God is never early and never late, but always on time. I like to be early to events (perhaps the most famous occasion in my family is when I made everyone turn up for a Christmas meal two hours early because I thought the journey to the restaurant would take much longer than it did…) My son is usually late (a source of contention between us, as you can imagine.) God is never early (which frequently irritates me…) and never late (which I’m glad about!) He created time and though He dwells outside of time, He always does things at the right time. (Gal 4:4)
We may not always appreciate God’s timings (the Psalms are full of prayers beginning ‘How long, Lord?’ – see Ps 6:3, Ps 13:1-2, Ps 35:17), but we can be grateful for the fact that God knows the right time and will always be there at that time.
One of the hard things about waiting for God to fulfil His promises is that we can only see with our natural eyes. God is actually working behind the scenes all the time, but so often we can’t see what is going on behind the scenes.
Children eagerly anticipate getting presents on Christmas Day, but for parents and family and friends, this means hard work beforehand! Nothing happens without preparation and we can be grateful for the fact that God is a God of preparation. Rev 12 tells us the behind-the-scenes Christmas story (regular readers know that I think this should be a compulsory reading at Christmas time!) and even in our more traditional Christmas readings, we think about the preparation that went into Christmas: God moving in secular hearts to create a census that would take Joseph and his family to Bethlehem so that prophecies would be fulfilled, God putting the star in the sky that would guide the wise men from the East, for example. We can be utterly thankful that God works behind the scenes and is still working in history (and in our stories) to complete His plans and His purposes!
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.’
No one could accuse Luke of glossing over confusing and unappealing parts of the story! We have already seen how Ananias’ and Sapphira’s actions led to judgment and death (Acts 5:1-12), and now we have the story of Simon the Sorcerer, whose name gives us the word ‘simony’ (‘the buying or selling of spiritual or ecclesiastical privileges.’) (Acts 8:4-17) Simon was obviously someone used to influence and power (he amazed people and boasted of his greatness and was even called ‘the Great Power of God’ by some), but even he was impressed by Philip and responded to the gospel message. (Acts 8:10,13) Nonetheless, when the apostles arrived in Samaria and he saw people receive the Holy Spirit after they laid hands on them, he asked the apostles for that ability too! (Acts 8:17-18)
Peter’s rebuke was swift and to the point: ‘May your money perish with you, because you thought you could buy the gift of God with money!’ (Acts 8:20) He pointed out that wrong heart attitudes were behind this request (Acts 8:21) and urged Simon to repent immediately. Bitterness and sin have a captivating effect on us, and it can take a lot to deliver us from these things.
Some have wondered why Simon was given a chance to repent, when Ananias and Sapphira apparently were not. Perhaps this is because given their background, they ought to have known better, whereas Simon represents one for whom conversion from such a corrupt background really did mean a complete turnaround. Tradition has it that Simon’s repentance was short-lived and some said he was really an antichrist who continued to practise sorcery, but the Bible has nothing more to say about this character other than in this passage, when he appears to repent and take notice of Peter’s warning.
We are grateful for the fact that the gospel offers us all ‘countless second chances’ (‘Second Chance’, Rend Collective). Repentance is a vital – and ongoing – part of our response to God. Simon may have been led astray by his misguided view of the spiritual world as a place of bargaining; in truth, we are all tempted to believe that we can earn God’s favour instead of understanding the truly radical nature of grace. When we grasp the truth of God’s unearned favour, that He loves us and blesses us because of His generous nature rather than anything we can do, we are set free to live thankful and grateful lives.
What is so remarkable about Acts 8:4-16 is the fact that Philip and others shared the good news so enthusiastically with the Samaritans. The Samaritans and Jews had a long history of enmity. We know from John 4:9 that Jews and Samaritans did not associate with each other; John Stott says, ‘The hostility between Jews and Samaritans had lasted a thousand years. It began with the break-up of the monarchy in the tenth century B.C. when ten tribes defected, making Samaria their capital, and only 2 tribes remained loyal to Jerusalem. It became steadily worse when Samaria was captured by Assyria in 722 B.C.; thousands of its inhabitants were deported, and the country was re-populated by foreigners. In the 6th century B.C., when the Jews returned to their land, they refused the help of the Samaritans in the rebuilding of the temple. Not till the 4th century B.C. did the Samaritan schism harden, however, with the building of their rival temple on Mount Gerizim and their repudiation of all Old Testament Scriptures except the Pentateuch. The Samaritans were despised by the Jews as hybrids in both race and religion, as both heretics and schismatics.’
We might find it hard to understand the hostility between these two groups or what divided them so much, but in our modern times, there still exists such hostility. Our ‘Samaritans’ might be people of a different nationality or religion or beliefs, but we can be equally hostile to sharing the good news with these people and can be reluctant to take the gospel outside our comfort zone.
Nonetheless, Paul reminds us that Christ ‘has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility’ (Eph 2:14) and that in Christ, ‘There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female.’ (Gal 3:28) God wants us to share the good news with everyone, even those for whom we have no natural affinity. ‘Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died.’ (2 Cor 5:14) There are no outsiders now.
As we approach Christmas-time, proclamation becomes a popular word in the Christian vocabulary. To proclaim means to announce officially or publicly and we often think of this word in connection to the angelic hosts who brought people the first news of the birth of Jesus. One of the key phrases at the start of Jesus’ earthly ministry was to proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God (Luke 4:43, Luke 8:1) and proclamation is therefore an important type of evangelism, as Philip demonstrates in this chapter. (Acts 8:12)
Luke uses different words for evangelism in the book of Acts, often translated into English as ‘proclaiming’ (see Acts 4:2, Acts 8:5, Acts 8:25). There is a place for speaking out the truths of God’s word in evangelism, and this does not have to be reserved for those in leadership or with a particular preaching ministry. All those scattered to Judea and Samaria ‘preached the word’ wherever they went. (Acts 8:4) They were willing to share the good news about Jesus: how He had died for our sins and been raised to life again by the power of the Spirit and how God’s Holy Spirit now comes upon us to help us bear witness to Him. (Acts 1:8) We are all called to proclaim the good news (Luke 9:6) which involves sharing what God has done for us (Ps 107:2) and we need to be prepared to give a reason, when asked, for the hope we have (see 1 Pet 3:15). This means having ‘a joyful confidence in [the] truth, relevance and power [of the gospel.]’ (John Stott) As Rend Collective sing, ‘there is good news for the captive/ good news for the shamed/ There is good news for the one the world ignores.’ (‘Rescuer’) We have good news to share – let’s do it!
‘No matter what, we have good news and that good news has a name and that name is Jesus Christ.’ (Gareth Gilkeson)