Acts 8:9-11 9 Now for some time a man named Simon had practiced sorcery in the city and amazed all the people of Samaria. He boasted that he was someone great, 10 and all the people, both high and low, gave him their attention and exclaimed, “This man is the divine power known as the Great Power.” 11 They followed him because he had amazed them for a long time with his magic.
I guess you could say that Simon the Sorcerer had cast a spell on the people of Samaria. Sorcery is basically witchcraft which isn’t the same as an illusion or slight-of-hand trick. Sorcery involves doing magic through the help of demonic powers. That kind of magic is known as “black magic.” It is real. It is being practiced widely today.
Kurt Koch, the outstanding German theologian and, indeed, an expert in this area has personally handled over 20,000 personal case studies of demon activity in his counseling. He gives the following examples of common demonic magic going on today.
A man dabbled in black magic for years. He specialized in stealing milk from the neighbor’s farmer…neighboring farmers. He would tie a towel to a doorknob, then murmur his magic phrases and squeeze milk out of the towel while the farmers in the neighboring farms found their cows going dry. A young man whom a doctor described as schizophrenic confessed to the ability to kill animals at some distance away from him merely through using his powers of magic. In Toggenburg, Switzerland, on several occasions, serious people confessed that they had the power to kill horses, cows, and pigs with the power of black magic. In reply to the question how they received their ability, the told the counselor they had subscribed themselves with their own blood to the devil. (http://www.gty.org/resources/sermons/1218/demons-and-magic)
We will see as we move through our story that Simon’s heart longed for power and prestige and was filled with pride. Perhaps that was what led him to make a pact with the devil and to be able to do the things he did that caused people to follow him.
Listen, God expressly forbid His followers to be engaged with sorcery, witchcraft, or black magic on any level (Deuteronomy 18:10-12). To say that Satan was alive and well in Samaria was an understatement. Look again at verses 9 and 11. The word “amazed” is used twice. The people of Samaria were amazed by Simon and by what he could do with his magic, his witchcraft, his sorcery. Not only were they amazed by him, but verse 10 says they gave him their attention. They looked to him as divine, verse 10, and I would go so far as to say they worshiped him in some form or fashion as they called him the “Great Power.” Not only were they amazed by him, not only did they give him their attention, but they also followed him. This wasn’t a one-time episode where he did something impressive and they were mesmerized and then dismissed it and went back to life as usual, but they were following him. They were aligning themselves with him. They were watching him. They were invested in what he was doing.
Not only were the people of Samaria lauding and applauding him, but he was lauding and applauding himself. Look at the end of verse 9 again. He was boasting that he was someone great. He promoted himself because he wanted to be followed. He elevated himself above the people as someone special. (Duh, duh, dum)
Enter, Philip, filled with the Holy Spirit, to Samaria.
Acts 8:5-85 Philip went down to a city in Samaria and proclaimed the Christ there.
6 When the crowds heard Philip and saw the miraculous signs he did, they all paid close attention to what he said. 7 With shrieks, evil spirits came out of many, and many paralytics and cripples were healed. 8 So there was great joy in that city.
12 But when they believed Philip as he preached the good news of the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptized, both men and women.
Let’s remind ourselves what is taking place at this time. The Holy Spirit had been poured out on thousands of people in Jerusalem. Jesus had told His followers in Acts 1:8 that they would receive power when the Holy Spirit came upon them to be His witnesses in Jerusalem and Judea and Samaria and the uttermost parts of the earth. Philip was living out that promise of Jesus as he entered Samaria. Up to this time the apostles who were preaching Christ had only gone to the Jewish people. Here we see Philip taking the Gospel to the mixed race of Samaria. Their ancestry included both Jewish and pagan affiliations.
While Simon practiced sorcery in Samaria and proclaimed himself, Philip proclaimed Christ and performed exorcisms and healings. Simon practiced a satanic method. Philip proclaimed a message and performed a ministry in the power of the Holy Spirit. Notice that verse 8 says there was great joy in the city. Listen, joy is a by-product of the Holy Spirit. When people are truly converted by the Spirit of God they will have joy in the Lord.
When Simon did his sorcery people were amazed, yes, but when Philip preached the good news of the Kingdom of God and the Name of Jesus Christ people paid close attention to what Philip said (verse 6) and people were baptized (verse 12). So the power of Pentecost was still moving in a mighty way as people who had been amazed by the devil’s power were now submitting to the message of salvation and were being baptized indicating that they desired to walk in this new way, this Christ-way of life.
13 Simon himself believed and was baptized.
At first read that sounds like good news. That sounds like there needed to be a candle lighting in Samaria and the folks who had followed Simon needed to sing, “Look What the Lord Has Done.” But as we will see in a minute, belief and faith can sometimes be two different things.
Now remember, up to this point the people had been following Simon. The little conjunction in verse 12 is very important. Verse 11 says people were following Simon but when they heard Philip preach they were converted and baptized. In other words, the attention of the crowd shifted from Simon to Philip. And then in verse 13 Simon himself believed and was baptized, and what could we infer from the text was the basis of his belief? He was astonished by the great signs and miracles he saw. Ok, that sounds reasonable. Who wouldn’t be astonished by people being healed and devils exiting people with a shriek?
Let’s go on in the text:
14 When the apostles in Jerusalem heard that Samaria had accepted the word of God, they sent Peter and John to them. 15 When they arrived, they prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit, 16 because the Holy Spirit had not yet come upon any of them; they had simply been baptized into the name of the Lord Jesus. 17 Then Peter and John placed their hands on them, and they received the Holy Spirit.
Why did it take the laying on of hands from Peter and John in order for the Samaritans to receive the Holy Spirit? Remember the rivalry between the Jews and the Samaritans? Remember that at Pentecost the Holy Spirit was to be poured out on all people? Scholars say that by using Peter and John to lay hands on the Samaritans, he was bringing unity to the church. Rather than have a Jewish Church that followed Jesus and a Samaritan church that followed Jesus and then later a Gentile church that followed Jesus, the Holy Spirit was being given in such a way to bring everyone together into one glorious church. Remember the words of Galatians 3:26-29 26 You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus, 27 for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 28 There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. 29 If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.
Even the way the Holy Spirit’s power was spreading was communicating, “We’re in this together.”
18 When Simon saw that the Spirit was given at the laying on of the apostles’ hands, he offered them money 19 and said, “Give me also this ability so that everyone on whom I lay my hands may receive the Holy Spirit.”
So, the plot thickens as we see into the motivation of Simon’s belief and baptism. He believed, was baptized and followed Philip, but did he believe and follow Jesus? The text is pretty telling. His interest was in adding to his supernatural abilities. He was following Philip for personal gain. He was losing his following. Philip had been gaining his following, and so in an effort to reclaim his title as the “Great Power” he offered the apostles money in exchange for the ability to lay hands on people and have them to receive the Holy Spirit.
Listen, belief and baptism are nothing without a personal faith in Jesus Christ. Scripture says even the demons believe in God, James 2:19. Even the demons know who Jesus is, Luke 8:28. In John 2:23-25 we read, 23 Now while he was in Jerusalem at the Passover Feast, many people saw the miraculous signs he was doing and believed in his name. 24 But Jesus would not entrust himself to them, for he knew all men. 25 He did not need man’s testimony about man, for he knew what was in a man.
The people in this John passage believe in Jesus intellectually, but they didn’t have a heart experience with Him. If an intellectual belief was all it took to be saved, many would probably choose Christ. But being converted, being saved, being changed involves the laying down of pride. It involves the willingness to confess that we aren’t the “Great Power.” We can’t save ourselves, and our hearts have to be transformed by the power of God.
20 Peter answered: “May your money perish with you, because you thought you could buy the gift of God with money! 21 You have no part or share in this ministry, because your heart is not right before God. 22 Repent of this wickedness and pray to the Lord. Perhaps he will forgive you for having such a thought in your heart. 23 For I see that you
are full of bitterness and captive to sin.
Simon the Sorcerer hadn’t truly been converted. He may have believed that Philip had supernatural power. He may have even believed his power was from God, but he hadn’t repented of his sins and experienced a resurrection in his heart through the power of the Holy Spirit. Peter’s description of Simon’s heart is interesting. Only God knows what is in a person’s heart. The Holy Spirit had to be at work in order to reveal to Peter what he said about Simon’s heart. He said he needed to repent in his heart. He said he was full of bitterness and captive to sin.
Full of bitterness, and captive to sin. Let’s talk for a minute about bitterness. Let me share some definitions for bitterness: angry, unhappy, exhibiting intense animosity, marked by cynicism. That doesn’t seem like the definition of a Christ-follower or the description of someone who has been impacted by the love of God in their hearts. It struck me that in several ways, bitterness is the opposite of love or at least they are opposed to one another. We can’t love God correctly with bitterness in our hearts. We can’t love others correctly with bitterness in our hearts. I mean, how could we come to church and sing, “You are awesome in this place, mighty God” if we are shaking our fist at God? How could we be in peaceful, productive and healthy relationships with people if we are angry, exhibiting intense animosity and are cynical about their every move?
Perhaps that is why Scripture challenges us to get rid of all bitterness (Ephesians 4). Bitterness is like a weed. It grows. It spreads. Over time it dominates and chokes the joy, peace, and love for God and others out of us. We have to get rid of all of it. We are warned not to let any bitter root spring up in our lives. Hebrews 12:15, “See to it that no one misses the grace of God and that no bitter root grows up to cause trouble and defile many.”
A heart full of bitterness needs to be graced by the grace of God. Trouble comes from bitterness. Many people get hurt because of it. Bitterness has power to destroy a person from the inside out. Mentally and emotionally it can change the way you see the world, change the way you see people, and change the way you see God. It is like poison to your being. It keeps you from seeing and acknowledging the truth. It hides your own flaws and weaknesses as it puts the focus on what someone else has done to you. It also puts up walls between you and God. One of the biggest problems with bitterness is that attached to it is a spirit that absolutely flat out refuses reconciliation. When bitterness gets rooted in a person’s heart and mind people are divided, friendships are lost, marriages are destroyed, and churches split. Bitterness leads people to do all kinds of crazy in order to hurt and destroy people which leads me to the next thing Peter said about Simon.
Peter also said of Simon that he was still a captive to sin. Romans 6:14 says of those who have been converted, “For sin shall not be your master, because you are not under law, but under grace.” We are all slaves of sin until we repent of our sin and ask Jesus to forgive us and to become our Master, our Lord, our Savior. When that happens, spiritually speaking, there is a change of ownership in our lives. Satan no longer has rights or claims to us, but at that point we become children of God. You can’t be captive to sin, that is mastered by sin, obedient to sin as a lifestyle and be following Christ at the same time.
The Holy Spirit isn’t looking to have a roommate in your heart. His goal is to remove you from the darkness of sin and from the grip of Satan and to free you to love and serve God. And Simon’s heart was full of bitterness and full of sin and from that broken and unrepentant state he tried to buy the power of the Holy Spirit. The sorcery he had been doing he did by the power of the devil. He thought he could now mix that with the power of God? He couldn’t even see the folly of his request. At the center of sin is self. Self has to be dethroned in order for God to take his rightful place in your life. Sin says, “I want to do what I want to do whenever and however I want to do it.” When Christ is on the throne the goal is to seek and do the will of God. If we continue to be the masters of our lives, we will continue to be mastered by sin. If we allow Jesus to become Lord, He will free us from the grip of sin that seeks to continue to dominate us.
Peter told him he was doomed for destruction if he didn’t repent. He told him he wouldn’t be able to be involved in the ministry of Jesus if he didn’t repent. After Peter told him to repent and pointed out the condition of his heart, do you think Simon got right with God through submitting to Christ? Do you think he stopped right there and said, “You’re right. I was following after you for the wrong reasons. I would like to back up, confess my sins, and accept Jesus as my Savior.” Was his immediate concern on the bitterness and the sin in his heart? Look at verse 24.
24 Then Simon answered, “Pray to the Lord for me so that nothing you have said may happen to me.”
Simon never saw himself as a sinner in need of a Savior. Even though Peter told him what was wrong and what needed to be fixed and how to fix it he couldn’t accept his broken condition. He saw himself as the Great Power. Simon’s pride kept himself from seeing himself correctly. His quest for power and prestige had him focused on himself rather than on God.
The Scriptures don’t say what happened to Simon after that, but early church writers like Justin Martyr and Irenaeus say he was an antichrist and continued his sorcery and that he even founded Gnosticism which is heresy. Gnostics basically believe that salvation comes through knowledge rather than faith in the finished work of Christ. They claim their knowledge is a higher knowledge than that of the Bible and that only few possess their kind of knowledge. Simon’s desire for power led to the development of a modern word called “simony” which is “using religion as a means of profit.”
Simon was amazed by the miracles, but not by the message of the Gospel. A miracle without a message is a temporary experience, but a miracle with a Gospel message is a transforming experience. Every miracle Jesus did wasn’t about showing what He could do, but it was about revealing who He was and who He wanted to be to each person He touched. He was compassionate, He was tender, He was a friend, He was supportive, He was a strength-giver, He was an encourager, He was a Provider, He was a teacher, He was a revealer of truth, He was the way to God. He is still all of those things and more. Every time He performed a miracle it was to reveal His identity and the role He longed to play in every person’s life.
What is so telling about this encounter with Simon is this reality: A person can come extremely close to Christ and still miss salvation. It is more than an intellectual belief, but it involves the laying down of your life in order to take up the life of Christ. Simon is proof that people can see the miracles of God and still just want the miracle rather than want the Master.
What do you want today? Do you want to give your attention to the Gospel message like the people of Samaria did? Do you want to get rid of bitterness in your heart? Do you want to be free from the grip of sin which only leads to destruction? Do you want the PERSON of Jesus in your life every day more than some kind of prestige or power? Do you want to be part of the one, true church by allowing the Holy Spirit to come into your heart and do the work of Jesus? You see, God’s power isn’t given to us first and foremost so that we can do signs and wonders, but it is given so that He can do His miraculous transforming work inside of us. God’s power isn’t meant to merely amaze or impress us, but it is meant to change us.
What do you want today? Do you want a relationship with God or some supernatural power to continue to run your life the way you want? There is no shortage of things vying for your attention today. Many things right now in this moment may even be competing for your thoughts. I know this; the Word of God deserves our attention, just like the attention the Samaritans gave it. To be apathetic to this word, to dismiss this word, to minimize or marginalize it, to relegate it to being useful for someone else, to put it off or try to put it in a box that you don’t have to deal with is exactly what Satan wants you to do today.
When Simon was confronted by Peter, he was really being confronted by the Holy Spirit. It was the Holy Spirit who had exposed what was in Simon’s heart to Peter. If you prayed that the Holy Spirit would speak to you today, I guarantee He had a message to deliver in response to your prayer. Give His Word your attention. Give His heart your affection. Let Him have His will and way in your life today.