The Ways of God in the Acts: 2. The Calling of the Samaritans

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Acts 8
WE have had before us the descent of the Holy Ghost, and His baptism of the waiting saints, constituting them the church—the body of Christ, and the house of God. We also saw that by means of the preaching of the gospel some 3,000 Jews were brought into the new circle of blessing. The following chaps. (3-7) show continued overtures to the nation. Peter promised them on God's part that, if they would repent, their sins should be blotted out, the times of refreshing should come from the presence of Jehovah, and He would send Jesus back to them. Their treatment of Stephen was the climax of their rejection of the testimony. They cast him out, and stoned, him, sending a messenger after the Lord (as it were) saying, “We will not have this man to reign over us” (Luke 19:1414But his citizens hated him, and sent a message after him, saying, We will not have this man to reign over us. (Luke 19:14)).
In this chapter we see the work of God extending, and reaching the Samaritans. This was quite in keeping with the Lord's word in 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), though the twelve were not the honored means. The rage of the enemy was the immediate cause of this spread of the gospel. At the time of Stephen's death, “there arose a great persecution against the church which was at Jerusalem, and they were all scattered abroad throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles.” It is strange that the twelve, who were in the forefront of the testimony, and consequently special objects of the enemy's spite, should have been allowed to remain. It is a fair question also, whether they should not have gone elsewhere with the gospel. To them the Lord had said, “Ye shall be witnesses unto me both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea, and in Samaria, and unto the uttermost part of the earth.” And He had also laid down as a general principle long before, “when they persecute you in this city, flee ye into another” (Matt. 10:2323But when they persecute you in this city, flee ye into another: for verily I say unto you, Ye shall not have gone over the cities of Israel, till the Son of man be come. (Matthew 10:23)); a principle carried out clearly by Paul and his companions later, even to the shaking off the dust of their feet (Acts 14:6; 17:10-146They were ware of it, and fled unto Lystra and Derbe, cities of Lycaonia, and unto the region that lieth round about: (Acts 14:6)
10And the brethren immediately sent away Paul and Silas by night unto Berea: who coming thither went into the synagogue of the Jews. 11These were more noble than those in Thessalonica, in that they received the word with all readiness of mind, and searched the scriptures daily, whether those things were so. 12Therefore many of them believed; also of honorable women which were Greeks, and of men, not a few. 13But when the Jews of Thessalonica had knowledge that the word of God was preached of Paul at Berea, they came thither also, and stirred up the people. 14And then immediately the brethren sent away Paul to go as it were to the sea: but Silas and Timotheus abode there still. (Acts 17:10‑14)
). However, God in His wisdom made important use of their presence in Jerusalem, as we shall presently see in stirring up persecution for the church. The enemy, as often before and since, over-reached himself. It only led to the spread of the truth, for “they that were scattered abroad went everywhere preaching the word.” Satan never intended this. His aim was the suppression, not the spread, of the testimony.
We see a similar state of things in Phil. 1. Satan had succeeded in getting Paul imprisoned, which at first sight was a real calamity; but see how God wrought through it! The apostle was enabled to speak of Christ in quarters where he could not have gone in the ordinary way; and besides, many brethren in the Lord, who were perhaps silent in his presence, were bold in his absence to preach the word without fear.
Verse 4 in our chapter has occasioned a good deal of discussion in days ancient and modern. It is a difficulty with some that the saints as a general class should be represented as “preaching the word.” That it is a serious verse for officialism is readily granted; but it is God's truth, and if traditional ideas did not becloud the mind, all who bear the Lord's name would understand it. The simple fact is that all set forth what they knew of the Lord Jesus. Every Christian is responsible to do this, as far as God gives grace and opportunity, though it is not denied that there are special gifts from Christ, as evangelists, &c. But in these there is no room for man; it is the ascended Lord Who gives, the servants are responsible to Him alone, and the church is but the receiver of the blessing.
Among the scattered ones who preached, Philip is particularly noticed by the Spirit. “Philip went down to a city of Samaria, and preached Christ unto them.” This laborer was one of the seven who were set apart to distribute the church's bounty in Jerusalem.
There is no connection between the office of a deacon, and the gift of an evangelist, save that in a general way “they that have used the office of a deacon well, purchase to themselves a good degree, and great boldness in the faith which is in Christ Jesus” (1 Tim. 3:1313For they that have used the office of a deacon well purchase to themselves a good degree, and great boldness in the faith which is in Christ Jesus. (1 Timothy 3:13)). The modern notion of a deacon appointed to “read holy scriptures and homilies in the church” &c., “and to preach if he be admitted thereto by the bishop,” in contrast with a priest ordained to forgive sins, and to be a dispenser of the holy sacraments, had no existence in simple apostolic days. As a deacon, Philip was chosen by the assembly, and appointed by the apostles; as an evangelist (which the Spirit elsewhere expressly declares him to have been), he had received his gift from Christ, neither the church nor the apostles having aught to say or do in the matter (Acts 21:88And the next day we that were of Paul's company departed, and came unto Caesarea: and we entered into the house of Philip the evangelist, which was one of the seven; and abode with him. (Acts 21:8), Eph. 4:1111And he gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers; (Ephesians 4:11)). His services as deacon being no longer required (the Jerusalem saints being scattered), he is seen exercising his gift in dependence on the Lord.
Note, he preached Christ unto them. Compare verse 34 where the same Philip is seen dealing with the eunuch, “he preached unto him Jesus.” Why the difference? Simply this. The Samaritans, though a foreign race, had for centuries taken Jewish ground. They had their temple on Mount Gerizim, they had the Jewish scriptures, spoke of “our father Jacob,” and appropriated the Jewish hope—the coming of Messiah1 (John 4:12, 2512Art thou greater than our father Jacob, which gave us the well, and drank thereof himself, and his children, and his cattle? (John 4:12)
25The woman saith unto him, I know that Messias cometh, which is called Christ: when he is come, he will tell us all things. (John 4:25)
). Philip therefore took them on their own ground, and announced the Christ unto them. The preaching was accompanied by many signs, as the casting out of unclean spirits, &c., “and there was great joy in that city.” One man in particular was arrested. Simon the sorcerer (of whom tradition has very much to say, largely no doubt fabulous), had for years held great sway over the minds of the Samaritans, “giving out that himself was some great one,” and had gained the title of “the great power of God.” Numbers believed Philip's testimony and were baptized, Simon among them, astonished at the miracles and signs which were done. Alas! it was these which struck him, not the word of God. Contrast Sergius Paulus in Acts 13:1212Then the deputy, when he saw what was done, believed, being astonished at the doctrine of the Lord. (Acts 13:12). Faith founded on miracles is but little worth. The Lord, when here, would not trust Himself to such (John 2:23-2523Now when he was in Jerusalem at the passover, in the feast day, many believed in his name, when they saw the miracles which he did. 24But Jesus did not commit himself unto them, because he knew all men, 25And needed not that any should testify of man: for he knew what was in man. (John 2:23‑25)). Miracles may arrest and convince the intellect (and confirm faith where it exists): the word of God alone can lay bare the heart and conscience. This the unhappy Simon never knew.
But tidings of the good work reach Jerusalem; and when the apostles heard that Samaria had received the word of God, they sent unto them Peter and John. Did Philip resent and regard as intrusion the coming of men whose place in the church was greater than his own? Nay, the work was one, whether in Jerusalem or Samaria, and all were equally interested. Besides, the power of the Spirit was too deeply felt all round to leave room for such petty feelings. And God had a special reason for sending Peter and John at that time. The new converts had not received the Holy Ghost, the great characteristic gift of Christianity, but had simply been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. The apostles prayed for them, and laid their hands on them; and they received the Holy Ghost. Why this order? Why did they not receive the Spirit when they believed, as the Gentiles later in Acts 10? Herein we may see the wisdom of God. Samaria and Jerusalem had been for centuries antagonistic religious centers; and had God dealt with the Samaritans exactly as with the Jews, who can say that the rivalry might not in time to come have revived under a Christian name? Have we never known such a thing in Christianity? Who does not know of the jealousy in early days between the great sees of Christendom, particularly between Rome and Constantinople, resulting at last in a total breach between east and west? God would leave no open door for this in Philip's day. Hence they must wait for the coming of the apostles from Jerusalem, ere the gift of the Spirit could be theirs. Thus did God bind the work together, and preserve unity. The saints on earth, whether Jews, Samaritans, or Gentiles, are one body, linked to the one Head in glory by the one Spirit sent down from on high. Independency of any sort misses the mind of God completely.
All this brought out what was in the heart of Simon. “When Simon saw that through laying on of the apostles' hands the Holy Ghost was given, he offered them money, saying, Give me this power, that on whomsoever I lay hands, he may receive the Holy Ghost. But Peter said unto him, Thy money perish with thee, because thou hast thought that the gift of God may be purchased with money. Thou hast neither part nor lot in this matter: for thy heart is not right in the sight of God. Repent therefore of this thy wickedness, and pray God if perhaps the thought of thine heart may be forgiven thee. For I perceive that thou art in the gall of bitterness, and in the bond of iniquity.” He betrayed his utter ignorance of God. God has revealed Himself as a giver: for it is more blessed to give than to receive. He has given His Son, and in Him eternal life to us. The Spirit too is His gift, founded upon the work of Jesus. But of all this Simon knew nothing. It was power that had attracted him, and for power he craved. It was self-aggrandizement he sought, not the divine glory. Further, when Peter bade him repent and pray to God, he said, “Pray ye to the Lord for me.” Where was confidence in God for himself? The Lord was to him unknown; perhaps a human intermediary could act on his behalf! So thousands of deluded souls have thought since. At this solemn point, scripture leaves him, and tells us no more.
The apostles returned home, evangelizing on their journey many villages of the Samaritans.
W. W. F.