Bill McFarland

April 23, 2006


There is hardly a story anywhere which better illustrates the power of the gospel of Jesus Christ or our need for it as human beings than the story we find in the middle of Acts 8.  Here is a passage in which the gospel of Christ is taken for the first time outside the city of Jerusalem, and of all the cities that might have been chosen, this one seems an odd first choice.  Here is the first time we have an account of one single individual’s obedience to the gospel of Jesus.  And what an unlikely fellow this one is to be at the center of that story.  Here in this account we find for the first time someone who has been obedient to the gospel of Christ being overtaken by sin again, and being told what he needs now to do about it.  That is an important lesson in and of itself.

This account centers around a good man named Philip, the city of Samaria, a magician by the name of Simon and two of the apostles of the Lord, Peter and John.  We are going to study it in four or five scenes just sort of different acts in this account of Acts.  In so doing, we will learn some lessons that will be helpful for each one of us.

Scene One

Look with me at the first scene in the account here in verses 4-8 of Acts 8.  Remember that the church in Jerusalem has now been scattered by persecution.  And the Bible says, “Now those who were scattered went about preaching the word.  Philip went down to the city of Samaria and proclaimed to them the Christ.  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.  For unclean spirits came out of many who were possessed, crying with a loud voice, and many who were paralyzed or lame were healed.  So there was much joy in that city.”

I assume that last statement is quite an understatement.  There was much joy, I’m sure!  Notice the details that are here that are going to be important to the rest of this account.  The Philip who is mentioned here is not the Philip who was an apostle of Christ.  This is one of the seven men who had been chosen by the church in Jerusalem to be set over the caring for people with special needs in that day, especially the widows.  This Philip had been one of the men who was set before the apostles and upon whom the apostles had laid hands and prayed, setting them apart for this work.  This fellow, though, who had been a server of tables, becomes an evangelist in this story because he has been driven out of Jerusalem by the persecution and because the need is so great and because he has such a story to tell.  The man becomes known as Philip the Evangelist over in Acts 21.  New talents can be developed, and people can learn to do new things as they are needed in the kingdom of the Lord.

Notice that Philip went as far as the city of Samaria.  This city as you know was not too far north from Jerusalem.  It was a city which had been the capitol of the northern kingdom of Israel or the capitol of the 10 northern tribes.  It had been built by King Omri in Old Testament days and had become a center of evil and wrongdoing, so much so that God judged the land because of what took place there.  Samaria, in the years intervening, had become a center of a mixed-race people who partly worshipped God and partly did as they pleased.  What the Assyrians did when they carried away captives out of Samaria is to resettle the area with people who were from pagan or heathen backgrounds.  As these people intermarried, their customs were assumed by the Samaritans.  When the people of the southern kingdom returned from Babylonian captivity, the Samaritans came and wanted to help in rebuilding the temple in Jerusalem, but they were not allowed to do so.  Very hard feelings had developed between the Samaritans and the Jews, hard feelings that were prevalent in the days that we are reading of here in this passage.  And the Samaritans had developed their own religion as a result.  They had built the temple on Mount Gerizem.  They believed the Messiah would come there to establish his kingdom.  They held only the first five books of the Old Testament, had their own priesthood and sacrificial system, etc.  That is where Philip goes.

Notice that when Philip goes to Samaria, he preaches the word, it says.  What a fine summary that still is for the message of the Lord’s people and for the work of the church.  If you will notice down through the rest of this passage, the parallel statements show what is meant by preaching the word.  In verse 5 it says he proclaimed to them the Christ.  No doubt that means that he showed from scripture why Jesus is the Christ.  Notice in verse 12 it is going to tell us that he preached the good news about the kingdom of God and that he preached the name of Jesus Christ, the rule of God in the lives of people who were subject to the authority of Jesus Christ.  He must have also told the people something about how they are going to need to respond to the name of Christ and the kingdom of God because the Bible says in verse 12 that the people were baptized who heard this teaching.  And notice in verse 14 it says that Samaria had received the word of God.  So Philip goes to Samaria, preaches the word, and then it is confirmed as the Lord works with them through his spirit.

In Mark 16:19, it says that the Lord worked with the apostles by confirming their words with these mighty works.  In Hebrews 2, the first four verses show that this is the purpose of the kinds of signs that are referred to here in this passage.  The casting out of demons showed superiority over any realm of evil.  The healing showed the Lord’s compassion for people and what he could do in their lives, and the joy they all felt showed what God wanted to be the experience of his people in this world.


Scene Two

Notice next that act two in the development of this story as people at Samaria actually become Christians.  Beginning with verse 9 the Bible says, “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.  They all paid attention to him, from the least to the greatest, saying, ‘This man is the power of God that is called Great.’  And they paid attention to him because for a long time he had amazed them with his magic.  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.  Even Simon himself believed, and after being baptized he continued with Philip, and seeing great signs and great miracles performed, he was amazed.”

Now notice some things about this passage that are going to affect the unfolding of this story.  There is a fellow at Samaria named Simon.  He is mentioned because all of Samaria has been affected by Simon’s influence and his activities, and unless Philip is able to get past Simon’s influence with the gospel, then the doors are going to be closed.  Nobody will pay attention to him.  You see, Simon has been involved in the sorcery or the magical arts.  He has bought and sold tricks over the years.  It has been a life and death thing for him.  He has made his living this way.  He has gotten his following in this way.  We find out in verse 11 that he has been at it a long time so his influence is spread that way.  He has amazed the people of Samaria saying that he was somebody great.  Legend has it that Simon actually passed off the idea that he was god in the flesh, and that he kept a female cohort who was to have been a god in the flesh, also, if you can imagine the kind of influence he must have had here.

But verse 10 says that all the people paid attention to him, from the least to the greatest because they all thought this man is the power of God that is called Great.  Now let’s notice something very carefully at this point.  There was enough difference between the mighty works and signs that the Holy Spirit wrought through Philip that everybody present could see the difference between them and the tricks that Simon worked.  There was so much difference between the nature and the quality of the signs that God did through Philip that even Simon could see the difference.  Even Simon was so impressed and amazed at the power of the real God that even though he has passed himself off as the power of the god that is called great, even he has to change his mind about this.  When the people saw the signs that were being done through Philip and when they heard the message that he was preaching, the Bible says that they were baptized.  This must have been how they were taught to respond to this.  You can’t just say that baptism was a practice of the Jews in Jerusalem.  This is the response of the Samaritans, also.  The great commission said to preach the gospel to every creature; he who believes and is baptized shall be saved.  That is what these people have done.  They must have been told.

In Acts 2 when people in Jerusalem wanted to know, “Men and brethren, what shall we do?”  They were told to repent and to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of their sins.  There wasn’t one response to the gospel in one town and another response to it in the other town.  The Bible says then that even Simon himself believed and was baptized and continued with Philip.  The word for continuing that is used here is the same one that is used in Acts 2:42 where it says they continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship and breaking of bread and prayers.  I am telling you this because I want you to see that based on the promise of God, Simon was saved.  Based on what people were told to do in response to the gospel of Jesus, this man had become a Christian.  And Luke writing about it even years later doesn’t take a perspective that just says, “Well Philip didn’t really now what was going on in his heart.  Philip didn’t see the difference.  Philip was misled.”  Luke tells us this as if this is how it was.  That is an important part of the story that is here.  Even somebody from a background like Simon, even somebody who has been a magician, a sorcerer, even somebody who has misled the people, even that kind of a man can obey the gospel, can become a Christian.  God is willing to forgive him.  The Lord will make something of him if this man will let him. 

Scene Three

That brings us to scene three in the account that is here.  The apostles now come down from Jerusalem, two of them at least.  Beginning in verse 14, the Bible says, “Now when the apostles at Jerusalem heard that Samaria had received the word of God, they sent to them Peter and John, who came down and prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit, for he had not yet fallen on any of them, but they had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus.  Then they laid their hands on them and they received the Holy Spirit.”  Notice that all of the apostles in Jerusalem sent two.  It sure doesn’t seem like Peter had any priority over the others at that time.  They sent him.  John one time, according to Luke 9:46, had asked the Lord if he wouldn’t call fire down on some of these people at Samaria who had not received him.  John is now sent to Samaria to confirm them in their faith.  Isn’t that interesting?  The reason for their coming is explicitly given to us by Luke.  The Holy Spirit had not yet fallen on any of them.  Notice that that terminology helps us to understand what is meant by this account.  The Holy Spirit falling on somebody is only used, as far as I can tell, two or three times in the New Testament. One is in Acts 10:44 for what happens at the household of Cornelius.  One is in Acts 11:15 for what had happened to the apostles in Jerusalem.  The gift of the Holy Spirit which is promised to all people who repent and are baptized in the name of Jesus Christ did not involve some outward manifestation like that.  It wasn’t the same as being baptized in the Holy Spirit or being given miraculous spiritual gifts like tongues, etc.  Notice also that whatever these two apostles came to do, Philip had not been able to do.  That is crucial because the apostles had laid their hands on Philip, according to Acts 6, and Philip had been able to work mighty wonders and signs as we have already studied today.  And yet Philip was not able to lay his hands on these people and to give them some miraculous ability by the Holy Spirit.

When Peter and John had come down to these people, they did two things.  They prayed for them, verse 15, and then they laid their hands on them and they received the Holy Spirit, verse 17.  That would indicate that their receiving of the Holy Spirit was something that was imparted through the apostles’ hands.  We are going to discover that it involves something that could be seen.  Observers could see something happening because of this.  It has to mean that it involved giving them the ability to work these mighty signs or to have miraculous gifts of the spirit themselves.  Now why would they do that?  Was God showing favoritism in doing that for them and not for us now?  Well, remember these are brand new Christians.  Philip is going to be taken shortly to another field.  Peter and John are not going to be there.  They are going to need something to guide them in the doing of the Lord’s will.  This is the way the Lord provided for that need at Samaria.  Also, this was done to confirm that the Samaritans were accepted in Christ, just as the Jews in Jerusalem.

Scene Four

Then there is the fourth part of our story.  Simon sins.  In verse 18, the Bible says, “Now when Simon saw that the spirit was given through the laying on of the apostles’ hands, he offered them money saying, ‘Give me this power also so that anyone on whom I lay my hands may receive the Holy Spirit.’”  You can see what he is thinking, can’t you?  This fellow has had the background where he has been thought to be someone great.  He has had a following.  Everybody paid attention to him.  And now even though he has left that and he has become a Christian, that temptation is still laying there within him.  Temptation gets the best of him.  He thinks that he doesn’t have to stay in the background anymore now.  If I could just be able to lay my hands on people like this and give them these gifts, think of how they would flock to me and pay attention to me.  Think of the money I could make off of it.  Think of how great everyone would consider me to be.  Remember, you can be forgiven of your past in obedience to the gospel.  The Lord will make you his child.  You will be a Christian, but those things that you have left can still be a temptation to you, and they will get the best of you if you dwell on them and if you let them begin to take hold of you.  That is what happens with Simon.

Scene Five

That brings us to scene five: Peter’s rebuke of Simon and his being told that what he as a Christian who had sinned needed to do.  Peter said to him in verse 20, “May your silver perish with you because you thought that you could obtain the gift of God with money.  You have neither part nor lot in this matter, for your heart is not right before God. Repent, therefore, of this wickedness of yours, and pray to the Lord that, if possible, the intent of your heart may be forgiven you.  For I see that you are in the gall of bitterness and in the bond of iniquity.  And Simon answered, ‘Pray for me to the Lord, that nothing of what you have said may come upon me.’”  Simon’s problem as Peter clearly states, is the thought of his heart, his intention.  His wickedness is the thought that the gift of God was not something holy, that it didn’t belong only to God’s ability, but that it could be bought with money.  Simon’s sin was that he made God so pitiful and so little that God could be bought off with a few pieces of silver.  His sin was not his thinking about the money.  His sin was what he thought about God and the pitifully little place that he actually gave the God of the universe.  Notice that Peter tells Simon in no uncertain terms that this kind of spirit, this kind of self-centered and rebellious attitude, placed him in danger of perishing.  Perishing would be the fate of somebody who had never named the name of Christ.  Yet this man who had believed and been baptized and continued, at least for a time with Philip, now found himself in danger of perishing because his heart wasn’t right before God.

What does a man like that do?  Peter says that he is to repent and to pray.  When he says, “If possible, you may be forgiven,” he is not casting doubt on God’s willingness to forgive.  The question is whether somebody with Simon’s mindset and way of thinking could be brought to repentance.  Notice that he is not told now to go be baptized.  A person believes and confesses Christ and is baptized in order to become a Christian.  But when a Christian has been overtaken again in sin, the Christian is told to confess his sins, I John 1:9, to repent of them as this passage here says, and to pray for God’s forgiveness.  So often in the religious world, those two things are reversed.  A person is told to repent and pray in order to become a Christian, and then to be baptized because he is a Christian who needs to progress.  The Bible teaches that we repent and are baptized to become a Christian, and then if we are overtaken in sin, we repent and pray to be forgiven and restored as a Christian.

Notice Simon’s response.  He says, “Pray for me that none of the things you said may come upon me.”  I have found debate among writers about whether Simon truly repented there or not.  Did he repent and pray himself and just ask Peter to pray for him, too?  Or did he not?  Was he just terrified of the consequences and not really penitent of his sins?  Maybe the end of the story is left like it is because it is an appeal for us to decide for ourselves how it is going to be.  Even Simon can become a Christian, but Simon as a Christian can be overtaken in sin.  When that happens and his heart is not right, he needs to repent and pray.  Maybe you are here today needing to become a Christian.  Or maybe as a Christian with a heart not right, you want God’s mercy to set that right which he wants to do.  If you and I need to respond today, let’s do so now while we stand and sing together.