Acts 8:14-17

Acts 8:14‑17  •  17 min. read  •  grade level: 10
The tidings of God's gracious work in Samaria could not but make a powerful impression on all saints; and of these none would estimate its importance so deeply as the personal companions and most honored servants of the Lord in Jerusalem. His will and glory, as well as love to the objects of His grace that they might be blessed more abundantly, drew their hearts to the spot where God had wrought so manifestly. Indeed the Lord risen (Acts 1:88But ye shall receive power, after that the Holy Ghost is come upon you: and ye shall be witnesses unto me both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea, and in Samaria, and unto the uttermost part of the earth. (Acts 1:8)) had specially named Samaria as a scene of future testimony for the disciples. What a contrast with Jews having no intercourse with Samaritans!
“Now when the apostles that were in Jerusalem heard that Samaria had received the word of God, they sent unto them Peter and John, the which, on coming down, prayed for them that they might receive [the] Holy Spirit; for as yet he had fallen upon none of them: only they had got baptized unto the name of the Lord Jesus. Then they laid their hands upon them, and they received [the] Holy Spirit” (ver. 14-17).
Some important principles of truth are illustrated here.
The independency of congregationalism is shown to be as far as possible from the will of God. There was no holding aloof on the part of the chiefs in Jerusalem, though we hear of no request for their intervention on the part of the Samaritans. The apostles felt as members of the one body of Christ for the fresh objects of divine grace; and yet the chosen future exponent of that great mystery was still in his sins and unbelief.
Nor was there the smallest jealousy in Philip, because other servants of Christ came whose place in the assembly was so much higher than his own. The “way of surpassing excellence” as yet prevailed; and as the members generally had the same care one for another, in none did this appear so conspicuously as in those whom God set in the church first: for Christ's sake and according to His word they were in the midst of them serving as bond-men. Nothing was farther from the heart of the chiefs who ruled, than on the one hand to be called Rabbi, Father, and Master, or on the other to affect the lordly patronizing of the Gentiles. It was on all sides the power of the life of Christ.
Again, it will be noticed that the apostles send two of their number, not James (son of Alphaeus) and Thaddaeus, nor Simon Can. and Matthias, but their unquestionably choicest pair, Peter and John. Can any believer be so dull as to conceive that this had no far-reaching purpose in the mind of Him who dwells in the assembly and knows the end from the beginning and would give the sure light of His word to such as look to Him for guidance? Not even Satan, I am bold to think, yet indulged in the dream of an exclusive1 chair for Peter's direction of the church as a whole; still less of a present throne in command of the powers that be, with a triple crown of pretensions over heaven, earth, and hell. On the contrary, without a thought of these vanities of ecclesiastical ambition and most profane assumption, the apostles in love and wisdom send, to those that had received the word of God in Samaria, Peter and John. Who better qualified, were it needed, to judge and report truly? or who could be the bearer of better blessings from on high? or who in fine be more jealous for the glory of the “one Shepherd,” in dealing with these “other sheep” which were not of the Jewish “fold?”
And what could more become servants of Christ when they did come down? They “prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit.” God had hitherto withheld this, the great and characteristic privilege of the Christian. But the apostles in Jerusalem were in the current of His will and ways. And Peter and John on the spot perceived the lack and spread it out before God, not out of doubtful mind, but reckoning on His faithfulness to make good the promise of the Spirit. Even at Pentecost Peter was led to look beyond the Jews and their children to all that were afar off, as many as the Lord their God might call to Him. “For as yet He was fallen upon none of them: only they had got baptized unto the name of the Lord Jesus.”
So plainly then is the situation laid before us, that doubt is inexcusable. On the one hand these Samaritans believed the word, as they were also thereon baptized; on the other hand not one of them had as yet been sealed with the Holy Spirit of promise, which the Jewish saints had at once received on the day of Pentecost in Jerusalem. Yet from the days of the so-called fathers down to the Reformers, and hence till our own day, not merely the superstitious but men beyond most for godliness, ability and learning, as to this seem at sea, as if they had no chart. It is indeed one of those deep blanks in traditional theology (Catholic or Protestant, Arminian or Calvinist, being here almost equally at fault) which involves incalculable loss practically as well as in spiritual intelligence, and is nowhere more felt than in the worship of God. The soul's entrance into the truth has commensurate blessing in its train, as those know who have made the transition from ignorance of this truth into the enjoyment of it.
Thus Chrysostom (Cramer's Cat. Pat. iii. 136) and Cecumenius speak of the Samaritan converts receiving the Spirit for remission! but not for signs: a manifest departure from Scripture, which never designates the first vital work of the Spirit in the soul as “the gift of the Spirit,” nor consequently as a question of “reception” (compare Acts 2:38; 19:238Then Peter said unto them, Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost. (Acts 2:38)
2He said unto them, Have ye received the Holy Ghost since ye believed? And they said unto him, We have not so much as heard whether there be any Holy Ghost. (Acts 19:2)
But, leaving the Fathers, one must content the reader with J. Calvin's remarks as well as J. Light-foot's as a sufficient sample. The former are purposely cited from Beveridge's edition of the early English Version given in the series of the Calvin Translation Society (Acts i. 338, 9). “But here ariseth a question, for he saith that they were only baptized into the name of Christ, and that therefore they had not as yet received the Holy Ghost; but baptism must either be in vain and without grace, or else it must have all the force which it hath from the Holy Chest. In baptism we are washed from our sins; Paul teaches that our washing is the work of the Holy Ghost (Titus 3:55Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to his mercy he saved us, by the washing of regeneration, and renewing of the Holy Ghost; (Titus 3:5)). The water used in baptism is a sign of the blood of Christ; but Peter saith that it is the Spirit by whom we are washed with the blood of Christ (1 Peter 1:22Elect according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, through sanctification of the Spirit, unto obedience and sprinkling of the blood of Jesus Christ: Grace unto you, and peace, be multiplied. (1 Peter 1:2)). Our old man is crucified in baptism that we may be raised up in newness of life (Rom. 6:66Knowing this, that our old man is crucified with him, that the body of sin might be destroyed, that henceforth we should not serve sin. (Romans 6:6)); and whence cometh all this save only from the sanctification of the Spirit? And finally what shall remain in baptism of it be separate from the Spirit (Gal. 3:2727For as many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ. (Galatians 3:27))? Therefore we must not deny but that the Samaritans, who had put on Christ indeed in baptism, had also His Spirit given them (!); and surely Luke speaks not in this place of the common grace of the Spirit whereby God doth regenerate us, that we may be His children, but of these singular gifts wherewith God would have certain endued at the beginning of the gospel to beautify Christ's Kingdom. Thus must the words of John be understood, that the disciples had not the Spirit given them as yet, for as much as Christ was yet conversant in the world; not that they were altogether destitute of the Spirit, seeing that they had from the same both faith and godly desire to follow Christ; but because they were not furnished with these excellent gifts wherein appeared afterward greater glory of Christ's kingdom. To conclude, forasmuch as the Samaritans were already endued with the Spirit of adoption, the excellent graces of the Spirit are heaped upon them, in which God showed to His church, for a time as it were, the visible presence of His Spirit, that He might establish forever the authority of His gospel, and also testify that His Spirit shall be always the governor and director of the faithful.”
This is enough to show where pious and enlightened men are in general as to the truth of the Spirit and indeed of redemption also. They are not aware that the gift (δωρεά) of the Spirit, whilst over and above that communication of life which is common to all saints in Old and New Testament days, is at the same time quite distinct from the gifts (χαρόσματα,) and more especially from powers and tongues, the sign-gifts which the Spirit distributed in honor of the risen Lord Jesus when inaugurating that new thing, the church the body of Christ, here below. Nor is Christian baptism a sign of life, but rather of sins washed away and of death to sin with Christ. That is, it is a sign of salvation, the demand before God of a good conscience by the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, the present clearance of a Christian, and not merely what the heir had in his nonage under law. Then it was a perfectly sure promise, now full accomplishment for the soul (1 Peter 1:99Receiving the end of your faith, even the salvation of your souls. (1 Peter 1:9)) which baptism expresses as a figure. But this is quite distinct from the Spirit, given to the believer as the seal of redemption and earnest of the inheritance; and this distinction in particular the great French Reformer ignored, as people do to this day. Hence in his great anxiety to guard against sacramentalism (though even here his language is unsafe and has been used for evil by men of that school), he lowers the reception of the Spirit to transient displays of energy and thus involves himself in hopeless antagonism to scripture. The words of John (xiv.-xvi.) go far beyond miracles, healings, or kinds of tongues. They are to be understood of the far different presence of the Paraclete Himself, who was to dwell with the disciples and be in them; and this is not “for a time as it were” but to abide forever.
The Samaritan believers were saints then, and children of God; but as yet they were not endued with the Spirit like the Old Testament saints who, though born of the Spirit, never received that great gift, which was not and could not he till redemption, when God sent forth the Spirit of His Son into hearts already renewed, crying, Abba, Father. No doubt sensible gifts then and for awhile accompanied the Spirit's presence thus vouchsafed; but we err greatly, if we either confound the gift with the gifts, or deny the new and abiding privilege with what all saints had before redemption.
A brief extract from what our learned Dr. Lightfoot says (viii. 125-128, Pitman's edition) will suffice. “The Holy Ghost thus given meaneth not his ordinary work of sanctification, and confirming grace; but His extraordinary gift of tongues, prophesying, and the like. And this is evident, by the meaning of that phrase, the Holy Ghost in the scriptures when it denoteth not exactly the person of the Holy-Ghost or the third person in the Trinity.” Here again we have the same confusion of God's new and distinctive endowment of the church, the ever abiding gift of the Holy Ghost, with the gifts, some of which took a visible form and others not. It is admitted that what is called “sanctification of the Spirit” (1 Peter 1:22Elect according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, through sanctification of the Spirit, unto obedience and sprinkling of the blood of Jesus Christ: Grace unto you, and peace, be multiplied. (1 Peter 1:2)) is different and previous; as it is that vital work of separating a soul to God which takes place in conversion or quickening, and therefore has always been and always must be, as long as God in His grace calls sinners to Himself from among men. This typically is what answered to the washing of the unclean in the Levitical figure: then followed the application of the blood of sacrifice; and lastly the anointing oil, which only is what the New Testament designates the reception of the Spirit, wholly distinct from the new birth (which answers to the water), the blood intermediately being the token of being brought under redemption. The gifts, however important in their place, were quite subordinate, and might be some of them but temporary, though all of course were in fall force when the Spirit was given at Pentecost.
Are Christians then grown wiser in our day? Let Dean Alford bear witness (The Greek Test., ii. 88, 89, fifth edit.), who like the rest, takes advantage of the accompanying gifts, which might be seen, to ignore the incomparably more momentous unseen gift of the Holy Ghost. Further, he cites the very remarks of Calvin as “too important to be omitted,” which we have seen to be a heap of confusion, that might with justice be exposed more unsparingly still, were this the task in hand. They all agree in the great error of reducing the gift of the Holy Spirit to the outward “miraculous gifts,” instead of seeing along with these the unprecedented and transcendent privilege of Himself given to he the portion of the saints forever. It is the more inconsistent (and error is apt to be inconsistent) in Dean Alford, inasmuch as he owns in his note on John 16:77Nevertheless I tell you the truth; It is expedient for you that I go away: for if I go not away, the Comforter will not come unto you; but if I depart, I will send him unto you. (John 16:7), “that the gift of the Spirit at and since Pentecost was and is something TOTALLY DISTINCT from anything before that time: a new and loftier dispensation.” His own emphasis is given as it is.
One of these objections is that the imposition of hands preceded that gift here as well as in ch. xix., where the apostle Paul laid his hands for a like purpose and with a like result on the twelve disciples at Ephesus. But why should this offend them? They may not like the ritualistic effort to base confirmation on a scripture which gives no real countenance to that ceremony; they may feel grieved at or ashamed of a mare form without power; they may justly censure R. Nelson (or any. citing him) for untruly referring to Calvin as if he thought confirmation was instituted by the apostles. For in fact in the Institutes (iv. ch. xix. 76) he disproves the very thought attributed to him. But to deny that it was the Holy Spirit Himself, that was communicated at Samaria and Ephesus by imposition of apostolic hands, is to fly in the face of God's words; to construe it into the gifts, and not the gift, of the Spirit, is to prepare the way for the most withering unbelief and the loss of the spring of all true power. For what is the church without the personal presence of the Holy Ghost? and what is the Christian without His indwelling? That which baptizes into unity does not exist otherwise; there is no power adequate to constitute the believer a member of Christ; for both depend on the gift of the Holy Ghost.
Let it be observed that the two main occasions of that gift were to the Jewish believers (Acts 2) and to the Gentiles (Acts 10), on neither of which is there a word expressed or implied about laying on of hands. Indeed one has only to weigh both accounts (Pentecost being of course the fullest and chief) to gather that there could be nothing of the sort on either day. The peculiar cases of Samaria and Ephesus, which some would unintelligently erect into a rule to supersede those more general, were but ancillary as events, though the blessing conferred was of course, as far as it went, the same; and on each of these, where the laying on of hands occurred, the principle was, it would seem, to guard against rivalry, to bind the work of God together, and to put the most solemn sign of divine honor, first on the Jewish apostles, and next on the apostle to the uncircumcision. This was of moment to mark; but we do not find it repeated, save for special reasons and with other features, on Timothy personally (1 Tim. 4:1414Neglect not the gift that is in thee, which was given thee by prophecy, with the laying on of the hands of the presbytery. (1 Timothy 4:14); 2 Tim. 1:66Wherefore I put thee in remembrance that thou stir up the gift of God, which is in thee by the putting on of my hands. (2 Timothy 1:6)). But God had taken care at an early day to anticipate and cut off possible misuse by employing a disciple, not the apostle; in the very conspicuous instance of the great apostle himself (Acts 9:1717And Ananias went his way, and entered into the house; and putting his hands on him said, Brother Saul, the Lord, even Jesus, that appeared unto thee in the way as thou camest, hath sent me, that thou mightest receive thy sight, and be filled with the Holy Ghost. (Acts 9:17)), as if to break beyond dispute all thought of a successional chain.
It may be well also to say that the effort to make the anarthrous form mean no more than a special gift or particular operation of the Holy Spirit is not borne out by scriptural usage. For we find πν. ἁγ. employed with and without the article, so as to demonstrate that this expression in no way excludes His blessed personality, but only falls under the usual principles of the language. Where it is intended to present Him as a distinct object before the mind, the article appears; where it only characterizes, the phrase is as ever anarthrous. Here; to go no farther, we have πν. ἁγ. in ver. 15, 17; but in, 18 τὸ πν. Were it merely previous mention, we should have had the article in 17 as well as 18. The true solution however is not here contextual, but the intention is not to present objectively. Where this is not so, the accusative of a transitive verb is regularly without the article, as being only the complement of the notion expressed by the verb; where it is sought to present the governed word as an object before the mind, the article is added. The usage therefore is thoroughly exact. So in Acts 19:22He said unto them, Have ye received the Holy Ghost since ye believed? And they said unto him, We have not so much as heard whether there be any Holy Ghost. (Acts 19:2) we have twice πν ἁγ. without the article, but in 6 the article in its emphatic duplication; where it seems vain to contend that the Holy Spirit is not meant in all those cases. Is there then not a difference? Unquestionably; but the difference lies, not in the contrast of a special gift with His general influence, as men say, or even with His person, but in the questioned character of what was received in the one case, with the definite object before the mind in the other most suitably accompanying such a phrase as “came” upon the men described.
This is the true key to Acts 1:2, 52Until the day in which he was taken up, after that he through the Holy Ghost had given commandments unto the apostles whom he had chosen: (Acts 1:2)
5For John truly baptized with water; but ye shall be baptized with the Holy Ghost not many days hence. (Acts 1:5)
not the mere circumstance of the preposition (strangely supposed by some to be exceptional) which serves to define; as the phrase in ver. 8, brings the Spirit into an objective point of view. But it is the self-same Spirit in each case; and could a mistake be greater than to allow that Christ only gave injunctions by a particular gift, and that the disciples enjoyed Him in all His fullness? Compare also Acts 10:3838How God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Ghost and with power: who went about doing good, and healing all that were oppressed of the devil; for God was with him. (Acts 10:38), with 44. So, on the eventful day when the promise of the Father was fulfilled, we find in Acts 2:44And they were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance. (Acts 2:4) the Spirit both without and with the article, and there according to the principle enunciated: when used to characterize what filled all, it is designedly anarthrous; when the phrase presents a distinctively objective cast of thought, the article is as correctly inserted. The presence or the absence of the article leaves the Holy Spirit untouched and only affects the aspect meant—person or power. Compare ver. 17, 18, 33, 38; 4:8, 31 (a very remarkable expression in the text of the oldest codices); 5:3; 6:5; 7:55; 8:29, 39; 9:17, 31; 10:38, 44, 45, 47; 11:15, 16, 24, 28; 13:2, 4, 9, 52; 15:28; 16:6, 7. The Epistles would only add and confirm, were this needed.