As the church in Jerusalem is scattered by persecution, Philip (one of the seven men chosen to oversee the daily distribution of food) travels to Samaria. A little lesson in the geography of ancient Israel is important at this point.
Jerusalem, Samaria (the region), Samaria (the city, known also as Sebaste), the desert road from Jerusalem to Gaza, the city of Azotus, and Caesarea (not Caesarea-Philippi) are all mentioned in this chapter. Take a look at the map. Jerusalem is near the north end of the Dead Sea. The city of Samaria is north-northwest of Jerusalem near the center of the map. The city of Gaza is near the bottom left corner of the map, a few miles southwest of Azotus, which is located in what we call the Gaza Strip today. (Philip encountered the Ethiopian Eunuch on the road between Jerusalem and Gaza.) Cesarea is quite a distance up the Mediterranean coast north-northeast of Azotus. Jerusalem, Gaza and Azotus are in Judea, while the cities of Samaria and Caesarea are in the region of Samaria.
Notice that Philip “went down” to Samaria (v5) and later junctioned with the road that “descends from Jerusalem to Gaza” (v26). “Down” doesn’t refer to the bottom of the map — it refers to going downhill. Remember that Jerusalem is built upon Mount Zion, the high point in the area. When the Israelites traveled from their home regions to Jerusalem for the mandatory national feasts, they “went up to Jerusalem”. All roads that lead away from Jerusalem, regardless of compass direction, go downhill.
The passage we are considering is easily divided into five major sections. (1) Philip preaches the gospel in Samaria (vv5-8); (2) Simon the Magician (vv9-13); (3) Peter and John come from Jerusalem to Samaria (vv14-17); (4) Simon the Magician is tempted (vv18-24); and (5) Philip meets the Ethiopian Eunuch (vv25-40). In this blog post we’ll consider the first four of these sections, and address Philip’s encounter with the Ethiopian Eunuch in the following post.
Philip Preaches the Gospel in Samaria
Please read Acts 8:5-8 for yourself before proceeding with the verse-by-verse observations that are below. Remember also the importance and purpose of miracles as discussed in the previous post, and that the Samaritans are what is left of the old Northern Kingdom, polluted over the centuries since Solomon by intermarriage with gentiles and by idol worship. Nevertheless, they are descended from Abraham.
v5 — Philip went down from Jerusalem to the “city of Samaria.” Wait a minute! I thought Samaria was a region! Both are correct. There is a region called Samaria, and a city called Samaria. When Solomon’s son Rehoboam rashly decided to increase taxes, a young commander in Solomon’s army named Jeroboam led the ten northern tribes in a revolt. To keep them from gradually rejoining the southern tribes because of their habits of national worship in Jerusalem, Jeroboam established idol worship in the north at two locations, Bethel and Dan. He was succeeded by his son Nadab, who was murdered by Baasha, who reigned 24 years. He was succeeded by his son, Elah, who reigned two years. However, his servant Zimri murdered him and took over. He only lasted seven days, because most of the men of Israel were out fighting the Philistines, and when they heard what Zimri had done they made the commander of the army, Omri, king instead. Omri and the army came back to Tirzah (where the kings since Baasha had lived) and laid siege to the city, whereupon Zimri committed suicide by setting fire to the palace. Omri reigned twelve years, the first six at Tirzah. Then he purchased a hilltop from a man named Shemer and built a city on it, naming it after the previous owner — Samaria. Since it was the residence of the king, it became the capitol city of the Northern Kingdom, and the region around it began to be known by the same name. By Jesus’ day, the Romans had divided the Israel of David’s day into several territories. The territories on the west side of the Jordan river were Judea (part of the old Southern Kingdom, including Jerusalem) in the south, Galilee in the north (the upper half of the old Northern Kingdom), and Samaria (the lower half of the old Northern Kingdom) in the middle. The city of Samaria was more or less in the center of the region of Samaria in Roman times. In 721 B.C. it was destroyed by the Assyrians, was destroyed again by Alexander the Great in 331 B.C., and was besieged and demolished by John Hyrcanus again in 108 B.C. It was rebuilt and refortified by Herod the Great, who named it Sebaste. Today the hill is the site of the small village es-Sebustieh. (Information taken from Davis Bible Dictionary. The OT details described can be found in I Kings 13-16.)
This verse also describes Philip as “proclaiming Christ” to the residents of the city. Within the context that we have very carefully established, this means that Philip would have been proclaiming the coming of the Messiah and His prophesied Kingdom, fully in compliance with the Great Commission. Note that Paul adds another word when he describes his own preaching — he preaches Christ crucified to the Gentiles. But the unprophesied mystery hidden in other ages had not been revealed to Philip at this point in Luke’s narrative. All Philip knows is Israel’s program.
vv6-8 — The crowds who heard Philip preaching also saw him performing signs (miracles). Remember, signs are intended to certify the presence and authority of God to Israel. What kind of signs? He was casting out demons and healing the lame, which caused much joy among the people of the city. It was not the first time that Samaritans had experienced joy — John 4:39-43 describes how Jesus remained in the Samaritan city of Sychar (after his conversation with the woman at the well) for two days and many believed in Him.
Simon the Magician
Please read Acts 8:9-13 for yourself before proceeding to the next paragraph.
Luke describes this Simon as someone who practiced “magic arts,” astonishing the people of the city of Samaria. He was apparently the David Copperfield of his day. His skill was sufficient to seem miraculous, and in v10 we find a confirmation — even among Samaritans — that miracles were to be understood as a sign that the person was speaking with the approval and authority of God. Luke records their very words: “This man is what is called the Great Power of God.” He had a long-established reputation.
Now Philip comes on the scene. Philip is healing the lame and casting out demons! I’m really reading between the lines here, but I think Simon, knowing that his “miracles” were accomplished only by sleight of hand, instantly recognized the real power of God in Philip. Verse 13 tells us that Simon believed Philip’s message and was baptized, along with many others in the community. He continued to watch Philip performing many miracles, constantly amazed and drawn to Philip’s apparent power. For a trickster, and one who could probably have debunked any other purported “miracle worker”, he knew Philip was for real and the miracles he performed were genuine.
Peter and John Come
Please read Acts 8:14-17 for yourself before proceeding to the next paragraph.
News eventually reached Jerusalem that Samaria had “received the word of God.” Here we must tread carefully. Which Samaria, the region or the city? Since the apostles knew where to send Peter and John, and they came immediately to the same place where Simon the Magician was, it is obviously the city. There is a tendency to virtualize this verse into something bigger because of the influence of the Great Commission in our thinking. The Great Commission (Acts 1:8) speaks of the region of Samaria, while Luke’s narrative at this point deals with the city of Samaria. Acts 8:1 also refers to the region of Samaria, but the focus is quickly narrowed to the city of Samaria in Philip’s specific example. Since Luke doesn’t include information about the message being received anywhere else yet (his phrasing seems to indicate a continuous timeline), we can probably safely assume that the city of Samaria was the first city in the region of Samaria with a harvest of believers.
When Peter and John arrived, they prayed that these new Samaritan believers “might receive the Holy Spirit.” (v15) Luke goes on to explain that although they had believed and had been baptized, the Holy Spirit “had not yet fallen upon any of them.” Here we find a clear difference between how the Holy Spirit was at work in the context of Israel’s Kingdom dispensation and how He works today in the current dispensation of the Age of Grace. Today believers are indwelt and sealed by the Holy Spirit as soon as they accept Christ as their Savior as a result of hearing the preaching of Christ crucified. At this point in Luke’s narrative, the Holy Spirit not only didn’t come as soon as they believed, but He did not come when Peter and John arrived. The Samaritan believers received the Holy Spirit only after Peter and John had asked God to give the Holy Spirit to them and then had laid their hands on them. (It’s possible that their request of God for the Holy Spirit to be allowed to fall on the Samaritan believers was a direct excercise of the “keys of the kingdom of Heaven,” in which Jesus said to Peter in Matthew 16:19, “whatsoever you shall loose on earth shall be loosed in Heaven.”) Notice also that the language used by Luke indicates that the Holy Spirit is still coming “upon” believers (like a cloak) rather than indwelling them, just as was the case at Pentecost.
Why do I make a big deal of this? As we progress through the Book of Acts, we will see this sequence for the coming of the Holy Spirit change gradually! If we do not pay attention to the order now, we will fail to recognize when the order changes in later passages! For now, at least, the order is (1) believe, (2) be baptized, and (3) receive the Holy Spirit, all as separate events in time.
Simon the Magician is Tempted
Please read Acts 8:18-24 for yourself before proceeding to the next paragraph.
Seeing the Holy Spirit fall upon believers by the hands of Peter and John affected Simon the Magician strongly. He had been impressed by Philip’s miracles, but this apparently was the most impressive of all. We assume from his reaction and request, and Peter’s response, that he had not yet received the Spirit. He may have actually interrupted Peter as he was laying his hands on someone else. He offered to pay Peter to give him the same ability — to impart the Holy Spirit to others. Had he become covetous of Peter’s authority? Was this what was in his heart after all as he followed Philip around, watching him? Verse 13 states flatly that Simon believed and was baptized, and for that reason I do not believe his conversion was false. On that basis, I also believe that Simon’s request was made out of a genuine desire to help further the Kingdom. On the other hand, he was a man used to hearing himself referred to as the “Great Power of God”. Peter’s condemnation of him in the next few verses clearly states that Simon was not right with God. Clearly Simon’s offer was not according to the Holy Spirit’s leading!
It is difficult for us today, who receive the Holy Spirit at the very moment we believe, to understand how a person can be a believer (a baptized believer, no less) and not have (let alone obey) the Holy Spirit. The authority with which Peter identifies his sin and condemns him should be familiar to us — we’ve seen him do it before. There are parallels between this passage and the record of Ananias and Sapphira in the 5th chapter of Acts. While Luke does not specifically tell us that Ananias and Sapphira were believers, had been baptized, and had received the Holy Spirit, there is no reason to believe they hadn’t. They were part of the fellowship of the Jerusalem church, and would not have been if they had not been believers. New believers were baptized almost immediately. And Peter accused them of lying to the Holy Spirit. How could they do that if they had not received Him yet? Peter all but demands the same punishment for Simon that Ananias and Sapphira received. I believe Peter is exercising “Kingdom authority” in both passages, and that we have another window on what life in the Kingdom will be like. As I’ve said before, praise God that He is now being patient with men and their sins, and is not dealing with sin as we see in the case of Simon the Magician!
Some may say that Simon was just backslidden, and was calloused toward the Holy Spirit. Believers today can certainly fall into that trap, sinning with apparent impunity. But Simon had not received the Holy Spirit yet, even though he was a believer — so how could he become calloused toward Him? Simon had been a believer for only a few days, and was still in that heady time all new believers experience. When would he have had time to backslide? What’s more, Simon’s response is one of immediate repentance, asking Peter and John to pray for him so that none of Peter’s judgements upon him would happen. I believe that if Simon had not responded in repentance, his fate would indeed have been the same as unrepentant Ananias and Sapphira.
Was Peter being “territorial” about the ability to confer the Holy Spirit upon believers by the laying on of hands? I don’t think so. He possessed, after all, the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven on earth. He knew the authority that had been given to him alone, to him and the other apostles, and not to others. But Peter was in for a surprise a little later when preaching to Gentiles in the household of Cornelius in Caesarea…
Our passage closes with verse 25. Following these events in the city of Samaria, Peter and John started the return journey to Jerusalem, preaching the gospel as they passed through villages along the way. (Important Note: Peter and John now have experienced preaching to Gentiles. You’ll need to know this when we study Peter’s vision in Chapter 10!) Philip, however, receives different instructions. Directly from an angel, no less! But that’s another story…