9 But there was a man named Simon, who had previously practiced magic in the city and amazed the people of Samaria, saying that he himself was somebody great. 10 They all paid attention to him, from the least to the greatest, saying, “This man is the power of God that is called Great.” 11 And they paid attention to him because for a long time he had amazed them with his magic. 12 But when they believed Philip as he preached good news about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptized, both men and women. 13 Even Simon himself believed, and after being baptized he continued with Philip. And seeing signs and great miracles performed, he was amazed. – Acts 8:4-13 ESV
Immediately following the stoning of Stephen, an intense persecution of the church in Jerusalem had begun. It was as if Stephen’s execution was the first step by the Sanhedrin in a much more robust and radical plan for dealing with this troublesome new sect they had labeled “the way”. From the moment Stephen was buried and eulogized by devout and faithful friends, the danger facing the church increased rapidly and took on the tone of an official effort on the part of the Jewish leadership to eliminate this heretical group once and for all. Luke reintroduces Saul, the young man who had held the coats of those who had stoned Stephen. But this time, he is presented as an active force in the extermination program instituted by the high priest and the Jewish council. Later on in this same book, Luke records Saul’s own words concerning his work on behalf of the Sanhedrin.
3 “I am a Jew, born in Tarsus in Cilicia, but brought up in this city, educated at the feet of Gamaliel according to the strict manner of the law of our fathers, being zealous for God as all of you are this day. 4 I persecuted this Way to the death, binding and delivering to prison both men and women, 5 as the high priest and the whole council of elders can bear me witness. From them I received letters to the brothers, and I journeyed toward Damascus to take those also who were there and bring them in bonds to Jerusalem to be punished.” – Acts 22:3-5 ESV
Saul, who happened to be a Pharisee, thought he had been doing God a favor by arresting and imprisoning Christians. They had fully approved of, and probably sanctioned, his efforts in Jerusalem, and had even given him letters of recommendation to take with him to Damascus so he could catch up with the rapidly spreading influence of “the way”. Saul would make it to Damascus, but as a changed man, an event Luke will soon recount. And when Saul arrived in Damascus, the followers of Christ there, reluctant to believe that any change had taken place in Saul’s life, said, “Isn’t this the same man who caused such devastation among Jesus’ followers in Jerusalem? And didn’t he come here to arrest them and take them in chains to the leading priests?” (Acts 9:21 NLT).
Yet, with all this intense animosity aimed at the church of Jesus Christ, there were those who had faithfully picked up the mantel of Stephen and had chosen to follow the rapidly dispersing church, taking the gospel with them. And Luke makes it clear that when the church began to scatter, the original apostles of Jesus had chosen to remain in Jerusalem. So, God raised up others. And one of them was Philip, who happened to be one of the seven Hellenistic Jews, along with Stephen, who had been appointed by the apostles to care for the widows in the church in Jerusalem. Like Stephen, Philip was a man “of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom” (Acts 6:3 ESV). And like Stephen, Philip saw that his job as a follower of Christ was going to encompass far more than dispersing food to needy widows within the congregation. It’s not that this was unimportant, but that there was an even greater need to continue the spread of the gospel. And Philip, as a Greek-speaking Jew, had a natural predisposition and inclination to share the gospel with those who were non-Jews. So, while the apostles remained in Jerusalem, Philip headed for Samaria, where he proclaimed Christ to them. With his arrival in Samaria, the call of Jesus for His disciples to “be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth”, was beginning to be fulfilled.
The word that is translated as “scattered” in verse 4 is the Greek word, diaspeirō, and it comes from another Greek word, speirō, which refers to sowing seed. With the persecution of the church, the seed of the good news of Jesus Christ was being scattered or spread throughout Judea, Samaria and ultimately, as we will soon see, to the ends of the earth. But Philip headed for Samaria. Samaria was a region located north of Jerusalem, and Luke tells us that Philip went to “the city of Samaria”, most likely referring to a prominent city within the region, because there is no record of a city bearing that name. It could be that Philip went to Sychar, the very same Samaritan city Jesus had visited with His disciples, and where He had had His encounter with the woman at the well. He had told her, “whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life” (John 4:14 ESV). John goes on to record the rest of the conversation Jesus had with this woman.
25 The woman said to him, “I know that Messiah is coming (he who is called Christ). When he comes, he will tell us all things.” 26 Jesus said to her, “I who speak to you am he.” – John 4:25-26 ESV
She revealed an understanding and awareness of the Messiah, because the Samaritans were considered half-Jews. They were the result of Jews who had intermarried with Gentiles sent to live in the land after the Assyrians had defeated the northern kingdom of Israel in 722 B.C. The rest of the Jews considered them as half-breeds religiously and ethnically. While the Samaritans continued to worship Yahweh, they did so from there own temple, located on Mount Gerizim in Samaria. There was no love affair between the Jews and the Samaritans. In fact, in his gospel, Luke records another encounter Jesus had with Samaritans. This time, Jesus was on His way to Jerusalem and had sent his disciples ahead to a Samaritan city to tell them to prepare for His arrival. But the residents of the city refused to welcome Jesus because they understood His final destination was Jerusalem. So, James and John, being good Jews and faithful disciples of Jesus, had offered to take care of this ungrateful and disrespectful village of Samaritan half-breeds, asking, “Lord, should we call down fire from heaven to burn them up?” (Luke 9:54 NLT). But Luke records that Jesus, rather than taking His disciples up on their offer, rebuked them.
Whether Philip went to Sychar or some other city in Samaria, we don’t know. But we do know that there was an openness to the gospel on the part of the people of Samaria, because John tells us that Jesus’ encounter with the woman at the well had significant ramifications.
39 Many Samaritans from that town believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, “He told me all that I ever did.” 40 So when the Samaritans came to him, they asked him to stay with them, and he stayed there two days. 41 And many more believed because of his word. 42 They said to the woman, “It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is indeed the Savior of the world.” – John 4:39-42 ESV
Luke records that when Philip arrived in Samaria, he preached Christ, the Messiah. He performed signs, including casting out unclean spirits and healing the paralyzed and lame. And “there was much joy in that city” (Acts 8:8 ESV). God, in His sovereign will, was using this Hellenistic, Greek-speaking Jew, to preach the good news of Jesus Christ to despised and rejected Samaritans. And without realizing it, the Sanhedrin, who would have had nothing but disdain for Samaritans, had actually played a part in their salvation by instigating the persecution of the church and the scattering of the seed of the gospel. God works in mysterious ways.
And Luke records another individual whose life was changed as a result of Philip’s efforts. He was a magician or, better yet, a sorcerer named Simon. This man was not a magician like we would think of. He did not practice slight-of-hand or perform card tricks. He was a practitioner of the occult, performing miraculous signs, but with the help of demons, not God. And he had established a cult-following there in Samaria, with the people saying of him, “This man is the power of God that is called Great” (Acts 8:10 ESV). He had convinced the people of Samaria that His power was of God and it could be that some believed him to be the Messiah. But with Philip’s arrival in town, Simon suddenly found himself with competition. But he noticed that there was something very different about Philip and his efforts among the people. Philip wasn’t trying to amass a following or establish a name for himself. Luke records, “when they believed Philip as he preached good news about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptized, both men and women” (Acts 8:12 ESV). Lives were being changed. This wasn’t about impressing people with inexplicable displays of power. It was about life-change. It was about eternal life and redemption. Simon was amazed at what he saw. And Luke records that he too believed and was baptized. But as we will see, it will become clear that Simon was in search of more than salvation. He was after power. He saw what Philip offered as a means to an end. And when he realizes that the Holy Spirit seems to be the key to Philip’s amazing powers and abilities, he will try to purchase this power for himself.
But we’ll hold off on that discussion until tomorrow. The real point in these verses is that the enemy was attempting to defeat the cause of Christ, but was actually causing it to spread and grow. The dispersion of the church was one of the best things that could have happened. And if you think about it, it all began with a disagreement that had arisen in the church regarding widows whose needs were being overlooked. It was because of this need that seven men were chosen. One of them was Stephen. He would end up preaching a powerful message that would result in his own martyrdom. His martyrdom would lead to intensified persecution against the church by the Jewish leadership. That persecution would cause the church to scatter. That scattering of the church would cause the gospel seed to be sown in places it had never been before. And lives would be changed – forever.
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001
New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.