The Gospel that Unites

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This evening as we continue our studies in Acts 8-10 we come to chapter 8 and verses 9-25 under the title THE GOSPEL THAT UNITES. And I have three headings: The Samaritans; Simon & Simony; and The Spirit. So first:

Last year the Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards said that he doesn't like the Bible because it's boring. The veteran rock star revealed that he regularly reads the Bible to try to understand why people find it so "fascinating". He told one newspaper: "I read the Bible sometimes but it bores me to death. I just want to know what other people find so fascinating.”

Well pray that God opens Keith Richards’ eyes, mind and heart to the truth of the Bible. One thing the Acts of the Apostles isn’t is boring. Luke’s divinely inspired account of the spread of the gospel and the growth of the church in Jerusalem, in all Judea, Samaria and to the ends of the earth is both gripping and challenging for us as individuals and as a church today. Luke records the impact of God’s glorious gospel as it saves, unites and even causes offence to some. A gospel that united and still unites true believers in Christ, those who accept the word of God (v14), even when there had been a history of hostility between peoples and tribes – Jew and Samaritan (as we see here in Acts 8), Jew and Gentile, Jew and Arab today, even Geordie and Maccam! In Ephesians 2:13-14 Paul writes:

13But now in Christ Jesus you [Gentiles] who were once far away have been brought near through the blood of Christ. 14For he himself is our peace, who has made the two [Jew and Gentile] one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility.

And Galatians 3:26-28:

26You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus, 27for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 28There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. 29If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham's seed, and heirs according to the promise.

And many of us have experienced being one in Christ even when only geography, language and culture previously separated us. It is a real privilege and joy to belong to a church fellowship where so many nationalities are represented. If our faith is in Jesus Christ then we have been rescued from God’s wrath through Jesus’ death on the cross in our place and his resurrection from the dead, we have new and eternal life and we are one in him, we have been adopted into God’s family! This is the power of the gospel that the world needs to know and see.

The hostility between Jews and Samaritans had lasted a thousand years. So it’s hard for us to really appreciate the boldness of Philip here in preaching to the Samaritans. The hostility had begun with the break up of the monarchy in the tenth century BC when ten tribes defected, making Samaria their capital, and only two tribes remained loyal to Jerusalem. It had got steadily worse when Samaria was captured by Assyria in 722 BC, thousands of its inhabitants were deported and the country was repopulated by foreigners. In the sixth century BC, when the Jews returned to their land, they refused the help of the Samaritans in the rebuilding of the temple. But it wasn’t until the fourth century BC that relations hardened. The Samaritans built a rival temple on Mount Gerizim and repudiated all Old Testament Scripture apart from the Pentateuch. They were despised by the Jews as hybrids in both race and religion, as both heretics and schismatics. In John 4:9 we read simply that:

Jews do not associate with Samaritans

But Jesus is different. In John 4 he changes the life of a sinful Samaritan woman who then shares the living water she’s been given with the Samaritans of Sychar. Jesus’ prohibition of evangelism by his disciples in any Samaritan town (Matthew 10:5) was only for the time of his public ministry. And now Luke is clearly very excited by the evangelization of the Samaritans and their incorporation into the body of Christ. This was the next major advance of the gospel as vv14-17 indicate. Jesus is the Saviour of the world. He is the only way to God. And through the persecution and scattering of the church in Jerusalem the gospel began to go out to the world. V5:

Philip went down to a city in Samaria and proclaimed the Christ there…

‘There was great joy in that city’ (v8) as God brought salvation and healing. Indeed the city was turned upside down as many turned away from following Simon to publicly follow Jesus Christ. Vv11-12:

11They [the Samaritans] followed him [Simon the sorcerer] because he had amazed them for a long time with his magic. 12But when they believed Philip as he preached the good news of the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptised, both men and women.

How we need to pray that there might be great joy in this city and in Gateshead as people turn from following idols that superficially amaze, such as materialism, football and false gods to follow the Lord Jesus Christ. As God uses us as his witnesses in the power of the Spirit to spread the good news of the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ throughout Tyneside and, thinking of Samaria, to Sunderland and beyond and to the ends of the earth – to cities in other parts of the world as people are trained and equipped here and sent out to preach not themselves but Christ. This summer one church in New York is planning to reach one million people in that city with the good news of Jesus. Let’s pray that under God we might pro rata, reach out to 200,000 in Tyne and Wear over the next 2 years and many thousands more through Clayton Media and through ministry overseas both now and in the future. The opportunities are there – here, in Africa, Asia and the Americas and elsewhere – let’s not miss them so there might be great joy in those cities and places. Let’s be bold like Philip as the Spirit leads. Even this week let’s be inviting to the Christianity Explored Taster Session on 7th May and deciding to get involved with parish visiting, which aims to contact 800. We are to be his witnesses in the power of the Spirit to Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8). But what of Simon the sorcerer? Well he and simony is my next heading. You see we are not one in Christ with everyone who says they believe and are baptised. We are not one in Christ with those who do not accept the word of God and heretics. So secondly:


Look at vv9-13. For some time before Philip arrived in the city it had been under a very different influence. A man named Simon had practised sorcery in the city, which is condemned in Scripture. He had amazed all the people of Samaria, even in the region beyond the city, not only by his magic arts (v11) but also by his extravagant claims (v9). For he boasted that he was someone great. And all the people, both high and low, actually stated that this man is the divine power known as the Great Power. They were a gullible lot but then we humans can so easily be taken in. Why did they follow him? They followed him (v11) because he had amazed them for a long time with his magic. Now remember that word ‘amazed’. We’ll come back to it.

But now Simon found himself challenged by Philip. And not only because Philip’s miracles rivalled and bettered Simon’s magic. You see Simon boasted of himself whereas Philip (v12) preached the good news of the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ. What was the result of Philip’s bold preaching of the gospel of Jesus Christ and his humility? Well look back at v6 of chapter 8.

When the crowds heard Philip and saw the miraculous signs he did, they all paid close attention to what he said [and then v12 again] they believed Philip.

Meaning they believed Philip’s gospel. They were converted and were then baptised both men and women (v12). The power of the gospel faithfully and humbly preached is far greater than sorcery, which is ultimately of the devil. Jesus Christ died in our place on the cross and rose again. He has defeated sin, death and the devil. He that is in us is greater than he that is in the world. We can have confidence in Christ and in his gospel. The gospel of Jesus Christ is what this city, Tyneside & Northumberland, Wearside and world need to hear. As Paul states in Romans 1:16:

I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile.

Do we believe that? But what of Simon? Look at v13:

Simon himself believed and was baptised. And he followed Philip everywhere astonished by the great signs and miracles he saw.

Simon professed belief. He probably believed to all appearances as the rest did. But he didn’t exercise saving faith. How do we know that Simon’s faith was non-saving, was false and was really mere amazement? Well look on to vv18-24. The Apostle Peter, who along with John had now arrived in Samaria, says to Simon in v21:

You have no part or share in this ministry, because your heart is not right before God.

Biblically there is a ‘believing’ that does not save. John 2:23-25:

23… many people saw the miraculous signs Jesus was doing and believed in his name. 24But Jesus would not entrust himself to them, for he knew all men. 25He did not need man’s testimony about man, for he knew what was in a man.

In Luke 8:13 in the parable of the sower Jesus says:

Those on the rock are the ones who receive the word with joy when they hear it, but they have no root. They believe for a while, but in the time of testing they fall away.

And James 2:19-20, 26 reminds us that even the demons believe that there is one God and that faith without deeds is dead. Perhaps someone here would say they’re a believer and have even been baptised but are you believing and trusting in Jesus Christ as Saviour and Lord. Has he baptised you with his Spirit? Have you repented and believed the good news of Jesus? Simon clearly hadn’t (v22).

Simon’s faith was false. The object of Simon’s false faith was the power of signs and wonders not the good news of Jesus Christ. We see that in vv13 and 18. Look again at vv18-23:

18When Simon saw that the Spirit was given at the laying on of the apostles' hands, he offered them money 19and said, "Give me also this ability so that everyone on whom I lay my hands may receive the Holy Spirit." 20Peter answered: "May your money perish with you, because you thought you could buy the gift of God with money! 21You have no part or share in this ministry, because your heart is not right before God. 22Repent of this wickedness and pray to the Lord. Perhaps he will forgive you for having such a thought in your heart. 23For I see that you are full of bitterness and captive to sin."

And ever since that day, the attempt to turn the spiritual into the commercial, to traffic in the things of God, and especially to purchase ecclesiastical office, has been termed simony.

Simon’s false faith was mere amazement. ‘Amazed’ and astonished is Luke’s clue in vv9, 11 & 13. A desire for power or glory is not salvation. So what was missing? What was missing was a heartfelt recognition of sinfulness and turning to Jesus in repentance and faith (vv22-23). His response to Peter in v24 wasn’t encouraging. He showed no sign of repentance or even of contrition. Instead of praying for forgiveness as Peter had urged him to do he asked Peter to pray for him. What seems to have really concerned Simon wasn’t that he might receive God’s pardon but only that he might escape God’s judgment, with which Peter had threatened him in v20. V24 Simon answers “Pray to the lord for me so that nothing you have said may happen to me.” In later Christian tradition Simon became known as the archetypal heretic and enemy of Christianity. Perhaps someone here tonight has yet to turn to Jesus in repentance and faith. You realise that your heart is not right before God. Well turn to Christ tonight. Or maybe you are a believer but you heart is becoming divided. Well turn to Christ in repentance and faith. Don’t let the division grow. In terms of simony you can’t serve both God and money. Thirdly and finally


15When Peter and John arrived, they prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit, 16because the Holy Spirit had not yet come upon any of them; they had simply been baptized into the name of the Lord Jesus. 17Then Peter and John placed their hands on them, and they received the Holy Spirit.

Two well known commentators agree 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. Back in Acts 2:38 Peter had preached that those who repented and were baptised would receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. So how could the Samaritans have believed and been baptised and not received the Spirit? How is it that through the ministry of Philip the Samaritan believers received only baptism, and that they received the Holy Spirit later through the ministry of the apostles Peter and John? Does Luke intend us to view the Samaritans’ experience as typical or atypical? Is it set before us as the usual pattern for Christian experience today or as an exception? These are questions that have caused much puzzlement and ironically division over a matter which was actually signifying unity. Some denominations argue from this text that Christian initiation or becoming a Christian is a two stage process – first conversion and water baptism and secondly the gift or baptism of the Spirit. So for them the Samaritan experience is judged to be normal. Others argue that initiation into Christ is a one stage event, comprising repentance/faith, water baptism and Spirit baptism. So the Samaritan experience is judged to be abnormal.

But what does the book of Acts actually teach about all this? You see the best commentary on the Bible is the Bible itself. Well in a similar situation in Acts 11:15-17 Peter clearly understood the giving of the Holy Spirit to Cornelius and his people as God’s sign that the Gentiles were to be accepted as full members of the Christian community. Similarly the outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon these first Samaritan converts was proof of their equality with the Jerusalem believers; proof we might add to the apostles as well as to the Samaritans. It’s interesting to note that John who once wanted to call down the fire of judgment on a Samaritan village (Luke 9:54), was one of those now calling down the Holy Spirit! The main message here then is that the Christian gospel is for all and unites all those who accept the word of God (v14). This was a major advance of the gospel and the delay and the visit of the apostles further signified this and gave a sign to the whole church that this was genuine. Jews and Samaritans were to be admitted into the body of Christ without distinction. There was one body because there was one Spirit. So Luke doesn’t intend us to see the Samaritans’ experience as the usual pattern for Christian experience today in terms of Christian initiation. Today we receive forgiveness and the Spirit together the moment we believe. We are then one in Christ and we are to be his witnesses in the power of the Spirit, making the most of every opportunity just as Philip and then Peter and John did (v25).

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