A Commentary by John Stott
Acts 8:5-25. 1). Philip the evangelist and a Samaritan city.
It is hard for us to conceive the boldness of the step Philip took in preaching the gospel to the Samaritans. For the hostility between the Jews and the Samaritans had lasted a thousand years. It began with the break-up of the monarchy in the tenth century BC when ten tribes defected, making Samaria their capital, and only two tribes remained loyal to Jerusalem. It became steadily worse when Samaria was captured by Assyria in 722 BC, thousands of its inhabitants were deported, and the country was re-populated by foreigners. In the sixth century BC, when the Jews returned to their land, they refused the help of the Samaritans in the rebuilding of the temple. Not till the fourth century BC, however, did the Samaritan schism harden, with the building of their rival temple on Mount Gerizim and their repudiation of all Old Testament Scripture except the Pentateuch. The Samaritans were despised by the Jews as hybrids in both race and religion, as both heretics and schismatics. John summed up the situation in his simple statement that ‘Jews do not associate with Samaritans’ (Jn.4:9). Jesus’ sympathy for them, however, is already apparent in Luke’s Gospel (eg.Lk.9:52-56; 10:30-37; 17:11-19; cf. Jn.4). Now in Acts 8 Luke is obviously excited by the evangelism of the Samaritans and their incorporation in the Messianic community.
It is uncertain which city Philip evangelized, since some manuscripts read *a city in Samaria* (as NIV) and others ‘the city of Samaria’. The better attested reading has the definite article, in which case ‘the city’ (presumably meaning ‘the capital city’ or ‘the principal city’) is likely to have been either the Old Testament town called ‘Samaria’, which Herod the Great had renamed ‘Sebastos’ in honour of the emperor Augustus, or the ancient Shechem, which by then was called ‘Neapolis’ and is now ‘Nablus’. On the other hand, *a city in* (the province of) *Samaria* may be correct, since neither in this verse nor in verse 25 does Luke seem concerned to identity the city or villages in question.
Luke’s concern is rather to tell us what happened in the city. He unfolds the story in five stages.
a), Philip evangelizes the city (8:5-8).
The evangelist both *proclaimed the Christ* to the Samaritans (5), since they too were expecting a Messiah (cf. Jn. 4:25), and performed *miraculous signs* (6), exorcizing *evil spirits*, which uttered wild *shrieks* as they left their victims, and healing *many paralytics and cripples* (7). Some think of these miracles as special to Philip; others think of them as a norm for evangelism. What is certain is that, since neither Stephen nor Philip was an apostle, Scripture does not warrant a rigid restriction on miracles to the apostles. At any rate, hearing Philip’s message and seeing his signs, *the crowds…all paid close attention to what he said* (6), and the combination of salvation and healing brought *great joy* to the city (8).
b). Simon Magus professes faith (8:9-13)
*For some time* before Philip arrived in the city, it had been under a very different influence. *A man named Simon had practised sorcery in the city*. He had *amazed all the people of Samaria*, even in the region beyond the city, not only by his magic arts (11) but also by his extravagant claims (9). For *he boasted that he was someone great*, even ‘momentous’ (JB). And *all the people*, ‘eminent citizens and ordinary people alike’ (JB),who seem to have been a gullible group, actually stated that *this man is the divine power known as the Great Power* (10). Commentators are not agreed about the meaning of this phrase. Haenchen considers it clear ‘that “the great power” was a Samaritan designation for the supreme deity’, and that ‘Simon declared that this deity had come to earth in his person for the redemption of men’. Others think it more probable that Simon regarded himself, and came to be regarded, as some kind of emanation or representative of the divine being. Certainly in the middle of the second century Justin Martyr, who himself came from Samaria, described ‘a Samaritan, Simon’, who ‘did mighty acts of magic’, so that ‘he was considered a god’ and was worshipped not only by ‘almost all the Samaritans’ but even by some in Rome who erected a statue in his honour. Towards the end of the second century Irenaeus represented him both as ‘glorified by man as if he were “a god”’ and as the author of ‘all sorts of heresies’, while by the third century he had come to be seen as the originator of Gnosticism and the arch-enemy of the apostle Peter. But this is more romance than history.
Now, however, in Samaria, Simon found himself challenged by Philip. It is not just Philip’s miracles rivalled by Simon’s magic. It is rather that, whereas Simon boasted of himself, Philip *preached the good news of the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ* (12). The people first ‘paid close attention to what he said’ (6a), and then *believed Philip*. Luke seems to mean that they believed Philip’s gospel, in other words were converted, for they then *were baptised, both men and women* (12b). It is less clear what Luke intends us to understand by his next statement that *Simon himself believed and was baptised and followed Philip everywhere, astonished by the great signs and miracles he saw* (13), He who had amazed others was himself now amazed. There is no need to suppose that he was only pretending to believe. Nor, on the other hand, did he exercise saving faith, for Peter was later to declare that his heart was ‘not right before God’ (21). Calvin suggests that we should seek ‘some middle position between faith and mere pretence’. Probably ‘the sorcerer believed to all appearances as the rest did; he professed belief, became a convert in the view of others, and in the customary way, by submitting to the rite of baptism’. New Testament language does not always distinguish between believing and professing to believe.
Tomorrow: Acts 8:14-17. c) The apostles send Peter and John.
The John Stott Bible Study is taken from The Message of Acts. The Bible Speaks Today John Stott. Used by permission of Inter-Varsity Press UK, Nottingham. All rights reserved.