RPM, Volume 17, Number 19, May 3 to May 9, 2015

Buying Your Way to Power

Acts 8:9-25

By Dr. Derek W. H. Thomas

Now turn with me once again to The Acts of the Apostles, a series which we began—oh, I don't know when we began it. We began it when we were back on Sunday nights in the temporary sanctuary, and now we've moved it here for the fall...and we're in the eighth chapter.

You remember one of the most significant events in the unfolding of the purposes of God in the world as Acts describes it has just taken place, namely, the death of Stephen, the martyrdom of Stephen - this godly man, one of the seven, you remember, chosen because of the dispute that had arisen between the two sets of widows in Jerusalem. We've been introduced to Stephen and Luke has given us little indicators of what's to come (of course, we know the story so well that we don't need those indicators), but Luke has been telling us that there's a man, Saul of Tarsus (the Apostle-Paul-to-be) consenting to Stephen's death. And now in the beginning of the eighth chapter in a section that we looked at last week, he's ravaging Jerusalem, apparently turning men and women out of their homes - and a great persecution arises in Jerusalem. And the apostles, it appears, remain in Jerusalem, but many of the disciples in Jerusalem flee the city and they are scattered about (verse 4), and they went about preaching. It's the word evangel or gospel. They went about evangelizing or gospelling, or telling the good news of Jesus Christ in the locations to which they went.

And then Luke begins to unfold for us [we looked at this a couple of weeks ago before John Blanchard was here] how Philip goes to presumably the city of Samaria. The region of Samaria is that region between Jerusalem and Galilee, up north. If you drew a straight line from Jerusalem northward, you'd go through Samaritan land. It was a "no-go" area for the Jews. For the best part of a thousand years, there had been ethnic hostility between the Samaritans and the Jews in Jerusalem. The Samaritans had erected their own temple in the capital city of Samaria. When Jews from up north came down to Jerusalem for one of the stated feasts, they wouldn't normally travel through Samaria. They would cross over the River Jordan and go down on the east side, and then cross somewhere near Jericho and then head westwards toward Jerusalem.

Well, last time we saw that something akin to a revival [not the kind that Rosemary and I saw at the weekend...we were passing a big tent, and it said "Revival here Friday, Saturday, Sunday"...not that kind of revival]...but a sovereign outpouring of the Holy Spirit, when the Holy Spirit does what He ordinarily does but He does it all at once, and He does it with great intensity, and He does it with great numbers. And that marvelous little verse, verse 8, describing Samaria after the Holy Spirit had come through the preaching of Philip: "...so there was much joy in that city." There was much joy in that city.

Now we're going to pick up the next section, about Simon Magus, Simon the magician, beginning in verse 9 of Acts 8. Now before we read the passage together, let's come before God in prayer. Let's pray.

Our Father in heaven, we thank You again for the Scriptures. We thank You for the comfort of the Scriptures, how they strengthen us and embolden us, how they instruct us in all that we need to know for the life of godliness and discipleship before You. We ask now as we read this section of Scripture together that You would illuminate our minds, give us understanding, help us to see those things that we need to see. Help us to learn those things that we need to learn, and instruct us and rebuke us, and correct us and equip us for every good work. And this we ask in Jesus' name. Amen.

Now, Acts 8, beginning at verse 9:

Now there was a man named Simon, who formerly was practicing magic in the city, and astonishing the people of Samaria, claiming to be someone great; and they all, from smallest to greatest, were giving attention to him, saying, "This man is what is called the Great Power of God." And they were giving him attention because he had for a long time astonished them with his magic arts. But when they believed Philip preaching the good news about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were being baptized, men and women alike. And even Simon himself believed; and after being baptized, he continued on with Philip; and as he observed signs and great miracles taking place, he was constantly amazed.

Now when the apostles in Jerusalem heard that Samaria had received the word of God, they sent them Peter and John, who came down and prayed for them, that they might receive the Holy Spirit. For He had not yet fallen upon any of them; they had simply been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. Then they began laying their hands on them, and they were receiving the Holy Spirit. Now when Simon saw that the Spirit was bestowed through the laying of the apostles' hands, he offered them money, saying, "Give this authority to me as well, so that everyone on whom I lay my hands may receive the Holy Spirit." 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 no part or portion in this matter, for your heart is not right before God. Therefore repent of this wickedness of yours, and pray the Lord that if possible, the intention of your heart may be forgiven you. For I see that you are in the gall of bitterness and in the bondage of iniquity." But Simon answered and said, "Pray to the Lord for me yourselves, so that nothing of what you have said may come upon me." And so when they had solemnly testified and spoken the word of the Lord, they started back to Jerusalem, and were preaching the gospel to many villages of the Samaritans.

Amen. And may God add His blessing to that reading of His holy and inerrant word.

Now as we traverse through The Acts of the Apostles, there are some moments in the outflow of the history that have caused some problems. One is the passage before us tonight in Samaria; another is in Acts 10, at the household of Cornelius; and the third is in Acts 19, in Ephesus. In all three of these locations — here in Samaria, at the household of Cornelius in Acts 10, and with the incident in Ephesus in Acts 19 — there are certain [what some have seen as] problems with regard to the work of the Holy Spirit.

In some of these instances it looks as though the Holy Spirit comes in two stages. He comes first of all to convert and regenerate, and then at some later period of time through the instrumentality of another, the Holy Spirit comes and fills that person. In one instance (in the household of Cornelius), it looks as though there is another Pentecost. There is the phenomenon of speaking with tongues, giving rise to all kinds of questions as to whether Pentecost is unique or whether Pentecost is meant to be repeatable; whether speaking in tongues is meant to be something that is only associated with the Day of Pentecost, or is it something that is to be sought after and asked for, and prayed for as an experience that you or I may experience today.

Well, those are some of the questions and some of the problems that arise. Of course, our attention tonight is with Acts 8 and Simon the magician in Samaria, and some of those problems arise tonight. And I only tell you this because we'll be experiencing déjà vu shortly in Acts 10, and again when we come to Acts 19 (you'll have forgotten all about 8 and 10 by then!), but the same issue and the same problem seems to arise then.

Another issue arises. Not just the so-called "two stage experience of the Holy Spirit," but another problem arises in the passage that we've got before us tonight, and that's the whole issue of Simon the magician. He is said to have been converted. He is said to have believed and been baptized by Philip. And then, when Peter and John come down Peter says in no uncertain terms something that is extremely blunt: that he has no part in this ministry, or perhaps even that he has no part in the kingdom of God. That also has caused certain questions to be raised. Was Simon the magician converted, and did he fall from grace? Or was he not really converted at all? Or was Peter saying something not so much about his conversion or about his justification, but was Peter saying something about his consecration, about his level of sanctification? That he was saved, but barely? "He was saved, but only by the skin of his teeth," as one commentator says? [Incorrectly, I think, but that's what one commentator said!]

So I want to look tonight at two problems, but let me say in advance that's not where I want to end, because this is a wonderful passage, and I want us to see the wonder of it, and I want us to see the glory of it, and I want us to end on a positive note. But sometimes, you know, in order to be positive (like doctors very often before they can make a diagnosis they have to rule certain things out) — sometimes, you know, you have to examine the problems before you can actually see what the actual cure is, and what the solution is.

Well, in that vein I want us first of all to look at the so-called problem about the Holy Spirit coming in two stages. We read here that these Samaritans, they all paid attention to what Philip had been preaching. They believed Philip (verse 12) as he preaches the good news about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, and they were baptized, both men and women. And it looks as though later when Peter and John come down from Jerusalem.... [You understand why this is happening. Philip after all, is, well, forgive me now...don't get bent out of shape, but he's only a deacon. And maybe he's not a deacon. Maybe we should call him an evangelist or a plenipotentiary of the apostles, but he's not one of the apostles.] And understandably, perhaps, in Jerusalem there is some concern as to why Philip has gone to the Samaritans, given the 1,000-year-old controversy between Samaria and Jerusalem, and the apostles have to come and check it out for themselves. That's perfectly understandable. And when Peter comes, he discovers that these folk, these Samaritans, truly have believed. They have professed faith in Jesus Christ. They have been baptized, presumably under the auspices of Philip. But they have not received the Holy Spirit, and Peter prays for the Holy Spirit and lays hands on them, and as he lays hands on these professing believers they receive the Holy Spirit.

Now that raises a slew of questions and difficulties. It looks as though these Samaritans have been converted. They have been regenerated. They have been brought to saving faith in Jesus Christ. They have received water baptism, but their Spirit baptism occurs at a later stage. It has of course given rise to all kinds of "holiness" movements. One thinks especially of the so-called "Keswick movement" beginning in the middle of the nineteenth century, spilling well over into the twentieth century, and regarded as somewhat out of fashion and blasé these days, but a movement that certainly lasted for a hundred years, and many of you I'm sure are acquainted with the so-called "Keswick theology of second blessing": that you are converted; that you can belong to Jesus Christ; that your sins can be forgiven; but you haven't received the Holy Spirit. At least, you haven't received the Holy Spirit in full measure. You haven't been baptized by or with or in the Holy Spirit, and that is a post-conversion experience. It is an experience of consecration; it's an experience where you are suddenly advanced in sanctification all of a sudden and all at once. And sometimes, as we shall see at the household of Cornelius, it is accompanied by speaking in tongues; and usually when that is the case, these interpreters interpret those tongues as private prayer languages of some kind — ecstatic utterances which help you in your sanctification and consecration with the Lord.

Now it's not denied here. Luke doesn't at all deny that these Samaritans were truly converted, that they truly believed. And even Simon the magician is among them.

Now what are we to do with this? What are we to make of it? Is this to be explained by the uniqueness of what Samaria represents in The Acts of the Apostles and in the unfolding of the command of Jesus before He was ascended, that they were to go and make disciples from Jerusalem to Judea to Samaria to the ends of the earth? And that this is one of those staging posts as the gospel expands out and away from Jerusalem? Some have tried to argue, of course, that the apostles themselves experienced the Holy Spirit in precisely this way. They came to faith, they believed, they became followers of Jesus Christ three years before Pentecost. When Jesus first called them into a life of discipleship and they became followers of Jesus, and they believed and their sins were forgiven, but they did not receive the Holy Spirit until the day of Pentecost. So, for the apostles, their experience of the Holy Spirit was a two-staged experience. Their regeneration was an experience of the Holy Spirit, just as the belief of these Samaritans was an experience of the Holy Spirit—because we cannot believe apart from the Holy Spirit. Faith is a gift of God, created in us by the Holy Spirit, and just as the apostles believed having experienced the Holy Spirit in that way, they then subsequently experienced the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost.

Now, of course, in the case of the apostles, how could it have been otherwise?

Pentecost was a unique moment in redemptive history. Pentecost could only occur when it did occur. Pentecost could only come once Jesus had died and been raised from the dead and ascended to the right hand of God, because Pentecost represents the enthronement of Jesus at the right hand of God. Pentecost represents the Father saying to His Son, "Well done, Thou good and faithful Servant." Pentecost is the visible demonstration of the finished, completed work of Jesus. That's what Jesus had been teaching His disciples in the upper room: "I will go away, and I will come to you again," speaking, of course, of the ministry of the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost as Jesus' personal representative agent.

Well, just as Pentecost was unique, Samaria is unique. And I think that we're to understand what is taking place at Samaria by the significance of what Samaria represents in the unfolding of the advance of the gospel to the ends of the earth. So as it were, to corroborate particularly to the apostles in Jerusalem that the gospel truly had broken down the walls of partition and truly was advancing to the ends of the earth, there is this unique demonstration of Pentecost-like events that take place at Samaria. The Samaritans truly were converted. They truly believed in the Lord Jesus Christ. But the Holy Spirit came down at a later stage in their experience.

Well, that gives rise to the second so-called "problem" in this passage, and it's the more particular problem of Simon the magician. Philip's ministry apparently attracted Simon— Simon the magician, Simon who called himself "great." [Now, in Greek, you understand, the word great and the word magic are the same words. So Simon who called himself great is the same thing in the Greek.] Now Simon, in the second century and into the third century, acquires [whether it's true or whether it's folklore]...but acquires a publicity and a significance that far outweighs anything that is said about him here in Acts 8. Justin Martyr, born in Caesarea in Palestine, and martyred in Rome, says about Simon the sorcerer, Simon the magician, that he made a journey to Rome where he was worshiped as a god, and a statue was erected in his honor in Rome. And then, Ireneaus (Irenaeus in France, in Lyon in France) in his magisterial book Against Heresies, can speak of this Simon of Samaria as the father of all heresies, and his name gives rise to a name in our English language: simony. Simony, of course, is buying privilege and buying office in the church, or bribing officials in order to get office in the church, and it's acquired that status in our English language.

Well, here's this man Simon, Simon the sorcerer. He believed. We're told in verse 13 that Simon himself believed, and after being baptized continues with Philip. Now what are we to make of Simon the magician's belief, Simon the magician's faith? Because when Peter comes down (in verse 21), he says to him, "You have no part nor lot in this matter, for your heart is not right with God."

Now is Peter making an assessment of Simon's justification, or is he making an assessment of Simon's sanctification? Is Peter saying, well, you may be converted, but your sanctification is questionable, to say the least. Well, the language, I think, is much stronger than that. Simon wasn't at all repentant. There's no evidence in the passage that Simon was repentant. He's called Simon the magician, and I think for Luke the practice of magical arts was associated with demonic activity, and with satanic activity. And even after he believed, when Peter comes down, the first thing that comes into his head is that he can purchase the power of conferring the Holy Spirit.

It's interesting, isn't it, and it's a question all of its own, that Philip did not give Simon the magician a great deal of investigation before baptizing him. That raises a whole slew of questions in and of itself, and one conjectures, perhaps, what they might have been saying in Jerusalem, and what the apostles back home in the mother church might have been saying about Philip's quickness, speed in baptizing Simon the magician, especially given the importance that he had and the significance that he already had.

Peter's assessment is very blunt. He says in verse 20, "...Peter said to him, 'May your silver perish with you....' Well, that's...in the New American Standard it says "'May your silver perish with you, because you thought you could obtain the gift of God with money!'"

You know, the Greek is much stronger than that. J.B. Phillips, in his very famous translation, renders it like this—now, don't be offended, but it's an accurate translation of the Greek, because what Peter says is "To hell with you and your money!" "To hell with you and your money!" And he says it that way because he's picking up, by the language that he goes on to say about being "in the gall of bitterness and in the bond of iniquity," he's using the language of Deuteronomy 29, the language of covenantal cursing. In other words, what Peter is doing is pronouncing a covenantal curse on what Simon the magician has actually said, because it is totally out of accord with the language of someone who believes in Jesus Christ. And what Peter seems to be saying is that Simon the magician has no share in the blessings of the gospel, but rather is under the umbrella of the curses of the covenant of God.

Now what do we make of this? Here is an example of what the Reformers and the Puritans, especially, and the framers of The Westminster Confession would have called...here is an example of a man who has faith, but it's temporary faith. It's false faith. He is what the Puritans would have called — and not me or Ligon, now! — but a false professor. You know, one who professes falsely. And it gives rise to a very important principle in understanding what is taking place as the New Testament describes someone who is a believer—"he believed," Luke says—that is, he believed in the outward sense. He believed as far as Philip was concerned; he believed as far as the other Samaritans were concerned; as far as the church, for what it was in Samaria was concerned, this man was a believer. But he still fell from grace. [Now don't be coming up to say to me afterwards I'm not a Calvinist, because I'm a Calvinist! I don't believe it's possible for a true believer to fall from grace.] But I do believe, friends, I do believe that it's possible to claim to be a believer and fall from grace. And that, I think, is what takes place on the pages of the New Testament: that the New Testament describes profession of faith phenomenologically; that is, according to the phenomenon of profession, so that the New Testament can say "Demas has forsaken me, having loved this present evil world" the New Testament can talk about Hymenaeus and Philetus, who made profession of faith but apparently abandoned the faith.

Do you remember in Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress, just before Christian loses his burden, he's passed through the Wicket Gate — do you remember? — but he hasn't come yet to the tomb and the sepulcher, and he's taken to the house of Interpreter? And do you remember that astonishing vision? He sees seven things, you remember, and the sixth thing that he sees is a man in a iron cage who once had made a lively profession of faith, but had left off...had failed to persevere...had, in the language of Hebrews 6 "tasted of the good things of God," but in the end fell and was incapable of repenting. As it appears, Simon the magician is incapable of repenting here.

It's a very solemn, solemn thing that here is a man who claims to be converted, and that it is possible to make a profession of faith and for that profession not to be genuine; and that when it is tested, and when it is tried, it doesn't meet the standard of what a true profession of faith actually is.

You notice he was also baptized. I have to tell you, in preparation for this sermon tonight I read some extraordinary statements about baptism by even some of my colleagues within our denomination. Some extraordinary things about baptism, and the efficacy of baptism...that baptism marks the point at which we become a believer, that baptism marks the point at which we enter the kingdom of God, and that from the moment of baptism we can speak of our children as already being saved. Well, I believe none of it! I believe none of that! And Simon the magician is an example that's written in red letters in the New Testament that it's possible, it's all too possible, to be baptized and never be a true believer of Jesus Christ.

But I said I didn't want to end there, because those are two problematic issues with this passage. But I want us to see as we bring this little study to a close tonight something much more positive, because something truly remarkable is taking place in Samaria, first of all under Philip and then under Peter and John.

You know, that entire community changed. That whole city, and perhaps the surrounding villages (to get the little glimpse at the end of the passage tonight as Peter and John are working their way back to Jerusalem, and they're going through the villages), and now they've caught the vision, too. Whatever it was that had driven Philip to Samaria, Peter and John are catching the vision now. The Jerusalem apostles are catching the vision that God intends His gospel to spread to the uttermost parts of the world, that the gospel and the good news of Jesus Christ is not to be confined to the zip code of Jerusalem. An enthusiasm for Jesus and a flame was kindled in the hearts of these people in Samaria and the apostles who brought the gospel. And something extraordinary and something powerful, and something that can only be described as an outpouring of the Holy Spirit is taking place in central Palestine, and it had never been seen before.

And do you know, my friends, something like that has taken place in many a location at many times during the history of the church, when God the Holy Spirit in answer to the prayers of His people has opened up the windows of heaven and poured out His blessing. And tens and hundreds and thousands have been brought into the kingdom of God all at once, and communities have been changed and transformed.

My friends, do you desire that? Do you want to see that here in this city? In this state? In this country? Something akin to what happened in the late 1730's and early 1740's, in what we call "The Great Awakening." My friends, I hardly ever hear you pray for this at the prayer meeting. We rarely pray for this at the prayer meeting. And yet, I think it ought to be at the very heart of what we pray for: that God would open up the windows of heaven and do a mighty work like this again.

Do you know why perhaps we don't pray for it? Because it will change us. Oh, my, how it would change us! Change our hopes, and change our longings, and change our priorities, and change our aspirations, and change the way we spend our time and what we spend our money on....let this be our challenge.

Let's pray together.

Father, we thank You now for Your word that is quick and powerful and sharper than any two-edged sword, driving asunder the joints and the marrow, the soul and the spirit. Come, O Lord. Write Your word upon our hearts, and give us faith and trust in believing it. For Jesus' sake we ask it. Amen.

Please stand. Let's sing The Doxology together.

Subscribe to RPM
RPM subscribers receive an email notification each time a new issue is published. Notifications include the title, author, and description of each article in the issue, as well as links directly to the articles. Like RPM itself, subscriptions are free. Click here to subscribe.