Here we see the continuing conquest of Christ extending to the Samaritans. Colliding with their centuries of idolatry and syncretism, the Holy Spirit gets the victory and the Word goes forth with power. The message for us is to trust Him, trust His word, and not lose heart.
The Text: “And Saul was consenting unto his death. And at that time there was a great persecution against the church which was a Jerusalem; and they were all scattered abroad throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles…” (Acts 8:1-25)
SUMMARY OF THE TEXT
While Saul thought he was in the driver seat, persecuting the church, remember Jesus had foretold that the testimony of the apostles would go from Jerusalem to Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8), and here the Christians are scattered to Judea and Samaria, preaching the word everywhere they went (Acts 8:1-4). One instance of this was another deacon named Philip who preached and healed in a city of Samaria, bringing great joy (Acts 8:5-8). Among the converts was a magician named Simon who had formerly had great influence over the people, and he believed in Christ and was baptized (Acts 8:9-13). Peter and John were sent by the apostles to come and establish the church there, and when the Spirit was given to the new Christians, Simon offered money to the apostles for that power (Acts 8:14-19). Peter condemned Simon and called him to repentance for his poisonous bitterness and conspiracy of evil, and he asked for prayer, while the word continued to spread (Acts 8:20-25).
Even during a fierce persecution, devout men carried Stephen’s body to burial and mourned his death (Acts 8:1-2). This demonstrates that funerals and memorials are thoroughly Christian acts. Because Christians are those who have been joined to Jesus Christ who is the Resurrection and they can “never die” (Jn. 11:26), dying in the Lord is sometimes described as falling asleep (e.g. Acts 7:60, Jn. 11:11, 1 Thess. 4:13-16). To be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord (2 Cor. 5:8), but the physical body that we put into the ground is like a seed (1 Cor. 15:35-38). This is why historically, Christians have buried their dead instead of burning them. Luke shows us that from the beginning it was a devout practice to honor the bodies of the dead by burial, especially believers, as a testimony of our hope of the resurrection. Likewise, it is devout to mourn the dead, but we do not mourn as those without hope (1 Thess. 4:13).
THE CULT OF THE SAMARITANS
Remember that the Samaritans were basically a Jewish cult that originated at the time of the exile. Samaria was the capital of Ahab’s Baal-worshipping regime, and when the northern kingdom of Israel was conquered by Assyria, they established syncretistic practices of worship of the true God alongside other false gods (2 Kgs. 17:27-41). In keeping with this, Simon is introduced as one the leaders of their cult (Acts 8:9-11), which first of all underlines the power of the gospel to penetrate even those communities and hearts that may seem to us most dark or enslaved: modern cults, Islam, the LGBT jihad, your family, even you.
HYPOCRISY & SALVATION
This story underlines one of the hardest areas of faith to understand: the mystery of regeneration and apostasy. Here the text says that Simon “believed” and he was baptized (Acts 8:13). And yet, very quickly, a deep gall of bitterness is revealed with a tangle or conspiracy of evil (Acts 8:23). This should be something of an encouragement just to know that this kind of challenge has faced the church from the very beginning: Jesus had Judas and Paul had Demas (2 Tim. 4:10). We are in good company, if the church continues to deal with some who turn away. Jesus taught that His word would go forth like seed on different kinds of soil (Mk. 4:3-20). Some branches in the covenant vine of Christ are cut out (Jn. 15:1-7). And yet, all whom the Father has given to Christ will be preserved and raised up at the last day (Jn. 6:37-39).
So how do we parse this? The tendency of many has been to either downplay the word and sacraments, since it is sometimes empty or hypocritical, emphasizing the “invisibility” of the true church, or else over-emphasizing the efficacy of the visible ministry of the church, while making salvation something that comes and go, depending on the day or week or year. The Reformed tradition has sought to avoid both extremes by emphasizing the sovereignty of God and faith His Word. This translates into a high view of the word and sacraments, and the efficacy of the visible church, while insisting that the Spirit is totally free. Calvin described it as “all men have not that grace given them in baptism, which grace is there figured.” God really does give grace, but not all men receive it by faith in Christ. Calvin says this of Simon: “And although the receiving of baptism did profit him nothing then, yet if conversion followed afterward, as some men suppose, the profit was not extinguished nor abolished.” Many prodigals come home.
This story does not tell us what happened to Simon. It only closes with Simon asking the apostles to pray for him and the word continuing to go forth (Acts 8:24-25). Church tradition mostly suggests that he continued in his sins (hence the sin/crime of “simony”), but this story is what God has given us. And this is for our good: both a warning and a comfort.
The warning is to guard your own hearts and watch out for all bitterness and tangles of evil. We have no official system of simony in our modern evangelical churches, but there’s plenty of buying and selling of favors and flattery and popularity contests and man-pleasing. This game can be played with hospitality, friend groups, educational methods, or even theology. But you can’t buy the Holy Spirit. And this is where the poisonous root of bitterness fundamentally comes from: the sovereign Spirit who gives and rules as He pleases. Contentment is the opposite of bitterness: it rests in the Father’s gifts of His Spirit in all things (Phil. 4:11).
But there is a great comfort here as well: the gospel came to the Samaritans. While wicked men were plotting, Christ was saving all kinds of Samaritans. While the nations rage, Christ is still saving sinners, including the ones who once professed faith and have turned away in bitterness or apathy. We serve the God who raises the dead. Why does God allow this? For His own glory, but also so that we will pray more faithfully, so the Word will go forth, and so our joy will be even greater when He saves.