There are three distressing facts when it comes to cults. The first is that Christians are prime targets for cults. All too many cult members appear to have been genuinely saved, but poorly grounded in the Scriptures, and thus were easy marks for cult leaders who professed to be “in touch” with God. I am told, for example, that Southern Baptists are some of the most likely prospects for Mormonism. The second distressing fact is that a number of cult founders and leaders have had some involvement with evangelical Christianity, but have departed from it. One of our close relatives was involved in a cult, and when she showed us the book written by the cult leader, he openly admitted an evangelical background. A third distressing fact is that some of the cults are so close to Christianity, at least in their professions and in their propaganda, that it is difficult to determine whether they are really Christian or not. I will not name a particular group, but you may easily be able to think of one or more which fall into this category.
Simon the magician was believed by some of the ancients to have been the founder of a very dangerous cult, one which dogged the heels of Christianity for a period of its history.110 It is difficult to determine with any degree of conviction, whether or not he was even a Christian. From Luke’s words (“even Simon himself believed,” verse 13) we would conclude that he was saved, but from the words and actions of Simon himself, and from the severe warning of Peter, one would surely have some second thoughts on the matter.
Simon is, unfortunately, similar to many of those who are cultists or false prophets and apostles, as described in the Scriptures. Simon was a man who once practiced magic, but who never seemed to fully give it up. He was thus plagues with a “magic mindset” which can be seen in what he says and does, as recorded by Luke. This mindset is not just that of the cultists; it is a mindset which characterizes many Christians today. There is a world of difference between magic and Christianity, as we shall see here, in our text, and later on in the Book of Acts (13:4-12; 19:13-20). Let us look carefully at Simon, then, to see if any of his ways of thinking or of acting are our own, or are characteristic of others, who profess to be Christians. And let us look as well at the ways in which God is bringing about the growth of His church, from Jerusalem and Judea, to Samaria.
And Saul111 was in hearty agreement with putting him to death. And on that day a great persecution arose against the church in Jerusalem; and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles. 2 And some devout men buried Stephen, and made loud lamentation over him. 3 But Saul began ravaging the church, entering house after house; and dragging off men and women, he would put them in prison.
It was a remarkable chain of events, one which no one would have conceived of in advance. The problem of the neglected Hellenistic widows was solved by the appointment of seven men. Prominent among them in Luke’s account are Stephen and Philip. Stephen’s ministry exploded and expanded beyond overseeing the care of widows to the powerful proclamation of the gospel, accompanied with signs and wonders. This ministry led to opposition, which ultimately led to his execution. And Stephen’s death snowballed into a massive reaction to the entire church in Jerusalem. This intense persecution which broke out against the church caused the saints to scatter. All but the apostles fled, but these men stayed behind.
The result was a massive missionary expansion, without any missions committee, without any “support,” and (remarkably) without the leadership and presence of the apostles. Acts 1:8 was being fulfilled in Acts 8:1, but not in the way we would have expected. The Great Commission of Matthew 28:18-20 was given in the form of a command. Acts 1:8 was given in the form of a promise. In reality, the evangelism of the Samaritans and the Gentiles did not take place because men actively sought to obey the command of our Lord, expressed in the Great Commission, but rather providentially, brought about by the Sovereign Head of the Church, through persecution. The saints went about, sharing the gospel, not so much out of obedience as out of necessity. Persecution brought about proclamation. How God’s ways surpass our own!
According to Luke’s account, the persecution of the church in Jerusalem which brought about the Samaritan revival112 was, in large measure, the result of one key individual—Saul. No other names are mentioned. And, after the conversion of Saul, the persecution ceases, and a new era of peace commenced (Acts 9:31). I take it that Saul was therefore one of the driving forces behind the persecution of the church in Jerusalem.
The significance of this must not be overlooked. As the ringleader of the opposition to the gospel and the persecution of the church in Jerusalem, Saul was instrumental in the first “missions thrust” of the church. Granted, this was not his intent, but it was the result. God uses the “wrath of men to praise Him” (cf. Psalm 76:10). How often we tend to think of the evangelization of the world of that day as the result of Paul’s “preaching,” rather than as a result of Saul’s “persecution.” Both are true. The sovereign God can just as easily employ the intense opposition of an unbeliever to spread the gospel as He can the faithful preaching of one of His saints. A sovereign God does not need the obedience of men to achieve His purposes, but how blessed it is when men obey, becoming a willing participant in God’s plans and purposes!
4 Therefore, those who had been scattered went about preaching the word. 5 And Philip113 went down to the city of Samaria114 and began proclaiming Christ to them. 6 And the multitudes with one accord were giving attention to what was said by Philip, as they heard and saw the signs which he was performing. 7 For in the case of many who had unclean spirits, they were coming out of them shouting with a loud voice; and many who had been paralyzed and lame were healed. 8 And there was much rejoicing in that city.
Samaria and the Samaritan people are not new to the gospels. John (chapter 4) recorded a very significant encounter between Jesus and the “woman at the well.” In this account, we are given some very pertinent insight into the views of the Samaritans, as well as their strained relationship with the Jews. When Jesus was passing through Samaria and was given an unfriendly reception, some of Jesus’ disciples asked His permission to “call down fire from heaven” on that village (Luke 9:51-55). Jesus told the story of the “Good Samaritan,” which contrasted the warmth and compassion of this “heathen” with the callused disregard of a Jewish priest and a Levite (Luke 10:30-37). While He forbade His disciples to go to Samaria with the good news of the kingdom initially, this was rescinded in the Great Commission (cf. Matthew 10:5-6; 28:18-20).
Philip’s arrival in the city of Samaria was but a part of a much larger program, whereby the persecution of the church scattered saints. Notice that this scattering occurs in such a way as to exactly follow the order of Acts 1:8:
“… and you shall be My witnesses both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and even to the remotest part of the earth.”
And so the church was born in Jerusalem (Acts 1-7), it spread through persecution to Judea and Samaria (Acts 8:1, in that order), and then abroad (cf. Acts 11:19-21; 13:1ff.).
Those who were scattered may have fled Jerusalem in fear, but the message of the gospel was nevertheless proclaimed. I do not think that the gospel was proclaimed out of duty, but rather spoken as a truth which could not be kept secret. It would not surprise me that some of the saints who fled from Jerusalem purposed to keep quiet about their new faith in Jesus as their Messiah, but when they spoke with others, they could do nothing other than to speak of Him with their new neighbors.
Like Stephen, the hand of God was powerfully evident in the ministry of Philip. Great signs accompanied and underscored his preaching, so that the people gave attention to his message. Among the miracles which occurred were the exorcism of demons and the healing of the paralyzed. As God’s power was demonstrated and the gospel was received, there was great joy in that city (verse 8). The “Samaritan revival” had commenced.
9 Now there was a certain man named Simon, who formerly was practicing magic in the city, and astonishing the people of Samaria, claiming to be someone great; 10 and they all, from smallest to greatest, were giving attention to him, saying, “This man is what is called the Great Power of God.” 11 And they were giving him attention because he had for a long time astonished them with his magic arts. 12 But when they believed Philip preaching the good news about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were being baptized, men and women alike. 13 And even Simon himself believed; and after being baptized, he continued on with Philip; and as he observed signs and great miracles taking place, he was constantly amazed.
In the previous section, Philip’s overall ministry was summarized, and a general overview of its results was given. Now, in verses 9-13, one man is in view, a magician by the name of Simon. This “Simon” was a man who had once mystified the people of this Samaritan city (verses 9-11). By his magic arts115 Simon had managed to “pull the wool over the eyes” of the Samaritans for years. He made claims of being someone great, but it seems that he allowed the people to come to their own conclusions. Their conclusion, skillfully suggested and orchestrated by Simon, was that he was “the Great Power of God.” Given the religious views of the Samaritans, and the fact that they shared a messianic hope with their Jewish “half-brothers” (cf. John 4:25), I take it that Simon was claiming to be more than a representative of God, but that he was indeed deity. Was he actually claiming to be the Messiah? Such was not uncommon, and it may well have been Simon’s intent.
When Philip arrived in Samaria, Simon’s magic practice came to a screeching halt. The impression I gain is not that Simon gave it up, as something deceptive, evil, and anti-Christian, but rather that his practice merely died, outclassed by the real power of God manifested through Philip. Even Simon was amazed by the power of God at work through Philip. But because he did not forsake his magic practice, he seems not to have forsaken the “magic mentality” on which it was based. Simon is said to have believed, and to have been baptized (verse 13), but there seems to have been little repentance evident, that change of heart and mind which sees one’s past ways as those which must be rejected and put aside. If Simon was not saved, he surely appears to have come close to faith, and if he was a true believer, he seems not to have taken his faith far enough.
While the people of Samaria witnessed the miracles which God performed through Philip, they focused on his message. When the people of Samaria witnessed the “magic” of Simon, they focused on the man. Simon seems to have been more taken by the ministry and the power of Philip than with his message. Wherever Philip went, Simon tagged along, constantly amazed at the evidences of the hand of God in this man’s life and ministry. The power of Philip seems more fascinating to Simon than the person of Christ and the practical outworkings of the gospel. The magician seems to live on, focusing on a bigger and better power, rather than on a whole new way of life. He seems, still, to be too self-centered, and not Christ-centered.
14 Now when the apostles in Jerusalem heard that Samaria had received the word of God, they sent them Peter and John, 15 who came down and prayed for them, that they might receive the Holy Spirit. 16 For He had not yet fallen upon any of them; they had simply been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. 17 Then they began laying their hands on them, and they were receiving the Holy Spirit. 18 Now when Simon saw that the Spirit was bestowed through the laying on of the apostles’ hands, he offered them money, 19 saying, “Give this authority to me as well, so that everyone on whom I lay my hands may receive the Holy Spirit.” 20 But Peter said to him, “May your silver perish with you, because you thought you could obtain the gift of God with money! 21 “You have no part or portion in this matter, for your heart is not right before God. 22 “Therefore repent of this wickedness of yours, and pray the Lord that if possible, the intention of your heart may be forgiven you. 23 “For I see that you are in the gall of bitterness and in the bondage of iniquity.” 24 But Simon answered and said, “Pray to the Lord for me yourselves, so that nothing of what you have said may come upon me.”
While the apostles in Jerusalem did not initiate this revival in Samaria, they did sense a responsibility for exercising oversight in the matter. Thus, when they heard of the Samaritan revival, they sent down Peter and John. (Ironically, it was John who was one of the disciples who asked permission to call down fire on the Samaritan village in Luke 9:54. How strange it must have seemed to John, now, to be going down to Samaria to recognize the church which was begotten there. I wonder if Peter and John had to pass through this same village on their way down, or back, and to preach the gospel to these people.)
We are not told that Peter and John were sent to Samaria to lay hands on the Samaritans and to pray for them to receive the Holy Spirit. I think that they went on a “fact-finding mission,” not know what God would have them do when they arrived. When they arrived, they must have begun to interview these new saints, and in a way similar to that described in Acts 19:1-7, they must have learned that while these “saints” had believed in Jesus as the promised Messiah, and while they had also been baptized, they had not received the Holy Spirit, as had happened in Jerusalem. Learning this, they must have sensed that God had held back the descent of the Spirit until their arrival. They somehow learned that through the laying on of their hands and their prayers the Spirit would come upon the church.
There is a temptation for us to try to make this text conform to our pre-conceived ideas about the Holy Spirit, rather than to allow it to speak for itself. It would seem to me that the “coming” of the Holy Spirit here upon the Samaritans was very similar to (if not identical with) the descent of the Spirit at Pentecost (Acts 2). There is, however, no emphasis on the “ecstasies” of this event, and we are not told exactly what did take place. Surely something unusual and miraculous occurred, for Simon seems to be even more impressed at this event than with what he had seen taking place through Philip. I take it, then, that this is the second of four “pentecosts” in the Book of Acts (the remaining two being found in Acts 10 and 19).
For those who would like to view this event as normative, I would disagree. I do not think that this text suggests that the Holy Spirit comes upon men only after they have had the “laying on of hands.” Indeed, when we look at the four “pentecosts” in Acts, it is only here and in chapter 19 that the Spirit falls upon men through the laying on of hands. In Acts 2 and 10, no one expected the Spirit to descend on men, and nothing was done to prompt it. Elsewhere, the laying on of hands has nothing to do with the reception of the Holy Spirit.116 The point of the “laying on of hands” is identification, more than impartation. The laying on of hands was an act of identification. In laying their hands on Paul and Barnabas, the church at Antioch identified with them in their God-given task of evangelization (Acts 13:3). When the apostles laid their hands on the 7 (Acts 6:6), they were identifying themselves with these men and their task, thus giving them (their) authority to carry out the oversight of the feeding of the widows. In Acts, the reception of the Holy Spirit (a “pentecost” by my definition, at least) happens to four groups. These incidents are not the norm, but the exception. They occur so that it might be made clear that the gospel has been proclaimed and received by those outside Jerusalem, and by those other than Jews (i. e. Gentiles). In the epistles, the norm is that men receive the Holy Spirit at the time of their salvation (cf. Romans 8:9; 1 Corinthians 1:7; 2:6-16; 12:13). The fact that Luke has to tell his reader that these Samaritans had not yet received the Holy Spirit (Acts 8:16) strongly suggests that this case was the exception, and not the rule.
The focus of this account is not to emphasize the reception of the Holy Spirit, but rather the undue attraction which this power to bestow the Holy Spirit has for Simon. Simon was amazed by the power of God at work through Philip, but he did not offer Philip money to have such power.117 Once the apostles arrived, it would seem that Simon quickly transferred his fixation on them, and on their power, rather than on Philip. To Simon, if their power was not greater than Philip’s, it was at least more desirable.
Simon “reached for his wallet” (at least figuratively), offering Peter and John money for the ability to bestow the Holy Spirit. It is not really surprising that he would do so. After all, would he not have paid to learn his magic arts. No one would be inclined to pass along such valuable knowledge without compensation. Learning to practice magic would be something like buying a franchise. Simon was used to thinking in terms of the buying and selling of abilities. He simply continued to operate as he always had—as a magician. The problem was that Christianity and magic are worlds apart, night and day. This he would learn from the lips of Peter.
Peter’s first words are strong indeed, signaling the seriousness of Simon’s sin. J. B. Phillips catches the flavor in a translation which closely resembles the sense of the original text:
“To hell with you and your money” (Acts 8:20).
It certainly casts some doubt on the salvation of Simon. If this man were truly saved, you would also be eternally secure, but Peter’s words would not give him a false sense of assurance. Let us remember that Peter, himself, heard some very strong words of correction from the lips of his Lord:
“Get behind Me, Satan!” (Matthew 16:23).
Just as Peter was called “Satan” by his Lord for expressing his thoughts and desires, so Simon was addressed as a heathen, for he was acting like one at the time.
Peter’s rebuke is stinging, but it is not really what we might have expected. Simon was not admonished for improper motivation, though one can hardly doubt that his motives were impure. Did he not wish to obtain the ability to bestow the Holy Spirit to make money, or at least to gain power and prestige, and to further himself? I suspect so, but this is not what Peter condemned.
Peter’s indictment was not Simon’s motivation, but his mindset. It was not his attitude which was the most serious problem, but his assumptions. The bottom line was that Simon thought he could buy the gift of God:
“May your silver perish with you, because you thought you could obtain the gift of God with money!” (Acts 8:20).
The ability to bestow the gift of the Holy Spirit was a gift, as I understand it, a gift which was restricted to the apostles. This is why Philip could not bestow the Spirit upon the Samaritan saints. When Simon tried to purchase the ability to bestow the Holy Spirit on others, he based his actions on the assumption that the gift of God could be bought and sold.
Why is this such a serious matter? Because it is a misconception, a perversion of grace. There is a direct, one-to-one connection between spiritual gifts and grace. In fact, spiritual gifts are “graces.” The word used for gift is the word for grace. Any spiritual gift is a grace gift. That means that it cannot be earned or secured by man’s efforts. That is why gifts are sovereignly bestowed:
But to each one is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. For to one is given the word of wisdom through the Spirit, and to another the word of knowledge according to the same Spirit; to another faith by the same Spirit, and to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, and to another the effecting of miracles, and to another prophecy, and to another the distinguishing of spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, and to another the interpretation of tongues. But one and the same Spirit works all these things, distributing to each one individually just as He wills (1 Corinthians 12:7-11).
The gifts of the Spirit and the gift of salvation are all gifts in the same sense that they are gifts of grace, they are gracious gifts of God that are not deserved, but which are sovereignly bestowed on men, with no consideration of one’s worthiness of receiving them. No gift of God is ever deserved by its recipient, and thus we must always be grateful to God for them. Thus, too, we can never have pride because of any gift we receive.
This is why Simon’s sin is so serious. It is a sin against grace itself, and thus a sin of the most serious type. Peter’s words are intended to shock Simon, to underscore the evil of his actions and to bring about repentance. As I understand the words of verses 21 and 22, Peter is not speaking so much about Simon’s sinfulness in general, but rather in terms of this specific sin, the sin of trying to purchase God’s gift. It is this sin which is in view, and it is this sin which Simon must repent of and seek God’s forgiveness and restoration.
Peter’s rebuke employs the terminology of Deuteronomy 29:18.118 Note this text in its broader context:
“Now not with you alone am I making this covenant and this oath, but both with those who stand here with us today in the presence of the LORD our God and with those who are not with us here today (for you know how we lived in the land of Egypt, and how we came through the midst of the nations through which you passed. Moreover, you have seen their abominations and their idols of wood, stone, silver, and gold, which they had with them); lest there shall be among you a man or woman, or family or tribe, whose heart turns away today from the LORD our God, to go and serve the gods of those nations; lest there shall be a root bearing poisonous fruit and wormwood. And it shall be when he hears the words of this curse, that he will boast, saying, ‘I have peace thou I walk in the stubbornness of my heart in order to destroy the watered land with the dry.’ The LORD shall never be willing to forgive him, but rather the anger of the LORD and His jealousy will burn against that man, and every curse which is written in this book will rest on him, and the LORD will blot out his name from under heaven. Then the LORD will single him out for adversity from all the tribes of Israel, according to all the curses of the covenant which are written in this book of the law” (Deuteronomy 28:14-21).
The context of this word of warning is the approaching entrance of Israel into the land of promise. God has made a covenant with His people, a covenant which promises His blessings if they obey His commands, but which promises judgment if they rebel against Him by disregarding His laws. God’s people have been given the law to distinguish them from the nations around them. To act like the other nations is to disregard God’s covenant, and to be a “root bearing poisonous fruit and wormwood.” It is to incur God’s judgment.
These words are most appropriate when referred to Simon. He was continuing to think and to act like the pagan he had once been. He was not obedient to God, and he was in great danger of divine disciple. No wonder Peter’s words were so severe! These words do not refer to Simon’s disregard of God’s old covenant, however, but to the new covenant, the covenant of grace. By attempting to buy the gift of God, Simon was setting aside the covenant of grace and seeking to influence God by magic, by manipulation, in a way that was like the heathen worship of the pagans. Simon was turning from grace to magic, and was in grave danger by so doing. Peter used the words of Deuteronomy 29 to cause Simon to think very seriously about his sin and the dire consequences which could follow, if repentance were not sincere and speedy.
The text that was cited, along with the words of Peter which were spoken to Simon are said in such a way as to raise serious questions about Simon’s salvation. A man who is truly saved should understand grace. A man who does not grasp the essence of grace is a man whose salvation is in question. I think that the reader is left to ponder Simon’s salvation, just as we wonder about the salvation of men like Balaam, in the Old Testament (Numbers 22-24). Simon is not only like Balaam of the Old Testament, but too much like the false prophets and apostles who are described in the New (cf. 2 Peter 2 & 3; Jude). No wonder Peter is so strong in his rebuke of this man.
Simon’s response is no cause for encouragement, either. His response is not one of deep repentance. He does not seem to express any sense of his sin against God, or his alienation from Him, due to his sin. Nor does he have any desire to go directly to Him for forgiveness. Instead, he is more concerned with the consequences of his sin than of the sin itself. He asks Peter to serve as his mediator. It is a most distressing note on which to end this account.
Our text is the beginning of an exciting new era in the history of the church. It depicts the expansion of the gospel from Jerusalem to Judea and Samaria, and from Jews to others—in this case, Samaritans, half-Jews. It is a further testimony to the sovereignty of God in the fulfillment of the Great Commission and the promise of Acts 1:8, which lays out the strategy and the structure of the Book of Acts. God persists at bringing about His plans and purposes in spite of men—like Saul—who oppose the truth and who persecute the church. God’s truth and His church, are marching on, yet in a way that no man would have predicted, and that no man would have believed, if he were told ahead of time.
This passage may have had a very practical application for the saints who first received and read it. Suppose that Simon did depart from the faith and establish a cult. That cult could have existed during the time when the apostles (including Paul) were ministering to the churches. This cult could have caused some of the saints to stumble. If this were so, mention of Simon, of his sin, and of his rebuke by Peter, could very well have served as a warning to any who might be tempted to listen to Simon and to follow his teachings. This is an inspired “reference,” and not a positive one at that.
This text also has a lesson for us in evangelism. Somehow, in Simon’s “profession” there was a lack of repentance, a lack of complete turning around, a failure to reject and forsake the evils of his past. Instead, Simon continued to think and to act as a magician, rather than as a Christian. He was interested in “spiritual power” at a price, not in servanthood as his own expense. He did not seek those gifts which would build up and benefit others, but those which would be a source of gain to himself. He did not think in terms of grace, but in terms of magic and manipulation.
How important it is for us to proclaim a clear gospel, a gospel which identifies men’s past thinking and actions as sin, and which calls upon men to repent and to forsake the past. How often the gospel is presented in a way that suggests that men do not need to radically change to be saved, but that they can simply add a belief in Jesus to their current lifestyle. Salvation, by it very nature, is a radical change. We will see this with Saul, but we do not see it with Simon.
I find it both interesting and informative to compare the “profession” (whether genuine or not) of Simon with the conversion of Saul. In both accounts, we are told a fair bit about the past of these men, but there is one critical difference. Paul renounced and rejected his past, leaving it behind as something which was worthy of death, and he began to live in an entirely different way (cf. Philippians chapter 3). Simon, on the other hand, simply brought his past along, persisting in it as a professing Christian. Christianity teaches that the old man must die, and that the old life must be left behind, and that the new man must be manifest, through God’s Spirit (cf. Romans 6-8).
We have said that Simon was wrong for not repenting of and rejecting his past ways. To be specific, that of which he should have repented was magic. Magic is contrary to Christianity, and yet it is often confused or combined with it. Luke deals with magic in the Book of Acts three times: here, in chapter 13, and once again in chapter 19. In all three instances, the “magic” which is exposed has a religious flavor. Here, the magic of Simon merits him the title, “the Great Power of God” (8:10). In chapter 13, Bar-Jesus, the magician, who attempted to keep the proconsul, Sergius Paulus, from turning to faith in Jesus, was a “false prophet” (13:6). Finally, in chapter 19, the beating which the exorcists (the sons of Sceva) received from the demonized man, caused many to turn to Christ and to renounce their magic practices (19:11-20). In chapters 13 and 19, the magicians were Jews.
The difference between magic and Christianity is simple: MAGIC CLAIMS TO ENABLE MEN TO MANIPULATE GOD, SO THAT HE GIVES THEM THEIR DESIRES; CHRISTIANITY’S GOD MANIPULATES MEN.
In magic, God becomes man’s servant (the magic genie, who does man’s bidding). In Christianity, men become God’s servants. The difference is the sovereignty of God. God is not manipulated by men, for men have no claim on Him, on His grace, or on His power. God owes men nothing, and nothing men do can merit or cause God’s blessings.
Whenever men lose sight of the sovereignty of God, they begin to think and to act according to the rules of magic. And all of this can take on a very pious appearance. We believe that if we follow the right formulas God is obliged to act as we wish. If we pray, using the right formula (e.g. “in Jesus’ name”), or with enough persistence or sincerity, or the agreement of others, we can be assured that God will act in the way we desire. Magic focuses on the “right” methods. Christianity trusts in a God whose thoughts are higher than our thoughts, and whose ways are beyond our comprehension.
God’s grace and God’s gifts are a matter of His sovereign pleasure, but what a comfort it is to know that God acts independently of men, without being manipulated. What a comfort to know that God’s independence assures us that He will not only act independently of men, but in the best interest of His own. He is not manipulated by His children; He manipulates us, but in a way that is for His glory and for our best interest. His sovereignty will be evident in our next lesson, in the salvation of Saul, the rebel.
May we gratefully bow the knee in worship and obedience to the Sovereign God, who works all things together for our good, and in such a way as to achieve His purposes and plans.
110 “Simon Magus plays an extraordinary role in early Christian literature. The word ‘magus’ originally denoted a member of the Median priestly tribe, but it came to be used in an extended sense of a practitioner of various kinds of sorcery and even quackery, like Elymas, the sorcerer of Paphos in Cyprus, whom we meet later in the narrative of Acts (13:6-11). The ‘magi’ or ‘wise men’ from the east (Matt. 2:1), who saw the rising star of the newborn king of the Jews, were evidently astrologers. This Simon is depicted in postapostolic writings as the father of all Gnostic heresies. Justin Martyr tells how he secured a following of devotees not only in Samaria but in Rome, to which he went in the time of Claudius. In the apocryphal Acts of Peter (4-32) he is said to have corrupted the Christians in Rome by his false teaching and made the authorities ill-disposed toward them, but to have been worsted at last in a magical contest with Peter. But it is in the pseudo-Clementine Recognitions and Homilies that the Simon legend is most curiously elaborated: in them he not only appears as the untiring adversary of Peter but seems, to some extent at least, to serve as a camouflage for Paul, reflecting anti-Pauline sentiments among some of the Ebionites and similar Jewish-Christian groups.” F. F. Bruce, The Book of Acts, Revised Edition (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1988), p. 166.
“. . . Simon Magus (the magician, or sorcerer) -- is the subject of many legends in the Early Church. The most striking tradition is that he was the founder of Gnosticism.” Charles W. Carter and Ralph Earle, The Acts of the Apostles (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1973), p. 114.
111 “Saul, a native of the Cilician city of Tarsus, as we learn later (9:11), may have attended the synagogue in Jerusalem where Stephen engaged in disputation with the spokesmen for the old order (6:9).” F. F. Bruce, The Book of Acts, Revised Edition (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1988), p. 161.
112 The persecution which sent men and women to Samaria, where the gospel was proclaimed, also sent others to more distant places, where the gospel was proclaimed not only to Jews, but to Gentiles as well. This resulted in the birth of the church at Antioch (Acts 11:19-26). Luke indicates that the same persecution results in both “waves” of evangelism, but saves the more “Gentile” phase until later in the book, to keep his account consistent with the geographical outline of the gospel’s expansion, given in Acts 1:8.
113 Of Philip: “The deacon (6:5) and evangelist (21:8), not the apostle of the same name (Mark 3:18).” A. T. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1930), III, p. 102.
114 “The city of Samaria” is rendered “a city” in some translations. There was in Samaria, a city whose name was Samaria. Thus, one could have spoken of Samaria (city), Samaria (country), just as one can presently speak of New York, New York. Of the city of Samaria, Bruce writes, “The ancient city called Samaria had been refounded by Herod the Great and renamed Sebaste, in honor of the Roman emperor, but it was a Hellenistic city, and the impression given by our narrative is that the people to whom Philip preached were genuine Samaritans.” F. F. Bruce, The Book of Acts, Revised Edition (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1988), p. 165. If the rendering, “a city” is correct, a number of cities could be proposed as the particular city.
115 I take it that Simon had no real supernatural powers. Some, such as the demon-possessed girl who pestered Paul and Silas (Acts 16:16-18), did have supernatural abilities, but it seems that this man had only tricks, deceptions, the slight of hand appearances of magical powers. His amazement at the power of God at work through Philip gives me the impression that he had no real power.
116 Ananias did “lay his hands on” Saul (Acts 9:12, 17), and this seems to be in conjunction with his receiving the Holy Spirit, but once again we are not told what phenomenon accompanied his reception of the Spirit, if any.
117 It is my opinion that Simon had little interest in this power to heal and cast out demons, because he was not as interested in ministering to others and he was in promoting himself. Thus, the “razzle dazzle” ability to bestow the Holy Spirit had more appeal to Simon than the less spectacular ability to heal and deliver others from Satan’s bondage.
118 Cf. also Deuteronomy 32:32; Lamentations 3:15; Job 16:14; Isaiah 58:6; Hebrews 12:15.