Magic and miracles might mean the same thing to some people, but there is actually a vast difference between the two terms. It is proper to say that Jesus worked miracles, but it would be wrong to attribute His works to magic. Basically, magic and miracles differ in their source: magic has either a human or demonic source, but miracles are a supernatural work of God.
There are two different kinds of “magic,” and it is good to distinguish between the two. Entertainers who use sleight-of-hand and illusions in their performance are often called “magicians,” but they are actually illusionists, which is what most of them prefer to be called. An illusionist’s audience does not consider what they see to be “real” magic; they understand it is a trick, and they delight in the fact they cannot figure out how the trick is done. The other kind of magic is what some might call “real” magic; it draws on occult, demonic power. The Bible speaks of “lying wonders” in 2 Thessalonians 2:9. The Antichrist’s coming “will be in accordance with how Satan works. He will use all sorts of displays of power through signs and wonders that serve the lie.” This type of magic, sometimes spelled magick to distinguish it from sleight-of-hand, is associated with divination, conjuring, and sorcery and is condemned in Scripture (see Deuteronomy 18:10–12). Of course, the Antichrist will claim that his power comes from God, but that is a lie, too (see Revelation 13:2).
A major difference between magic and miracles is that magic draws upon power that is not directly from God, and miracles are the result of God’s power intervening in the world. Magic is an attempt to circumvent God in the acquisition of knowledge or power. The city of Ephesus was a battleground between magic and miracles. The pagan population of Ephesus was steeped in idolatry and involved in magic, but then Paul brought the gospel to that city, and with the gospel came true power through the apostle: “God did extraordinary miracles through Paul” (Acts 19:11). Seeing what Paul did, some exorcists (the seven sons of Sceva) attempted to duplicate his miracles, but they failed miserably and publicly (verses 13–16). When a large number of Ephesians were saved through the preaching of Paul and Silas, the new believers destroyed their books of witchcraft: “A number of those who had practiced magic arts brought their books together and burned them in the sight of all. And they counted the value of them and found it came to fifty thousand pieces of silver” (Acts 19:19, ESV). So, in Ephesus, there was a clear contrast between the miracles of God and the magic of the devil, which is sorcery.
Another difference between magic and miracles is that magic does not glorify God, but miracles do (see Mark 2:12). A good example of a magician’s self-promotion is found in Samaria. “A man named Simon had practiced sorcery in the city and amazed all the people of Samaria. He boasted that he was someone great, and all the people, both high and low, gave him their attention and exclaimed, ‘This man is rightly called the Great Power of God.’ They followed him because he had amazed them for a long time with his sorcery” (Acts 8:9–11). Note that Simon was boastful about his “power” and went by a blasphemous title. Simon had the ability to amaze the crowds with his magic, but it was not the power of God. Simon’s performances were all about himself and enriching his own life. Later, Simon the magician sees a true miracle performed by Peter and John, and he offers to buy from them the “secret” to their trick (verses 18–19). Peter immediately rebukes Simon; in Simon’s sinful heart, he had equated the power of the Holy Spirit with his own sorcery (verses 20–23).
Another difference between magic and miracles is that magic involves manipulation and opposition to the truth but miracles reveal the truth. The magician attempts to manipulate people for personal gain. The worker of miracles simply showcases the power and glory of God. The city of Paphos on the island of Cyprus was another battleground between the miraculous and the magical. As Paul and Barnabas (and Mark) were preaching in that city, they were opposed by “a Jewish sorcerer and false prophet named Bar-Jesus, who was an attendant of the proconsul, Sergius Paulus” (Acts 13:6–7). This sorcerer, also called Elymas, had wormed his way into the political establishment of Cyprus. When the proconsul began to listen to the missionaries’ message, Elymas “tried to turn the proconsul from the faith” (verse 8). Paul, filled with the Holy Spirit, confronted Elymas head-on: “You are a child of the devil and an enemy of everything that is right! You are full of all kinds of deceit and trickery. Will you never stop perverting the right ways of the Lord?” (verse 10). Paul then performed a miracle—striking Elymas blind—showing that the miracle-working power of God is greater than the magic of the devil (verse 11). The result was that the proconsul believed the gospel and was saved (verse 12).
Another good comparison of miracles and magic is found in the book of Exodus. The workers of magic in Egypt are called “sorcerers” and “magicians” (Exodus 7:11, 22); however, Moses and Aaron are never identified by those terms. The works that God did through Moses were true miracles, whereas the tricks of Pharaoh’s magicians were meant to deceive and harden the king’s heart. Early in the story, there is a showdown in Pharaoh’s court: “Aaron threw his staff down in front of Pharaoh and his officials, and it became a snake. Pharaoh then summoned wise men and sorcerers, and the Egyptian magicians also did the same things by their secret arts: Each one threw down his staff and it became a snake. But Aaron’s staff swallowed up their staffs” (Exodus 7:10–12). The fact that the Egyptian snakes were eaten by Aaron’s snake shows that the power of God is greater than whatever power the pagan magicians were tapping in to. Later, these same Egyptian sorcerers duplicated the changing of water into blood (Exodus 7:22) and the mass production of frogs (Exodus 8:7). However, the sorcerers were powerless to mimic the other plagues. When it came to the gnats, the magicians’ abilities fell short. As they reported to Pharaoh, “This is the finger of God” (Exodus 8:19).
Miracles and magic sometimes look the same, but their goals are different. Magic and illusion distract the eye from reality, while miracles draw the eye to reality. Miracles reveal; magic hides. Miracles are an expression of creative power; magic uses what already exists. Miracles are a gift; magic is a studied skill. Miracles do not glorify men; magic seeks to be noticed and bring glory to the magician.
Jesus was not a magician. He was the Son of God, known for His many miracles (John 7:31). Jesus told His enemies, “Do not believe me unless I do the works of my Father. But if I do them, even though you do not believe me, believe the works, that you may know and understand that the Father is in me, and I in the Father” (John 10:37–38). Jesus’ miracles (or “signs,” as John called them) are proof of who He is.