The case of Simon the magician (Acts 8:9-24)

POST OVERVIEW. A study of Acts 8:9-24 and the episode involving Simon the magician. We consider the implications of Simon’s professed belief and subsequent baptism despite his unbelief.

In Acts 8:5-24, we read how Philip preaches “the good news about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ” (8:12) in Samaria and, as a result, some of the Samaritans believe and are baptized. This is exciting news, indeed, but this event also presents to us a couple of situations which can be misinterpreted and thus cause doctrinal confusion. The first situation involves Simon the magician and his professed belief and baptism and the second situation relates to the Samaritans receiving the Holy Spirit well after they had believed in Jesus and been saved. We will carefully examine these two situations in an attempt to remove this potential confusion.

GENERAL THOUGHTS ON INTERPRETING ACTS

Before we begin looking at Simon the magician, we should note that there are several considerations to keep in mind as we study the book of Acts. First, Acts portrays a time of great transition in redemptive history. At this time, the Jew-Gentile divide is firmly in place; there are still people who have believed in “the baptism of John;” the gospel is spreading first to the Jews, then to the Samaritans, and finally to the Gentiles; and the apostles are the authority in this new gospel movement. The fact that this is a time of transition constrains our interpretations of the individual episodes in Acts.

Second, because things are in transition, we must repeatedly ask the question, “Is this event merely descriptive or is it also prescriptive?” Luke is an excellent historian and includes many details of these events in Acts. His accounts are very descriptive of what occurred. The bigger question, however, is whether this description is also the way things should occur. That is, is this event a prescription for what should happen in all churches or with all believers throughout the church age till Jesus returns? In other words, is this episode in Acts describing for us what is normal in the church? Carefully answering these questions helps keep our interpretations on solid ground.

Third, in the early chapters of Acts as the gospel is spreading from Jerusalem to Samaria to the Gentiles (“remotest parts of the earth” in Acts 1:8), each new group of believers must be folded into the church in the same way. The pattern is established at Pentecost (Acts 2), where those who believe are baptized and, upon apostolic confirmation, they receive the Holy Spirit. What happened at Pentecost with the first fruits of the Jews happened again in Samaria (our current study in Acts 8) as the Samaritans, a mixed race of Jew and Gentile, are brought into the fold, and finally this happened (as we will see later on) when the first Gentiles come to saving faith in Christ (Cornelius in Acts 10). This process of apostolic confirmation and incorporation in the Body was unique in redemptive history, but its occurrence can cause confusion for readers of Acts.

With that as background, let’s begin our study of Simon the magician (Acts 8:9-24).

SIMON HIMSELF BELIEVED AND WAS BAPTIZED

The first situation we will address involves Simon the magician (“Simon Magus”). This Simon is a curious character. Before Philip came to Samaria preaching the gospel, Simon “was astonishing the people of Samaria” with his magical tricks (Acts 8:9). But when Philip performs miraculous signs and preaches the good news, the people give their attention to him, believe in the name of Jesus, and are baptized. The potential difficulty arises when the Scripture says, “Even Simon himself believed” and was baptized (8:13). To this point in Acts, when anyone believed and was baptized, it meant that they had been saved. Belief in the good news followed by baptism was the formula for salvation. But with Simon the magician, it becomes apparent that, despite his professed belief and his subsequent baptism, he is not a genuine believer but is still “in the bondage of iniquity” (8:23). How do we explain this?

PROFESSED BELIEF AND BAPTISM

To understand this situation, It is necessary to examine both professed belief and baptism to see what is happening here.

Our doctrine teaches us that water baptism does not save a person. We could say that “Baptism marks a person as saved, but it is not the means by which a person is saved.”

But we must go further. We can say “Baptism marks a person as saved” because their baptism is based on that person’s profession of faith (belief, trust) in the Lord Jesus Christ. The Bible teaches that faith and salvation precede baptism. “For by grace you have been saved through faith” (Eph. 2:8). In all examples of baptism in the New Testament, salvation by faith precedes baptism. Therefore, we can conclude that a person is baptized because they have professed Jesus Christ as Lord and are therefore assumed to be saved.

So then, as a minister of the gospel of Jesus Christ, Philip appropriately baptized the Samaritans based on their profession of belief in the Lord Jesus. He assumed that their profession of faith was genuine, so he baptized them. In the same way, he also baptized Simon the magician based on Simon’s false profession of faith. But Philip was not an apostle, so he did not have the apostolic gift that allowed him to discern a false profession.

APOSTOLIC DISCERNMENT

In Acts and during the apostolic period, one of the gifts of the apostles was the ability to discern genuine faith. When the three thousand believed on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2), the apostle Peter was there to confirm the faith of those believers. But Peter was not there in Samaria when the gospel was proclaimed by Philip and so he could not confirm that these Samaritans had actually believed in Jesus and should now be included in the church. The Samaritans, including Simon the magician, had professed belief in Jesus, but without apostolic sanction, it was not certain that they possessed belief in Jesus.

Peter went down to Samaria for the purpose of putting his apostolic stamp on this move of the Spirit of God. In this instance, the apostle Peter was able to discern that Simon’s profession of belief was false. The Scripture makes clear that Simon had not truly believed in the Lord Jesus and was not saved, and so Peter exposed his unbelief and did not lay hands on him.

Having looked at Simon’s unbelief and his baptism and having determined what is happening in this passage, we also want to consider what lessons can learn and what applications we can draw from this study. The next post will take that next step.

Soli Deo gloria            rmb                 12/07/2022                 #597

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