The Samaritans believe the gospel Acts 8:1-25

Acts chapter 8 is one of the most important passages in the New Testament. Since the appearance of Pentecostal churches a hundred years ago it has also been one of the most controversial chapters. I hope you will bear with me as we try to unwrap this difficult passage this morning.
Pentecostal Christians believe that God’s gift of the Holy Spirit usually comes after a person becomes a Christian. They traditionally use the phrase “Baptism in the Spirit” to describe the occasion when a person who is already a Christian receives the Holy Spirit who then enables them to exercise spiritual gifts and especially to speak in tongues. This Pentecostal idea of the gift of the Holy Spirit as a “second blessing” subsequent to salvation came into mainstream Christianity fifty years ago in the charismatic movement. And for both Pentecostals and charismatics the passage which best exemplifies this pattern of conversion and then afterwards receiving the Holy Spirit is the experience of the Samaritan Christians in Acts 8.
After all the excitements of dramatic growth in Acts 1-6, the first Christians were facing all kinds of problems. Next week we will look back at Acts 7 and see Stephen martyred for his faith. That event was only the beginning of their problems
Acts 8:1 On that day a great persecution broke out against the church at Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria. 2 Godly men buried Stephen and mourned deeply for him. 3 But Saul began to destroy the church. Going from house to house, he dragged off men and women and put them in prison.
While they were still in mourning for Stephen the new Christians had to flee for their lives. They must have wondered how they could continue in their faith separated from the leadership and teaching of the apostles and the support of their fellow-Christians. Persecuted and imprisoned, or scattered even beyond Judea. But God brought great blessing out of that disaster.
4 Those who had been scattered preached the word wherever they went. 5 Philip went down to a city in Samaria and proclaimed the Christ there. 6 When the crowds heard Philip and saw the miraculous signs he did, they all paid close attention to what he said. 7 With shrieks, evil spirits came out of many, and many paralytics and cripples were healed. 8 So there was great joy in that city.

The gospel was preached with boldness and with signs and wonders. So salvation through Jesus Christ spread beyond Israel and even to Samaria.
12 But when they believed Philip as he preached the good news of the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptized, both men and women. 13 Simon himself believed and was baptized. And he followed Philip everywhere, astonished by the great signs and miracles he saw.
People heard Philip’s preaching and believed his message of the Kingdom of God and Jesus Christ as Saviour and Lord. And so they were baptised as believers as a sign of their repentance and faith. Those people did everything that God required of them to become Christians. But something was not quite right. Something very strange was happening.

14 When the apostles in Jerusalem heard that Samaria had accepted the word of God, they sent Peter and John to them. 15 When they arrived, they prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit, 16 because the Holy Spirit had not yet come upon any of them; they had simply been baptized into the name of the Lord Jesus. 17 Then Peter and John placed their hands on them, and they received the Holy Spirit.
The new Christians in Samaria had believed in Jesus. They had been baptised. But the Holy Spirit had not come down on any of them. So the leaders of the Early Church, the apostles Peter and John themselves went to Samaria to find out what was going on. And it was only when Peter and John prayed for them that these new Christians received the Holy Spirit.
You can see why Pentecostals and Charismatics think this is the perfect example of what they think will be the normal pattern for everyone. It seems obvious that the Samaritans became Christians with Philip’s preaching and they only received the Holy Spirit on a later occasion when the apostles laid hands on them. But that idea of conversion and then subsequent reception of the Spirit does not fit in with what Luke tells us in the rest of Acts about God’s promised gift of the Holy Spirit.
Remember back in Acts 2 how the Holy Spirit came down on all the believers on the Day of Pentecost and then the apostle Peter preached to the crowds. In literature of that time the first major speech of a central character would embody the central message of the whole book which tells us that Luke thought Peter’s sermon was particularly important. Peter explains that the events of Pentecost were God’s fulfilment of the promises in the book of Joel that one day the Holy Spirit who had inspired the Old Testament prophets would be given to all believers.
Acts 2 17 “ ‘In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams. 18 Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days, and they will prophesy.
This was the gift of the Holy Spirit Jesus also promised to his disciples, the power from on High, power to be witnesses for Jesus. And at the climax of his sermon, Peter says this.
Acts 2 38 “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. 39 The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off—for all whom the Lord our God will call.”
Here is God’s promise for every Christian. As we believe in Jesus and repent, God will forgive us our sins and give us His gift of the Holy Spirit. That gift of the Holy Spirit is not just for some Christians. It’s not just for Pentecostal Christians, but for every Christian at the moment that we are saved. We haven’t time to think this morning about how being baptised as a believer fits in to this pattern. But for this morning just keep in mind the pattern which Peter teaches in Acts 2. Repentance, forgiveness and the gift of the Holy Spirit all go together as the package of what Luke and all the New Testament writers understand by salvation.
The gift of the Holy Spirit is power from on High, God empowering Christians for mission, power to be witnesses for Jesus and bold and effective preaching. The work of the Holy Spirit includes bringing holiness, healing and deliverance and the Spirit also brings spiritual gifts, inspiring prophecy and prophetic gifts of revelation, guidance and wisdom. The Holy Spirit is the channel through which God communicates directly with Christians now Jesus has ascended into heaven. The Holy Spirit is nothing less than the presence and the power of the Father and of the Risen Jesus in the life of the church and of every Christian. It is a mistake to separate all these experiences of the Holy Spirit from the experience of salvation. In both his Gospel and in the Book of Acts, Luke definitely sees the gift of the Holy Spirit as absolutely necessary for every believer’s experience of salvation. And other passages such as Galatians 3, Romans 8, 1 Corinthians 2 and most of John’s Gospel teach us that it is the gift of the Holy Spirit who brings us eternal life from the moment of conversion.
Pentecostals base their theology of receiving the Holy Spirit as some kind of “second blessing” subsequent to salvation on their interpretations of accounts such as Acts 8 where they think that happened. But there is an important principle of Biblical interpretation applies here. It is acceptable to read narratives of what happened on a particular occasion as examples of a theology. But it is always safer to base doctrines on explicit teaching, such as Peter’s sermon in Acts 2. The pattern is very clear. The gift of the Holy Spirit comes with the events of repentance and forgiveness of sins at the moment of conversion. Understood correctly, that is the pattern we find everywhere in the book of Acts. Everywhere. Except Acts 8!
In Acts 8 the Samaritans received the gospel and were baptised. But they only received the Spirit later when the apostles laid hands on them. So what on earth was going on in Acts 8?
The first thing to say is that what happened in Acts 8 was clearly very unusual. The church in Jerusalem obviously thought so. The fact that these Samaritans had repented and been baptised but that God had NOT immediately at that point given them the Holy Spirit was such a serious things than none other than the leaders of the Early Church Peter and John had raced down to find out what was going on and to sort things out. The events in Acts 8 are definitely NOT a pattern for the normal Christian life. Acts 8 is clearly telling us about something which is very much an exception rather than the rule.
So if we read Acts 8 as a dramatic departure from the pattern of conversion which Peter teaches us in Acts 2, what was going on? Why might it be that on this specific occasion, God would choose not to give the Holy Spirit to those new Christians immediately but wait until the apostles arrived from Jerusalem and laid hands on them?
I believe the key to understanding that question is to see that this incredibly significant occasion was unique in history. For the first time a group of people became Christians without having been Jews first. Worse than that, these new Christians belonged to the race who had been Israel’s enemies and rivals for centuries – they were Samaritans. Stop and think for a moment about all the problems this could create in the Early Church. Would the Christians in Jerusalem even accept the possibility that Samaritans could become Christians? Equally would the new Samaritan Christians accept the authority and wisdom of the apostles and of the Jerusalem church and of the Jewish Bible? Or would Philip’s preaching in Samaria lead to an enormous spilt in the Early Church with Samaritan Christians completely separated from Jewish Christians?
This was a pivotal moment in the history of the church. The first Christians who had not first been Jews. And I believe that is the reason behind this unique event why God chose to break from the pattern of conversion we find everywhere else in Scripture and separate the human acts of repentance and faith from the divine act of giving the Holy Spirit. In order to ensure the unity of the spreading Early Church, God withheld the gift of the Spirit until the apostles came and laid hands on the Samaritan. That established the authority of the apostles and showed the new Christians in Samaria that they needed the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem. At the same time it showed the apostles and the Jerusalem church that it was indeed possible for Samaritans to be saved! The unity of the Church was preserved.
After 40 years of study and two degrees specialising in interpreting the New Testament, that’s my best guess on the correct interpretation of Acts 8. And I think it has three important things to say to us today.
The first thing is that the unity of the church is very important to God. Keeping Jewish Christians and Samaritan Christians united was sufficiently important that God departed from the pattern of conversion we find everywhere else in the New Testament! And the unity of the church today is just as important. In particular Acts 8 has caused more division than almost any other. Only 60 years ago Pentecostal Christians were regarded as heretics by all the mainstream denominations. There are still fierce battles with Pentecostals and Charismatics on one side and Reformed and what are termed Non-charismatic Evangelicals on the other side. But God does not want us to argue about the meaning of passages like Acts 8. God wants us all to experience all the blessings of salvation which are the blessings which the Holy Spirit brings to every believer.
The second lesson from Acts 8 is that as Christians every one of us needs to experience absolutely everything that God gives us in the Holy Spirit. When the Samaritans gave their lives to Christ it was a matter of extreme concern that they had not received the Holy Spirit. There was something very obvious in the lives of those new Christians in Samaria that they had not received the Holy Spirit. Perhaps they were just trying to follow Jesus in their own human strength. Perhaps they were missing the heart of love or the overflowing joy which are the work of the Holy Spirit. The truth is that it just is not possible to live the Christian life or experience life in all its fullness without the power of the Holy Spirit in our lives.
Here is the challenge which Pentecostals and Charismatics have brought to the rest of the church over the last century. Although some have challenged their theology, nobody can deny the visible evidence of the work of the Holy Spirit in their lives and their churches. Acts 8 tells me that God wants the power of the Holy Spirit which Pentecostals and Charismatics have enjoyed to be the experience of every Christian. Although I disagree with Doctor Martyn Lloyd-Jones over his interpretation of Acts 8, I completely agree with what he wrote about “Quenching the Spirit.”
Somebody may ask, ‘Surely we got it all automatically when we believed?’ “Got it all? Well, if you have ‘got it all’, I simply ask in the Name of God, why are you as you are? If you have ‘got it all’, why are you so unlike the Apostles, why are you so unlike the New Testament Christians?” “Got it all? Got it all at your conversion? Well, where is it I ask you?”
Although every Christian has already received the Holy Spirit, tragically some live as though they had not. It was Moody who said, “I have been filled with the Spirit. But I leak.” We saw in Acts 4 that Christians who had received the Spirit on the Day of Pentecost were filled with the Spirit again. And in Ephesians 6:18 Paul encourages us, “Keep on being filled with the Spirit. God wants us all to keep on being filled with the Spirit.
The third thing Acts 8 teaches me is that God wants to save everybody, even the people we might think can’t be saved. Jews believed their historic enemies the Samaritans were beyond the pale. That fact was at the heart of Jesus’s parable of the inconceivable “Good Samaritan”.
4 Those who had been scattered preached the word wherever they went. 5 Philip went down to a city in Samaria and proclaimed the Christ there. 6 When the crowds heard Philip and saw the miraculous signs he did, they all paid close attention to what he said. 7 With shrieks, evil spirits came out of many, and many paralytics and cripples were healed. 8 So there was great joy in that city.
God wants to save everybody. He wants them to repent and believe and be forgiven and to receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. Even Samaritans. And even the black sheep in our families. Even those neighbours everybody else avoids. Even the strangers who would never dream of setting foot in church.
When the Early Church was scattered by persecution God used ordinary Christians to take the life-saving gospel of Jesus Christ to all kinds of unexpected places. Ordinary Christians empowered by the Holy Spirit. In this town in our generation God wants us to preach the gospel with power. God wants to work signs and wonders in the name of Jesus bringing healing and deliverance, even through ordinary Christians like us! But for this, WE need the power of the Holy Spirit, power from on High, power to be witnesses for Jesus. Even if it leads to persecution, we need the Holy Spirit to fall on every one of US so that everybody can see the difference Jesus makes. That way there will be great joy even in THIS city!

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