1 And Saul agreed completely with killing him. Now on that day a great persecution began against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were forced to scatter throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria. 2 Some devout men buried Stephen and made loud lamentation over him. 3 But Saul was trying to destroy the church; entering one house after another, he dragged off both men and women and put them in prison.
4 Now those who had been forced to scatter went around proclaiming the good news of the word. 5 Philip went down to the main city of Samaria and began proclaiming the Christ to them. 6 The crowds were paying attention with one mind to what Philip said, as they heard and saw the miraculous signs he was performing. 7 For unclean spirits, crying with loud shrieks, were coming out of many who were possessed, and many paralyzed and lame people were healed. 8 So there was great joy in that city.
9 Now in that city was a man named Simon, who had been practicing magic and amazing the people of Samaria, claiming to be someone great. 10 All the people, from the least to the greatest, paid close attention to him, saying, “This man is the power of God that is called ‘Great.’” 11 And they paid close attention to him because he had amazed them for a long time with his magic. 12 But when they believed Philip as he was proclaiming the good news about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they began to be baptized, both men and women. 13 Even Simon himself believed, and after he was baptized, he stayed close to Philip constantly, and when he saw the signs and great miracles that were occurring, he was amazed. 14 Now when the apostles in Jerusalem heard that Samaria had accepted the word of God, they sent Peter and John to them. 15 These two went down and prayed for them so that they would receive the Holy Spirit. 16 (For the Spirit had not yet come upon any of them, but they had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus.) 17 Then Peter and John placed their hands on the Samaritans, and they received the Holy Spirit. 18 Now Simon, when he saw that the Spirit was given through the laying on of the apostles’ hands, offered them money, 19 saying, “Give me this power too, so that everyone I place my hands on may receive the Holy Spirit.” 20 But Peter said to him, “May your silver perish with you, because you thought you could acquire God’s gift with money! 21 You have no share or part in this matter because your heart is not right before God! 22 Therefore repent of this wickedness of yours, and pray to the Lord that he may perhaps forgive you for the intent of your heart. 23 For I see that you are bitterly envious and in bondage to sin.” 24 But Simon replied, “You pray to the Lord for me so that nothing of what you have said may happen to me.” 25 So after Peter and John had solemnly testified and spoken the word of the Lord, they started back to Jerusalem, proclaiming the good news to many Samaritan villages as they went.
26 Then an angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Get up and go south on the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” (This is a desert road.) 27 So he got up and went. There he met an Ethiopian eunuch, a court official of Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, who was in charge of all her treasury. He had come to Jerusalem to worship, 28 and was returning home, sitting in his chariot, reading the prophet Isaiah. 29 Then the Spirit said to Philip, “Go over and join this chariot.” 30 So Philip ran up to it and heard the man reading Isaiah the prophet. He asked him, “Do you understand what you’re reading?” 31 The man replied, “How in the world can I, unless someone guides me?” So he invited Philip to come up and sit with him. 32 Now the passage of scripture the man was reading was this: “He was led like a sheep to slaughter, and like a lamb before its shearer is silent, so he did not open his mouth. 33 In humiliation justice was taken from him. Who can describe his posterity? For his life was taken away from the earth.” 34 Then the eunuch said to Philip, “Please tell me, who is the prophet saying this about – himself or someone else?” 35 So Philip started speaking, and beginning with this scripture proclaimed the good news about Jesus to him. 36 Now as they were going along the road, they came to some water, and the eunuch said, “Look, there is water! What is to stop me from being baptized?” 38 So he ordered the chariot to stop, and both Philip and the eunuch went down into the water, and Philip baptized him. 39 Now when they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away, and the eunuch did not see him any more, but went on his way rejoicing. 40 Philip, however, found himself at Azotus, and as he passed through the area, he proclaimed the good news to all the towns until he came to Caesarea.1
In the Old Testament, God seldom used those who appeared to be the “most likely to succeed.” He used Moses, who was an escaped fugitive and who made all kinds of excuses as to why he was not the one God needed to deliver the nation Israel from its Egyptian bondage. He used David to kill Goliath, in spite of his youth and the disparaging comments of his brothers. He used Samson and Balaam, and even Balaam’s donkey. God used Pharaoh and his hardened heart to demonstrate His power over the gods of Egypt.
The New Testament is no different. He used “foot in mouth” Peter to play a major role in the proclamation of the gospel, and yet Peter was a man who denied his Lord publicly. The Apostle Paul summed up God’s amazing way of using the most unlikely people when he wrote:
26 Think about the circumstances of your call, brothers and sisters. Not many were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were born to a privileged position. 27 But God chose what the world thinks foolish to shame the wise, and God chose what the world thinks weak to shame the strong. 28 God chose what is low and despised in the world, what is regarded as nothing, to set aside what is regarded as something, 29 so that no one can boast in his presence. 30 He is the reason you have a relationship with Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption, 31 so that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord” (1 Corinthians 1:26-31).
The Book of Acts is no exception. God has already used Peter to proclaim Jesus as the Messiah to crowds of people in Jerusalem, as well as to the Jewish Sanhedrin, the highest religious and civil court in Judaism. God used Stephen to preach in Greek-speaking synagogues, which led to his arrest and trial before the Sanhedrin. Instead of defending himself, Stephen indicted his accusers, showing their charges to be inconsistent with Old Testament teaching, and their resistance to God’s Spirit to be entirely consistent with Israel’s rebellion against God and His appointed servants.
Our last lesson ended with the stoning of Stephen. Acts 8 is a description of the spread of the gospel following Stephen’s death. In our text, God will employ several unlikely individuals to promote the preaching of the gospel. Who God uses and how He uses them will prove instructive and encouraging to us. Let us listen to God’s Spirit as He speaks to us through this great text.
1 And Saul agreed completely with killing him. Now on that day a great persecution began against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were forced to scatter3 throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria. 2 Some devout men buried Stephen and made loud lamentation over him. 3 But Saul was trying to destroy the church; entering one house after another, he dragged off both men and women and put them in prison (Acts 8:1-3).
Just a couple of verses before this, we read these words by which Luke introduced Paul to the readers of the Book of Acts:
When they had driven him out of the city, they began to stone him, and the witnesses laid their cloaks at the feet of a young man named Saul (Acts 7:58).
At first glance, it might look as though Saul played but a small part in the death of Stephen. But this was hardly the case, as we begin to discover in the introductory verses of chapter 8. We are told Saul was in wholehearted agreement with those who killed Stephen. This appears to have whetted his appetite for more aggressive opposition to the saints dwelling in Jerusalem. We now find Saul going house to house, seeking to identify those who were Christians. He then arrested those who believed in Jesus and hauled them off to prison.
Opposition to the preaching of the gospel seems to take a turn here. For whatever reason, the manifestations of the opposition to the gospel have changed. Initially, opposition was directed against the apostles and not so much toward the church as a whole. Thanks to Gamaliel’s counsel, the Sanhedrin seems to have significantly reduced its overt opposition to the apostles as they took more of a “wait and see” approach to their preaching. Now the opposition seems to come more from the unbelieving Greek-speaking Jews, and it is focused on the new believers, rather than on their native Hebraic leaders (the twelve). This resulted in the scattering of the church with only the apostles remaining behind in Jerusalem.
Notice how Luke contrasts Saul (Acts 8:3), who had a hand in Stephen’s death and who is persecuting the church, with those devout men who mourned over the death of Stephen and gave him a proper burial (Acts 8:2). In the Old Testament, godly men retrieved the bodies of Saul and his sons and gave them a proper burial, for which David commended them (1 Samuel 31:12-13; see 2 Samuel 2:4-7). Those who buried Stephen were surely putting themselves at risk by identifying with him, especially since a great persecution had broken out against the believers in Jerusalem.
4 Now those who had been forced to scatter went around proclaiming the good news of the word. 5 Philip went down to the main city of Samaria and began proclaiming the Christ to them. 6 The crowds were paying attention with one mind to what Philip said, as they heard and saw the miraculous signs he was performing. 7 For unclean spirits, crying with loud shrieks, were coming out of many who were possessed, and many paralyzed and lame people were healed. 8 So there was great joy in that city (Acts 8:4-8).
Luke does something interesting here, and I believe he does so to conform to his outline for the Book of Acts, which he disclosed in Acts 1:8:
“But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the farthest parts of the earth” (Acts 1:8).
So far in Acts, we have seen the gospel spread throughout Jerusalem with the church growing rapidly – until the stoning of Stephen, that is. Now the church has scattered. In Acts 8:4-25, Luke describes how the gospel is proclaimed in Samaria. In Acts 9:31, we are told that “the church throughout Judea, Galilee, and Samaria experienced peace and thus was strengthened.” So by Acts 9:31, the gospel had been preached in Jerusalem, all Judea and Samaria. It is not until Acts 11:19 that Luke takes up the preaching of the gospel beyond Judea and Samaria. And thus the preaching of the gospel follows that geographical pattern God set down in Acts 1:8.
Those who were scattered from Jerusalem went forth preaching the good news of the gospel. A number of believers were scattered throughout Samaria (Acts 1:2). We would do well to recall the strained relationship between the Jews and the Samaritans. The Samaritans were considered inferior because they were a mixed race. After years of warning by the prophets, the northern kingdom of Israel persisted in its idolatry, and so God gave them over to the Assyrians (see 2 Kings 17). The Assyrians carried off much of the population of Israel to distant places and replaced the Israelites with subject peoples who were transplanted from other lands. The result was a mixed race that persisted in idolatry.
From this point on, there was great hostility between the Jews and the Samaritans. The Samaritan woman at the well was therefore shocked that Jesus would have anything to do with her:
7 A Samaritan woman came to draw water. Jesus said to her, “Give me some water to drink.” 8 (For his disciples had gone off into the town to buy supplies.) 9 So the Samaritan woman said to him, “How can you – a Jew – ask me, a Samaritan woman, for water to drink?” (For Jews use nothing in common with Samaritans.) (John 4:7-9)
When Jesus sent His disciples to seek accommodations in a Samaritan village, they were turned away because they were on their way to Jerusalem. James and John knew how they wanted to deal with this:
51 Now when the days drew near for him to be taken up, Jesus set out resolutely to go to Jerusalem. 52 He sent messengers on ahead of him. As they went along, they entered a Samaritan village to make things ready in advance for him, 53 but the villagers refused to welcome him, because he was determined to go to Jerusalem. 54 Now when his disciples James and John saw this, they said, “Lord, do you want us to call fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” 55 But Jesus turned and rebuked them (Luke 9:51-55, emphasis mine).
In the heat of a debate with Jesus, the Jewish religious leaders chose these words as the most insulting remark they could think of:
“Aren’t we correct in saying that you are a Samaritan and are possessed by a demon?” (John 8:48)
Jesus did not share this hatred for Samaritans. He healed ten lepers. At least one of these lepers – the only one to return to Jesus to give thanks – was a Samaritan (Luke 17:11-19). Thanks to the woman at the well – a Samaritan woman – not only she but many from her village came to faith in Jesus (John 4:3-42). When Jesus needed an illustration of loving one’s neighbor, He told the story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37). Surely some who lived in Samaria were at least vaguely familiar with Jesus.
Though many persecuted saints from Jerusalem found their way to Samaria, Philip seems to have been selected as an example (a rather dramatic one at that) of those who were scattered. He made his way to a city of Samaria, perhaps “the chief city” of Samaria.4 Philip began to preach Jesus as the Christ in this Samaritan city. If you have ever done any street preaching, you know that the crowds aren’t that big, and the presentation doesn’t capture the attention of all. Many will pass by, ignoring the preaching altogether. These folks all hung on every word Philip spoke. Luke tells us they “were paying attention with one mind” (Acts 8:6). I believe our text supplies two main reasons for this rapt attention to Philip’s preaching.
The first reason for the unusual attention given to Philip and to his preaching is recorded in verses 6-8. Philip’s ministry, like that of Stephen (Acts 6:8-15) and the apostles before that (Acts 2:43; 5:12), was authenticated by many signs and wonders. In Philip’s case, many of those who were demon possessed were dramatically delivered as the demons came out with loud shrieks. In addition, many who were paralyzed or lame were healed. As a result, there was great rejoicing in that city. No doubt these signs and wonders gave Philip’s preaching a “ring of authority,” so that people paid close attention to what he said.
There is a second reason for the attention people paid to Philip’s preaching, and it is described for us in the following verses.
9 Now in that city was a man named Simon, who had been practicing magic and amazing the people of Samaria, claiming to be someone great. 10 All the people, from the least to the greatest, paid close attention to him, saying, “This man is the power of God that is called ‘Great.’” 11 And they paid close attention to him because he had amazed them for a long time with his magic. 12 But when they believed Philip as he was proclaiming the good news about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they began to be baptized, both men and women. 13 Even Simon himself believed, and after he was baptized, he stayed close to Philip constantly, and when he saw the signs and great miracles that were occurring, he was amazed (Acts 8:9-13).
Suppose that Harry Houdini were alive today and that he lived in Dallas, Texas. If he were scheduled for a performance, a large crowd would surely show up. For years, Houdini amazed the crowds with his incredible escapes. Now suppose that a young preacher came to town and that his preaching was accompanied by many awesome signs and wonders. Imagine that it became known that Houdini was so taken with this young preacher that he gave up his performances to follow that young preacher wherever he went. He would sit in the front row and marvel at the signs and wonders that accompanied the preacher’s sermons. Would you not agree that Houdini’s awe and wonder, along with his appearances in the crowds who listened to the preacher, would greatly contribute to the popularity of this young preacher?
I think this is what happened with Philip and Simon the magician. For years, Simon had been amazing the folks of this Samaritan city – and the rest of Samaria – with his magic. Through slight of hand (or possibly by employing powers from the dark side), his power seemed unlimited. Simon was not reluctant to promote himself, either. Luke tells us that he “claimed to be someone great” (Acts 8:9). We are then told that the people thought of him as God. (In their minds, he is virtually the counterpart of Jesus.) Simon made no attempt to correct the popular misconception. I suspect that he promoted such thinking. In some ways, then, Simon was a Samaritan “messiah.” What an impact his “conversion” made on the people of Samaria. And not only did he profess belief and submit to baptism, he virtually attached himself to Philip, following him wherever he preached. No wonder the Samaritans were listening so intently to Philip.
14 Now when the apostles in Jerusalem heard that Samaria had accepted the word of God, they sent Peter and John to them. 15 These two went down and prayed for them so that they would receive the Holy Spirit. 16 (For the Spirit had not yet come upon any of them, but they had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus.) 17 Then Peter and John placed their hands on the Samaritans, and they received the Holy Spirit (Acts 8:14-17).
Until now, signs and wonders had only been performed by Philip (and of course the twelve apostles and Stephen before him). Philip’s signs and wonders seemed to be limited to exorcisms and healings. Philip had baptized new believers, including Simon, but none had yet received the Holy Spirit. God sovereignly delayed this until the arrival of two apostles, who were sent from Jerusalem as representatives of the twelve (Acts 8:14). I have to smile when I recall that John was one of the two disciples who had asked permission to call down fire from heaven on a Samaritan village (Luke 9:52-56). Now, as it were, he calls down the Spirit of God to fall upon these new Samaritan believers.
Much discussion has been devoted to explaining why the Spirit waited to “baptize” these new believers. We must begin by noting that our text does not directly give us the answer. Several possible reasons do come to mind. First, these new believers must be embraced as full-fledged members of the church by the Jewish Christians (see Ephesians 2:11-22). Who better to validate their faith in Jesus than two of the apostles from Jerusalem? In Acts 11, Peter will argue that he had to accept the new believers to whom he preached in the house of Cornelius and that he was obligated to baptize them. Here, Peter and John witness the “baptism of the Spirit,” which is God’s seal on the conversion of these believers. How could they deny what God had done, to which He bore witness through the coming of the Spirit on these believers?
Second, these new Samaritan believers needed the affirmation and confirmation of their equal standing in Jesus by the actions of the apostles sent from Jerusalem. Just as the Jerusalem Jews needed confirmation of the conversion of these Samaritans, so the Samaritans needed confirmation of their acceptance and affirmation by the Jewish apostles, as represented by Peter and John.
Third, there may be a deliberate “division of powers” here. That is, Philip had a certain function, but that function had its limits. The apostles took up where Philip’s responsibilities (and authority) left off. This was a matter of practical import. Philip was very highly regarded by the Samaritans. There was a danger of Philip being too highly esteemed (as can be seen with Simon). Notice how quickly Simon transfers his attention to Peter and John after their arrival. It might have been very unhealthy for Philip to have carried out all of the spectacular functions which, instead, were divided between Philip and Peter and John.
18 Now Simon, when he saw that the Spirit was given through the laying on of the apostles’ hands, offered them money, 19 saying, “Give me this power too, so that everyone I place my hands on may receive the Holy Spirit.” 20 But Peter said to him, “May your silver perish with you, because you thought you could acquire God’s gift with money! 21 You have no share or part in this matter because your heart is not right before God! 22 Therefore repent of this wickedness of yours, and pray to the Lord that he may perhaps forgive you for the intent of your heart. 23 For I see that you are bitterly envious and in bondage to sin.” 24 But Simon replied, “You pray to the Lord for me so that nothing of what you have said may happen to me.” 25 So after Peter and John had solemnly testified and spoken the word of the Lord, they started back to Jerusalem, proclaiming the good news to many Samaritan villages as they went (Acts 8:18-25).
I find it interesting that Simon the magician did not express a desire to obtain the power that was demonstrated by the signs and wonders performed by Philip. He was very eager, however, to obtain the power that he saw as a result of the laying on of hands by Peter and John. What was the difference? While Luke tells us that Philip cast out demons and healed those who were paralyzed and lame (Acts 8:7), he does not tell us exactly what happened when Peter and John laid their hands on the new believers. Something rather spectacular must have occurred, or Simon would not have been so eager to obtain this power. I think it is safe to speculate that something happened that was similar to Pentecost, as described in Acts 2:1-4. We do know that when the apostles laid their hands on these Samaritan believers, they received the Holy Spirit (Acts 8:17).
Simon was wrong to offer money to obtain the power to do what Peter and John had been doing. In the first place, this power was restricted to Peter and John. Not even Philip had been given this kind of power. Simon, therefore, was asking to have the power of an apostle. Second, Simon was asking for the power to bestow the Holy Spirit on everyone (Acts 8:19). Whoever he laid his hands on would receive the Spirit. The Holy Spirit was to come only upon genuine believers. Simon seems to care little about the necessity of belief; he wants merely to market the manifestations of the Spirit as a commodity. Third, by viewing the gift of the Spirit as a commodity to be bought and sold, he implied that this was a matter of works, not of grace. How horrible it would be if salvation could be bought and sold. Buying and selling the presence of the Spirit is just as wrong, and for the same reason. Salvation and the indwelling of the Spirit is a gift of grace, not goods to be bought and sold.
The seriousness of Simon’s sin is indicated by the severity of Peter’s response to Simon’s request:
“May your silver perish with you, because you thought you could acquire God’s gift with money!” (Acts 8:20)
J. B. Phillips renders Peter’s words, “To hell with you and your money.” In a footnote, Phillips indicates that his rendering is precisely how the original text reads, and he bemoans the fact that many translations have paraphrased these words. How ironic that a paraphrase is more accurate than a supposedly literal rendering.
There are many who would like to conclude that Simon never really was saved. They would like to believe that Christians never had such worldly motives, but we should know our own hearts well enough to admit that on occasion our motives are not that different from those of Simon. Think, for example, of the sinful motives of Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5:1-11, or of Gehazi’s sin in 2 Kings 5:20-27.
It is not so easy to write Simon off as an unbeliever. We must first come to terms with Luke when he tells us that Simon believed and was baptized (Acts 8:13). Even after Simon tries to buy apostolic powers, Peter does not call on him to repent and be saved, but rather to repent of this specific sin, and ask forgiveness for it (Acts 8:22). Peter has a particular sin in mind and not Simon’s sins in general.
Furthermore, Peter told Simon that he had “no share or part in this matter” (Acts 8:21). A simple reading of this statement would seem to lead one to conclude that “this matter” is the bestowing of the Spirit, not the matter of being saved. Simon is “bitterly envious and in bondage to sin” (Acts 8:23). I understand these words in the light of this text in Deuteronomy:
14 “It is not with you alone that I am making this covenant by oath, 15 but with whoever stands with us here today before the Lord our God as well as those not with us here today. 16 “(For you know how we lived in the land of Egypt and how we crossed through the nations as we traveled. 17 You have seen their detestable things and idols of wood, stone, silver, and gold.) 18 Beware that the heart of no man, woman, clan, or tribe among you turns away from the Lord our God today to pursue and serve the gods of those nations; beware that there is among you no root producing poisonous and bitter fruit. 19 When such a person hears the words of this oath he secretly blesses himself and says, “I will have peace though I continue to walk with a stubborn spirit.” This will destroy the watered ground with the parched. 20 The Lord will be unwilling to forgive him, and his intense anger will rage against that man; all the curses written in this scroll will fall upon him and the Lord will obliterate his name from memory. 21 The Lord will single him out for judgment from all the tribes of Israel according to all the curses of the covenant written in this scroll of the law” (Deuteronomy 29:14-21, emphasis mine).
This is a very interesting text, a text that applies to Simon and to his sin. In Deuteronomy, Israel is about to enter into the Promised Land. They have entered into a covenant relationship with the God of Israel. These are a people who have a history of idolatry.5 They are well aware of the idols of Egypt and of the nations through which they have passed. They could easily be tempted to embrace some of these gods and, at the same time, still profess allegiance to God.6 God’s covenant was not given as a “good luck charm,” a license to do whatever they wanted and still expect God’s blessings. And so Moses warns the Israelites not to turn back to their old ways and to serve other gods (idols). He tells them not to expect God’s blessings when they continue to live as they once did, before they were redeemed. This would make them a “root producing poisonous and bitter fruit” (Deuteronomy 29:18).
Simon seems to be doing what God warned Israel not to do. Previous to his coming to faith, Simon’s magic not only appears to have made him a very comfortable living; it also made him a very popular and powerful man. When the gospel came to Samaria, Simon believed, but he did not seem to grasp the implications of his faith in regard to his previous way of life. It would seem that Simon asked to buy the power and authority of the apostles to bestow the Holy Spirit so that this might be his new, and even more powerful, performance. He was seeking to upgrade his previous performance. In reality, this was turning back to his old ways, to his old magic, and thus it was turning away from God. That was a most dangerous thing to do.
Simon’s response to Peter’s rebuke is less than encouraging:
“You pray to the Lord for me so that nothing of what you have said may happen to me” (Acts 8:24).
Peter urged Simon to repent of this sin, and instead, Simon urged Peter and John to pray for him themselves (Acts 8:24). It is as though he fears that his prayers will not count, but he assumes that the prayers of Peter and John will. At best, this reveals an inadequate grasp of doctrine. As Paul put it,
5 For there is one God and one intermediary between God and humanity, Christ Jesus, himself human, 6 who gave himself as a ransom for all, revealing God’s purpose at his appointed time (1 Timothy 2:5-6).
The writer to the Hebrews said,
15 For we do not have a high priest incapable of sympathizing with our weaknesses, but one who has been tempted in every way just as we are, yet without sin. 16 Therefore let us confidently approach the throne of grace to receive mercy and find grace whenever we need help (Hebrews 4:15-16).
Simon seems focused on the apostles, as though their prayers for him would be more effectual than his own prayer of repentance. That is a serious error, but I believe there is another error here as well. Simon is not as concerned with the fact that he has sinned as he is about the consequences of his sin. He asks the apostles to pray so that the consequences of his sin might not come upon him. I guess what I am saying is this: Simon does not express concern for the impact of his sin on his relationship with the Lord; instead, he only seems only to be concerned about suffering the penalty for his sin.
A good deal of attention has been given to this question, and it is interesting to see how many want to disown Simon as a true believer. Let’s face it; it makes us uncomfortable to think that a true believer could be guilty of this kind of sin. How much easier it is to explain Simon’s actions as those of one outside the faith. After all, if Simon could sin this way as a Christian, then I am in danger of committing the same sin. If Simon is not a true believer, then I don’t need to be very concerned about his sin.
I confess that I have been inclined to view Simon as a non-Christian myself. But I am most reluctant to conclude that the Bible does not mean what it rather clearly states. We are told plainly that Simon himself believed (Acts 8:13). In the context, the rather clear inference is that Simon believed, just as other Samaritans had (see Acts 8:13). One might even go so far as to say that some Samaritans were drawn to faith in Jesus because Simon believed.7 I think we are better off to take the text as it is rather than set its statements aside. And so we will deal with Simon as though he was a believer (as the text states). Isn’t his sin one which any Christian could commit? I believe so, and thus there is in Peter’s strong rebuke a warning for us all. We will come back to this at the close of this message.
26 Then an angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Get up and go south on the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” (This is a desert road.) 27 So he got up and went. There he met an Ethiopian eunuch, a court official of Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, who was in charge of all her treasury. He had come to Jerusalem to worship, 28 and was returning home, sitting in his chariot, reading the prophet Isaiah. 29 Then the Spirit said to Philip, “Go over and join this chariot.” 30 So Philip ran up to it and heard the man reading Isaiah the prophet. He asked him, “Do you understand what you’re reading?” 31 The man replied, “How in the world can I, unless someone guides me?” So he invited Philip to come up and sit with him. 32 Now the passage of scripture the man was reading was this: “He was led like a sheep to slaughter, and like a lamb before its shearer is silent, so he did not open his mouth. 33 In humiliation justice was taken from him. Who can describe his posterity? For his life was taken away from the earth.” 34 Then the eunuch said to Philip, “Please tell me, who is the prophet saying this about – himself or someone else?” 35 So Philip started speaking, and beginning with this scripture proclaimed the good news about Jesus to him. 36 Now as they were going along the road, they came to some water, and the eunuch said, “Look, there is water! What is to stop me from being baptized?” 38 So he ordered the chariot to stop, and both Philip and the eunuch went down into the water, and Philip baptized him. 39 Now when they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away, and the eunuch did not see him any more, but went on his way rejoicing. 40 Philip, however, found himself at Azotus, and as he passed through the area, he proclaimed the good news to all the towns until he came to Caesarea (Acts 8:26-40).
I have heard it said that Philip was called to leave a thriving and successful ministry in Samaria to go out to this desert road leading from Jerusalem to Gaza. I’m not so sure that this is the case. In verse 25, we read that the Apostles Peter and John have finished their ministry in Samaria and have headed back to Jerusalem, preaching Jesus as they went. It looks as though the task in Samaria was finished, so that the evangelist (Philip)8 could leave to minister elsewhere. The disciples left, heading back to Jerusalem, while Stephen was directed to go the opposite way on this road, toward Gaza.
Notice that Philip is not told why he is to go this way, although he will shortly find out. He is not told anything regarding what ministry he will perform, or to whom. He is simply instructed to go in a certain direction. Philip faithfully obeys, and thus he encounters the eunuch. This eunuch was a very influential man. He was a court official of the queen of Ethiopia and was in charge of her treasury (Acts 8:27).
His visit to Jerusalem was not official. He was interested enough in the Jewish faith to make this long journey. He had come to worship and was now returning home. He had somehow acquired a portion (if not all) of the Book of Isaiah and was reading it aloud as he traveled. The Spirit of God now directed Philip to make contact with the chariot. Even here, divine guidance is not entirely specific. Assuming that there was at least a driver, and perhaps someone else (a guard?), Philip is pointed in the right direction and is required to assess the situation and respond appropriately.
Philip could hardly miss this opportunity. The eunuch was reading aloud from the words of Isaiah 53. Specifically, Luke indicates that he was reading the words of Isaiah 53:7-8. If this is where he was in Isaiah at that moment, then we can confidently assume that he has already read the earlier verses, which are all about the Messiah, our Lord Jesus Christ. Philip did not need to be told what to do next. He simply asked the eunuch if he understood what he was reading. The eunuch did not. He could not figure out whether Isaiah was speaking of himself, or of someone else. He invited Philip into his chariot, so that he could explain the meaning of this prophecy.
Opening his mouth,9 Philip began at this text and preached the Lord Jesus to him. How I would have loved to hear that Bible study. It must have been something similar to what Jesus taught the two men on the road to Emmaus (see Luke 24:25-27). The heart of the eunuch was prepared, and he quickly embraced Jesus as his Messiah. They approached some source of water, perhaps an oasis of some kind, and the eunuch seized this opportunity to be baptized. When they came out of the water, Philip was snatched away by the Spirit, and the eunuch went on his way back to Ethiopia, rejoicing in his salvation.
I set out in this message to find the connective link between these two accounts in chapter 8 of Acts: (1) the story of the salvation of the Samaritans (including Simon); and, (2) the account of the conversion of the Ethiopian eunuch. The one clear link between these two accounts is Philip. He is instrumental in the conversion of many Samaritans, as well as in the conversion of the Ethiopian eunuch. But is this the only connection, the only link? I think not. I perceive it to be the obvious link, which prompts us to look more deeply for other, more subtle (but substantial) links.
While there may be similarities between the Samaritan revival and the salvation of the eunuch, let’s begin by considering the differences in these two accounts. I believe that Luke has deliberately set these accounts side-by-side so that we will note a contrast between them.
There are some obvious contrasts, of course. Philip is in the city in Samaria; he is on a desert road with the eunuch. The Samaritans are Israel’s neighbors, but they are greatly disliked by the Jews because they are considered half-breeds; the eunuch is a God-fearing Gentile, and thus accepted as such by the Jews. These, however, are not the points of contrast on which I wish to focus.
Consider the degree to which signs and wonders have played a role thus far in the Book of Acts. It was the miracle at Pentecost that first attracted a crowd, to which Peter preached a powerful message about Jesus the Messiah (Acts 2). It was the healing of the lame man outside the temple which created the next occasion for Peter to preach, so that many more came to faith. As persecution began to arise, the church prayed for boldness and for God’s hand to be apparent in signs and wonders, and God answered their prayers (Acts 4:23-31). The death of Ananias and Sapphira was also understood as an act of God, bringing fear to believers and unbelievers alike (Acts 5:11, 13). Nevertheless, the hand of God continued to work in a powerful way (Acts 5:14-16). Stephen was likewise distinguished by his powerful preaching, accompanied by wonders and signs (Acts 6:8-10).
With all these miracles, one might become overly attracted to signs and wonders, “addicted,” dare I say, to the spectacular. I believe that this happened to Elijah, and God found it necessary to correct his thinking regarding the spectacular:
9 He went into a cave there and spent the night. All of a sudden the Lord spoke to him, “Why are you here, Elijah?” 10 He answered, “I have been absolutely loyal to the Lord, the sovereign God, even though the Israelites have abandoned the agreement they made with you, torn down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left and now they want to take my life.” 11 The Lord said, “Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord. Look, the Lord is ready to pass by.” A very powerful wind went before the Lord, digging into the mountain and causing landslides, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the windstorm there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. 12 After the earthquake, there was a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. After the fire, there was a soft whisper. 13 When Elijah heard it, he covered his face with his robe and went out and stood at the entrance to the cave. All of a sudden a voice asked him, “Why are you here, Elijah?” (1 Kings 19:9-13)
God was not to be found in the great wind, nor in the earthquake, nor in the fire, but rather in the soft whisper. There may be some today who suppose that unless there are unusual signs and wonders, God may not be present, and He may not be powerfully at work in our midst. This is not to deny signs and wonders, but only to show that God can powerfully save men without them.
Now consider our text. Up to this point in Acts, God’s presence and power have been demonstrated by great signs and wonders. But He has also been at work through great preaching. When we come to Acts 8, we are hardly surprised to find signs and wonders associated with Philip’s ministry (Acts 8:5-8, 13). Simon’s obsession with miracles (both those of Philip and those of Peter and John) should serve to caution us regarding similar fixations. We then see Simon’s obsession turn to sin when he seeks to buy the power to bestow the Spirit of God on men (for a fee, no doubt). As the account of the Samaritan revival comes to a close, we do not have a very good feeling about Simon. All does not end “happily ever after” for him. At the least, we wonder if he ever truly repented of this particular sin.
And then we come to the conversion of the Ethiopian eunuch at the end of chapter 8. Here the spectacular is largely missing. Granted, God’s Spirit directs Philip to the desert road where he meets the eunuch, and He then instructs Philip to make contact with this man. But none of this supernatural guidance is known to the eunuch. From his vantage point, nothing spectacular has occurred prior to his faith in Jesus. That is, he was not aware of anything spectacular, so spectacular events had no bearing on his conversion – unlike Simon the magician, whose conversion seems to have been heavily influenced by signs and wonders. Only after the eunuch was saved and baptized did he observe something spectacular – Philip’s amazing exit.
Since signs and wonders were not the explanation for the conversion of the eunuch, to what do we attribute his conversion? I think the answer is: the Word of God, the Spirit of God, and the testimony of this man of God. The eunuch’s heart was already prepared when Philip encountered him. He must have had a fair knowledge of the Jewish faith, enough to prompt him to travel a long distance to worship in Jerusalem. He must have paid a high price for his copy of Scripture. The Spirit of God not only prompted Philip to make the journey to meet the eunuch, He also opened the heart of the eunuch to receive Stephen’s exposition of the Word.
I think the point is clear. Signs and wonders were necessary to accredit the apostles as God’s authoritative spokesmen (2 Corinthians 12:11-13; Hebrews 2:1-4). But they are not necessary for the on-going work of evangelism.10 The conversion of Simon, based heavily on signs and wonders, is certainly not described as being superior to the conversion of the eunuch, which was not prompted by such miracles. Put differently, the conversion of the eunuch was every bit as miraculous as that of Simon and the Samaritans. Signs and wonders are thus portrayed as optional, and not as requirements, for evangelism.
Next, I find in our text further examples of the sovereignty of God. I see this in the way God employs all things to promote His glory. God used the opposition of the Sanhedrin, the stoning of Stephen, and the opposition of Saul to scatter the Jerusalem saints, and thus to set in motion the fulfillment of the Great Commission. God used Simon the magician to testify to the true and greater power of God through Philip and the apostles (Peter and John). Because of Simon’s fascination with the signs and wonders performed by these men, many Samaritans gave a listening ear to the preaching of the gospel, and many came to faith. I believe that God also used the Ethiopian eunuch to proclaim the gospel in Ethiopia. God used those who obeyed Him, those who sought Him, and those who opposed Him to accomplish salvation, and thus to glorify Himself.
Furthermore, we see how God sovereignly prepared the hearts of men. God prepared Saul for salvation through his instruction by Gamaliel, by his role in the stoning of Stephen, and by his opposition to the church. God prepared the people of Samaria by using Simon the magician. (He may also have prepared the Samaritan people by the salvation of the Samaritan woman – see John 4:3-42.) God’s preparation of the heart of the Ethiopian is quite evident. He was ready for the witness of Philip.
I also see the sovereignty of God in the way He worked strategically through key individuals. The other day, my friend, Fred Smith, was discussing the concept of the “key log.” Logs are sometimes transported to a lumber mill by way of a river. At times, the logs will “jam,” forming a kind of dam, thus preventing the logs from moving downstream. In a log jam, there is usually a “key log,” a log that, if removed, will impact all the others, clearing the jam. You might say that the “key log” is the strategic log.
I believe we see God at work strategically in the Book of Acts moving “key logs” so that others were greatly impacted. God frequently multiplies the impact of the gospel by raising up or making use of strategic people. We have seen several strategic people in the last few chapters of Acts (chapters 6-8 in particular). God raised up two men – Stephen and Philip – from among the seven “deacons” who were appointed to oversee the care of the widows in Jerusalem. Stephen played a key role in the proclamation of the gospel, both by his preaching, and by his martyrdom. Philip also played a crucial role in evangelizing Samaria, as well as in pointing the Ethiopian eunuch to Jesus. The Ethiopian eunuch must have played a strategic role in taking the gospel to Ethiopia. God placed him in a very influential position, and this would have made him a strategic person in the spread of the gospel in his country. God also used Simon as a “key log” or strategic person. Because he had a very large following, his decision to follow Jesus must have caused others to listen to Philip’s preaching with interest. Saul is perhaps the most strategic person of all. His conversion is the watershed of Gentile evangelism in the Book of Acts.
What we have said above has a great deal to do with evangelism. First of all, it should impact our prayer life. We ought to be encouraged to pray for the salvation of the lost. We should even be encouraged to pray that God would save strategic individuals, so that their conversion and faith would impact large groups of people. Our church has partnered with the Church of the Open Door in California to pray for the salvation of key, strategic people who will impact many others, and perhaps bring about a great revival in our nation and abroad.
Twice in recent years, we have asked Colin McDougall from the Church of the Open Door to come to our church and speak on the topics of discipleship and prayer. One of the many things I have learned from Colin is that we should pray much more that God would prepare the hearts of lost sinners, and then bring them to us (or us to them). Colin has found that God has brought people to him whose hearts have been prepared for the gospel. In the Book of Acts, Luke reveals how God has prepared men and women to receive the gospel. Let us be encouraged to pray more in this regard – pray that God would open the hearts of men and women, and then lead us to them, or them to us, with the good news of the gospel.
As I was thinking about our text, it occurred to me that Simon’s sin is one that can be a temptation for any Christian. Simon sought to prostitute the grace of God, so that it served his personal interests. He wanted to “broker” God’s grace, buying the power to bestow the Spirit and (undoubtedly) selling the gift of the Spirit for personal gain. This is a most serious matter, as we should be able to discern from the severity of Peter’s rebuke.
Simon’s sin may take a slightly different form in our lives, but in essence, it is the same. God has given every Christian at least one spiritual gift so that we may edify (or build up) the body of Christ (Romans 12:3-8; 1 Corinthians 12; Ephesians 4:11-13; 1 Peter 4:10-11). Our gifts are not given so much for our own personal benefit (though we do benefit from them) as they are for the building up of the body of Christ (Ephesians 4:11-13; 1 Corinthians 12:7; 14:12, 26). Salvation is by grace, apart from human merit or contribution. How dare anyone seek to pervert or prostitute God’s grace for personal gain! And that gain is not always monetary. It may be that we misappropriate the grace of God for the praise of men and ego satisfaction. Let us beware of misappropriating those manifestations of divine grace, for purposes other than edifying men and glorifying God. Here is a sin of which we are all capable, and of which most of us are, at one time or another, guilty.
How different Simon was from Saul – soon to be the Apostle Paul. After believing in Jesus, Simon sought to “use” God to his own advantage; Saul, on the other hand, was eager to be used by God, for the spread of the gospel. When Simon believed in God, he did not seem to grasp that he had died in Christ, and that his life as a believer was to be entirely new. That is something that Saul quickly grasped, and later taught:
I have been crucified with Christ, and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me. So the life I now live in the body, I live because of the faithfulness of the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me (Galatians 2:20).
17 So I say this, and insist in the Lord, that you no longer live as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their thinking. 18 They are darkened in their understanding, being alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them due to the hardness of their hearts. 19 Because they are callous, they have given themselves over to indecency for the practice of every kind of impurity with greediness. 20 But you did not learn about Christ like this, 21 if indeed you heard about him and were taught in him, just as the truth is in Jesus. 22 You were taught with reference to your former way of life to lay aside the old man who is being corrupted in accordance with deceitful desires, 23 to be renewed in the spirit of your mind, 24 and to put on the new man who has been created in God’s image – in righteousness and holiness that comes from truth (Ephesians 4:17-24).
The radical change that salvation is designed to produce is symbolized in Christian baptism. When we were joined with Christ by faith, we were joined to Him in His death to sin, and in His resurrection to newness of life. And thus we dare not revert back to our former attitudes, motivations, and actions:
3 Or do you not know that as many as were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? 4 Therefore we have been buried with him through baptism into death, in order that just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too may live a new life. 5 For if we have become united with him in the likeness of his death, we will certainly also be united in the likeness of his resurrection. 6 We know that our old man was crucified with him so that the body of sin would no longer dominate us, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. 7 (For someone who has died has been freed from sin.) 8 Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. 9 We know that since Christ has been raised from the dead, he is never going to die again; death no longer has mastery over him. 10 For the death he died, he died to sin once for all, but the life he lives, he lives to God. 11 So you too consider yourselves dead to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus (Romans 6:3-11).
God used a Simon and an unbelieving Saul, but how much better to be used like Philip, who obediently followed the leading of the Holy Spirit, and willingly bore testimony to the Lord Jesus. He knew the Scriptures so well he could take up from the very text the eunuch was reading, and beginning there, proclaim the Lord Jesus. May we be that kind of instrument in God’s hands, to the salvation of the lost and to the glory of God.
1 Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the NET Bible. The NEW ENGLISH TRANSLATION, also known as THE NET BIBLE, is a completely new translation of the Bible, not a revision or an update of a previous English version. It was completed by more than twenty biblical scholars who worked directly from the best currently available Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek texts. The translation project originally started as an attempt to provide an electronic version of a modern translation for electronic distribution over the Internet and on CD (compact disk). Anyone anywhere in the world with an Internet connection will be able to use and print out the NET Bible without cost for personal study. In addition, anyone who wants to share the Bible with others can print unlimited copies and give them away free to others. It is available on the Internet at: www.netbible.org.
2 Copyright © 2006 by Community Bible Chapel, 418 E. Main Street, Richardson, TX 75081. This is the edited manuscript of Lesson 13 in the Studies in the Book of Acts series prepared by Robert L. Deffinbaugh on February 5, 2006. Anyone is at liberty to use this lesson for educational purposes only, with or without credit. The Chapel believes the material presented herein to be true to the teaching of Scripture, and desires to further, not restrict, its potential use as an aid in the study of God’s Word. The publication of this material is a grace ministry of Community Bible Chapel.
3 This term “scatter” is used only by Luke and is found only in Acts 8:1, 4 and 11:19. As some commentators have noted, it is a word used for the scattering of seed, an apt way to describe the dispersion of the church and the resulting spread of the gospel.
4 The Greek manuscripts differ as to whether the definite article (“the”) is present before Samaria. Thus, some translations render, “a city of Samaria,” while others render it, “the city of Samaria.” Obviously, the translators of the NET Bible concluded that the definite article should be included, and they rendered it in such a way as to convey the idea that this particular city was “the main city of Samaria.”
5 Stephen referred to the idolatry of Israel in his sermon, when he cited Amos 5:26-27 (Acts 7:43).
6 This is essentially what they did with the golden calf (see Exodus 32:1-8).
7 Their conversion was the sovereign, saving work of God, and God used Simon’s conversion as one of many means He used to point others to Jesus.
8 In Acts 21:8, he is called “Philip the evangelist.”
9 The expression, to open one’s mouth (and then to speak), is not unique to this text. We find it in Matthew 5:2, where Jesus began to teach the Sermon on the Mount. I cannot help but note the close proximity of this statement in Acts 8:35 to the statement from Isaiah 53:7, cited in Acts 8:32: “. . . so he did not open his mouth.” Jesus was silent at His death (see also 1 Peter 2:22-23), and so it is Philip who speaks to explain Messiah’s death and resurrection, and the salvation it achieved. We, too, are to open our mouths and speak of Him who suffered silently (see Colossians 4:6; 1 Peter 3:15).
10 I am not saying that God cannot or will not use signs and wonders in this age if He sovereignly chooses to do so; I am saying that we dare not insist that He must do so.