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"Simon the Magician"

MESSAGE FOR AUGUST 8, 2010 FROM ACTS 8:9-25

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          This week, we move into a fascinating account from Luke chapter eight.  The narrative raises many difficult theological questions and questions of interpretation, but we can avoid much confusion if we—before we even read the text, see Luke’s big picture.  When Luke or any of the Biblical narrative writers record an event or series of events, we must try to look at it from two perspectives.  In addition to studying it line by line at the “tree” level, we must also see the forest—the big picture by asking the question, what is the big idea Luke is trying to communicate here?  And, how does this story serve his larger purpose?  When Biblical authors write letters like Acts or Old Testament history books, they write the book, not simply as a collection of random stories but, under the direction of the Holy Spirit, they write the book as an entire unit communicating one big message.  They have a very specific “big-picture message” they want to communicate from the whole book.  They don’t intend to give an exhaustive account of the events, like a court reporter who transcribes everything said in a court case.  Instead, they are very selective in choosing what accounts they record. They put down on paper only those accounts that most clearly contribute to their big message.         

     What’s so amazing about the Bible is that this book was written by over 40 authors over 1500 years.[1]  Yet with all of those different sources over all that time, under the direction of the Holy Spirit, the message of the Bible is seamless in its unity to communicate one big message. That is—it’s a history of redemption that reveals to us what God is like—his holiness, his grace, his love, his mercy, his patience, his justice, his wrath, etc…  All the accounts and doctrines recorded in the Bible serve that larger purpose—tell that larger story.

          Likewise, we must see how each book serves that larger purpose.  In Acts, it’s pretty clear how Luke serves that larger purpose.  After Jesus came and accomplished his mission of redemption, God commissions his apostles to, in the power of the Holy Spirit, continue Jesus’ ministry to bring the kingdom of God to this earth through the gospel.  All of that is rooted in his work of redemption on the cross.  Luke puts on display case after case where this gospel transforms lost people into new creatures—members of God’s new community of the Holy Spirit who begin living for God and revealing him in word and deed.  God’s redemptive story continues in Acts first in Jerusalem, then in Judea and Samaria and finally, the ends of the earth. 

When we keep the big picture of the Bible in mind, we are far less likely to err in our understanding of what each book means and in turn, how to understand each individual historical account in books like Acts.  That brings us to the text for today.  In chapter eight, Luke records a historical account of the gospel as it impacts a new group of people—the Samaritans.  The big picture Luke wants us to see is that the gospel is received in Samaria and gets the same initial response in Samaria as it did in Jerusalem.  The gospel is doing its work of redemption the same way in Samaria as it did in and around Jerusalem.  His big point is that the gospel of Jesus Christ, by the Holy Spirit redeems people, whether they are full blooded, doctrinally orthodox Jews like we saw in Jerusalem, or half-breed, doctrinally errant Jews like those we meet in Samaria.  The mission of redemption is continuing just as Jesus said it would, based on his redemptive work on the cross that is for people of every stripe.  Whenever Luke records the spread of the gospel into a new area and the kingdom of God comes among those people, that is his big or “forest” message.  That big picture understanding guides our understanding as we work to get the message at “tree” level.

          So when we see in Acts chapter eight a great harvest with many people receiving and believing the gospel and receiving the Holy Spirit—that sounds just like Jerusalem in chapters two through four.  But in both areas of gospel penetration, Jerusalem and Samaria, after initial success and celebration, a dark shadow begins to fall.  In chapter five, in the midst of this great harvest there, we see this in the story of Ananias and Sapphira—two people who profess to be saved and who in many ways resemble those who are being saved, but who act wickedly in ways that no one else around them does.  Luke records that they are  harshly judged for their behavior  when confronted with their sin.  Luke’s wants us to see that in the midst of all of this Holy Spirit work in and around Jerusalem, not everything is peaches and cream.  It’s not clean and neat in places—it’s pretty messy in fact and God through his apostle Peter must come in and speak harsh words of judgment to purify the church and incite the people to fear God.  He wants them and us to remember that in the midst of God’s incredible displays of mercy and grace in pouring out his Spirit, that he is still holy—still hates sin and will act to judge it harshly.

            Luke also clearly spells out in chapter five that the root cause of Ananias and Sapphire’s sin was the influence of Satan.  Why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit…?”   The account in chapter eight here serves the same purpose and fits the same patter.  Our text for this morning teaches us that, just as Satan was at work in the infant church in Jerusalem, so he was here in Samaria.  Although Satan is never mentioned in our text by name, we’ll see that it’s clear where the dark cloud originates--directly from Satan.  As he did in Jerusalem, Satan makes his appearance in Samaria soon after the Holy Spirit arrives.  Luke wants us to see that just as the response to the gospel in Jerusalem was not pure, neither is it in Samaria. In proud, arrogant Jerusalem, the cultural sin—Satan’s main stronghold in that culture was spiritual pride—they were Hebrews of the Hebrews in Jerusalem.  They had all the right spiritual credentials—they lived in the holy city, after all. 

So, when Ananias and Sapphira come on the scene, they believe the gospel message, but they allow themselves to be influenced by Satan and when it comes down to it, they were more concerned with how they appeared spiritually than with the glory of God.  They showed that they were still in bondage to the spirit of the world and God judges them for it.  In Samaria, the same thing happens.  When the “villain” in this story, Simon the magician receives the gospel message, he believes it.  But soon after, his attitudes and behaviors show that Satan still has  influence over him because he defaults to the cultural sin of Samaria—Satan’s main stronghold in that culture was syncretism.  Syncretism is an unholy mixing of genuine spirituality with lies and false spirituality.  The Samaritans were a mixed bag from the beginning.  They mixed Biblical teaching with elements of false and occult religions.  They read the Bible with one hand and tea leaves and horoscopes with the other.  So, Simon illustrates the fact that---just like in Jerusalem, whenever the gospel is given, there are differing responses and some of those responses indicate the activity of the adversary.  And, just as he did in Acts chapter five, God judges that sin once again to publicly purge the evil from the church and to demonstrate that God’s holiness has not been lost in all his grace and mercy.  Simon is made a public example of God’s harsh judgment.  Luke shows us the same dynamic when the gospel later spreads among the Gentiles in chapter 13.  It is a kingdom reality that where God is genuinely moving, there Satan is working to oppose God.

With that big picture of Luke’s as a lens through which to read this account, let’s read it beginning with verse nine.  As we saw last week, Philip has been preaching the gospel and many Samaritans are being saved and healed and delivered—there is much joy.  And just like in chapter four, when God was moving so powerfully, Luke signals a change in the wind by opening the Ananias and Sapphira section with, “But a man named Ananias,…”  Luke opens this section in chapter eight by saying, “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.”

“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.”

As I look at this text, I see three snapshots of Simon, all of which show Satan’s influence on him.  First is the snapshot in verses nine through 11 where we see Simon’s self-centered delight over his spiritual reputation.   Simon as a magician had spiritual power and spiritual power is one of the main themes that unify this account.  In the first section here, we see Simon practicing god-like power through his magic.  In the next section, Simon is coveting the superior spiritual power of God. Finally, in the third section, we see a picture of fear as Simon is terrorized by the threat of God’s power in judgment being unleashed against him.  Luke tells us that Simon was a magician.  The Bible in both testaments condemns magic as satanic.  I am not speaking of those who do card tricks or other illusions—this magic involves reliance on dark and evil powers.  We know of the witch of Endor in 1 Samuel 28.  We remember that Moses overpowered the pagan sorcerers of Egypt.  Magic and sorcery are forbidden in many places like Deuteronomy 18. 
           Verse ten says, “10 There shall not be found among you anyone … who practices divination or tells fortunes or interprets omens, or a sorcerer … 12 for whoever does these things is an abomination to the LORD. And because of these abominations the LORD your God is driving them out before you… “   The pagans had spiritually empowered witches and sorcerers and the power did not come from God, but Satan.  Magicians were members of the occult and clearly were—whether knowingly or not, tools of Satan.  Here in this first section, Luke makes it clear, not only that Simon had real spiritual power, but that he was pretty pleased about what his power brought him.  Verse nine says he “…amazed the people of Samaria, saying that he himself was somebody great.  They all paid attention to him, from the least to the greatest saying, “This man is the power of God that is called Great.”    Simon had an impressive spiritual reputation among these pagans.
          Many scholars believe that Simon is actually claiming to be some sort of pagan god, here.  A second century believer suggested that Simon was claiming to be “the Avatar”, or the incarnation of a male pagan deity who was worshipped in this area at the time.[2]  (Perhaps you didn’t know that Avatar was a pagan god—maybe it will help you understand a bit more about the movie). The truth is—if it’s not an outright claim to be a god, it comes very close to that.  Simon is clearly charged with satanic spiritual power and he used that power to promote himself as somebody great.  The Samaritans obliged him by believing he was someone great—in fact, someone supernatural.  Notice the stark contrast between Philip and Simon.  Philip consistently points people to Jesus Christ.  He stands squarely in his shadow.  Simon, on the other hand, is a master of self-promotion and he clearly basked in the attention and adulation he received as being known as a mysterious god-like figure who had great power.[3] 
          A second snap shot we see of Simon is in verses 12-19 and is—Simon’s self-centered desire for genuine, God-like spiritual power.  We see that when Philip came on the scene, there was a rapid change of focus in this part of Samaria.  Philip comes and “preaches the good news about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ” and many were baptized—both men and women and Simon himself believes and is baptized.  Luke doesn’t tell us anything explicit about the sincerity of Simon’s belief at this point, just that he believed. Simon continued on with Philip, but there is no explicit mention of discipleship, only that he accompanied Philip in his ministry. As he spent time with Philip and watched the signs and wonders that accompanied his ministry, “he was amazed.”  Simon—who himself amazed the people and who was called “the power of God that is called Great” would have been tough to impress, but its clear that he sees God doing through Philip things that amaze him as much as he amazed the Samaritans.  Its clear to him that he is watching a whole different realm of spiritual power at work here.  It’s significant that Luke uses the same word for amaze as he used for what the people had for him.  This was amazement over the raw spiritual power being poured out.  There is no indication that it was awe and wonderment at the goodness and mercy of God—no sense of joyous celebration at the healings and deliverances, just bedazzled amazement at the raw power he saw.

          At this time, the apostles come on the scene—Peter and John. They had heard from Jerusalem that “Samaria had received the word of God”  and they came to verify that this was the same redemptive activity through the gospel they had seen and been a part of in Jerusalem.  Because this was a new area of gospel penetration, it was important that the apostles come and look it over. If it was phony, they would need to renounce it to keep others from deception.  If it was real, their blessing would allow others know that God had genuinely broken out in Samaria through the gospel.  Their visit was even more important because in this initial evangelistic advance into Samaria, God does something unusual.  He allows the people to believe the gospel without receiving the Spirit.  However that was made known, the apostles clearly get to Samaria and pray and lay hands on these converts who are then filled with the Spirit and must have outwardly manifest that in some way that Luke doesn’t bother naming. 

           A good question is—why is this move of God in Samaria in two stages?  Why is this different that what we see in most every other occurrence in Acts and clearly departs from Paul’s teaching in places like Galatians 3:2? “2 Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith?”  That tells us that the normative way in which the Spirit comes is through the hearing of faith. These Samaritans had heard and believed, but hadn’t received the Spirit.  Why?  Clearly this was intentional on God’s part and not some sort of cosmic accident.  The reason probably relates to the relationship between the Jews and the Samaritans.  These two groups had been in fierce opposition for centuries.  So what does God do to powerfully affirm the authenticity of this very unlikely move of God?  He waits to send the Spirit until the apostles come on the scene and the Samaritans receive the Spirit in response to their prayer.  That certainly would have given a powerful testimony of their spiritual authenticity and would have allowed the apostles to have an eye-witness testimony of God’s work in Samaria.

          What’s interesting is that when the Samaritans believed, Luke explicitly mentions that Simon too believes.  But with the giving of the Spirit, Luke does not explicitly mention that Simon shares in that.  What it does say is that when the Spirit was given, Simon went nuts over this display of spiritual power.  This was better than all the signs and wonders he had seen.  For a prayer to incite a clear movement of the Holy Spirit—for a group of men and women to be reborn by the Spirit of God was a greater miracle than all the deliverances and healings he had seen.  Where he shows the wretched condition of his heart is in his response to this.  Rather than praise God for the conversion of all these Samaritans who had gone from death to life, his very first response is to covet this awesome spiritual power.  “I gotta’ have some of that!” Luke tells us he offered the apostles money, saying, “Give me this power also, so that anyone on whom I lay my hands may receive the Holy Spirit.”  His first response is NOT to praise God for new life out of death, but instead—he gets out his wallet and wants to do a deal on the power of the Holy Spirit.

          Just as in the first snap shot, Simon is all about Simon.  Forget about the fact that God had reached Samaria, that place that had been so polluted with demonic lies and counterfeit religion.  As a former purveyor of that counterfeit religion, no one should have been more thankful for God’s cleansing and redeeming work than Simon--now, the Spirit of Truth had been poured out!  But no, it was about his covetous desire to have the power.  Peter and John prayed down God’s Spirit for the glory of Christ, but Luke wants us to see that Simon is still all about Simon—being called “the power that is called Great.”  If he could have the saving power of God, he would be even more easily identified with deity.  This was of course a blasphemous desire and Peter’s rebuke is very harsh and that brings us to the third snapshot.  That is—Simon’s desperate need of God’s transforming power.  Peter is greatly troubled by Simon’s proposition and his words sound much closer to condemnation for wickedness than loving discipline over a sinful lapse in judgment.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.”

          J.B Phillips paraphrase is not far off the mark of Peter’s intended message.  That is—“to hell with you and your money!”[4]  Peter calls on him to repent of his sin, but doesn’t give him any assurance of forgiveness if he repents, only a faint whiff of hope—“if possible, the intent of your heart be forgiven you.”  Twice Peter mentions the dark condition of Simon’s heart—that it wasn’t right with God.  That would be curious language if Simon had just received a new heart through the Holy Spirit.  In verse 20, the literal translation of Peter’s words are, “Your money with you—may it be to you destruction…”  That word translated there “destruction” refers to judgment and a curse.[5]  This is not something you could easily imagine an apostle saying to a brand new, Spirit-indwelt believer.  Peter tells him he’s still in the “gall of bitterness” and the “bond of iniquity.”  His heart is wrong—no change--and he is still in bondage to sin. It would be hard to imagine any more harsh verbal rebuke—there is only the slightest hint of grace and much judgment here.

          Simon responds to this situation where God’s power is now conveyed as means of judgment pointed at him and he is one scared former magician.  In verses 22, Peter tells Simon to pray for mercy, but Simon responds in verse 24, “Pray for me to the Lord, that nothing of what you have said may come true upon me.  He doesn’t do what Peter asks.  Again, we see this is all about Simon.  There’s no indication of remorse over his deep offense to God by trying to purchase what only God can give away.  There’s no admission of guilt here.  He’s only concerned that nothing bad happen to him.  Simon makes no more appearances on the pages of Scripture—we don’t know what happened to him, but the lessons his life can teach us remain very important.

          The first lesson is taken from the big picture view of this text.  That is—wherever God is active in a ministry, Satan will invariably attempt to destroy it.  This is true in Jerusalem with Ananias and Sapphira in Jerusalem, for Simon in Samaria and Elymas the magician who tries to thwart Paul in Acts 13 shortly after the Gentiles receive and believe the gospel.  If God is with you and his power is made manifest.  If God is glorified in your ministry—if people are being saved—if the gospel is going out, then mark it down, Satan will quickly appear on the scene.  He has several dirty tricks in his bag.  He may try to divide the ministry by aggravating interpersonal conflicts and weaknesses—he may work to undermine the leadership through temptation or coaxing others to believe lies about them.  He may just hit those in ministry with an onslaught of Job-like trials and tribulations.  His appearance may take many forms, but he will show up. In fact, if you are in a ministry that is not receiving opposition, you can almost assuredly know that you are not doing anything significant for God.

          That’s what makes the American church such an easy field of conquest for Satan in so many cases because, many ministries here operate by the credo—If its hard, then God may not be in it.  If your agenda is to have a ministry that always runs with peak efficiency and without any snafus or disappointments or impediments, don’t bother because if that happens, your ministry is not making any eternal difference.  In this life, there is a fight to be fought.  Satan does not give up his ground easily.  I have a hunch that, along with the wonderful testimonies we will hear about this week’s ministry in Grand Portage, we will hear more than a few stories of people who were almost to the point of giving up in despair—of significant discouragement, of prayer meetings that seemed almost dead for awhile, of relationships that were worn down to the point of conflict and perhaps even some bizarre happenings.  If we don’t hear some of those accounts, then I for one will question whether anything of importance happens here.

          You don’t get to heaven without a fight.  In the letters to the seven churches, Jesus makes a wonderful promise of eternal life to each church, but he makes it to those who conquer and conquest implies a battle.  Heaven is a place for warriors who through their perseverance and trust in Christ overcome the devil and this fallen world.  Listen, Revelation 2:77 …To the one who conquers I will grant to eat of the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God.’ Revelation 2:11 “11…The one who conquers will not be hurt by the second death.’ Revelation 3:5  5 The one who conquers will be clothed thus in white garments, and I will never blot his name out of the book of life. I will confess his name before my Father and before his angels.”   The Greek word translated conquer is Nike—not a tennis shoe, but a way of life for the believer.  The point is NOT that we can’t suffer a defeat here and there.  The point is that there is a militant aspect of the Christian life that runs from beginning to the end and if we are seeing that element of spiritual reality, that is not a good sign for our soul.

          A second lesson taken from the text is simply this—not everyone who says they are a believer is a believer.  Simon believed—Luke says that plainly.  Yet, his subsequent behavior reveals him to be a phony.  Had Luke said clearly he received the Holy Spirit, then our point of application would be different because the Holy Spirit is what seals a believer according to Paul in Ephesians.  That is, the Spirit shows God’s seal of ownership of us and it is the down payment of the full blessings of eternity in the believer.  It cannot be lost.  But not everyone who “believes” is a believer because as we have seen before, there is a faith that is a gift of God and saves and a man-based faith that doesn’t save.  The faith that saves is accompanied by a new heart with new desires and more of an inclination toward God and less of an inclination toward ME.  If you believe, but it has made no difference in your life, then the story of Simon should scream at you to get that straight today.  Now, God through his Spirit woos you by his grace, but one day, he will harshly rebuke and condemn those who don’t clearly trust in him and display that at least in some way.  May God give us the grace to live as conquerors who know God, who know our enemy and who know the condition of our souls for our joy and God’s glory.


[1] http://www.christiananswers.net/kids/amzbk-0.html

[2] IVP Bible Background Commentary:  New Testament—1993. Electronic version

[3] Bock, Luke, 327.

[4] As quoted in Bock, Luke, p.333

[5] Bock, Luke, 333.

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