The Joy of Belief, the Bitterness of Unbelief (Acts 8:4-25)
Rev. Erik Veerman
The Joy of Belief, the Bitterness of Unbelief
I’m going to wade into the world of politics for a moment. It’s a risk, but I hope you’ll see the point as it relates to Acts 8. And let me say this up font. I’m about to critique our current president’s views on Christianity… but don’t misunderstand me… a similar critique could be said of our former president… just with a different focus. involving his character.
Last week, the New York Times published an article, essentially praising our new president’s Christianity. The author wrote that we now have “perhaps the most religiously observant commander in chief in half a century.” That he’s “spent a lifetime steeped in Christian rituals and practices.” It goes on to elevate his form of Christianity, one that is pro-abortion and less about limiting sexual identity… a Christianity, it says, “that is defined by love, rather than… exclusion.” It talks about religious synergy with “humanists, Muslims, Jews, Sikhs and the spectrum of faith traditions.” Meaning a belief that there are multiple paths to God. The article promotes this progressive Christianity which it calls “ascendant” or rising in prominence… over and above different forms of conservative Christianity, which are disparaged.
There’s plenty in the article that we could discuss for a long time. My point in bringing it up is not talk about conservative politics – no, I think we sometimes muddy the waters between our politics and faith. To be sure, our faith needs to inform our politics, just not the other way around. Rather, what I’m concerned with in this version of Christianity – is its disconnect from Biblical teaching.
The Scriptures are clear about salvation in Christ alone – we’ve already seen that in Acts. The Bible teaches that all human life is created in God’s image – Psalm 139 “I knit you in your mother’s womb. I saw your unformed body” The Scriptures teach that God made man and woman, and we are created in God’s image. that sin has affected our desires, and we shouldn’t confuse those sinful desires with our identity.
Going back to this New York Times article, Acts 8 speaks against its form of Christianity. In the first half of the chapter, we have a man here named Simon, who was very prominent. He professed faith and was even baptized. But he was exposed for having a false faith. A faith without a true belief in Christ. Rather, it was more about himself… and it intermixed his worldview and culture and desires. Simon thought they could be part of his belief. But they couldn’t. It’s similar to today when we form God into what we think he is, and what we think his commands should be, and what we think salvation looks like. When that happens, it’s no longer about God and His Word, it’s about us.
Now, there’s a lot going on in these verses. You probably picked up on that. The largest part of it, though is about Simon, so we’ll spend most of our time on that.
But I don’t want to overlook what else is going on here. There are some significant events in the life of the early church. Earlier this week I was trying to come up with a sermon title. Honestly, I don’t spend a lot of time on them. Our bulletins are printed on Wednesday, so by Sunday they sometimes don’t line up anyway. I had a few different titles in mind for this chapter. Such as…
• To Samaria and beyond! That’s the Toy Story title
• Or Simon’s Selfish Spirit Search
• Or, maybe I should have gone with this creative one: Acts 8:4-25
I settled on “The Joy of Belief; The Bitterness of Unbelief” Because look at verse 8. There was much joy in the city. Joy because of true faith in Christ and all that was happening. But down in verse 23, after Peter rebuked Simon for his lack of faith, he said “you are in the gall of bitterness.” His heart was bitter in unbelief.
To the Ends of the Earth Part 2: Samaria
Ok, before we get to Simon in more detail, a big thing had happened. The early church was scattered and many believers went to Samaria. This takes us back to Acts 1:8. Jesus’ call to the early church that they would be his witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and the ends of the earth!
We’ve already seen the church grow in Judea, where Jerusalem is, and now… the expansion reached Samaria. Samaria was the region north of Jerusalem heading up past the sea of Galilee. It used to be part of the northern tribes of Israel. But by this time, over 900 years had passed since Israel in the north was overthrown. Different nations had come in with different religions and beliefs. There were some fragments of Jewish history and belief, but it was mixed in with other gods and practices. The people of Samaria were very superstitious, they had lots of idols, with these vestiges of Hebrew ideas.
We call this kind of culture syncretistic – meaning that Samaria was a melting pot of different religions that somewhat blended together.
Well, here’s the good news! The Gospel had come to Samaria. And not in a small way. God had been preparing these people. God’s Spirit had been at work. Jesus and his disciples had been to Samaria. So when the Christians who were scattered arrived and began preaching the good news of the Gospel, there was a great response! And everyone was involved. All the believers who moved there preached the Word, verse 4.
Philip, who a couple chapters earlier had been appointed to serve the church… he lead the preaching effort, verses 6 and 7 and 10. Peter and John, two of the disciples, heard about the great response, so they came down. They also participated in preaching. Verse 25.
The principle is this: Faithful preaching of the Word is a shared responsibility. We’re all called to proclaim the hope of Christ. The word “preach” is used in a couple of different ways – it has a specific use, declaring God’s word in worship…. And it has a general use - anyone attesting to the Gospel. When we are with our friends and family and neighbors sharing the hope of Christ, we are preaching the Word. And it’s not an optional thing. It’s part of God’s plan for the word to go forth. God uses the testimony of His people, through his Spirit to bring Salvation.
Now, part of the expansion of the church also involved these signs and healing. That was part of Gospel frontier work. You may have some questions about it. In a couple weeks, near the end of chapter 9, we’ll see more healing and even someone raised from the dead. We’ll discuss the particulars then.
The giving of the Holy Spirit
The big event in these verses in chapter 8 is this: The Gospel had come to the Samaria.
But before we get to Simon, something else happened related to this Gospel expansion. The Holy Spirit was given. Now, you may remember, when Stephen was killed for his faith, a great persecution arose. All the people scattered, but the apostles stayed in Jerusalem. Well, they heard about what was happening in Samaria, verse 14. So Peter and John travelled north to Samaria.
And in verses 15-17, They pray for and lay hands on these new believers - and the Samaritans received the Holy Spirit. Now, they had already been baptized in the name of Christ. In other words, water baptism, the outward sign. But they had not yet received the Holy Spirit.
Well, these three verses have caused a lot of disagreement over the years. The question is this: Is this a second baptism or second blessing that believers are to seek? OR is this a special event for the believers in Samaria?
Now, I want to remind you of some things about Pentecost back in chapter 2. The case I made from the Scriptures is that Pentecost was a one-time event in the life of the church. A one-time event in the history of salvation… like Jesus dying on the cross, and his resurrection. The giving of the Holy Spirit was the inauguration of Jesus’ exaltation in Heaven, and his continuing work here on earth. In Acts 2, they received the ongoing ministry of Jesus through the Holy Spirit.
In other words, Pentecost was not a pattern that each believer should be seeking. All believers in Christ benefit from Pentecost. When you believe, you receive the Holy Spirit. It’s a package deal. If you are interested, you can go back and listen to that sermon either on YouTube or our Tucker Pres Podcast.
But that doesn’t answer the question of what was happening here in Samaria. Because it sure sounds like there is a second baptism. And if so, then it seems like we should be seeking this second baptism. However, I want you to think about this in the paradigm of Acts 1:8. “you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” This giving of the Holy Spirit in Samaria is an extension of Pentecost. In fact, we’ll see this again in chapter 10 when the apostles get to the Gentiles… and we’ll see it again in chapter 19 in Ephesus. The pattern is similar.
Have you ever thrown a stone into a lake? After the big splash, these ripples form in the water, these concentric circles that extend out and then dissipate. Well, that’s like what was happening here in Acts 8 and 10 and 19. But those are the only places in the New Testament where this pattern happens. There are no other examples. And these instances line up with Acts 1:8.
So what we’re seeing here is this expansion of Pentecost… and not patterns of what individual Christians should expect or seek. So, in Samaria, the people who believed received the outward sign of baptism, verse 16 being baptized in the name of Jesus. That would involve water to symbolize it. They were already believers, just like the apostles and 120 other believers in Acts 2 before Pentecost. Then next these new Samaritan believers received the outpouring of the Spirit – verse 17. The inward reality of baptism. Today, when someone receives Christ by faith, that’s when they received the Holy Spirit. Every true believer by faith in Christ receives the Holy Spirit. We’ll come back to this in more depth in chapter 10. It’s important for the life of a Christian.
Simon the Magician
Ok, that bring us to this man, Simon. He was called Simon the Magician or Simon the great. There are even a couple of sources outside the Bible that refer to him given his fame. And I think you can understand now why he was so revered. Because the Samaritans were so superstitious and religious, they were enthralled by his magic. We’re not told whether he was one of those slight of hand magicians who knew how to play mind games, or whether there was some legitimate demonic power at work. Whatever it was, the people were amazed, verse 11.
And this Simon is himself amazed at Philip because of the great miracles he was performing, same word “amazed” - verse 13. And on the outside, Simon claimed to believe in Jesus. Just like all the others. Philip thought that Simon was being authentic, so he baptized him.
But Simon’s true heart was revealed when Peter and John arrived. If Simon was amazed at Philip, he was overwhelmed with Peter and John. They had this power. They would lay hand on people – and these people would receive the Holy Spirit. Well, it all comes out in verses 18 and 19. Simon offered the disciples money to have this power.
Let me ask, Did Peter say, “well, that’s so kind of you to offer us money… that’s not how it works, but bless your little heart.” No, no no! In Peter’s standard confrontational style, he says, “May your silver perish with you, because you thought you could obtain the gift of God with money!” One English translation literally says, “may you and your money go to hell for thinking that.” Peter then points out the heart of the problem. “your heart is not right before God” verse 21. “Repent,” he says, “turn from your wickedness… and pray that the Lord would forgive the intent of your heart.” And Peter concludes, “I see you are in the gall of bitterness.” That’s likely a figure of speech meaning Simon had a bitter envy for the disciples.
There’s a lot for us to learn here – both about true faith and true Gospel response.
• First of all, God knows all the thoughts and intentions of our hearts. He knows everything you think before you think them. He knows your fears, your worries, the true motivations of your heart. Nothing is hidden from him. He is your creator. While Philip couldn’t see into Simon’s heart, God could. And related to this point… what’s in our heart eventually works its way out in our words and actions. And that’s what happened to Simon. Peter heard and realized the state of Simon’s heart.
• Second, the Holy Spirit is not a force to be had or a power to obtain. God’s Spirit is not an impersonal power. No, the Holy Spirit is a person - one of the three persons of the one true God. When you turn to God in Christ, in true faith in Him and repent, you are given the Holy Spirit. He dwells in you as a helper, a revealer of truth and righteousness. He brings conviction and He enables you to pursue God in Christ. This was one of the misunderstandings of Simon. He wanted the power that the apostles had…. To Simon, the Holy Spirit was like the magic that he would perform. But the Spirit was not to him the intimate God – who brings us to God in Christ.
• Third, Faith in Christ is not something to be bought or earned. In this case, Simon was seeking the ability that God had uniquely given to the apostles. But it’s the same thing for faith in Christ – We don’t earn faith. That’s implied in verse 20 “the gift of God” …cannot be obtained with money! You can’t buy faith in Christ… you can’t be good enough… you can’t do enough good things… you can’t know enough and be accepted by God. No, God offers faith in Christ as a gift to be received. And the Holy Spirit enables us to receive this grace. That’s what the word grace means. A unmerited gift from God.
• And the last thing we learn here is this: Someone may profess faith in Christ and be baptized, but may not be a true believer in Christ. That’s what was going on with Simon. People follow movements and feel pressure to conform or have ulterior motivations. For Simon, likely he had several motivations that caused him to profess on the outside even though his heart was not right with God on the inside. For one, he was well known. People called him great. Simon had thought he himself was great. verse 9. There had been a pride within. And this new Christian thing was drawing a crowd – verse 12. And Simon was following. But that wasn’t his usual position – he was used to being followed, not following. You see, these false motivations of his heart drew him to Christianity, but they weren’t heart motivation to truly believe.
Simon’s faith was a selfish faith of convenience, not a true faith. Today, that can be the case in so many different ways. My opening example was in the realm of politics. An outward profession, but heart motivations revealed by a rejection of God’s Word and His Gospel, or not living out the faith that one claims. That’s one of many examples in our culture….and this progressive Christianity is seen all over the place. It intermixes the secular religion of our culture, which is a self-centered and consumeristic culture which exalts certain kinds of sin, rather than seeking God in Christ and repentance… His Word and forgiveness in Him. It forms God in the image of man, not the other way around. It’s a hollow religion like Simon’s.
Other kinds of false Christian faiths are exposed for their desire for money. We see that in false prosperity messages… that if you claim it in Jesus name, God will give it to you. It’s about comfort and this life, but not about reconciliation with God and the hope of eternity. That’s not the Gospel of grace.
We see another kind of false Christian faith in “healing” focused ministries. Certainly, we believe that God can heal. And we pray for healing. But there are high-profile Christian leaders who hold healing services… plant people in the crowds to pretend to be healed. There’s no eternal difference between this fake healing and Simon’s magic. That’s not the Gospel of grace.
The heart of the matter is the matter of the heart. Simon’s heart was not right with God, verse 21. And Peter tells Simon and tells us what needed to change. Verse 22. He said, “Repent, therefore, of this wickedness of yours, and pray to the Lord that, if possible, the intent of your heart may be forgiven you.” A true faith in Christ begins with an understanding of our sinful hearts - our need to be forgiven. It requires repentance. That means turning from our wickedness to God. That’s a necessary step of saving faith. And it required believing that Christ died for you, in your place. And in that faith and repentance, God then blesses you with the gift of His Spirit.
In closing, there’s both a warning here and a hope. The warning is probably more obvious… the warning of an empty faith which is really no faith. As you’ve been listening, maybe it’s crossed your mind to think about your faith. Is your faith a faith of convenience like Simon’s? Saying you are a Christian on the outside or trying to buy or work your way to God in whatever way possible, but your heart isn’t right with Him. That’s the warning – a warning of perishing. If that’s you, verse 22 is for you. Repent and get your heart right before God.
Now, did Simon eventually repent and believe? I don’t think we truly know. Verse 24 perhaps gives us a glimpse of hope for him. But it’s also inconclusive. Could he have really turned to Christ? Yes! Of course.
But beloved in Christ… here’s the true hope. If you turn your life to him – your whole heart to him… believing that Christ saved you through no work of your own. And if your heart’s desire is to seek God and His truth and His righteousness even through struggles of sin. If you truly believe or if you’ve already put your trust in Christ…. I want you to hear me. You have great assurance. You are a true believer in Christ. Your hope is secure in Him. The testimony of your faith and your pursuit of God and His Word in an ongoing way in your life shows that you have the Holy Spirit in you. Nothing can take that away from you. May we pursue God in Christ with our whole heart with and truly believe.