Simon Magus and the Samaritan Pentecost

Last night our Thursday night Bible study group looked at the first 25 verses in Acts 8.  It was a great time of fellowship and study.  The big challenge that came out of the study was this: Philip shows us that loving the Samaritans by sharing the gospel with them is what God would also have us do.  Are we loving the “unlovable” people in our lives, or are we simply ignoring them and talking with our same circle of friends?

Here are my notes from last night…

PJW

8:1 And Saul approved of his execution. And there arose on that day a great persecution against the church in Jerusalem, and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles.

This is an example of one of the greatest miscalculations in history.  Satan has recently been completely flummoxed by the amazing triumph of Christ:

He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him. (Col. 2:15)

And here we see that far from that triumph being a momentary one, Jesus has sent His Spirit to indwell His followers, and instead of persecution squelching the fire of the gospel it only serves to fan its flames. And by the killing of Stephen, we see that Satan’s strategy of annihilation – a strategy that was predicted in Gen. 3 – has backfired, and caused men and women to leave their homes and flee…and take their new found lives and passion for the gospel of Jesus to the utter most parts of the world.

From the perspective of those new Christians this must have seemed like a tremendous setback at the least and a scary and dangerous situation for their families.

 

8:2-3 Devout men buried Stephen and made great lamentation over him. [3] But Saul was ravaging the church, and entering house after house, he dragged off men and women and committed them to prison.

This word “ravaging” is an amazing word describing Saul’s actions.  In the Greek it means literally, “to treat shamefully or with injury, to ravage, devastate, ruin.” John Stott puts it colorfully, “The verb lumaino expresses a brutal and sadistic cruelty.”

This is quite a characterization – one that enables us to understand more of Paul’s words when he says:

 

The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost. (1 Tim. 1:15)

 

Note the force of the description, that he “dragged” them off to prison. Oh how zealous he was for doing the right thing in the name of his religion…

 

8:4-8 Now those who were scattered went about preaching the word. [5] Philip went down to the city of Samaria and proclaimed to them the Christ. [6] And the crowds with one accord paid attention to what was being said by Philip when they heard him and saw the signs that he did. [7] For unclean spirits, crying out with a loud voice, came out of many who had them, and many who were paralyzed or lame were healed. [8] So there was much joy in that city.

And here we get to see the results of the proclamation of the gospel.  The strife that these new Christ followers encountered when one of their own was murdered has been turned into joy for many many people – starting with people of Samaria.

We also see no clearer example of what it means to both love your enemy and love your neighbor.  For the Samaritans and the Jews had “no dealings” with one another.  But there were neighbors, and Christ had instructed His disciples to go and proclaim the good news to them and all the ends of the earth.  Here is the first partial fulfilling of the great commission of Christ.

I also can’t help but smirk with delight at the reaction of the demons.  Thus far this chapter is a record of the defeat and embarrassment of Satan.  For thousands of years he had been able to “roam to and fro” on the earth (Job 1), but now his power had been severely limited by the dynamic spreading in of the kingdom of God.  You see, Christ ushering in the kingdom didn’t simply mean that He would be reigning from heaven, it also meant that He would be expanding His kingdom on the earth and using His disciples to do that! His renewed image-bearers would now be adopted and sent on a mission empowered by His Holy Spirit. What an amazing paradigm shift!           

 

8:9-11 But there was a man named Simon, who had previously practiced magic in the city and amazed the people of Samaria, saying that he himself was somebody great. [10] They all paid attention to him, from the least to the greatest, saying, “This man is the power of God that is called Great.” [11] And they paid attention to him because for a long time he had amazed them with his magic.

One can’t help notice when reading this passage that Simon’s entire life revolved around himself. His goal was to be noticed and to proclaim to others how “great” he was.  So quickly we get a character sketch of a man who practiced magic, and went around telling all who would listen how wonderful he was. He sounded like a huckster…but the sad thing is that his magic tricks were convincing enough to have fooled many into believing him.  But all of that was about to change…

8:12-13 But when they believed Philip as he preached good news about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptized, both men and women. [13] Even Simon himself believed, and after being baptized he continued with Philip. And seeing signs and great miracles performed, he was amazed.

When Philip came to town the power of God overwhelmed those who had previously been impressed by Simon’s amateur magic show. The contrast between the supernatural power of the Holy Spirit and the shallow tricks of a conjurer couldn’t have been more pronounced to these people, and it changed them forever.

In the second part of the passage we see that “even Simon himself believed” and then was baptized.  There has been a great deal of speculation as to whether or not this man was ever truly converted, it is my opinion from the context clues we read in the text, that he was not genuinely converted, but rather “amazed” into believing these guys were something great – maybe even greater than himself!

After all, he was a magician, and he looked on admiringly at the abilities these apostles had to heal the sick, raise the dead, and cast out demons.  He probably thought they were in the same line of work, and that he’d stumbled on some “real pros!”

8:14-18 Now when the apostles at Jerusalem heard that Samaria had received the word of God, they sent to them Peter and John, [15] who came down and prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit, [16] for he had not yet fallen on any of them, but they had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. [17] Then they laid their hands on them and they received the Holy Spirit. [18] 

This is one of the most difficult passages in the New Testament, some might say.  The difficulty arises in that we see here another instance in which the Holy Spirit doesn’t yet fall on these Samaritans despite their believe in Christ.  They have apparently been made alive from the dead, but have not yet been permanently indwelled by the Holy Spirit.  The reason this is so odd is that it is not the usual operation of the Spirit today.  For as we know, it is the usual practice for the Spirit to immediately come to live within those whose hearts have been quickened by His power and confess the name of Christ in belief.

Some have wondered why Peter and John came themselves to lay hands on them.  Why would the great pillars of the early church need to be there for this to happen?  It isn’t as though God needed their help to give these people His Spirit. In fact we see no other instance in which it requires an apostle to be present for the Spirit to “fall” on someone.

There are all kinds of suggestions about why this is, but from what I have read and can discern, the most plausible is that the purpose for the event to have occurred this way would be so that God’s work of redemption for the Samaritans would be widely spread, and a matter of public knowledge.  God is proclaiming that His salvation is not simply for the Jews alone, but for all who will believe, and He uses His apostles to confirm the fact that He is working in the Samaritans.

Later Peter will travel to the God-fearers, and the gentiles and the Spirit will fall on them to the great amazement of the church in Jerusalem.  In fact, it’s probably safe to say that had Peter not reported his eye witness account of the Spirit falling on the house of Cornelius that many would not have believed. But Peter’s presence confirms for the church that God is working in a way in which they had previously thought impossible.

God is still showing these people that He is a God who is steadfast and keeps His promises.  He is fulfilling His promise to Abraham that in him the nations would be blessed.

8:18b-19 Now when Simon saw that the Spirit was given through the laying on of the apostles’ hands, he offered them money, [19] saying, “Give me this power also, so that anyone on whom I lay my hands may receive the Holy Spirit.”

If it wasn’t obvious that Simon’s confession/belief wasn’t genuine before, it ought to be now.  He simply sees that the apostles have something that he doesn’t, and wants it for his own.  He wants to use the power of God for his own gain.  Frankly, I don’t think he fully understood what he was asking, or else he wouldn’t have been so overt in his request.

Today we have a saying/term for those who try to use money to gain the favor of the church or the blessing of God – we call it “Simony.”

8:20-24 But Peter said to him, “May your silver perish with you, because you thought you could obtain the gift of God with money! [21] You have neither part nor lot in this matter, for your heart is not right before God. [22] Repent, therefore, of this wickedness of yours, and pray to the Lord that, if possible, the intent of your heart may be forgiven you. [23] For I see that you are in the gall of bitterness and in the bond of iniquity.” [24] And Simon answered, “Pray for me to the Lord, that nothing of what you have said may come upon me.”

These are strong words from Peter.  He says that Simon is in the “gall of bitterness” and the “bond of iniquity.”  These are the words that confirm to many scholars that Simon was never saved in the first place.  Being in the “bond” of iniquity is not what characterizes Christians, for listen to what Paul says in Romans:

But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed, [18] and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness. (Romans 6:17-18 ESV)

What I see here is a man who is still enslaved to sin and needs to repent. But what is his reaction to Peter’s rebuke?  It is a desire to avoid the punishment, not to repent.

Simon is like a wretched characterization of so many people in this world who want all the blessing of God, but do not want to truly repent of their sins. They want to be in heaven, but they’re hoping Jesus isn’t there!

Secondly look at what Peter says “You have neither part nor lot in this matter.” I think he says this because that’s exactly what Simon wanted – he wanted to be a part of getting the “credit.” Obviously that’s not what the focus on ministry is all about.  It’s not about the minister its about the One he represents.

8:25 Now when they had testified and spoken the word of the Lord, they returned to Jerusalem, preaching the gospel to many villages of the Samaritans.

Despite the run in with Simon that didn’t stop their mission, they kept on preaching the gospel. This verse seems like an afterthought, a tidy conclusion to the incident with Simon and the amazing Pentecost that just occurred in Samaria.  But its far more than that, it’s a testimony to the faithfulness of God.

Think about it, when you encounter a difficulty spiritually or emotionally, its easy to get depressed or to allow that incident to consume your thoughts. We sometimes get weighed down in the paralysis of emotion while we turn the incident over again and again in our minds.

But God offers us a greater grace to get past these trials and continue to do the work He has laid out for us. That is the faithfulness of God – to secure our hearts and comfort us by giving us the peace that passes all understanding.

So more than just an afterthought, this is a record of the faithfulness of God – even in the small things.  He will not allow one man to disrupt the spreading of the gospel.

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