“Captivated by Sin”

Scripture Text: Acts 8:4-25

March 24, 2024 – 6:00 p.m. Evening Service

Faith Presbyterian Church, Tacoma, WA

                                                      Pastor Nathaniel H. Gutiérrez

Context

Please turn with me to Acts 8 as we continue our series in the book of Acts. As you turn to the passage, I’ll remind you that at this point, Stephen has just been martyred, with Saul standing approvingly of his death. And on that day, a great persecution arose against the church. Saul and others were part of that persecution and would enter the homes of Christians, dragging them off to prison. And because of that, much of the church scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria with the exception of the apostles who remained in Jerusalem.

That persecution jumpstarted the spreading of the gospel throughout the world, for those who were scattered took God’s word with them.

And so, with that context, we will pick up now in Acts 8 verse 4:

The Reading of God’s Word

Acts 8:4-25   4Now those who were scattered went about preaching the word. 5 Philip went down to the city of Samaria and proclaimed to them the Christ. 6 And the crowds with one accord paid attention to what was being said by Philip, when they heard him and saw the signs that he did. 7 For unclean spirits, crying out with a loud voice, came out of many who had them, and many who were paralyzed or lame were healed. 8 So there was much joy in that city.

Acts 8:9   But there was a man named Simon, who had previously practiced magic in the city and amazed the people of Samaria, saying that he himself was somebody great. 10 They all paid attention to him, from the least to the greatest, saying, “This man is the power of God that is called Great.” 11 And they paid attention to him because for a long time he had amazed them with his magic. 12 But when they believed Philip as he preached good news about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptized, both men and women. 13 Even Simon himself believed, and after being baptized he continued with Philip. And seeing signs and great miracles performed, he was amazed.

Acts 8:14   Now when the apostles at Jerusalem heard that Samaria had received the word of God, they sent to them Peter and John, 15 who came down and prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit, 16 for he had not yet fallen on any of them, but they had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. 17 Then they laid their hands on them and they received the Holy Spirit. 18 Now when Simon saw that the Spirit was given through the laying on of the apostles’ hands, he offered them money, 19 saying, “Give me this power also, so that anyone on whom I lay my hands may receive the Holy Spirit.” 20 But Peter said to him, “May your silver perish with you, because you thought you could obtain the gift of God with money! 21 You have neither part nor lot in this matter, for your heart is not right before God. 22 Repent, therefore, of this wickedness of yours, and pray to the Lord that, if possible, the intent of your heart may be forgiven you. 23 For I see that you are in the gall of bitterness and in the bond of iniquity.” 24 And Simon answered, “Pray for me to the Lord, that nothing of what you have said may come upon me.”

Acts 8:25   Now when they had testified and spoken the word of the Lord, they returned to Jerusalem, preaching the gospel to many villages of the Samaritans.

This is the word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

Introduction

In this fascinating passage, there are several themes and questions that could be addressed that we don’t have time for: the growth and expansion of the early church into Samaria, the significance of the laying on of hands to receive the Holy Spirit, the question of magic or sorcery in the Bible, and also the question of a baptized believer apostatizing. These are all very interesting studies that fit perfectly into an extended commentary, book or systematic theology, but not so much a 30 minute sermon. As I studied this passage, while many of those themes were intriguing and took me down several rabbit holes, I found that the thrust of this text pointed to Simon the Magician.

Specific details about Simeon’s life, his influence in Samaria, his faith and baptism, his desires and fears and his rebuke from Peter are all outlined for us in this passage in some detail. And Luke, the author of this letter, chose not to address all those other interesting topics, and instead drew our attention to a random magician.

So, this evening we will look at Simon’s life. We will seek to ascertain the lesson the Holy Spirit has placed before us in this man’s life.

And in this passage we will see the danger of living bound up by sin, and the importance of heeding the call to repent.

Two Main Characters

Now, if I were directing a movie on this passage, the first five to ten seconds of the movie would be a dark screen with the sounds of loud yelling and screaming piping through the speakers. Then the camera footage would flash on and follow a young boy running toward a crowd, pushing his way through the masses of people as they gathered to see the commotion. Making his way through, the camera would follow the young boy until it would finally reveal what was going on: unclean spirits crying out with loud voices as they were being cast out by a foreign man.

The story before us this evening is a fascinating one. It gives us a peek into the exciting and amazing things that were going on in the early church.

People certainly would have been amazed to know that those who had been possessed by unclean spirits or who had been paralyzed had been healed by this man.

But interestingly, the Bible passage doesn’t begin as I just described. Instead of opening this passage with these dramatic parts of the account, the story begins by explaining what the author considered to be more important: Philip’s message.

See, the first thing we read of, in verse four, is that those who had been scattered because of the persecution, went about preaching the good news about Jesus.

After Stephen’s murder, Philip, one of the men chosen in Acts 6, had arrived and was doing the work of evangelism and of preaching the good news. Philip had departed from Jerusalem with all the other Christians who had scattered, and he went to the city of Samaria, where he preached about Jesus.

And we read that with one accord, the crowds were paying attention to what Philip was saying and also the signs he was performing. In v.12. we read that they believed Philip as he preached the good news about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, and they were baptized – both men and women.

We also learn that what Philip was telling them, and what he was doing, filled the city with joy! They were overjoyed because they were witnessing and hearing something beautiful. The good news of Jesus, and the healing and freeing of their people from the bondage of sin and oppression.

As the gospel had spread in Jerusalem, now it was spreading in Samaria. This expansion of the gospel was so well received that when the apostles received word of it, they sent Peter and John, who went down to pray for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit.

This was wonderful news, and the whole town was overjoyed.

But as I mentioned before, we read of another man, a man named Simon.

Simon was in many ways the opposite of Philip.

Far from being a visitor, Simon was well known by the entire city of Samaria, because he had practiced magic there for a long time and had amazed all the people from the least to the greatest. Because of his magical abilities, he claimed that he was “somebody great.” And the thing is, the people believed him, and even took it a step further saying that Simon was “the power of God.”

The people were so fooled by Simon’s tricks and magic, that they not only thought of him as a prophet of God, but as if he were the Spirit Himself! [Calvin, 231]

Calvin here notes that those who are not controlled by the Light of God are liable to become the victims of all sorts of error at Satan’s hand. [Calvin, 231]

And just in case you didn’t catch that on the first or second time, I want to make sure that you catch what Simon was doing here.

Simon wasn’t just a magician who happened to be thought of by the people as powerful or as somebody great. He was a magician who was spreading that message to everyone.

We should point out that commentators explain that Simon did not presume to be the supreme God but rather that he was spreading the idea that of all the “powers of God” that are out there he was “the greatest of the powers.” [Peterson, Acts, 283]

Now that fact alone is already pretty bad. I don’t think Simon gets points for not saying he was God, but rather just the great power of God. Because, as we’ve noted, he seemed to allow for others to expand on his comments without stopping them.

Consider in contrast how Paul and Barnabas reacted in Lystra when the people said, “The gods have come down to us in the likeness of men!” They ran out and tore their garments, correcting them saying,

Men, why are you doing these things? We also are men, of like nature with you, and we bring you good news, that you should turn from these vain things to a living God, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and all that is in them. [Acts 14:15]

Simon not only does not correct them, but instead continued to grasp for more and more power.

We see that grasp because Simon believed and was baptized, and then we see that he followed Philip around.

We can almost picture him following Philip closely watching him and seeing if he could see how he did what he was doing. Was it sleight of hand, or was it real? How did Philip get these powers to do these incredible signs?

No doubt when Peter and John arrived, Simon was even more in awe, as these were the actual apostles who had walked with Jesus and who knew him. And the fact that they could lay hands on people who then would receive the Holy Spirit must have been too much for Simon. He had to have this power.

He wanted—no—he needed to be like Peter and John. Simon wanted to do what no other men could do. So, he does the unthinkable. Offering them money, he said, give me this power also!

The Gall of Bitterness

And it’s like everything stops.

In typical Peter fashion, he pulls no punches and confronts Simon, rebuking him to his face for daring to try to obtain the gift of God with money.

“May your silver perish with you…you have neither part nor lot in this matters, for your heart is not right before God.” And he goes on to say…22“Repent, therefore, of this wickedness of yours, and pray to the Lord that, if possible, the intent of your heart may be forgiven you. 23 For I see that you are in the gall of bitterness and in the bond of iniquity.”

This forceful rebuke might seem out of nowhere. But as we have gathered through the passage, whether by being observant or by the power of the Holy Spirit, Peter had picked up on the fact that Simon was “in the gall of bitterness and in the bond of iniquity.”

At first glance, maybe you noticed like me that it didn’t seem that Simon was all that bitter or bound up in sin. So it bothered me. I felt like I was missing something.

And it turns out that is because Greek lexicons consider this to be an idiom. Literally, “to be in the gall of bitterness” means to be “particularly envious or resentful of someone — ‘to be very jealous, to be terribly envious, to be bitterly envious.’ [Louw & Nida, 761]

And that makes a lot more sense. We can see that Simon was envious. That was what Peter was addressing – Simon’s obsession with power. Simon enjoyed the status he gave himself and the status that others in the community had given him to be the greatest of the powers of God, almost like a god himself. And now the opportunity to gain even more power was before him. Simon is so bound up with his envy and thirst for power that he wanted to buy the power to give the Holy Spirit.

Perhaps he wanted this power so that he could somehow amass for himself more power, influence and income. Consider how Simon’s purposes were completely different than those of Philip’s and the apostles’.  While they sought the glory of God and the good of the people, Simon sought to gain power for himself.

Idolatry

The problem with Simon is a very serious one. Simon had made power a priority in his life. It was who he was known for. He lived off of it, and as we see in this passage, he wanted more of it. You might even say that he was consumed by it.

And the reason this is a serious problem is that when we are consumed with desire over something, it can become idolatrous.

Tim Keller argues that as humans, our primary issue is an issue of idolatry. “We will either worship the uncreated God, or we will worship some created thing (an idol). There is no possibility of our worshiping nothing.”

And so we either worship God, or we worship whatever captures our hearts and our imaginations, and they ensnare us. We all have some ultimate concern or some ultimate allegiance – either to God or to some God-substitute. [Keller]

While we might not be like Simon, we all have particular areas of life that tend to lure us. For Simon, it was power. For the rich young ruler, it was money. For the Pharisees, it was status.

What do you long for?

A beautiful home? A happy marriage or family? A new car, a stress-free life, good health or financial independence?

What do you feel you need to make you happy right now? I want to encourage you to think about it for a moment. Do you know what it is that you long for? What you desire most?

If you are having a hard time coming up with something that you long for or desire, maybe a helpful way to think about it is by asking yourself or asking someone who knows you what sort of things tend to really upset you.

  • Maybe it is the way someone talks to you or interacts with you.
  • Or maybe it is when people question you or confront you.
  • Do you sometimes get upset when your kids or others interrupt your work?
  • What if someone shows up late to a meeting you’ve scheduled, or on the other hand, shows up way too early to a meeting and lets you know they are there already?
  • Have you ever met someone who just walks past you and doesn’t greet you or acknowledge your existence? Or that person who always wants to talk when you are in a hurry?

We could go on and on. There are so many things that annoy us and even upset us. And when pressure is applied, we can quickly go from annoyed to angry.

And the thing is, that that anger is often rooted in something we are protecting. Something we treasure more than other things. And pretty likely something that we treasure more than God.

Think about it for a moment. If we lose our patience with someone, or get angry, why is that? Obviously because we are sinners, but what is at the root of that anger? Perhaps a sense that we deserve better treatment. We have expectations after all. We may be trying to run a business or a family or a classroom or an office.

How dare someone disrupt MY leadership. Or how dare someone ignore me. Or how dare someone meddle in my business!

Brothers and sisters, if you take the time to think through what makes you most angry in life, I can almost guarantee you that you will find your hidden treasure. Not good hidden treasure, but the things you treasure that you hide from others and even hide from yourselves.

Now I know that there are some out there that are thinking that it is not bad to desire and aim for good things in life. It is not wrong to want a beautiful home, a happy marriage or a happy family. There are many good and fine goals to strive for.

But there is a problem when that longing can turn from a desire to a demand or a “need.”  And when things in this world become supremely important to us, and go from being good things to ultimate things, those desires can become idolatrous.

Sneaky Idolatry – captivated by sin

I don’t know if this happens to anyone else, but when I follow Google Maps navigation on my phone, it seems that from time to time I’m travelling along, minding my own business and then all of a sudden I get to a Y in the road, and the map seems to be offering no clear indicator of whether or not I should turn left or right. And so, I just make a decision, and somehow I almost always make the wrong decision and end up heading a completely different direction than I had anticipated.

And when it comes to our passage, it almost seems like Simon was heading in the right direction. He believed and was baptized, and then suddenly it seems like he is going the completely wrong direction because Peter tells him that he is going to perish with his silver and that he had neither part nor lot in this matter, because his heart was not right before God! What a change of direction!

As we look at the details, it is clear that there is obviously a big difference when it comes to priorities in the lives of Philip and Simon. But Peter’s rebuke is so stern and forceful that it makes us wonder about the state of Simon’s salvation. Did he repent? Was he saved? We don’t know.

There is some speculation from sources outside of Scripture that may be correct, but we don’t know for certain, and it is left out probably very intentionally. All we have is uncomfortable silence on the matter.

Did this man who believed Philip and was baptized repent from his sin? What happened to him?

I think the passage is intentionally vague so that we don’t just gloss over this passage. So that we take a moment to consider what if he didn’t repent?

And that is a very real reality. In the parable of the Sower, Jesus distinguishes between how different people received or didn’t receive the message of the gospel. Some people receive it like the good soil and produced abundantly, while other people receive the word with joy at first, but when the cares of the world and its riches lure them, they choke the word. [Mark 4:18]

In Pastor Nicoletti’s sermon on the Parable of the Sower in Mark 4, he reminds us that “bad soil can obviously become good soil. In an ultimate sense that is what conversion is: where before there was no response to the Word of God, now it takes root and bears fruit, as a non-Christian becomes a Christian.” [Nicoletti, 3]

And this is a crucial piece to understanding what may be happening here. We must remember as one commentator notes, that “These soils are not unchangeable characterizations of people […] The parable of the soils should be taken as an exhortation to those who are Christians to continually repent and believe.” [Horne, 92]

And this is an exhortation that we Christians need to hear as well. Faith without works is dead. As believers, we can never simply get comfortable with sin. We are called to continually repent from our sins and to believe.

And this is especially the case because sin is sneaky. Idolatry is sneaky. Like a splinter or a sliver, it pushes its way into our lives. If you have ever had a sliver or a splinter in your hand or in your foot, you know it is annoying at first, but sometimes they are easy to ignore (especially if you don’t have the proper tweezers to remove them with). But soon what you could barely feel at all has now become an angry inflamed area. And that is how sin and idolatry sneaks into our lives. It is subtle.

In God’s providence, we are reading through Deuteronomy in our yearly daily Bible reading, and we recently came across the passage where the people of Israel are warned about longing after the gods of this world. And I feel like that passage really highlights this concept.

See, in Deut. 29, we learn that God had liberated the people out of slavery in the land of Egypt and how God had brought them passed other nations. As they passed through, the people of Israel saw the nations “detestable things, their idols of wood and stone, of silver and gold, which were among them.” (v.17) and we read a stern warning for the people of God:

“18 Beware lest there be among you a man or woman or clan or tribe whose heart is turning away today from the LORD our God to go and serve the gods of those nations. Beware lest there be among you a root bearing poisonous and bitter fruit, 19 one who, when he hears the words of this sworn covenant, blesses himself in his heart, saying, ‘I shall be safe, though I walk in the stubbornness of my heart.’ This will lead to the sweeping away of moist and dry alike. 20 The LORD will not be willing to forgive him, but rather the anger of the LORD and his jealousy will smoke against that man, and the curses written in this book will settle upon him, and the LORD will blot out his name from under heaven.”

Here the people of God, knew the power of the living God in freeing them from the land of Egypt as he had. They saw their detestable idols of wood and stone and silver and gold. The people of God probably shook their heads as they walked past in judgment.

But God, knowing the deceitfulness of sin and of their hearts, reminds them of the lures of the world around them and the temptation to turn away from Him in order to serve the gods of this world.

And so he offers a strong rebuke telling them to beware of those idols.

“Beware that there be among you a root bearing poisonous and bitter fruit who blesses himself in his heart saying, ‘I shall be safe, though I walk in the stubbornness of my heart.’”

The temptation of the human heart to be lured by the things of this world is such that one moment you can be sitting in judgment over others for their detestable actions, and the next moment you can be ensnared in that very sin.

We have all heard of those passages or read them ourselves. The people of God worshipping golden calves and making idols of wood and stone! How could they be so stupid?! The answer?

They were lured to the ensnaring powers of temptation, and in addition to that like many sins, they probably didn’t get caught or immediately receive the consequences of being caught. As Deuteronomy 19:19 explains, they thought in their hearts, “I shall be safe, though I walk in the stubbornness of my heart.”

See, many Christians live life like Simon. Thinking that their sins will not find them out. That what they do behind closed doors, or the way they live or act or speak will have no consequences. Many live double lives, and because they have gotten away with it until now, they continue to live with sin in their hearts, thinking “I shall be safe.”

But we should be careful not to assume that we are “safe” when it comes to living in sins. For though it may seem like you escaped from the consequences of sin, scot-free, we should instead understand that as God giving us a chance to repent.

Paul writes: “do you presume on the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance?” [Rom. 2:4]

See, God’s kindness is meant to lead you to change. While he could destroy you, he is giving you an opportunity to turn from sin and to turn to him.

But to the person who feels safe in their sin and does not turn, “The LORD will not be willing to forgive him, but rather the anger of the LORD and his jealousy will smoke against that man, and the curses written in this book will settle upon him, and the LORD will blot out his name from under heaven.” [Deut. 19:20]

So, brothers and sisters, as you consider your own lives and the treasures of this world that you cling to, do not feel like you are safe in your sin. Do not think, well, so far so good! My sin has not borne any negative consequences!

Consider your eternity. Expose your sin and repent of any sin that you harbor today.

Listen to Peter’s rebuke as an act of love. For as one commentator noted, Peter rebukes as he himself was rebuked by our Lord Jesus when he said, “Get behind me Satan!” This same Peter who felt the sting of the rebuke, but turned toward repentance, offers the same call to repentance, so that all men everywhere might turn from sin.

This is the God that we serve. “A God who is merciful and gracious,

                        slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love….

….10   He does not deal with us according to our sins,

                        nor repay us according to our iniquities.

11        For as high as the heavens are above the earth,

                        so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him;” [Psalm 103]

And furthermore, these words of promise were written for those who would return to God later in Deuteronomy:

“[And when you return] to the LORD your God, you and your children, and obey his voice in all that I command you today, with all your heart and with all your soul, 3 then the LORD your God will restore your fortunes and have mercy on you, and he will gather you again from all the peoples where the LORD your God has scattered you.” [Deut. 30]

Brothers and sisters, the Lord is gracious and patient, and his desire is that we would repent and turn and follow him. Amen.

Sources Used In This Sermon or Series

Calvin, John. Acts 1-13. Translated by John W. Fraser and W.J.G. McDonald. Edited by David W. Torrance and Thomas F. Torrance. Grand

Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1965 (1995 edition).

Danker, Frederick W., Walter Bauer, William F. Arndt, and F. Wilbur Gingrich. Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early

           Christian Literature. 3rd ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000.

Horne, Mark. The Victory According to Mark: An Exposition of the Second Gospel. Moscow, ID: Canon Press, 2003.

Keller, Timothy. “How to Talk About Sin in a Postmodern Age” MAY 12, 2017 https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/how-to-talk-sin-in-postmodern-age/

Kistemaker, Simon J.. Exposition of the Acts of the Apostles. New Testament Commentary. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2007.

LOUW & NIDA Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament Based on Semantic Domains. New York, NY: United Bible Societies, 1989.

Nicoletti, Steven, [“The Parable of the Sower Part 1: On Being Good Soil” https://faithtacoma.sfo2.cdn.digitaloceanspaces.com/2023/03/Mark-4.1-20-Pt-1-On-Being-Good-Soil-Srmn-Mnscrpt-3.05.23am-RV.pdf]

Stott, John R. W.. The Message of Acts: The Bible Speaks Today. Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1990.

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