Teaching an Old Magician New Tricks | Acts 8.14-25

Acts 8.14-25

Yesterday we heard about Philip’s journey into Samaria where he preached, healed many and cast out unclean spirits. Even Simon, the Great Magician, was amazed by what Philip was doing.

In verse 14, the news of this remarkably successful mission trip reaches the apostles in Jerusalem. Peter and John decide to come and see what’s been going on. When they arrive, they see that the Samaritans have not yet received the Holy Spirit, so they lay their hands on them and pray for them. 

But why hadn’t the Samaritan believers already received the Holy Spirit? They had believed and been baptised – why the delay? Were stocks running low? Was next day delivery not available? 

In order to understand, we need to get a bigger picture of the culture of the day. You see, Samaritans were racially mixed, partly Jewish and partly Gentile in ancestry, so there was much animosity, even hatred, between them and the Jews. Remember the parable of the good Samaritan? Well, the punchline is in the title, the good Samaritan. Such a person didn’t exist in the eyes of the Jews of the day. And when Jesus meets the woman at the well in John 4 she says: “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” John explains, ‘(Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans).’

Under the force of this prevailing prejudice, the start-up Samaritan church was at risk either of being treated as second class members of the new covenant or of establishing itself in isolation and separation from the primarily Jewish church back in Jerusalem. So it seems that God, in his sovereign wisdom, temporarily withheld the giving of the Spirit until Peter and John could come to Samaria. In their full apostolic authority and with positions of leadership in the Jerusalem church, they prayed for the Samaritans and witnessed them receiving the Holy Spirit. There was no doubt and no room for argument: the Samaritan believers were full members of the new covenant in Christ, full recipients of the same salvation and the same Spirit. There is no prejudice in the eyes of God – the gospel is not stopped by racial, cultural or social boundaries. Let there be none in our eyes either.

Yesterday we were also introduced to Simon. He seemed to have started out well, he was baptised and stuck with Philip as he continued preaching and performing signs and wonders. But it seems that where this gospel seed was planted, weeds grew up to smother it. 

Having seen Peter and John’s ministry to the Samaritans, Simon wants in, but now he wants in for the wrong reasons and in completely the wrong way. 

He offers money to the apostles in exchange for the Holy Spirit’s power. He wants to buy the gift of God, a business investment for his own personal gain. Whereas once Simon had been known in Samaria as ‘the power of God that is called Great’, now he seeks the true God’s power, but still with his own greatness in mind.   

With his heart set on his own greatness, Simon can have no part or share in the Spirit.

‘Magician tries to buy the Spirit to spice up his career.’ Not my problem, we think. I’d be surprised if it was. But ‘heart set on my own greatness’, that is often my problem. Simon is looking to use the gifts of God for his own gain and renown. Do we do the same? Do we turn roles within church or gifts with which we serve into tools by which we can gain respect, admiration and approval. Do we long for spiritual experiences, not to build up the body of Christ but to be outstanding and impressive amongst others? Do we try and buy God’s favour and blessing with our behaviour so that he’ll give us what we want? I know I do all of these sometimes.

At Peter’s rebuke, Simon appears to repent – “Pray for me to the Lord, that nothing of what you have said may happen to me.” We don’t hear anything more of Simon in the NT, so we don’t know the rest of his story. This may have been as short-lived as his initial profession of faith, or it may have been deep and genuine repentance.

If it was genuine, we can be sure that the Lord heard and graciously responded. We can be sure he will do so for us too. Isaiah 55 invites all to come and taste the generous provision of God, ‘without money and without price.’ The gospel freely offered, not for sale. Perhaps Simon now understood this, and perhaps he found the joy of forgiveness in the verses which follow:

“Seek the Lord while he may be found;
call upon him while he is near;
let the wicked forsake his way,
and the unrighteous man his thoughts;
let him return to the Lord, that he may have compassion on him,
and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.

Isaiah 55.6-7

Let’s pray:

Father, thank you that your gospel stretches across borders and boundaries. Thank you that it has crossed the boundary of our hard hearts and thank you for the gift of the Spirit, who transforms them to become more like yours. Please help us not to treat your gifts as opportunities for our selfish gain, please forgive us when we do. Thank you for your compassion and the abundance of your grace for those who turn and trust in you. In Jesus’ precious name,