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Acts 8

Scripture: Acts 8:2-38

Highlights:

  • After Stephen’s death, Saul leads the charge in persecuting the church
  • As a result, Christians flee Jerusalem
  • Philip ends up in Samaria and gets everyone’s attention with the signs he is able to perform
  • Simon the Sorcerer is amazed by what Phil can do, so he converts to Christianity and starts hanging around (a lot)
  • The apostles (in Jerusalem) get wind of Philip’s success and come down to check out the conversions themselves
  • The Holy Spirit is delayed in coming onto the Samaritan converts until after Peter and John lay hands on them (more on this anomaly below)
  • Sorcery lovin’ Simon wants the power the apostles have and asks Peter if he knows where he can buy some–big mistake
  • Simon gets a verbal beat down from Peter
  • Philip gets instruction from God to intercept the path of an Ethiopian eunuch
  • Phil helps the eunuch understand a passage from Isaiah that he’s reading, which leads to the Ethiopian’s conversion
  • After baptizing the eunuch, Philip is “taken away” to another area where he keeps preaching the good news

Historical Context:

Samaria

To put it simply, the Jews and Samaritans didn’t like each other. To put it bluntly, they despised each other with a burning hatred. “Both Jewish and Samaritan religious leaders taught that it was wrong to have any contact with the opposite group, and neither was to enter each other’s territories or even to speak to one another.”

Their dislike for each other originated when the Jews first returned from the Babylonian exile (c. 530s BC) and refused to allow the Samaritans to help rebuild the temple. According to Ezra, the local inhabitants (Samaritans) were the cause of the delay in the building of the temple. However, the Samaritans considered themselves pure Israelite descendants of the northern tribes (Ephraim and Manasseh), who had survived the destruction of the Northern Kingdom by the Assyrians. Yet the Samaritans were “viewed as ‘half-breeds,’ both religiously and racially, by the Jews.” (GCI)

When the Samaritans weren’t allowed to help build the temple in Jerusalem, they  built their own rival temple on Mount Gerizim–a place they considered to be the original Holy Place for Israelites. This belief comes from Deuteronomy 11 where Moses told the people to use Mount Gerizim to proclaim blessings, and to use Mount Ebal for curses. The two mountains symbolized the significance of the Law and where meant to serve as a warning to whoever disobeyed them. Additionally, the Samaritans believed that Mount Gerizim was the place Abraham took Isaac to be sacrificed.

To make matters worse, the Samaritans claimed that their version of the Pentateuch was the original. They believed the Jews had a fake text made during the Babylonian exile. In fact, the Samaritans claimed their name was from the word “Samerim” which means “Guardians.”  They considered themselves the guardians of the Torah. They would protect it from alteration by the Jews.

However, the Samaritans did have a hope in a messiah. They looked forward to the coming of the taheb, “the restorer” (Deut 18). They believed that he would be “a herald of the last day–a day of final judgment, of vengeance and reward, when the temple of Gerizim would be restored, the sacrifices reinstated and the heathen converted.” (R. T. Anderson)

It’s interesting to note that “there are many references to Samaria in the Old Testament, the prophets of which considered it a center of idolatry (Isaiah 89Jeremiah 23Ezekiel 23Hosea 7; and Micah 1).” (Coffman)

Simon the Sorcerer

Simon was most likely a Magus–one of the order of the Magi (the plural of magus, our root word for “magic”).  “The Magi were the priestly order in the Median and Persian empires and were supposed to have been founded by Zoroaster.” (Robertson)

Simon would’ve held similar beliefs as the Magi (often translated “wise men”) that visited Jesus after his birth, but in Acts, Luke seems to emphasize this particular magus’ inclination towards sorcery.

The ancient Magi studied philosophy, astronomy, medicine, etc. They would’ve used their studies to “predict future events by the positions of the stars, and to cure diseases by incantations.” (Barnes)  Luke indicates that Philip healed many people, particularly those possessed with unclean spirits/demons (“shrieks” heard when spirits were cast out was a common way for exorcists to claim success), so it is possible that this was the line of work Simon had excelled in, and was eventually bested in by Philip.

Simon would’ve thought his “power” was a piece of God in himself.  By using this “power” Simon believed himself to be impersonating God. However, Simon saw a power in Philip that astounded him.  He was most likely impressed by the ease (and possibly the high success rate) by which Philip was able to heal. Ancient exorcisms were often long, ornate affairs and required the exorcist to call on one or more ancient, well established names (such as Abraham or Moses) that would be greater in power than that of the demon in order to cast it out.  If Philip’s healings were anything like those performed by Peter, or the many healings and exorcisms performed by Jesus, then the “exorcism ceremony” would’ve consisted of little more than a simple command given in the name of Christ–a recent, contemporary, singular individual. In modern terms, this would be like one surgeon seeing another surgeon perform a four-hour heart surgery in less than a minute with a single scalpel as his only tool.

Simon’s attempt to purchase this power may have come from several different motivations. The first is that bribery was a common way to attain positions of power in the ancient world. Secondly, Simon may have previously made his living selling his skills to the public, so he might have though Peter was a performer like himself and that the apostle would “reveal his secret tricks” for enough money.  Lastly, Simon may have placed his own financial status in jeopardy by acknowledging that someone was better at wielding the “power of God” better than he was. So, he may have been simply trying to buy enough power back to maintain his previous income and infamy.

Regardless the intent, Simon would go down in history for his actions. In the Second Century, the church fathers would typecast him as the progenitor of Gnosticism and all other heresies, and today Simon’s request to “buy” the power of God is where we get the term “simony.”

The Ethiopian Eunuch

The Ethiopian eunuch was the “chief treasurer of a kingdom wealthy from its iron smelting, gold mining and trading position.” (IVP). He worked for the Kandake (or Candace), the queen of the Ethiopians, who actually ran the country, since the “king was regarded as a god, ‘child of the sun,’ too sacred to engage in administration.” (IVP)

The Ethiopian eunuch would’ve had to travel nearly fifteen hundred miles to get to Jerusalem, so he truly was devout. And, it is quite possible that the eunuch had been in Jerusalem at the time of the crucifixion of Christ. He may have been familiar with the uproar caused by Pentecost, the early church’s preaching and the subsequent persecutions.

Lastly, “eunuchs were forbidden the enjoyment of full religious privileges by the Jews ( Deuteronomy 23:1.)” (Coffman). Perhaps Luke included this story to show how God was now opening doors to the Kingdom that had previously been shut.

Observations:

  • Jewish law required that one who had been stoned for blasphemy would have had no funeral honors. No lamentation or other sign of mourning was permitted for one who suffered execution, the Jewish rule on this being derived from God’s command to Aaron in Leviticus 10. The Christians probably further provoked the Sanhedrin’s hatred for recognizing Stephen’s death as a result of injustice, not blasphemy.
  • The death of Jesus on the cross (vs. being stoned for blasphemy) may have been an intentional strategy on the part of the Sanhedrin to try and have Jesus die under a curse (Deut. 21). The fact that his disciples kept proclaiming he’d been exalted (despite his form of death) was more than just a proclamation of the resurrection, it was a mockery of their efforts to put Jesus under a curse. The Sanhedrin must’ve been even more frustrated to see that Stephen’s burial and subsequent notoriety showed that no matter how they killed these people, the movement only gained momentum.
  • The apostles may have remained in Jerusalem despite the persecutions because of duty. It is also possible that Saul’s persecution was aimed at the Hellenistic Jews (due to the prominence of Stephen as a leader in that group, and his railing against the temple and the law) rather than the apostles and Hebraic Jews (who gathered in the temple daily, and may have had more respect for the Jewish law).
  • “Saul began to destroy the church” carries the implication that he was out to dishonor, defile, devastate, ruin. “Like the laying waste of a vineyard by a wild boar ( Psalms 79 ).” (Robertson) “Saul raged against the church like a wild beast.” (Barnes)
  • The fleeing Christians may have run off to Samaria knowing that highly devout Jews, like the Pharisees and Saduccees of the Sanhedrin, wouldn’t have dared to follow them there. Also, the Christians’ alienation from Jerusalem, rejection by the Jewish religious elite, and their belief that God could act outside of the Temple in Jerusalem, may have been especially welcomed discussion points.
  • Why didn’t the Holy Spirit come on the Samaritans immediately? It should be noted that this is a highly unusual instance, rather than the norm. Nowhere previously in Acts does Luke separate a person’s belief and the coming of the Holy Spirit onto that person. It is possible that God specifically withheld his Spirit from the Samaritans to force the Jews’ recognition of God’s acceptance of them. “If God had not withheld his Spirit until the Jerusalem apostles came, converts on both sides of the cultural barrier might have found Christ without finding each other.” (IVP)
  • Interesting to note that John went with Peter to Samaria because “John had once wanted to call down fire from heaven on a Samaritan village ( Luke 9:54 ).” (Robertson)
  • When Peter says Simon the Sorcerer is “full of bitterness and captive to sin” he is describing  Simon as still being connected to his past, quite literally, with a “poison and a chain.” (Robertson)
  • When Philip explains Isaiah 53 to the eunuch, he is discussing the same passage of scripture Jesus himself had used to describe his upcoming role as the suffering/sacrificial messiah (Luke 23). Notice how Luke often draws a direct parallel between the work/teachings of Jesus’ disciples and what Jesus himself said and did (ex: the apostles in front of the same group of leaders who condemned Christ (the Sanhedrin) using the same scripture about the rejection of the cornerstone that Christ used (Acts 4:11 and Luke 20:17); Stephen using the same phrasing to describe the glorification of the messiah (“the son of man…” Acts 7:56 and Luke 22:69), as well as the same final words as Christ at his death (Acts 7:59-60 and Luke 23: 34, 46; etc.))
  • The words “caught away” to describe Philip’s departure does not necessarily imply that there was a miracle. “The [original Greek] word properly means, to seize and bear away anything violently, without the consent of the owner, as robbers and plunderers do. The Spirit so forcibly or vividly suggested the duty to his mind, as to tear him away, as it were, from the society of the eunuch. He had been deeply interested in the case. He would have found pleasure in continuing the journey with him. But the strong convictions of duty, urged by the Holy Spirit, impelled him, as it were, to break off this new and interesting acquaintanceship, and to go to some other place. But Philip was found. That is, he came to Azotus; or, he was not heard of until he reached Azotus.” (Barnes)

Discussion:

  • Why didn’t the Samaritans get the Holy Spirit right away? What were the indicators that they didn’t have it? What were the indicators that they did have it after Peter and John laid hands on them? How do we know we have it today?
  • Did persecution increase evangelism? Does the church thrive more in times of persecution? Why? Is today’s church conflict adverse? Why?
  • The Samaritans are already impressed with Simon’s “signs” and seem to be doubly impressed with Philip’s “signs.” Philip seems to be building upon the foundation of belief Simon had cultivated to lead people to Christ. In the past, how has the church used an existing culture’s belief to point to Christ? What things do people put a lot of stock in today that the church can leverage to show Jesus as the true answer, the true power?
  • There is a theme developing in Acts of God’s opinion of people trying to buy their way into the kingdom (first Ananias and Sapphira, then Simon the Sorcerer). Why do yo think Luke included these stories? Which stories does Luke use as a contrast to show legitimate entry points into belief? Are people still trying to buy their way into belief? How so? What currency do we use?
  • Simon was converted because he was impressed with God’s power (as displayed through Philip). Are people today impressed with God’s power? Why/why not?
  • How legitimate was Simon’s conversion? Did he ever really believe? What reasons do people convert for today that ultimately prove shallow?
  • How does Luke’s account of the spreading of the  gospel beyond Jerusalem in Act 8 support Stephen’s depiction of a proactive and unconfined God in Acts 7? Is this still happening? Where?

Interesting side note: Luke probably obtained valuable information from Philip and his daughters about these early days when in his home in Caesarea ( Acts 21:8 ). (Robertson)

References:

Post Discussion Perspectives

  • Why was Peter’s response to Simon so much less harsh than his condemnation of Ananias and Sapphira?
  • To simplify the narrative, the Samaritans were the heretical neighbors of the Jews, and the eunuch was the devout seeker of truth who wasn’t allowed to “get close” to God in the temple. Who are our heretical “neighbors” today (those that believe basically what we do, but we think they’re not like us)? The Mormons? The Catholics? The snake handlers? The liberal academics? And who are the devout seekers still being “kept away” from God? The homosexual believers? Prisoners/convicts? What frontiers does God want us to push? Where would we be surprised to find him moving and acting (so surprised we’d feel compelled to send some of our leaders out to validate that it was real)?
  • The eunuch sought God so openly that Philip could hear him seeking the truth by just walking next to him. Who do we need to stand next to and just listen to what they say? Are people still seeking God this overtly?
  • What’s the difference between “experiencing the Holy Spirit” in a highly emotional worship service, and feeling great after seeing a moving concert/play/movie? What is genuinely from God and what is simply our human ability to get “wrapped up in the moment”? The presence of the Spirit in Acts seems more intentional than emotional. God’s presence is made known to validate that he is in that moment and moving the kingdom forward. Is this how we see/experience the Spirit of God today? Have we manufactured a feeling and called it God to reassure ourselves? To remain comfortable/inactive?
  • How do we know we have the Holy Spirit?
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  1. Pingback: Acts 15 | Our Home Community

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