14 Now when the apostles at Jerusalem heard that Samaria had received the word of God, they sent to them Peter and John, 15 who came down and prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit, 16 for he had not yet fallen on any of them, but they had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. 17 Then they laid their hands on them and they received the Holy Spirit. 18 Now when Simon saw that the Spirit was given through the laying on of the apostles’ hands, he offered them money, 19 saying, “Give me this power also, so that anyone on whom I lay my hands may receive the Holy Spirit.” 20 But Peter said to him, “May your silver perish with you, because you thought you could obtain the gift of God with money! 21 You have neither part nor lot in this matter, for your heart is not right before God. 22 Repent, therefore, of this wickedness of yours, and pray to the Lord that, if possible, the intent of your heart may be forgiven you. 23 For I see that you are in the gall of bitterness and in the bond of iniquity.” 24 And Simon answered, “Pray for me to the Lord, that nothing of what you have said may come upon me.”
25 Now when they had testified and spoken the word of the Lord, they returned to Jerusalem, preaching the gospel to many villages of the Samaritans. – Acts 8:14-25 ESV
Philip had taken the gospel to a city within the region of Samaria, and many of the residents had believed in his message concerning Jesus Christ as God’s appointed Messiah and Savior. When news of this exciting and somewhat unexpected development reached the apostles back in Jerusalem, they sent Peter and John to check it out, and to pray over the new converts so that they might receive the Holy Spirit. Now, it’s important that we take note of the differences between what took place here and what had happened on the day of Pentecost. On this occasion, the Samaritans who had come to believe in Jesus as their Messiah had not immediately received the filling of the Holy Spirit. Instead, Luke points out that “they had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus” (Acts 8:16 ESV). Back in chapter two, we have Luke’s record of the coming of the Holy Spirit and he reveals that the Spirit immediately filled all those who were in the upper room. They were already believers in Jesus, but on that occasion, all at the same time, they received the indwelling presence of the Spirit. Then Luke notes that Peter preached to those in the crowd who had gathered as a result of the disciples speaking in foreign languages, saying, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself” (Acts 2:38-39 ESV). It would seem that those who believed, and there had been about 3,000 of them that day, received the Holy Spirit at the point at which they expressed their faith in Jesus. It had been immediate. But on this occasion, when Philip had shared the good news with the Samaritans, those who believed in Jesus did not immediately receive the Spirit. Why not? It would seem that God was treating this situation somewhat differently in order to validate what was going on as being His will and carrying His authority. While Philip had been chosen by the apostles to serve the Helenistic Jewish widows, he had not been appointed an apostle. He was not one of the original 12 disciples of Jesus. And as Luke has pointed out, there had already been someone performing miraculous acts in Samaria and causing the people to call him, “the Great One—the Power of God” (Acts 8:11 ESV). It seems that God was out to prove that what had happened among the people of Samaria by the hands of Philip, was indeed His doing and carried His seal of approval. So, Peter and John arrived, laid hands on those who had believed and been baptized, and “they received the Holy Spirit” (Acts 8:17 ESV).
As we noted in an earlier blog post, it is important that we not attempt to treat the content of the book of Acts as prescriptive. In other words, we cannot afford to take these isolated events and assign to them some kind of status as required or normative practices for the church today. There are those who have read this passage and have determined that it teaches that the laying on of hands is required before the indwelling of the Holy Spirit can take place. There are those who believe it prescribes and teaches the idea of a second blessing, accompanied by the filling of the Spirit and signified by miraculous signs, such as speaking in tongues. But as we will see as we continue our study of the book of Acts, what is described as having taken place in Samaria was not intended to be viewed as normal or necessary in any and all future circumstances. It was a unique situation requiring divine approval. The fact that Peter showed up and prayed over these people ties back to the words Jesus spoke to him long before He died and was resurrected. Peter had just confessed that Jesus was the Christ, the Son of the living God. And Jesus responded that this recognition on Peter’s part had been given to him by God, and as a result, Jesus said to Peter:
18 And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. 19 I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” – Matthew 16:18-19 ESV
It seems that Jesus assigned Peter a certain degree of authority among the disciples. He was given the “keys of the kingdom of heaven” and provided with divine authority to bind and loose. Much of what Jesus said to Peter that day would make no sense until the Holy Spirit came. And we see on this occasion, upon Peter’s arrival in Samaria, that he had the God-given power to bestow upon the new Samaritan believers the power of the Spirit. Peter “opened” the doors to the Samaritans, officially sanctioning their expression of belief in Jesus with the indwelling presence of the Spirit. And this event must have been accompanied by some form of external sign, because it became clear to those looking on that something great had happened. Luke makes it clear that something visible happened because he notes, “Now when Simon saw that the Spirit was given through the laying on of the apostles’ hands, he offered them money” (Acts 8:18 ESV). Simon, the magician, who had earlier expressed his faith in Jesus and been baptized, noted that something powerful had happened when Peter and John prayed and the people received the Spirit. Notice that he only witnessed the filling of the Spirit and did not seem to experience it himself. He was a spectator, which seems to bring into question the validity of his salvation experience. The fact that he did not receive the Spirit of God provides proof that his declaration of faith had been a sham. In fact, his whole interest in Jesus and all that Philip had said about him, had to do with power and personal gain. Which is what prompted him to offer Peter and John money so that he could have what they had: The power to bestow the Spirit on others. He most likely saw this as an incredible money-making opportunity and was willing to purchase a Holy Spirit-bestowing franchise from the apostles. But Peter exposes his self-centered motivation, declaring, “your heart is not right before God” (Acts 8:21 ESV). Then he calls on Simon to repent, describing him as “full of bitter jealousy” and “held captive by sin” (Acts 8:23 NLT).
But the real point behind the arrival of Peter and John and their prayer over the Samaritan believers was unity. The gospel was beginning to spread and the first place it had showed up outside the walls of Jerusalem had been Samaria, home of those whom the Jews held in great contempt: The Samaritans. There was great animosity between these two people groups. But there was also great affinity, because the Samaritans shared a common heritage and lineage with the Jews in Jerusalem. They were descendants of the same Jewish ancestors, but the Samaritans had intermarried with Gentiles, marking them as impure to the Jews. They were considered half-breeds and religious heretics, even though they worshiped the same God and believed in the coming of the Messiah. It was important that these new believers be received as part of the family of God and be treated as equals. This had been one of Jesus’ primary prayer requests that night in the garden as He spoke with His Father just hours before His own death on the cross.
20 “I am praying not only for these disciples but also for all who will ever believe in me through their message. 21 I pray that they will all be one, just as you and I are one—as you are in me, Father, and I am in you. And may they be in us so that the world will believe you sent me.
22 “I have given them the glory you gave me, so they may be one as we are one. 23 I am in them and you are in me. May they experience such perfect unity that the world will know that you sent me and that you love them as much as you love me. – John 17:20-23 NLT
Jesus had prayed for unity. He wanted them to be one, just as He and the Father are one. And the kind of unity He asked the Father to bestow upon His future disciples was to be such that the world would sit up and take notice. It would provide the world with living proof that He had truly been the Son of God and that His message of life-transformation was real. And what better way to prove to the world of 1st-Century Judea that this message regarding the resurrection of Jesus and the good news of salvation was real, than watching Jews and Samaritans loving and accepting one another as brothers and sisters. This was a miracle. It would have been unheard of and completely unexpected. No one would have seen this coming, including the apostles and the Samaritans. And Peter and John had their eyes opened as well, seeing clearly, for the first time, that the gospel was open and available to any and all who would believe. And Luke reports that these two apostles returned to Jerusalem, “preaching the gospel to many villages of the Samaritans” (Acts 8:25 ESV).
Something new was happening. The door was opening wide and the message of the gospel was beginning to spread. And God, in His infinite wisdom, chose to begin this exciting new phase of the gospel’s spread by bringing it to the Samaritans. And, as we will see, God was far from done.
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.