Acts 8 - IVP New Testament Commentaries

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Samaria Responds to the Gospel

The tarot cards of psychic readers, the crystals of New Age devotees and the amulets of a witch doctor are common in many societies today. Many are following magic to find the power to cope with life.

As the church advances across another cultural threshold, from Hellenistic Jew to half-breed Samaritan (compare Acts 1:8--"in all Judea and Samaria"), it encounters a society steeped in occult magic and syncretistic religious practice. It learns through its missionaries, who must also be theologians, that the power of the gospel is not magic and cannot be bought. In the process it discovers again the true power of the gospel.The Gospel's Power Is Superior to Magic (8:5-13)

Philip, another member of the seven (6:5), undertakes a mission to Samaria. Was the Samaritan city he evangelized Gitta--Simon Magus's home according to Justin Martyr, who himself hailed from the region (Apology 1.26)--or Samaria's religious center, Shechem--which was also the site of some of John the Baptist's and Jesus' ministry (Jn 3:23; 4:4-42; Bruce 1988:165; Lake and Cadbury 1979:89)? Luke does not tell us.

The syncretism and the mixed race of the post-Assyrian-exile Samaritans (2 Kings 17:24-41), together with the reciprocal reprisals against both Mt. Gerizim and Jerusalem worship centers in intertestamental times (Josephus Jewish Antiquities 13.255-58; 18.29), so heightened prejudice and animosity between Jew and Samaritan that the best that could be said for their relations in the first century was "Jews do not associate with Samaritans" (Jn 4:9).

Instead of the Davidic Messiah, the Samaritans looked forward to the coming of the taheb, "the restorer" (Deut 18:18), a herald of the last day--a day of final judgment, of vengeance and reward, when the temple of Gerizim would be restored, the sacrifices reinstated and the heathen converted (R. T. Anderson 1988:307). What Theophilus and we know about Samaritans from Luke's writings is a mixed picture that on balance is positive (Lk 9:52-56; 10:29-37; 17:11-19).

Philip "preaches" (4:18-19/Is 61:1-2; Lk 24:47) the Christ in whose person the kingdom of God has come and by whose name it spreads. God accompanies this announcement with signs of healing (compare Acts 4:16, 22, 30; 5:12; 6:8; interestingly, signs are mentioned only two more times in Acts at 14:3; 15:12). In enemy territory, where false worship is practiced, it is not surprising that one encounters the spiritual powers behind such worship: evil spirits (NIV puts the literal rendering, unclean, in the margin; they are ritually unclean and make those whom they possess ritually unclean).

God in his mercy does signs of his kingdom's advance in syncretistic Samaria, granting release through the herald of his liberating gospel. And tokens of the coming messianic age appear as well, when Philip heals the paralyzed and the lame (Is 35:3, 6; compare Lk 7:22; 5:24-25; Acts 9:33-34). No wonder the people paid close attention (prosecho may even have the sense "to attend to, i.e., to believe and act on"--compare 16:14--Lake and Cadbury 1979:89; but Haenchen 1971:302 doubts it).

And there is much joy (8:8; compare 8:39; 13:48, 52). They have been looking for a taheb, "restorer," who will herald the day; now they meet a herald who preaches that the restorer has already come and signs of that restoration can be experienced even now.

The nature of this first-time advance of the gospel across the cultural threshold to Samaria may primarily account for the signs' presence. But the fact that Philip faces a situation of spiritual encounter not unlike what pioneer church planters among unreached peoples face today should encourage us to expect the powerful working of the gospel in these situations as well.

Simon is described by Luke as practicing magical arts with the effect that the whole population of Samaria, regardless of social standing, has been for a long time held in his sway, completely astonished at his power (8:9, 11; compare 2:7, 12; Philo De Specialibus Legibus 3.100-103; Plato Laws 909A-B; Josephus Jewish Antiquities 20.142; Delling 1967:356-59). Simon capitalized on their attention and presented himself as the embodiment of the occult power. He received praise as if he were an angelic or divine supernatural being: "This is the power of God, [the power] that is called `Great' " (NIV has smoothed over the syntax but in the process has altered the second title).

The Samaritans believe the gospel of the reign of God in the powerful name of Jesus and are baptized. Simon believes, is baptized and devotes himself to Philip. The one who amazed the Samaritans (8:9, 11) is now himself continually amazed at Philip's signs and great miracles (compare the title in 8:10).

And today when God chooses to do signs and wonders through his servants as his church advances, the immediate "quantitative" effect, amazement, may be expressed in outward profession of belief and even baptism. But if the signs and wonders, when combined with the Spirit-empowered preaching of the word of salvation, do not have a "qualitative" effect, regeneration, then the convert will adopt a syncretized Christianity. Jesus will be no more than a magical name, though the most powerful one. What makes the difference is repentance from a magical mindset through an affirmation of the sovereign power of God, who grants salvation blessings when and where he will. We must affirm that it is not the power of miracle, so easily seen in our unregenerate mindset as magic, that saves us, but the power of the Word of God which by the Spirit we receive, believe and follow and so are liberated (Krodel 1986:165; Lk 16:29-31; Jn 2:23-25).The Gospel's Power Includes All and Cannot Be Bought (8:14-25)

News reaches the apostles in Jerusalem that Samaria has accepted the word of God (compare Lk 8:13; Acts 11:1; 17:11). The apostles send two of their number, Peter and John, to Samaria. When they arrive, they discover that the gift of the Holy Spirit has not been given. They immediately pray to the Lord (compare Lk 11:13) that the Spirit may fall on the Samaritan believers. As they lay hands on them, the Samaritan believers receive the Holy Spirit.

The clear teaching of the apostles and their customary practice is that the giving of the Spirit is a birthright of every Christian, received at conversion (Acts 2:38; 1 Cor 12:3, 13). Acts gives no consistent pattern for a second-stage giving of the Spirit by apostolic laying on of hands, as Roman and Anglo Catholic teaching on confirmation would assert, or with extraordinary manifestations such as prophesying and speaking in tongues, as Pentecostal and charismatic teaching on baptism with the Spirit would contend (Acts 8:14-17; 10:44-48; 16:31-34; 19:1-6). Therefore the Samaria experience must be viewed as extraordinary, not normative.

But why does God sovereignly delay the coming of the Spirit in this case? In order to preserve the unity of the church and the integrity of the church's crosscultural mission to all nations in the face of the inbred animosity between Jew and Samaritan. If God had not withheld his Spirit until the Jerusalem apostles came, converts on both sides of the cultural barrier might have found Christ without finding each other. Neither Samaritan nor Jewish Christians would have been assured that the Samaritans were truly regenerate and the spiritual equals of regenerate Jews (compare Acts 15:8-11). What Luke teaches us, then, is that the unity of the church and the unhindered advance of its mission into all cultures is so important to God that he will delay giving to a converted people what is their birthright, the salvation blessing of the Spirit, in order to ensure that these realities will be fully preserved. So the church today should deal with the matter of the Spirit's coming from the same standpoint.

When Simon sees the technique and the office involved in the granting of the Spirit, he makes a syncretizing request. He brings the apostles money and asks for "authority" (NIV is less exact with ability) to grant the Holy Spirit to whomever he lays hands on. What Simon is seeking to purchase is an office, a priesthood subordinate to that of the apostles. Purchasing a priesthood was not uncommon in the ancient world, even in Israel (Suppl. Epigr. Gr. IV 516B-, cited in Derrett 1982:61; 2 Maccabees 4:7-10). It reflects the typically idolatrous and pagan understanding of the way to acquire supernatural power that one would then control (Derrett 1982:61-63).

Peter's condemnatory reply tells Simon the truth about what God thinks of his request and what that request reveals about Simon's spiritual condition. In a "curse formula," ironically similar to those found in pagan magical papyri (Haenchen 1971:304), Peter places both Simon and his money under a ban, consigning both to eternal destruction (compare Josh 6:17-18; 7:13-15). His rationale is Simon's presumption that he could obtain the gift of God through money (compare Acts 2:38; 10:45; 11:17). To pay money for God's power violates its essential nature as the gift of a sovereign God who always has the receiver in his control and is not controlled by any human (Derrett 1982:62). But worse, such an approach reveals one has not left the "authority of Satan" (see 26:18).

Peter declares Simon unregenerate. He has no part or share. For Luke this can refer to either salvation (26:18) or ministry (1:17). Peter's further references to a heart . . . not right before God (8:21) and being full of bitterness and captive to sin (8:23), as well as his call to repentance (8:22), which the early church normally addresses to the unregenerate (Lk 24:47; Acts 2:38; 3:19; 17:30; 26:20), and the earlier mention of destruction (8:20), all support the view that Simon is not regenerate.

Peter's remedy is repentance from the wicked disposition and the evil stratagem it generated. Simon must pray to the Lord for release--forgiveness--of the sin that now holds him in bondage to unrighteousness (compare Is 58:6, 9). His continuing syncretizing thought, which is no different from continued participation in idolatrous false worship, can issue in no other result than the bitter fruit of final destruction (Deut 29:18).

The uncertainty in Peter's promise of forgiveness is based not on doubts about God's ability but on a recognition of Simon's current disposition of heart. Simon's request was so presumptuous that to promise certain forgiveness would allow him to continue in the mindset that God's free grace is indeed cheap grace. Simon's repentance must cast him totally on the mercy of God. He must not even presume to immediately appropriate God's promised forgiveness to himself. Peter may also be warning Simon of the seriousness of his lost condition. Humanly speaking, there is no way that he can, and therefore that he necessarily will, extricate himself from this captivity to sin.

It is uncertain whether Simon's request for the apostles' intercession is a sign of true repentance. Is he sensing the seriousness of the sin and asking the apostles to join in intercession? In humility does he feel so incapable of praying or so distrustful of his own prayers that he must ask for the intercession of others? Or do the content of his request--to be spared the consequences of his sin--and the very fact that he asks others to intercede indicate that here is remorse and not true repentance (Williams 1985:143)? What is clear is that the apostles conclude their mission to Samaria with the preaching of the gospel, including a warning about the consequences of not embracing the gospel wholeheartedly (compare Acts 2:40; 10:42).

In our day some nominal Christians have syncretized their faith with cultural religious ways. They may be Christopagans in Two-Thirds World traditional societies or practitioners of Western spirituality accommodating consciously or unconsciously to postmodern New Age thinking. Like Simon, they must realize the seriousness of their condition. Those who think they have "the best of both worlds" must repent, or in the age to come they will experience the worst of all possible worlds.

Next commentary:
Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch

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