– Acts 8:4-13, New International Version
In this passage Luke presents the powerful ministry of Philip. Philip was one of the men chosen (Acts 6:5) to serve tables. He, along with the others, was full of the Spirit and wisdom. When Stephen was stoned, Saul began persecuting the church, and many believers were scattered. Among them was Philip who went down to Samaria to preach Christ and the good news about the kingdom of God.
Philip came to Samaria “proclaiming Christ” (v. 5) and “the good news about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ” (v. 12). Dunn (p. 64) believes that Philip’s message was not defective, but the Samaritans understood these phrases in terms of their pre-Christian expectations. They had in mind a second kingdom that would unite all Israel, crush her enemies, and exalt the Samaritan people
However, as Menzies (p. 208) holds, there is nothing in these phrases that would suggest that the Samaritans misunderstood the message. We note that the phrase “proclaiming Christ” is just a short way of saying “proclaiming the gospel” with its message of the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ. In Acts 8:40 Luke writes that Philip “kept preaching the gospel to all the cities.” As for “the kingdom of God,” Luke uses this phrase (Acts 28:31) in describing Paul’s message as well.
Luke does not even hint that there was any misunderstanding of Philip’s message. Neither he nor the apostles made any attempt to correct what the Samaritans understood. Philip had long been in the company of the apostles and the church in Jerusalem. He knew the gospel very well.
The preaching of Philip brought about a great result. The multitudes were giving attention to him. His preaching was accompanied by many “signs.” Many who had unclean spirits were delivered. As the spirits departed, they shouted with a loud voice. And many who had been paralyzed and lame were healed. As a result, there was much rejoicing in the city.
The Samaritan Response
According to some, the experience of the Samaritans was defective. However, Luke makes three comments that demonstrate otherwise. In verse 12 Luke says that “they believed Philip” and “were being baptized.” In Acts 8:14, he says that they “had received the Word of God.” We will comment briefly on each of these statements.
First, let’s begin with “they believed Philip.” Dunn (p. 65) holds that they gave mental assent to what Philip said, but did not believe the gospel. However, in Acts 16:14, the story of Lydia’s conversion indicates that Luke equates belief in the message of an evangelist with belief in God.
Dunn (p. 65) goes on to say that Luke uses the verb episteusan (believed) with a dative object (Philip) rather than with the prepositions eis (into) or epi (upon). The former, he says, refers to mental assent, while the latter indicates true faith. Against this view, Menzies (p. 209) says Luke uses this same grammatical construction elsewhere to describe genuine faith in God. In Acts 16:34 the jailer and his household “believed God.” (IB)
“Furthermore”, says Menzies, Luke “does not distinguish between pisteuein and a dative object and pisteuein with eis or epi.” (Transliteration Mine). According to Acts 18:8, Crispus “believed the Lord (dative object).” In other places Luke uses the prepositions eis or epi with the same meaning. In Acts 14:23 Luke says that Paul committed the elders of the churches “to the Lord in (eis) whom they believed.” (IB) When Peter preached at Joppa (Acts 9:42) “many believed in (epi) the Lord.” (IB)
Second, we turn now to the statement that the Samaritans “were being baptized.” According to Dunn (p. 66) the baptism of the Samaritans was defective because they had not received the Spirit. However, as Turner (p. 365) states, “Luke’s attitude appears to be that the Samaritans genuinely believed the kerygma they heard, and that they were thus adequately prepared for their baptism.” This was a baptism in the name of the Lord Jesus.
Third, with regard to the last statement, Turner (p. 365) writes: “Luke chooses to tell us that the apostles heard that ‘Samaria received the Word of God’ (8.14) without any suggestion that this was merely an ill-informed report, rather than a fact to be accepted. Elsewhere the same language designates true conversion compare: 11.1 and with its explanations in 11.18, and similarly 2.41.”
The Experience of Simon
Luke brings in Simon, vv. 9-13. Simon (v. 10) had previously practiced magic and held the attention of the people. The people said, “This man is what is called the Great Power of God.” When the Samaritans believed Philip’s preaching, Luke says (v. 13): “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. NASU The words “even Simon himself” indicate how remarkable it was that Simon believed.
Soon, of course, Simon would manifest wrong motivation. The fact that Simon later was overcome with wrong motivation does not take away form the overall impact of Philips’s ministry. Dunn (p. 66) assumes that Simon’s experience was spurious, then he generalizes this to all the Samaritans. This generalization is simply unfounded speculation.
Our view is that Simon was legitimately converted. Along with the others, he believed Philip and received the Word of God. He was not the first nor will he be the last believer to falter in his Christian walk. We will return to Simon in another paragraph (vv. 18-24).
We cannot agree with the position of Dunn. Indeed, Turner (p. 367) says that Dunn later says that we should avoid speculation as to why the Samaritans experienced a delay in receiving the Spirit. He goes on to say that Luke’s main point is that where the Spirit is not given to converts, the abnormality ought to be immediately corrected. This seems to move Dunn into the camp of those who think of Samaria as an exceptional case.
Our conclusion is that the Samaritans heard the gospel through Philip and responded positively to it. They became true believers, but the Spirit had not yet fallen on them. However, we need not resort to the “exception” approach to explain the situation. We will take up this subject again in our next paragraph (verses 14-17).
Dunn, James D. G. Baptism in the Holy Spirit. London: SCM Press Ltd. 1970.
Menzies, Robert P. Empowered for Witness. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1991.
Turner, Max. Power from On High. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press. 1996.
© Copyright 2002. GMF.