A Commentary by John Stott
Acts 8:14-17. Philip the evangelist. c). The apostles send Peter and John.
*The apostles in Jerusalem heard that Samaria had accepted the word of God* (14). This is more than a matter-of-fact statement; it seems to be almost a technical expression by which Luke signals an important new stage in the advance of the gospel. He has used it in reference to the Day of Pentecost when three thousand Jews ‘accepted his [Peter’s] message’ 2:41. He uses it here of the first Samaritans who ‘accepted the word of God’. And he will use it again after the conversion of Cornelius, when the apostles heard that ‘the Gentiles also had received the word of God’ (11:1). Further, in all three developments Peter played a decisive role, using the keys of the kingdom (though Luke does not refer to this) to open it successively to Jews Samaritans and Gentiles.
When the apostles heard about the conversion of Samaritans, *they sent* two of their number, *Peter and John*, to investigate (14). It was particularly appropriate that one of them was John, since Luke describes him in his gospel as wanting on one occasion to call down fire from heaven to consume a Samaritan city (Lk.9:51-56). Now his desire is to see the Samaritans saved, not destroyed. *When they arrived*, they discovered (we are not told how) that, although the Samaritans had received both the gospel and Christian baptism they had not yet received the Spirit. So *they prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit (15), because* (Luke explains) he *had not yet come upon any of them; they had simply been baptised into the name* (that is, into the allegiance, even into the ownership) *of the Lord Jesus* (16). In addition to praying for them *Peter and John placed their hands on them*, thus identifying the people for whom they prayed, and in answer to their prayers, *they received the Holy Spirit* (17). Luke is as unforthcoming about how the apostles knew that the people had received the Spirit as he was about how they knew that they had previously not received him. Some attribute their knowledge to the gift of discernment; others suggest that there was visible public evidence, whether speaking in tongues as on the Day of Pentecost, or their exalted joy or bold testimony.
I think Professor Howard Marshall is right to call verse 16 (‘the Holy Spirit had not yet come upon any of them; they had simply been baptised into the name of the Lord Jesus’) ‘perhaps the most extraordinary statement in Acts’. For Peter had promised the gift of the Spirit to those who repented (the corollary of faith) and were baptised (2:38). How, then, could the Samaritans have believed and been baptised and *not* received the Spirit? The question has caused Christian readers much puzzlement and division, and we will return to it shortly. d). Simon tries to buy power (8:18-24).
When he *saw that the Spirit was given at the laying on of the apostle’s hands*, Simon the sorcerer, who we might call Simon the superstitious, to whom the apostles appeared ‘extraordinary gifted practitioners of religious magic’, *offered them money* (18) in exchange for the power to bestow the Spirit on people through the laying-on of hands (19).
Peter immediately rebuked him, outspokenly and publicly, for imaging that God’s gift could be bought (20). He added that Simon could have *no part or share in this ministry* because his *heart was not right before God* (21). He therefore called on him to *repent of this wickedness, and pray to the Lord*, for *perhaps* then the Lord would forgive him for entertaining such an evil thought in his mind (22), even though he was *full of bitterness and captive to sin* (23). Ever since that day, the attempt to turn the spiritual into the commercial, to traffic in the things of God, and especially to purchase ecclesiastical office, has been termed ‘simony’.
Simon’s response to Peter’s rebuke was not encouraging. He showed no sign of repentance, or even contrition. Instead of praying for forgiveness, as Peter has urged him to do (22), he felt so incapable of praying, or so distrustful of his own prayers, that he asked Peter to pray for him instead. What really concerned him was not that he might receive God’s pardon, but only that he might escape God’s judgement, with which Peter had threatened him (24). It is true that the Bezan text adds that he ‘did not stop weeping copiously’, But these words are not original; and if they were, Simon’s tears will have been tears of remorse or rage, not of repentance. e). Peter and John evangelize many Samaritan villages (8:25)
Once the apostolic mission was fulfilled, and the Samaritans had received the Spirit, *Peter and John* stayed on for an unspecified period to proclaim *the word of the Lord*, presumably teaching the new converts. Then they *returned to Jerusalem*. Not directly, however. They visited *many Samaritan villages* on the way, in order to preach the gospel in them also, and so to gather in more Samaritan converts (25).
Tomorrow: 2). Philip, the Samaritans, the apostles and the Holy Spirit.
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.