Two Steps Forward; One Step Back Acts 8:1-25


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Acts 8:1-25

The execution of Stephen, we now learn, emboldened the religious leadership to unleash a more systematic persecution of Christians living in Jerusalem, to go for the jugular as we might say. And as we will read, Saul of Tarsus was the principal instigator, a man perhaps already desperately seeking to quiet his conscience by doubling down on his conviction that the Christians represented an existential threat to the true and ancient faith of the people of God.

What will be described is an organized and determined effort to eradicate the Christian movement. It may have been the first such effort; it would not be the last. It is likely that the Roman authorities connived with the Jewish leadership as a way of keeping them happy and docile toward Roman rule – it was no skin off their noses if Christians were imprisoned for some obscure Jewish heresy they neither understood nor cared about – and perhaps the periods of active persecution were quite short. Other evidence suggests that at least some of the Christians who fled were able to return to Jerusalem when tensions died down.

Text Comment

v.1       One might have supposed that the apostles would have been the first to feel the heat. Cut off the head so the body will die is a strategy so obviously effective that it continues to be employed today, as in America’s counter-terrorism offensive. We are always after the leadership. But, then, they were very popular with the people and an attack on the apostles would entail risk for a body that has seemed to this point decidedly risk-averse.

v.2       It cannot be known for sure whether this represented a public protest of the treatment of Stephen and perhaps further enraged the authorities. Jewish law forbad the public mourning of executed criminals and, if the law was in force at this time, such public rites of mourning would have been another slap in the face of the Sanhedrin and so would have exposed the Christian mourners to some risk.

v.4       The futility of the world’s long crusade to rid the world of the Christian faith was demonstrated early on. Like seeds from a plant borne by the wind to many distant places, as the Christians were scattered the gospel was scattered with them to many places it had not yet reached. As the famous Bengel put it, “the wind increases the flame.” You will notice that nothing is said here about any specific leading of the Holy Spirit. Christians simply responded to events in a manner consistent with their faith.

The word “preach” does not occur in v. 4. We ought not to think necessarily of professional ministers. The term does not suggest that so much as simply sharers of the good news, or, as one scholar put it, “nameless amateur missionaries.” [Green in Stott, 146]

v.5       Philip, like Stephen, was one of the seven deacons of whom we read in chapter 6. Also like Stephen he was a preacher and a worker of miracles.

Samaria was the perfect place for the gospel’s first penetration of a people outside of Jerusalem and its immediate surroundings. The Samaritans were despised by the Jews who viewed them as religious half-breeds and heretics. As we learn from the Gospels, even the Lord’s disciples had difficulty shedding their long-standing prejudice against Samaritans. So preaching the gospel in Samaria was living proof that the gospel was going to be for everyone. On the other hand, the Samaritans, as we learn in John 4 and elsewhere in the Gospels, did have the expectation of the appearance of the Messiah and did have firsthand experience of Jesus’ ministry.

v.8       Samaritans were well acquainted with magicians and people claiming to have power over the spiritual world, so Philip’s demonstration of divine power was well-suited to the local context. Remember, Elijah called fire down from heaven to defeat the prophets of Baal, whose forte was supposed to be lightning. It was as if the Lord were saying, you’ve fooled around long enough with fakes, try a dose of the real thing for a change!

v.13     The text doesn’t make this clear but we assume that Simon was a magician in the ordinary sense, that is, he tricked people into believing he was doing supernatural things. He was a first century Uri Geller. Still today vast multitudes of people, particularly people who are suffering in some way, are ready to believe in the power of charlatans who claim to have the power to help them. But suddenly Simon was face to face with someone who could actually do what he had so long claimed to be able to do.

v.16     My dissertation supervisor, Howard Marshall, a prominent scholar of the book of Acts, a faithful Christian man who died yesterday of pancreatic cancer, calls this statement the most extraordinary statement in the book of Acts. How can this be, that they did not yet have the Holy Spirit, when Peter had promised the gift of the Spirit to all who believed back on the day of Pentecost (2:38)? Both Roman Catholics and Pentecostals in their very different ways have argued that Acts 8 teaches us that Christian initiation is a two-stage process, first faith and baptism or conversion and baptism, only then at some later point the gift of the Spirit either by confirmation and the laying on of hands in the Catholic view or by a second blessing or baptism of the Holy Spirit in the Pentecostal view. It is too large a question to consider here, but we must at least accept that certain developments in these very early stages of gospel advance were unusual, unprecedented even, and cannot be found elsewhere in either the teaching or the narrative of the New Testament. What we have here is clearly a turning point in the advance of the gospel, the first narrative of non-Jews outside of Judea being evangelized. The extraordinary features of this history are certainly related to that fact. It was important for these conversions of Samaritans to be ratified by the apostles themselves and by the Holy Spirit himself. Even Jewish Christians were going to have trouble believing and welcoming the news that Samaritans were joining their movement in large numbers! But the outward demonstration of the Holy Spirit’s approval would end all doubts that such people were welcome too! Michael Green refers to this exceptional moment as “a divine veto on schism in the infant church.” [I Believe in the Holy Spirit, 168]

v.17     Peter and John were sent to inspect the gospel work being done in Samaria and with them was given the manifestation of the Holy Spirit as a sign of Christ’s presence (as will later be the case in Acts 10 and Acts 19). Again, it was the apostles who had the authority from God to bestow this gift. In this the Samaritans learned that it was not Philip himself, but Philip as a representative of Christ’s church who had brought them the word of life. By believing in Philip’s message about Jesus they had been joined to a community of faith. What this manifestation of the Holy Spirit actually amounted to is not said. It might have been, as it was in Acts 2, the power to speak in other languages, or it might have been the rush of wind and tongues of fire, or simply a greater joy in believing or a new boldness in sharing the gospel with others. Calvin beautifully and wisely comments on this event: “In these [extraordinary gifts of the Spirit] God for a time showed to his church something like the visible presence of his Spirit, in order to establish forever the authority of his Gospel, and at the same time to testify that the Spirit will always be the Governor and Director of the faithful.”  [Com., 236]

v.19     Simon was obsessed with power and imagined that this was a power that could be taught him or given to him in some way. By the way, you will have come across in your reading of church history the term “simony.” Simony is derived from this man’s name and refers to the buying or selling of sacred things, such as the forgiveness of sins or church offices. It was the European church’s widespread practice of simony that was a principal cause of the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century.

v.24     Was this real repentance on Simon’s part? Apparently not. He certainly didn’t do what Peter told him to do, viz. repent of what he had done. Justin Martyr, himself a native of Samaria, a century later wrote that Simon continued to be a troublemaker for the church first in Samaria and then later in Rome.

v.25     The word “preaching the gospel,” as before in v. 12 is evangelize.

Now this passage is full of fascinating material. Any one of its scenes would justify its own sermon. We already mentioned the fascinating and controversial two-stage Christian initiation described in v. 16 which has led many Christians to views and practices that cannot be found taught or illustrated anywhere else in the New Testament. It is the first narrative of evangelism outside the Jewish homeland, as it were the first step taken on the gospel’s long journey to the ends of the earth. But Luke devotes his attention primarily to Simon, who would be known to early church history as Simon Magus, Simon the Magician. Here was a man who seemed to have believed the gospel, to have responded to Philip’s preaching with faith. As we read in v. 13, Simon believed with many other Samaritans and, accordingly, was baptized. So far as anyone knew he was simply another Christian convert, indeed, in all likelihood, given his celebrity, the most notable of all these Samaritan converts. And in his narrative of the short duration of Simon’s Christian life, Luke provides another important lesson for Christians and the Christian church, a lesson it would need to learn and incorporate in its practice for the ages to come.

Simon’s subsequent behavior made it obvious that his faith was not genuine. Like Ananias and Sapphira, he began well, or at least appeared to begin well, but events were to reveal that his faith was a fraud. Sincere in his own mind, I’m sure, Simon, as it turned out, was not motivated by a sense of his own need for God’s grace and salvation. He did not express loyalty to Jesus because he realized that Jesus alone could take away his sins and put him right with God. He was mesmerized by the power that Philip was wielding and hoped for some of that power for himself. Here was a man who was actually doing what he had only pretended to do. He didn’t love Jesus, as it turned out, he simply admired Philip as a far better magician than he was.

It is a sad reality but an undeniable one: that many conversions do not take and that many who confess faith in Jesus Christ prove at last to have either badly misunderstood the message about Jesus they supposedly embraced or failed to reckon with the cost of following Jesus. The Lord Jesus, you remember, prepared his disciples for this discouraging development in several of his parables. In one he taught that there would be those who would receive the word with joy, even in some cases begin to grow, whose faith in Christ would soon die or wither away. In another he described the progress of the gospel as like a great net which gathered up both good and bad fish. In still another he likened the church to a large field in which weeds grew up among the good grain. Well Simon is a classic illustration of that hard truth. He was one of the first, but would be followed by a multitude.

In the Great Awakening of the 18th century, evangelists such as John Wesley and George Whitefield were careful not to assume that everyone who made a profession of faith in Jesus under their preaching was genuinely converted. They never counted conversions like notches on a gunslinger’s pistol handle. Whitefield, after preaching to great effect to immense throngs in Scotland, would only say, “I have reason to believe that some have been awakened…” They had learned the hard way that some who professed faith in Christ would not stick and would return to the world.

Jonathan Edwards was embarrassed to have to report to his correspondents in Scotland that a good number of the people whom he had thought converted in the early days of the Awakening in his parish of Northampton, Massachusetts – the conversions he had described so excitedly in his revival classic A Narrative of Surprising Conversions – betrayed little evidence of living for Christ a year or two later. Those of us who have been Christians for any length of time have had our own experience of this dismal phenomenon: apparent conversion, but the appearance of faith in Christ coming to nothing, sometimes quite quickly.

One would hope that it would be a simple matter to distinguish between true Christians and the unbelieving world, but neither in the Bible nor in the experience of the church has that proved to be the case. There are people who appear to be Christians for a time – short like Simon or longer like Paul’s assistant Demas – but who prove in time that their profession of faith in Christ was not genuine. There are others who, for a time, seem to have betrayed their profession, only later to repent and be restored to a faithful Christian life, which they then practiced until the end of their days.

Certain lessons, therefore, must be learned from episodes like this one of Simon of Samaria. First, it is impossible for even discerning observers to tell whether a profession of faith in Jesus Christ is true or false. In most cases, even the professors themselves do not know. They think themselves becoming Christians; only later do they realize that they don’t really want to be Christians after all. Second, there is, therefore, no attempt to be made to separate the true converts from those who would prove to have only a temporary faith. Simon was baptized with the rest, welcomed like the rest, no one the wiser. It has seemed a simple solution to many believers in the ages since. Why not wait and see if they stick and only then baptize them? The logic is so obvious that the church was to do that very thing within a few generations. But as the Lord Jesus warned in one of his parables, doing so you run the very great risk of pulling up the wheat with the weeds. Instead of nurturing a baby faith and confirming it with baptism, you treat the true believer as if you doubted he or she actually was; a recipe for spiritual uncertainty and confusion. What is more, how long must you wait? The Lord Jesus said that the hypocrisy of some professing believers will not be exposed until the judgment day. What is the value of baptism if it isn’t administered until shortly before a person dies – the very practice that became somewhat popular a few centuries later?

The definition of the church provided by our Westminster Confession of Faith, namely that the church consists of “all who profess faith in Christ together with their children” is an accurate reflection of New Testament teaching and practice. We do not claim to know who is genuinely and eternally a child of God. We cannot judge the heart. We must take care because we may suspect that someone is not genuinely a Christian who really is just as we may take for a Christian someone who is not. Time alone will tell. God knows, but he has not entrusted us with that knowledge and it is ours to respect our ignorance.

And what makes all of this so important are the practical implications of this truth that the genuineness of a person’s faith is not something we can judge. We really cannot, however much and rightly we may take the genuineness of the faith of Christians we know for granted. We can no more tell than Philip could. There are acquaintances of mine, men who were PCA ministers, in two cases even colleagues in this presbytery, who after years of service in the church, were exposed as Simons, who have since left not only the ministry but the faith. It never occurred to me that these men would do such a thing. I never saw it coming! Nobody else did either. Surely, like Simon, they thought themselves Christians, they sincerely confessed faith in Jesus Christ, but it did not last. How deep is this mystery! Why the Lord permits people to enter his kingdom and then to leave again, no one can say. That he does permit this no one can deny.

But if this is true then other things must be true. Let me mention three implications of this reality, all of which are also explicitly taught frequently and thoroughly elsewhere in the New Testament.

  • First, no one has to prove himself or herself a Christian to us.

We are to practice, as the apostles did, the judgment of charity. There in Samaria everyone who said he or she believed and presented himself or herself for baptism was baptized. On the Day of Pentecost, when 3,000 new believers entered the church in a single day and all baptized, nothing could be clearer than that each of those converts was not subjected to some thorough examination of his or her understanding of Christ and salvation. Had there been a desire to do that, there wouldn’t have been time.

And so it continues throughout the New Testament. The apostles knew very well that there could be, would be temporary Christians among their converts, their own experience had proved to them that not every new believer lasted. They had lived for three years with Judas never suspecting him to be a man about to turn his back on Jesus. They made provision for this sad reality in both their teaching and their pastoral oversight. But what they did not do was to wait to test the genuineness of any person’s profession of faith in Jesus before he or she was admitted into the community of faith. Nor did they create some form of continuing examination somehow to identify the weak links before they broke. They waited on events as we have had to do ever since.

Of course, immense numbers of converts and their children have simply continued in their early faith, have grown into deeper and higher measures of that faith, and served the Lord with gratitude and love all their lives. But there have been those all along who have begun and at some point have decided not to continue. Such is life in the kingdom of God, as it is, in many other ways, in human life generally. In a thousand ways sinful human beings make a practice of beginning and not finishing whether a musical instrument, a college course, or a marriage. It is what sin often does, it is the damage that sin often causes: it breaks the connection between beginning and end. But we begin no one knowing whether the beginning will lead to the end.

  • Second, and just as obviously, this fact that some begin and do not finish means that mere profession of faith in Christ is not a satisfactory foundation for confidence in my or in your salvation.

When New Testament writers teach us how to know if we are Christians indeed, how to be sure that we are not fooling ourselves – and human beings have a terrific capacity for fooling themselves – they never take us back to the beginning and ask if we made a profession of faith in Jesus. They ask us rather to examine our beliefs and our commitments and our behavior today.

Do we today believe that Jesus is the only savior of sinners and are we counting on his sacrifice for us on the cross for the forgiveness of our sins today? Are we committed to living in obedience to his commandments today because we love him as our savior and revere him as our king? Do we find our identity today in our membership in Christ’s church and kingdom and in our extended family in the fellowship of Christians with convictions and commitments identical to our own?

No one can know himself or herself a Christian because of what he or she once said or did, once believed, or because of commitments he or she once confessed. Genuine belief in Jesus is a lifelong relationship to the Lord Christ that reveals itself in the thoughts, the loves, and the commitments of the heart every day in a host of ways both great and small. Real believers in Jesus live for Jesus. Not perfectly, of course, not nearly perfectly, but nevertheless really. That is everywhere the New Testament’s teaching about what it means to be a Christian in truth. Christians are not followers of Jesus in name only; they are followers of Jesus in fact.

  • Third, the fact that some who profess faith in Jesus do not continue in that faith, means that salvation is never to be taken for granted. If there is one obvious reason why God permits this phenomenon of temporary faith, it is to make his true children careful stewards of his salvation.

We are talking about eternal life or death here, so salvation should never be taken for granted in any case. But the fact that some imagine that they have it only to prove eventually that they never did, should put all of us on our mettle to take care such will never be the case with ourselves or with our children.

The Apostle Paul writes to his Christian converts in Corinth:

“Examine yourselves to see whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves. Or do you not realize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you? – unless indeed you fail to meet the test!”

When he wrote that, he had no intention of turning them into people tortured by thoughts that they may not be Christians after all. Ordinarily Paul addresses his churches as if he fully understands that they are by and large communities of genuine followers of Jesus. But it is a question that must be asked – the reality of temporary faith requires that it be asked – and every thoughtful Christian will ask it from time to time throughout his or her life. Easy as it is to deceive ourselves, am I deceiving myself? But it is also a question that an honest man or woman can usually rather easily answer. Am I trusting the Lord Christ for my peace with God and my entrance into heaven? Do I love him in that genuine way that makes me his follower and servant? Do I love what he loves and his people in particular?

Such an examination of one’s own heart and life is not only the way to ward off hypocrisy and a faith that gradually melts away to nothing. It is also a way of maintaining a confident, joyful, and expectant hope of the Lord’s presence today and his still far greater gifts tomorrow. And those who live with that confidence are the favored people of this world.

We are not, after all, looking for perfection – we know we shall not have that in this world – but for the evidence that God has done his work in our hearts and lives and the evidence that he is still doing it. To see again and again such evidence should be every Christian’s great encouragement and happiness. Such thoughts should remind you how extraordinarily wonderful it is to have God as your Redeemer, a thought that apparently never entered Simon’s head!