In this essay we are studying 8:1b 24, which launches us into the record of the apostles’ witness in Judea and Samaria. On “that day,” meaning the day of Stephen’s execution, “a severe persecution began against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout the countryside of Judea and Samaria.” Ironically, the persecution forced the fulfillment of the second part of Jesus’ prophecy that the disciples would be his witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8).
The reason why the Twelve decided to go underground in Jerusalem, rather than go out into Judea and Samaria, is unknown. It appears that they wanted to keep the leadership of the movement together for a time, but we don’t know why. Some have suggested that the persecution was only against Hellenist Christians, but the only evidence for that is the fact that Stephen and Philip were Hellenists. Furthermore, Luke tells us that the persecution was against the church in Jerusalem, not against a part of the church.
Verse two tells us that “devout men” buried Stephen. Scholars have debated whether these “devout men” were Jews or Christians, or both. It doesn’t seem to me to be a critical question; but the fact that they made “loud lamentation” for him may indicate that they probably were Christians.
Somehow the death of Stephen sparked the already-mentioned persecution by the Jewish leadership against Christians. And Saul of Tarsus emerged as the leader of the persecution. He stopped at nothing. According to Gal. 1:14, he was more zealous than anyone for the traditions of his ancestors. And he believed that Christianity threatened those traditions. So he obtained the authority to enter the Christians’ homes and drag them off to prison. He who had approved of Stephen’s stoning now began to ravage the church. Thus the martyrdom of Stephen led to the persecution of the church, which as we will soon see, led to widespread evangelism. In other words, the scattering of the Christians into Judea and Samaria became a scattering of the seed of the gospel in those places.
In verses 4-8 we see that Philip, like Stephen, was a member of the seven deacons who had been chosen to supervise the distribution to the widows. When the church was scattered, Philip made his way to Samaria. His ministry there is remarkable in several ways. First of all, Jews and Samaritans hated each other. The enmity went all the way back to the tenth century BC, following the death of Solomon, when the ten northern tribes broke away from the two in the south (Judah and Benjamin) and made Samaria their capital. Over the intervening centuries, the Assyrians conquered the Samaritans and moved many Jews out of the region and many foreigners into it. Therefore the Samaritans became a mixed race. They also built their own temple on Mt. Gerizim and rejected the Hebrew Scriptures, except for the Pentateuch. Thus from the Jews’ point of view the Samaritans were impure racially and religiously. And they hated them.
Notice what Philip’s ministry consisted of. First, he preached the word, which Luke says they all were doing (v. 4). Second, he preached the Messiah (v. 5). In other words, he preached Jesus as the Christ. Third, he cast out demons. And fourth, he healed those who were paralyzed or lame. Many Samaritans believed the message and were filled with rejoicing.
Notice once again the careful distinction between the casting out of spirits and physical illnesses. The New Testament is consistent in this. The two never are confused. Notice also that miracle working was not limited to the apostles. And the miracles are called signs. In Jesus’ ministry, the miracles were messianic signs that demonstrated his status as the Messiah. In the church’s ministry the miracles were essentially the same. They demonstrated the validity of the preaching about the Messiah.
Verses 9-10 tell us that when Philip came to Samaria, a man named Simon was practicing magic there. In addition to his magic arts, Simon bragged that he was someone special. The Samaritans believed him and declared, “This man is the power of God that is called Great” (v. 10). Thus he frequently is called Simon Magus (Simon the Great).
Scholars are uncertain what the people of Samaria meant by declaring Simon “the power of God that is called Great.” Some believe they meant that Simon was the Samaritan Messiah. But whatever the case, when Simon saw Philip’s miracles, he realized that they went far beyond his own magic. Therefore Simon himself believed Philip’s message, and like many other Samaritans was baptized (v. 12). Then Simon followed Philip around, continuing to be amazed at Philip’s ministry (v. 13).
Christian scholars debate whether or not Simon’s conversion was real, primarily because in the next section, in verse 21, Peter declares to Simon, “your heart is not right before God.” But we will deal with that momentarily. Another problem with Simon’s conversion is the fact that post apostolic writers suggest that Simon Magus was the founder of the heretical theology called Gnosticism. Gnostics believed that matter is evil and spirit is good. That single principle perverted several key Christian doctrines [creation, incarnation, resurrection, new earth, etc.]. Some also believe that Simon Magus was the founder of a Gnostic group called the Simonians that survived until the mid-third century. It was because of Simon that the word “simony” came into church language. Simony is the practice of buying and selling church offices that became common in the church at one time. Most evangelical scholars take a middle of the road approach to Simon Magus. Generally they believe that his conversion probably was sincere, but superficial.
Notice in verses 14-17 that the apostles in those early days saw it as their duty to supervise Christian work, no matter where it took place. And when they heard about the move of God in Samaria, they sent Peter and John to check it out. Now Luke’s account here in Acts of what happened is very sketchy. He informs us in verse 15 that Peter and John prayed for the Samaritans to receive the Holy Spirit, without telling us how they knew the Samaritans needed the Holy Spirit.
Furthermore, we know from the larger revelation of the New Testament that when one repents, believes in Jesus, and is baptized, one receives the Holy Spirit. That is, the Spirit comes in to dwell within the new Christian (Rom. 5:5; 8:9-11;; 1 Cor. 6:19; 12:3-13; Eph. 1:13; 4;30). Indeed Peter himself said on the day of Pentecost, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38, my emphasis). Therefore the “receiving” of the Spirit that the Samaritans did not have was not the gift of the Spirit that regenerates and justifies, but it was the infilling or baptism of the Spirit that cleanses from sin and empowers for ministry.
Verse 16 tells us that the Samaritans “had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus.” Most scholars believe that to be baptized into someone’s name means that the baptized one now belongs to the person into whose name he or she was baptized. The apostle Paul, when he was chastising the Corinthians for divisions in their church based on who their favorite preacher was, declared that he was thankful he had baptized only a few of the Corinthians, because he didn’t want people to say that they were baptized in the name of Paul (1 Cor. 1:11-15). In other words, Paul didn’t want people to think that they belonged to him because he had baptized them. So I’m convinced that the Samaritans were converted under Philip’s ministry. But they had not yet been filled with the Spirit.
Verse 17 tells us that Peter and John, when they prayed for the Samaritans for the fullness of the Spirit, laid hands on them. And they were filled. Once again, Luke’s account is quite sketchy. Not only was there no indication of how Peter and John knew that the Samaritans had not been filled with the Spirit when Peter and John arrived, Luke gives no indication of how Peter and John knew that the Samaritans were filled with the Spirit when the two apostles prayed for them. You will recall that on the day of Pentecost, the infilling of the Holy Spirit was strongly marked by speaking in tongues and a bold witness, neither of which is mentioned here. However, whatever happened when the apostles laid hands on the Samaritans so impressed Simon Magus that he tried to purchase the ability to do it.
Clearly the signs that accompanied the apostles’ prayer and laying on of hands appeared to Simon as powerful magic, and he wanted the power to reproduce them by the laying on of his hands. And he was willing to pay for the privilege. I’m sure Simon, whose conversion and commitment were quite shallow, was totally unprepared for the strong reaction he got from Peter, as recorded in verses 20-23. Simon was terror-stricken. He didn’t want the power he had seen demonstrated used in judgment against him (v. 24).