Chapter 18: Sorcery
9 But there was a certain man called Simon, who previously practiced sorcery in the city and astonished the people of Samaria, claiming that he was someone great, 10 to whom they all gave heed, from the least to the greatest, saying, ‘This man is the great power of God.’ 11 And they heeded him because he had astonished them with his sorceries for a long time. 12 But when they believed Philip as he preached the things concerning the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, both men and women were baptized. 13 Then Simon himself also believed; and when he was baptized he continued with Philip, and was amazed, seeing the miracles and signs which were done.
14 Now when the apostles who were at Jerusalem heard that Samaria had received the word of God, they sent Peter and John to them, 15 who, when they had come down, prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit. 16 For as yet He had fallen upon none of them. They had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. 17 Then they laid hands on them, and they received the Holy Spirit.
18 And when Simon saw that through the laying on of the apostles’ hands the Holy Spirit was given, he offered them money, 19 saying, ‘Give me this power also, that anyone on whom I lay hands may receive the Holy Spirit.’ 20 But Peter said to him, ‘Your money perish with you, because you thought that the gift of God could be purchased with money! 21 You have neither part nor portion in this matter, for your heart is not right in the sight of God. 22 Repent therefore of this your wickedness, and pray God if perhaps the thought of your heart may be forgiven you. 23 For I see that you are poisoned by bitterness and bound by iniquity.’ 24 Then Simon answered and said, ‘Pray to the Lord for me, that none of the things which you have spoken may come upon me.’
25 So when they had testified and preached the word of the Lord, they returned to Jerusalem, preaching the gospel in many villages of the Samaritans.
An amazed magician
Simon the sorcerer, or magician, is a well-known celebrity in Samaria. Samaritans from all backgrounds, ‘astonished’ by his actions over a long period of time, believe his claim that he is someone great. They even call him ‘the great power of God.’ Some people believe anything as long as it is not in the Bible! Even some Christians are fooled by extravagant claims of spiritual power and ability made by get-rich-quick speakers, often on TV’s ‘God channel’.
But the mind of the Samaritan people begins to change when Philip comes to preach ‘the things concerning the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ’. How often that name, when applied properly and trusted in personally, brings sinful people into a life-changing experience. Jesus often attracts debate, opposition, and persecution. Here in Samaria, new believers are baptised after trusting Christ for forgiveness and new life.1 Simon himself believes, is baptised, and continues with Philip, who is an excellent role model for any new Christian to look at.
Simon sees the ‘miracles and signs’ by which God attests Philip’s authority to preach His message of salvation through faith in Jesus Christ. He is ‘amazed’. This differs greatly from his sorcery that has fooled the Samaritans. God the Holy Spirit is now at work to glorify Jesus and save souls through God’s unique message.
The apostles identify themselves with the Samaritan believers. The Holy Spirit comes.
The brave apostles in Jerusalem hear how Samaria has ‘received the word of God’ through the witness of Philip and the scattered believers. They cross historical, racial and prejudicial boundaries to send Peter and John there to identify fully with the new church and believers in Samaria who have received God’s word. Until now they have been baptised ‘only in the name of the Lord Jesus’. His command and commission to the disciples was to ‘Go’ and to ‘make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit’.2
New geographical ground is broken with the conversion of Samaritans of mixed race. They are accepted as part of God’s universal church along with Jews and Gentiles. As with the Jews at Pentecost, it is important that now Samaritans are seen to receive the Holy Spirit and be identified with the existing church and its founding apostles. This is a period of important historical transition as the new church of Christ spreads into other nations. Each new Samaritan Christian has become one of the ‘living stones’3 in their new church. The God-given authority of the apostles’ teaching will produce the New Testament. Added to the Old Testament, it will form the final written word of God, as we have it today. The Holy Spirit now comes upon the new members of the Samaritan church. As the apostles identify with these new brothers and sisters in Christ, by laying their hands on them, they receive the Holy Spirit. Every individual who repents and trusts Christ always receives the Holy Spirit personally. The Bible says ‘if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he is not His’.4 No one is recorded here as speaking in different languages, as at Pentecost, but all can tell that Samaria now has a Spirit-filled church under the God-given authority of the apostles and their teaching.
Where does Simon stand? Is he a Christian or not?
We read in Acts 8:13 that Simon believes and is baptised. But what does he believe? Is he really converted to Christ? Sometimes the Bible gives us puzzling situations to work out from its teaching.
In doing that, our understanding of God’s word grows. If at times we cannot understand the Bible, our understanding is at fault, not the Bible! Also there are some professing Christians whose life-styles make us wonder if they really are the Lord’s.
Are you like that?
Now Simon tries to buy from the apostles the power to confer the Holy Spirit on people. He has not realised that the apostles lay hands on believers purely to be linked with them and with their new church. Their hands are neither hyper-holy nor megamagic! They are merely the hands of sinners saved by God’s grace.
They have no power of their own. Simon fails to grasp that the Holy Spirit is a Person, not a thing or power to be acquired or dispensed. He is the third Person of the Trinity. As God, He enters sinners who repent. Simon, ignorantly and wrongly, offers money to buy the power he wants. He would see that as another valuable asset in his inventory of magic and sorcery to continue to impress people. Although many say that Simon is ‘the great power of God’, this is not what a truly saved and Spirit-filled man does! Where is the evidence of true conversion? Is his belief merely nominal and intellectual? In the book of James, the author addresses non-Christians who ‘believe that there is one God’. He adds with weighted sarcasm, ‘You do well. Even the demons believe—and tremble’!5 To believe only in the mind is not enough. Satan does that too!
Peter tells him to keep his money—it will perish with him. His wicked desire to buy from men what is a gracious, holy and powerful gift of God shows his heart is wrong in God’s sight. Peter has no doubt that Simon, despite head belief, is not converted.
He has no forgiveness. He is ‘poisoned’ by his own ‘bitterness’, probably caused by jealousy that the apostles do through the Holy Spirit what he cannot do by his own efforts. He is ‘bound by iniquity’, trapped in chains of self-interest. He can have no real blessing, until he is sorted out spiritually. How can that happen? He is told, ‘Repent therefore of this wickedness, and pray God if perhaps the thought of your heart may be forgiven you’. Again we see the apostolic message of repentance for sin and the need to put personal faith in God by praying to Him.
Simon is so obviously humbled that it seems he cannot pray for himself. He asks Peter to pray for him, that he will escape the judgement and consequences that his sin deserves. Will he ever repent and be saved? We do not know. We meet people like this. We wish we could push them into the kingdom, but it is up to them to come personally to God, through Jesus, by repentance and faith.
How about you? Do you have faith in God only in your mind, or have you really cast yourself on the Lord Jesus Christ to save you? Have you seen Him dying for you, bearing your sins, and taking your judgement in His sinless, perfect, holy and righteous body on the cross? Have you turned from your wrongdoing to receive Him by faith? Does He now live in your life by the Holy Spirit? Is He your Lord? If not you also need to Repent and pray to God for forgiveness. Though it is a privilege to have others pray for you, God will hear you personally if you come to Him like that. He has promised to hear and answer.6
On-going sharing of the good news
Peter and John have ‘testified’ about Christ. They have ‘preached the word of the Lord’. They now leave their new Samaritan Christian brothers to grow and witness in that place, so traditionally despised by Jews. They return to face persecution and opposition in Jerusalem. As they go, they are ‘preaching the gospel in many villages of the Samaritans’. Remember that the commission to witness to Jesus Christ is to ‘Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth’.7 Samaria now has received the only message of sins forgiven that can reach and save people of any race or religion. And this spreading of the gospel came about by the scattering of persecution, and by the faithful witness of Philip. We will now see him in exciting action again!
Questions on Chapter 18
A. Summarise Simon’s life, desires and spiritual position. What needs to happen to him? How can that happen?
Acts 8:9–13, 18–24
B. What part do the apostles from Jerusalem play in reaching Samaria with the gospel and building up the new church? What general principles of Christian leadership do you see here?
Acts 8:14–17, 19–23, 25, Acts 1:8, Acts 2:42–43
C. Consider the part Philip plays in what happens in Samaria before the apostles come, and compare that with what he does after they arrive. What do you learn about him from that? Is there an example to follow?
Acts 8:4–8, 12–13, 2 Corinthians 4:5, Acts 6:4, Acts 8:14–15
- Verse 13 says ‘Simon himself also believed’, thus clearly indicating that Philip’s hearers had believed before being baptized. ↩
- Note it is in the name (singular) of the Triune God not in the ‘names’). This underlines the oneness of Godhead in the Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Ghost. God is three in one and one in three in his Triune nature. ↩
- 1 Peter 2:5 ↩
- Romans 8:9 ↩
- James 2:19 ↩
- Romans 10:13 ↩
- Acts 1:8 ↩