This Sunday we heard Christ say, “If it is by the finger of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.”
Tonight we hear the magicians of Pharaoh say, “This is the finger of God.” They said this in reaction to the third plague brought upon Egypt by God through Moses. The magicians had been able to duplicate the two previous plagues, but not this one. Therefore they knew that this was no trick or illusion, but the omnipotent power of God, not a false god such as the Egyptians worshiped, but the true Creator, the Almighty.
But why did God allow the magicians to succeed at all? Why did He let them reproduce His miracles? We could answer that they did not really recreate them, but only by trickery or sleight of hand. Perhaps that is true. On the other hand, perhaps it was by so-called “real magic,” which is nothing but the power of demons. Either way, the question is not what kind of power, if any, did they have, but why God allowed them to continue mocking His power and works. Whatever those magicians were, God could have put a stop to their blasphemy.
What difference does it make? It matter because the spirit of the magicians lives on today, in an unexpected place. Saint Paul wrote in Second Timothy about the last days. People will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, abusive, disobedient to their parents, and so forth. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? He also says that there will be certain men who are “always learning, yet never able to arrive at a knowledge of the truth. Just as Jannes and Jambres [That’s the magicians of Pharaoh.] opposed Moses, so these men also oppose the truth, men corrupted in mind and disqualified regarding the faith. But they will not get very far, for their folly will be plain to all, as was that of those two men.”
So Paul says that in these difficult, evil times, false teachers arise. They are persuasive and have an appearance of great learning, yet oppose the truth of the faith.
Jannes and Jambres, the magicians of Egypt are with us today, because every false teacher that leads people astray shares in their spirit. They capture weak people, just as the magicians were influential and held a high position in the court of Pharaoh. They often pretend at the power of God with counterfeit miracles, as the magicians did.
But the true power of God, the Gospel of Jesus Christ, is beyond their grasp. Even if they preach what sounds like the Gospel, it always falls short in some way. Perhaps works are added as a condition for forgiveness. Perhaps faith is a human work required to earn God’s favor. Perhaps the sacraments are denied, which are the Gospel in visible form. Perhaps key doctrines, like the deity of Christ, are omitted or rejected.
They teach an almost-Gospel. But as Paul said in Galatians, a gospel that is contrary to the one passed down from the apostles is no gospel at all. When we hear such words that come close to the Gospel, but not quite, we should remember that it does not matter if these men are angels come down from heaven above. Almost-gospel is no gospel.
So we come back to the question of why God allows these men to have success for a time. They will be revealed in time for what they are, but why let them go on at all? False teaching is a most horrible evil that masquerades as goodness. Why does God allow this evil to go on?
In First Corinthians, God says that errors must come so that the elect may be approved, that is, recognized. In this way God reveals those who are secretly false and reveals those who genuinely stand for the truth.
False teaching eventually becomes openly known. When the magicians failed to reproduce the third plague, then their power was shown to be inferior. When preachers publicly teach divisive doctrines, then their words are recognized by those who hold to the true faith. Then the report of them goes out, so that those who hold to the truth can mark and avoid the teaching of these men.
But some do not heed the warning of error. They like a teacher very much. They ignore the charges of false doctrine, perhaps because they do not believe the charges. Or perhaps, more likely, they do not really care about true doctrine. When we follow a man for the man’s sake, sooner or later we will not care about truth or error.
Pharaoh did not pay attention to the failure of his magicians. He should have fired them, or executed them. But we find them still in Pharaoh’s court a chapter later during plague number six. Pharaoh, in the end, did not care about truth or error. He wanted to believe in his magicians and his false gods, whatever evidence was stacked up against him. His heart was hardened in stubborn disbelief.
May we not be like Pharaoh. We must pay attention to the truth, which also means rejecting the errors that oppose the truth. It is so easy to pretend that truth and error are not important. We may say that everyone makes mistakes. But continued, unrepentant error should not be forgiven. Much less should we give a willing audience to false doctrine.
But we are all gullible. We like a loving, friendly person. We are easily persuaded by our emotions. Our culture has taught us to have an aversion to the word “doctrine” because doctrines are dull, unimportant, and only for religious zealots who exclude others.
Magicians easily lead us astray. Ever since the snake persuaded mankind in the Garden, our race has been vulnerable to his voice, whoever his spokesperson is.
So let us pray that we may be kept safe from counterfeit Gospels. True discernment is not in us, but in God’s Word. May He keep us safe. This is surely a reason God lets false men succeed for a time – so that we may cling to God all the more fervently in prayer. He teaches us to lean on His wisdom, not ours. He teaches us that we are vulnerable and weak, and the only refuge against evil is in the pure teaching of His Word.
The refuge is this: God creates a barrier between us and the plagues that our sins deserve. In the text, the Lord said to Pharaoh, “I will set apart the land of Goshen, where My people dwell, so that no swarms of flies shall be there, that you may know that I am the Lord in the midst of the earth. Thus I will put a division between My people and your people.” Here the word “division” literally means, “a redemption”.
God has a redemption for us that holds back the plagues our sins deserve. The redemption is the Cross.
The horrible plagues of Egypt show us a glimpse of the terrors of hell: blood, darkness, swarms of loathsome, tormenting creatures, hail, lightning, disease and death. Hell is all these and worse. But Christ on the Cross took all the torments we deserve. In the darkness of the Cross, the Firstborn of all Creation died, with Blood pouring down His holy Flesh, the plagues of hell wracking His Body.
Because He suffered all these plagues that we deserve, He has become the Redemption, a barrier or division that keeps them away from us.
This is not to say that the troubles of life will not touch us. Here we must bear the image of the Firstborn from the dead, Jesus Christ. He suffered first in this life before entering into glory. We also suffer here below, awaiting with certain hope the Land flowing with milk and honey, which is the new heaven and the new earth. We also know that our relatively brief troubles are nothing compared to the plagues that await that spiritual pharaoh, satan, and all his hosts in the place of continual torment. So we are able to bear with patience whatever cross the Lord places upon us.
May He continue to give us patience and faithfulness, and keep our eyes upon Christ, our Hope and our Redemption. Amen.
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