Stephen’s death, and in particular his prayer made a big impact on Saul, and later when he was called Paul it was something he never forgot. But immediately after the death of Stephen, Saul takes this experience and uses it to fuel a wave of persecution against the early church. Luke tells us in verse three that he set out to destroy the church. He went door to door looking for people to drag out and make an example of. And his passion to punish and destroy burned so greatly that he not only persecuted the men of the church, he dragged off both men and women who followed the teachings of Jesus and threw them in jail.
Many people were scattered, fleeing from the persecution. But in the face of this persecution, God accomplished his purpose. In the first chapter of Acts, Jesus tells his disciples again that they are going to be his witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and the ends of the earth. He had a purpose for his gospel to spread, and up until this point, the new church had stuck close to home. God used this wave of persecution to spread those who had experienced his saving grace throughout the known world. Time and time again through history, God has used the enemy’s efforts to destroy his church to fuel its growth. As people were scattered, they spread the gospel message. They preached the word wherever they went, and as a result they fulfilled Jesus statement that they were going to be his witnesses through all the earth. Our main focus today is what happened with one believer who fled and took the gospel with him.
Philip is the same man who was among the seven appointed to take care of the widow’s distribution (Acts 6:5). He fled from the persecution and ended up in Samaria. The Samaritans and Jews were at odds as to how they were to go about worshipping God. If you remember the story of Jesus and the Samaritan Woman at the Well, She summed it up nicely when she said, “Our Father’s worshipped on this mountain, but the Jews say we must worship in Jerusalem.” Samaritans practiced a mixture of Jewish religion and superstitious idolatry. They had been outcast and not allowed to join with the Jews in temple worship since they returned from the Babylonian Captivity. So, they established their own place of worship which was atop this mountain—Mount Gerizim.
Jews did not associate with the Samaritans, so for Philip to go there and to preach the gospel was very much out of his comfort zone. But as he went out of Jerusalem and into Samaria, he did exactly what Jesus had spoken about in his final instructions to his disciples. Philip brought the message of the gospel with him as well as the power of the Holy Spirit. He gave not only the words of life, but the power to live to those who were ill, crippled, paralyzed, and demon possessed. And he was greeted with Joy.
People were glad he came. They had been hungry for the truth. The Samaritan woman at the well had responded with incredible enthusiasm to Jesus announcing himself to her as messiah, and here her people are rejoicing in the message of resurrection and hope, and the healing of those who had been sick. The people accepted his message, even though it was a drastic departure from their common practice. There was a man in Samaria named Simon. He had been practicing sorcery and amazing people with all the things he could do through his own power. He traveled around, and because of these great feats, he was given respect, and he gained a big head. He received compliments, but he also boasted about his own abilities.
The key to understanding just how incredible his actions were, look very closely at what people say about him in verse 10. He is the divine power known as the great power. They said, this man is God. They were convinced of his divinity, and they followed him. The big change comes when they hear the message of the gospel and see the REAL power of God. They believe the gospel and they are baptized to show their changed faith. And here is something amazing, the man who had boasted that he was someone and even allowed people to put him on the same level as God, he believed and was baptized as well. He left his life of sorcery and began to follow Philip and he was amazed at the things that Philip could do for others in the power of the Holy Spirit.
The apostles sent Philip some reinforcements and Peter and John came to meet the new believers. When they got there, the believers had not been baptized with the Holy Spirit and so they prayed for them that they would receive the Holy Spirit. Apparently Simon missed that part of the action—the prayer part. All he saw was the apostles laying hands on people and conveying the Holy Spirit. Suddenly, that initial awe at the gospel message and coming face-to-face with the REAL power of God are overcome by the thought that he would really like to be able to bestow the Holy Spirit on others as well.
Some people have speculated about Simon’s faith because of his actions in this account. Did he really believe? Was he just faking it to join in the newest faith fad? Was he impressed at seeing true miracles that he could not perform and curios as to how they were happening? We don’t know for sure, except to say that Philip who preached the gospel message was convinced of his faith enough to baptize him, even knowing his background. Luke was convinced enough to tell us that he did believe and that he was baptized to demonstrate his faith. How far that faith had penetrated in the short time it took for the apostles to send representatives, we don’t know. It could be that the temptation to power was just too great for him to resist. It may be that he simply didn’t realize that not everything we want is for sale.
Peter rebukes Simon harshly. That is probably exactly what he needed to snap him out of his worldly power hypnosis. He got caught up in the possibility that with the power to bestow power, he could really go far. Peter brings him back down to earth, in only a slightly more harsh manner than Jesus had done for Peter in the many times Peter had gotten ahead of himself. We have to remember that a rebuke is not the end to anyone’s salvation. Just recall Jesus saying to Peter, “Get thee behind me Satan!”
There is a time and a place for a sharp rebuke, but just like when Jesus rebuked Peter, there was included in Peter’s rebuke to Simon a chance for repentance. Simon was bitter and captive to sin. Yet he had this desire to participate in the ministry of laying on of hands. Peter tells him he has no part in that ministry. He needed to have that part of his life cleansed and re-shaped before he could consider being eligible for ministry in any capacity. He needed time to grow.
Simon would not have been able to handle the temptation of ministry containing such visible power. He might have fallen completely back into his self-made-man lifestyle. Peter sees this weakness and tells him the answer is repentance. Simon, though, tells Peter to pray for him so that he does not have to suffer the consequences of his actions. I don’t know if he later repented. I don’t know if he ever had a ministry role in the church of Samaria. I don’t know if he walked away that day and never looked back. And I am not sure that it matters. I am not sure that is the point.
The question we need to ask is not "What did Simon do?" Rather, when Luke tells us this story, what does he want to communicate? When the Holy Spirit inspired Luke to include this account in the Book of Acts, what was God’s purpose?
One obvious answer to those questions is that God is not for sale. The Gospel is not for sale, Paul tells us that in Romans when he says “The wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Jesus Christ our Lord.” And in Ephesians he tells us that salvation is “not by works, so that no one can boast.” Simon couldn’t earn his salvation. He couldn’t buy the power of God. We don’t get things from God that way. Everything God gives us is a gift. Every power he places in our lives he does so at his own pleasure. We can pray for things to happen, but it is God who makes them happen.
Another purpose in this passage is simply to put forth once again the basics of the gospel message: we are caught in sin; we can repent; if we do: God will forgive and restore us in Christ. We have the same ability that Simon had that day to bring our sinful selves before the throne, to repent and receive the forgiveness that God is holding out to us all the time. It is through repentance that we can accept the forgiveness. It is not how the forgiveness is made, or formed, or produced. That happened on the Cross and in the resurrection.
Repentance puts us in a place to receive that forgiveness, mainly because we recognize that we need it. Without repentance we walk around in rebellion, avoiding God because we have justified our actions and see no need to talk to God about it. With repentance, we come to God and give him what he already knows is broken, we recognize that we are broken and in need of repair. We see our need for Him in our lives. I would encourage you to evaluate how you approach God. Is it with a list of your good deeds in one hand and your list of what you want in the other? Are we seeking to buy from God what is only available as a gift? Are we avoiding God and trying to avoid our conscience by sidestepping opportunities for repentance? If this is how we are relating to God, we need to stop and recognize our need to repent.