After Stephen is martyred persecution breaks out in Jerusalem in a big way. Paul – who held the coats of the men stoning Stephen – zealously leads the charge against the church and makes sure that no believer is safe in the city. As a result, the believers – except for the apostles – scatter throughout the surrounding regions.
As the believers scatter they take the gospel with them – to the extent that even the Samaritans hear and believe. One Samaritan in particular, who believes, provides a case study in how confession and baptism do not ensure right motives. Simon the Magician shows that self-centeredness and the gospel do not mix.
The rage of the Jewish leaders brought on by Stephen’s speech and rebuke is not sated by his death (after which he is buried by devout men who make loud lamentation over him). It seems that killing him makes persecuting others in the faith easier. They have established that they are willing to execute believers, so now there is nothing holding them back as they go after the church as a whole with the threat of death at their disposal.
The one most zealous in persecuting the church is Paul – the man we were introduced to at Stephen’s stoning (7:58). Luke tells us he was in hearty agreement with the stoning and that he goes on from there and begins ravaging the church. He goes house to house and drags off believing men and women and throws them in prison. From other references in Acts (9:1, 22:4, 26:10) we know that he even sends some to their deaths (which makes sense in light of his approval of Stephen’s death). He hates the new movement with a religious zeal (he thinks he is protecting Judaism and doing God’s work – I Tim 1:13) and does everything in his power to stamp it out. [It pays to grasp the full impact of his actions to better understand how he describes himself later – his appreciation for the gospel is heightened by his knowledge of all he did against those who believed it – I Tim 1:12-15.]
The result of this persecution is that it forces the Jerusalem believers to leave the city. They are scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria. As they go, they preach the word. The persecution serves to spread the gospel beyond metropolitan Jerusalem. By trying to stamp out the new movement the religious leaders actually broaden it. Their solution makes the problem exponentially worse.
We have noted this before, but verse 4 (and the following story of Philip preaching in Samaria) shows how something that man would normally see as horrible is used by God to further His plans. The believers have to suffer persecution – and some actually give their lives – but in so doing they facilitate the spread of the gospel. They are forced to leave their homes but the result is that more people hear the good news. This shows that we cannot understand hard times from a horizontal perspective. Persecution is awful but its result is wonderful from an eternal standpoint. Even losing lives and homes is worth it if it means more people are in God’s presence for eternity. This life and this world are only meaningful in how they affect eternity and this perspective is what keeps us from feeling like God is capricious and insensitive to human suffering.
The apostles do not leave Jerusalem. The text does not explain the reason but it could be that since they are the leaders of the church and the church is for now based in Jerusalem they feel that leaving would be abdicating their roles. They will continue to direct the movement from its base. Verse 1 does not mean they are not persecuted, it simply means the persecution does not make them leave.
Another one of the seven who were chosen to oversee distribution to the poor (6:5) now enters the story. Like Stephen, Philip is a man full of the Holy Spirit and someone who does far more than we expect of one chosen to serve tables. His gifts and actions show that the seven are not just minor leaders but men with many of the same gifts as the apostles.
Philip goes to a city in Samaria and proclaims Christ and performs miracles. He preaches the gospel, heals the sick and casts out demons. As a result, the multitudes believe his message and there is much rejoicing in the city.
The text tells what Philip does without comment. But his actions here are revolutionary. He goes to the hated Samaritans and preaches the gospel to them the same way it is preached to the Jews. [The Samaritans are descendants of Jews who intermarried with transplanted gentiles after the Assyrian destruction of the northern ten tribes. Assyria exiled most of the northern kingdom and transplanted in gentile peoples from other nations they conquered. The Jews who were left behind intermarried with these transplants and settled in Samaria. The Jews hate Samaritans because they are not fully Jewish – they are the offspring of sinful intermarriage. The Samaritans practice their own form of Judaism and worship God on a mountain in their land (Jn 4:20) instead of at the temple in Jerusalem.] Nothing is said in the text as to why he does this, but his actions later in the chapter with regard to the Ethiopian eunuch make it clear that he listens to the Spirit and goes where he is told. Jesus told the disciples to take the gospel to Samaria (1:8) – Philip is the instrument God uses to fulfill that command.
Verse 12 tells us that the Samaritans are not only drawn to Philip because of the healings and the miracles, they also fully accept his message of the gospel. The people believe and are baptized. They receive and believe the gospel just like the converted Jews. Philip’s preaching and mighty works show the Spirit is active in him and the people’s response show the Spirit is active among them. They hear and believe.
One notable person in the city also believes. He is Simon, a man of great power (not clear what the source of his power is – perhaps it is demonic or even not real, but the text does not say) who has for a long time astonished the Samaritans with his magic arts. He is so amazing that the people ascribe divinity to him and say he is the Great Power of God. He is almost messianic as he is the representation of God to them and he himself claims to be someone great. He is highly esteemed and virtually worshiped – it is this status that makes his later actions more understandable.
The way Luke sets verse 12 as a contrast to what the people believe about Simon makes it sound like they stop being impressed with him when they believe the gospel of Philip. They see Philip’s healings and exorcisms and hear his message that focuses on Jesus instead of himself and they follow Philip. They are not as enthralled with Simon because his magic and power are nothing when compared to Jesus.
Simon does not fight the new movement but instead believes and is baptized. He is as amazed at what Philip does as the people are (perhaps this points to Simon using some trickery to make his magic and realizing that what Philip does is real). He stays with Philip as he preaches so he can continue to witness all the amazing acts.
The apostles in Jerusalem hear about what is happening in Samaria and send Peter and John to check it out. Luke does not comment on this decision but it shows their concern for Samaria specifically. Verse 4 makes it clear that other surrounding cities and towns accept the gospel and no apostolic emissaries go to inspect their faith. The conversion of the Samaritans is something entirely different because of who they are, and the apostles apparently feel their presence is necessary as a result.
It is interesting that John comes with Peter since he was one of the disciples who encouraged Jesus to call down fire on a Samaritan city that did not welcome them when Jesus traveled through on His way to Jerusalem (Lk 9:51-56). Perhaps Peter mentions to John that it would be a good idea not to take the same approach with the new believers.
The purpose of the apostles’ visit is not just fact-finding but also to pray for the new believers to receive the Holy Spirit. The Samaritans have believed and been baptized, but for some reason the Holy Spirit has not come upon them. Unlike other conversions in Acts to this point, belief in itself has not brought the Spirit’s presence to the new converts.
This is the only reference in Acts to a two-stage salvation (19:1-5 is similar but the disciples described in that text have not believed the gospel of Jesus Christ). In other conversions belief (and typically baptism) and receiving the Holy Spirit happen concurrently. In the case of Cornelius the gentile, he and his family believe and the Holy Spirit immediately comes upon them, and they are baptized later (10:44-48). Peter in his first gospel presentation instructed the people to repent and believe so the Holy Spirit would come upon them (2:38). No one to this point has said that a separate Spirit-gifting must occur for people to be truly counted as believers, nor does it happen again in the New Testament. Thus this is not a new precedent for the steps of salvation.
By the same token, Luke does state clearly that the Samaritans believe. There is no reason to think their salvation is invalid or insincere (except perhaps in the case of Simon). They truly believe Philip’s gospel message and are baptized into that belief. Verse 12 is not vague – But when they believed Philip preaching the good news about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were being baptized, men and women alike. They believe the right message and take the right steps. For some reason, however, the Holy Spirit does not come upon them.
The fact that Philip – who is not an apostle – is the messenger of the gospel has no bearing on this. He certainly is filled with the Spirit as he heals and casts out demons and the Samaritans’ response to the gospel shows the Spirit works among them. It does not take an apostle for someone to receive the Spirit as Philip will show when he ministers to the Ethiopian eunuch later in this chapter. The reason for withholding the Spirit has nothing to do with Philip.
Perhaps the explanation is that God wants to make sure the apostles know the Samaritans’ conversion is genuine. This is the first advance of the gospel outside of a Jewish population (though the Samaritans are not considered Jews they are mixed-race and so are not considered gentiles either; thus the gentiles have still not been reached). With racial attitudes toward the Samaritans so negative, having the apostles themselves bestow the Holy Spirit ensures that both they and the Samaritans realize they are part of the same community of believers. No one will later be able to claim the Samaritans are not fully Christian.
Apparently in this unique case where the gospel was first moving beyond the bounds of Judaism, the Lord sovereignly waited to give any manifestation of the full power of the Holy Spirit until some of the apostles themselves could be present, and therefore there would be no question at all that the Samaritans had received the new covenant empowering of the Holy Spirit in the same way the Jewish Christians had. This would show that the Samaritans should be counted full members of the one true church, the new covenant community of God’s people, founded and based at that time in Jerusalem. It would also guarantee that the Samaritans, who for many generations had been hostile toward the Jews, would not establish a separate Christian church or be excluded from the church by Jewish believers. The Spirit was given only at the hands of the apostles to show convincingly to Samaritan and other later, non-Jewish leaders of the church that both Jews and non-Jews who believed in Jesus now had full membership status among God’s people.
(ESV Study Bible, Note on Acts 8:17)
Simon notices what Peter and John do and the results of their laying on of hands. The Holy Spirit apparently shows Himself when He comes upon those to whom the apostles bestow Him. The power the apostles have – to effectively impart the presence of God to other people – amazes Simon and arouses his envy. That people obviously receive the Spirit as a result of Peter and John’s actions is more remarkable than even the miracles Philip has performed.
Simon is likely a rich man as a result of his long practice of magic arts. Thus he offers Peter and John money for the power they have. He wants to do what they do and assumes they have the authority to give it their power to someone else.
His words to them are telling – “Give this authority to me as well, so that everyone on whom I lay my hands may receive the Holy Spirit.” His request is totally selfish. He wants the authority because it will make him even more powerful than he was before. This has nothing to do with wanting others to receive the Spirit – it has EVERYTHING to do with having the power to bestow it. The apostles can impart the presence of GOD on whom they choose (or so Simon apparently sees it). This kind of power will give him even more esteem than he had before. And it will put him back in the limelight even after the preaching and works of Philip.
Peter sees right through him and rebukes him harshly. He first tells him his money should die with him because he has insulted God with the assumption that a value can be placed on what is invaluable. He then tells him he has no part in the Spirit (in this matter – either refers to imparting the Spirit or to the gospel itself) because his heart is not right. Peter says his intentions are wrong and he is in the gall of bitterness (possibly a reference to how he feels about losing the esteem of the people since Philip came around) and in the bondage of iniquity (he is enslaved to his sin).
Peter also tells him to repent and ask for forgiveness. This command along with the larger rebuke seems to make it clear that Simon is not a true believer. He confessed and was baptized but his words and actions did not accurately reflect his heart. His selfish request to buy the Spirit with money does. He is ultimately all about himself – just like he has always been – and nothing has changed even though he claimed to believe (he deceived others and perhaps even deceived himself).
Simon’s response to Peter in verse 24 is hard to decipher. Either he callously disregards Peter’s warning and effectively tells him, “If you think it is so important that I repent then pray for me yourself.” Or he is genuinely scared by Peter’s words and wants Peter and John to pray for him. It is telling that he offers nothing in the way of repentance but only asks for Peter to pray that he be saved from the punishment. If this is what it seems, then he remains unsaved and does nothing to sincerely join the believers.
Simon’s actions and response to Peter show us characteristics of what makes a false believer. His motives are entirely selfish. He seems to have no thought of God or others. He wants notoriety and acclaim and cares for little else. He had an esteemed position in society and wants it back. Any thought of humility in the presence of God is foreign to him. His life is still all about him even after claiming belief in the gospel. A believer can certainly be as selfish and blind as Simon is in this story but a true believer will not be that way unrepentantly. Simon seems to have no appreciation or thankfulness for the gospel and only sees it as a means to further his goals. The gospel is all about God – if we live lives that are all about us we cannot claim fealty to it.
Peter and John – and perhaps Philip – continue preaching and working among the Samaritans. When they return to Jerusalem they go through other villages of the Samaritans and preach the word. They are now confident the Spirit is for them too. The gospel can go to the Samaritans just like the Jews. With this assurance they preach boldly and widely to the whole country. The Samaritans are no longer a hated race – they are people in need of the gospel just like the Jews. Their truly is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus (Gal 3:28). This experience likely paves the way for the believers to later accept gentiles into the faith.