The Book of Acts documents how the gospel first came to Samaria. After the martyrdom of Stephen, Saul of Tarsus began persecuting the fledgling church, causing many “brethren” to be scattered “throughout the regions of Judaea and Samaria.” God used this to advance the gospel as the scattered saints preached wherever they went.
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Having left Judea, Philip traveled to the city of Samaria and began “proclaiming the Messiah.” Under his preaching, demons were exorcised and many of the “lame were healed.” As a result, many Samaritans responded positively to the gospel – (Acts 8:1-25).
One of the new converts was a man named Simon. He was known for using “sorcery” to “astound” the city’s residents. The “least to the greatest” men of the city paid heed to him since they believed that he exercised the “great power of God.”
Yet even Simon found the gospel irresistible, or at least, he was greatly impressed with the miracles that accompanied Philip’s preaching.
And a great many Samaritans were “baptized, both men and women…in the name of the Lord Jesus,” including the Magician. However, his fascination was with the “signs and great miracles wrought” by Philip (“and he was amazed”).
Upon hearing the news, the apostles sent Peter and John to confirm the reports from Samaria. Upon their arrival, they found something missing from the faith of the Samaritans, and so they “laid hands on them and they received the Holy Spirit.”
Simon was impressed, for he “saw that through the laying on of the apostles' hands the Holy Spirit was given,” and he attempted to bribe them to grant him the same power.
In the passage, the stress is on the fact that Simon “saw” something when someone received the Spirit. Precisely what he “saw” is not stated. Perhaps, as on the Day of Pentecost, he saw “tongues of fire” appear or heard men as they began to “speak in tongues.” But that is conjecture based on what occurred previously in Jerusalem.
What the text does say is that the Samaritans received the Spirit AFTER they responded to the gospel and AFTER they were “baptized in the name of Jesus.” Moreover, the Spirit was dispensed through the “laying on of the apostle’s hands.” Why that was necessary is not explained.
Logically, it does not follow from the incident that the intervention of an apostle is necessary to receive the Spirit. On Pentecost, the Spirit fell on all 120 disciples without anyone laying hands on them. And later, the Spirit will fall on Gentiles gathered at the house of Cornelius while Peter is still preaching, and again, without the laying on of hands – (Acts 10:44-48).
And it does not follow from this that believers must be baptized “in the name of Jesus” before receiving the Spirit. Again, at the house of Cornelius, the Gentiles received the Spirit and they “spoke in tongues” BEFORE they were baptized in water.
As for the “sign” of the gift, what Simon “saw” most plausibly was the Samaritans speaking in “other tongues” when they received the Spirit. However, the passage does not state this.
But we cannot ignore Simon’s reaction. He was a man who had practiced the magical arts for years, and presumably, he was not someone easily impressed. Something out of the ordinary must have occurred, not only to get his attention but also to cause him to attempt to buy that same power.