Jesus Journey: 40 Days in the Footsteps of Christ

Day 23

Magic or Miracle?

Read Matthew 8:5–13

My wife, 13-year-old son, and I are enjoying a stroll through the winding streets of the ancient port city of Jaffa.

The sun sets over the Mediterranean on a beautiful warm spring night. The amber glow of street lights washes over narrow alleys made of white limestone. Streets converge crookedly at the small harbor, still filled with sailing vessels as it has been for thousands of years.

Historians believe that Jaffa (or Joppa, as it’s referred to in the New Testament) is the only ancient port in the world that can boast uninterrupted habitation throughout its entire existence. And it plays an interesting role in the Bible.

The cedar logs Solomon used for the construction of the temple were sailed into Jaffa. The prophet Jonah hopped on a ship sailing for the far ends of the earth in Jaffa.

In Acts 9:36–42, a beloved Christian woman named Tabitha (“she was always doing good and helping the poor”) is raised from the dead by Peter in Jaffa.

In Acts 10, Peter is staying here at the house of Simon the tanner (there’s an old house that still claims to be the actual place) when he has a vision endorsing non-kosher food.

And local tradition also holds that this is the site of a Greek myth.


The legend tells of the chaining of Andromeda to the rocks facing Jaffa’s shore. Her parents had bragged about her beauty. The gods were angered and sent Cetus, a sea monster, to ravage the coast. To stop this, her parents had to travel to a sacred spot and sacrifice Andromeda by chaining her to the rocks for Cetus to eat.

Perseus, on his way back from slaying the gorgon, swoops in invisibly on a flying horse to rescue Andromeda. Then he marries her — even though she’s already pledged to be married to her uncle. At the wedding reception, they enjoy some hummus, and then a fight between Perseus and Andromeda’s uncle breaks out. Perseus has, in a bag with him, Medusa’s head (convenient!), which turns his rival into stone. And they live happily ever after.

Can you see some of the differences in tone between pagan myths and Bible stories?

By comparison the Bible stories sound very modern. They don’t take place in a shadowy world of the fairy-tale past (“a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away”) but are anchored firmly in real history. Many times the Bible writers, particularly in the New Testament, take pains to tie their story to a time and place that — to many of their original readers — was within their lifetimes and within a day’s walk.

And while in Bible stories there are occasional miracles, they are miracles precisely because they are so special, so rare. They are surprise signs from God. In the Bible, hundreds of years might go by without a miracle. The miracles of Jesus astounded people precisely because these people did not live in a world of flying horses and demigods; they lived in a world of dirty dishes and daily chores where this sort of thing just did not happen.


Let’s keep comparing. There are two items in nearly every single pagan myth. There is a magic object — a magic sword or a magic robe or a magic Medusa head. And there are always impossible-to-please, mercurial gods.

These two things are not in the Bible narratives. Ever. You do not find magical tools. And you do not find easily angered, tricky gods.

In the Bible, miracles are seen as coming directly from God — not rooted in a human’s cleverness or occult knowledge, but in God’s powerful grace.

Magic, by contrast, is about humans knowing the secret ways to tap into some mystical power. Magic is really about human resourcefulness, not God’s grace.

This is exactly why the Old Testament prophets like Isaiah — and then Jesus and Paul in the New Testament — criticized not only pagan religions but their own religious structures because of a drift back into these two pagan elements: (1) religious magical thinking, and (2) impossible-to-please gods.


Ironically, many of the Jewish religious people of Christ’s day, in their obsession with pleasing God through precise rule-keeping and lengthy memorized prayers, were becoming more pagan, not less.

Jesus points this out:

“When you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words.” Matthew 6:7

Religion — including Christianity — can easily drift back into pagan magical thinking. Divine intervention is seen as something earned by my acts: “I have to go to church or the temple and keep these rules, and maybe pray these prayers, and then I’ll have done my ritual guaranteeing fertility” — or whatever it is I’m praying for.

One serious problem with religious systems that devolve into superstitious, magical thinking is that, in practical terms, the power is not really held by God anymore, but by the master magicians, the priests who peddle their petty charms and spells, often in the form of legalistic religious behaviors that are prescribed to earn a desired result. This kind of perceived power corrupts completely because the religious leaders gain too much unquestioned authority — and the grace of God is masked behind a veil of manufactured mystery, a veil Christ came to tear open.

But we don’t really need priestly pushers to fall into this trap. We gravitate toward magical thinking all on our own. Daily devotions, church attendance, ecstatic experiences, missions trips, volunteer service, Bible reading, tithing, special religious diets, and even religious jewelry can all be twisted in our minds to the point where they cease to be expressions of worship and become instead acts of religious magic: “If I’m not getting what I want from the deity, then it must be because I’m not performing the magic rituals sufficiently.”

This became the main thrust of Christ’s critique of the religion of his day: Magical thinking (in their case, peddled by so-called priests) had infiltrated it so thoroughly that it had become almost pagan in practice, a hollow idolatrous shell of the simple love relationship God desires with all people.

That’s is why Jesus is astounded at the Roman centurion in Matthew 8 and Luke 7. Here’s a guy from a pagan culture, yet his faith is clearly not in his own strength or his ability to earn a miracle from Jesus. In fact, he admits he does not deserve even the presence of Christ. But he trusts totally in Jesus’ gracious power.


Jesus’ miracles are never a result of strong individuals earning God’s favor because they’ve gone on a heroic quest, or shown amazing strength. They are always acts of God on behalf of the weak — or even the dead.

Just think of a few miracles. Healing the official’s son (John 4:43–54). Healing the lame man (John 5:1–9). Feeding the five thousand (John 6). Healing the man born blind (John 9). Raising Lazarus from the dead (John 11). These are acts of God’s grace, pure and simple.

And remember how, in John’s gospel, the miracles are always called signs? Christ’s miracles are all signs showing the greater miracle of salvation in your life and mine. You are not saved because you earned it somehow — like a hero in a pagan myth. It comes out of the blue, a direct intervention by God, an act of rescue precisely because you were not able to do anything to save yourself.

So watch your own tendency toward magical thinking. Faith is not about trying harder, or about external magical rituals to please a tricky god. It’s about a personal relationship with a gracious God.

You’re not Perseus, cleverly manipulating the gods’ powers. You’re Lazarus, dead until Jesus raises you to life.

Salvation is a miracle, not magic.


Thank God today for the miracle of your salvation. Thank him for his immense love for you. Pray that his love will impact your heart and actions today.