Those who had been scattered preached the word wherever they went. Philip went down to a city in Samaria and proclaimed the Messiah there. When the crowds heard Philip and saw the signs he performed, they all paid close attention to what he said. For with shrieks, impure spirits came out of many, and many who were paralyzed or lame were healed. So there was great joy in that city.
Now for some time a man named Simon had practiced sorcery in the city and amazed all the people of Samaria. He boasted that he was someone great, and all the people, both high and low, gave him their attention and exclaimed, “This man is rightly called the Great Power of God.” They followed him because he had amazed them for a long time with his sorcery. But when they believed Philip as he proclaimed the good news of the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptized, both men and women. Simon himself believed and was baptized. And he followed Philip everywhere, astonished by the great signs and miracles he saw.
When the apostles in Jerusalem heard that Samaria had accepted the word of God, they sent Peter and John to Samaria. When they arrived, they prayed for the new believers there that they might receive the Holy Spirit, because the Holy Spirit had not yet come on any of them; they had simply been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. Then Peter and John placed their hands on them, and they received the Holy Spirit. When Simon saw that the Spirit was given at the laying on of the apostles’ hands, he offered them money and said, “Give me also this ability so that everyone on whom I lay my hands may receive the Holy Spirit.”
Peter answered: “May your money perish with you, because you thought you could buy the gift of God with money! You have no part or share in this ministry, because your heart is not right before God. Repent of this wickedness and pray to the Lord in the hope that he may forgive you for having such a thought in your heart. For I see that you are full of bitterness and captive to sin.”
Then Simon answered, “Pray to the Lord for me so that nothing you have said may happen to me.”
–Acts 8:4-24 New International Version
In Acts 8:4-25 Luke tells the missionary story of the gospel reaching Samaria. It was a missionary story in the cross-cultural sense. The Samaritans were the descendants of the Assyrians and Jews who intermarried after Assyria captured Samaria. The Assyrians came in to take the place of the upper classes of the land who were deported at the time (722 B.C.) of the fall of the northern kingdom of Israel. Because of their origin, the Jews refused to have any dealings with the Samaritans. Now, the gospel would transcend this ancient barrier.
Lampe goes further and suggests that the church in Samaria would itself become a missionary force. He (p. 72) writes: “It may not be too much to assert that this event is meant to demonstrate that a new nucleus of the missionary Church has been established, and to suggest that Luke’s readers are intended to infer that the Gospel proceeded to radiate outwards from this new center of the Spirit’s mission.”
The context of the story is the entire book of Acts. In this book Luke narrates the story of the expansion of the church. According to him, Jesus said (Acts 1:8), “but you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be My witnesses both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and even to the remotest part of the earth.” Our text records the fulfillment of this command with regard to Samaria.
When Stephen was martyred, Saul began persecuting the church. Luke writes (Acts 8:1-2): “Saul was in hearty agreement with putting him to death. And on that day a great persecution began against the church in Jerusalem, and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles.” Because of this persecution, and the scattering of the church, the gospel reached Samaria.
Luke says that they were “all scattered.” Some writers hold that it was the Hellenists in the Jerusalem church who were persecuted and that it was mainly they who were scattered. Usually these writers point out that Stephen and Philip are Greek names and that these men were most likely Hellenists. Stephen had just been martyred, and the church was scattered.
Others focus more on the word “all.” According to Lenksi (p. 312), Luke means “all” in the popular and not the absolute sense. Horton (p. 101) takes “all” more literally, saying that “Only the apostles remained in Jerusalem.” Whatever the sense of “all” is, it seems that many, if not absolutely all, of the Hellenists and Hebrews were scattered.
Philip was among those who were scattered. He had been appointed to serve tables. He was among those (Acts 6:3)) who were “full of the Spirit and wisdom.” He went to Samaria and began proclaiming Christ. His ministry brought about a powerful result.
Philip preached, the people believed, miracles happened, the people were baptized, and they received the Word of God, but the Holy Spirit “had not yet fallen upon” any of them. Upon hearing the report, the apostles in Jerusalem sent Peter and John to Samaria. While there, Peter and John laid hands on them and prayed that the Samaritans might receive the Holy Spirit. When Peter and John prayed, the Samaritans “were receiving” the Spirit.
There are several aspects to the Samaritan narrative. They include: (1) the ministry of Philip (vv. 4-13), (2) the ministry of Peter and John (vv. 14-17), and (3) Peter’s interaction with Simon (vv. 18-24). Special attention is given to Simon in the narrative.
The Holy Spirit
With regard to our study of the Holy Spirit, this is a very crucial passage. The main issue concerns the reception of the Spirit. Dunn (p. 15) says that this passage is “the chief stronghold of Pentecostal (baptism in the Spirit) and Catholic (Confirmation) alike.” He rejects the views of both the Pentecostals and Catholics and calls this “The Riddle of Samaria.”
One group of commentators uses the term “receive” the Spirit in a very restrictive way. They hold that there is only one reception of the Spirit in a believer’s life and that this reception comes immediately upon believing in Christ or, as some declare, at baptism. Obviously, this passage poses a problem for them.
They may resolve this problem in a couple of ways. One way is to hold that the experience of the Samaritans was not genuine. Although Philip’s message was not defective, they misunderstood his message and did not truly believe in Christ. As we will see the facts of the story do not support this view.
Another way is to maintain that Samaria was an exceptional case. According to this view, there cannot be a separation between faith (or baptism) and reception of the Spirit, but in this case there was. For some reason the reception of the Spirit was delayed at Samaria. Luke included this story to demonstrate that they should not be separate. This view contains an inherent contradiction. It allows in an exceptional case a delay that it says cannot exist.
Another group of commentators do not restrict the term “receive” as much. Some will say that the Samaritans had received the Spirit upon believing and being baptized, but that they had not received the “gifts” of the Spirit. There are, of course, variations of this view. Others identify the reception of the Spirit at Samaria as a second reception of the Spirit. Some in this camp believe that the second reception has to do with ethical purposes or sanctification. Others say it is for empowerment.
My own view is that we need not limit the term “receive” to either one or two receptions. The term may be flexibly used of multiple and even continuous reception of the Spirit. We all use the term “filled” with the Spirit in a very flexible way. We need to use the term “receive” with the same flexibility. Such an approach eliminates most of the “problems” with this passage.
Our purpose in the discussions that follow is not to present a complete summation and evaluation of all views. That would be a major work in itself. We simply will present our view and touch on others as they arise.
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