ACTS8v1to25: THE CHURCH PERSECUTED, SCATTERED BUT DYNAMIC.
(A) Introduction (Read the reference.)
The passage deals with the persecution of the church and its consequences. One consequence was that the gospel was taken to many parts of the Roman Empire including Samaria. Luke concentrates on recording the dramatic events in Samaria attending Philip the deacon's ministry.
(B) The Persecutor: Saul of Tarsus.
Saul began to destroy the church. v3. His behaviour illustrates the dangers of:
Saul was absolutely sure that he was right and the Christians were wrong. He was unwilling to enter into dialogue with the apostles or reason with them. Saul hated their error - they had been duped and deluded by Jesus of Nazareth. Like so many before and since, he not only hated the error but also those in error.
A dogmatic person never really listens to an opposing view or the other side of the argument. The tragedy was that Paul was dreadfully wrong. He was hounding God's chosen people. He was arraigned against the very Son of God.
The church has always contained more than its fair share of dogmatic folk. It is almost a besetting sin and is found amongst stiff-necked Jesuits, illiberal liberals and rabid fundamentalists.
I suppose some might argue that Paul was dogmatic after his conversion! That is not really true. He wrote to churches that were straying from the truth and reasoned with them. He wrote in love and sought to persuade them to abandon error.
It is wrong for a religious group to use force against those they disagree with. Brutal intolerance nailed Jesus to the cross. This fact alone should have kept all Christians through the centuries from killing dissidents in the name of Jesus! Everybody should be permitted to express their beliefs however erroneous or bizarre they might be. This does not mean that discipline is not exercised within the church. It may be necessary to exclude a man or a woman from the fellowship if their behaviour or belief is incompatible with the New Testament. However, that is as far as we are permitted to go. There are Christians who would go further and oppose the building of mosques, synagogues or kingdom halls.
The persecution of the church reveals something about Satan whose instrument Saul was:
The church is the bride of Christ. Everything was going so well for the church in Jerusalem. It was growing, the believers were one in heart and mind and enjoyed the favour of all the people. Satan decided to spoil it - like a malicious child.
I can remember watching my niece running happily along the pavement in London until her brother stuck out his foot and tripped her up. Spite brought her tumbling down.
Haven't we all experienced this in our Christian lives? Perhaps we have done something to please Jesus and are skipping happily along the narrow way that leads to life when Satan sticks out his boot and we take a nasty fall. Recently, I stood in the foyer of our chapel; I had just finished taking a funeral service where I had been able to witness to the saving and renewing grace of God in the life of the deceased when one of our elderly members said to me, "KB (her son) reckons he must be a better Christian than you - cos your so miserable." Her remark certainly destroyed my peace of mind!
(b) Satan is fallible.
Persecution scattered the church. It set the faith free from Jerusalem and Judaism. It was the worst possible strategy that Satan could have adopted. Satan has made the same mistake many times. Persecution invariably makes the church stronger - as we have seen in Russia and China in the twentieth century.
(C) The evangelist: Philip the deacon.
There are four points to make about the ministry of Philip:
Philip was a Hellenistic, Greek speaking Jew. These formed the radical wing of the church and attracted most persecution - as we saw in the case of Stephen. Later another Grecian Jew, Paul, would carry on in the tradition of Stephen and Philip and take the gospel to the Gentiles.
Radicals are needed in the church. Churches do become conservative, bound by tradition and preoccupied with statements of faith that are to all intents and purposes carved in stone. Stagnant denominations need stirring up. It is important to re-examine from time to time the doctrinal basis of the church.
(b) He took the gospel to the hated Samaritans.
Philip was quite prepared to proclaim Christ in the city of Samaria. He took the gospel to people that were at best disliked and at worst despised by the Jews. He followed in the footsteps of his Master who was a friend of publicans and sinners. There are groups in society that we have little time for. I cannot say that I admire travellers, hippies, spongers on the state or criminals. If God called me to minister to one of these groups I might feel like Jonah who bitterly resented being asked to preach to the Ninevites.
(c) He preached Christ.
There is no better topic for a Christian preacher than Christ. We should preach Christ's cradle - his humanity; Christ's cross - his saving work; and Christ's crown - his power and glory at God's right hand. We need to emphasise the great honour of being adopted into God's family and being joint heirs with Christ and also the obligation to obey Jesus and thereby do God's will.
(d) He performed wonders and signs.
(D) The charlatan: Simon the sorceror.
Simon became a Christian because there was one aspect of it that strongly appealed to him, namely, the signs and wonders. We read: And he followed Philip everywhere. v13. Simon was an outstanding magician or illusionist. He amazed the people of Samaria for a long time with his amazing magic tricks. So he took a professional interest in Philip. He followed him about to see how he performed his illusions. Perhaps, after careful observation, it dawned on the expert that Philip really did have supernatural powers.
Simon also noticed that Peter and John, when they arrived in Samaria, had the ability to make people very happy. They laid hands on Christians who were suddenly visibly transformed. The Holy Spirit filled them with joy. It gave them peace and confidence. It put a sparkle into their eyes and a spring in their step. It was a wonderful pick me up! Simon realised that a gift like that would do much for his reputation and put money into his pocket.
It seems very unlikely that Simon was a genuine Christian. He hadn't repented of his old life. Simon had used tricks to impress the Samaritans, to boast of his greatness and of the divine power that existed in him. He still wanted to impress people and retain his reputation but through Christian signs and wonders which he realised were superior to his own! He wanted to be a Christian magician. He was drawn to Christianity for the wrong reasons.
There are still people who profess Christianity for the wrong reasons. I think some are drawn to ministry in the Church of England or Roman Catholic Church by the love of dressing up. The heirarchical structure of those two denominations attracts others. There must be something alluring about the Cardinal's hat or the Bishop's crook. In non-conformist circles the love of performing has doubtless drawn some into the ministry. The preacher is the centre of attention two or three times a week. He entirely dominates proceedings. People hang on to his every word. It is a great ego trip. Preaching week after week to a handful of listeners really tests your calling! There must be those who attend a Church of England service out of a love of tradition. A fine, historic building, an angelic choir and the language of a traditional prayer book service has its appeal - even to me! In my own chapel some folk attend for company.
We need to come to Jesus like the apostle Paul who said on the road to Damascus, "Lord, what will you have me to do." We cannot be genuine Christians without first submitting to Jesus. This is absolutely crucial.
All to him I freely give,
I will ever love and trust him,
In His presence daily live.
I surrender all,
When the church in Jerusalem heard of what was happening in Samaria they sent Peter and John to check out the situation. It was clear to the two apostles that the Samaritan Christians had not been baptised with the Holy Spirit. We read: When they arrived, they prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit .... Then Peter and John placed their hands on them, and they received the Holy Spirit. v15and17.
Nobody believes in Jesus without the operation of the Holy Spirit. Jesus said to Nicodemus, "I tell you the truth, no-one can enter the Kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit." John3v5. Furthermore every Christian is given the Spirit as Comforter. Jesus says: "But you know him for he lives in you and will be in you." John14v17. The Samaritan believers had experienced the work of the Holy Spirit in their lives. He had opened their eyes to the truth and they knew that Jesus was their Lord and Saviour by the Spirit he gave them.
The baptism of the Spirit in Pentecostal power is something different and that is what the Samaritans lacked. A Christian who experiences a Pentecostal outpouring of the Spirit is obviously different from a Christian who has not. Their emotions are stirred and there is an up welling of joy manifest sometimes in ecstatic utterances. Professor Howard Marshall in his Commentary on Acts writes that v16: the Holy Spirit had not yet come upon any of them; they had simply been baptised into the name of the Lord Jesus, is perhaps the most extraordinary statement in Acts. It is only extraordinary if no distinction is made between the work of the Holy Spirit in conversion and the invigorating effects of a Pentecostal outpouring.
It was important for the Samaritans to have the same experience as the believers in Jerusalem. The apostles knew that God sent his Spirit at Pentecost. It was something given to genuine disciples of Jesus. It was a sign of God's acceptance. If God unambiguously accepted the Samaritan Christians then the Jerusalem church would have to do so particularly if the Spirit was poured out after John and Peter laid hands upon them. None of the conservative Palestinian Jewish Christians would question the testimony of Peter and John.
Peter and John themselves were also convinced by what happened that the gospel should be preached to the Samaritans. On the way back to Jerusalem they preached the gospel in many Samaritan villages. v25.
The question that divides Christians is whether a baptism of the Spirit following conversion is the norm for today. It was usual during the period covered by the Acts of the Apostles. I will deal with this issue in some detail in the exposition on the Ephesian twelve: Acts19v1to7. All I will say at this juncture is that there have been long periods in the churches' history when the vast majority of believers have not experienced a Pentecostal blessing. Almost all the Christians I have known in my lifetime have not been baptised with the Spirit. I have not. It is no good a Pentecostal or charismatic Christian, who just might be reading this, saying, "Well you haven't been baptised with the Spirit because you don't expect it or ask for it." I don't think Cornelius, or the Samaritans, or the Ephesian twelve sought it or expected it. It was just given to them. The hard question, and I will attempt to answer it later in these expositions, is why God does not send his Spirit in power upon those of us who haven't received it in that way? Surely it would do us good and we qualify for a blessing quite as much as the Samaritan Christians or the Ephesian twelve.
The truth we can all take from the passage is that God accepts all sorts into the kingdom. We should be prepared to welcome into fellowship whoever God accepts. Nor should we be surprised if the flotsam and jetsam of society are fairly well represented. We do not chose our Christian brothers and sisters - God does. James writes: Listen, my dear brothers: Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised those who love him? James3v5.