Acts 8:4-24

A Bible Study Led by Dr. Larry Reynolds

April 2, 2009 

The book of Acts tells the story of the birth, development, and growth of the church.  The church described in the book of Acts is very different from the institution we call “church” in our culture in several ways: 

·         In Acts the church was not a building.  Those who made up the church sometimes met in public places such as Solomon’s portico in the temple in Jerusalem (see Acts 4:11; 5:12) and most of the time met in private homes (see Acts 2:46; Romans 16:5; Colossians 4:15).

·         In Acts the church was not so much an organization as a fellowship.  While the early church did have some structure (see Acts 6:1-6), the focus was not so much on structure as on relationships (see Acts 2:44; 4:32). 

·         In Acts the church was not casual or flippant about relationship with God.  Instead, there was a pervasive sense of reverence and awe toward God (see Acts 2:43; 4:24ff; 5:11).

·         In Acts the church was not an anemic institution in which everything that occurred could be explained in terms of human effort.  It was a fellowship characterized by miraculous events which could only be attributed to the work of God (see Acts 2:43; 3:1ff; 4:31; 5:12, 16; 17-18).

·         In Acts the church was not focused inward but outward.  While those who made up the early church looked after each other, they understood their primary mission was to take the good news of Jesus to the entire world.  At every opportunity they proclaimed Jesus! (see Acts 2:14ff; 3:12ff; 4:8ff; 5:25,29ff; 6:10).


At the beginning of this study, we saw that Acts 1:8 is the thesis sentence of the book and provides us a broad outline or table of contents of what is to follow.  In Acts 1:8 Jesus told His disciples, “…you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be My witnesses both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and even to the remotest part of the earth.”  The book of Acts tells the story of how that happened.

·         Acts 1:1 – 8:3 tells primarily of the witness in Jerusalem

·         Acts 8:4 – 11:18 tells primarily of the witness in Samaria and the coastal regions of Judea

·         Acts 11:19 – 28:31 tells primarily of the witness beyond Jerusalem, Judea, and Samaria


In this session we are going to begin looking at the second major section of Acts which tells primarily of the witness in Samaria and the coastal regions of Judea.  During the period of time covered in this section (which some scholars estimate to have occurred between 35-44 A.D.) three major transitions begin to occur in the church.

1.      The witness of the church begins to shift from strictly Jewish people to primarily Gentile people.

2.      The center of the church begins to shift from Jerusalem to Antioch of Syria.

3.      The key leader of the church begins to shift from Peter to Paul.

None of these transitions were absolute.  The church still tried to evangelize Jewish people, Jerusalem still was an important center of activity, and Peter still was a key leader.  But during this era, a gradual shift toward Gentiles, Antioch, and Paul can be detected.


This section of this Acts focuses on three people:

·         Acts 8:4-40 tells of the ministry of Phillip

·         Acts 9:1-32 tells of the conversion of Saul

·         Acts 9:33 – 11:18 tells of the work of Peter


The Witness of Phillip (Acts 8:4-40)

The New Testament identifies two people named Philip who were followers of Jesus.  One was Philip the apostle.  He was from the fishing village of Bethsaida along the shore of the Sea of Galilee (see John 1:43-46).  He is mentioned by name in Acts 1 in the list of those people who were in the upper room in Jerusalem in that pre-Pentecost prayer meeting.  The other Philip is introduced to us in Acts 6 as one of the seven who were selected to assist the apostles in the daily distribution of food to the needy.  Since Acts 8:2 tells us the apostles remained in Jerusalem after the death of Stephen, we can safely assume that the Philip we read about in Acts 8 who was ministering outside Jerusalem was not the apostle but the one introduced to us in Acts 6.  All that we know about him is that:

·         He was a Hellenistic (Greek speaking) Jew.

·         He had a house in Caesarea which is on the Mediterranean coast of Israel and was the Roman capital of the region.                                                                                                 

·         He had a passion for sharing the gospel.  He is called in Acts 21:8 “Philip the evangelist.”  The word means “one who announces glad tidings or good news.”  He is the only person in the book of acts who is given that title.

·         He had four daughters, all of whom are described in Acts 21:9 as virgins and prophetesses.


In Acts 8 we see Philip:

·         Proclaiming the good news to the Samaritans

·         Explaining the Scriptures to a man from Ethiopia

·         Preaching in the towns that dotted the Sharon Valley along the shore of the Mediterranean from just north of Gaza to his hometown of Caesarea

In this session we are going to focus on only the first of these three events.  It is an important event because it represents a significant breakthrough of the gospel to another people group.  To this point in time the focus of the church had been completely on Jews.  This was natural because all of the early believers were Jewish.  But it was more than natural; it was an integral part of God’s plan for the redemption of humanity.  As Paul put it in Romans 1:16, “…the gospel … is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.” 


The proclamation of Christ in Samaria (Acts 8:4-25)

Verse 4 describes one of the positive results of the persecution instigated by Saul.  The word translated “preaching” in this verse is the word from which our word “evangelize” comes.  It simply means “to announce good news.”


Verse 5 points to Philip as an example of one person who “when about preaching the word.”  Notice the verse says “Philip went down to the city of Samaria.”   Even though Samaria was north of Jerusalem and we would say “went up” to describe someone moving from south to north, the Scripture always describes going to Jerusalem in terms of “going up” and departing Jerusalem in terms of “going down.”  There are two reasons for that.  First, the elevation of Jerusalem is higher than the surrounding area.  To enter Jerusalem from any direction one must “go up.”  But I believe there is a spiritual reason for that as well.  Jerusalem was the central place of worship for Jews.  It was the location of the temple which symbolized the presence of God among them.  To go into the presence of God was to be an uplifting experience and to depart from that presence was to be a downward experience.


      It is difficult for us to understand the significance of Philip, a Jew, going to the Samaritans to tell them about Jesus.  There was a deeply engrained prejudice between the Jews and the Samaritans which had its roots deep in the history of Israel.  To understand this prejudice you have to have some understanding of the history of Israel.  When Israel became a monarchy, a succession of three kings ruled the nation:  Saul, David, and Solomon.  Shortly after the death of Solomon in about 975 B.C. Israel split into two nations.  The ten tribes to the north became known as the Northern Kingdom which is sometimes referred to as Israel.  The two tribes to the south became known as the Southern Kingdom which is sometimes referred to as Judah.  In 722 B.C. the Northern Kingdom was conquered by the Assyrians.  Many of the people were taken off into exile never to return.  Foreigners came into the land and began to intermarry with the Jews were still remained in the north.  The Samaritans were the descendants of these people who intermarried with foreigners.  The people in the Southern Kingdom, which was conquered by the Babylonians in 587 B.C., always looked down on the Jews in the north whom they considered half-breeds and unclean.  By the 1st century the contempt between the two groups was deeply engrained in the Jewish psyche.   

·         When Jews were traveling from southern Israel to northern Israel or visa versa, they would go miles out of their way to avoid going through Samaria.

·         Two of Jesus’ disciples, James and John (the apostle of love, no less!) were perfectly willing for God to reign down fire on a Samaritan village they felt had slighted Jesus.

·         When Jesus told the parable of the good Samaritan, the thing about the story that is so amazing is that the Samaritan turned out to be the hero.  To the average Jew, the phrase “good Samaritan” was an oxymoron.

So, when Philip shared the gospel with people in Samaria, he was making a startling break with deeply engrained tradition.


Verses 6-8 indicate that the message Philip shared in Samaria was well received by the multitudes.  Both the words and actions of Philip were powerful.  He proclaimed the word about Jesus verbally and he demonstrated the power of the Spirit through attesting miracles such as casting out demons and healing those with physical ailments.  The result was there was must rejoicing among the Samaritans.


Verses 9-13 introduce to us a man who has come to be known as Simon the magician.  Through slight of hand, dabbling in the occult, and perhaps the use of hallucinogenic drugs, Simon had convinced the people that he had special powers  Verse 10 says they referred to him as “…the Great Power of God…” and no doubt Simon did not discourage such talk.  However, even he was impressed by what he heard and saw in Philip.  Verse 13 says “And even Simon himself believed…” and was baptized.  That probably means either:

·         He merely professed belief in Jesus to learn the secret of Philip’s power.  Perhaps he saw Philip as a rival who was undermining his place with the people, and he wanted to make sure he kept up with the competition.

·         He believed in the sense that he recognized the spiritual power accompanying Philip’s ministry, but his belief was not a genuine saving faith in Jesus.

Whatever the case was, his interest in the gospel seems to have been more professional than personal.  In light of what we read about him in verses 18-24, it is not likely that he was a true believer in Jesus.


Verses 14-17 – When the news got back to the apostles in Jerusalem that people in Samaria were becoming followers of Christ, this was such a radical departure from the cultural norm they were steeped in, and investigation was ordered.  Peter and John were sent to Samaria to check out what was happening.  They discovered that the Holy Spirit “…had not yet fallen on them…”  That does not mean the Holy Spirit was not involved in their conversion.  He was the One who convicted them of sin and called them to faith in Christ.  There is no indication in this passage that they were not genuinely saved, and there is no salvation apart from the work of the Holy Spirit.  But they had not yet received the fullness of the Holy Spirit as the apostles and other early believers did at Pentecost.  The apostles viewed this as an abnormal state for believers and immediately took steps to correct it.


As I’ve shared with you before, I understand the Scripture to teach that those who are genuine believers in Jesus have the Holy Spirit dwelling in them.  I base that view on biblical statements such as:

·         Romans 8:9 – “However, you are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God dwells in you.  But if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Him.”

·         1 Corinthians 6:19 – “Or do you not know that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and that you are not your own.”

·         1 Corinthians 12:13 – “For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free, and we are all made to drink of one Spirit.”

However, in the book of Acts we see the Holy Spirit falling in a special way on certain groups and individuals.  This is especially true each time the gospel breaks through another barrier.  In Acts 1:8 the disciples were commissioned to be witnesses to the Jews (Jerusalem and all Judea), the Samaritans (Samaria), and the Gentiles (to the remotest parts of the earth).  As the story of the spread of the gospel unfolds in Acts, we see the Holy Spirit falling on a special way on each of those three groups—the Jews in Acts 2, the Samaritans in Acts 8, and the Gentiles in Acts 10. 

Verses 18-24 – When Simon the magician saw the power or the fullness of the Holy Spirit come upon these new converts when Peter and John laid hands on them, he requested of Peter to purchase the power to impart the Holy Spirit as he thought Peter and John had done.  The request itself shows the lack of spiritual understanding of Simon.  One writer says of him:

He was confused about grace.  He thought he could buy God’s favor.

He was confused about power.  He couldn’t see the difference between the power of the occult, magic, and superstition and the power of the Holy Spirit.

He was confused about ministry.  He saw the work of the apostles as another kind of showmanship.  If he had the formula, he could do it too!

He was confused about the Holy Spirit’s work.  His entrepreneurial mind saw it as a way to get rich, influence people, and satisfy his ego.  [The Smart Guide to the Bible Series:  The Book of Acts, Robert Girard]


It was not Peter and John who caused the Holy Spirit to come upon the Samaritans.  It was God.  The act of laying on of hands was not necessary for the fullness of the Spirit to be experienced.  After all, at Pentecost in Acts 2 or the filling of the Spirit mentioned in Acts 4:31, or the Gentiles receiving the Spirit in Acts 10, the act of laying on of hands is not mentioned.  The fullness of the Spirit is a gift from God (see verse 20).


Simon attempted to bribe the wrong person.  Peter strongly rebuked him.  Whether Simon ever truly repented or whether he became a genuine believer we do not know.  Nothing else is said of him in Scripture.


Practical Application of Acts 8:4-2

1.      The appropriate response to times of difficulty in our lives is not to feel sorry for ourselves.  It is to continue doing what the things the Lord wants us to do.  One person described the actions of the early Christians in this part of Acts this way:

      Ripped from their homes and families, probably having had their property confiscated, hounded out of town if they were lucky, and fleeing under cover of darkness if they were unlucky, followers of the Way ran from Jerusalem in every direction.  But they remained undaunted, counting themselves blessed to be able to suffer persecution for their Lord.  Everywhere they went, in their exodus from the Holy City, they preached.  If there were any regrets over their decision to follow Christ, they quickly worked through them and eagerly shared the good news with all they met. [Robert L. Maddox, Jr., Layman’s Bible Commentary] 

2.      The key to having genuine spiritual life and power is understanding its source.  Spiritual life comes from God.  W.T. Conner put it this way:

Spiritual life is not our attainment but God’s gift.  We do not achieve it; we receive it.  We do not earn it; we take it.  It is not a matter of works, inner or outer, it is a matter of faith.  It comes not by looking at our own hearts, but to the crucified living redeemer.