Acts Lesson Seventeen: Acts 8:1-25 The Gospel Spreads
Saul agreed with putting him to death.
On that day a severe persecution broke out against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout the land of Judea and Samaria. 2 Devout men buried Stephen and mourned deeply over him. 3 Saul, however, was ravaging the church. He would enter house after house, drag off men and women, and put them in prison.
4 So those who were scattered went on their way preaching the message of good news. 5 Philip went down to a city in Samaria and proclaimed the Messiah to them. 6 The crowds paid attention with one mind to what Philip said, as they heard and saw the signs he was performing. 7 For unclean spirits, crying out with a loud voice, came out of many who were possessed, and many who were paralyzed and lame were healed. 8 So there was great joy in that city.
9 A man named Simon had previously practiced sorcery in that city and astounded the Samaritan people, while claiming to be somebody great. 10 They all paid attention to him, from the least of them to the greatest, and they said, “This man is called the Great Power of God!” 11 They were attentive to him because he had astounded them with his sorceries for a long time. 12 But when they believed Philip, as he preached the good news about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, both men and women were baptized. 13 Then even Simon himself believed. And after he was baptized, he went around constantly with Philip and was astounded as he observed the signs and great miracles that were being performed.
14 When the apostles who were at Jerusalem heard that Samaria had welcomed God’s message, they sent Peter and John to them. 15 After they went down there, they prayed for them, so the Samaritans might receive the Holy Spirit. 16 For He had not yet come down on any of them; they had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. 17 Then Peter and John laid their hands on them, and they received the Holy Spirit.
18 When Simon saw that the Holy Spirit was given through the laying on of the apostles’ hands, he offered them money, 19 saying, “Give me this power too, so that anyone I lay hands on may receive the Holy Spirit.”
20 But Peter told him, “May your silver be destroyed with you, because you thought the gift of God could be obtained with money! 21 You have no part or share in this matter, because your heart is not right before God. 22 Therefore repent of this wickedness of yours, and pray to the Lord that the intent of your heart may be forgiven you. 23 For I see you are poisoned by bitterness and bound by iniquity.”
24 “Please pray to the Lord for me,” Simon replied, “so that nothing you have said may happen to me.”
25 Then, after they had testified and spoken the message of the Lord, they traveled back to Jerusalem, evangelizing many villages of the Samaritans. (HCSB)
Today’s lesson can be divided into three parts.
- The introduction of Saul as the main persecutor of the church.
- Philip’s evangelism in Samaria.
- The story of Simon the Sorcerer.
Luke introduced Saul at the end of the previous chapter. Now, he introduces Saul as the main antagonist of the early church. Before moving on, let’s get a detailed picture of Saul from various sections of Scripture.
- Born in Tarsus of Cilicia – Acts 22:3.
- A Hebrew of Hebrews – Philippians 3:5.
- The son of a Pharisee – Acts 23:6.
- A Roman citizen – Acts 16:37.
- Educated in Jerusalem by Gamaliel – Acts 22:3.
- A devoted Pharisee – Acts 26:4-5.
- A blameless life when measured against the Law – Philippians 3:6.
- On the path to becoming a great leader in the Jewish faith – Galatians 1:14.
- Zealous for the Law leading him to persecute the church – Galatians 1:13-14.
- Served God with a clear conscience – 2 Timothy 1:3.
- Persecuted both men and women to death – Acts 22:4.
- Entered synagogues to arrest, imprison, and beat believers – Acts 22:19.
- A blasphemer against Jesus – 1 Timothy 1:13.
When considering the background and characteristics of Saul, it is only by the grace of God that such a man could be used to be the greatest evangelist and church planter, as well as writing 28% of the New Testament.
A couple of points to consider over these first few verses.
- The scattering mentioned likely pertains to the Hellenistic believers as the apostles were not scattered. The Hellenistic view that God was not bound to a place or nation would have rubbed the religious leaders of Judaism the wrong way. In contrast, the Aramaic-speaking Christians had remained faithful to some Jewish institutions. However, this led to the following actions.
- The persecution and scattering led to the Gospel being spread quicker and further.
- The second phase of the Great Commission began; the witness to all Judea and Samaria.
- Saul began to “ravage” the church.
- The Greek word used here would denote wild beasts such as lions, bears, or leopards tearing at the flesh.
- He went from house to house, attacking both men and women.
Instead of being distraught by the turn of events from Saul’s persecution, the believers took the message of the Gospel to new fields.
A quick historical reminder about Samaritans; they were a mixture of Jewish and Gentile heritage. The region was formed when the Assyrians invaded and captured the ten northern tribes of Israel in 732 B.C., deporting some and resettling Gentiles into the region to intermarry with the Jews. The Samaritans had their own temple, priesthood, and both Jew and Samaritans opposed interaction with the other.
Now, let’s identify the essential points from these verses.
- The Christians scattered from Jerusalem were faithful in proclaiming the Gospel in the areas where they went.
- Philip was chosen as a deacon, Acts 6:5, but like Stephen, he grew into an influential evangelist, Acts 21:8.
- In verse four, the word “preaching” means to evangelize.
- In verse five, the word “proclaim” means to announce as a herald.
- Philip was God’s chosen herald to spread the Gospel in Samaria.
- To reject the messenger would mean to reject the message and the one who commissioned the herald to deliver it, God.
- Philip not only shared the Gospel, but he also performed miracles among them.
- Many who were demon-possessed were healed.
- Many who had physical ailments were healed.
- However, the emphasis is on the Gospel.
- They believed in the Gospel because they saw the miracles.
- In believing the Gospel, they were saved.
- The miracles didn’t save them.
- There was great joy among the inhabitants because of the work of Philip.
- The Gospel had now begun its outward arc from Jerusalem.
- Samaritans were part Jew and part Gentile.
- God built a bridge between the two enemies and united them in Christ.
- Soon the bridge would extend to the Gentiles in an ever-widening arc.
- In the Gospel, there are no unacceptable people, no physical rejects, and no place for prejudice.
A basic biblical principle is that whenever there is a movement of God’s work, Satan will try and hijack that movement with false teachers or false doctrine. It happened in the Old Testament, and it continues now in the church age. The enemy doesn’t want the church to advance and win souls, so he will try anything to derail the work of the church.
Let’s further break this section down into two parts. Verses 9-13 and 14-25.
We see here a contrast between true holy work done through the power of the Holy Spirit and work that is done through other forces, often demonic or dark in nature. There are times that seemingly good works are, in fact, not done through holy power. Jesus warns of this in Matthew 7:21-23, even going so far as to say that some who do works in His name are deceivers. Let’s look at some details of this section of the passage.
- Because the people were astounded and amazed at Simon’s tricks, they believed the things he said.
- Scripture doesn’t say precisely what he said, but it does say that the people called him “the Great Power of God,” which he didn’t deny.
- This was not only misleading the people as to where his “power” came from but was blasphemy since it wasn’t the work of God.
- Simon was an example of those who practice “lawlessness” as described in 2 Thessalonians 2:1-12.
- He was popular and recognized by the people.
- They all paid attention to him.
- He had been working among them for a long time.
- He enjoyed the attention and adulation.
- The work of the Holy Spirit through Philip now began to shift people from Simon to Philip.
- The people saw the work of Philip.
- People were healed.
- Demons were cast out.
- The people heard the Gospel message.
- They became followers of Jesus.
- They were baptized.
- Simon was likely afraid he would lose all or most of his following.
- He “believed.”
- It was a false belief.
- Jesus spoke about how the demons even believed in Him. Believing doesn’t mean following.
- Simon’s belief was based on wanting to acquire the power he saw manifested in Philip.
- Simon fooled Philip with his false belief.
- Although Philip was doing work through the power of the Holy Spirit, Simon was able to fool him.
- Both Jesus and Paul warn about false believers and/or teachers infiltrating the church and causing harm.
- We must always be on guard against those who would harm the church from the inside.
- Enemies from the outside are often easy to spot.
- Enemies on the inside are much harder to see but often do more significant damage.
- We don’t know for sure, but it’s possible the reason Simon followed Philip everywhere was to try and learn the “secret” behind Philip’s miracles.
- He “believed.”
- The people saw the work of Philip.
Before we jump into the issue of Simon in this section of the passage, two other points need to be discussed.
- The apostles sent Peter and John to Samaria. Why did this occur?
- From a historical standpoint, we know that there was a deep and long divide between the Jews and the Samaritans. The two groups had their own view of Judaism and even a somewhat different Pentateuch. Unity is a critical factor in the church.
- The Holy Spirit had fallen on them yet. This brings up point number two.
- Why didn’t the Holy Spirit fall on them at conversion?
- Just as the Jewish church had their Pentecost moment, now the Samaritan church will have theirs.
- By having Peter and John go to them, lay hands on them, and for them to receive the Holy Spirit would demonstrate that they were no longer two separate people groups in Jesus’ church. They were now one.
- Peter was given the keys to the kingdom of heaven by Jesus in Matthew 16:19.
- Peter opened the door to the Jews at Pentecost.
- He now opened the doors to the Samaritans.
- He would later open the doors to the Gentiles in Acts 10.
- The first ten chapters in Acts show a transition from Jew to Samaritan to Gentile.
Now let’s move on to the conclusion of the narrative addressing Simon’s prideful heart.
Just as in Simon’s following Philip around to see if he could discover the secret behind the power of Philip’s ministry, he now sees Peter and John lay hands on the people and wants the same ability. However, he views it as a commodity and thinks he can purchase it from the apostles. We can draw a few conclusions from the final section of this passage.
- Simon was never truly converted.
- May your silver be destroyed with you.
- You have no share in this matter.
- Your heart is not right before God.
- Repent of your wickedness. This phrase is usually reserved for unbelievers.
- He was poisoned by bitterness.
- He was bound by iniquity.
- All of these factors lead to an overwhelming conclusion that Simon was never saved.
- Simon’s response is also telling.
- He seems more concerned about avoiding the consequences that Peter pronounced.
- Instead of offering a prayer of repentance, he asks Peter to pray for him.
- We shouldn’t confuse this with asking others to pray for our needs.
- However, only the individual can repent and pray for forgiveness.
- Those who won’t pray a prayer of repentance for themselves won’t enter God’s kingdom.
- This narrative shows how close a person can get to salvation and still not cross the threshold.
- Simon heard the Gospel.
- Simon saw the miracles.
- He made a verbal profession of faith.
- He was baptized.
- He was never born again.
- He was a clever counterfeit.
- If he was not discovered, he could have caused untold damage from inside the church.
- Peter and John then make their way back to Jerusalem.
- As they passed through Samaria on the return journey, they shared the Gospel.
- They didn’t waste an opportunity to reach the lost.
- Through the efforts of Philip, Peter, and John, the Gospel was now spreading throughout Samaria.
- Ministry must be done in the power of the Holy Spirit. Successful ministry is never done in our strength. It may appear to work for a time, but eventually, it will crumble, and nothing will be left.
- We must always be on the lookout for counterfeit Christians who would undermine the church from within. These same people would also cause the church to look foolish to those on the outside who need to hear the Gospel and come to salvation.
- Don’t let pride and jealousy stand between you and salvation. Simon had an unhealthy desire for the power that he saw demonstrated, and instead of submitting to Christ and being used for kingdom work, he tried a shortcut. No matter where God places you, no matter your spiritual gifting, be joyful as you contribute to the kingdom.
- Always look for opportunities to share the Gospel, even when you aren’t planning on sharing. Peter and John didn’t waste the opportunities on the trip back to Jerusalem. We run into people every day who are on the path to hell. Don’t miss those chances to share.