Background Story: God promised Abraham a homeland and multiple descendants to bless the world. Abraham’s descendants multiplied in Egypt but they became enslaved. God called Moses and led Israel out of Egypt to Mt. Sinai where they were formed them into a nation. Israel entered their land under Joshua and later God promised David a ‘perpetual kingship’ over God’s people. David’s son, Solomon, built the Temple as a dwelling for God. However, Solomon introduced an idolatry that led to the scattering of the ‘Northern kingdom’ by the Assyrians and the exile of the ‘Southern Kingdom’ in Babylon. The Persians conquered the Babylonians and the Jews returned to their land but they remained under Pagan rule. God’s people longed for a ‘conquering king’ and God sent Jesus, who was ‘anointed by the Spirit’ at his baptism. Jesus overcame the Devil’s temptations and gathered a ‘new people (12)’ around himself. When his disciples recognized Jesus’ Messianic identity he went to Jerusalem where he was enthroned as ‘KING of the JEWS’ on a cross. He looked like a failure, but God raised him from the dead. After Jesus showed himself to his disciples he ascended into heaven. From there Jesus poured out the Holy Spirit to empower his disciples to be his witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. The apostles proclaimed Jesus as both Lord and Christ and their message spread and the numbers increased. The religious leaders forbid that the apostles teach or preach in the name of Jesus, but Peter and John couldn’t stop speaking about Jesus. Then when a disciple named Stephen told the ‘story of Israel’ as culminating in Jesus he was stoned to death for his testimony. After this a ‘great persecution’ broke out against the church and the believers were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria. This brings us to the story of Philip in the city of Samaria from Acts 8. Watch the story here and read the comments below.
Philip and the Samaritans: Those who stoned Stephen to death placed their cloaks at the feet of the young man, Saul. So Saul approved Stephen’s death and a ‘great persecution’ broke out against the Jerusalem Church. Determined to destroy the church, Saul went from house to house, dragging off both men and women believers to prison. As a result of the persecution, all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria. The apostles stayed in Jerusalem while all the others were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria, and preached the word wherever they went. The believers fled the persecution to protect their lives but they didn’t stop doing what got them in trouble which was the preaching the word of God.
Philip, who was one of those selected to oversee the feeding of the widows (Acts 6:5) went to the city of Samaria. Crowds there gathered to hear Philip proclaiming the Christ and to see the miraculous signs he performed. Evil spirits came out of many. Many who were unable to walk were healed and there was great joy in that city. The ‘great persecution’ in the city of Jerusalem resulted in ‘great joy’ in the city of Samaria. The persecution scattered the believers who preached the gospel throughout Judea and Samaria just as Jesus had told them to do (Acts 1:8).
Now there was a man in the city of Samaria named Simon. He practiced sorcery and boasted that he was someone great. Some who were amazed by Simon’s magic followed Simon saying that he was some kind of ‘divine and great power’. When they heard Philip preaching the ‘good news about Jesus and the kingdom of God’ they believed and were baptized, this included both men and women. Simon also believed Philip and was baptized. Simon followed Philip very closely and he was amazed by the signs and miracles that he saw Philip doing.
When they heard the news back in Jerusalem that these Samaritans had accepted the word of God, they sent the two most prominent apostles, Peter and John. Peter and John prayed for the Samaritans to receive the Holy Spirit because the Holy Spirit had not yet come upon any of them. They had simply been baptized into the name of the Lord Jesus. This seems unusual in light of Peter’s message on Pentecost where Peter said, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:38).” These Samaritans believed Philip’s message about Jesus and were baptized but the Holy Spirit had not yet come upon any of them. Then when Peter and John placed their hands on these Samaritans they received the Holy Spirit.
Simon saw that the Spirit was given at the laying on of the apostles’ hands. The Holy Spirit came on those Peter and John laid their hands on and Simon wanted this ability. When Simon offered the apostles money to get it he received a harsh rebuke from the Apostle Peter. Peter said, “May your money perish with you, because you thought you could buy the gift of God with money!” Peter discerned that Simon’s heart was not right with God and that he was still full of bitterness and was captive to sin. Peter told Simon to repent and to pray to the Lord that the Lord may forgive Simon then Simon answered “Pray to the Lord that what you have said may not happen to me.” Simon boasted that he was great and who liked to exercise power over people. When Simon came across the superior power of Philip and later that of Peter and John Simon wanted this power for himself. After the rebuke Simon concern was that he didn’t lose his money and his life. After this Peter and John returned to Jerusalem and we don’t know whether Simon ever repented and was forgiven. We only learn that the apostles preached the gospel in many Samaritan villages on their way.
Did Simon really believe when he heard Philip preach the gospel? Simon believed and was baptized (8:13), but Peter described Simon as someone who had no share in the ministry of the gospel. Peter also said that Simon’s heart was not right before God and that he needed to repent of his wickedness because he was full of bitterness and captive to sin (8:20-23). Does this describe someone who has trusted Christ and has been transformed by the Holy Spirit? The Bible speaks of a faith that accepts the truth of Scripture without any spiritual transformation (Acts 26:27-28; James 2:19) and also speaks of a temporary faith, which embraces the gospel without any change of heart. It is only temporary faith (Matt. 13:20-21) because it fails to endure under trials and persecution (1 Tim.1:19-20; I John 2:19). The ‘New Covenant’ promise of the gospel was that God would cleanse from sin, replace the heart of stone with a new heart indwelt by the Holy Spirit (Ezk.36:25-27)! This story should push us to ‘examine ourselves to see whether we are in the faith’ and to realize that Christ Jesus is in us—unless, of course, we fail the test? (2Cor.13:5).
How is it that Samaritans believed and were baptized and yet they didn’t receive the Holy Spirit? They believed but they didn’t receive the Spirit until after the apostles Peter and John laid their hands on them. When Philip preached Jesus and did the miracles both men and women in Samaria believed Philip’s message and were baptized. When the apostles heard about this, they sent Peter and John who prayed that they might receive the Holy Spirit. They had only been baptized into the name of Jesus so the apostles laid hands on them and they received the Holy Spirit (8:1-17). Why the delay in the receiving of the Spirit? Hadn’t Peter previously promised the ‘gift of the Spirit’ to those who would repent (Acts 2:38)?
Unlike Simon, nothing negative is said about the faith of these Samaritans (Acts 8:20-23). Also this is the first of only two accounts of the Spirit being given at the laying on of the apostle’s hands (Acts 8:18, 19:6). Simon witnessed some visible manifestation of the Spirit, but nothing is said about the ‘speaking in tongues’ and this event is very different than what happened at Pentecost (Acts 2). In Samaria the Spirit seems to have been uniquely manifested to emphasize that there was to be only one apostolic church. It was critical that Samaritans submit to Jesus’ Jewish apostles and for the Jewish believers to accept the Samaritans in that one apostolic church! At that time, Jews and Samaritans didn’t even associate with each other (John 4:9) so the unity of the one body of Christ was at stake. This is significant for us today as our witness is hindered by the many divisions in the church (John 17:20-21).