Only God Knows July 31st, 2022
O God, send your Holy Spirit to open our minds and hearts to receive your wisdom in the Scriptures. Transform us by the grace we hear proclaimed and empower us to live it out for the sake of Christ, our Lord. Amen.
Last week we began our study of the eighth chapter in the book of Acts which records for us the first great missionary movement of the new church. For the first time in the history of the church the Gospel is brought to people outside the borders of Israel. This was a monumental moment for our ancestors and for us today.
What had taken place is that as the Christian church rapidly grew in Jerusalem it drew more and more attention to itself from the leaders of the Temple. They tried to do all that they could to crush this upstart religion, but the more they tried, the faster it grew. God was at work and no matter what they did, they couldn’t stop it. It got to the point where, in frustration, the council of elders of the Temple had one of the Christian leaders, Stephen, charged with blasphemy against God. The defense Stephen made was so powerful that the elders became so enraged that they stoned him to death.
And that was the turning point for the church. The Apostle Luke, the author of Acts, writes, “That day a severe persecution began against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout the countryside of Judea and Samaria.” We’ve heard a lot about this, but the stoning of Stephen and the ensuing persecution of its members was the touchstone which caused the church to grow beyond the borders of Jerusalem.
And last week we heard about the beginnings of this movement when Luke told us, “Now those who were scattered went from place to place, proclaiming the word. Philip went down to the city of Samaria and proclaimed the Messiah to them.” Now that was a dramatic change for those first believers, who, for the greatest part, had come from the Jewish faith. The Jewish people held the Samaritans in great disdain. Although they both worshipped the same God, the Samaritans had different religious practices and so the Jews thought of them as unworthy. It would have been scandalous for someone of the Jewish faith to go and try to evangelize the Samaritans.
But under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, Philip did so, and this is what took place, “And the crowds with one accord paid attention to what was being said by Philip, when they heard him and saw the signs that he did. For unclean spirits, crying out with a loud voice, came out of many who had them, and many who were paralyzed, or lame were healed. So, there was much joy in that city.”
And one of the Samaritans who accepted the message of Philip was a man named Simon, here’s how Luke described him, “Now a certain man named Simon had previously practiced magic in the city and amazed the people of Samaria, saying that he was someone great. All of them, from the least to the greatest, listened to him eagerly, saying, ‘This man is the power of God that is called Great.’ And they listened eagerly to him because for a long time he had amazed them with his magic.” So, this Simon was a magician and everyone who saw him perform his tricks were spellbound by what he could do. Just like the celebrities of today, Simon drew large crowds who hung on every word that he said. It had come to the point of idol worship.
But now all that was about to change, for Luke tells us, “But when they, (the Samaritans), believed Philip, who was proclaiming the good news about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptized, both men and women.” Due to the Holy Spirit working through him Philip was able to bring many of the Samaritans to accept Jesus Christ as their Lord and Saviour. And in doing so they turned away from their idol worship of Simon the magician.
Yet, through the grace of God, we’re told that, “Even Simon himself believed. After being baptized, he stayed constantly with Philip and was amazed when he saw the signs and great miracles that took place.” Now we don’t know if he gave up his magic tricks or not, but we do know that he was held captive by the ability of Philip to free people of their demons and to heal the paralyzed and lame. Through the work of Philip, Simon believed and was baptized.
And by this time the wonderful work which Philip was performing on behalf of the Lord had gotten back to the original twelve Apostles who were still in Jerusalem. This is what took place, “Now when the apostles at Jerusalem heard that Samaria had accepted the word of God, they sent Peter and John to them. The two went down and prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit (for as yet the Spirit had not come upon any of them; they had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus). Then Peter and John laid their hands on them, and they received the Holy Spirit.”
So, Peter and John went to Samaria where they welcomed the new believers into the Church of Christ, and they were blessed with the Holy Spirit. This was the fulfillment of the command which Jesus had given to the apostles in the opening chapter of the book of Acts, where he told them, “‘But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.’” It’s interesting to note that this command of Jesus was made to the original apostles, but it ended up being Philip, one of those chosen to take care of the needs of the members of the church, who actually carried out the command in Samaria. Only God knows why, but it is noteworthy to all of us as it shows that any of us are capable of doing God’s work in the world.
Now this was the reaction of Simon the magician to the new believers in his hometown receiving the Holy Spirit, “Now when Simon saw that the Spirit was given through the laying on of the apostles’ hands, he offered them money, saying, ‘Give me also this power so that anyone on whom I lay my hands may receive the Holy Spirit.’” So, despite coming to accept Jesus as his Saviour, being baptized by Philip, and then having the Holy Spirit come upon him, Simon quickly turned back to his old ways. He thought that if he was able to bless other people with the Spirit, he would be able to regain the social status which he had before Philip came to Samaria. Then once more people would say of him, “‘This man is the power of God that is called Great.’” So, he offered the apostles money to buy this power of the giving of the Holy Spirit.
As a point of interest this is where the word “Simony” comes from. It describes the practise of buying or selling a religious title. Not a word that we come across very often, but in years gone by it was not unusual for someone to pay to have the right to be called a bishop or an abbot or some other religious title. And this all started with Simon the magician.
But despite the temptation of money his efforts failed, Peter said to him, “‘May your silver perish with you, because you thought you could obtain God’s gift with money! You have no part or share in this, 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 the chains of wickedness.’” No amount of money was going to sway the apostles from staying true to the preaching of the word of God. They knew that God's gifts are gifts. People cannot purchase them because God gives them freely and sovereignly.
And Simon’s response to being rejected by Peter was this, “‘Pray for me to the Lord, that nothing of what you have said may happen to me.’” Peter urged Simon to repent of this sin, but instead, Simon urged Peter and John to pray for him themselves. It’s as though he feared that his prayers would not count, but he assumes that the prayers of Peter and John will. Simon seems focused on the apostles, as though their prayers for him would be more powerful than his own prayer of repentance. Being new to the faith, Simon had yet to understand that we don’t need an intermediary to act on our behalf, we are free to approach God on our own. As the writer to the Hebrews said, “For we do not have a high priest incapable of sympathizing with our weaknesses, but one who has been tempted in every way just as we are, yet without sin. Therefore, let us confidently approach the throne of grace to receive mercy and find grace whenever we need help.” (Hebrews 4:15-16).
Amongst Bible scholars there is an ongoing debate over whether or not Simon the magician had truly come to faith in Jesus Christ. I’ve read arguments on both sides of this issue, and all are convincing. Some commentators say that because asking Peter to pray for him was a sign of repentance on Simon’s part this showed that he understood that we are all sinners and fall short of the mark. As the apostle Paul wrote, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.” (Romans 3:23-24)
But other commentators claim that Simon never truly believed. When he saw that his power and prestige had slipped away because of the miracles which the Holy Spirit did working through Philip, Simon thought that he could regain his status if he could do the same. So, he made his profession of faith and was baptised for earthly gains only, not heavenly ones.
But, in the end, only God knows what was in the heart of Simon. And that’s what’s important for us to remember in our lives, as well. Our job is not to judge people, but to tell them about the Good News of the Saving Grace of Jesus Christ and pray that the Holy Spirit will touch their hearts and minds so they will be saved.
Let us Pray:
Heavenly Father, your word tells us that as you are, so are we in the world. Your Holy Spirit lives in us, and through his power, we are your representatives. Through your power, embolden us and guide our words as we share your gospel with the world. Pour out the power of your Holy Spirit on us and enable us to do your works on earth. Help us lead others to salvation and everlasting life with you. Amen.