In verses 1 to 8 of chapter 8 we saw how, despite Saul’s best efforts to destroy the church, the church continued to grow as those who were scattered because of the persecution in Jerusalem preached the gospel wherever they went. And so, one of the lessons we learned is that God is able to being good out of evil. Saul intended to do something wicked. He wanted to destroy the church. But God brought good out of his evil, because more and more people heard the good news of the gospel. And the church grew. Jesus Christ, the king and head of the church, rules over all things and he even uses the plans of wicked men to fulfil his purposes.
Verses 9 to 13
In verse 5 we’re told that Philip the Evangelist went to Samaria and proclaimed the message of Jesus Christ. The people listened to him as he preached, and they saw the signs he was able to perform, and they paid attention to his message. And there was great joy in the city.
In verse 9 Luke introduces us to this man, Simon. And he tells us that for some time, Simon had practiced sorcery in the city and had amazed the people who had seen what he was able to do. He boasted that he was someone great and, in fact, all the people, high and low, paid attention to him. In other words, long before Philip arrived, Simon was well-known among the people of the city and he had a strong influence over them. Look at verse 10: They paid attention to him. They believed he was some kind of divine man, possessing great powers. And he amazed them and gripped them with his magic. However, Luke tells us in verse 12 that those who were formerly gripped by Simon and his magic came to believe Philip who preached to them the good news of the kingdom of God and Jesus Christ. He preached the good news of the kingdom because, of course, the good news is that Jesus Christ is the King and through faith in him we are brought into his kingdom which is an eternal kingdom. And all who belong in his kingdom have eternal life. And he preached the name of Jesus Christ because there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved. That’s what the apostles used to preach in Jerusalem and it’s what Philip preached in this Samaritan city. And the people believed his message. And having believed, they were baptised, both men and women.
This reminds us of what Paul wrote in 1 Thessalonians 1 about how the believers in Thessalonica had turned from idols to serve the living and true God. And so, Jesus Christ, our Great King, calls us out of the darkness and into the light. He delivers us from the dominion of the Devil and his brings us into his own kingdom of grace. He releases us from darkness and superstition and idolatry and he fills us his Holy Spirit whose influence over us is altogether good and pure and holy.
In verse 13 we’re told that Simon too believed and was baptised. However, as we’ll see later, it seems that his conversion was not genuine. And perhaps Luke is hinting at this whenever he tells us that he used to follow Philip everywhere and was astonished, not so much by the good news of the kingdom and the name of Jesus Christ, but by the signs and miracles he saw. It’s just a hint at this stage, but it seems that he was fascinated more by the signs and less by the message. However, the fact that not all conversions prove to be genuine should not surprise us. This is one of the points we learn from the Lord’s parable of the sower and the seed. Remember? Seed was sown. Some fell on the path. The birds took the seed and nothing was produced. And that stands for those who pay no attention to the preaching of the gospel. Some seed fell on good soil and a crop grew. And that stands for those who listen to the gospel and who believe. But then some seed fell among the rocks and some seed fell among the weeds. In both cases, the seed which was sown took root and grew — but it did not last because of the rocks and the weeds. And the Lord tells us that this stands for those who hear the gospel and they appear to respond. And we’re hopeful that here we have new converts to the faith. But over time, they fall away. And they fall away either because of troubles and difficulties or else they fall away because they’re distracted by other things. According to the Lord’s parable, the word is preached. And in three cases, the word is wasted. And only in one case, does it bear fruit which lasts. And so the Lord is teaching us by that parable not to be surprised if some who respond to the gospel later fall away. Their conversion looks hopeful. But in time we discover that they weren’t really converted to a true faith in Christ.
In fact, our church’s Confession speaks of this. It talks about those who are called by the ministry of the word and who have some common operations of the Spirit. In other words, they hear the gospel message. And they’re humbled because of their sin. And they’re sorry for what they’ve done wrong. And perhaps they begin to take seriously the things of God and the coming judgment. The message they heard has some influence on them. And perhaps it seems to them and to others that they’ve been converted. They may even have prayed to God for forgiveness. And they may even have been admitted as members of the church. But, the Confession says, they never truly came to Christ.
Verses 18 to 24
This seems to be the case with Simon, because look what we read about him later. First of all, in verses 14 to 17, we read that Peter and John have come from Jerusalem to see what was happening in Samaria. When they arrived, they prayed for the Samaritans, asking God to give them his Spirit which they had not yet received. And, having prayed, Peter and John placed their hands on the people. And they received the Holy Spirit. And when Simon saw that the Holy Spirit was given at the laying on of hands, he offered the apostles money. He wanted to buy from them this power, this ability to send the Holy Spirit on whomever he liked. In other words, this seemed to him like some new kind of magic. It was like what he had before, only better. And he wanted to possess this authority and to own the power to impart the Holy Spirit.
Look at Peter’s reply to him in verse 20:
May your money perish with you.
This is a form of curse, consigning Simon and his money to destruction. And Peter pronounces this curse on him because he tried to buy the gift of God with money. And he goes on to say in verse 21 that Simon can have no part or share in this ministry because his heart is not right with God. His heart is not right with God. Back in verse 13 we read that Simon believed and was baptised. It all looked so hopeful. It seemed the church could claim another convert. But then in verse 21 we discover that his heart is still not right with God. And then look at verse 23. Peter says that he can see that Simon is full of bitterness and he’s captive to sin. And those are words which recall the warning of Moses in Deuteronomy 28 to make sure there is no one among God’s people whose heart turns away from the Lord to go after the gods of the nations. Such a person, says Moses, is a root that produces bitter poison. Their wicked influence will spread like poison through the body, or like a weed through the garden. And so, Peter urges Simon to repent of this wickedness and to pray to the Lord for forgiveness. And, of course, that’s always the message for those who, like Simon, made a profession which later proves not genuine. If someone discovers that they never really believed, despite what they had previously thought, the message is: Repent! And it’s the same message for that other case we often come across, because sometimes we come across people whose conversion was real. They really believed in Christ. But they then went astray. And perhaps for years, these true believers lost their way. And the message to them is the same: Repent! Turn from your sins. And turn to Christ for salvation. And the promise is that God will forgive all who truly believe in the Lord Jesus.
But in verse 24 we have Simon’s response. He asks Peter to pray for him so that nothing Peter has said will happen to him. Well, the commentators note that he shows no sign of sorrow for what he tried to do. Nor does he ask for pardon. All wants is to escape punishment. And since true repentance involves sorrow for sin, and since true faith involves turning to Christ for pardon, then there’s little here to encourage us that things turn out well for Simon.
Luke is showing us in these chapters that people were turning in faith to Jesus Christ and the church was growing. But we also have the story of Simon to teach us that it’s possible for some to make a profession. But later, it becomes clear that their faith was not a true saving faith. And so, when we hear of people trusting in Christ, we want to pray that their profession will prove to be genuine, and that God will work in their hearts by his Spirit so that they will persevere as believers and not give up.
Verses 14 to 17
Let me turn back to verse 14 to 17 briefly because these verses are puzzling. We read how Peter and John are sent from Jerusalem to see what’s going on in Samaria. You see, up to now the gospel has been confined to the Jews only. This is the first time the gospel has been preached to those who aren’t Jews, because the Samaritans are half-Jews and half-Gentiles. So this the first step to preaching the gospel to all the nations. But it’s still so new that the Apostles in Jerusalem send Peter and John to check what’s happening. And what they discover is that while these Samaritans have believed the gospel message and been baptised, they haven’t received the Holy Spirit.
Now, this perhaps strikes you as being very unusual. You see, we believe that the Bible teaches that it’s the Holy Spirit who enables us to believe the good news. By nature, we’re dead in our transgressions and sins. We’re spiritually dead and we’re incapable of trusting in Christ until the Holy Spirit comes and enables us to believe. The Holy Spirit must give us the new birth. And once we’re been born again, we’re able to turn from our sin in repentance and to turn in faith to the Saviour. And so, in Acts 16 we read that God opened Lydia’s heart to pay attention and to believe Paul’s message. And in 1 Corinthians Paul speaks about the power of the Spirit who enables us to believe the message of the cross. And in 1 Thessalonians he talks about the preaching of God’s word coming with power and with the Holy Spirit and with deep conviction. And there are so many other places which teach us that we wouldn’t believe at all unless God first enabled us to believe.
So, how do we explain what happened in Samaria where the people believed, but had not yet received the Spirit? I don’t have time to deal with all the options, except to say that Pentecostal believers say that what happened in Samaria is a model for what every believer should experience. In other words, first we’re converted to faith in Christ. Afterwards we must seek to be baptised with the Holy Spirit as a second blessing. That’s one option. Another option is that none of the Samaritans were really converted until the Apostles came and prayed for them. Not just Simon, but all of them, were mistaken and they hadn’t really trusted in Christ. That’s another option.
A better option, though, is to remember that what happened in Samaria was the beginning of a new stage in Christ’s work in the world. The Lord Jesus is building his church on the earth. Up to now, he’s been building his church among the Jews only. The gospel has been preached to them only. And he’s enabled them to repent and to believe. And every Jew who believed was added to the church. But, should believing Samaritans be added to the church? And should believing Gentiles be added to the church? That’s the big question now in Acts 8. Will the Lord Jesus admit these believing Samaritans into his church? So, the Apostles go to Samaria. And there, on this one, special occasion, the Lord Jesus demonstrates in no uncertain terms that yes, he’s prepared to accept believing Samaritans into his church. From his throne in heaven, the Lord Jesus pours out his Spirit upon these new believers, so that the Apostles are left in no doubt that believing Samaritans have as much right to belong to the church as believing Jews. The coming of the Holy Spirit demonstrates that the Lord Jesus wants them in his church.
Remember what Paul said in Ephesians 4?
Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit … one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.
One body of believers — not two bodies of believers. One Spirit who unites all believers together in Christ. One Lord Jesus Christ who is over all believers. One baptism by which we’re all solemnly admitted into membership of the one true church. One God and Father over all. On the Day of Pentecost, the Lord Jesus poured out his Spirit on his people in Jerusalem and three thousand Jews were added to the church. And now, from his throne in heaven, he pours out his Spirit upon the Samaritans to demonstrate that believing Samaritans belonged in the church. And later, in chapter 10, he pours his Spirit on the Gentiles to demonstrate that believing Gentiles belonged in the church. So, what happened in Acts 8 was a special event to show that Jesus Christ was willing to save Samaritans as well as Jews. And he’s willing to save Samaritans as well as Jews, because he’s the Saviour of the world — and everyone who believes in him will be saved and added to the church.