As the inspired writer lists the works of the flesh, he places after idolatry the word, "sorcery," or "witchcraft" (KJV).
This new century is much like the one in which Paul wrote, fascinated with the mysterious and bizarre. As the Athenians gathered at the Areopagus to seek some new thing - some new religious oddity - millions today kneel before the gentle glow of the television or Internet in search of something similar. Thus we find Wiccans worshiping at Fort Hood with the approval of the United States Army and many more searching the stars for astrological direction or consulting charlatans masquerading as psychics.
The occult holds a place of fascination, curiosity and tolerance in an era in which men have become dissatisfied with the predictability and familiarity of Christianity. Neither can it be overlooked that this faith of ours disallows so much of the immorality that modern men crave and are unwilling to abandon; the occult not only allows such immorality, but often demands it.
We find, however, that words like sorcery and witchcraft are but a portion of the definition of the Greek word that Paul used in Galatians 5:20. The word is farmakeia, which is translated literally, "the use or administering of drugs" (Thayer, page 649). From this root, we derive our English word "pharmacy." It is not the local drug store or apothecary that Paul is condemning, but the use of mind altering substances, especially to facilitate the working of dark error.
This Greek word is found just three other times in the New Testament, all in the book of Revelation. In chapter 9:21, the rest of mankind that was left after the sixth trumpet sounded did not repent, but continued their idolatry and sorcery. Later in chapter 18:23, Babylon the great is accused of deceiving the nations of the world by means of sorcery. Fittingly, the last use of the word is in chapter 21:8, which portends a place in the lake of fire and brimstone for sorcerers.
The word sorcery normally conjures up for us the notion of magic and illusion. Today, most understand magic to be nothing more than harmless entertainment, "the hand is quicker than the eye, presto." Most know they have been tricked, but enjoy the mystery nonetheless. A few believe that humans can possess magical powers, but they are not taken seriously, nor should they be. The faith is not harmed by entertainment magic and is only insulted slightly by warped minds that believe magic is real. While some Christians have objected mightily to the popularity of the Harry Potter series of books, these works of fiction have not led children into the occult any more than Tom Clancy books have led adults into espionage.
Magic, actually, is but a cousin to the Greek word and work of the flesh before us in this article. It is connected most notably in the Bible with a convert named Simon, but comes from the Greek word "mageiais." Whether Simon the sorcerer had practiced "farmakeia" with his "mageiais" is not clear, but he was most certainly in the illusion business before he met Philip the evangelist in Acts 8. When he saw the apostles actually working miracles - not magic or illusion - he was convinced for they were doing what he could only accomplish by skillful deception.
Other such magicians in the Bible had similar runs of fortune. Pharaoh's magicians could duplicate the supernatural acts of Moses, but only with notice and preparation. Likewise Nebuchadnezzar's magic men could not approach Daniel's abilities and the witch that Saul consulted at En Dor was shocked when a genuine spirit actually appeared at her seance.
The root meaning of "farmakeia" and its contextual usage thus add two components to this condemned work of the flesh: the employment of the occult and the use of mind-altering substances to enhance the illusion.
God's attitude toward superstition and the occult has always been one of jealous rejection. He told Isaiah, "And when they say to you, 'Seek those who are mediums and wizards, who whisper and mutter,' should not a people seek their God? Should they seek the dead on behalf of the living? To the law and testimony! If they do not speak according to this word, it is because there is no light in them" (8:19-20).
The modern fascination with the occult has made millionaires and celebrities of the Psychic Friends Network. Horoscopes are found in every newspaper. But to suggest that truth and guidance can be found in creation rather than Creator is blasphemy and idolatry (cf. Rom. 1:25).
The mind-altering substances involved in these black arts in olden times must also be reconsidered. Although still associated with the occult, drugs and the like have also entered the mainstream of America, with the glorification of alcohol and a dependence on hallucinogens and narcotics. Drug users actually brag of the altered state of reality that results from a common marijuana joint.
All such use of mind-altering drugs - alcohol included and perhaps emphasized - are works of the flesh, "farmakeia" in all its ugliness. In order for a Christian to walk soberly and righteously through life, he must exercise self-control and vigilance (Rom. 13:11-14, 1 Peter 5:8). To one who has never taken a single drag off a marijuana cigarette or the first sip of beer or whiskey, the initial indulgence brings almost instantaneous effect. Within a few moments, the mind is slightly numbed and reality becomes warped. For those who are not terrified by the sudden escape from normalcy, there is a craving for a deeper investigation and addiction soon follows.
This administration of drugs - "farmakeia" in its purest sense - has done the sorcerer one better, making self both the deceiver and the deceived. Inhibitions against lasciviousness and the ability to resist the wicked intent of others are eliminated. Two millennia ago such a subject would then have been prepared to accept magical illusions without the ability to discern the trick. Now such subjects are fit for sexual exploitation and worse. Either way, the "farmakeia" has destroyed both mind and spirit in a crushing work of the flesh.
Although translated "sorcery" or "witchcraft," this work of the flesh involves not only occultism, but also the use of mind-altering drugs. The Christian should avoid both sides of this pernicious coin.