07 December 2021

To Samaria

Despite persecution, or perhaps because of it, the disciple began to preach the gospel outside Judea, beginning in Samaria - Acts 8:1-25

Worship - Photo by Zac Durant on Unsplash
Prior to his ascension, Jesus commanded the disciples to “
tarry in Jerusalem” until they received the Holy Spirit. Thereafter, they would become his “witnesses” and proclaim the gospel in Jerusalem and Judea, and then “in Samaria…and to the uttermost parts of the earth.” The eighth chapter of Acts records the story of how the gospel came to Samaria - [Photo by Zac Durant on Unsplash].

After the martyrdom of Stephen, Saul of Tarsus began his concerted effort to crush the fledgling church before it spread beyond Jerusalem. That persecution caused many “brethren” to be scattered “throughout the regions of Judaea and Samaria.” But God used the situation to advance the gospel as those same “scattered brethren” began to preach wherever they found themselves.

Consequently, having left Jerusalem and Judea, Philip traveled to the city of Samaria and began to “proclaim the Messiah.” Under his preaching, demons were exorcised and many that were “lame were healed,” causing “much joy in the city.” As a result, many Samaritans responded positively to the gospel.

The text identifies one of the new converts as a man named Simon who was known for using “sorcery” to “astound” the residents of the city. Prior to Philip’s arrival, the “least to the greatest” men of the city paid heed to Simon, believing that he exercised the “great power of God.” Yet even Simon found the gospel message irresistible, or at least, he was greatly impressed with the miracles that accompanied it.

As the result of the proclamation of the “kingdom of God,” a great many Samaritans were “baptized, both men and women…in the name of the Lord Jesus,” and this included Simon. However, it seems his fascination was with the “signs and great miracles wrought” by Philip (“and he was amazed”).

Upon hearing the news, the apostles in Jerusalem sent Peter and John to confirm the reports from Samaria. But upon their arrival, apparently, they found something was missing from the faith of the Samaritans, and therefore, they “laid hands on them, and they received the Holy Spirit.” For reasons not stated in the text, the Spirit had “fallen upon none of them.”

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 men and women received the Spirit through the prayers of the apostles. Precisely what he “saw” is not stated, and we can only speculate. Perhaps, as on the Day of Pentecost, he saw “tongues of fire” appear over the converts or they began to “speak in tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance.” But that is conjecture based on what occurred previously. Nonetheless, there must have been a significant experiential aspect to the receipt of the Spirit by the Samaritans.
What the text does tell us is that the Samaritans received the Spirit AFTER they responded to the gospel and AFTER they were “baptized in the name of Jesus.” Moreover, in this case, the Spirit was dispensed through the “laying on of the apostle’s hands.” Why that was necessary is not explained in the passage.

Logically, it does not follow from the incident that the intervention of an apostle is always necessary to receive the Spirit. On the Day of Pentecost, the Spirit fell on all 120 disciples without anyone laying hands on them. And later, the Spirit fell on the Gentiles gathered at the house of Cornelius while Peter was still preaching to them, again, without anyone laying hands on them, apostle or not – (Acts 10:44-48).

It also does not follow from the passage 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 “spoke in tongues” BEFORE they were baptized in water.

As for the “sign” of the gift of the Spirit, the thing that Simon “saw,” based on the other accounts in Acts, the most plausible explanation is that the Samaritans spoke in “other tongues” when they received the Spirit. However, the passage does not say that was the case, and no passage in the New Testament states explicitly that “speaking in tongues” is THE “sign” of the gift, or always does occur whenever converts do receive it. While that may be the most plausible explanation in Acts chapter 8, to insist “tongues” is THE “sign” of the Holy Spirit is to go beyond what the text says.

Having said that, we cannot ignore Simon’s reaction. He was a man who had practiced the magical arts for many years, and presumably, he was not someone who would have been 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 the same power.


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