Belief and baptism, but no Holy Spirit (Acts 8:12-17)

POST OVERVIEW. Another study from Acts 8 as the gospel spreads to the Samaritans. Here we consider the difficulty of the Samaritans believing in the name of Jesus Christ and not immediately receiving the Holy Spirit.

This post is part of a short series of articles wrestling with the difficulties of the events of Acts 8. Earlier we considered the situation of Simon the magician (post #597, #598) and now we look at the Samaritans who truly believed and were baptized and yet did not immediately receive the Holy Spirit in Acts 8:12-17.

GENERAL THOUGHTS ON INTERPRETING ACTS

Before we dig into this very interesting episode, we need to remember that we are reading the book of Acts, which is part of the New Testament’s history section. Acts covers a time of rapid change as the work of God on earth transitions from the ministry of Jesus to the ministry of the church.

To review our teaching from post #597 (12/7/2022), Jesus was sent from heaven to earth primarily to accomplish the atonement and to ransom His people from sin. In His crucifixion, He finished His work (John 19:30). Then He was resurrected, He commissioned His church to proclaim the gospel to the end of the age (Matt. 28:19-20) and to the remotest part of the earth (Acts 1:8), and He ascended into heaven until the Father’s appointed time for His return. That was Jesus’ ministry.

When Jesus ascended to heaven, the ministry of the church began. The book of Acts describes the initial spread of the church from one hundred twenty timid Jewish disciples in an upper room in Jerusalem with no new-covenant doctrine or practice to many thousands of mostly Gentile believers scattered all over the Mediterranean world with well-established doctrinal teaching and church practice. The result of this massive transition is that, while all the events of Acts certainly occurred and occurred as described, all the events that occurred were not normative for the church age. In other words, the student of Acts must carefully discern if the event under study is merely descriptive (just describing what happened) or if this event is prescriptive (giving a normative practice of the church until Jesus returns). Some of the events that occur in Acts are unique and simply occurred as part of this transition landscape.

How do we discern what is merely descriptive? There are two basic principles to detect these events. The first principle asks, “Is the event unique in the Scriptures?” For example, Acts 2 relates the coming of the Holy Spirit. This event is marked with a mighty rushing wind and tongues of fire resting on the disciples (Acts 2:2-3). Do we expect this to occur again? Should this be a regular occurrence in our local church? No, it is not normative. The events of Acts 2 are unique and unrepeated.

But a second principle is to consider whether the events of the scene are consistent with New Testament teaching on this subject. What do the epistles teach about this and did Jesus say anything about this subject during His ministry? For example, in our current study in Acts 8, we see that the Samaritans believe in Jesus and are baptized before they receive the Holy Spirit. Should we in our churches today teach that the Holy Spirit is received some time after we believe by the laying on of someone’s hands? No, we should not teach that, because the epistles contradict that doctrine (e.g. Ephesians 1:13-14).

With these principles, we read in Acts 8:12 that the Samaritans “believed Philip preaching the good news about the name of Jesus Christ.” There is no reason to doubt that these Samaritans genuinely believed. Philip had proclaimed Christ to them (8:5), he had performed signs of casting out unclean spirits and of healing the paralyzed and the lame (8:6, 7; see also 8:13). The expected result of preaching Christ and performing attesting miracles is that the people would believe. After they believe, the Samaritans are baptized, exactly according to the pattern at Pentecost.

KEY CONCEPT BASED ON ACTS 1:8

“When the apostles in Jerusalem (8:1) heard that Samaria had received the word of God, they sent Peter and John” to Samaria (8:14). Why did they send Peter to Samaria?

These events serve to introduce a KEY CONCEPT for understanding some of the events of Acts. Recall that Acts 1:8 is the theme verse for the book of Acts. According to that verse, the gospel of Jesus Christ will spread from Jerusalem to (all Judea and) Samaria and even to the remotest part of the earth (to the Gentiles). What we see happening is that, as each new threshold is crossed (the Jews in Jerusalem, the Samaritans in Samaria, and the Gentiles in Caesarea), the apostle Peter is required to confirm that salvation has actually come to each group and so that group may receive the Holy Spirit as a sign of their salvation. Accordingly, Peter is the one who preaches the sermon at Pentecost and declares that all those who repent and believe will receive the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:38). Here in Acts 8, although Philip has faithfully proclaimed the gospel and the Samaritans have genuinely believed, the Holy Spirit is withheld until Peter prays for them and lays his hands upon them (Acts 8:15-17). This is because Peter, as the lead apostle (Matt. 16:18-19; John 21:15-17), must confirm that the Samaritans are indeed included in the gospel before the Holy Spirit can be received. Finally, in Acts 10, when the gospel goes to the Gentiles, to Cornelius and his relatives in Caesarea, Peter is again there to confirm that “the Holy Spirit fell upon all those who were listening to the message” (Acts 10:44), when “the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out on the Gentiles also” (10:45). Peter “ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ” (10:48) because they had “received the Holy Spirit” (10:47) just as the Jews in Jerusalem had received Him on Pentecost.

CONCLUSION

The point is that, in this transition period, as the gospel of Jesus Christ is going out first to the Jews, then to the Samaritans, and finally to the Gentiles, the apostle Peter must confirm that each new group is truly included in the gospel before the Holy spirit is received. Thus, what occurs in Samaria in Acts 8, where there is genuine belief without the receiving of the Holy Spirit, is a one-time, unrepeated event and is not normative for the church age.

What is normative for the church age? Now that Peter has confirmed that the gospel has gone to all groups, whether Jew or Gentile, anyone from any group who has genuinely believed in the Lord Jesus receives the Holy Spirit immediately at salvation (see Romans 8:5, 9, 11, 14; 1 Cor. 12:7, 11, 13; Eph. 1:13-14; etc.). The teaching of the New Testament is that all believers are sealed and in-dwelt by the Holy Spirit from the moment of initial faith.

Soli Deo gloria            rmb                 12/29/2022                 #605