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Acts

Simon the Sorcerer

Acts  8:1-25

It is no accident that the church first encounters opposition from the world of the occult during a time of persecution. We see it here:

(Acts 8:1-25 NIV) And Saul was there, giving approval to his death. On that day a great persecution broke out against the church at Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria. {2} Godly men buried Stephen and mourned deeply for him. {3} But Saul began to destroy the church. Going from house to house, he dragged off men and women and put them in prison. {4} Those who had been scattered preached the word wherever they went. {5} Philip went down to a city in Samaria and proclaimed the Christ there. {6} When the crowds heard Philip and saw the miraculous signs he did, they all paid close attention to what he said. {7} With shrieks, evil spirits came out of many, and many paralytics and cripples were healed. {8} So there was great joy in that city. {9} 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, {10} and all the people, both high and low, gave him their attention and exclaimed, "This man is the divine power known as the Great Power." {11} They followed him because he had amazed them for a long time with his magic. {12} But when they believed Philip as he preached the good news of the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptized, both men and women. {13} Simon himself believed and was baptized. And he followed Philip everywhere, astonished by the great signs and miracles he saw. {14} When the apostles in Jerusalem heard that Samaria had accepted the word of God, they sent Peter and John to them. {15} When they arrived, they prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit, {16} because the Holy Spirit had not yet come upon any of them; they had simply been baptized into the name of the Lord Jesus. {17} Then Peter and John placed their hands on them, and they received the Holy Spirit. {18} When Simon saw that the Spirit was given at the laying on of the apostles' hands, he offered them money {19} and said, "Give me also this ability so that everyone on whom I lay my hands may receive the Holy Spirit." {20} Peter answered: "May your money perish with you, because you thought you could buy the gift of God with money! {21} You have no part or share in this ministry, because your heart is not right before God. {22} Repent of this wickedness and pray to the Lord. Perhaps he will forgive you for having such a thought in your heart. {23} For I see that you are full of bitterness and captive to sin." {24} Then Simon answered, "Pray to the Lord for me so that nothing you have said may happen to me." {25} When they had testified and proclaimed the word of the Lord, Peter and John returned to Jerusalem, preaching the gospel in many Samaritan villages.

Persecution – God’s tool

Christians often seem to have a poor reaction to persecution. They may fail to realize that God has planned such things for the good of the church (which might be somewhat inconvenient for the members of the church). We need to see how this works.

Christian response to persecution

There is an unfortunate tendency among Christians to believe that persecution must somehow be endured – in place. Our Lord was quite specific about it. When the Gospel suffers persecution, we are not to remain but to flee – for it is the Gospel that is being persecuted.

(Mat 10:23 NIV) When you are persecuted in one place, flee to another. I tell you the truth, you will not finish going through the cities of Israel before the Son of Man comes.

Whatever the prophetic implications of this passage might be, our marching orders are clear. Even the Apostles (who stay in Jerusalem in this passage) are called upon to flee.[1] There are a number of reasons why this might be so. Here are two simple ones:

·         First, it may be the only way to get Christians up and moving!

·         Second, in this case, it forces the church to cease depending upon the Apostles and depend upon the Holy Spirit.

Cultural barriers

There is another issue: our reluctance to face cultural barriers. Christ told his disciples that they would be witnesses to him in three stages: Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria, and then the world.[2] This is simply God’s prod to get on with phase 2 of the plan.

Note, please, how this is done. Philip – who is a Greek by birth, and therefore more accustomed to dealing with Gentiles – goes to Samaria. Samaria! The land which the devout Jew despised as being composed of traitors to the Law; the people who were not even to be touched. Note that it is only after Philip’s success in Samaria that the Apostles come down and “ratify” the extension of the church. Ultimately this will lead to the third phase of the expansion, the Gentile world.

Christian’s complaint

So if persecution can be such a good thing, why don’t we like it?

·         It takes us out of our comfortable existence, and calls us to sacrifice. If, as Tertullian said, the blood of martyrs is the seed of the church, it still means we do the bleeding. I’m not even fond of having the Red Cross take some.

·         It forces us to change, and to grow. Some of us have a well carpeted rut.

·         Sometimes, we just don’t see the good of it. We see only the negative side. We forget who is God.

Temptation of the Church under persecution

This passage also points up two temptations for the church under persecution. They are the temptation to make alliance with the local sorcerer – or to go into the business of selling the grace of God.

Alliance

It must have been tempting to make an alliance with this “great power.” Philip, after all, is not an Apostle, and no doubt Simon could have made a persuasive case.

There is a scene in the book (and movie) Keys of the Kingdom. In it, the missionary priest (played by Gregory Peck) heals the daughter of the head of the village by his knowledge of medicine. Shortly after, the head man comes to the mission to become a Christian. “You did me the greatest favor you knew how to do; now I am going to do you the greatest favor I can. If I become a Christian, the whole village will surely follow.” (Or words to that effect; it’s been a long time since I saw the movie.) The missionary turns him down – even though the man is “sincere.” Why? Because the cause of Christ must not be compromised.

How do we know the real from the fake?

·         The real has the ring of truth about it. Consider how they paid attention to Philip. Think how Christ spoke, compared to the Pharisees. The cynic may be blinded, the gullible fooled – but the discerning man looks for the truth.

·         The real has power to it. It demands changed lives and hearts, and those lives and hearts are no longer the same.

·         The real brings true joy.

The fake also has its characteristics:

·         The real exalts Christ; the fake exalts the leader. The leader always places himself between you and Christ.

·         The fake also carries with it an air of power. In this time, it was demonic magic, coupled with sleight of hand, which was then misunderstood. (It is interesting to note the return of astrology, etc. today). But remember: Satan cannot create; he can only counterfeit.

·         The fake will draw a crowd; the world is always listening for the fruits of God at the price of man.

Selling the grace of God

The world is not willing to welcome the grace of God – but it certainly understands a new business which sells that grace. It is a form of being worldly. We see it today in simple forms (“send in your contribution”) and complex. But here we see it blatantly. Simon has given his name to simony, the purchase of church offices. The temptation goes beyond that. It is the temptation to sell for mere money that which God purchased for us with the blood of Christ. Or worse; to throw it out to the unthinking crowd, pearls before swine. Listen to the words of one man who paid for holding to the grace of God:

Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.

Costly grace is the gospel which must be sought again and again, the gift which must be asked for, the door at which a man must knock.

Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life. It is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner. Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of his Son: “Ye were bought with a price,” and what has cost God much cannot be cheap for us. Above all, it is grace because God did not reckon the life of his Son too dear a price to pay for our life, but delivered him up for us. Costly grace is the incarnation of God.

 

(Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship)

Simon saw the Gospel and the power of the Spirit as tools to be purchased. The Spirit is not a tame Lion, but rather the very essence of God. He does as he wills.

The nature of spiritual regeneration

The passage raises another interesting question. It says that Simon believed and was baptized – and yet tried to do this. How can this be?

Misconception: sober in an instant

Let me put it to you this way: suppose you’re a drunk. Suppose you stagger into the revival meeting, and there meet Jesus Christ. Hallelujah, you’re saved! You’re also still drunk.

The result of receiving the Gospel of Christ is not “instant perfection.” It is an instant change in our relationship with God. We have changed direction; we have changed paths; we have not reached the destination. We may be walking in the right direction but have a long way to go. Fortunately, God is patient.

Possibility: failure

One of the great difficulties for Christians is the thought that someone can be saved – and then lost again. Simon, by other histories, was just such a person, dogging Peter’s footsteps and debating him at every turn. Look at Simon’s reaction:

·         “Pray for me” – he is obviously terrified by the potential consequences of his actions. But Peter has identified the problem correctly: his heart is not right with God.

·         Note that Simon himself makes no indication of how he will change – rather, he wants Peter to do the work for him, as it were.

·         Is there real repentance here? Evidently, by other histories, there was not.

Three views

This has posed a problem for many thinkers. The Scripture frequently assures us of our eternal salvation.[3] How, then, can it be that someone who is baptized can possibly come to this terrible state?

·         Some, notably Baptists, say that the original conversion never really happened. “Once in grace, always in grace.”

·         Others simply say this is predestination. God chooses some and not others.

·         But there is a test you may apply:

(Heb 3:14 NIV) We have come to share in Christ if we hold firmly till the end the confidence we had at first.

Whatever theory applies, if you hold firm to the end, you are saved.

Summary

So then, what does the teacher expect you to leave with?

·         Do not despise the persecution God allows to come your way – he will build his kingdom with it.

·         Keep yourself pure from the world; do not alloy Christ and Satan.

·         Remember, salvation is a journey, not a train station along the way.


[1] Acts 14:2-7

[2] Acts 1:8

[3] Most notably in the soaring 8th chapter of Romans.

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