Taking the Gospel on the Road

Acts 8:4-25

As we come to Acts 8, the gospel is on the move. Nobody had expected it to happen this way. But when Stephen was stoned and Saul began his persecution of the church, the Christians scattered to the wind. And one of the first places that seed landed was in Samaria.

You remember Samaria. When Jesus was about to leave his disciples in Acts 1 to ascend into heaven, he gave them their marching orders: “you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” From Jerusalem, the word would begin to spread in ever expanding circles – out from Jerusalem into the surrounding regions of Judea – then on to Samaria – and finally beyond the borders of their corner of the world to the ends of the earth.

You remember Samaria. Samaria was the place no self-respecting Jew would go through if he could go around. Samaria was the land of half-breeds and bad blood. Jews hated Samaritans and Samaritans hated Jews. It’s always funny when irony takes you to the one place you swore you’d never go. And so, I imagine Peter had to laugh a little bit when Philip sent a messenger back to the apostles in Jerusalem to tell them how powerfully the gospel had touched the people of Samaria.

You remember Philip. He was another one of the seven deacons – a co-worker of Stephen – a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit – a man whose gifts go far beyond serving tables. And when the persecution begins, he heads north – to Samaria. Luke writes, “Philip went down to a city in Samaria.” It’s funny how your cultural biases get into how you think – you see, Samaria isn’t geographically or latitudinally down from Jerusalem, but for a Jew, anytime you leave Jerusalem, you’re going down. Luke doesn’t say which city, although some ancient manuscripts read “the” city of Samaria, which would be the capital city – Samaria, itself. That’s where prophets like Elijah and Amos and Hosea preached. And so, when Philip arrives performing miraculous signs, healing the sick and casting out demons, it was as though one of the prophets of old had come among them – and Luke says, “they all paid close attention to what he said.” And in vs. 8, he writes, “there was great joy in that city.”

Now, it’s always exciting to hear about people responding to the gospel, and we’re thrilled with stories of great crowds turning to Jesus, but what I especially love are these stories of the impact the gospel has on an individual. And here in Acts 8, we hear the stories of two of those individuals – Simon the sorcerer here in Samaria and then in the latter part of the chapter, the eunuch from Ethiopia. We’ll devote next week’s message to the Ethiopian eunuch, and this morning we want to get to know Simon.

To show you how far away from their spiritual roots the Samaritans had come, Simon the sorcerer was not just tolerated and allowed to practice sorcery, he was acclaimed as a great man among them – vss. 10-11, “…all the people, both high and low, gave him their attention and exclaimed, ‘This man is the divine power known as the Great Power.’ They followed him because he had amazed them for a long time with his magic.” The Old Testament law commanded him to be stoned for his sorcery, but all the people held him in highest honor.

One day Philip arrives in town performing miracles, and healing the sick – and suddenly Simon loses his luster. And Philip’s not doing it with sleight of hand and hocus pocus. He claims to be doing it through the power of God and in the name of Jesus Christ. And as Philip preaches about the kingdom of God and Jesus Christ, the hearts of the people are turned to God and they are baptized – men and women – hundreds of them? Perhaps thousands? This is a major movement as Samaria comes to Christ. And wouldn’t you know – Simon himself is won to Christ and is baptized. And Simon “followed Philip everywhere, astonished by the great signs and miracles he saw.”

I’ve got to believe that Simon had a good heart, but Satan wasn’t going to give up without a fight. And as Simon watches Philip getting the acclaim he used to get, and performing miracles for real, he starts to get jealous.

Luke leaves Simon for a moment to take us to the bigger story. The success of the gospel is so incredible that Philip sends word to the apostles back in Jerusalem and Peter and John come to Samaria to see for themselves.

There is one parenthesis in all of this. The gospel has been preached, the people have been baptized, but the Holy Spirit has not come. Don’t forget what we read back in Acts 2:38 as Peter commanded them to repent and be baptized for the forgiveness of their sin and they would receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. And in 2:39, he said, “The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off – for all whom the Lord our God will call.” This will be the normative Christian experience – when you are baptized into Jesus Christ, it will be for the forgiveness of sin and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.

But here we are in Samaria. They have been baptized, but there is no Holy Spirit. What gives? When Peter and John arrive, there is no discussion, no investigation. They simply begin by praying for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit, and when they placed their hands upon them, they received the Holy Spirit. Luke briefly gives the explanation, “because the Holy Spirit had not yet come upon any of them; they had simply been baptized into the name of the Lord Jesus.” The problem is not with a defective form of baptism or that the Holy Spirit just hasn’t gotten around to showing up.

I want to suggest that what is going on is that as the gospel moves into a new arena, there is a need to legitimize and authorize this new area of ministry and to give God’s seal of approval for these new converts. You see, not every Jew was going to think that converting Samaritans was a good idea. Just as later on, we’re going to see a similar situation with Cornelius, not every Jew will be happy about baptizing Gentiles. But as Peter and John lay their hands on these new converts and there is a miraculous outpouring of the Spirit on these new believers, it is not only the apostles’ but the Holy Spirit’s own confirmation that this new ministry is of God.

Let’s come back to Simon. He’s been watching all of this, and realizes that this is the real thing – not smoke and mirrors like his old routine. And the thought starts rolling around in his head – “I could get back my old reputation, and not just with trickery anymore – I could really have the power everybody thought I had.” And finally, he proposes this new plan to the apostles – “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.’”
At least it sounded like a good plan. But Simon has miscalculated. He thought this was all about prestige and power. He figured he’d get in on the ground floor with a franchise of his own. What could be the harm in that?

Boy, had he misjudged Peter’s reaction – vss. 20-23: “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. Perhaps he will forgive you for having such a thought in your heart. For I see that you are full of bitterness and captive to sin.’”

The kingdom of God and the gift of the Holy Spirit are not for sale. God’s kingdom is not about power and prestige. And Simon’s suggestion has betrayed the condition of his heart – full of bitterness and captive to sin – “you bet I’m bitter – look what I’ve lost, what I’ve given up – all I wanted was a little piece of the action.”

But I think there’s hope for Simon. I think Peter’s rebuke shocks him back to reality – and instead of stomping off mad and hurling threats – he pleads for forgiveness – “Then Simon answered, ‘Pray to the Lord for me so that nothing you have said may happen to me.’” I think we see in Simon a genuine repentance. I wish we knew the rest of his story – I suspect there’s one to tell. When a person faces a crisis of faith and comes through to the other side – there is new found strength and power that God can really use. I mean, look at Peter, who not long before had stood in a courtyard and denied his Lord three times. But God had something great in store for him. And I believe God had something great in store for Simon – but he needed an attitude adjustment and a confrontation with his own sin.

And that may be where you are right now. Your heart is saying “I don’t like what I’m having to put up with and it’s all God’s fault.” You’ve lost something or given up something to be a Christian and it’s not fair. And you’re thinking, “why can’t I just cut a few corners or play by my own rules.” And you are feeling the heat of rebuke and rejection. You’ve got a choice to make – just like Simon. You can get mad and distance yourself from God, or you can respond with repentance and a genuine desire to let God rule your life.

And that is the watershed moment for each of us. We’ve got a pretty comfortable life – we’re respected and have our little niche of influence. And then Jesus comes along and says things like “whoever finds his life will lose it and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it;” or “whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant , and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all.” And then Paul reminds us that Jesus himself did not “consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant….”

And all we intended was, like Simon, to add a little religion to our lives because we thought that might help us feel better about ourselves. And now we realize that Jesus doesn’t come in tall, grande, and venti sizes. It’s all or nothing. And with it comes a radical change of life – Jesus calls it a new birth, Paul says we become a new creation. But Paul also says it involves a death to self, a crucifixion with Jesus. This isn’t for the casual observer, the dabbler in religion – this is life and death stuff.

If you’re looking for a nice place to spend your Sunday mornings, you’ve come to the wrong place. If you’re looking for a Savior who will change your life, you’ll find him here. It will cost you everything you have and everything you are – but it is absolutely worth it.