There is a disturbing reality about the Church that many of us probably don’t think about all that often. It is the fact that imposters exist within the Church community. Hypocrisy is a genuine problem. And this is why the threat of apostasy cannot be taken too lightly.
It is a reality that served as a significant turning point in Luke’s gospel account, when Judas betrayed Jesus for a small sum of silver. It also appeared in Acts 5, when Ananias and Sapphira lied to the Church about their generosity. The consequences were tragic in both cases and they prepare us for a similar encounter here.
Read Acts 8:9-25
The text raises questions about receiving the Spirit, but the primary emphasis seems to be the possibility of joining the Church based upon a false profession of faith. Profession of faith does not necessarily equal possession of faith. Simon had everyone deceived until the fruit of his intentions came to light.
His presumption was his downfall. His intentions were for personal gain. He appears to be more concerned with his reputation, power, and wealth than his spiritual condition. Simon wanted the influence of Philip and the apostles more than he wanted the salvation they offered.
First, we will look at Simon’s Confession (9-17). Second, we’ll see Simon’s Obsession (18-25).
Simon’s Confession (9-17)
Although the primary focus throughout this passage is upon Simon, his work stands in contrast with God’s work through Philip.
Simon the magician was known as Simon the Great (v.10). Luke doesn’t suggest that his magic was fake. The reaction of the people is universal awe (vv.9, 11). They believed that he was divine, or at least, that he had access to divine power. His magic apparently had satanic influence.
The verb “paid attention” is found three times within the space of six verses. Just as the Samaritans “paid attention” to Philip’s preaching (v.6), they used to pay attention to Simon (v.10, 11). Whereas Philip’s ministry promoted Christ, Simon’s magic promoted himself.
Simon had won their amazement after “a long time” (v.11), but Philip’s preaching appears to convince the people—to the point that they are baptized-immediately. Jesus’ gospel overpowered Simon’s magic. We see the power of the gospel to turn a people, convinced of Simon’s power, to the Living and True God.
The fact that Simon himself believed (even if only temporarily) and was amazed at what Philip was doing, and was also baptized, testifies to the superior power of God over evil. This word “amaze” takes us back to the reaction of the crowd at Pentecost (Acts 2:7, 12). Luke may be suggesting this was the Samaritan Pentecost. But a faith that is merely amazed at the physical manifestations of God often proves superficial (cf., John 2:23-24).
When we think of the influence Simon had upon the Samaritans we might compare it to a cult-like following. These people had been enthralled for awhile by Simon. So how did Philip approach his audience? Did he study Simonology? Did he interview people in order to come up with a system of approaching and speaking to followers of Simon? No! He preached to them “about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ” (v.12). he preached Christ and the Kingdom of God, and God’s Spirit made his preaching effectual.
The “kingdom of God” is what Jesus taught them about before ascending (Acts 1:3). It is what Paul proclaimed in Lystra, Iconium, Antioch (14:21-22), Ephesus (19:8; 20:25), and Rome (28:23, 30-31).
Verses 14-17 raises a question: Why didn’t the Spirit come upon the Samaritans when they believed? Isn’t that the normative pattern (Acts 2:38)? There are many answers, but I find two particular interpretations to be the most plausible:
- Luke does not have regeneration in mind, but the gifting of the Spirit (1 Cor. 12:1-13). Dennis Johnson argues, “In the case of the Samaritans…the Spirit’s incorporating grace was separated from his regenerating grace, postponed until apostles were present to mediate the Spirit’s gifts through prayer and the laying on of hands.”
- Waters suggests “This descent of the Spirit, rather, is peculiar to the once-for-all extension of the gospel across the redemptive-historical boundary from Jerusalem to Samaria.”
- He sees this as the second stage of the fulfillment of Jesus’ promise in Acts 1:8. This event is unique to the “once-for-all advance from Jerusalem to the ‘end of the earth’.”
- Waters also notes the lack of a “normative pattern” when the Spirit descends in Acts 2, 8, and 10-11. The gift of tongues are present in Acts 2 and 10. Prayer and the laying on of hands accompanies the Spirit’s descent in Acts 8.
Rather than expecting this to be the normative experience for the Christian, we can acknowledge it to be “reflective of a unique and foundational period in the church’s history” (Waters 210). There seems to be something unique about the way the Spirit comes to a new region (Samaria in Acts 8; Gentiles in Acts 10; John’s disciples in Acts 19). Derek Thomas concludes,
“What took place in Samaria was unique, part of the unfolding of the plan of redemption as it made its way out of Jerusalem. It is no more repeatable than Pentecost or the incarnation…The coming of the Spirit to Samaria represents not their conversion but a new stage in the progress of the new covenant witness to the end of the earth. Like the apostles before the day of Pentecost, the believers in Samaria had come to faith-a genuine, Spirit-wrought, God-honoring faith in Jesus Christ. However, they had not yet received the indwelling of the Holy Spirit promised to every believer this side of Calvary (cf. Rom. 8:9-11).”
Ultimately, Simon’s confession proves to be nothing more than an attempt to further his selfish obsession.
Simon’s Obsession (18-25)
Although there may be debate about the stages of receiving the Spirit—one thing is certain—the gift of the Spirit was not for sell. Simon proves that his confession was a false profession of faith when he attempts to purchase the Spirit’s power.
Simon attempted to bribe the apostles for their apostolic authority (v.19). Presumably, he would have been able to recoup the costs with his increasingly powerful magic. The whole thing appears to have been nothing more than financially expedient. Simon’s false profession of faith is set in contrast with the genuine confession of the Samaritans.
There isn’t any indication that Simon felt any remorse about his previous profession. For that matter, there is no indication that he planned on changing careers. His interest in the apostolic power shows that his goal was still the same. He wanted to make a name for himself. He saw obtaining the gift of the apostles as a means of advancing his own reputation rather than the glory of God.
Dennis Johnson writes,
“Simon’s attempt to control and manipulate sovereign grace was especially crass, but we too have ways by which we try to put God in our debt, or to force his hand. Even our devotion, self-discipline, and self-sacrifice can be turned into tools to ‘leverage’ our desires from God. Do you need to heed Peter’s call to repent from efforts to control what can only be received as a gift of sheer grace?”
Peter’s response (v.20) makes it clear that Simon was still in need of repentance. The language is quite harsh. Many commentaries acknowledged the accuracy of J.B. Phillips translation when he quotes Peter as saying, “To hell with you and your money!” I. Howard Marshall comments, that “may sound like profanity, but it is precisely what the Greek says.” Peter rebuked Simon with a curse much like the Old Testament prophets.
Simon was no better off than the unbelieving masses in Samaria. In actuality, he was worse off because he had tasted of the goodness of God. He had heard the preaching of the gospel. He had professed faith and followed it through with baptism. But it is clear to Peter, that he had yet to repent. In other words, the covenant blessings he had received have become a curse. Instead of enjoying union with Christ and his followers, Simon’s actions have proven that he has “neither part nor lot in this matter” (v.21a).
Once again, Simon’s response only serves to affirm Peter’s curse. Rather than repent himself, he’ll place the onus upon Philip to repent for him. This is not the response of one whose heart has been touched by God, hence Peter’s statement “your heart is not right before God” (v.21b). It is the response of one whose heart is cold towards the things of God. Or as Peter states it, Simon is “in the gall of bitterness and in the bond of iniquity” (v.23). His request the Peter pray for him is at best, an admission that he doesn’t trust God will hear his prayers. At worst, he takes the whole matter flippantly—“Oh is that what you think Peter? Well why don’t you go ahead and send one of those prayers up to the Big One for me…”
That’s the last we read of Simon. It doesn’t appear that he repented. This might be all Luke knows about how Simon received Peter’s rebuke. Bock suggests, “Perhaps the account concludes in an open-ended manner to allow the reader to ponder the proper response.”
As Derek Thomas points out, this passage represents “the genuine possibility of apostasy-not from true faith but professed faith.” Hebrews makes it clear that this remains a possibility for those in the New Covenant. Simon is like one the author of Hebrews describes in 10:29-30,
“How much worse punishment, do you think, will be deserved by the one who has spurned the Son of God, and has profaned the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has outraged the Spirit of grace? For we know him who said, ‘Vengeance is mine; I will repay.’ And again, ‘The Lord will judge his people.’”
It means we should not only evangelize those who are outside the church, but also those who are inside the church. We should not assume that everyone has an adequate grasp of the gospel.
So let us ponder the proper response…
Profession of faith does not necessarily equal possession of faith.Simon’s intentions were probably faulty from the start. But from Philip’s perspective, the profession was determined to be credible. Simon’s desire for divine power and influence outweighed any desire he had for genuine salvation. He might have been able to deceive Philip, but he would not be able to deceive God.
Examine your heart to see whether you are more interested in the gifts of God than the God who gives them. We might think we are at peace with God when, in reality, we are still his enemy. These questions can become crippling if we are not careful. We can become overly introspective to point that we live in constant dread of discovering that our faith has been fraudulent all along. But that doesn’t mean we should ignore the practice altogether. Robert Hawker encourages, “Gold, never shrinks from the trial of the hottest fire. It is only tinsel, which cannot bear the furnace.”
Have you become presumptuous about the work of God in your life? Some Christians do this by attempting to gain specific spiritual gifts. Or some will avoid the convicting and challenging work of repentance by asking their pastor to pray for them. As James Boice notes, “If you are sinning, you are the one who must repent of the sin. If prayer is needed, you are the one who must pray.”
Peter’s exhortation to Simon applies to anyone dealing with the same thing today. Forgiveness is available to those who repent (v.22). No one else can do that for you. You must examine yourself. We should continue to evaluate our spiritual condition on a regular basis.
Convinced and convicted of our sin, we then turn to Christ and receive his righteous pardon!