The Persecution of Man and the Power of God
Text: Acts 8:1–25
Good morning church. This morning, we are coming to a significant transition in the book of Acts and the history of the early church. Up until this point, Luke has been focused on the founding and rapid growth of the church in Jerusalem. But, from this point in the narrative forward, he transitions to the surprisingly counterintuitive way in which the gospel spread like wildfire across ancient world.
Just imagine for a moment that you are a member of the early church in Jerusalem two-days before Stephen’s death. You are growing in your love for Christ as you learn more and more about the implications of his death and resurrection from the apostles and you are growing in your love for your fellow church members as you meet “house to house” with them virtually every night of the week.
Yet on this night as you are sharing a meal together with your local home group someone says: “Wouldn’t it be great to see even more people come to faith in Jesus? Maybe we should talk to the apostles and see if we can set up a week-long preaching series in the Temple and invite everyone from the surrounding towns to attend? After all, this is the perfect time. Their popularity is soaring, and everyone is more than eager to listen to their teaching because their miracles constantly prove that they are ministering in the power of God. Just look around, we have more than enough people in our church to canvas multiple towns in a single day. You know, I wouldn’t be surprised if Peter can bring more people into the temple than the feast of Passover itself… and by God’s grace lead thousands of our countrymen to faith in Jesus Christ.”
Sounds like a pretty good (and rather familiar) plan, doesn’t it? After all they have a celebrity preacher, a well-known platform, a program, and a plan to get people out. And even better, they are not trying to make a name for themselves; they honestly want more people to come to faith in Jesus Christ…
Yet, their hypothetical plan comes crashing to the ground the moment Stephen is murdered, in that, it unleashes a tsunami of merciless persecution that scatters the early church like dust in the wind from Jerusalem to Judea, all the way Samaria in a matter of days. But in the providence of God, this scattering produced the most amazing result— gospel success in regions that had never heard the gospel!
So, as we turn to Acts 8 today, I want to let you know up front that we will be spending two weeks on this passage. Because in many ways, there are two important questions that flow from these verses.
The first has to do with how Simon the magician responded to the Holy Spirit and the second has to do with what we might call “the surprising delay of the Holy Spirit.”
The first is a glaring warning in the midst of what we might call radical “gospel success” and the second is in many ways a clarification and comfort about the operation of the Holy Spirit in the gospel itself.
The Persecution of Man (Acts 8:1–3)
A Great Persecution
From a human perspective it looks like the Chief priest and the Sanhedrin have won the day. Right? Saul is systematically destroying the network of home fellowship groups that comprise the church, dragging as many Christians off to jail as he possibly can. And as a result, the church is not only driven out of the temple precincts; they are virtually eradicated from the city of Jerusalem except for the apostles and a small group of believers.
From a human perspective, it might have even looked like Christianity was finally proven to be false because God did not rescue these Christians from their persecutors. Do you remember Gamaliel’s warning in Acts chapter 5? What happened to the followers of Theudus? They were dispersed and came to nothing. What happened to the followers of Judas the Galilean? They were scattered. And in Acts 8:1 what just happened to the church in Jerusalem? They were all scattered… for all practical purposes (in the moment) it looks like Christianity is following the patterns of failures past. A leader is murdered and the followers are quickly dispersed.
Yet, in the providence of God, this persecution and dispersion produced the most unexpected result, widespread evangelism in regions where the gospel had not yet been proclaimed… because God is actively empowering its advance!
The Power of God (Acts 8:4–13)
An Important Observation (Acts 8:4–8)
Now as we turn to this section most of your Bibles have a heading that reads: “Phillip Proclaims Christ in Samaria” or Phillip Evangelizes Samaria.” And while this title is accurate, it can unintentionally blind us to the stunning content of verse 4.
Acts 8:4 Now those who were scattered went about preaching the word.
Notice, what is the unifying attribute of the countless Christians who were fleeing persecution in Jerusalem? Cowering fear? No. Abject depression? No. Is it forsaking their faith in Jesus Christ? No! Those who were scattered are notable for one common trait, their fervent persistent evangelism!
And even more surprising is that they are declaring it in the most positive terms! What I mean by this is that, the Greek verb behind the word “preaching” in verse 4 means, “to bring, announce, or proclaim good news.” Don’t miss this, these people have lost virtually everything. But there is one thing that they haven’t lost; their passion to see all people come to faith in Jesus Christ. And this is all the more amazing, when you realize that these Christians are not proclaiming the gospel from of a position of social prominence or political power— they are wanted criminals running away from the religious law.
An Important Transition
Now, I have to be honest that this verse is in many ways, a passing line in a much broader story. BUT it is a powerful line given the circumstances, because in it we see a quiet transition in the life of the early church… The pattern of evangelism begins to shift. Whereas the predominant pattern used to be “come and see” Peter and the apostles preach in the temple. It quickly becomes an everyday pattern of “go and tell” people the good news of Jesus Christ wherever you happen to be.
I want to highlight this because many of us have grown up in “come and hear” churches. Come to church and hear my pastor, an evangelist, a celebrity Christian (like Tim Tebow) share the gospel. Come to VBS and here the gospel. Come to our big youth event and hear the gospel. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not against inviting our friends and relatives to church to hear the gospel. By all means invite them! But church, here is the problem: in many cases we have come to believe (or at least behave as if) gospel success requires a big program and a smooth celebrity speaker.
Yet, what we see in our text is that we need so much more than a “professional”, a “platform”, and a “program”. We need everyday Christians who are so gripped with their privileges in Christ and active power of God in the gospel that they cannot help but share the good news of the gospel wherever they happen to be, regardless of the cost.
And as Luke transitions from the general witness (in verse 4) of the many to the particular ministry of Phillip (in the following verses), where does he “happen” to be? He just “happens” to be in one of the most despised cities in the ancient world— the city of Samaria.
A Surprising Development
Here is the deal, Jews didn’t just “happen” to visit the city of Samaria! They did everything they could to completely avoid the entire territory of Samaria that separated Galilee in the North from Judea in the South. Because the two people had been bitter enemies, for close to 1,000 years.
The conflict began when the 10 northern tribes of Israel not only established their own nation after Solomon died making Samaria their capital; but spent much of the next 300 years at war with their cousins to the south in the kingdom of Judah.
In 722 BC the king of Assyria conquered the northern kingdom, deported countless thousands of its people into other lands, and re-populated the region of Samaria with idol-worshiping Gentiles… with whom the remaining Israelites freely intermarried in direct disobedience to God’s commands.
The longstanding animosity metastasized into all out hatred in the 4th century when the Samaritans decided to official break from Biblical Judaism and forge their own religion; abandoning the entire OT except for the five books of the Pentateuch and building their own temple on Mt. Gerazim.
In fact, by the time we get to the first century, the gospels make it clear that the relationship between Samaritans and Jews was hopelessly broken.
Yet, what does God do through the faithful gospel ministry of Phillip, the former deacon and fugitive from the law? He discloses his supreme pleasure in his gospel preaching by delivering countless Samaritans from their afflictions and bringing great joy to a city steeped in centuries of heresy, rebellion, evil, and idolatry by the power of the Holy Spirit. But as we turn to verse 9, the first word tells us that there is more to this story…
A Notable Contrast (Acts 8:9–13)
Now, in many ways Luke could have easily jumped from verse 8 to verse 12. He could have jumped from city’s great joy that resulted from Philipp’s miracles to the great number of people that believed and were baptized in verse 12; but he doesn’t. Rather, he interrupts the story to introduce us to a curious man called Simon though a series of sublet contrasts.
First there is a contrast in object of the crowd’s attention. In verse 6, the crowds with one accord paid attention to what was being said by Philip. What is drawing their attention? It’s the message of the gospel. But if we turn to verse 11, we see that the only reason the crowd paid attention to Simon was his magic.
Second there is a contrast of spiritual power. Whereas the crowds were amazed at Simons magic (v 9); Simon is amazed by Phillip’s miracles (13). Simon was a sorcerer, he dealt in supernatural power long before he ever heard of Philip or the gospel of Jesus Christ. But from what we see in the text is that Simon instantly realized that Phillip’s power was far superior to his power.
Finally, there is a contrast in the people’s response. While the people clearly venerated Simon, saying that he had the power of God that is called great. Their response to Phillip was far greater: “They believed Philip as he preached the good news about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptized, both men and women” (v 12)… including Simon the Magician!
Don’t miss this. In a short number of verses, we have transitioned from a Great persecution to a monumental display of God’s power in the gospel of Jesus Christ! The very attacks that were directed toward the gospel’s destruction have resulted in the gospel’s expansion in enemy territory! The rebels that turned their back on God centuries before have repented of their sin and received forgiveness in Jesus Christ. And the demon-empowered magician who was believed to be “the power of God that is called Great” has abandoned his life of magic for faith in the one true God!
But there is a serious problem with Simon.
The Pride of Man (Acts 8:18–25)
Simon’s Demand (Acts 8:18–19)
It’s at this point of the story that we get a glimpse into Simon’s heart and can see his true obsession with spiritual power. He isn’t compelled to humble worship when he sees the gift of the Holy Spirit poured out by the apostles. No. He instantly demands the right to purchase the same ability. And I am intentionally using the word demand here because the Greek verb “give” in verse 19 is an imperative (a command not a question). Simon thinks he has discovered the secret key to Philipps power and is willing to do almost anything to attain it.
Peter’s Rebuke (Acts 8:20–24)
What does Peter’s rebuke tell us about Simon? Does it tell us that he was merely a confused “baby Christian”? Or does it tell us that that his profession of faith was never real to begin with? Well, the content of Peter’s rebuke points us to the reality that he was never really a Christian to begin with.
First, when Peter tells Simon that he has no part or lot in this matter, he is saying that Simon has not part or lot in Christianity or the Holy Spirit. And if you read the text closely you will notice that Simon never receives the gift of the Holy Spirit like the rest of the Samaritans.
Second, when he tells Simon that his heart is not right with God and that he is enslaved to bitterness and iniquity. He is telling him that he has not been forgiven of his sin, his heart has not been made new, nor has he been freed from his slavery to sin. Spiritually speaking, Simon’s true condition before God has not changed. He is dead in his sins, separated from God, and destined for wrath (Ephesians 2:1–3).
But why? After all, verse 13 tells us that he believed and was baptized! Well, the answer seems to be that:
His so-called “conversion” was driven by an ulterior motive: to receive the power of God apart from the person of Jesus Christ, to receive the benefits of salvation apart from true repentance and faith in the saving Lord Jesus Christ. The object of his “faith” was not the substitutionary death of Jesus, God’s promised Christ. And the goal of his conversion is not forgiveness and restoration to God himself.
But, in all of this Simon has not committed an unforgivable sin. The blood of Jesus is more than able to cleans him of his sin AND restore him to God so that he can receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. He needs to repent, his sinful attempt to abuse the gospel for his own ends.
Yes, Simon can still become a Christian. But, the sad truth of the matter is that for everything we can tell, he doesn’t. On the one hand, Luke records his repentance. And on the other hand, the entire tradition of the early church indicates that he continued in his error, perpetuating every manner of heresy like his ancestors before him…
Kind of depressing right? In many ways this account reminds me of Superbowl forty-nine. The church weathers the blistering attacks of their persecutors and starts making steady gains for the gospel. The offensive is actively taking new ground, it’s putting gospel points on the board. But in the final moments of the game, the greatest gain —the conversion of a well-known magician— proves to be as deflating as Russel Wilson’s goal-line pass…
So, what’s Luke’s aim in this account?
Well, we can certainly see the sovereignty of God in the evangelism of Samaria, in that, what the chief priest, the Sanhedrin, and Saul intended for evil God ultimately intended for God.
In addition to this, in the everyday evangelism of the Christian refugees in verse 4, we can see that effective evangelism does not require positions of social influence and political power but faithful gospel proclamation.
But, given that the story’s highpoint (climax) is Peter’s rebuke of Simon, I think Luke’s main aim is to help his readers see that: Gospel success is not as cut and dry as we would like it to be. Sometimes people respond to the gospel in false belief, foolishly hoping they can receive the benefits of God apart from God himself.
For Simon it was the pursuit of spiritual power. He wanted Philipp’s power but failed to realize that Philipp’s miracles were merely pointers to something far more desirable: God’s offer of forgiveness and restoration in the person of Jesus Christ.
And the sad truth is that we see this very same pursuit today. We see it overtly in those who have bought into the promises of the prosperity gospel. They come to Jesus more like a magical genie than a marvelous savior, hoping that their commitment to him will not only secure their physical health and financial prosperity but that it will grant them the power to speak their every wish into reality. But, in the end who gets the prosperity? The smooth talking, Rolex wearing modern-day Simons who pimp a perverted “gospel” to line their own pockets.
But we also see this pursuit in a far more subtle BUT even more dangerous way. We see it in those who witness:
- The Spirit’s delivering power over every manner of long-standing substance abuse, eating disorders, and sexual addiction.
- The Spirit’s transformative power that slowly converts angry bitter people into patient, humble, peacemakers AND selfish self-serving people in open-hearted generous givers.
- The Spirit’s redeeming power that rescues and restores the most broken marriage and empowers the kind of love that overflows into a truly nurturing home.
- The Spirit’s unifying power that binds a bunch of broken but saved sinners into one family in the local church…
And they desperately want it. They desperately want to experience the real-life benefits of the Holy Spirit’s power in their lives. They want freedom. They want victory. They want peace. But instead of humbly responding to the Gospel’s call for repentance and faith, they attempt to attain it through their own efforts in every manner of religious activities and commitments that have no ability connect them to God’s power or rescue them from their sin.
Now I know this is a heavy message, but it’s the message of this passage. And given that every word of our Bible is from God himself, it’s a message that he wants his people of every age to grasp. So, how can we apply this passage (and this warning) in our everyday lives? Let me share three short applications:
First, whenever we encounter passages like this, we need to honestly begin by looking at ourselves not others. It’s important that we inspect the foundations of our faith from time to time because it does two things: One protects us from any form of unintentional self-deception or faulty gospel we received in our youth. Two, routine inspection can bolster our security in Christ just like routine inspection of your foundation, roof, or car can bolster your assurance in the condition of your home or car.
Second, passages like this can help us better understand and counsel struggling Christians around us. Sure, they may be busy with all sorts of Christian ministries, but they don’t sense the Spirit’s power, presence, work, or joy in their life. And this might be for any number of reasons… but as we support them, we need to careful to listen for the grounds of their hope because their ultimate problem may be that they missed the gospel. Maybe their very experience is God’s kindness to reveal their true need.
Finally, this passage should compel us to clarify the focus of our evangelism. What I mean by this is that while brokenness and pain often open up the door for gospel conversations, the gospel is not a promise that we will have the power to fix all of our brokenness or fulfill our deepest unmet desires. It’s a promise that broken rebellious sinners can be forgiven and restored to God, empowered to live a life that brings him glory and experience everlasting joy through one means and one means alone— repentance and faith in death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
 Walter Bauer et al., A Greek English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 3rd ed. (University of Chicago Press, 2000).