By Dr Matthew Elliott, President, Oasis International

Yesterday I was reviewing a new book on power encounters with spiritual forces. This is still a normal reality in Africa, part of everyday spiritual life in most churches. These seem foreign to many of us in the United States. It is almost another world, to us, one we only see in the Bible when we see Jesus cast out a demon. It is easy to look for an over-spiritualized lesson about the character of Jesus while we put the dramatic or the miraculous power encounter aside. After all, we likely have never seen this in our own lives. This morning my Bible reading is in Acts 13, and I have to say to myself, “Not so fast.”

As the story is more unfamiliar, let’s read it together:

“Afterward they traveled from town to town across the entire island until finally they reached Paphos, where they met a Jewish sorcerer, a false prophet named Bar-Jesus. He had attached himself to the governor, Sergius Paulus, who was an intelligent man. The governor invited Barnabas and Saul to visit him, for he wanted to hear the word of God. But Elymas, the sorcerer (as his name means in Greek), interfered and urged the governor to pay no attention to what Barnabas and Saul said. He was trying to keep the governor from believing.

Saul, also known as Paul, was filled with the Holy Spirit, and he looked the sorcerer in the eye. Then he said, “You son of the devil, full of every sort of deceit and fraud, and enemy of all that is good! Will you never stop perverting the true ways of the Lord? Watch now, for the Lord has laid his hand of punishment upon you, and you will be struck blind. You will not see the sunlight for some time.” Instantly mist and darkness came over the man’s eyes, and he began groping around begging for someone to take his hand and lead him.

When the governor saw what had happened, he became a believer, for he was astonished at the teaching about the Lord.” (Acts 13:6-12, NLT)

First, let’s look at the word sorcerer from African perspectives. A sorcererdiviner, or the more popular name, witch doctor, is typically a person of great standing in the community. They are not just a giver of blessings and curses and a spiritual healer; that is a small part of their position. They are a person of wisdom – and here is the part to grab hold of – with special knowledge and understanding from the unseen world.

Much, I might argue, most, of the council we get from our current Western Christian cultures is that we are to win the world for Christ by loving them, sympathizing, showing acceptance, and building community. And that can be a good and valid part of being Jesus to the world. All good.

But this loses its biblical nature when it stands alone, without an equal power encounter, especially in our new secular age. Let’s concentrate for a moment on the overarching reality of who the sorcerer Elymas was: a man with special knowledge and understanding that is acknowledged by the highest political powers. This relates to us now in the most direct terms. A new public morality has arisen out of the new secularism for sexual ethics, life (abortion, assisted suicide), and racial strife. If you look carefully, you will find that adherents to the new morality claim they have special knowledge and understanding from a higher source of knowledge. And let’s not dismiss the phrase from the unseen world either. Who are we to say that these lies, which do such damage to people – destroying lives and societies – are not demonic? 

These claims of special knowledge, I am arguing, are not really different from the power encounters we see in the New Testament. Paul’s response, and a good number of similar responses in the book of Acts, is completely appropriate. If we do not find ourselves confronting lies in a power encounter from time to time, maybe we should be asking another hard question: Are we really filled with the Holy Spirit and letting him rule our lives rather than the values of this world?

What I learned from my African brothers and sisters today is that power encounters are real, spiritual powers are real, and Jesus came to give us the power to stand and defeat the lies of those claiming they have special wisdom that surpasses the truth of God.

Paul, was filled with the Holy Spirit, and he looked the sorcerer in the eye. Then he said, “You son of the devil, full of every sort of deceit and fraud, and enemy of all that is good! Will you never stop perverting the true ways of the Lord? (Acts 13:9-10, NLT).

Dr Elliott’s passion to help leaders in Africa develop and access ministry tools, with content addressing needs in their contexts, has driven him to lead Oasis International for over two decades. Click here to learn more about Dr Elliott.

Learn more about the work of Oasis and how you can support discipleship through publishing African voices, here.

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