The church now learns in earnest that God’s people in this world are counted as “sheep to be slaughtered.” What is described here is a studied, determined effort — what will be the first of many — to eradicate the church and Saul is the principle instigator. (It is a sad fact to report, again repeatedly true in church history subsequently, that the persecution of the church comes from the church itself. No doubt the Romans connived, to keep the Jewish leadership happy — it was no skin off their noses — and probably the outbursts of active persecution were quite short and some Christians were able to return to Jerusalem after things cooled down. In any case, their successful attack on Stephen emboldened the enemies of the gospel to go for the jugular of the new movement.
It cannot be known for sure that the rule was in effect by this time, Jewish law forbade the public mourning of executed criminals. If the law was in force at this time, this amounted to a public protest of the treatment of Stephen at some risk to those godly men. But, it also seems that the persecution was scattered or was directed at only some parts of the church. There is no record of any assault on the apostles and one would think they would have been the first ones to feel the heat — kill the head, kill the entire body. But, they were still very popular with the people and not so easy to touch. They had tried to get at them before and had had no success.
The futility of the world’s raging against the church is demonstrated by the fact that what was supposed to destroy her only enlarges her (by affliction the Lord cajoles the church to fulfill the mandate of 1:8). How many times the blood of martyrs has been the seed of the church (Tertullian). [Has a similar thing happened recently in Manipur, with Khen Tombing being driven out and forced to go elsewhere?] You see on display here also the instinctive tendency of Christians to evangelize. It is interesting that nothing is said here about the moving of the Holy Spirit or to any specific guidance from him. Here believers are responding to events in a manner consistent with the faith. The Gospel cannot be understood and appreciated and then kept to oneself.
Samaria the perfect place for the first penetration of the gospel outside of Judea. The Samaritans were despised by the Jews, considered by them to be racial and religious half-breeds. Even the Lord’s disciples had difficulty shedding their prejudices (in Luke 9:52 he was quick to ask the Lord to call fire down from heaven upon them, a request he did not make of the Lord respecting the Jews!). So going to Samaria was a powerful demonstration of the fact that the gospel is for everyone. On the other hand, they did have an expectation of the Messiah and had known of Christ’s ministry (John 4 to the Lord’s ministry after the transfiguration).
In this early stage the gospel is accompanied with divine demonstrations, these perfectly suited to the religious world of that area (demonism, sorcery, magic), just as Elijah called down fire from heaven in his day and bested Baal at what was supposed to be his forte, lightning.
Was his astonishment because this power was real and the works performed were of a different quality altogether from what he was able to do (as charlatan or, at best, only a semi-sincere devotee of the magic arts, which in his hands were more tricks than supernatural works — or because these works performed by others made ludicrous the claim he had made or allowed others to make that he was the great power of God, that is, in some way, to some extent divine? [Benny Hinn and others today have been dogged by statements they have made about Christians being or becoming a piece of God! They have retracted them but how much are such claims intrinsically related to their view of themselves and the faith. Are these men charlatans — we know such exist: the TV News Magazines have exposed them, the Peter Popovs and Robert Tiltons, who, before they were unmasked, did exactly the same thing in the same way that Hinn and others do today!]?
Peter and John came to inspect the work. Christ’s authority must go wherever the gospel goes. The descent of the Spirit in this way was a special, outwardly supernatural sign of Christ’s presence (as later in Acts 10, 19) and always in connection with the Apostles. It misses the point entirely to see it as a second stage of Christian living intended for or at least available to all Christians in all ages.
Calvin writes this in his comment on this passage: “In these [extraordinary manifestations 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.”
He was still thinking in terms of magic arts, thought the power was in the act of laying on hands itself. This is the origin of the term “simony” by the way, that you come across in your study of church history. It means the buying or selling of sacred things, such as the forgiveness of sins or the right to church offices, etc.
Is this repentance? Apparently not. While there is nothing more in the Bible itself, the early church universally thought of Simon as a heretic and an agent provocateur, indeed, an early representative of the heresy later known as gnosticism, salvation by initiation into secret knowledge of God and his ways. Some of the stories about him are probably legends elaborated from his reputation, but Justin Martyr, who was himself a native of Samaria, says that Simon lived there, then later moved to Rome where he continued his mischief.
We have here the second full account in Luke’s early church history of a less than genuine acceptance of the gospel (Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5). Verse 13 suggests that Simon was at least sincere in his own mind (it was not a mere pretence so far as he was concerned). But, it appears that he was not saved either as the older Arminians claimed, who argued that he was saved and then lost.
We cannot, of course, accept any view of divine grace that sees it as defectible and the reasons for this are so many and so central to the Bible’s understanding of divine grace that it always astonishes me that so many Christians have, through the ages, been willing to believe in the possibility of losing God’s grace once one has found it.
There are many arguments for the doctrine of the final perseverance of the saints, that no one truly saved can ever be lost, and many texts explicitly teaching this doctrine, but I will summarize them in five arguments: 1) The efficacy of Christ’s sacrifice [“he shall save his people…” “I give eternal life to them and they shall never perish” etc.]; 2) The enduring power of Christ’s intercession [“he ever lives to make intercession for them…”]; the power and government of Christ at the Right Hand [“head over all things for the church”; “all things work together for good…”; “he who began a good work in you shall perform it…”]; God’s eternal and immutable love and election [“chosen to be holy,” “the father has given them to me and they shall never perish, no one can snatch them out of the father’s hand”; “all that the father gives to me will come to me and I will raise him up at the last day”]; and 5) the immutability of regeneration [“the imperishable seed of the word”; “out of the heart flow the issues of life” etc.].
But, there are these further facts. The Lord carefully taught his disciples to expect superficial and temporary responses to the gospel, even responses that were quite dramatic at the time (“received the word with joy”) and then provided us in his word with any number of examples of what he was talking about (Judas).
But, then, what are we to make of Simon? Here is Calvin in his commentary on this passage
The man who had infatuated the whole city with his tricks receives the truth of God along with others…. …he does not surrender himself to Christ with love that is sincere and from the heart; otherwise his perverse ambition and his ungodly and common estimate of the gifts of the Spirit would not be breaking out at once. Yet I do not agree with many who think that he only made a pretence of faith, since he did not believe. Luke clearly asserts that he did believe, and a reason is added, that he was moved with admiration. How therefore does he betray himself as a hypocrite a little later? I reply that there is some middle position between faith and mere pretence. …there are many who, although they have not been regenerated by the Spirit of adoption, and do not yield themselves to God with genuine love from the heart, have yet been conquered by the power of the Word, and not only acknowledge the truth of what is taught, but ar touched by fear of God so that they accept the teaching. …they think that they do believe. And this is the temporary faith which Christ mentions…viz. when the seed of the Word, which has been received in the mind, is yet quickly choked by various worldly cares or bad desires, so that it never comes to maturity, but on the contrary rather degenerates into a useless weed. Simon’s faith was like that. He feels that the teaching of the Gospel is true and is forced by awareness of his conscience to accept it; but the fundamental thing is lacking, i.e. denial of himself. From that it follows that his mind was involved in pretence, which he soon brings out.
Now this reality, we all know who have been Christians any length of time, is a cause of great confusion and disappointment in the church. Nothing hurts more than to see a conversion that delighted and excited the church wither away to nothing and the convert go back to the world.
But, long experience teaches us that there are many reasons why people respond favorably to the gospel who do not truly repent and believe, though they may think themselves to have done so and others think the same about them.
- The gospel’s power: the attractiveness it produces in others (how many have been attracted to the gospel because of what they see of its effect in those who have embraced it!); or, the gospel’s power to effect joy, or peace, which they experience as part of the atmosphere they enter when they profess faith in Christ. This seems to be the kind of thing the author of Hebrews is speaking of when he speaks of those who had “tasted the heavenly gift, shared in the Holy Spirit, tasted the goodness of the Word of God and the powers of the coming age,” but who fell away never to be renewed to repentance. (I think of a man who a few years ago who responded to the gospel in just this way, through the witness of this church — saw the happy change in his wife’s life, wanted it for himself, made a profession of faith, changed his habits, and for some weeks they were happier as a family than they had ever been, but then the habits came back…).
- Its fellowship: sometimes a boy or girlfriend; sometimes simply folk who like and care for you; maybe, in many cases, down in the bottom of the heart lurks the hope of gaining some advantage from the people who go to that big church…
- Its tradition, custom, in a day of decay and the loss of transcendence. A great temptation for many today. [The return of yuppies to the church (with their children).] Or simply one follows the customs expected in his family or culture.
Here is John Bunyan on his religious life before he became a Christian, but after he became religious and took himself for a Christian.
“Because I knew no better, I fell in very eagerly with the religion of the times: to wit, to go to church twice a day, and that, too, with the foremost. And there should I sing and say as others did. Withal, I was so overrun with the spirit of superstition that I adored, and that with great devotion, even all things, both the high place, priest, clerk, vestment, service, and what else belonged to the church: counting all things holy that were therein contained. But all this time I was not sensible of the danger and evil of sin. I was kept from considering that sin would damn me, what religion so ever I followed, unless I was found in Christ. Nay, I never thought of Christ, nor whether there was one or no.” [In Whyte, BC I, p. 133]
Here then, is serious religion, by one who thought he had found religion, which was totally devoid of a living engagement with the gospel. This may well have been Simon’s case.
- Fear of Judgment. Their consciences are struck, the feel the weight of guilt — after all, there are lots of people who commit suicide under the weight of guilt, or who see psychiatrists for the same reason — and the hear that Christ will take their guilt away, but, at bottom they neither love Christ nor intend to submit to his rule.
William McCulloch on the revival in Cambuslang in Scotland in 1742: “It is not quite five months since the work began, and during that time I have reason to believe that upwards of 500 souls have been awakened, brought under deep convictions of sin, and a feeling sense of their lost condition. Most of these have also, I trust, been savingly brought home to God. I do not include in this number such as have been found to be mere pretenders, nor such as have had nothing in their exercise beyond a dread of hell…” [Dallimore, II, 127]
Now, then, let us draw the important lessons of this history.
- It is impossible to discern true profession from false at the outset. Philip did not (v. 13).
The Great Awakening evangelists were so careful, wisely careful about this: they had hopes that many were awakened to God, etc. They never said, so many were converted or saved. Whitefield after preaching to immense throngs in Scotland for seven weeks would only say, “I have reason to believe that some have been awakened…” They learned the hard way that those living for Christ 2 or 5 years later.
- There is to be no attempt made, nor was there in the NT, to separate the true converts from the temporary. Simon was baptized. It sounds so simple: why don’t we wait and see if they stick and then baptize them; so simple the church was doing that within a few generations. But that is not the NT model: profession, baptism, discipleship, and, if necessary, discipline. (But, the NT pattern is ruined if discipline is forgotten!)
- The WCF’s definition of the church: “all who profess faith in Christ together with their children” accurately reflects the NT practice. “Profess” not “the born again.”
- Hypocrisy is only uncovered as over time a person fails to live up to his or her profession. Or, as Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount, in some cases only after death.
These facts require a happy mixture of charity and wisdom on our part.
- No one has to prove himself a Christian: the judgment of charity.
- But mere profession is never a satisfactory ground of confidence and any profession, however persuasive at the first, can be quickly nullified by open sin and a lack of repentance.
If we do not have this view in its proper balance, we are left with alternatives all equally miserable: that being a Christian means nothing else but the assent of the mind to certain beliefs and does not require any transformation of the life or that, as the Arminians claim, it is possible to be a Christian at one moment and not to be at the next, a view that is utterly destructive of the hope of any thoughtful believer who rightly estimates the situation in his or her own heart.
If ever it should come to pass,
That sheep of Christ might fall away,
My fickle, feeble soul, alas!
Would fall a thousand times a day.
- We will be far less troubled by such defections if we deal with them summarily as the Apostles did. The great damage is done when such folk are left in the church.
- Self-examination becomes every Christian’s duty. Salvation is a work first and foremost in the heart, as Peter acknowledges in v. 21. We cannot see the heart, only the profession and the outward behavior are accessible to us. And that is what the church is called upon to judge. But, you cannot reliably always judge your own heart and so you too much examine your life, your speech, your conduct, as well as your thoughts and attitudes.
It has sometimes been claimed that any emphasis on self-examination is needlessly discouraging, even frightening, and inevitably throws the attention upon the self and not upon Christ and so contributes to the bondage of works-righteousness.
But, as one of our theologians put it, “our sturdy fathers would not be put off the scent by the suggestion that in examining themselves they were pulling up the roots of their faith to see if it was growing.” [John Macleod, Some Favorite Books, p. 9]
- Any assurance that cannot stand up to examination is not worthy of the name. Matt. 7, 13, 25 ought to make all of us eager to do this for ourselves and to have others do it for us!
- Examination has two ends: the exposure of hypocrisy and a more confident, joyful hope and confidence for those who are in Christ. Nothing is so well suited to keep alive your spiritual affections as a firm, well-grounded assurance of God’s love, which you get through a careful examination of your life and application of the gospel to it. Mr. Tait regarding the difference between biblical self-examination and an unhealthy introspection.
- We are not looking, after all, for perfection, but for the evidence of God’s goodness and of our progress. That should be an encouragement, not drudgery, even if we have to face how much still remains to be done! That should remind us once more how wonderful it is to have a Redeemer, a thought that apparently never entered Simon’s head!