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The Spreading Flame - Series 2: Episode 4

The gospel & Simon the magician

| Martin Charlesworth
Acts 8:9-25

As the Gospel is preached by Philip in Samaria, many become Christians. Peter and John, from the church in Jerusalem, confirm their place in God's Kingdom and lay hands on them to receive the Holy Spirit - a Samaritan Pentecost.

As the Gospel is preached by Philip in Samaria, many become Christians. Peter and John, from the church in Jerusalem, confirm their place in God's Kingdom and lay hands on them to receive the Holy Spirit - a Samaritan Pentecost.


Thanks for joining us for this episode as we continue in Series 2 of our study of the book of Acts, and see how the Church spreads out from Jerusalem, after the dramatic events that we looked at in the first two episodes of Series 2. Stephen, one of the early preachers and leaders, was tragically martyred after a confrontation with the Jewish ruling council, the Sanhedrin. If you haven’t heard those episodes, I’d really encourage you to listen to them because they give the context for the story.

Background and Introduction

Immediately after that martyrdom, comes the first persecution of the Church. The authorities in Jerusalem take confidence by the initiative they gain from having killed one of the leaders, and make the church fearful and hesitant. They start a house-to-house search through the city, which is led by a man called Saul, to try and take prisoners, intimidate and threaten church members. In the last episode we looked at that persecution. We saw that the members of this church - many thousands of people - left the city of Jerusalem and headed for the nearby regions. The two nearby regions for the city of Jerusalem are Judea, immediately surrounding the city - a thoroughly Jewish part of the country - and further north, in the middle of the country, Samaria - inhabited by a population of ethnically mixed people known as the Samaritans, partly Jewish, partly non-Jewish. We saw how the Church was spreading to Samaria and how people were telling their stories as they travelled.

We noticed a particular leader emerging. His name is Philip and he is obviously very gifted in communicating the Christian message. We saw him before because he was one of the seven men appointed to look after the widows and the distribution of food in the Jerusalem church. Philip very capably preached to many people in Samaria and there was a quick response to the Gospel.

Opposition from a Different Source

Everything appeared to be going very well but in this episode, we encounter a different problem for the Church. The problem up until this point had been religious opposition from the religious authorities. That’s the consistent theme of the first part of the book of Acts, as Luke tells the story of the church in Jerusalem. But now we find a different sort of spiritual opposition to the Church. It comes in the form of an individual, a man called Simon - Simon the magician - a man who performed acts of witchcraft or sorcery, and we’ll talk more about that in a minute. This presented a completely new challenge to the Church, but something we can really learn from.

Let’s read Acts 8:9 - 13

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.’

Acts 8:9-13, NIV

Simon conducted acts of witchcraft. Let’s think about this. We’re talking here about spells, about curses and blessings; predicting the future; and about the ability to perform miraculous signs and healings. He was moving in some degree of supernatural power. The source of this power was not the Holy Spirit; it was not God. This is a form of witchcraft common in the ancient world but as many of you will know, common in the modern world in many cultures too. Simon’s an interesting character because it appears that he had a wide reputation. It says so here, in Luke’s writing but we also have a very interesting example of another source that says the same thing. There was an early follower of Jesus Christ, who was born in Samaria in about 100 A.D named Justin, who became a writer and a defender of the Christian faith and he came from this district. About eighty years after this event, he wrote that Simon was well known in this area, had a big following and there were even people in Rome who’d heard of him, and who followed his ways. This is somebody writing many years later, who lived in this area and still the reputation of this man was strong at that time. So, we’re talking about an influential person.

Simon is faced with a tremendous challenge when Philip moves into the area and obviously has considerable power to perform miracles. Simon notices that many people who had previously given attention to him, and considered him to have some supernatural power, were now turning their attention to Jesus Christ, the Gospel and the preachers of the Gospel, like Philip. That was a challenge to him. Previously, people had followed him, but now they were following Jesus Christ. They were believing and being baptised in water as a sign of their faith. Luke intriguingly says, in verse 13, that Simon himself also believed and was baptised, and he particularly followed Philip around everywhere. He was very intrigued by these miraculous powers which were greater than the powers he had exercised himself in his occult practices. That’s the situation that is developing. What kind of belief or faith did Simon have? That’s a question we need to answer in the next section.

The Apostles’ Visit

The Church is going well and people have noticed that this well-known local occultist has now proclaimed himself part of this new Christian community. That was a surprise to everybody, and we’ll see what the outcome is as things move on. The Apostles, the twelve Apostles, had not yet visited Samaria. They were further south, thirty, forty, fifty km further south in Jerusalem. It says, particularly in an earlier passage, that the Apostles stayed in Jerusalem, even though most of their followers had been scattered into the surrounding districts. It was important for them to come and pay a visit and that visit proved to be very significant and is told to us in the next part of this story, as we read 8:14 - 17:

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.’

Acts 8:14-17, NIV

This passage raises a number of important questions which we need to think about. First of all, Peter and John come. They’re representing the Apostles who are the final authority in the Church. Jesus had given them tremendous authority to shape the Church - how it was governed; how it was led; and what its message was. Their authority was unquestioned. They came to see what Philip was doing and to confirm the accuracy of his preaching, and to support him - which is what they did. No doubt, Philip found that tremendously encouraging; Peter and John had come to support him.

Peter and John notice something about the Samaritan believers. Although they had believed, although they had been baptised in water, to their way of viewing the situation they couldn’t see all the evidence of the work of the Holy Spirit that they had seen on the Day of Pentecost. They would be thinking back to the first day of the Church amongst the Jewish people in Jerusalem, when the Holy Spirit came in power. On that day, the presence of the Holy Spirit was felt by the believers through the experience of a tremendous sense of assurance and empowerment, and also the exercise of certain spiritual gifts that the Holy Spirit gave, notably the gift of speaking in tongues and the gift of prophesying. These were two primary gifts that were often given to new believers at the beginning of their faith, when the Holy Spirit came in power. On the Day of Pentecost, these things had been very evident but as the Apostles come into a new situation, with a totally new people group who are separated from that experience - they weren’t invited; they weren’t there; they probably didn’t know much about it - who have responded to the message of Jesus and have been told they need to be baptised, so they’ve been baptised. But they haven’t yet had that full sense of empowerment of the Holy Spirit, and none of them had started exercising those primary spiritual gifts - speaking in tongues and prophesying. Peter and John concluded that this particular aspect of their faith had not yet been fully imparted to them. They wanted to pray for these believers, that the Spirit might come on them in the same way that the Spirit came on them on the Day of Pentecost.

A Samaritan Pentecost

This raises a number of questions. Were they true believers beforehand? I think the answer from the text would suggest yes, they were. So, what was missing was a degree of the experience of the presence of God that the Apostles felt should be theirs and so, they laid hands on them. There were probably many people, and Peter and John went round and laid hands on them as a physical sign of God blessing them, and giving to them, or imparting to them, his power. The text tells us that they received the Holy Spirit. It doesn’t tell us what the outcome of that was in this case, but we can assume that many began to speak in tongues, or to prophesy, or have a real sense of the power of God coming upon them, to give them confidence in their faith. The gift of speaking in tongues, as we discussed in Series 1, is the ability to speak a language that you have never learnt, that you don’t understand but it’s a language of worship and praise and thanksgiving and prayer, to God. That’s what happened on the Day of Pentecost, and it strengthens the believers to use that language. The gift of prophecy, is the gift of being able to speak truths about God, and about things that may happen in the future that you couldn’t otherwise have known with your mind. These gifts were missing in the Church but the power came upon them. They received the Holy Spirit after the laying on of hands from Peter and John.

Why was there not an automatic gift of the Holy Spirit? Bible teachers have discussed this over the generations, and over the centuries. The probable reason is that because this was a new ethnic group, God himself allowed that to be held back until the Apostles could come and confirm the entry of the Samaritans into the Kingdom of God, and the people of God, at the hands of the Apostles. Here was a very big moment in the Church. A new ethnic group was joining the Church. Later in the book of Acts a similar thing happened further on in the story, when a man called Cornelius, who was not a Jew, nor a Samaritan, but a Roman citizen - totally non-Jewish - and his family come to believe, and Peter is there at that point, and the giving of the Holy Spirit in a powerful way and the exercise of spiritual gifts is a sign of God including them in the people of God. This act probably demonstrated to everyone present that the Samaritans were in the Kingdom of God on an equal basis to the Jews. They had a ‘Samaritan Pentecost’, a separate experience of the Holy Spirit on their own, of their own, to demonstrate what had happened in their salvation.

Simon’s Error

This particular action by Peter and John provoked Simon. We now go back to the story of Simon, which is by no means finished. Let’s read what Simon’s response is to this dramatic coming of the Holy Spirit, through the laying on of hands. Acts 8:18 - 24

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 a captive to sin.” 24 Then Simon answered, “Pray to the Lord for me so that nothing you have said may happen to me.”’

Acts 8:18-24, NIV

Simon was jealous of the Apostles’ power. It’s quite clear that he’s interested in the power dynamic of Christianity. He had been following Philip round, watching the signs and miracles that he did with great fascination, and now that the Holy Spirit comes on the whole Samaritan Christian community, he thinks, “Well, I’d love to be able to use that power myself, to be the person who lays hands on people in that way.” He was fascinated with power and he was so used to his occult ways that he thought, “I want to get hold of that power, because power brings influence and control over other people.” He was even willing to offer money to the Apostles for some of what he considered to be their magical power. But Peter, through the power of the Holy Spirit, discerns and understands that within Simon, there is a fundamental problem. His state of mind and his heart is fundamentally wrong. Peter says, unambiguously, “You’re full of bitterness and a captive to sin.” Simon can’t respond to this. He can’t acknowledge this.

This forces us to face a very difficult question. Was he a true believer? In the same passage, Luke has said, ‘he believed and was baptised’ and he also points out that he’s full of bitterness and a captive to sin, who is trying to use Christianity as a means of exercising his own personal power, prestige and authority which meant so much to him. What are we to believe? The answer is that Simon almost certainly was what we might call a nominal believer; a Christian in name only. He joined all the rest of the Samaritans and he went through the motions. He said, “Yes, I believe, yes, I want to be baptised”, and he went through that process without a fundamental change of heart - without renouncing his use of occult power which had been the basis of his life up until that time. His earlier profession of faith did not represent a true conversion and a change of heart. That’s the likely meaning of the tension in this passage that Luke doesn’t try and resolve for us. He wants us to see the story as it unfolds, and to work it out for ourselves.

The Parable of the Sower

There is a way of working this out that I think is really helpful. If we connect this story to the explicit teaching of Jesus in the Gospels, as recorded in Matthew 13 and Mark 4. When he teaches us the parable of the Sower, Jesus actually says and predicts that there will be four fundamental responses to the Gospel. I wonder whether you remember the story that is dealt with in an episode in the Life of Jesus. It’s about a farmer who goes out to sow his seed and it’s about what happens to the seed that he sows in the ground. Some of the seed fell on a path; some fell in rocky places; some fell amongst thorns and some fell on good and fertile soil. Jesus explains this story very clearly. The seed that fell on the path was plucked up by the birds and he said, “That’s like Satan, who takes away the message of Christ before people have really thought about it, or entered into it - and there’s no response”. Some people don’t respond to the Gospel at all. Some of the seed falls in rocky places. That means it doesn’t have much root. It looks as though it’s going to rise up and become a fruitful plant but it just dies away because there’s no root. This is the category that we can put Simon the magician in because he made an initial response, but it proved to be insubstantial, insincere, not based on fundamental change. Jesus said that the seed in the rocky places is a reality. There will be some people who, when they first hear about Jesus Christ, respond enthusiastically but they’re responding, perhaps emotionally, perhaps because they think there’s something for them to gain; perhaps because of social pressure or financial opportunity that they think may happen as a result of that response but they are not sincere. Simon was one of those. Jesus also mentioned seed that fell among thorns, where there’s a genuine faith, but materialism and the pressures of life mean that people don’t pursue their faith very actively. Some seed falls on good soil, which produces really productive Christians. So, I would claim here that Simon is a nominal believer, like the seed that fell in rocky places, and when confronted by Peter, he’s totally unable to respond. He just says, “Pray that none of this will happen to me.”

Peter and John Return to Jerusalem

This passage ends with one more verse, 8: 25, speaking again of Peter and John, after their visit to Samaria, it says this:

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.’

Acts 8:25, NIV


Well, a dramatic story. Some reflections for us; some things for us to think about. The first point is really about the nature of people’s response to the Gospel. It’s important for us to be wise that, in our experience, we will have the same experience that the New Testament Church had. Not everyone who initially responds will be sincere - Simon the magician was one of those people - which is why the four aspects of becoming a Christian, are very important. The four aspects that were highlighted when we studied the Day of Pentecost. You can go back to that episode and study it more closely if you need to but there were four aspects of what Peter asked people to do as they responded to his message. He asked them to consciously believe in the person of Jesus Christ as their Saviour who died and rose again for them - faith in Christ. He asked them secondly to repent. In other words, change the way you think, change the way you act, be willing for your whole life to be changed. Change yourself around; humble yourself. This is what repentance means. The third act is to be baptised in water and the fourth is to ask to be filled with the Holy Spirit. Where Simon went wrong, was in the area of repentance - change; he wasn’t willing to change. He thought he could add Jesus into his life and his occult practices and combine them together for his own benefit. Many people in the modern world are doing just that, particularly in many developing countries, where witchcraft is very common. Witchcraft is often mixed together with the Christian faith in exactly the same way that Simon intended to do in this situation. If you have that experience in your culture, this particular passage is very important, because we cannot mix together these spiritual powers. The New Testament teaches us, Jesus is clear, that the Holy Spirit is God’s divine power with incredibly miraculous capacities. Satan produces spiritual power and gives it to some of his followers on earth, in many different ways, of which witchcraft is one prominent one, which is a different source of power, with a different outcome and no salvation associated with it. We can’t mix the two together. Peter was not willing to compromise at this point. He confronted Simon directly.

Another reflection would be concerning spiritual warfare. The book of Acts tells us time and time again, we never need to go looking for spiritual battles. Our responsibility is to preach the Gospel and live consistent Christian lives, in committed church communities. Then, when there’s a spiritual power opposing us, at that particular time, it will become clear what it is. Up to this point, the focus of opposition has been the Sanhedrin. Now it’s Simon the magician and his following in Samaria. As the story goes on, we’ll see other spiritual powers rise up and stand in the way of the Apostles, particularly Paul the Apostle in the later chapters. But God gives us grace to overcome all those spiritual powers.

My final reflection for this episode is just a comment about racial integration in the Gospel. The most extraordinary thing about this is that the Jews and the Samaritans were traditionally hostile peoples, who did not get on with each other and often quarrelled and fought, and were distrustful of each other. They didn’t like their different ethnic backgrounds and their different religious systems. They were jealous of each other; suspicious of each other; culturally separate. But in the Gospel, the first racial barrier to be overcome is between Jew and Samaritan. The fundamental racial problem in the land of Israel, is being overcome right now in this passage. The Jewish Apostles come into Samaritan territory where they’re received very warmly, and they affirm that the Samaritans are now in the Kingdom of God, on the same basis as the Jews, and they pray for the coming of the Holy Spirit as a divine sign that the Samaritans are not second-class Christians, because they weren’t there on the Day of Pentecost. This is very profound and helps us on our journey of understanding how races integrate in the Christian Church. That story develops further in the book of Acts, and is described significantly in Paul’s letters that are written alongside the book of Acts.

This is a very interesting passage, very significant for some of us who are listening to this now. I hope these reflections will help you to make some good applications from this remarkable story.

Study Questions

The following questions have been provided to facilitate discussion or further reflection. Please feel free to answer any, or all the questions. Each question has been assigned a category to help guide you.

  • Exploring Faith
    Exploring Faith
    1. What are your experiences of witchcraft or magic?
    2. The need to change - repentance - is important. Why?
  • Discipleship
    1. We are ‘all one in Christ’ but how hard is it for people of different races to join together?
  • Further Study
    Further Study
    1. How was the experience of the Samaritans like the Day of Pentecost for the Jews?
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