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Life of Peter

Sorcery

Acts 8:1-25

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Samaritans

As a bit of background, this section is preceded by the story of Stephen, the first Christian martyr.

Acts 8:1-8 NASB 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.  (2)  Some devout men buried Stephen, and made loud lamentation over him.  (3)  But Saul began ravaging the church, entering house after house, and dragging off men and women, he would put them in prison.  (4)  Therefore, those who had been scattered went about preaching the word.  (5)  Philip went down to the city of Samaria and began proclaiming Christ to them.  (6)  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.  (7)  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 healed.  (8)  So there was much rejoicing in that city.

No Good Samaritans

Over the centuries Samaria was not a particularly good place in which to live. The people of this country have been deported several times by various empires. They were then replaced with other people who adopted some, but not all, of Jewish religious practice. This did not endear them to the Jews living in Judea. The Samaritans felt they had the more reasonable religion; the Jews referred to the Samaritans as the worst possible people, apostates. They were in Jewish land, but they did not worship at the Temple.

Most of us are familiar with the parable of the Good Samaritan. The more frequent student of the Bible will of course recall Christ's encounter with the Samaritan woman[1]. But Christ also explicitly told his disciples that they were to be witnesses in Samaria, spreading the gospel there after it had gone through Judea[2]. So clearly Christ had it in mind that the Samaritans were to receive the gospel. This, however, seems to have had no effect on the early church up to this point.

The First Samaritan Campaign

May I point out that the motivation for this evangelical campaign is the persecution of the church in Jerusalem? Despite the command of Christ, the church has no interest in spreading the gospel to those second-rate Samaritans. It is not too far-fetched to imagine that God allowed this persecution because it would cause his church to flee into areas outside of Jerusalem — and there spread the gospel. We sometimes wonder why trouble comes to the church. Perhaps this is an example of God using that trouble to further his purposes. It is an interesting question: is there something the church is not doing today which will cause God to bring out persecution again?

The modern scholar of evangelism would be quick to point out that the primary evangelist here, Philip, is in fact Greek. From the Samaritan point of view he doesn't come with the baggage of being Jewish. He is therefore more likely to be accepted by the Samaritans. I suspect that being able to work miracles and heal people didn't hurt, either.

What is very interesting here is not just the miracles, but the fact that (as we shall see in the next section) the Holy Spirit did not come upon these people. This has interesting implications for those who are Pentecostals; particularly those who hold that unless you speak in tongues you do not have the gift of the Holy Spirit. I leave to the reader any further deductions.

Persecution

We might well ask the question: did God permit this persecution because the church was not obedient to his command? It is fairly clear that the persecution has the desirable effect of spreading the gospel. That would be sufficient reason for God to allow it. The open question is whether or not God uses persecution to cleanse his church and return it to a state of obedience. You might think this is particularly irrelevant; we are not under the Roman Empire and Christians are not regularly flogged, at least in the United States. But there seems to be a cycle in this. The church begins to grow comfortable and happy with things as they are. Life is good. Then along comes persecution of one sort or another, and the church must respond. Life is uncomfortable. I suspect this is God's method of keeping his church from going to sleep. This, of course, brings up the question: just how comfortable is the church today? And what does that forebode for the near future?

Interestingly enough, the response to persecution as commanded in the Gospels is not defiance.

Matthew 10:23 NASBBut whenever they persecute you in one city, flee to the next; for truly I say to you, you will not finish going through the cities of Israel until the Son of Man comes.

We are, like Monty Python, to "run away, run away, run away." To those of us of the masculine persuasion this seems rather cowardly. The point is strategic: rather than show tremendous resistance to small persecution, we will take the church, spread it all out, and let the evangelism grow the church into a mighty army. The solution to a small army seems to be a small army of recruiters. Persecution seems to have a number of desirable effects:

·         It calls us to a life of sacrifice. The world sees sacrifice as evidence of the truth.

·         It forces us to change, and to grow.

This is not an encouragement to behave so obnoxiously that we invite persecution. It is God's tool, not ours.

The Sorcerer

Acts 8:9-13 NASB  Now there was a man named Simon, who formerly was practicing magic in the city and astonishing the people of Samaria, claiming to be someone great;  (10)  and they all, from smallest to greatest, were giving attention to him, saying, "This man is what is called the Great Power of God."  (11)  And they were giving him attention because he had for a long time astonished them with his magic arts.  (12)  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.  (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.

Magic

Why do people do magic? There are a number of reasons. It's entirely possible that throughout most of human history the magician was viewed as a powerful man, the kind of person you wanted as a friend. They might look at you also is being someone who was intrinsically superior; not everybody can be a witch doctor. There are three basic methods of convincing the world that you are such a magician:

·         There is the art of illusion, as practiced by stage magicians today. This takes a keen eye and a quick hand, along with a good sense of patter. If you think of the common card tricks, you have this as a good example.

·         There is the more sinister method: by Satan. Most first world Christians think this can't be done; most Third World missionaries know that it is done.

·         A third method is by science. One of the most famous examples of this concerned the magician who mounted a large electromagnet under the stage and used it to turn the local strongman into someone who appeared quite weak.

Magician's Purpose

Why would you want to be such a magician?

·         One a good reason is power. Even if your capabilities are based entirely on illusion, that is often sufficient to motivate other people to do what you want to do.

·         Another reason is prestige. Computer geeks are quite well aware of this; there's nothing quite to touch putting on your wizard hat and then fixing someone's computer. They may be mad at the delay or thankful for your help, but they are in awe of your skills.

·         One reason you might not have thought of is persuasion. After all, a man who could do magic must be a particularly intelligent individual. He therefore is worth listening to. A similar example may be found in various modern scientists who are quite willing to give their opinions on matters political.

The Church and the Magician

All this is quite interesting, of course, but the real question is what is the church going to do about it? How do we respond to the magician, or his modern counterpart, the scientist? There are at least two wrong answers.

The first wrong answer is an open alliance. Let me give you an illustration. There is a classic movie, The Keys of the Kingdom, which portrays a priest who happens to cure the daughter of the village head man. The head man, wanting to do the right thing, comes to the priest and announces his intention to become a Christian. His rationale is simple: the priest has done him the greatest favor he could possibly get, and he will return that with the greatest favor he can possibly give. He will become a Christian; the entire village will now follow his example.

The priest refuses the offer. He knows the man is sincere; he knows that he's trying to do the priest a great favor; but he also knows the man's heart is not in the right place. The temptation is, however, to use the powerful of this world — with a winking agreement — to "further the kingdom." It does not work; it never has.

Of course, one could pick the second wrong answer. That method is to use the magician — but at arm's length. We see this in modern preaching. The temptation is to derive your sermon — say, on the subject of how to get along with your wife — from some popular psychology magazine that you bought at the grocery store. You then look in the Bible for verses from Proverbs which seem to support the psychologist's opinions. Your real authority is not the Bible, but the psychologist. It's just that it sounds better to the modern ear to quote the psychologist. It increases attendance and offerings; therefore, it must be from God. {For those of you who are thick headed, that last was satire.}

Money and Spirit

Acts 8:14-25 NASB  Now when the apostles in Jerusalem heard that Samaria had received the word of God, they sent them Peter and John,  (15)  who came down and prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit.  (16)  For He had not yet fallen upon any of them; they had simply been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus.  (17)  Then they began laying their hands on them, and they were receiving the Holy Spirit.  (18)  Now when Simon saw that the Spirit was bestowed through the laying on of the apostles' hands, he offered them money, (19)  saying, "Give this authority to me as well, so that everyone on whom I lay my hands may receive the Holy Spirit."  (20)  But Peter said to him, "May your silver perish with you, because you thought you could obtain the gift of God with money!  (21)  "You have no part or portion in this matter, for your heart is not right before God.  (22)  "Therefore repent of this wickedness of yours, and pray the Lord that, if possible, the intention of your heart may be forgiven you.  (23)  "For I see that you are in the gall of bitterness and in the bondage of iniquity."  (24)  But Simon answered and said, "Pray to the Lord for me yourselves, so that nothing of what you have said may come upon me."  (25)  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.

Laying on of Hands

We begin with this question of laying on of hands. This passage has caused a goodly amount of difficulty in the church. It seems to imply that the gift of the Holy Spirit — that is to say, the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, something common to all real Christians — is given by the laying on of hands. Despite a lack of evidence to the contrary, when the church decided that it needed priests it also decided that they needed to have hands laid on them which had a chain of laying hands back to the apostles. This doctrine is known as "Apostolic Succession". It is held by the Roman Catholic Church and many mainstream denominations. Real Christians, it seems, must have this chain of hands all the way back to the apostles.

The one problem with this particular doctrine is that it declares that the Holy Spirit is at the command of the church. There are other instances where the Holy Spirit comes upon the church or various individuals without this. Indeed, as our Lord pointed out,

John 3:8 NASB  "The wind blows where it wishes and you hear the sound of it, but do not know where it comes from and where it is going; so is everyone who is born of the Spirit."

The question is carried even further in Pentecostal circles. Although miracles are being done here, we have no direct evidence that they are done by anyone who has not had hands laid upon them. Some Pentecostals conclude, therefore, that you must have hands laid upon you by someone who already works miracles if you're going to work miracles too. The miracles in question most often are those of speaking in tongues — about which the rest of evangelical Christianity is a bit doubtful. I leave the matter entirely to the reader; merely wishing to point out that there is a good deal of controversy about this.

Give Me This Authority

One of the principles that we have forgotten in America since the days of our founding is that with authority comes responsibility. Most of us have, at one time or another, worked for a boss who proudly proclaim that he had all the authority and we had all the responsibility. If something went wrong, it's the peon’s fault. Anything going right was entirely to the credit of the leader. Now, if you pursue this method far enough, you get what always happens when authority and responsibility are mismatched: tyranny.

The desire for tyranny comes from the wicked heart. Permit me an example. George Washington did not wish to be the first president of the United States. Benjamin Franklin cajoled him into it. He had no desire to lord it over other people; in fact, he earnestly desired retirement. His moral character was such that the early Republic elected him unanimously. Until recently, his memory was revered by all Americans as a model of what a president should be. I submit to you that this is because he took his responsibilities seriously and exercised such authority as was necessary to complete them. It is not possible to reasonably accuse George Washington of being a tyrant in any respect. The reader is invited to compare this character with the current occupant of the White House (whoever that might be.)

This is particularly important in the church. It is said that Mussolini made the trains run on time; so at least there was some merit in the man. Sometimes, you just have to take what you can get. When that happens, most of us try to do the best we can with the situation available. We know that we can't really change anything. But that's not true in the kingdom of God. The kingdoms of the earth are for sale to the highest bidder; the kingdom of God is not. In fact, trying to purchase a church office for your own gain is considered a sin. That sin has a name: simony.

What's Wrong?

The kingdom of God is within you; that means it's a matter of the heart. If your heart is not right with God, you should not be entrusted with authority in the kingdom of God. You know why; you will misuse it. So what's wrong with Simon's heart?

·         Peter identifies the first part as, "the gall of bitterness." It is fascinating to think that Simon was a bitter man. Here's the magician, the "Great Power." We don't know what was about his life gave him this bitterness, but most of us would assume that the powerful magician has everything he wants. That's not always a good assumption; maybe somebody else got the girl he wanted. The Christian needs the joyful heart.

·         Peter identifies the second part as, "the bondage of iniquity." We don't know what particular sin this might've been, but it is always true that when you sin, you give Satan a handle with which to maneuver you. Particularly for the magician, the common belief is that sin is enlightening. It's the oldest lie in the human race; Satan used it on Eve. Once Satan has that handle he will continue to use it. The sin will become worse and worse — and you will have no choice but to continue to get worse and worse. You are a slave to anything that controls you; the bondage of iniquity is strong indeed. Ask any drug addict.

Repentance

Simon repents. From the histories of the time — about which there is considerable doubt — it appears that this was not an honest repentance. He asks Peter to pray for him, though. We really don't know what happened next; only God can truly look upon the heart know what is there.

That's the great thing about the kingdom of God, though. It's called "grace." We can imagine the outside; we can measure the tithes, the offering and the service — but God knows the heart. We are encouraged to look upon our own hearts, examine them and take such action as will bring us closer to God. We are also told that we are not to judge someone else. Perhaps we can extend to Simon the benefit of the doubt. It might even be that we need to extend it to someone else as well.



[1] John 4:4-42

[2] Acts 1:1-8

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