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Sunday, 1 November 2015

Acts part 14: Taking liberties with the gospel.

Building the right foundation part 14

Acts 8:8-25 “Taking liberties with the gospel.”

There was much joy in that city. But there was a man named Simon, who had previously practised magic in the city and amazed the people of Samaria, saying that he himself was somebody great. They all paid attention to him, from the least to the greatest, saying, “This man is the power of God that is called Great.” And they paid attention to him because for a long time he had amazed them with his magic. But when they believed Philip as he preached good news about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptised, both men and women. Even Simon himself believed, and after being baptised he continued with Philip. And seeing signs and great miracles performed, he was amazed.
Now when the apostles at Jerusalem heard that Samaria had received the word of God, they sent to them Peter and John, who came down and prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit, for he had not yet fallen on any of them, but they had only been baptised in the name of the Lord Jesus. Then they laid their hands on them and they received the Holy Spirit. Now when Simon saw that the Spirit was given through the laying on of the apostles' hands, he offered them money, saying, “Give me this power also, so that anyone on whom I lay my hands may receive the Holy Spirit.” But Peter said to him, “May your silver perish with you, because you thought you could obtain the gift of God with money! You have neither part nor lot in this matter, for your heart is not right before God. Repent, therefore, of this wickedness of yours, and pray to the Lord that, if possible, the intent of your heart may be forgiven you. For I see that you are in the gall of bitterness and in the bond of iniquity.” And Simon answered, “Pray for me to the Lord, that nothing of what you have said may come upon me.”
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.

English Standard Version Anglicised
Philip has found himself away from home due to the severe persecution of the church that Saul was causing. As we saw last time; persecution rather than halting the gospel was the vehicle which spread it outside of the borders of Judea. Philip instead of sulking about being ejected from home took the opportunity to tell the Samaritans of Christ. The people were enthralled at the gospel which was accompanied by signs and wonders which in turn brought great joy into the city. Our passage today begins with a but, as always there is a negative response to the preaching of the gospel. On this occasion it came by a man named Simon who himself was a recognised wonder-worker and who called himself great.
It seems that the people of that city in Samaria were keenly interested in spiritual things. Luke recorded in verse 6 that the crowds with one accord paid attention to the gospel as Philip preached he also tells us in verse 10 that they had up until this time paid attention to Simon. From the highest to the lowest of society they believed Simon to be “the power of God that is called Great!” To them Simon was the Messiah who for a long time had amazed them all with his own wonder-working power. As you can imagine there was now a conflict; a battle was ensuing and the gospel was about to be victorious. Many believed the gospel and were baptised, the news of this when it reached Jerusalem caused the apostles to send Peter and John to go to Samaria to check it out. They discovered that these people who had heard the word preached and had responded and been baptised were not yet in receipt of the Holy Spirit. Peter and John pray, lay hands on them and the Holy Spirit is received.
The New Testament clearly teaches that when a person believes and is baptised they receive the forgiveness of sins and the gift of the Holy Spirit as Peter preached in Acts 2:38. Therefore this account of what appears to be a two tier Christian experience is highly controversial. Many use it as evidence of a normal two fold Christian experience either to further their belief in the baptism of infants and then confirmation of faith at a later stage. Others believe that it is the theological basis for a two tier Christian experience that proves that a baptism of the Holy Spirit comes later and is accompanied with signs such as tongues.
Is that what Luke is teaching here?
Luke as a good historian is simply recording the facts without comment, the Holy Spirit was given to the people at the hands of Peter and John therefore the event must be measured up against the full weight of New Testament theology. The New Testament always whether it be Paul or Peter teaches that the Holy Spirit is gifted to repentant believers. This event in Samaria is unique in that it is the first effective gospel outreach to Samaria and so as such it must be treated as a one off event in the same way that the Pentecost experience was. So what can we learn from it?
Spiritual interest is not necessarily conversion:
It is important for us to once again emphasise that this is a history and not a theological treatise. Luke is simply and accurately recording the events as they happened. The one thing that we can be certain about in this account is that Philip's preaching to the Samaritans was unique in that it was the first time that the gospel had gone beyond the borders of Judea and that it was being received eagerly by the Samaritans. The “But” of verse 9 puts the brakes on what is happening and throws up a number of warning signs. Simon the magician has been for a long time doing similar miracles to Philip in the city and has a great following. He is their proclaimed messiah and now there is conflict therefore something has to give. The city folks allegiance to Simon is now under threat. The but that introduced Simon is now trumped by the but of verse 12 which reminds us that Philip preached and the people believed the good news of Jesus. Upon faith they were baptised in accordance with what has already been taught by the apostles. Even Simon was included in this number. Simon then followed Philip and was amazed at the signs and great miracles performed.
This whole event caused the apostles to send Peter and John to investigate!
They had heard that the Samaritans had received the word of God and went to see what was going on. We have to remember here what we considered last time that this was a unique occasion the Samaritans who had erred from the true worship of Yahweh were now embracing the Lord Jesus as the long awaited Messiah. That was massive and needed authentication. There was so much contention between Jew and Samaritan that there could easily have been a disastrous split in the infant church due to this very event. Luke records that the apostles simply went along and discovered that because the Holy Spirit had not come upon the believers that they were to be part of the conversion experience of these new believers. They therefore prayed and laid hands upon them and they received the Holy Spirit. Conversion was then complete.
From the text it is impossible to discern whether before the receiving of the Holy Spirit the people were truly born again but personally without the filling of the Spirit I cannot see how that was possible. The gift of the Holy Spirit is intrinsically bound with conversion! On this unique occasion there was a delay in the process of being fully regenerated which was significant because of who it was that was being converted. The gospel was now spreading out into all of the world of which Samaria was the beginning.
We are however on safe ground when we consider Simon whose experience is similar to that of the rest of the people. Simon along with the people displays a desire to know the truth and is fascinated formerly with the miracles of Philip and then with the gifting of the Holy Spirit at the laying on of hands by the apostles and now simony is born. Simony is the term used for somebody who wants to buy favours from God for their own gain. It is obvious that Simon wants to continue his deception to the city by having the power to dispense God to whom he pleases which in turn brings a sharp rebuke from Peter to him. He is told that his heart is not right before God and therefore that he needed to repent and pray for forgiveness and also that Peter could see the total depravity of his heart. (verse 24)
Simon is clearly a different case to the rest of the people, he was never really impressed by the word which was irresistibly drawing the people to Jesus. He was out for personal gain but yet at first he looked just like the rest and was baptised upon faith in Jesus which goes to prove that outward spiritual interest does not prove personal conversion. The apostles came to Samaria in order to confirm that this was truly a work of God's Spirit but also to expose disingenuous faith.
Simon was taking liberties with the gospel and was found out.
He tried to be like the rest but was unconverted and then when confronted couldn't even pray for himself, even though he had been told that he must. He would not humble himself to pray but wanted others to do it for him, repentance must always come from the individual; even the apostle Peter could not work that miracle. If you are taking liberties with the gospel today then you are in the same situation as Simon was and therefore you must repent and pray for forgiveness.

What can we learn from this passage?
  • Firstly that we must not take historical accounts by themselves to be proof texts for our own doctrinal desires. This passage might well suggest a two tier conversion experience but that is not consistent with the rest of New Testament teaching. It was not normal circumstances therefore God worked on this occasion uniquely. The bible is the best interpreter of the bible and so we must weigh up all that is recorded in the historical accounts with the doctrinal sections of scripture and reconcile all that is going on. Normally when a person believes and repents of their sin and is baptised then the gift of the Holy Spirit is given.
  • A large number of people on that day in Samaria were truly converted certainly by the time that they had received the Holy Spirit at the hands of the apostles Peter and John. God authenticated His work of regeneration in their hearts at the hands of the Apostles which in effect brought them into a united fellowship with the rest of the infant Christian church. The nationalistic barriers were broken down. There was neither Samaritan nor Jew but they were all one in Christ Jesus. The Prince of Peace brings peace even to deeply divided people.
  • There will always be some amongst us who are disingenuous, they will for a time look the part but they are merely followers of man rather than Jesus. They want the privileges of belonging but not the Saviour. It is the responsibility of the elders of the church to check out a work of grace as genuine. It is not negative to wait and see whether great claims of faith are real or not!
  • God by His Spirit will work in the way that He chooses and not in the way that our particular theologies dictate. This passage is somewhat uncomfortable for all on both side of a theological divide. Our considerations this morning are totally inadequate to fully understand what is going on. There have been centuries worth of debate on the issues at hand and so we need to re-visit and discuss all angles but what we can say is that God chose to work on that occasion in the way that Luke recorded. We must not expect Him to do it again and neither must we deny that He could if He so wished to. The case is open for God's purposes alone.
  • Saving faith comes from personal repentance and prayer and never from a third party. However much we might like to pray somebody into the kingdom it is not at all possible as Simon no doubt discovered.

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