring children of God, or those who have never obeyed the Gospel. This applies even to sorcerers.