Now as Jannes and Jambres withstood Moses, so do these also resist the truth: men of corrupt minds, reprobate concerning the faith. But they shall proceed no further: for their folly shall be manifest unto all men, as theirs also was. (2 Timothy 3:8-9)
“Jannes” and “Jambres” are the names that tradition gives to the court magicians who were brought forth by the Pharaoh to confront Moses and Aaron. Pharaoh, of course, wanted to do more than to prove that his magicians were as powerful as Moses and Aaron, the prophets of God.
A prophet speaks for another, and Pharaoh did not want to hear what God had to say to him. He did not want to obey God’s commandment: “Let my people go.” And this is what happened:
[And God said] When Pharaoh shall speak unto you, saying, Shew a miracle for you: then thou shalt say unto Aaron, Take thy rod, and cast it before Pharaoh, and it shall become a serpent. And Moses and Aaron went in unto Pharaoh, and they did so as the Lord had commanded: and Aaron cast down his rod before Pharaoh, and before his servants, and it became a serpent. Then Pharaoh also called the wise men and the sorcerers: now the magicians of Egypt, they also did in like manner with their enchantments. For they cast down every man his rod, and they became serpents: but Aaron’s rod swallowed up their rods. (Exodus 7:9-12)
There is nothing in the Biblical account to deny that Pharaoh’s magicians wielded some kind of real power. Furthermore, we know as a matter of fact that the Pharaohs ruled Egypt by claiming god-like powers for themselves. The entire Egyptian culture relied on a complex system of superstition and dark powers, often symbolized by the crawling things that lived in the earth, such as the dung beetle or the serpent. The Pharaohs even wore a golden cobra in their crowns.
Thus, when God worked the rather minor miracle of causing Aaron’s rod to swallow the serpents of the Egyptian court, it was not only the magicians who were humiliated, but also the Pharaoh himself. The power of his crown had been eaten up by the power of the God of his Hebrew slaves. After a series of these humiliations, the magicians simply gave up: “Then the magicians said unto Pharaoh, This is the finger of God: and Pharaoh’s heart was hardened, and he hearkened not unto them; as the Lord had said.” (Exodus 8:19)
An old Jewish legend, of the sort that gives us the names Jannes and Jambres, goes so far as to say that the magicians were converted by their failure, and left Egypt with the Chosen People to follow the One True God. Pharaoh, on the other hand, only hardened his heart against God, until the final plague of Egypt came — the death of the Egyptian firstborn. Pharaoh did let the people go, as God had commanded, but only after he had sacrificed his own firstborn in the name of his rebellion against God. Even then, Pharaoh hardened his heart further and tried to trap the Israelites at the Red Sea, where it was his army that was finally destroyed, and not the people of God.
The pain, loss, and slaughter that Pharaoh inflicted upon his own people by resisting Almighty God can only be described as “demonic.” The Pharaoh’s actions are so illogical, so unreasonable that we could not understand them at all, unless we begin with Jannes and Jambres. Those pagan magicians wielded real power, but it was not the power of the true God. Those magicians, their Pharaoh, and the Egyptian people were in the thrall of false gods.
It is a dangerous mistake to think that the words “false gods” refer to things that do not exist. False gods are real, and the powers that hide behind the idols are real, and they are powerful indeed. What they are not, however, is the good, eternal, and true God who made all things and all persons, excepting only himself. Communion with the True God gives life; and communion with false gods gives death. Saint Paul explained the matter to the Corinthians in these words: “But I say, that the things which the Gentiles sacrifice, they sacrifice to devils, and not to God: and I would not that ye should have fellowship with devils. Ye cannot drink the cup of the Lord, and the cup of devils: ye cannot be partakers of the Lord’s table, and of the table of devils.” (1 Corinthians 10:20-21)
“False gods” are not gods at all. They are “devils” — fallen angels who use their superhuman powers to pretend to be gods. These fallen angels continue the war of their master, Satan, against the One True God by trying to corrupt and to enslave the human race, by trying to steal the love and obedience that belong to God alone.
The tragedy of fallen angels and of fallen men is that both were greater before they rebelled against God. But while there is no redemption for the angels, there is for mankind. Jesus Christ died on the cross to redeem mankind from sin, demonstrating an almighty power just as capable of swallowing up all of the false gods in the world, as Aaron’s staff was able by God’s grace to devour the serpent gods of the Egyptians. Men like Jannes and Jambres can be converted by grace for everlasting life, but only if they give up their false gods. Meanwhile, those who cling to false gods, whether represented by the idols of paganism and materialism, or by false doctrines that deny the revealed Truth of Jesus Christ, have nothing to look forward to but an eternity of humiliation, of which the humiliation that Jannes and Jambres received at the hands of God’s prophets was the merest taste.
As Saint Paul wrote to Saint Timothy, “Their folly shall be manifest unto all men.” On the Last Day, there will be a reckoning, as the judgment of God is made known by Jesus Christ to all men who have ever lived. But we do not have to wait for the last day to discover whether we have followed Jesus Christ or whether we have followed false gods. Whenever anyone tells us of great “spiritual events” and of mighty “powers,” or even if we see them for ourselves with our own eyes, we have the admonition of the Apostle John to guide us: “Beloved, believe not every spirit, but try the spirits whether they are of God: because many false prophets are gone out into the world.” (1 John 4:1)
And how do we “try the spirits” in a world where power and success are the greatest and most powerful idols? We don’t look to the numbers that follow this guru or that false prophet. We don’t conform ourselves to the latest false preachers, who market an imitation “Christ” to gullible people and succeed by the power of their false gods as they supply an imitation miracle or two. We look to the holy scriptures, and we conform ourselves to the Living Word of God.
Saint Timothy was a young pastor when Saint Paul, waiting to be executed in Rome, wrote today’s New Testament lesson to him as a kind of farewell letter. Timothy would have to stand against the false gods and their servants, and so Saint Paul gave him this final reminder: “That from a child thou hast known the holy scriptures, which are able to make thee wise unto salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus.” (2 Timothy 3:15) The Heavenly, revealed wisdom that allows any faithful Christian to “try the spirits,” to separate true religion from false religion, is the gift of God in the scriptures.
Moreover, that divine gift of Truth is given, not just in “some scriptures,” but in all of them: “All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: That the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works.” (2 Timothy 3:16-17) Today’s equivalents of Jannes and Jambres “shall proceed no further” if they are always confronted with the holy scriptures by a faithful people. This was true when Moses and Aaron delivered the Word of God. It was true when Saint Paul wrote to Saint Timothy. It was true when Saint John warned us to test every spirit for its obedience to God. It is true now, and we can be completely prepared for every purpose of God if we fill our hearts and minds with his Word, and that Word is given to us perfectly, by the Holy Ghost, in the Bible. We have no “right” to be wrong about God, when God has provided us with his own Truth so perfectly.