STUDIES IN ACTS, Part 7

Acts 8:1—25

“The Blood of Martyrs is the Seed of the Church”

Sometimes, God has to act through surprisingly harsh circumstances in order to “force” His saints to “get with His program.” It’s human nature to desire security and sometimes predictability. If we have learned anything about God, it’s that God’s idea of “security”  isn’t always the same as ours, and He is nothing if not unpredictable sometimes.

It was always God’s intention that His Gospel should be preached to the whole world. He was not just a God to the Jews; He is the God of all people, everywhere, but it was up to His people to bring that good news to those who had never heard it. Up until the persecution of Stephen, it seemed as though the Christians of Jerusalem were more or less content to remain there. This new faith experienced by so many Jews was closely linked to Judaism, so much so that to the casual observer it might very well have been a mere sect of Judaism. The church had the respect of the city, and with the exception of some of the religious elite, nobody in Jerusalem seemed to have a problem with this new faith.

But the Gospel of Jesus Christ, like a force of nature, must always be moving; proclaimed by His followers to new listeners all the time. In a sense, we might consider the period from Pentecost to the death of Stephen a kind of “transitional period,” where the early church learned how to walk. In the time that followed the coming of the Holy Spirit, the church learned about its faith, saw the power of God made manifest in their midst, was emboldened by the Holy Spirit and each other, learned what the purpose of Christian fellowship was all about, and discovered that the there were different levels of leadership within the Body of Christ. It took followers of Christ some time to see their work as Christ saw it. The martyrdom of Stephen brought their mission into focus the hard way.

1. Good from bad, 8:1—4

Those who had been scattered preached the word wherever they went. (verse 4)

This verse reminds us of an Old Testament verse:

You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives. (Genesis 50:20)

Sometimes it takes a lot of faith to see the hand of God at work in a bad situation! Joseph had that kind of faith, which is why he was able to to make that astonishing proclamation, which is arguably the most poignant and powerful verse in the Old Testament.

It is likely that the religious establishment martyred Stephen, not so much for what he said, but for the implication of what he said. It rocked their world, and being faced with their own irrelevance in the face of what Jesus Christ brought to the world, these men killed Stephen and began a campaign of persecution against the church. Most scholars believe their anger was directed primarily at the Hellenistic or Greek-speaking Jewish-Christians at this time. These believers fled Jerusalem in the face of this persecution, though the apostles remained there to shepherd the many Jewish-Christians who did not feel the need to leave.

Stephen’s death was not in vain; nor was the persecution that followed, for thanks to those awful circumstances, the Gospel was carried far beyond the confines of Jerusalem, in fulfillment of Jesus’ mandate to take it to the whole world. Without Stephen’s martyrdom and subsequent persecution, who knows how long it would have taken the church grow out of Jerusalem?

The driving force behind this persecution of the Jewish-Christians was a young man named Saul. The death of Stephen infuriated him:

But Saul began to destroy the church. Going from house to house, he dragged off both men and women and put them in prison. (verse 3)

The Greek word behind “destroy” is rare and seen only here in the New Testament; it is a violent word and was used to describe the actions of a wild boar tearing up a vineyard. Saul was not content with arresting these Christians in public, he went into their homes and dragged them out. Saul was a busy man prior to his own conversion. Though not a verse in Scripture, this whole incident proves the veracity of William Cowper’s powerful hymn: God moves in a mysterious way!

2. Philip in Samaria, 8:5—8

Philip went down to a city in Samaria and proclaimed the Messiah there. (verse 5)

The Philip who went proclaiming Jesus Christ in Samaria was not Philip the apostle, but Philip, the deacon. Here was a man who was originally ordained to make sure the needy widows of the Jerusalem church got their temporal needs met, yet he was also a powerful evangelist and preacher, who was making sure the Samaritans got their eternal need for salvation met! Any church could use several of these Philips! Even though he was one of the first deacons ever, this mighty man of God has the distinction of being forever known as “the first evangelist” (Acts 21:8).

Technically, nobody ever “went down” to Samaria since it was north of Jerusalem. But in the Jewish mind, one always “went up” to Jerusalem” and “down” to any other place. It makes perfect sense that the first missionary effort would start in a place like Samaria; it was a “halfway house” between Judaism and the Gentile world (MacGregor). Excluded from the Word of God within Judaism, they were not excluded from the Word of God found in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. His Gospel was and is universal in scope; the Word of God is for all people.

Apparently these fine people hung on Philip’s every word, just as the crowd in Jerusalem hung on Peter’s every word when he preached after Pentecost. And just as the apostles performed signs and wonders as they preached, Philip did as well, and he wowed the crowd.

When the crowds heard Philip and saw the signs he performed, they all paid close attention to what he said. (verse 6)

The way this sentence is worded in the Greek, it seems as though Philip kept on preaching and kept on working signs and wonders all the while the people listened to him. Through the preaching of the Gospel and the evidence of divine miracles, many Samaritans came to have faith in Jesus Christ.

Here we see Philip, like Peter and Stephen, exercising the “sign gifts” that were so common in the early church. Not all the early evangelists had them; it appears that only those in places of leadership, like the apostles, were able to work these various signs. These “sign gifts” had their day, and that day is past. After the apostolic age, the “sign gifts” ceased. This is not a denial of the supernatural, nor is it a denial that God is able to heal the sick or free the demon possessed today. When the canon of Scripture was complete and established, the credentials of a genuine minister of God became correct doctrine, not the ability to work “signs and wonders.”

Verse 8 is short but profound:

So there was great joy in that city.

Joy” is one of the supernatural fruits of the Spirit (see Galatians 5:22), which Christians can’t help but manifest when they first come to know Jesus Christ. Obviously, many Samaritans found Jesus under Philip’s ministry!

3. Simon the Sorcerer, 8:9—13

Satan’s number one goal is to stop the work of the Church of Jesus Christ any way he can. In Jerusalem, the Devil’s opposition to the church came in the forms of deceit (Ananias and Sapphira), the imprisonment of the apostles, the death of Stephen, and finally the persecution of many Jewish-Christians. In Samaria, Satan used a different kind of strategy to hinder the work of Philip and the great move of God. He used a man by the name of Simon, who was known to be a sorcerer in Samaria.

Apparently Simon was very well-known, for we read this:

They followed him because he had amazed them for a long time with his sorcery. (verse 11)

Was Simon a master of sleight of hand? Or was he able to perform genuine magic deeds because he was enabled to do so by Satan? Opinion varies on this. This kind of witchcraft and practice of the black arts posed a real threat to the early church, whether the so-called magic arts were real or merely tricks. Magic arts run contrary to the law of God and are routinely condemned in Scripture.

Simon the sorcerer was a popular figure in and around Samaria, and had an ego to match has talents. But as popular as he was the people, he could in no way compete with the Word of God and with the manifest power of God, so many who followed Simon now followed Jesus Christ. Simon’s response is noted in verse 13:

Simon himself believed and was baptized. And he followed Philip everywhere, astonished by the great signs and miracles he saw.

The inevitable question is raised: Did Simon become a genuine Christian? There are many kinds of beliefs, but only one kind of belief will result in salvation. It is possible to accept and believe many historical facts about Jesus Christ yet not be born again. It is possible to have a great knowledge about all things concerning Jesus Christ yet that does not make Him your Savior. The Samaritans heard the Word of the Lord, placed their faith in Christ and were baptized into the faith. Simon listened, believed many things Philip said, was impressed with the signs and wonders, and was even baptized. That, however, does not mean he was genuinely repentant.

There are many people in the church today like Simon. They have given mental assent to the doctrines of God, have a measure of faith, but have never faced their sins, owned them, confessed them, and repented of them before God. They, like Simon, want a place in the Christian community. However, anybody depending on church membership or the fact that they have been baptized to get them into heaven will be sadly disappointed, just as Simon was.

4. The Samaritan Pentecost, 8:14—17

When the apostles in Jerusalem heard that Samaria had accepted the word of God, they sent Peter and John to Samaria. (verse 14)

Why did the apostles feel the need to go to Samaria? Did Philip’s work there need their “stamp of approval?” Did Philip lack the gift of the Holy Spirit? Understanding why this happened the way it did, is as simple as understanding Jesus’ command to the His followers at His Ascension:

But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. (Acts 1:8)

The growth of the church would be like the ever-widening ripples we see when we throw a stone into the water. It all started in Jerusalem and rippled out from there. The Spirit was poured out on the believers in Jerusalem and the church began to grow in earnest. When it reached Samaria under Philip’s ministry, the apostles came down from Jerusalem to welcome the new believers into the common church. Once there, God bound the Jewish-Christians and the Samaritan-Christians together as one. When the Spirit fell in Samaria, the wall of separation between Jew and Samaritan was broken down. It was vital for the apostles to see this, to be present when the Spirit fell, and it was vital for the Samaritans to have the apostles with them during this momentous event.

This narrative in Acts is significant. It shows, first, that the baptism of the Holy Spirit is an event subsequent to salvation. We know that upon conversion, all believers receive the Holy Spirit, so assuming the Samaritans were genuinely born again, then the Holy Spirit was actually dwelling in them. When the text says that the Samaritans “received the Holy Spirit” when the apostles laid hands on them and prayed, clearly something else is meant. It seems from what follows that “receiving the Holy Spirit” here refers to receiving the “gifts of the Holy Spirit.”  Since Simon saw something after the Spirit fell, it would seem the the new believers began to manifest some of the miraculous gifts of the Spirit. Though tongues is not mentioned, that is one possibility.

Second, why did Philip not lay hands on the new Samaritan believers and baptize them in the Holy Spirit? Why did he wait for the apostles from Jerusalem to do that? The answer is likely that it was necessary to establish the unity of the Church at the very beginning. There was to be only ONE church, not a whole series of independent “movements” or “revivals” all over the land. It had to be clear to all involved that regardless of culture or language, there was only ONE church.

5. Simon’s heart revealed, 8:18—24

When Simon saw that the Spirit was given at the laying on of the apostles’ hands, he offered them money and said, “Give me also this ability so that everyone on whom I lay my hands may receive the Holy Spirit.” (verses 18, 19)

Simony” is a word the sprang this this very incident. It means the buying or selling of church offices or authority. Simon’s response to God’s presence and the gifts of the Spirit is truly tragic story. We learn many lessons from this story, not the least of which is that whenever God moves and is at work in people, there are not only genuine responses but also counterfeit ones. Luke indicates that “Simon believed” and that he was “baptized.” These are matters of fact; Luke simply reported the facts. Matters of the heart are not always so easily discerned, but eventually a person’s heart will always be revealed for all to see.

No spiritual blessing can ever be bought, neither with money nor with tears. A gift is given at the discretion of the one giving it. If that person has to be bribed or manipulated into giving it, then it’s not a gift.

Peter’s response is terse:

May your money perish with you, because you thought you could buy the gift of God with money! You have no part or share in this ministry, because your heart is not right before God. Repent of this wickedness and pray to the Lord in the hope that he may forgive you for having such a thought in your heart. For I see that you are full of bitterness and captive to sin.” (verses 20—23)

Peter was not pronouncing a curse on Simon, he simply speaking to him with the authority given him by the Spirit, and possibly exercising a gift of the Spirit, like the word of knowledge. Simon was completely unfit for any kind of ministry because his heart was not right. In his rebuke of the sorcerer, Peter actually quotes from Psalm 78:37—

their hearts were not loyal to him, they were not faithful to his covenant.

The psalmist was recording the unfaithfulness of the rebellious Israelites who died in the desert. Peter was given the ability to see into Simon’s heart, and he saw that Simon had the same problem as those ancient Israelites had. Simon was not serving God, he was serving himself. Obviously, Simon missed the whole point of Philip’s preaching! So Peter gave Simon another chance to get it right by urging him to repent and pray for forgiveness.

There are three interesting points in Peter’s dealing with Simon:

(1) Why did Peter give Simon a second chance but not Ananias and Sapphira? In the case of Ananias and Sapphira, they were Jewish-Christians who professed to know God and were filled with the Holy Spirit. They were genuine believers and had been taught by the apostles. They sinned against the Holy Spirit purposefully; they deceived Him and they tested Him. God took their lives as a measure to keep His church pure, and as a sign that He would not tolerate that kind of behavior from His people.

Simon, on the other hand, was a Samaritan who had a measure of belief but had never confessed faith in Christ. He had not received the Holy Spirit and sinned in ignorance because he was still in bondage to his sin. Simon did not sin against the Holy Spirit, he simply did what all unrepentant people do. Peter was stern with Simon, yet offered him a chance to make things right.

(2) Peter urged Simon to ask God for forgiveness. Notice how Peter phrased this:

Repent of this wickedness and pray to the Lord in the hope that he may forgive you for having such a thought in your heart. (verse 22)

Was there a chance that He wouldn’t forgive Simon? No; God’s forgiveness of anybody’s sins is always conditional on them. A person must be willing to repent. Feeling sorry for your sins is not repenting of them. Being embarrassed that you got found out is not the same thing are repenting. Simon must take responsibility for the sin in his heart, stop trying to buy the gift of the Spirit and he must change the whole course of his life so that it lines up with God’s purpose for him.

(3) Finally, Peter urged Simon not to become bitter in any way. What would Simon have to be bitter about? Peter is actually alluding to various passages in the Old Testament where Moses warned the Israelites not to worship false gods and to avoid bitterness taking root among them (see Deuteronomy 29:18, for example). Moses taught that God could not forgive them of their sins if any of them were bitter.

How does all this relate to Simon? God wanted Simon, as He wants all people, to be free from all kinds of bitterness because when Christians are bitter they stifle the work of God in their lives and in their church. Bitterness is the opposite of joy, and believers are commanded to be joyful.

Did Simon take Peter’s advice to heart? It would seem so, although Luke gives no details beyond this:

Then Simon answered, “Pray to the Lord for me so that nothing you have said may happen to me.” (verse 24)

It’s marvelous how God deals with people on an individual basis; He never deals with two people in exactly the same way.  God created us, and He respects our “bent,” our temperaments and personalities.  He dealt with the Jews one way, the Samaritans another.  He dealt with rebellious Jewish believers one way, and an ignorant Samaritan another way.   But God is ever gracious and His will is always accomplished when we trust Him and submit to Him.

(c)  2011 WitzEnd
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