My closest friend in pastoral ministry (and thousands of miles of marathon training and running) is a fellow from a family with whom my extended family has been friends for many, many decades. We together grew up in the same small New Jersey country church, later migrating together to a different ministry where we each followed dissimilar roads toward pastoring two congregations in our home town. Being older than me, he served in Vietnam along with his brother and brother-in-law. My friend was a marine platoon leader with incredibly intense front-line war experiences, while his brother served as a pilot dropping tons of bombs upon the Viet Cong. Later in life, his brother would become the president of World Vision, and all of them have been involved with returning to Vietnam – bringing relief work and the preaching of the Gospel to the very people who had been enemies some decades before. That is the sort of change that the Gospel can bring about!A
Today’s reading tells the story of the Gospel spreading through Philip, the first real missionary, to the area of Samaria. You will recall that these people were a sort of mixed race crowd from a Jewish background and the infusion of conquering Gentile nations. The Samaritans were also despised and looked down upon by the Jews. Remember the surprise of Jesus talking with the Samaritan woman in John chapter four – along with explanations about how the Jews had nothing to do with these people? But now, the message of Jesus had come to them and many had believed and expressed their faith publically through baptism.
Among those making this profession was a fellow named Simon – a guy with the “humble” sobriquet of “The Great Power of God!” He had ability in the magic arts, perhaps even empowered by demonic spirits? But he was amazed at the ability of Philip to perform signs and wonders – these being gifts particular to this age of the establishment of the church prior to the completion of the written Word of God.
At first glance, this appears to be a fabulous conversion story. But when John and Peter come from Jerusalem to affirm these new believers, the Spirit’s power is even more profoundly evident through them – especially through their God-given ability to lay hands on people that the Spirit may come upon them in new power. The heart of Simon is revealed when he offers money to Peter and John to receive this sort of amazing power for himself and his carnival act. As is evident in the reading, Peter REALLY condemns him for this.
Even in the early church, it is interesting to see that not every last person was one of genuine faith. It has always been true that some embrace the accoutrements of the faith for a measure of personal or public gain that comes with it, rather than for actual repentance from the lost condition of sin that separates one from God. It is sobering.
But as we leave this reading, note the final verse 25 – After they had further proclaimed the word of the Lord and testified about Jesus, Peter and John returned to Jerusalem, preaching the gospel in many Samaritan villages. This is the last we will see of John in the book of Acts; but compare this ministry here with a story also written by Luke in his Gospel account, chapter 9: 51 As the time approached for him to be taken up to heaven, Jesus resolutely set out for Jerusalem. 52 And he sent messengers on ahead, who went into a Samaritan village to get things ready for him; 53 but the people there did not welcome him, because he was heading for Jerusalem. 54 When the disciples James and John saw this, they asked, “Lord, do you want us to call fire down from heaven to destroy them?” 55 But Jesus turned and rebuked them.
What a change the Gospel brought about! Here is John, no longer wanting to drop bombs on them, but rather ministering and serving with the wonderful new message of the work of Jesus. The Gospel enables us to see people beyond them being the “Viet Cong” or the “Samaritans” of our worlds – seeing people as simply lost and in need of a Savior whom we know.
Simon the Sorcerer – Acts 8:9-25
9 Now for some time a man named Simon had practiced sorcery in the city and amazed all the people of Samaria. He boasted that he was someone great, 10 and all the people, both high and low, gave him their attention and exclaimed, “This man is rightly called the Great Power of God.” 11 They followed him because he had amazed them for a long time with his sorcery. 12 But when they believed Philip as he proclaimed the good news of the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptized, both men and women. 13 Simon himself believed and was baptized. And he followed Philip everywhere, astonished by the great signs and miracles he saw.
14 When the apostles in Jerusalem heard that Samaria had accepted the word of God, they sent Peter and John to Samaria. 15 When they arrived, they prayed for the new believers there that they might receive the Holy Spirit, 16 because the Holy Spirit had not yet come on any of them; they had simply been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. 17 Then Peter and John placed their hands on them, and they received the Holy Spirit.
18 When Simon saw that the Spirit was given at the laying on of the apostles’ hands, he offered them money 19 and said, “Give me also this ability so that everyone on whom I lay my hands may receive the Holy Spirit.”
20 Peter answered: “May your money perish with you, because you thought you could buy the gift of God with money! 21 You have no part or share in this ministry, because your heart is not right before God. 22 Repent of this wickedness and pray to the Lord in the hope that he may forgive you for having such a thought in your heart. 23 For I see that you are full of bitterness and captive to sin.”
24 Then Simon answered, “Pray to the Lord for me so that nothing you have said may happen to me.”
25 After they had further proclaimed the word of the Lord and testified about Jesus, Peter and John returned to Jerusalem, preaching the gospel in many Samaritan villages.