After the execution of Stephen, Luke tells us that a great persecution broke out in Jerusalem, presumably led by Saul and other Hellenistic Jews from the synagogue of the Freedmen. The stories collected in Acts 8 concern the gospel of the Christ moving into semi-Jewish regions. Both the Samaritans and the Ethiopian Eunuch represent people who are on the fringe of Judaism in the first century, but nevertheless still within the Jewish people. Like Jesus himself, Philip demonstrates that the gospel is not only for the “righteous” in the temple, the people who are at the center of Judaism, but rather for those who are on the outside of established religion in the Second Temple period.
Philip was introduced in Acts 6 as a deacon, now he functions as an evangelist. Like Stephen, he appears to have been a leader among the Hellenists. He goes into the region of Samaria and has great success as an evangelist. Among those who believe is a man named Simon, who is described as a magician (verses 9-13). Justin Martyr describes Simon as a source of a great deal of heresy in the early church. While it is impossible to confirm anything he says, Luke describes him here as a man who had functioned as a first century magician who used these skills to draw people to himself. A Magus could be a respectable class of scientific advisors to leaders, but often they were quacks and charlatans.
This appears to be what Simon is, since he is amazing people for a long time in the Samaritan town. In Simon’s case, he seems to have been able to perform a number of miracles by which he was able to gain a following among the Samaritans. Luke does not tell us what is motivation might have been, but there is a connection between magic and money in other contexts in Acts (13:6-8, 16:18-19, 19:14-19), so it is possible that Simon was functioning as a miracle worker in order to make money.
After some time, Peter and John visit the Samaritan town to confirm that what is happening conforms to the apostolic tradition (verses 14-17). This establishes a pattern we will see several times in the book. As the gospel moves into new geographical or cultural areas, there is an apostolic “inspection” to ensure that there is no variation from what has been handed down fro Jesus through the apostles. When Peter and John see that the Samaritans have believed, they pray that they might receive the Holy Spirit. This is another example of why the book of Acts cannot be taken as normative, since at this point the Holy Spirit appears to be unrelated to belief, yet in Acts 10 when a gentile God-fearer believes, he receives the spirit immediately.
When Simon sees people receive the Holy Spirit, he attempts to purchase the “trick” form Peter and John (verses 18-24). Simon asks for the “power” to give the spirit, but this could be taken as “authority” or “right.” Magic could be purchased in the ancient world, but so too could priestly offices. He may be asking for “secret,” or he may be asking to purchase the right to be in the office of apostle. Peter’s response to Simon is clear – there can be no purchase of the Holy Spirit! In fact, the syntax of this line is perhaps the strongest rebuke possible.
What is the point of the Simon narrative? Certainly the gospel has moved into a new geographical and cultural area, but in doing so it has encountered new problems not anticipated or experienced in Jerusalem. Is it possible for someone to accept Jesus as messiah and savior in Samaria – certainly! But in the case of Simon, his lifestyle prior to coming to Christ hinders his ability of understand and appropriate the blood of Christ.
If this is close to Luke’s intention when he included this story in Acts, how are we to “apply” the story? Is there anything here that can be seen as normative? For example, how do we react when the Gospel is accepted in a culture quite different than our own?