In my experience most people are uncomfortable with change. How many of us have a pew we sit in almost every Sunday morning? Most of us have favorite songs we want to sing over and over again in our worship assemblies. Like many people, you might have a favorite preacher or passage you want to hear. We all seem to be creatures of habit.
That is what makes church work such a challenge. Because, if we do church work right, change is inevitable. If we baptize outsiders, they will bring with them their views, their experiences, and their weaknesses. Who knows, you might come to church some morning and find someone sitting in your pew! Those are just some of the troubles with newcomers. They don’t know all our traditions and expectations.
Interestingly enough, the early church struggled with this as well. After Stephen’s death in Jerusalem, the church was scattered everywhere. Instead of cowering in fear, these believers chose to share the good news with others. They even had the audacity to share the good news with people long considered spiritual half-breeds, the Samaritans. “Philip went down to the city of Samaria and began proclaiming Christ to them. The crowds with one accord were giving attention to what was said by Philip, as they heard and saw the signs which he was performing. For in the case of many who had unclean spirits, they were coming out of them shouting with a loud voice; and many who had been paralyzed and lame were held. So there was much rejoicing in that city. Now there was a maned Simon, who formerly was practicing magic in the city and astonishing they people of Samaria, claiming to be someone great; and they all, from smallest to greatest, were giving attention to him, saying. ‘This man is what is called they Great Power of God’ And they were giving him attention because he had for a long time astonished them with his magic arts. But when they believed Philip preaching the good news about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were being baptized, men and women alike. Even Simon himself believed; and after being baptized, he continued on with Philip, and as he observed signs and great miracles taking place, he was constantly amazed. Now when the apostles in Jerusalem heard that Samaria had received the word of God, they sent them Peter and John, who came down and prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit. For He had yet fallen upon any of them: they had simply been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. Then they began laying their hands on them, and they were receiving the Holy Spirit. Now when Simon saw that they Spirit was bestowed through the laying on the apostles’ hands, he offered them money, saying, ‘Give this authority to me as well, so that everyone on whom I lay my hands may receive the Holy Spirit.” But Peter said to him, ‘May your silver perish with you, because you thought you could obtain the gift of God with money! You have no part or portion in this matter, for your heart is not right before God. Therefore repent of this wickedness of yours, and pray the Lord that, if possible, the intention of your heart may be forgiven you. For I see that you are in the gall of bitterness and in the bondage of iniquity. ‘ But Simon answered and said. ‘Pray to the Lord for me yourselves, so that nothing of what you have said may come upon me.’ So, when they had solemnly testified and spoken the word of the Lord, they started back to Jerusalem, and were preaching the gospel to many villages of the Samaritans” (Acts 8:5-25).
These verse may seem familiar to us, but to first century Jews (including Jewish Christians) it would be astounding. The Samaritans were despised by devout Jews. According to the Jews, the Samaritans had corrupted the Law of Moses. They worshiped in the wrong place (John 4) and they were not real children of Abraham. For Philip (one of the seven men from Acts 6 chosen to feed the widows) to go to Samaritans and share good news and baptize them was a real stretch. Devout Jews would not even travel through Samaria because “those people” were corrupt and would leave a stain on good Jews. Now, Philip is embracing them as Christians. Some would object to his choices. Others would warn that these newcomers would bring trouble to the kingdom. Let’s look at what God is doing in the this passage.
GOD INVESTS IN EVER KIND OF SOUL
The Samaritans were despised by the Jews. They were considered the worst kind of compromises, following some of the Law of Moses, then adding things to the Law that Moses had not written. But, God didn’t care. The Lord wanted these sinners to hear the good news, in spite of their reputation for not keeping the Law as they should. We must understand that no matter what background, skin color or language is before us, each and one of those souls matter to God. People who do not know anything about the Lord matter. People who have corrupted the message of God and worship Him in the wrong way matter to God. People who have rejected the Lord matter to God. This was one of the reasons God allowed Saul to scatter the church in Jerusalem. He already has His eye on countless thousands of other souls who needed to hear the gospel.
When Philip went to Samaria his task was not to make the Samaritans good Jews. He went there to simply make them Christians. Like all sinners who repent and are baptized, these people were forgiven and added to the body of Christ. Instead of trying to fix their misconceptions about the Law of Moses, Philip ushered them into the message of Grace and salvation through Jesus Christ. In other words, to teach and baptize Samaritans did not require them to adopt the culture of the Jews. All they had to do was trust in Jesus and live as He directed.
GOD INFLAMES HIS POWER IN PEOPLE
We read through this passage and often get confused by the work of the Holy Spirit. Philip did some genuine miracles (in stark contrast with the tricks performed by Simon the sorcerer). These miracles proved his message was genuine and many people (including Simon) responded in faith. All of these people would have received the indwelling of the Spirit, but only Philip had the power to do the signs and wonders. So, he sent for the apostles, who alone had the power and authority to extend the power of miracles to the other believers.
What we miss is the fact that God was moving mightily in these events. In other words, converting these “outsiders” was not a mistake. It was part of God’s plan all along. So, the Lord blessed Philip with power and success. He blessed the Samaritans with salvation and later, after Peter and John arrived, He blessed them with the miraculous power of His Spirit. God wants all of us who have been redeemed to be passionate and energetic in following His will. Our work in the kingdom should never be dull or boring. It should excite us and inflame us to good works.
GOD INSISTS ON PURE HEARTS
The whole episode is sullied by Simon’s actions. By trying to purchase the power to give the Holy Spirit he demonstrated a gross misunderstanding of the work of the Spirit and the will of God (a problem some people still have when it comes to the Spirit and the Word of God). When Simon attempts this corrupt arrangement, Peter gets right in his face. Peter lets him know he was wrong on all counts, and tells him what he needs to do to fix his problems.
And, we can only imagine what some people back in Jerusalem would say when they heard this story. They would say “I told you so! You can’t trust Samaritans. They will corrupt the gospel just like they corrupted the Law of Moses!” This reminds us that newcomers in our churches bring with them the mistaken ideas of the world. Some bring corrupted doctrines they have learned. When we see this corruption we need (like Peter) to confront it with truth. But, that doesn’t mean that people from different backgrounds should be excluded. They need to be taught, converted and taught some more. We see what God did. Let’s look at man’s role.
MAN IGNORES SOCIAL DISTINCTIONS
Philip goes where no good Jew was supposed to go, The Jews of Galilee (north of Samaria) would travel east, go around Samaria, and then head west to get to Jerusalem. They took this longer route to avoid contact with Samaritans. However, Philip (like Jesus in John 4) goes through Samaria and begins to teach and baptize there. We are not told the why of this. Did God speak to him? Did the Spirit lead him? Did he seek the Lord’s will and realize this was where he needed to be? We are not told. We just know that when he left Jerusalem, he traveled to Samaria and received a positive welcome.
This was no small step for Philip. The Samaritans were different in many ways. They did follow a corrupt practice of the Law of Moses. They would have different social and cultural behaviors. Probably their food was different. Their language was different. Their customs surrounding marriage and child-raising were probably different. Philip ignored all these social distinctions to teach them the good news of Jesus Christ.
We must learn this lesson, over and over again. Social and cultural differences must never get in the way of the gospel and its universal message of salvation for all mankind. Do other people look differently than us? Do they talk differently than us? Do they have customs different than ours? The answer will always be “yes.” But that doesn’t change our task to take the gospel message into the whole world. Jesus didn’t just die for middle class, English speaking Americans. He died for all. Philip was brave enough to act on that. We need to act on it as well by teaching and converting and embracing people of all races, languages and colors. We must never let cultural differences keep us from teaching and fellowshipping with people who look, talk and act differently than we do.
MAN INVITES PARTICIPATION FROM OTHERS
Philip had great success in Samaria. When he ran into the need to extend the power of the Spirit, he could have balked at inviting the apostles to come and help him. He could have felt this was his ministry and he did not want to share the ministry or the credit with anyone else. Instead, he humbly invited the apostles to come and handle the situation. He welcomed the help of others, realizing that they could do things he could not. He recognized his own limitations and the gifts that the apostles could bring.
In doing ministry, there should be no room for pride. That was what led Simon into his sin. He wanted to keep looking and acting important in a community that had formerly admired him. Out of pride he sought to regain popularity and esteem by having the ability to give the powers of the Spirit to others. Pride has no place in our work for the Lord. As Paul says, “Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves; do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others” (Phil 2:3-4).
MAN INSISTS ON REPENTANCE
Peter does not mince words with Simon. He simply says, “Repent!” This command ties into the holiness of God. God does share good news with people, but that is no so they will make some more bad news. He expects a spiritual change. While God will ignore social and cultural differences, He expects all of His children to be holy as He is holy. Whatever your background, God wants to save you. When He does, He expects you to live the way He wants you to live. God will save you and leave you in your culture. He will not save you and leave you in your sinful choices. So, Simon had to repent and so do you, and so do I.
FOR US: ACCEPT GOOD NEWS
Jesus died for you. You don’t have to pay for your sins. He took your place, offering Himself as a means of gaining your forgiveness. Be as smart as a Samaritan and accept this and be baptized into the name of Jesus.
FOR US: ACCEPT HOLINESS
You cannot accept salvation from the Father and reject His nature, His holiness. Too many are like Simon, wanting the gift of God but not the standards of God. They want Jesus to pay for their sins, but not abandon those sins. To be saved, we must always confront and admit our own weakness and shortcomings. Like Simon, we need to repent so that we can maintain a strong relationship to the Father.