A Commentary by John Stott
Acts 8:1-40. 2b). One-stage initiation (continued)
Now Luke must have been very familiar with apostolic teaching, for he was Paul’s constant travelling companion, and it is he who records Peter’s instruction in Acts 2:38-39. No wonder, therefore, that we detect a note of surprise in his narrative when he describes the Samaritans as not having received the Spirit, but as having ‘simply’ (NIV) or ‘only’ (RSV) been baptised into Christ. ‘*Only* implies that two things were expected or accustomed to go together’. But, contrary to expectation, water-baptism had been received without Spirit-baptism, the sign without the thing signified. There was, Luke implies, something distinctly odd about their separation. It was because of this irregularity, Professor Dunn writes, that ‘the two senior apostles came down hot-foot from Jerusalem to remedy a situation which had gone seriously wrong somewhere’.
The second deviation was from the apostles’ practice. Luke tells us on this occasion the college of the apostles, if we may so call them, sent a delegation of its two leading members to evaluate what was going on in Samaria. This is unique. The apostles did not normally cast themselves in the role of ‘inspectors of evangelism’. On other occasions when people received the gospel, the apostles did not come and investigate, or feel it necessary to add their imprimatur to what had been done. They did not do it with regard to either the evangelism of other Christians mentioned at the beginning of the chapter (1,4) or the conversion of the Ethiopian related at its end (26-40). ‘The picture of the apostles scurrying hither and thither up and down the eastern end of the Mediterranean in an attempt to keep up with the rapid expansion of the Christian gospel, with little time for anything but “confirmation services”, is amusing but incredible’. So why was it necessary for an official apostolic delegation to scrutinize and confirm the work of Philip? And why in any case was the Spirit not given through Philip himself who had done the preaching and the baptising? For what special reason could God have withheld the Spirit? There is no indication that Philip’s teaching was defective. Otherwise the apostles would have supplemented it, whereas what they did was pray for and lay hands on the Samaritans, not instruct them.
The most natural explanation of the delayed gift of the Spirit is that this was the first occasion on which the gospel had been proclaimed not only outside Jerusalem but inside Samaria. This is clearly the importance of the occasion in Luke’s unfolding story, since the Samaritans were a kind of half-way house between Jews and Gentiles. Indeed, ‘the conversion of Samaria was like the first-fruits of the calling of the gentiles’. The nearest equivalents to the investigation by Peter and John were when the Gentiles first believed. When Cornelius was converted, the apostles asked Peter to explain his actions (11:1-18), and when Greeks turned to the Lord in Antioch, Barnabas was sent there to reconnoitre the situation (11:20:24).
As we saw earlier, the Samaritan schism had lasted for centuries. But now the Samaritans were being evangelized, and were responding to the gospel. It was a moment of significant advance, which was also fraught with great peril. What would happen now? Would the long-standing rift be perpetrated? The gospel had been welcomed by the Samaritans, but would the Samaritans be welcomed by the Jews? Or would there be separate factions of Jewish Christians and Samaritan Christians in the church of Jesus Christ? The idea may seem unthinkable in theory; in practice it might well have happened. There was a real ‘danger…of their tearing Christ apart, or at least of forming a new and separate church for themselves’.
Is it not reasonable to suggest (in view of this historical background) that, in order to avoid such a disaster, God deliberately withheld the Spirit from these Samaritan converts? The delay was only temporary, however, until the apostles had come down to investigate, had endorsed Philip’s bold policy of Samaritan evangelism, had prayed for the converts, had laid hands on them as ‘a token of fellowship and solidarity’, and had thus given a public sign to the whole church as well as to the Samaritans converts themselves, that they were *bona fide* Christians, to be incorporated into the redeemed community on precisely the same terms as Jewish converts. To quote Geoffrey Lampe again, ‘at this turning-point in the mission something else was required in addition to the ordinary baptism of the converts. It had to be demonstrated to the Samaritans beyond a shadow of doubt that they had really become members of the church, in fellowship with the original “pillars”…. An unprecedented situation demanded quite exceptional methods’.
This seems to be the only explanation which takes account of all the data of Acts 8, reads the story in its historical context of the developing Christian mission, and is consistent with the rest of the New Testament. It is also becoming increasingly accepted on both sides of the Charismatic divide. Although J.I.Packer calls it no more than a ‘guess’, he adds that it ‘seems rational and reverent’. Similarly, Michael Green sees the delay as ‘a divine veto on schism in the infant church, a schism which could have slipped almost unnoticed into the Christian fellowship, as converts from the two sides of the “Samaritan curtain” found Christ without finding each other. That would have been the denial of the one baptism and all it stood for. At all events, the action of the apostles appears to have been effective. Henceforward, Jews and Samaritans were to be admitted into the Christian community without distinction. There was one body because there was one Spirit. To sum up, the Samaritan happening provides no biblical warrant either for the doctrine of a two-stage Christian initiation as the norm, or for the practice of an imposition of hands to inaugurate the supposed second stage. The official visit and action of Peter and John were historically exceptional. These things have no precise parallels in our day, because there are no longer any Samaritans or any apostles of Christ. Today , because we are not Samaritans, we receive forgiveness and the Spirit together the moment we believe. As for the laying on of hands, although it can be an appropriate and helpful gesture in various contexts, its use as the means by which the Spirit is given and received lacks authority, whether in episcopal confirmation or in charismatic ministry, because neither bishops nor pentecostal leaders are apostles comparable to Peter and John, any more than Philip was, although directly appointed by them.
Tomorrow: Tomorrow. Acts 8:26-40. 3). Philip the evangelist and an Ethiopian leader.
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.