Thursday, June 30, 2022

Acts 8:9-25

Acts 8:9–25: Simon the Magician Believes


In the last passage we saw Philip go to Samaria, preaching the Word and performing miracles, and many people believing (though they didn’t receive the Holy Spirit, which we’ll come back to).

In this passage we meet a man named Simon who is one of those converts. Before he converted he’d had a history:

But there was a man named Simon, who had previously practiced magic in the city and amazed the people of Samaria, saying that he himself was somebody great. They all paid attention to him, from the least to the greatest, saying, “This man is the power of God that is called Great.” And they paid attention to him because for a long time he had amazed them with his magic. (verses 9–11)

I don’t know if it has specific meaning or not—the ESV Study Bible notes didn’t say anything about it—but I love the phrase “paid attention to him.” It’s so… specific! The passage doesn’t say that he was a leader, or that people followed him, or that people respected him, it says that people paid attention to him. If people said that about me I’d take it as a high compliment!

However, as stated, this is before; when Simon hears Philip’s preaching and sees the miracles he becomes a believer and continues with Philip (verse 13), which I assume means that he’s somehow working with Philip in spreading the Word. Despite how impressive his own resume had been as a magician, Simon is amazed at the miracles performed by Philip.

As mentioned, however, the people in Samaria who are becoming believers, and even being baptized, aren’t receiving the Holy Spirit. So Peter and John come to Samaria to pray and lay hands on the believers, and the Holy Spirit then comes. (The way the passage is worded it seems to be obvious to all when the Spirit arrives, so I’m assuming there are outward signs; whether it’s tongues of fire the way it was in 2:1–13 or something else, the passage doesn’t say.)

Simon, who was already amazed at Philip’s miracles, seems to be amazed yet again. He offers Peter and John money for them to give him this same power to give the gift of the Holy Spirit.

As would be expected, this conversation doesn’t go well:

But Peter said to him, “May your silver perish with you, because you thought you could obtain the gift of God with money! You have neither part nor lot in this matter, for your heart is not right before God. Repent, therefore, of this wickedness of yours, and pray to the Lord that, if possible, the intent of your heart may be forgiven you. For I see that you are in the gall of bitterness and in the bond of iniquity.” And Simon answered, “Pray for me to the Lord, that nothing of what you have said may come upon me.” (verses 20–24)

After this Peter and John do some more preaching and then return to Jerusalem, continuing to preach the Gospel in the villages of Samaria along the way.


I ended up with two big questions coming out of this passage that I had to look deeply into:

  1. Is Simon actually a believer, and
  2. Why didn’t the believers in Samaria initially receive the Holy Spirit?

Is Simon a Believer?

I’ll just state up front that yes, I think Simon is a believer, though others have good reasons to disagree, so I don’t consider it a slam dunk. The ESV Study Bible notes, for example, have a few points on this:

Acts 8:13 Not only the Samaritans but Simon also believed and was baptized. Commentators differ over whether Simon had genuine saving faith. Peter’s strong rebuke to Simon soon after would suggest that Simon did not have genuine saving faith (see vv. 20–21).

and then:

Acts 8:21 Neither part nor lot is OT language for having no share in something (see Deut. 12:12; 14:27), and this seems to indicate that Simon has now disclosed the condition of his heart and that he did not truly belong to the people of God. The strong language in Acts 8:23 also seems to class Simon as an unbeliever (but see note on v. 13).

and then:

Acts 8:24 Whether Simon was truly repentant or not is unclear. Against that possibility is the tradition tied to Simon that he was the “first heretic” and the fact that he does not indicate he will do anything to show repentance.

So even though I think he was a believer, I’m recognizing that others don’t. But verse 13 does explicitly say that he believed, and he does seem repentant in verse 24 (though the notes quoted above indicate that there are people who doubt the sincerity of that repentance). So in my reading of this passage, even though Peter is very harsh in his criticism of Simon, I’m not reading this as saying that Simon isn’t a believer, I’m reading it that Simon is a believer who is still ensnared by his old ways. (Offering money would have definitely been consistent with how Simon previously behaved as a magician! It was how he made a living, after all.)

An item that goes against my thinking Simon is a believer is in that same verse 24, when he asks Peter to pray to the Lord on his behalf. Why wouldn’t Simon have prayed on his own? I don’t find that a strong argument, though: if I’m right that Simon was a believer I’m sure he did pray on his own, but he’s also just seen demonstrated that the Apostles have more “power” than everyone else, so it’s not surprising that he’d also ask Peter to pray for him.

A stronger argument against my thinking he is a believer is that he doesn’t really seem to understand the relationship between believing and receiving the Spirit. However, again, given this specific circumstance—a set of people who have come to genuine faith, but still haven’t received the Spirit—I wouldn’t blame him for not having his theology completely figured out on this point.

Whether Simon was a believer who was still ensnared by his old ways or whether he was so ensnared by his old ways that he didn’t ever come to faith, the main point is still that he was ensnared by his old ways! This is something all Christians can relate to; whatever our past looked like, there were things we previously did or believed that we still want to do or believe. We win some of those battles and we lose others; some of us might be so ensnared that others will wonder if we’re believers at all! But God is faithful to forgive; He has done the work necessary to forgive us for our sins, and asks us to accept that gift.

Why Didn’t the Spirit Come?

Regardless of the state of Simon’s heart there were others whose faith was not in question, so now there is the question of the Holy Spirit: why didn’t He come to the believers in Samaria before the arrival of Peter and John? The ESV Study Bible believes this to be a unique case, specifically for these particular Christians at this particular time:

Acts 8:17 they received the Holy Spirit. Apparently in this unique case, where the gospel was first moving beyond the bounds of Judaism, the Lord sovereignly waited to give any manifestation of the full power of the Holy Spirit (cf. vv. 15–16) until some of the apostles themselves could be present (Philip was not an apostle), and therefore there would be no question at all that the Samaritans had received the new covenant empowering of the Holy Spirit in the same way that the Jewish Christians had. This would show that the Samaritans should be counted full members of the one true church, the new covenant community of God’s people, founded and based at that time in Jerusalem. It would also guarantee that the Samaritans, who for many generations had been hostile toward the Jews, would not establish a separate Christian church or be excluded from the church by Jewish believers. The Spirit was given only at the hands of the apostles, to show convincingly to Samaritan and other later, non-Jewish leaders of the church that both Jews and non-Jews who believed in Jesus now had full membership status among God’s people (see Rom. 11:13–24; Eph. 2:11–22).

And this would make sense. Especially the last part they mention, about showing the Samaritans convincingly that even non-Jews now had “full membership status.” In fact, I’d go even further; I think there were two different sets of stakeholders who needed convincing of two different things:

  1. Yes, as stated, the Samaritans (and other believers from non-Jewish backgrounds, but especially the Samaritans, given their history) would need convincing that this new “religion” of Christianity grew out of Judaism. There were truths in Judaism that the Samaritans had rejected that they would now need to accept. Christianity involves believing something that is true, not just believing whatever you want to believe and uttering the name “Jesus” sometimes.
  2. On the other side, the Jews themselves would need to accept these Samaritan believers, and the Apostles’ involvement in the Samaritans receiving the Spirit would be testament to the fact that these were genuine believers, the same as the believers from Jewish backgrounds.

Interestingly, the ESV Reformation Study Bible has a different take on this, saying that the believers probably did have the Holy Spirit, just not with outward manifestations (which I’ll call “gifts” since “outward manifestations” gets bulky to keep typing):

8:15 receive the Holy Spirit. The believing Samaritans to this point had not received evidence of the dynamic inward presence of the Holy Spirit, although as believers the Holy Spirit was living in them (Rom. 8:9). …

Matthew Henry’s Commentary agrees with that notion, calling out the act of speaking in tongues in particular as a gift that was obviously missing:

I. How they advanced and improved those of them that were sincere. It is said (Acts 8:16), The Holy Ghost was as yet fallen upon none of them, in those extraordinary powers which were conveyed by the descent of the Spirit upon the day of pentecost. They were none of them endued with the gift of tongues, which seems then to have been the most usual immediate effect of the pouring out of the Spirit. See Acts 10:45, 46. This was both an eminent sign to those that believed not, and of excellent service to those that did. This, and other such gifts, they had not, only they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus, and so engaged in him and interested in him, which was necessary to salvation, and in this they had joy and satisfaction (Acts 8:8), though they could not speak with tongues. Those that are indeed given up to Christ, and have experienced the sanctifying influences and operations of the Spirit of grace, have great reason to be thankful, and no reason to complain, though they have not those gifts that are for ornament, and would make them bright. But it is intended that they should go on to the perfection of the present dispensation, for the greater honour of the gospel. We have reason to think that Philip had received these gifts of the Holy Ghost himself, but had not a power to confer them; the apostles must come to do this; and they did it not upon all that were baptized, but upon some of them, and, it should seem, such as were designed for some office in the church, or at least to be eminent active members of it; and upon some of them one gift of the Holy Ghost, and upon others another. See 1 Cor. 12:4, 8; 14:26. …

In other words—if I’m reading this older style of English correctly—Henry is saying that the most obvious sign of the lack of “gifts” was that nobody was speaking in tongues, though, knowing the passages called out from 1 Corinthians, Henry is also positing that when the Spirit did start giving outward manifestations, people would have been receiving the other spiritual gifts as well, not just tongues.

So we have a few different commentaries, one taking the passage literally (i.e. these people didn’t receive the Holy Spirit) but saying it was a unique situation, and two saying taking the passage less literally (i.e. they must have had the Spirit, just not the gifts).

I don’t know what to make of it, though I’m leaning slightly toward the ESV Study Bible notes on this one. For sure it would be problematic for me to hear about anyone becoming a genuine Christian but not having the Spirit, but I’m also clinging to the notion that this was a unique situation; we don’t have people coming to Christ today, as genuine believers, but requiring external assistance to receive the Holy Spirit.

Peter Being Sent

As a side note, Matthew Henry’s Commentary also pointed out something interesting about Peter’s involvement in this:

God had wonderfully owned Philip in his work as an evangelist at Samaria, but he could do no more than an evangelist; there were some peculiar powers reserved to the apostles, for the keeping up of the dignity of their office, and here we have an account of what was done by two of them there—Peter and John. The twelve kept together at Jerusalem (Acts 8:1), and thither these good tidings were brought them that Samaria had received the word of God (Acts 8:14), that a great harvest of souls was gathered, and was likely to be gathered in to Christ there. The word of God was not only preached to them, but received by them; they bade it welcome, admitted the light of it, and submitted to the power of it: When they heard it, they sent unto them Peter and John. If Peter had been, as some say he was, the prince of the apostles, he would have sent some of them, or, if he had seen cause, would have gone himself of his own accord; but he was so far from this that he submitted to an order of the house, and, as a servant to the body, went whither they sent him. Two apostles were sent, the two most eminent, to Samaria, 1. To encourage Philip, to assist him, and strengthen his hands. Ministers in a higher station, and that excel in gifts and graces, should contrive how they may be helpful to those in a lower sphere, and contribute to their comfort and usefulness. 2. To carry on the good work that was begun among the people, and, with those heavenly graces that had enriched them, to confer upon them spiritual gifts. …

Now I’m not familiar with this “prince of the apostles” concept, so that isn’t something I needed to grapple with, but I do take to heart the concept that those in positions of leadership or authority in the Church are servants of the body, which we are dreadfully quick to forget. Give a man a position of authority in the Church and it seems there’s a great temptation for him to treat himself the same way the world treats its leaders. It shouldn’t be that way but it too often is. In fact, it’s true so often that we can be shocked when it isn’t the case; point out someone in authority in the Church and mention that they’re very humble, and the response will typically be one of surprise—the higher in authority the person is, the more shocked people will be if he’s humble.

And yes, in this case I’m saying “he” and “him” and making it male-centric. Partially because males are much more likely to be in positions of authority in the Church than women, but also because I believe this to be a problem that plagues men more than it does women. I’m not saying women aren’t also prone to losing their humility when put into positions of authority, but I’m saying men are more prone to it. (I could be wrong about this, but it doesn’t change the fact that it’s something I’ll guard against when I’m in positions of authority.)

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