Two weeks ago, Rev Neil told us the ministry of Stephen from Acts 7, the first martyr of the church recorded in the New Testament. As a result of the persecution, many Christians in Jerusalem have been scattered to nearby regions. But God is still in charge. He uses persecution at Jerusalem to spread the Gospel of Christ. It is not his only way, but it does seem to be a frequent way that God used to bring out the Gospel. God spurs up the church into missionary service by the suffering His church endures.
Just like in the days of the Cultural Revolution in China, when Mao Zedong’s government vowed to eradicate religion in 1966. Places of worship were demolished, closed, or reappropriated, and religious practices were banned. Under the government suppression, local Christians moved underground to spread the gospel door to door from town to town, cities to cities in household underground Christian movements. Today, there are an estimated 93 to 115 million Chinese Protestant Christians in China. God uses the persecution of His church to spread the Gospel of Christ just like the Christians at Jerusalem had experienced in the first century.
In today’s story, Philip the Evangelist was one of the persecuted Christian who left Judea. He was sent to Samaria of the north from Jerusalem. The Samarians were descendants of mixed marriages between Northern Israelites and other Canaanites in the area. Traditionally the Jews living in Judea see them as Gentiles. With a theological difference in their worship, traditional Jews saw them as not part of God’s chosen people with divine blessings. Samaritans were considered to be racially impure and religiously inferior by the Jew. However, the Gospel of Christ is not only for the Jews, for it is for every race on earth. God used Philip, the evangelist, to build up the very first Gentile church in Samaria.
1) Christian witness brings great joy
In verse 4, the Scripture records that “4 Those who had been scattered preached the word wherever they went. 5 Philip went down to a city in Samaria and proclaimed the Messiah there. 6 When the crowds heard Philip and saw the signs he performed, they all paid close attention to what he said. 7 For with shrieks, impure spirits came out of many, and many who were paralysed or lame were healed. 8 So there was great joy in that city.”
Philip had come to Samaria to proclaim the Gospel, not to sell it. In bringing the name of Jesus and the good news of salvation to Samaria, Philip proclaimed the Word of God wherever he went. To the Jews, Samaritans are outcasts, and Philip is an outcast Jew in the land of the outcasts. But the Gospel of Christ moved out to them. Luke, the gospel writer, emphasises the miracles that Philip performed in Samaria – exorcism and healings. Such powerful signs from God made the people interested in what he had to say. But we need to keep in mind that the miracles as secondary in the ministry of Christ. The purpose of the miracle is to attract attention to the Gospel. Gospel-first is the priority in any church and ministries. Verse 12 in this chapter records, “But when they believed Philip as he proclaimed the good news of the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptised, both men and women.” It indicates that the message of Christ, not the experience of signs and wonders, was the issue. It is the gospel of salvation that saves people from sin and hell, not the signs and wonders that could save them. Jesus made miracles and healed many people, feed thousands on the shore of Galilee, but not everyone of those who eat the bread or being healed are saved. Only those who listen to the gospel and believe in Jesus of Nazareth as their messiah and saviour who came to die for their sins will be saved. Only those who listen to the preaching of the gospel and believe in Christ will receive eternal life and be saved in God’s judgment.
2) Simon the Sorcerer
Secondly, Samaria was a stronghold of the occult. And here, enter a corrupted character in the narrative, Simon the Sorcerer, as we read in verses 9-11, “Now for some time a man named Simon had practised sorcery in the city and amazed all the people of Samaria. He boasted that he was someone great, 10 and all the people, both high and low, gave him their attention and exclaimed, “This man is rightly called the Great Power of God.” 11 They followed him because he had amazed them for a long time with his sorcery.” No matter what type of power this Simon the Sorcerer has shown, whatever power people saw in him probably came from demonic sources. But when the power of Jesus Christ encounters the power of Satan, there is no contest. Philip’s message is clear. It reminds us of the gospel message of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, Jesus died for our sins on the Cross. He was raised to life by the power of God so that whoever believes in Him will receive new life and forgiveness of sins. Both men and women in Samaria heard Philip’s message, trusted Christ, and were saved.
Furthermore, they were baptised. And out of our surprise as readers, in verse 13, Simon the Sorcerer also believed and was baptised among the others. “And he followed Philip everywhere, astonished by the great signs and miracles he saw” (Acts 4:13b) But is this sorcerer genuinely converted? The following paragraph will show us enough information to demonstrate that he was not.
As James 2:19 says, “You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that – and shudder.” The truth is, my friends, the word believe does not always mean saving faith in the New Testament. Apparently, Simon was caught up in the excitement of the moment. Having recognised that Philip’s miracles were considerably more excellent than his own, Simon followed the evangelist around to learn some new tricks. However, we need to remember that any attempt of earning God’s gift denies God’s grace. Simon never quite caught that basic message of the Gospel. He had no real spiritual understanding of the faith that he claimed. You cannot earn God’s favour or grace. His faith was imperfect; it was centred in man and work, not in Christ.
And suddenly, in the middle of the story between Simon the Sorcerer and Philip, here is a sandwich story insert between verse 13 and verse 18. The gospel writer Luke always uses these insert stories as a writing method to highlight important events, similar to Luke’s Gospel, the theologians called it the Luken sandwich. And what is this in-between sandwich story? After the news of Samaritans turning to Christ, in verse 14, we learn that “When the apostles in Jerusalem heard that Samaria had accepted the word of God, they sent Peter and John to Samaria. 15 When they arrived, they prayed for the new believers there that they might receive the Holy Spirit, 16 because the Holy Spirit had not yet come on any of them; they had simply been baptised in the name of the Lord Jesus. 17 Then Peter and John placed their hands on them, and they received the Holy Spirit.” (Acts 8:14-17)
This was a crucial moment for the spread of the Good News and the growth of the church. Peter and John had to go to Samaria to help keep this new group of non-Jewish and gentile believers from becoming separated from other believers. When Peter and John saw the Lord working in these people, they were assured that the Holy Spirit worked through all believers—Gentiles and mixed races as well as “pure” Jews, all who believes in the name of Jesus Christ will receive salvation and receiving the gift of the Holy Spirit from God. God chose to give this dramatic filling of his Spirit as a sign at this particular moment in history—the spread of the Good News into Samaria, a land of the Gentiles through the powerful, effective preaching of his servants. This is why the ministers and bishops have church traditions, depending on their denominations, to lay hands on people in Baptism services so that they will receive the Holy Spirit.
But Simon the Sorcerer wanted this power of the apostles. Simon thought he could buy the Holy Spirit’s power with money, but Peter rebuked him. Verse 20, “Peter answered: “May your money perish with you, because you thought you could buy the gift of God with money! 21 You have no part or share in this ministry, because your heart is not right before God. 22 Repent of this wickedness and pray to the Lord in the hope that he may forgive you for having such a thought in your heart. 23 For I see that you are full of bitterness and captive to sin.”
Why did Simon being so harsh to the sorcerer? Because the only way to receive God’s power is to do what Peter told Simon to do—repent, ask God for forgiveness, and be filled with his Spirit. No amount of money can buy salvation, the forgiveness of sin, or God’s power. These are only gained by repentance and belief in Christ as the Saviour. Also, Simon wanted that ability for selfish reasons: to have power, make money, or gain prestige. God doesn’t give us abilities to enhance our own lives. He grants us gifts so that we may bring him glory by building up others. The Holy Spirit is a divine gift. When you find yourself wishing for an ability that would put you into the spotlight or somehow enrich you personally, check your motives. Simon, the sorcerer, saw the profit potential in the apostles’ power by unleashing the power in the lives of people by an unseen presence of the living God. He wanted God’s power with impure motives. The truth is, commercial interests and worldly enterprise do not mix well with the Spirit. And sadly, not just Simon the Sorcerer, today many misguided evangelists also use television or social media and the Internet to earn money for religious favours of one kind and another, exchanging money for God’s grace. You don’t pay money to earn God’s favour. God’s grace is a gift; The Holy Spirit is a divine gift. It cannot be earned or buy off with the silvers of this world.
Instead, we need to get our hearts right before God. Any grace or gifts from God is to build up the church and God’s kingdom, building up each other to glorify God alone, not for personal gain.
3) Only true repentance can bring genuine salvation
Finally, today’s final point is that only true repentance can bring genuine salvation through the Gospel of Christ. It is a heart attitude. All these religious rituals of water baptism, communion, church membership, religious office holding, religious titles and any other kind of external recognition mean nothing to God, who looks directly at the heart condition of each person. Simon’s wicked heart had no part in the evangelical ministry of Samaria. Although Peter had condemned him, Simon still had the opportunity to repent. Whatever Simon understood the Gospel, he certainly did not understand the grace of God. Throughout the Book of Acts, Luke the writer wants to emphasise that God energises the Gospel exclusively by the Holy Spirit’s power in the lives of believers. True repentance and believing in Jesus is the only way to salvation. After hearing the rebuke from Peter, Simon the Sorcerer feared the consequence of God’s judgment and perished. “Then Simon answered, “Pray to the Lord for me so that nothing you have said may happen to me.” (Acts 8:24)
No one likes to be rebuked. Thinking about the last time a parent, a friend, or an elder at church rebuked you, were you hurt, angry, or defensive? Let us learn a lesson from Simon and his reaction to what Peter told him. Simon replied, “Pray to the Lord for me.” If you are rebuked for a serious mistake, it is for your good. Admit your error, repent quickly, and ask for prayer. It is never too late to repent from sins.
As Peter said in verse 22, “Repent of this wickedness and pray to the Lord in the hope that he may forgive you for having such a thought in your heart.” We are all sinners, and we all sin one way or another; no human is sinless except Jesus Christ because he is God Incarnate in the fresh. What gives us salvation is the genuine heart change and turn back to God. True repentance by the washing of sins through the power of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and by the spiritual renewal through the power of the Holy Spirit is the only way to bring God’s forgiveness into our lives. Every true Christian must repent and pray to the Lord for the forgiveness of sins. Through believing the Gospel, believing in Jesus Christ’s sacrifice for our sins, God gives us the gift of salvation from his judgment. True salvation always accompanies true repentance. We must humble ourselves and willing to repent from our wrongdoings in thoughts, words and deeds before our Holy God, and that is what a Christian is, a ‘Repentant sinner’, washed clean by the blood of Christ.
After this event, we heard nothing else about Simon the Sorcerer, but we hope that Peter’s words and finding Jesus would change his heart. In verse 25, the writer moves on at the end of the passage, “After they had further proclaimed the word of the Lord and testified about Jesus, Peter and John returned to Jerusalem, preaching the gospel in many Samaritan villages.” The Gospel has been preached, and many Samaritans, who were Gentiles outside the Jewish community, now enjoy hearing the Gospel of Christ and receiving God’s Kingdom, which will spread to all nations one day, to the end of the earth, including Australia here.
As Jesus said before his ascension to heaven, “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1:8)
The Gospel has been reached to Samaria. Next week, Rev Neil will continue chapter 8 about Philip’s another encounter with an Ethiopian, a Gentile from Africa, in his mission.
Let us pray and give thanks to the Lord for his words to us today.
- Does our church concentrate on what is happening in the church rather than finding ways to scatter its members into God’s harvest field?
- What can you do to encourage your church to be more evangelistic?
- What can you repent of and ask for God’s forgiveness this month? Be a repentant sinner.