Acts 8 divides into two halves, both focused on the ministry of Philip, one of the seven leaders chosen to serve the widows in the Jerusalem church (6:5). The first half of the chapter tells of Philip’s ministry in Samaria (1-25); the last half highlights Philip’s ministry to an Ethiopian official near Gaza (26-40). Philip’s ministry in Samaria sees many come to faith through his preaching and miraculous signs. Philip’s ministry in Gaza sees one man come to faith through an explanation of Scripture. Both sections show the gospel spreading beyond the borders of Jerusalem (Acts 1:8) and reaching non-Jews.
Philip, who had been chosen to help oversee the ministry to widows in the Jerusalem church, is one of the many believers “scattered” due to the persecution driven by Saul of Tarsus (1-3). Though scattered, Philip is not silenced. In Samaria (north of Jerusalem) Philip “proclaimed the Christ” (5). The combination of his preaching and “miraculous signs”(deliverances and healing) lead many to pay “close attention to what he said” (6). Many “accept the word of God” (14) and are baptized. While they are filled with “great joy” (8), none of these new believers are filled with the Holy Spirit (15-16). Peter and John are dispatched from Jerusalem; they come and lay hands on the new believers who receive the Holy Spirit (17).
This episode has led some to conclude that receiving the Spirit happens after believing in Jesus (and even being baptized in His name). They would contend that the Spirit is given through the laying on of hands by spiritually approved leaders and that the reception of the Spirit is evidenced in an unmistakable way (as Simon was able to see that the Spirit had been given—18). The evidence of the baptism or filling of the Spirit (terms can be used synonymously or with different nuances) is often said to be speaking in tongues; while this is not specified in Acts 8, this is the evidence of the Spirit’s coming in Acts 2, 11 and 19)
The epistles (which explain the theology and practice of the Church) do not seem to present a two-staged entry into the Christian life as normative. What is happening in Acts may be due to the transition between the Old and New Covenants. Acts shows us what happens as the gospel breaks out of a Jewish community and spreads into Gentile lands.
Acts 8 indicates that the “gift” of the Holy Spirit (20) is an essential indicator that one has entered the kingdom of God. In his sermon on the Day of Pentecost, Peter had promised those who repent and believe and are baptized that they would “receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (2:38). The presence of the Spirit in a believer’s life is the hallmark of the New Covenant promised by the Old Testament prophets (Jeremiah 31:31-34). In the book of Acts, the coming of the Spirit into a believer’s life is unmistakable evidence of conversion (Acts 8, 11, 19). Perhaps because of deep-seated prejudices and cultural barriers, God chose to make the reception of the Spirit confirmed by outward evidence (speaking in tongues, spontaneous praise to God); He wanted the Jewish believers to see that “gave them the same gift as He gave us” (11:17).
The Curious Case of Simon the Sorcerer: The narrative about Samaria mentions many who believe but focuses on one: Simon. Simon was large and in-charge in his community. He “amazed al the people” through his “sorcery” (9) and “magic” (11). Simon is dazzled by Philip’s “great signs and miracles” (13). He is said to have “believed” and was baptized (12). Later, he offers to pay Peter for the power to bestow the Holy Spirit (19). Peter rebukes him strongly, tells him his heart is “not right”, calls him to repent and diagnosis him as being “full of bitterness and captive to sin” (23).
So is Simon a bogus believer or a believer with baggage? The textual evidence is somewhat ambiguous. Biblical scholars have drawn opposing conclusions. Plus, there was a second/third-century gnostic cult that claimed to worship Simon as the “first god.” Whether this aberrant group was founded by Simon or just co-opted him as their “founder” is unknown to us.
Thankfully, we are not Simon’s judge; God is. As Paul would later write, “The Lord knows those who are his” (2 Timothy 2:19). It is possible that Simon was genuinely saved but carried with him a lifetime of flesh patterns, besetting sins (bitterness) and a defective worldview (power is purchased for personal esteem). Believing and being baptized doesn’t fast-track deep level transformation (Rom 12:2). Perhaps the telling clue that Simon was saved is his response to Peter’s rebuke: “Pray to the Lord for me so that nothing you have said may happen to me” (24). Admittedly, his focus is still on the consequences of his sin (what happens “to me”) as opposed to a repulsion with his sin. But there is an expressed desire to get things right in a heart that was “not right before God.”
After the story of Simon, with all its drama and messiness, we are told the story of the conversion of an Ethiopian court official (26-40). Several things stand out. Philip is directed by “an angel of the Lord” (26) to leave the Samaritan city where many were coming to faith and to head “south to the road—the desert road” to Gaza.
The Spirit tells Philip to come alongside a chariot traveling the road (29). Turns out, in the chariot is the Ethiopian official reading a scroll of Isaiah, providentially in the section we know as Isaiah 53. Philip asks the official if he understands what he is reading; the Ethiopian humbly says no and asks for help. So beginning “with that very passage” Philip tells him “the good news about Jesus” (35). While we aren’t explicitly told the official believes, we do hear him ask to be baptized—the physical expression of his new faith in Christ. After the baptism, Philip is “suddenly” taken away from the official and “appeared” in Azotus, continuing to preach about Jesus.
Several things stand out to me as I reflect on this incident. First, God doesn’t count significance simply by the size of the crowd. Philip was in the midst of many who were turning to Christ in Samaria but is sent into the desert to talk to one man. If Philip were like some of us, he might have questioned the logic of his “desert” assignment. But there is no evidence of hesitation. He obeyed and went. So must I.
The conversation with the official is clearly providential on many fronts. The Ethiopian was reading the Bible, in Isaiah, in the section about the Suffering Servant, with an open, worshipful heart. The timing was perfect and the official was ready to believe and be baptized (2:38).
Philip was directed by an angel (26) and by the Spirit (29, 39-40). We aren’t told exactly how this happened (by a vision? by an inward prompting?). However, it’s stated in a matter-of-fact way. The supernatural was a natural part of Philip’s life. Lord, surely you must see how much we need the Spirit’s leading and power. Please help me to be sensitive to Your Spirit’s speaking and moving and directing as I serve You—with many or with few.