There are elements in the passage we studied tonight (Acts 8:4-25) which are very confusing and have been divisive throughout history. The confusion arises over why the Samaritans did not receive the Holy Spirit when they believed Philip’s message but only when the apostles laid hands on them (Acts 8:14-17); the commentator Howard Marshall says of this phrase that it is ‘possibly the most extraordinary statement in Acts’. In other places, belief and receiving the Holy Spirit have been simultaneous and Paul is later to make it clear that ‘if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, they do not belong to Christ.’ (Rom 8:9) The reason for the difference in experience here is unclear and has led to some people believing the Samaritans did not really understand the gospel Philip preached (and therefore were not really converted until the apostles arrived) or that there can be different stages in the Christian experience (the classic Pentecostal view) whereby regeneration (new birth, whereby we receive the Spirit of God) is differentiated from the baptism in the Spirit (which can take place at a later date.) There has been debate as to whether the Samaritan experience is repeatable in modern-day experience and though we see in this chapter unusual happenings which are hard to explain, it is not enough to be dogmatic based on just one incident.
Many believe that the apostles needed to visit Samaria and validate Philip’s evangelism there, commenting that they publicly welcomed the Samaritans into the church, confirming that they were indeed bona fide Christians – and maybe this was why the Holy Spirit was not given until the apostles laid hands on them. There were perhaps dangers of a split in the early church between Jews and Gentiles and the breakthrough in evangelism to those outside the Jewish faith needed corroboration from the original apostles. Geoff Ashley comments, ‘Had the apostles not authenticated the work in Samaria, people would have thought that the works in Samaria were disconnected with those in Judea, that the work among the Samaritans was different from the work among the Jews. Such thoughts would have only fostered the centuries old wall of separation between Jews and Gentiles (see Ephesians 2:11-22). Instead, we find that they are explicitly connected and are both of the same Spirit working throughout the book of Acts.’