The Gospel to Samaria


The Gospel to Samaria

Acts 8:4-25

Main Idea: Luke describes some of the remarkable events that happened when the gospel advanced into Samaria through the faithful witness of Philip and the apostles Peter and John.

  1. The Samaritans: Transformed by the Gospel (8:4-8)
  2. Simon and Philip: Magic versus the Gospel (8:9-13)
  3. The Apostles: Sent for the Gospel (8:14-17)
  4. Simon and Peter: A Confrontation Related to the Gospel (8:18-24)
  5. The Apostles: More Preaching of the Gospel (8:25)
  6. Gospel Applications

Following Stephen’s death, great persecution arises against the early church, and the believers must scatter beyond Jerusalem (v. 1). But persecution and threat of death don’t stop the church’s growth. Luke next describes how the gospel begins to advance in Samaria. This means that despite the brutal murder of Stephen, God continued his mission of redeeming a people for himself—a people from every tribe and tongue. In fact, God uses persecution to launch his people into Samaria of all places! (See John 4:4,20-21.) Let’s look at what happened as the gospel spread in mighty power to the glory of our unstoppable King.

The Samaritans: Transformed by the Gospel

Acts 8:4-8

The persecution caused many in the church to scatter, preaching the good news wherever they went (v. 4). In the Old Testament, to be a scattered people was a sign of judgment (Gen 11:9; Deut 28:64); in this instance the church’s scattering was actually a sign of judgment on the enemies of the gospel. The message the persecutors were attempting to contain and muzzle was spreading like wildfire on a windy day. How wonderful is God’s providence and sovereignty? The enemies of the church tried to kill the message and messengers of Jesus, but God used their evil for good, for the salvation of many (cf. Gen 50:20).

Before his ascension, the Lord Jesus said to his disciples,

You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come on you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria,and to the end of the earth. (1:8; emphasis added)

This command is fulfilled as the persecuted Christians head out from Jerusalem and carry the gospel to everyone they meet! And notice that “ordinary” Christians are spreading the gospel. It wasn’t the apostles who preached the gospel first in Samaria; “those who were scattered” (8:4) did. Remember, every Christian is a missionary!

The early church went about preaching the Word wherever believing men and women went. Have you considered that even in your promotions, your demotions, and your setbacks, God has sovereignly ordained and allowed twists and turns in your life to give you opportunity to preach the gospel to your neighbors and acquaintances? The Lord has arranged opportunities for you to share Jesus in word and exemplify that message in deed to your new friends and colleagues. So, if you are wrestling with a job loss or have even had to flee a location because of real physical persecution, it’s time to reflect on how God in his mysterious sovereignty has permitted your pain. Consider how he might use it as a way for you to teach and testify about Jesus’s grace. God is on a big mission, and we’re part of it! He’s redeeming the world through his Son by the power of the Holy Spirit at work through ordinary people like you and me. This is how the gospel spread so effectively in the first century, and it’s why the gospel continues to spread so effectively in the twenty-first. Consider Michael Green’s words:

As early as Acts 8 we find that it is not the apostles but the “amateur” missionaries, the men evicted from Jerusalem as a result of the persecution which followed Stephen’s martyrdom, who took the gospel with them wherever they went. It was they who traveled along the coastal plain to Phoenicia, over the sea to Cyprus, or struck up north to Antioch. They were evangelists, just as much as any apostle was. Indeed, it was they who took the two revolutionary steps of preaching to Greeks who had no connection with Judaism, and then with launching the Gentile mission from Antioch. It was an unselfconscious effort. They were scattered from their base in Jerusalem and they went everywhere spreading the good news which had brought joy, release and a new life to themselves. This must often have been not formal preaching, but informal chattering to friends and chance acquaintances, in homes and wine shops, on walks, and around market stalls. They went everywhere gossiping the gospel; they did it naturally, enthusiastically, and with the conviction of those who are not paid to say that sort of thing. Consequently, they were taken seriously, and the movement spread, notably among the lower classes. (Evangelism in the Early Church, 243)

The early church “gossiped the gospel” wherever believers went. What a wise and effective plan for multiplication God created! Neither persecution nor relocation could stop the gospel from spreading. In fact, these things only helped. The good news of Jesus was in the heart of the widow and on the lips of the common man. And this message was “the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes” (Rom 1:16).

Luke focuses on Philip as an example of an individual on mission. Luke introduced us to Philip in Acts 6:5 as one of the seven selected men of “good reputation, full of the Spirit and wisdom” (6:3) chosen to serve widows. Later this gospel-preaching servant of the Lord would appropriately be called “Philip the evangelist” (21:8).

The Samaritans who populated the region of Samaria were a mixed people of partly Jewish and partly Gentile origin. Most Jews considered them unclean and outside the covenant community of Israel. To make matters worse, many Gentiles looked on them with contempt. The Samaritans maintained significant aspects of Israelite religion but read their own version of the Pentateuch, had their own temple, and held differing views on the exact role and identity of the Messiah. There was deep hatred and prejudice between the Jews and Samaritans at the dawn of the first century. Recall, however, that Jesus engaged in a life-changing conversation with a Samaritan woman at a well, offering her salvation through himself (John 4:7-26). He also healed a Samaritan leper while on the way to Jerusalem (Luke 17:11-19), and he made a Samaritan the unlikely hero of a parable (Luke 10:25-37). These wonderful accounts remind us that God’s saving mission in Christ was not limited to the Jews but was meant for the entire world. What a great God we have!

Philip follows the pattern set forth by his Master in extending the gospel of Christ to his Samaritan neighbors (8:5). Jesus had so transformed Philip’s life that any prejudice against the Samaritans was put to death. This is a great reminder that we too should reject categorizing people groups as being without hope in the gospel. In any situation in which you notice a group being oppressed or considered outcasts, find ways to reach out to them with the good news of Christ. What a wonderful testimony this can give to your culture!

The Lord was powerfully with Philip as “the crowds were all paying attention” (v. 6) to what he had to say. The Samaritans were presumably ready to hear the gospel, as they had their own longings and ideas about a coming Messiah. It could be that their hearts were prepared to receive it because both John the Baptist and Jesus had previously ministered there (John 3:23; 4:4-42).

Moreover, the Samaritans were attentive because of the exorcisms and healings being done by Philip through the power of the Holy Spirit. Like the apostles and Stephen, Philip had also received power to cast out demons and do miraculous healings to confirm the gospel message. The result was that both the spiritually tormented and the physically broken were being healed by the presence of the Spirit as Jesus was being proclaimed (8:7). Christ Jesus being brought near to the people was cause for “great joy.” The Samaritans realized that God had visited them, and they were filled with gladness.

Some of us may feel curious about a passage like this. We might ask, What’s up with the exorcisms and healings? Does what happened here mean we should expect present-day gospel preaching to be accompanied by the casting out of demons and the healing of the paralyzed and lame? Or does what we read here suggest it is appropriate to expect that some modern-day Christians will have power to cast out demons and heal others at will due to some supernatural gifting?

Remember, we must read Acts in light of its genre. This is a historical book, which means Luke penned it to describe the events of the early church without necessarily commending to us its same practices. I don’t think we should read of Philip’s exorcisms and healings and assume the passage’s primary application to our lives is that each of our local churches needs to start an exorcism and healing ministry! To be sure, we should read and apply much of Acts directly, but we must also take care in making one-to-one correlations at every turn. We’ve got to allow the rest of the Bible to help us make interpretations and applications for the modern world.

There was something exceptional about the way God did signs and miracles through the apostles, Stephen, Philip, and the others mentioned in the book of Acts. There was a unique nature to the early church’s ministry. Nevertheless, God can and does heal people today (cf. Jas 5:14-16). So, if Jesus decides to intervene, signs and wonders like those we read about in Acts may be manifested in our day. If so, they will happen in order to give the world even more powerful pictures of what life will be like in Christ’s coming kingdom.

Simon and Philip: Magic versus the Gospel

Acts 8:9-13

Luke turns our attention from Philip’s gospel ministry to Simon the Sorcerer’s magic craft.

Before Philip arrived, this Simon “practiced sorcery in that city and amazed the Samaritan people, while claiming to be somebody great” (v. 9). All the Samaritans therefore revered Simon. Their beliefs about him are summed up in their recorded statement about him: “This man is called the Great Power of God” (v. 10). In truth, however, Simon was a deceiver and a liar; still, his magic had so deceived the Samaritan people that they trusted him (v. 11).

Simon was a false prophet. While true prophets will direct praise toward God, false prophets receive praise as fuel for their own selfish egos. And in order to keep the accolades coming, they will set people’s hope in the wrong place. True prophets, by contrast, faithfully exalt the cross so that people’s “faith might not be based on human wisdom but on God’s power” (1 Cor 2:5). Simon, as a false prophet, was flashy and “amazed” the people (v. 11). But true prophets come in humble dependence on God (cf. 1 Cor 2:3), faithfully expounding his oracles (cf. 1 Pet 4:11). Though false prophets like Simon will be exposed, true prophets will be rewarded (cf. 2 Tim 4:8).

Into a culture in which Simon enjoyed a cult following, Philip spread the message that Jesus alone was great and praiseworthy. In fact, Christ’s kingly reign was breaking into the world through the powerful name of Jesus. So rather than giving their attention to Simon and his magic, the Samaritans believed Philip’s message and gave themselves to King Jesus.

Surprisingly, “Simon himself believed” (v. 13). But while at first this seems to be an amazing victory for the kingdom of God, it soon seems that Simon did not genuinely believe. After Simon was baptized, he was noticeably amazed at the signs and miracles being performed by Philip (v. 13). And based on Peter’s later rebuke to Simon (vv. 20-21) and his statement about Simon’s wicked heart and need for repentance and forgiveness (vv. 22-23), it’s safe to assume Simon had an insincere faith.

The gospel did triumph, however. Many in Samaria who were involved in magic and witchcraft bowed their knees to Jesus. Their response to the good news message reminds us that the gospel can impact anyone. There’s much discussion today about how the gospel of Christ can change the hearts of the secular elites, transform blue-collar hedonists, and save the poor. But it proves just as powerful in setting free the spiritually oppressed and the demonically possessed. The good news of Jesus can liberate even those involved in black magic, mysticism, and witchcraft.

Our Lord Jesus can save those blinded by Satan (2 Cor 4:4). Through Philip’s selfless preaching of Christ, God was pleased to give light to the blind. May we aim to be messengers of light, who with Paul say, “We are not proclaiming ourselves but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus’s sake. For God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of God’s glory in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Cor 4:5-6).

The Apostles: Sent for the Gospel

Acts 8:14-17

The joyous news about the gospel’s power at work in Samaria reached the apostles in Jerusalem. This was a breakthrough moment in church history as the Samaritan “outsiders” were now clearly being incorporated into the church of God. The apostles still in Jerusalem sent Peter and John to join the work there. They went and “prayed . . . so the Samaritans might receive the Holy Spirit because he had not yet come down on any of them. (They had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus)” (vv. 15-17).

Historically, these verses have been difficult for many to understand. Some contend this text teaches that not all believers receive the Holy Spirit at salvation and must, therefore, seek a later spiritual experience, which is often supplemented by speaking in tongues. Advocates of this view usually teach that a person can be genuinely saved and regenerate yet devoid of the Holy Spirit. Some slightly modify this view, teaching that the Samaritans mentioned in this passage were genuinely saved, regenerate, and possessed a measure of the Spirit but did not yet have the spiritual gifts. Still others have understood these verses to teach that the initial faith of the Samaritans was defective; therefore, the Spirit did not come until they had a genuine faith. Most who advocate this view believe this text emphasizes the dangers of insincere faith. I think, however, that each of these views is misguided. We must remember the unique place of this story in redemptive history.

The Spirit was withheld until the apostles could verify the gospel work. In this unique case of the gospel’s first moving beyond Jerusalem, the Lord sovereignly waited to give any manifestation of the Spirit until the apostles could be there to witness it. That way they would see and could testify that the Samaritans received the same Holy Spirit given to the Christians in Jerusalem. In this way there could be no question that the gospel was for the nations and that the Jews and Samaritans, once bitter enemies, were now brothers and sisters and members of the same household of God because of their shared faith. The Jerusalem believers had received the Spirit at Pentecost (2:1-13), and now, at the proper time, apostles from the mother church were there to witness and welcome the incorporation of the Samaritan believers into God’s church. We see a similar action in the case of Cornelius (11:14-17).

Simon and Peter: A Confrontation Related to the Gospel

Acts 8:18-24

After the apostles laid their hands on the Samaritans, they received the Holy Spirit. Simon saw this event, and he audaciously offered the apostles money(v. 19) to impart the Spirit’s power to him. Luke records Peter’s fierce reply (vv. 20-23) and Simon’s response (v. 24).

Perhaps Simon theorized that if he could possess the power he witnessed, he could make quite a profit for himself. He is clearly ignorant about the nature of the Spirit in this passage, perhaps thinking the Spirit an impersonal force that can be manipulated rather than as a divine person to whom he is to yield and by whom he should live.

Peter sharply rebukes him, essentially saying, “To hell with you and your money!” He sees in Simon a complete misunderstanding of God and his grace. Simon’s misunderstanding was so serious, in fact, that Peter adds, “You have no part or share in this matter, because your heart is not right before God” (v. 21).

In Acts Luke uses the word share to mean either “ministry” (1:17) or “participation in salvation” (26:18). The latter option seems the best application here. Peter condemns Simon as one who does not have Christ’s salvation. But then Peter, who has just consigned him and his money to hell, calls Simon to repentance (vv. 23-24), which is a command typically delivered to the unregenerate (2:38; 3:19; 17:30; 26:20).

Peter knew Simon was in extreme danger because his heart was so corrupt before God. Rather than possessing a humble faith that receives God’s good gifts, Simon thought he could manipulate, control, and pay God off. Such wickedness, which was exposed in his question, was met with Peter’s gracious and stern exhortation (see vv. 23-24). Peter perceives that Simon is poisoned in hostility (“bitterness,” see Deut 29:18) and enslaved to sin (“bound by wickedness”). He tells him to pray, without presuming on God’s grace (“if possible”), and to ask the Lord for forgiveness. Simon then responds in what seems to be sincerity (v. 24).

This event teaches us two important lessons.

1. The Holy Spirit isn’t for sale. The prerogative to give the Holy Spirit belongs to God. We can’t purchase salvation or the gifts of God. He isn’t our personal genie; he’s our omnipotent Lord. That means our money, social status, and talents cannot save us or cause God to appoint us to positions in his kingdom. Salvation is a gift from God by faith in Jesus Christ (15:11), and our spiritual gifts, which should be used to serve the church, are gifts from God that are distributed according to his perfect will (1 Cor 12:11). True influence in the kingdom should be sought, but we should do it Jesus’s way for Jesus’s glory. This involves humble faith, courageous hope, hard work, sacrificial love, and hearts continually enthralled with the grace of God.

2. We really should marvel at God’s amazing grace. I feel a degree of sympathy for Simon, since he was rooted deeply in paganism and trying—at least at some level—to understand Christianity. It saddens me that he didn’t realize that the gospel frees a person from addiction to self and possessions. It makes one honest and generous. But where I can’t feel sorry for Simon is when I realize that his lack of understanding happened in part just because he was so interested in his own glory and power.

What a gift he received in Peter’s rebuke! He was offered a chance to repent and beforgiven. This is grace.

Simon’s case is different from the Ananias and Sapphira situation (5:1-11), in which the hypocritical couple was immediately judged. Perhaps the couple’s sin was dealt with more harshly because it was premeditated while Simon’s sin was committed at least in part by ignorance. Whatever the differentiation may be, Simon was graciously given a second chance. That’s why his story should make us repent and say, “God have mercy on us. Thank you, Lord, for your patience with us.” What a marvelous Savior we have in Jesus!

The Apostles: More Preaching of the Gospel

Acts 8:25

After the episode with Simon, the apostles went back to Jerusalem. En route, they did more gospel preaching “in many villages of the Samaritans.” Their focus reminds us that we should imitate their unceasing efforts at proclamation.

Gospel Applications

Allow me to draw some big ideas from this text.

Proclaim the gospel. Philip, Peter, and John preached the gospel of Jesus Christ. The gospel is “the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes” (Rom 1:16). It’s not enough simply to “live out the gospel.” We must proclaim and explain it. In the pulpit, at our workplaces, around our dinner tables, wherever we are, we must tell about the goodness of God, explain the truth about sin, and draw attention to the glorious redemption we have in Jesus Christ. Recall what Paul told the Corinthians:

For since, in God’s wisdom, the world did not know God through wisdom, God was pleased to save those who believe through the foolishness of what is preached. (1 Cor 1:21)

So preach Christ! Consider how to communicate the gospel comprehensibly to your culture.

Proclaim the gospel in various situations. Philip and the persecuted Jerusalem Christians leveraged their scattering for the progress of the gospel. On the way back to Jerusalem, Peter and John stopped to preach the gospel to “many villages.” This is a reminder of our need to live with gospel intentionality. The church is made up of mothers, servers, bankers, salespeople, cooks, students, athletes, police officers, and many ­others—each of whom should adopt the posture of a missionary. In all that you do, no matter your role, ask, How can I proclaim and teach Christ in this situation?

God desires that you be deliberate about sharing the gospel with your children, coworkers, customers, teammates, and colleagues. In some situations this may mean you gradually bear witness to Christ in how you live with the aim of sharing the good news when someone asks what’s different about you. Or—and in many cases—it may mean you need to look for and take advantage of direct opportunities to describe to others the good news and Christ’s impact in your life. Evangelism should be a thread woven throughout our daily lives. We must be deliberate about leveraging our lives for the progress of the gospel.

Praise God for his work of salvation among the nations. Thank God for this wonderful narrative about the power and progress of the gospel at work among the Samaritans. It subtly reminds us to repent of any prejudices toward those some think are less worthy of salvation than others. May we pray for the faith to believe that no one is beyond the reach of God’s saving grace. And may we willingly share that good news with the people whose lives intersect with our own.

Reflect and Discuss

  1. Describe a time when you experienced persecution for your Christian faith. In what ways was God’s mission advanced or hindered by persecution in the first century?
  2. How is Acts 8:4-25 related to 1:8? Why is this significant?
  3. Why did God delay pouring out his Spirit on the Samaritan believers? Why was this important? What lessons might we learn from this unique event?
  4. What does this story teach about preaching Christ?
  5. What disappoints you about the character of Simon? Why?
  6. Do you think Simon had genuine faith in Christ? Why or why not?
  7. Recall how Peter sharply called Simon to repentance. Why is repentance important?
  8. Compare Luke 9:52-54 with Acts 8:14-25 and consider the change in the apostle John. How was his opinion of the Samaritans changed? How can you cultivate love for the unlovable?
  9. Why is Acts 8:4-25 a good illustration of Matthew 28:18-20?
  10. Pause to pray for opportunities to share the gospel this week. List three specific actions you can take to convey the good news of salvation through Christ to others.