Have you ever had something wonderful happen to you, but you didn’t have anyone to share it with? Or, even if you could share it with family and friends, you just wanted to share your good news even with total strangers. When our first daughter, Christa, was born the hospital gave me a pink button that said, “It’s a girl!” I wore it proudly. I decorated the house with a banner welcoming Marla and Christa home. I wanted everyone to know the good news that we had a baby girl.
I read of a Chinese farmer who had cataracts removed from his eyes at a Christian mission clinic. A few days later, the missionary doctor looked out his window and noticed this farmer holding the end of a long rope. In single file holding to the rope were several dozen blind Chinese who had been rounded up and led for miles to the doctor who had worked a miracle on this farmer’s eyes. That’s how we who have received God’s gift of eternal life through Jesus Christ should be. We are so blessed that we want everyone to know, so that they can receive the same good news.
We have just studied the witness and death of Stephen, the first Christian martyr. On the heels of his martyrdom, Saul instigated a persecution against the church in Jerusalem, which led to the scattering of its members, especially the Jews of Grecian descent. But rather than stopping the spread of the gospel, Saul’s persecution scattered the seed into new areas. Our text shows the gospel spreading into Samaria, especially through the ministry of another of the seven men chosen to serve tables, Philip. The theme of the chapter is, proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ outside of the boundaries of Jerusalem, first to the Samaritans, then to the Ethiopian eunuch (see 8:4, 5, 12, 14, 25, 35, 40). The lesson is:
Since the gospel is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, we should proclaim it in every situation where we find ourselves.
First, we learn why we must proclaim the gospel:
In Acts 1:8, Jesus had prescribed that the apostles would be His “witnesses both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and even to the remotest part of the earth.” Note four lessons:
For me, this is a strong proof that the gospel is from God. Wherever it goes, whether to the most advanced universities of the world or to the most primitive Stone Age cultures, it has the same effect: It transforms lives as people are reconciled to God through faith in Jesus Christ.
As you know, there had been a centuries-long hatred between the Jews and the Samaritans. By Jesus’ day, the Jews had no dealings with Samaritans (John 4:9). They would even walk around Samaritan territory rather than take the straighter path between Galilee and Jerusalem through Samaria. When Jesus sent out the twelve, He gave them orders not to go into the cities of Samaria (Matt. 10:5), which was probably just fine with them. But in Acts 1:8, He lifted that restriction. But His inclusion of Samaria probably did not change the feelings of aversion that the apostles would have had toward the Samaritans. Perhaps Jesus’ fruitful ministry in the Samaritan village laid the groundwork for Philip’s ministry. But here Philip pioneers the way, and Peter and John not only confirm his work, but do further evangelism among the Samaritan villages on their return to Jerusalem (8:14-17, 25).
The point for us is twofold: First, God wants to reach all people, even those whom we may not naturally like. We have to drop any prejudice that might cling to us and see every person from every race and culture as a candidate for the gospel. People you may not like need Christ. Homosexuals need Christ, and He is powerful to save them. Militant atheists need Christ, and He can save them, too. People of other races need Christ, and He will have some from every people group there before His throne.
Second, while we may need to be sensitive to certain cultural differences, we don’t change the message to fit different cultures. It’s the same gospel for all people. All have sinned; all need a Savior. Jesus Christ is the only Savior for all who call upon Him.
Many of the Samaritans were under the spell of this satanic deceiver, Simon, often called Simon Magus. (Magus either comes from the Latin for “great” or from the Greek for “magic.”) Whether he had satanic power to perform miracles, or whether he was a master magician who used trickery to amaze the masses, he was obviously a tool of Satan. The Bible indicates that God grants Satan the power to effect some miracles through false prophets (Exod. 7:11, 22; 8:7; Deut. 13:1, 2; Matt. 24:24; 2 Thess. 2:9; Rev. 13:13; 16:14; 19:20). A true prophet will direct the glory to God and will encourage people to submit to God’s Word. A false prophet, like Simon, will receive the glory for himself and will not direct people into holy living. But even where there is strong demonic influence over people, God and the power of His gospel is stronger. We should not fear to proclaim it even to those who are blatantly under Satan’s power.
Philip proclaimed Christ to the Samaritans (8:5). His message is summed up as “the good news about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ” (8:13). Later, he preaches Jesus to the Ethiopian eunuch (8:35). “The good news about kingdom of God” does not just refer to the future millennial kingdom, when Jesus will literally reign on earth. The kingdom of God is the realm where God is King. Thus it refers both to the millennium and to the rightful lordship of Jesus over all creation, especially over the hearts of people right now. Thus preaching the gospel is sometimes called preaching the kingdom (19:8; 20:25; 28:23, 31). “The name of Jesus Christ” refers to all that He is.
When you proclaim the gospel, stay focused on the person and work of Jesus Christ. Tell people who He is, God in human flesh. Tell them why He came to earth, to offer Himself as the sacrifice that God’s justice requires as the penalty for our sins. Show people from Scripture that we cannot add our good works to what Christ accomplished on the cross. We can only receive His salvation from our sins by faith in Jesus Christ.
There is no example or command in the New Testament to baptize infants. Every example and command follows the order described here: they believed and then they were being baptized (8:12, 13). (See my sermon, “Why We Do Not Baptize Infants,” 9/8/96, on our church web site, for more.) Baptism does not save anyone. People are saved by grace through faith in Christ, apart from any outward works, such as baptism (Eph. 2:8, 9). Baptism is an outward confession of what God has done in a person’s heart (Rom. 6:3-5; 1 Pet. 3:21).
Obviously, people can make false professions of faith through baptism. Only God knows a person’s heart. Philip baptized Simon based on Simon’s confession of faith which, as time showed, was not genuine. When Luke reports that Simon believed, he is describing what Simon professed, not how God viewed matters (see John 2:23-25; 8:31-47). Just because a person claims to believe in Christ and gets baptized does not mean that he is truly saved. Salvation is not a matter of human decision, but of God changing a person’s heart. Thus the Bible warns us about a kind of faith that does not save (James 2:14-26). That brings us to the second major lesson of this story:
Even though it seems fairly obvious to me that Simon was not truly saved, even as astute a scholar as John Calvin argues that he was. While there is some ambiguity about whether 8:24 points to genuine repentance, I think that his initial profession of faith was clearly not genuine.
Simon was into magical or occult power, and so he was awed by the miracles that God did through Philip. His faith and baptism seem to be an attempt to join up with this new, more impressive “higher power.” He tips his hand when Peter and John come to Samaria and lay hands on people so that they receive the Holy Spirit. Apparently (the text does not say), this was accompanied by the sign of speaking in foreign languages, as at the Day of Pentecost. Simon liked what he saw and, since magicians would often buy tricks from other magicians, he offered to pay Peter and John so that he could add this impressive “trick” to his repertoire. Clearly, he did not understand that the Holy Spirit is not a power subject to human manipulation, but is God Himself.
Peter’s rebuke of Simon was not seeker-sensitive! The literal Greek is, “May your silver and you go to hell!” He goes on to tell him that his heart is not right before God and that he is still in the gall of bitterness and in the bondage of iniquity (8:21, 23). This is an allusion to Deuteronomy 29:18, where Moses warns about those who serve the false gods of the nations. Peter’s language in 8:22, urging Simon to repent and pray to the Lord that the intention of his heart may be forgiven, indicates that he was not yet saved. The words “if possible” (8:22) do not refer to God’s willingness to forgive, but rather to whether or not Simon would truly repent. Simon’s somewhat lame response, asking Peter to pray for him, but not taking Peter’s advice to repent and pray for himself, leaves us wondering if Simon ever did truly repent and believe in Christ. Church history and later legend are uniformly negative toward him, lending weight to the view that he did not truly repent.
This story reveals four contrasts between those who have genuine saving faith in Jesus Christ and those who have false faith:
Salvation is a matter of God changing your heart (8:21). He takes your heart of stone and replaces it with a heart of flesh, which is tender towards Him (Ezek. 36:26). He makes you a new creation in Christ (2 Cor. 5:17). Rather than living for self, as Simon was still doing, true believers live for God and His glory. Simon wanted this new power so that people would be impressed with how great Simon was. But Peter makes it clear that he has no part or portion in the ministry that he and John shared.
This is not to say that if you do something selfish or even use God for selfish purposes, as Simon was trying to do, that you are not truly saved. Learning to live for God’s glory is a lifelong process. We all struggle against selfish motives every day. But it is to say that if God has changed your heart, when He convicts you of your selfish focus, you repent and seek afresh to live for Him. False believers try to use God or spiritual power for personal aims. By the way, we get our word “simony,” which means to buy or sell church office or influence, from Simon’s name.
Those who take the Book of Acts as normative, rather than as a transitional book from the Old Covenant to the New, have caused much confusion. They claim (based on this and a few other passages in Acts) that not all believers receive the Holy Spirit at salvation, and that we must have a subsequent experience where we receive the Spirit, accompanied by speaking in tongues.
But the clear teaching of the New Testament is that after this transitional period, all believers receive the Holy Spirit through faith at the moment of salvation (Gal. 3:2-5). He seals us as a pledge of our inheritance (Eph. 1:13; 4:30). He dwells in our bodies (1 Cor. 6:19). He baptizes us all into the body of Christ, so that we all drink from the same Spirit (1 Cor. 12:13). He gives spiritual gifts to every Christian according to His sovereign will (1 Cor. 12:4-30). Paul says that if anyone does not have the Spirit, he does not belong to Christ (Rom. 8:9).
So why didn’t the Samaritans receive the Holy Spirit until Peter and John came and laid hands on them? I think that God withheld the giving of the Spirit so that the early church would not be split into a Jewish section and a rival Samaritan section. The Samaritan believers had to be subject to the authority of the apostles, even if they didn’t naturally like the Jews. The Jewish apostles and other believers had to accept the Samaritans’ salvation as genuine, as evidenced by the gift of the Holy Spirit, even if they weren’t naturally inclined to put the Samaritans on the same level as the Jews. But the point is, this is an exceptional passage, not a pattern for us to follow. The norm is spelled out clearly in the epistles. True believers receive the Holy Spirit at the moment of salvation.
False believers, however, do not understand the Spirit’s role or power. They think of Him as an impersonal force which they can manipulate for their own selfish ends. They want to use God for personal success or power. But the concept of submitting to God as Sovereign and relying daily on His Spirit is foreign to them.
Peter accuses Simon of being “in the gall of bitterness and in the bondage of iniquity.” All unbelievers, even those who live decent, law-abiding lives, are in bondage to sin (Rom. 6:17). They are unable to break free from sin so as to live in a manner pleasing to the Lord (Rom. 8:7-8). But the Holy Spirit delivers us from bondage to sin and Satan and frees us to become slaves to God (Rom. 6:17-19, 22). Again, this is not to imply that Christians are sinlessly perfect. We struggle against sin as long as we live in this body (Rom. 7). We must learn to walk daily in the Spirit so as to overcome the deeds of the flesh and to produce the fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:16-23). But if the general bent of our lives is to be enslaved to sin, the Bible warns us to examine ourselves to see if we are truly saved. Every true Christian will develop a lifestyle of holiness and obedience to the Lord (1 Cor. 6:9-11; 2 Cor. 13:5; Gal. 5:21; Eph. 5:3-6; 2 Pet. 1:5-11; 1 John 2:3-6; 3:6-10).
Repentance is God’s gift, not man’s effort (Acts 11:18; 2 Tim. 2:25). He grants it at the moment of salvation, and the believer walks in repentance every day, as God’s Word convicts him of sin. Simon’s answer to Peter (8:24) does not reveal personal repentance, but rather just a desire to escape from the consequences of his sin. Repentance is a way of life for all who are born of God’s Spirit (see John Calvin, Institutes [Westminster], 3.3).
Thus the gospel is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes. We must proclaim it in spite of the fact that not all who profess to believe are truly saved.
I can only briefly mention three observations:
God often uses trials to expand the gospel. Those who had been scattered from the persecution went about preaching the word. That is amazing! They had just seen what could happen if you preached the gospel. You would think that they would have scattered to the best hiding places they could find! But they scattered with the seed of the gospel, sowing it wherever they went.
Think how they must have felt. Many of them mourned the death of Stephen. They all must have grieved over the breakup of the great fellowship that they had enjoyed in the Jerusalem church. Some had loved ones who had been thrown into prison. Their comfortable homes and familiar surroundings were suddenly gone. But still they proclaimed Christ wherever they went. Perhaps people asked them why they were traveling through or settling in a new region. They didn’t pass up the opportunities to tell them. Neither should we. If you are in a time of trial, ask the Lord for the opportunity to use your circumstances to tell others about the Savior.
The big guns, the apostles, stayed in Jerusalem when the persecution broke out (8:1). It was the average, everyday believers who went about preaching the gospel. They didn’t have the mistaken notion that evangelism is the job of “professional” Christians. Wherever they went, they talked to people about the Savior. Some, like Philip, were gifted to preach to crowds. But everyone was a witness. The fact is, you have a mission field through your contacts that I lack. Thus every Christian should be ready to make a defense for the hope that is in him when God gives the opportunity (1 Pet. 3:15; Col. 4:5-6).
We don’t know for sure which city in Samaria Philip preached (8:5), but we do know that “there was much rejoicing in that city” (8:8). When sinners learn that they can receive God’s forgiveness for all their sins by His grace alone, apart from any human merit, they rejoice. When people looking for answers to their personal problems learn that Jesus Christ can deliver them both from sin’s penalty and its power, they rejoice. When people who have tried all of the world’s gimmicks and cures learn that Jesus Christ is the risen Lord and Savior, and that they can have a personal relationship with Him, they rejoice. If we want there to be much rejoicing in our city, we must proclaim Christ to as many people as we can!
Remember, the power of the gospel does not depend on our ability to use persuasive arguments. The power of the gospel does not depend on our winsome personalities. The power of the gospel lies with God, and all we have to do is give it out. In their book, Competent to Minister ([Eastgate], pp. 45-46, Martin and Deidre Bobgan tell the story of a successful man who was on a business trip and decided to attend church. He did not normally go to church, but he was troubled about some problems and hoped to find something at church, although he didn’t know quite what.
The music was pleasing, but it didn’t quiet his heart or give him peace. He listened to the sermon, but his intellect argued the many points. Just as he was ready to leave, a young man approached him and confidently declared, “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” The businessman didn’t see how God loved the world or how giving His Son could ever be connected with eternal life, but the young man persisted. Rather than answer the man’s arguments, he simply repeated the same words over and over: “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”
Although the businessman was well educated and articulate, his words seemed to have no effect on the young man, who just kept repeating the words of John 3:16. Finally, the businessman realized that this young man was mentally retarded, and he could not respond to his sophisticated arguments. But at last he was struck by the truth of those repeated words. God used the faithful witness of a retarded young man to give new life to that visiting businessman.
If God can use a retarded young man to lead an educated businessman to salvation, He can use you. The only ones He cannot use are those who do not proclaim the gospel at all.
Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2001, All Rights Reserved.
Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation