Acts 8 tells the story of Samaritans receiving the word of God, and eventually the Holy Spirit once the apostles, Peter and John, came to pray for them. Luke, the author of Acts, the sequel to his Gospel, tells us that the Samaritans had been under the spell, literally, of a sorcerer named Simon. Luke tells us that Simon practiced magic. The type of magic here referred to doesn’t mean pulling off tricks by slight of hand like pulling a rabbit out of a hat. Simon was into spells and incantations of the variety that would bring people fortune and success, perhaps also practices that would bring misfortune to one’s rivals (i.e. think of voodoo). His craft probably also included invoking the favor of powerful spiritual beings, known in the ancient world as daemon, the Greek word from which we get the English word demon. Then and even with these types of practices today, these beings were not necessarily all viewed as evil among pagans, although some were.
Simon was a practicing pagan. His craft brought him great prestige and fame among the Samaritans. I’m sure he promised to bring the people of Samaria great fortune, but it was he himself who prospered the most. Yet when he heard the preaching of the Christian evangelist Philip, and saw the sign and wonders that Philip performed, Acts 8:13 tells us that, even Simon himself believed and was baptized. Now the great Baptist preacher Adrian Rogers insisted here that at this point Simon was really an unbelieving believer. That is he professed faith, but for the wrong reasons. As the story later reveals he witnessed a power greater than what he already had and he wanted it for himself seemingly to only enhance his already great prestige and personal glory.
Peter and John came to pray for the Samaritans to also receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The reason they were delayed in receiving the Spirit is not stated, but it might be so there would be apostolic witness to this momentous event as the promise of Acts 1:8 and Acts 2:39 was fulfilled. This was the case when the Gentiles, Cornelius and his household, would also later receive the Spirit just as the apostles had on the day of Pentecost (Acts 10-11). Nonetheless, when Simon say how the Samaritans received the Holy Spirit through the laying on of hands of the apostles, his true mindset and state of heart was revealed.
Now when Simon saw that the Spirit was given through the laying on of the apostles’ hands, he offered them money, saying, “Give me this power also, so that anyone on whom I lay my hands may receive the Holy Spirit.” But Peter said to him, “May your silver perish with you, because you thought you could obtain the gift of God with money! You have neither part nor lot in this matter, for your heart is not right before God. Repent, therefore, of this wickedness of yours, and pray to the Lord that, if possible, the intent of your heart may be forgiven you. For I see that you are in the gall of bitterness and in the bond of iniquity.” And Simon answered, “Pray for me to the Lord, that nothing of what you have said may come upon me.”
Acts 8:18-24 ESV
Simon was still thinking like a pagan, not like Christ. For the pagan in the ancient world, religion was centered on attracting the favor of the more powerful forces in the universe. It was focused on personal or collective fortune and success, similar to the ways people still go through certain rituals to bring themselves good luck even today—like the kid on a baseball team I helped coach who refused to wash his pants! Ancient pagan religion was not connected to morality. That was left to the political leaders and philosophers to establish in the name of societal order and stability. It is a historically unique and essential revelation of the Bible that connected religion to morality, love of God and neighbor (see John Oswalt, The Bible Among the Myths). The Bible, in other words, connects sacrifice and mercy, with priority given to the latter, as it is especially revealed in the incarnation of the Son of God, Jesus. Simon, even though he had been baptized, still did not have the mind of Christ. Hence, Peter’s harsh rebuke, which reminds me of the harsh rebuke that Peter himself at one time had received from Jesus (Mark 8:33; Matt 16:23). Simon was still only thinking about himself and how this profound power of the Holy Spirit could benefit him.
Jesus actually revealed the difference between the typical pagan mindset and the mindset that his followers should have. He warned the crowds and his disciples not to be concerned about their own personal wealth. He told them not to be consumed by seeking the fulfillment of their own desires, but to center their lives on the will of God. After warning them about covetousness (i.e. greed), Jesus says:
“Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat, nor about your body, what you will put on. For life is more than food, and the body more than clothing. Consider the ravens: they neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them. Of how much more value are you than the birds! And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life? If then you are not able to do as small a thing as that, why are you anxious about the rest? Consider the lilies, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass, which is alive in the field today, and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, how much more will he clothe you, O you of little faith! And do not seek what you are to eat and what you are to drink, nor be worried. For all the nations of the world seek after these things, and your Father knows that you need them. Instead, seek his kingdom, and these things will be added to you.
“Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give to the needy. Provide yourselves with moneybags that do not grow old, with a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no thief approaches and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also. Luke 12:22-31 (see also Matt 6:19-34)
Jesus here, and in Matthew 6, says the nations, the Gentiles, those outside the covenant community of God, are consumed by the fulfillment of their own desires. But his followers should be focused on the will of God. Simon was still thinking like the rich fool that Jesus warned about in a parable (Luke 12:13-21). He still thought it was all about him, that the gift of the Holy Spirit was for his own personal benefit. Although it seems he responds positively to Peter’s rebuke and truly repents, his name would later be used in the tradition of the church to describe corrupt church leaders who used their office in the church for their own personal gain; a practice that came to be known as “Simony.”
What Simon needed to understand is that “Spirit-led leaders use the gift of power for the good of others, not for their own aggrandizement. Spirit-prompted leaders die to self for the good of others” (a quote by Scott McKnight retweeted from Seedbed by a friend). Being filled with the Holy Spirit and finding our place to use our gifts in the body of Christ—which is what all believers should do, not just clergy—is not for us to make people marvel at our own so-called greatness, but to marvel at the greatness of God.
People still often come into the church only because of what may be in it for them. Sometimes people go into full-time ministry for their own self-aggrandizement, motivated by a desire for power, acclaim, and/or wealth. Recently there was another televangelist who said God wanted his supporters to send in donations for him to buy a new $54 million dollar private jet, even though he apparently already has three! He promotes what is called the “prosperity gospel” and “word of faith” theology. The latter is the idea that if you think positively and make verbal confessions in line with your positive thinking you can receive from God whatever it is you want. As the proponents of this type of theology say, you “believe God for whatever it is you want.” So this preacher, Jesse Duplantis, is “believing God for” a new private jet that will be bought with the donations of his followers. The “word of faith,” positive thinking and confession theology, is similar to what is taught in modern new age circles, although they call it “the law of attraction.” The problem, either way, is it keeps people focused on the very things Jesus says not to be concerned about, laying up treasures on earth rather than being rich toward God (Luke 12:13-21).
Sometimes people respond to the gospel of Jesus Christ for the wrong reasons. Sometimes they come because of the attention it draws to themselves, rather than the glory it brings to God. I ministered to a young man one time who was in jail. There he sought any means possible to better his life. He professed faith in Christ, but immediately began to talk about going into ministry and perhaps even writing a book to “share his testimony.” I saw the dollar signs in his eyes; his mother even told him that she was disgusted by the pride of which he reeked. Latter he admitted that he was seeking attention for the wrong reasons and lying to everyone. We had a very candid conversation about it. The beginning of Christian maturity is when we realize it’s not all about us.
Sometimes people profess faith in Christ without receiving the mind of Christ. The Son of God, the Word who became flesh (John 1:1-18), used not his great power to be served, but to serve. His greatness was revealed most fully and clearly in his humility. After years of being steeped in a self-centered view of faith myself, I finally lost all the faith I had in the power of my own faith. I also lost my mind. The good news is I found the mind of Christ in the second chapter of Philippians.
So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. Philippians 2:1-11