Samson’s riddle is here again unriddled: Out of the eater comes forth meat, and out of the strong sweetness. The persecution that was designed to extirpate the church was by the overruling providence of God made an occasion of the enlargement of it. Christ had said, I am come to send fire on the earth; and they thought, by scattering those who were kindled with that fire, to have put it out, but instead of this they did but help to spread it.
I. Here is a general account of what was done by them all (Acts 8:4): They went every where, preaching the word. They did not go to hide themselves for fear of suffering, no, nor to show themselves as proud of their sufferings; but they went up and down to scatter the knowledge of Christ in every place where they were scattered. They went every where, into the way of the Gentiles, and the cities of the Samaritans, which before they were forbidden to go into, Matt. 10:5. They did not keep together in a body, though this might have been a strength to them; but they scattered into all parts, not to take their ease, but to find out work. They went evangelizing the world, preaching the word of the gospel; it was this which filled them, and which they endeavoured to fill the country with, those of them that were preachers in their preaching, and others in their common converse. They were now in a country where they were no strangers, for Christ and his disciples had conversed much in the regions of Judea; so that they had a foundation laid there for them to build upon; and it would be requisite to let the people there know what that doctrine which Jesus had preached there some time ago was come to, and that it was not lost and forgotten, as perhaps they were made to believe.
II. A particular account of what was done by Philip. We shall hear of the progress and success of others of them afterwards (Acts 11:19), but here must attend the motions of Philip, not Philip the apostle, but Philip the deacon, who was chosen and ordained to serve tables, but having used the office of a deacon well he purchased to himself a good degree, and great boldness in the faith, 1 Tim. 3:13. Stephen was advanced to the degree of a martyr, Philip to the degree of an evangelist, which when he entered upon, being obliged by it to give himself to the word and prayer, he was, no doubt, discharged from the office of a deacon; for how could he serve tables at Jerusalem, which by that office he was obliged to do, when he was preaching in Samaria? And it is probable that two others were chosen in the room of Stephen and Philip. Now observe,
1. What wonderful success Philip had in his preaching, and what reception he met with.
(1.) The place he chose was the city of Samaria, the head city of Samaria, the metropolis of that country, which stood where the city of Samaria had formerly stood, of the building of which we read, 1 Kgs. 16:24; now called Sebaste. Some think it was the same with Sychem or Sychar, that city of Samaria where Christ was, John 4:5. Many of that city then believed in Christ, though he did no miracle among them (v. 39, 41), and now Philip, three years after, carries on the work then begun. The Jews would have no dealings with the Samaritans; but Christ sent his gospel to slay all enmities, and particularly that between the Jews and the Samaritans, by making them one in his church.
(2.) The doctrine he preached was Christ; for he determined to know nothing else. He preached Christ to them; he proclaimed Christ to them (so the word signifies), as a king, when he comes to the crown, is proclaimed throughout his dominions. The Samaritans had an expectation of the Messiah’s coming, as appears by John 4:25. Now Philip tells them that he is come, and that the Samaritans are welcome to him. Ministers’ business is to preach Christ—Christ, and him crucified—Christ, and him glorified.
(3.) The proofs he produced for the confirmation of his doctrine were miracles, Acts 8:6. To convince them that he had his commission from heaven (and therefore not only they might venture upon what he said, but they were bound to yield to it), he shows them this broad seal of heaven annexed to it, which the God of truth would never put to a lie. The miracles were undeniable; they heard and saw the miracles which he did. They heard the commanding words he spoke, and saw the amazing effects of them immediately; that he spoke, and it was done. And the nature of the miracles was such as suited the intention of his commission, and gave light and lustre to it. [1.] He was sent to break the power of Satan; and, in token of this, unclean spirits, being charged in the name of the Lord Jesus to remove, came out of many that were possessed with them, Acts 8:7. As far as the gospel prevails, Satan is forced to quit his hold of men and his interest in them, and then those are restored to themselves, and to their right mind again, who, while he kept possession, were distracted. Wherever the gospel gains the admission and submission it ought to have, evil spirits are dislodged, and particularly unclean spirits, all inclinations to the lusts of the flesh, which war against the soul; for God has called us from uncleanness to holiness, 1 Thess. 4:7. This was signified by the casting of these unclean spirits out of the bodies of people, who, it is here said, came out crying with a loud voice, which signifies that they came out with great reluctancy, and sorely against their wills, but were forced to acknowledge themselves overcome by a superior power, Mark 1:26; 3:11; 9:26. [2.] He was sent to heal the minds of men, to cure a distempered world, and to put it in to a good state of health; and, in token of this, many that were taken with palsies, and that were lame, were healed. Those distempers are specified that were most difficult to be cured by the course of nature (that the miraculous cure might be the more illustrious), and those that were most expressive of the disease of sin and that moral impotency which the souls of men labour under as to the service of God. The grace of God in the gospel is designed for the healing of those that are spiritually lame and paralytic, and cannot help themselves, Rom. 5:6.
(4.) The acceptance which Philip’s doctrine, thus proved, met with in Samaria (Acts 8:6): The people with one accord gave heed to those things which Philip spoke, induced thereto by the miracles which served at first to gain attention, and so by degrees to gain assent. There then begin to be some hopes of people when they begin to take notice of what is said to them concerning the things of their souls and eternity—when they begin to give heed to the word of God, as those that are well pleased to hear it, desirous to understand and remember it, and that look upon themselves as concerned in it. The common people gave heed to Philip, oi ochloi—a multitude of them, not here and there one, but with one accord; they were all of a mind, that it was fit the doctrine of the gospel should be enquired into, and an impartial hearing given to it.
(5.) The satisfaction they had in attending on, and attending to, Philip’s preaching, and the success it had with many of them (Acts 8:8): There was great joy in that city; for (Acts 8:12) they believed Philip, and were baptized into the faith of Christ, the generality of them, both men and women. Observe, [1.] Philip preached the things concerning the kingdom of God, the constitution of that kingdom, the laws and ordinances of it, the liberties and privileges of it, and the obligations we are all under to be the loyal subjects of that kingdom; and he preached the name of Jesus Christ, as king of that kingdom—his name, which is above every name. He preached it up in its commanding power and influence—all that by which he has made himself known. [2.] The people not only gave heed to what he said, but at length believed it, were fully convinced that it was of God and not of men, and gave up themselves to the direction and government of it. As to this mountain, on which they had hitherto worshipped God, and placed a great deal of religion in it, they were now as much weaned from it as every they had been wedded to it, and become the true worshippers, who worship the Father in spirit and in truth, and in the name of Christ, the true temple, John 4:20-23. [3.] When they believed, without scruple (though they were Samaritans) and without delay they were baptized, openly professed the Christian faith, promised to adhere to it, and then, by washing them with water, were solemnly admitted into the communion of the Christian church, and owned as brethren by the disciples. Men only were capable of being admitted into the Jewish church by circumcision; but, to show that in Jesus Christ there is neither male nor female (Gal. 3:28), but both are alike welcome to him, the initiating ordinance is such as women are capable of, for they are numbered with God’s spiritual Israel, though not with Israel according to the flesh, Num. 1:2. And hence it is easily gathered that women are to be admitted to the Lord’s supper, though it does not appear that there were any among those to whom it was first administered. [4.] This occasioned great joy; each one rejoiced for himself, as he in the parable who found the treasure hid in the field; and they all rejoiced for the benefit hereby brought to their city, and that it came without opposition, which it would scarcely have done if Samaria had been within the jurisdiction of the chief priests. Note, The bringing of the gospel to any place is just matter of joy, of great joy, to that place. Hence the spreading of the gospel in the world is often prophesied of in the Old Testament as the diffusing of joy among the nations: Let the nations be glad and sing for joy, Ps. 67:4; 1 Thess. 1:6. The gospel of Christ does not make men melancholy, but fills them with joy, if it be received as it should be; for it is glad tidings of great joy to all people, Luke 2:10.
2. What there was in particular at this city of Samaria that made the success of the gospel there more than ordinarily wonderful.
(1.) That Simon Magus had been busy there, and had gained a great interest among the people, and yet they believed the things that Philip spoke. To unlearn that which is bad proves many times a harder task than to learn that which is good. These Samaritans, though they were not idolaters as the Gentiles, nor prejudiced against the gospel by traditions received from their fathers, yet had of late been drawn to follow Simon, a conjurer (For so Magus signifies) who made a mighty noise among them, and had strangely bewitched them. We are told,
[1.] How strong the delusion of Satan was by which they were brought into the interests of this great deceiver. He had been for some time, nay, for a long time, in this city, using sorceries; perhaps he came there by the instigation of the devil, soon after our Saviour had been there, to undo what he had been doing there; for it was always Satan’s way to crush a good work in its bud and infancy, 2 Cor. 11:3; 1 Thess. 3:5. Now,
First, Simon assumed to himself that which was considerable: He gave out that he himself was some great one, and would have all people to believe so and to pay him respect accordingly; and then, as to every thing else, they might do as they pleased. He had no design to reform their lives, nor improve their worship and devotion, only to make them believe that he was, tis megas—some divine person. Justin Martyr says that he would be worshipped as proton theon—the chief god. He gave out himself to be the Son of God, the Messiah, so some think; or to be an angel, or a prophet. Perhaps he was uncertain within himself what title of honour to pretend to; but he would be thought some great one. Pride, ambition, and an affectation of grandeur, have always been the cause of abundance of mischief both to the world and to the church.
Secondly, The people ascribed to him what he pleased. 1. They all gave heed to him, from the least to the greatest, both young and old, both poor and rich, both governors and governed. To him they had regard (Acts 8:10, 11), and perhaps the more because the time fixed for the coming of the Messiah had now expired, which had raised a general expectation of the appearing of some great one about this time. Probably he was a native of their country, and therefore they embraced him the more cheerfully, that by giving honour to him they might reflect it upon themselves. 2. They said of him, This man is the great power of God—the power of God, that great power (so it might be read), that power which made the world. See how ignorant inconsiderate people mistake that which is done by the power of Satan, as if it were done by the power of God. Thus, in the Gentile world, devils pass for deities; and in the antichristian kingdom all the world wonders after a beast, to whom the dragon gives his power, and who opens his mouth in blasphemy against God, Rev. 13:2-5. 3. They were brought to it by his sorceries: He bewitched the people of Samaria (Acts 8:9), bewitched them with sorceries (Acts 8:11), that is, either, (1.) By his magic arts he bewitched the minds of the people, at least some of them, who drew in others. Satan, by God’s permission, filled their hearts to follow Simon. O foolish Galatians, saith Paul, who hath bewitched you? Gal. 3:1. These people are said to be bewitched by Simon, because they were so strangely infatuated to believe a lie. Or, (2.) By his magic arts he did many signs and lying wonders, which seemed to be miracles, but really were not so: like those of the magicians of Egypt, and those of the man of sin, 2 Thess. 2:9. When they knew no better, they were influenced by his sorceries; but, when they were acquainted with Philip’s real miracles, they saw plainly that the one was real and the other a sham, and that there was as much difference as between Aaron’s rod and those of the magicians. What is the chaff to the wheat? Jer. 23:28.
Thus, notwithstanding the influence Simon Magus had had upon them, and the unwillingness there generally is in people to own themselves in an error, and to retract it, yet, when they saw the difference between Simon and Philip, they quitted Simon, gave heed no longer to him, but to Philip: and thus you see,
[2.] How strong the power of Divine grace is, by which they were brought to Christ, who is truth itself, and was, as I may say, the great undeceiver. By that grace working with the word those that had been led captive by Satan were brought into obedience to Christ. Where Satan, as a strong man armed, kept possession of the palace, and thought himself safe, Christ, as a stronger than he, dispossessed him, and divided the spoil; led captivity captive, and made those the trophies of his victory whom the devil had triumphed over. Let us not despair of the worst, when even those whom Simon Magus had bewitched were brought to believe.
(2.) Here is another thing yet more wonderful, that Simon Magus himself became a convert to the faith of Christ, in show and profession, for a time. Isa. Saul also among the prophets? Yes (Acts 8:13), Simon himself believed also. He was convinced that Philip preached a true doctrine, because he saw it confirmed by real miracles, of which he was the better able to judge because he was conscious to himself of the trick of his own pretended ones. [1.] The present conviction went so far that he was baptized, was admitted, as other believers were, into the church by baptism; and we have no reason to think that Philip did amiss in baptizing him, no, nor in baptizing him quickly. Though he had been a very wicked man, a sorcerer, a pretender to divine honours, yet, upon his solemn profession of repentance for his sin and faith in Jesus Christ, he was baptized. For, as great wickedness before conversion keeps not true penitents from the benefits of God’s grace, so neither should it keep professing ones from church-fellowship. Prodigals, when they return, must be joyfully welcomed home, though we cannot be sure but that they will play the prodigal again. Nay, though he was now but a hypocrite, and really in the gall of bitterness and bond of iniquity all this while, and would soon have been found to be so if he had been tried awhile, yet Philip baptized him; for it is God’s prerogative to know the heart. The church and its ministers must go by a judgment of charity, as far as there is room for it. It is a maxim in the law, Donec contrarium patet, semper praesumitur meliori parti—We must hope the best as long as we can. And it is a maxim in the discipline of the church, Deut. secretis non judicat ecclesia—The secrets of the heart God only judges. [2.] The present conviction lasted so long that he continued with Philip. Though afterwards he apostatized from Christianity, yet not quickly. He courted Philip’s acquaintance, and now he that had given out himself to be some great one is content to sit at the feet of a preacher of the gospel. Even bad men, very bad, may sometimes be in a good frame, very good; and those whose hearts still go after their covetousness may possibly not only come before God as his people come, but continue with them. [3.] The present conviction was wrought and kept up by the miracles; he wondered to see himself so far outdone in signs and miracles. Many wonder at the proofs of divine truths who never experience the power of them.