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The Conversion of the Samaritans in Acts 8:14-17 and the Unified Progress of the Gospel in the Book of Acts

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Have you ever wondered why the Samaritans did not receive the Spirit when they were baptized into the name of the Lord Jesus in Acts 8:16? The Spirit did not come—even though they believed Philip’s preaching (8:12-13)—until Peter and John came to see the Samaritans. The reason according to Luke’s narrative has to do with the the unified progress of the gospel and harmony within the early church. There is a great lesson for us American christians in this story.

Unity in the Giving of the Spirit

Luke’s presentation of the conversion of the Samaritans focuses on the issue of unity in the church in the face of possible schism along religious and ethnic lines.1 Philip was one of the twelve (Acts 1:13) as well as one of the seven (6:5), and having been scattered into Samaria because of the persecution instigated by Saul (8:1), he preached to the people there, though there is no mention of the twelve sanctioning the preaching (cf. 8:5).2 Now, it is a well known fact, according to John’s parenthetical comment in John 4:9, that there was no love lost between the Jews and Samaritans of the first century.3 In this context the divine withholding of the Spirit until the arrival of Peter and John, the two primary leaders in the Jerusalem church, is the Lord’s way of confirming to the apostles that He had indeed extended the invitation of the Spirit to the Samaritans and that there should be no division between the Jews and the Samaritans in the church, nor between Peter and John, and Philip.4 This is further evidenced by the Samaritan reception of the Spirit at the laying on of Peter’s and John’s hands (8:17). Longenecker explains the event in this way:

For the early church the evangelization of Samaria was not just a matter of an evangelist’s proclamation and people’s response. It also involved the acceptance of these new converts by the mother church in Jerusalem. So Luke takes pains to point out here that the Jerusalem church sought to satisfy itself as to the genuineness of Philip’s converts and that they did this by sending Peter and John to Samaria. Along with his thesis about development and advance in the outreach of the gospel, Luke is also interested in establishing lines of continuity and highlighting aspects of essential unity within the church. Therefore, in his account of Philip’s mission in Samaria, he tells also of the visit of Peter and John. Instead of minimizing Philip’s success in Samaria, as some have proposed, it is more likely that Luke wants us to understand Peter and John’s ministry in Samaria as confirming and extending Philip’s ministry (italics mine).5

There is a sustained focus on unity in the book of Acts. This unity begins with believers of different races (e.g., Jew, Gentile) having the same theological foundation. This is evident in the christological focus in Peter’s inaugural sermon (Acts 2:22-36) and Paul’s inaugural sermon to and Gentiles in Pisidian Antioch (Acts 13:16-41). Both argue that it is on the basis of Christ’s resurrection and exaltation to universal rulership that all men everywhere should repent and believe in Jesus. Thus there is only one “foundation of acceptance” for all men before God: It is Christ and his work interpreted in terms of the Davidic covenant (see 2 Sam 7:12-16; Ps 89).

There is also a practical unity developed in Acts between Peter and Paul. They are key examples within the church of people with different visions of ministry and are deliberately paralleled to demonstrate that the unified progress of the gospel is key to the church. These parallels may function at different levels, but they undoubtedly communicate a sense of unity between the mission that each was engaged in.6 Both Peter (3:1-10) and Paul (14:8-18) heal a certain man lame from birth. They both healed using unconventional methods which demonstrates that the power was not from them, but from God—the same God. In 5:15ff people “brought” (ejkfevrein) their “sick” (ajsqenei<") to Peter and they were “healed” (ejqerapeuvonto). In 19:12ff people “took” (ajpofevresqai) Paul’s “handkerchiefs or aprons” (soudavria h] simikivnqia) to “sick people” (ajsqenou<nta") and they were being “released” (ajpallavssesqai) from their diseases. In both cases Peter and Paul were able to deliver people from their demons (5:16; 19:12).

There is no need to discuss at length other examples, suffice it to simply mention them.7 First, Peter rebukes Ananias and Saphira who are struck dead for lying to the Holy Spirit (5:1-11) while Paul rebukes Elymas who is then blinded for perverting the ways of the Lord (13:8-11). Second, the building is shaken when Peter and the disciples were praying for success for God’s word (4:31) while the prison in Philippi was shaken when Paul and Silas were praying (16:25-26). Third, at Joppa, Peter restores to life Tabitha (9:36-43) while at Troas Paul restores to life Eutychus (20:7-12).


So, then, since the Spirit was given in the initial outworking of the church in a way that promoted unity in the face of the real threat of disunity, let us not as Christians, use him or his gifts in a way that incites disunity in the body. He is the one who baptizes us into one body (1 Cor 12:13) and the one who gifts us all uniquely for a wonderful blend of diversity (not individualism) within unity (not uniformity). We need to celebrate our unique contributions under the umbrella of the universal Lordship of Christ and a solid understanding of the truth as found in Scripture and our sanctified experience. God is the Master designer of the church. (The reader is encouraged to examine 1 Cor 12-14 with a special focus on chapter 12.)

1 It is not necessary to delve deeply into the debate over the precise ethnicity of the Samaritans, whether they were viewed by Luke as primarily Jewish or primarily Gentile. R. J. Coogins, “The Samaritans and Acts,” NTS 28 (1982): 433, argues that the distinction between Jew and Gentile as concerns the Samaritans in Acts is dubious. He says that “being neither Jew nor Gentile, they thus defy the attempts of those, both in the ancient and modern world, who wish to classify them neatly.” Earlier Jacob Jervell, Luke and the People of God: A New Look at Luke-Acts (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg, 1972), 123, argued that “there ought to be no doubt that Luke regards the Samaritans as Jews.” Witherington, Acts, 279-80, suggests that Luke viewed Samaria, insofar as the name is grouped with Judea in 1:8, as part of the holy land, and “at least most of its residents as some sort of Jews, though they are Jews on the fringes of Judaism.” Luke regarded them as ajllogenh`" meaning of another race and in the Jewish culture regarded as inferior to a Jew (17:18). For the Samaritans’ own fickle perspective on their relationship to the Judaism of the day, see Josephus, Ant. 9. 29. The point of our discussion is that Luke portrays the infiltration of Samaritans into the church might be regarded by some Jewish Christians as a potential threat.

2 Cf. Michael Gourges, “Esprit des commencements et Esprit des prolongements dans les Actes. Note sur la ‘Pentecote des Samaritains’ (Acts viii, 5-25),” RevBib 93 (1986): 379.

3 For a discussion of the historical background to the Samaritans and their relationship to the Jews of Jerusalem and the temple, see Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel according to John, The Anchor Bible, ed. William Foxwell Albright and David Noel Freedman, vol. 29a (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1966), 170.

4 See Tannehill, Acts, 2:104. He argues that the purpose for the coming of Peter and John is twofold: 1) for confirmation of Philip’s ministry and 2) for acceptance of non-Jews into the offer of salvation. He argues that “Philip’s mission does not become an independent mission, for the apostles quickly establish contact and help the Samaritans share in the Holy Spirit. The result is a cooperative mission in which an established church affirms and contributes to the establishment of new churches.” The focus on unity between the apostles is evident. Haenchen, Acts, 304, is surely incorrect when he asserts that “Philip’s success in the mission is minimized” in that the Spirit did not come until Peter and John laid hands on the Samaritans. The point of the narrative is to show the unified progress of the gospel. See also Hawthorne, “Holy Spirit,” 493.

5 Longenecker, “Acts,” 358. Cf. also Witherington, Acts, 287; Barrett, Acts, 1:412; Johnson, Acts, 148 and 107.

6 In a discussion of the parallels between Peter and Paul in Acts I am not in agreement with the Tübingen school which argued that Acts must therefore have been written sometime in the middle of the second century, as an attempt to conciliate divergent factions (i.e., Petrine and Pauline factions) within the church. See Stephen Neill and Tom Wright, The Interpretation of the New Testament: 1861-1986, 2d ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988), 20-29. Neill and Wright discuss Hegel’s influence on Baur and J. B. Lightfoot’s criticism of Baur’s method and conclusions. See also Edgar Krenz, The Historical-Critical Method (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1975), 25-28, and F. F. Bruce, “The History of New Testament Study,” in New Testament Interpretation: Essays on Principles and Methods, ed. I Howard Marshall (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1977), 42-43. We also disagree that because the narrative particulars in the parallels are quite close at times, that this necessarily contributes to the much larger mass of material which is alleged to demonstrate that the stories of Acts must ergo be fabrications of Luke. Regarding the much larger question of the “Paul of Acts” and the “Paul of his letters” see, for example, Haenchen, Acts, 112-116, who argues that (1) while the overriding problem for both Luke and Paul was a law-free mission to the Gentiles, Luke was not aware of Paul’s solution that the Law leads not to God but to sin; (2) there are inconsistencies in Luke’s portrait of Paul as a miracle-worker and great orator which is at odds with his self description in his epistles; (3) the relation of Jews and Christians in Acts is different than that in Paul’s epistles. Taken together Haenchen argues that the previous evidence is enough to demonstrate that Paul has been taken over by a later writer and cast in an entirely new light. This, however, is not the “last word” as Haenchen would have it. Cf. F. F. Bruce, “Is the Paul of Acts the Real Paul?” BJRL 58 (1976): 282-305. See also E. Earle Ellis, The Gospel of Luke, The New Century Bible Commentary, ed. Matthew Black, rev. ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1974), 44-47, who argues convincingly against Philipp Veilhauer’s view that the Paul of Acts is substantially different from the Paul of his letters. See Veilhauer’s article “The Paulinisms in Luke-Acts,” Studies in Luke-Acts, ed. L. Keck and J. L. Martyn (Nashville, TN: 1966), 33-50. Perhaps the view of Jervell is correct, namely, that while the view of Luke is not complete and there are tensions, if we want to know the historic Paul we need Luke’s portrait as well. Paul was “more manisided than we are inclined to think.” See Jacob Jervell, “Paul in the Acts of the Apostles: Tradition, History, Theology,” in Les Actes des Aptres: Traditions, rdaction, thologie, Bibliotheca Ephemeridum Theologicarum Lovaniensium 48, ed. J. Kremer (Leuven: Leuven University Press, 1979), 297-306.

7 For a list of the parallels see John A. Hardon, “The Miracle Narratives in the Acts of the Apostles,” CBQ 16 (1954): 303-18, who rightly dismisses the Tübingen perspective of the parallels between Peter and Paul, but himself fails to relate the parallels to the wider issue of the unified progress of the gospel from Jew to Gentile.

Related Topics: Soteriology (Salvation), Evangelism