May 19, 2024. Sermon Title: The Persecution Begins

First Mennonite Church

May 19, 2024

Acts 8 The Persecution Begins

Text: Acts 8:1-25

In Acts chapter six, Luke tells of the first internal problem the community of believers experienced. There were complaints of uneven distribution of food among the widows in the group. The widows of Gentile background were not getting the same attention and care as the widows of Hebrew background. To solve the problem, Peter and the Apostle asked the community to select among itself seven men who would be in charge of the ministry of food distribution. Among these seven Hellenist men selected were Stephen and Phillip. By the end of chapter six, we find Stephen exceeding his role as a deacon responsible for food distribution. He was leading a powerful ministry of proclamation of the gospel accompanied by miracles. However, at the instigation of various groups, false witnesses accused Stephen of blaspheming against God, thus the council of the Sanhedrin ordered Stephen to be arrested.  Chapter seven deals with Stephen’s trial and ends with his death by stoning.

Chapter eight begins by telling us who approved of Stephen’s death—Saul.

Saul as Persecutor of the Church (Acts 8:1-3)

Up to this point, it had only been the Apostles who had had some brushes with the authorities. The large and growing community of believers had been spared from the troubles of opposition. However, the day Stephen was executed, the unexpected happened. A severe persecution broke out against the entire community of believers. Saul began to destroy the church. Going from house to house, he dragged off both men and women and put them in prison. Saul, who would later be known as the Apostle Paul, turns from a passive witness, consenting to the death of Stephen to an aggressive attacker of the Hellenist (Gentile) part of the church. Such was Saul’s desire to destroy the community that he went from house to house, arresting both men and women.

In Paul’s testimony about his life before his conversion, he says the following: If someone else thinks they have reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for righteousness based on the law, faultless (Philippians 3:4-6).

Saul was a much revered Pharisee and thus was extremely jealous about any perceived danger of deviation from his religion. He could not tolerate Gentile converts to Judaism speaking as if they were full-blooded Hebrews, as Stephen did before the Sanhedrin. Saul saw in this growing and powerful community a competing force, especially in relationship to the temple. Saul’s anger was so blinding that he could not perceive God’s obvious work and presence among the apostles.

Phillip in Samaria Read 8:4-8

Therefore, the ensuing persecution made the disciples flee from Jerusalem, and Philip ended up in Samaria. It is amazing how in God’s providence, Jesus’ commission to preach the good news starting in Jerusalem, throughout Judea, to Samaria, and to the ends of the earth, came to be fulfilled by the persecution Saul was leading. The commission Jesus gave in Acts 1:8 is fulfilled in Acts 8:1. Phillip, like Stephen, carried out a powerful ministry of preaching and healing among the Samaritans. The lame and paralytic walked; those oppressed or possessed by the devil were liberated. So there was great joy in that city, Luke tells us.

Simon the Magus (Acts 8:9-13)

Phillip’s ministry summary is really captivating. The works of wonders God was performing through him, not only brought well-being to many and was a cause of great joy in the city, but also caught the attention of Simon. Simon for a long time had held the attention of all the people, both high and low. Simon was more than a celebrity among all the Samaritans of this city. He was regarded as the “Great Power of God” in human form because of his tricks and magic. But as the people began to believe Phillip’s gospel message and were being baptized in the name of the Lord, Simon’s popularity came to a screeching halt. The citizens of this city came to the realization that God was indeed behind everything Phillip was saying and doing. Phillip was not calling attention to himself nor to the works of power he was performing, but emphasizing God’s kingdom and Jesus as God’s Messiah. Verse 13 tells us: Simon himself believed and was baptized. And he followed Philip everywhere, astonished by the great signs and miracles he saw. From this statement, we would believe that even Simon was saved. Luke tells us that Simon believed and was baptized. He followed Phillip everywhere but his eyes were on the great signs and miracles. We will come to Simon again farther down.

Simon Peter and John Come to Samaria (Acts 8:14-25)

The news of Phillip’s successful ministry among the Samaritans reached the apostles in Jerusalem. Thus, as a way to show solidarity with the newly formed congregation and in the exercise of their spiritual authority to provide oversight of the Jesus movement, Peter and John came to visit Phillip and the new congregation. Luke tells us that when Peter and John came, they prayed for the new believers, laying their hands upon them so that they might receive the Holy Spirit. We are not told the reason why these new believers had not received the Holy Spirit, even after being baptized in the name of Jesus. In other cases, the Holy Spirit came without any prompting. Only here and in Acts 19 we find that men received the Holy Spirit through the laying of hands on them.

It could be that Peter’s and John’s prayer for the new believers to receive the Holy Spirit was because, according to Jesus’ command and promise, the Spirit’s empowerment was necessary for the fulfillment of their mission. “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (1:8). The newly formed community of believers in Samaria needed to be empowered and commissioned to carry on the work of their Lord also.

Simon was now watching Peter and John, and he kept his eyes focused on what the apostles were doing. As they laid their hands on the believers and prayed, the Holy Spirit came upon the believer. Simon was fascinated by that power.  We do not know what exactly happened or in what ways the new believers demonstrated receipt of the Holy Spirit, but Simon wanted the power to dispense the Holy Spirit too. So he reached out for his wallet and offered cash (because Peter did not have a credit card reader). “Give me also this power (exousia= legal authority) so that everyone on whom I lay my hands may receive the Holy Spirit.” If Simon had used his fast hands to perform tricks and magic, he now wanted to use his hands to dispense the Holy Spirit at his own discretion. He wanted to use God’s gift for self-aggrandizement.

Peter did not spare words to rebuke Simon.  “May your money perish with you, because you thought you could buy the gift of God with money! Peter said, “Repent of this wickedness and pray to the Lord in the hope that he may forgive you for having such a thought in your heart. For I see that you are full of bitterness and captive to sin.” J.B. Phillip’s New Testament translation puts it this way: “To hell with you and your money! How dare you think you could buy the gift of God!

Peter was harsh in his rebuke of Simon. Peter had himself been harshly rebuked. “Get behind me Satan,” he once was told. And still, yet, Peter also earned Paul harsh rebuke according to Galatians two, eleven.

There are some lessons we can learn from this passage. There certainly can be more, but here are four.

  1. Although Phillip’s ministry to the Samaritans was part of fulfilling Jesus’ commission to witness there, Phillip’s witnessing there was obviously not the result of intentional obedience to that commission. Phillip went to Samaria because he was fleeing persecution. However, Phillip most likely could not keep silent about his faith, thus he proclaimed Jesus as God’s Messiah. Oftentimes, hardship and challenges faced by Christians lead them to share the good news in ways or places they never expected to do. God can use situations of personal inconvenience as springboards to share our faith. Challenges can actually become opportunities if we allow God to use us. So, what challenges are you facing today in which God can use you to share about him? Sickness can be one of those situations, where you can share with others from a non-anxious heart because of God’s peace in you. Personal tragedies or losses can also be. God can use your experience to comfort others as the Lord has also comforted you in your loss.
  2. When Peter and John laid hands on the Samaritan converts, they received the Holy Spirit. Although these converts had been baptized in the name of Jesus, they had not received the Holy Spirit. Some see the baptism in the Holy Spirit as a second act of God’s grace to us. This view states that some believers can be baptized yet their full Christian experience is still lacking the Holy Spirit indwelling in them. For that reason, they seek the laying of hands on them as they find Peter and John doing here. We do not know why exactly that was the case. But, for instance in Romans 8, verse 9, when put in a positive manner, Paul says if we belong to Christ, we also have the Holy Spirit. We need to realize that belonging to Christ is not based on the certainty that we do, but on the commitment that we have with the Lord. That is, we belong to Christ and have his Spirit because we commit ourselves to obey him, love him, serve him, seek him, and honor him in every way. This love and desire to please the Lord give us joy regardless of the cost because the Holy Spirit empowers us to live that way.
  3. Simon the Magus had cast a spell on all the citizens from the lowest to the highest of them all through his magic. Simon had enjoyed the attention given to him and he, himself, believed to be someone great. However, when the people began to give their fullest attention to the message of Phillip and God’s performing of miracles through him, Simon was left alone. After he saw the miracles Simon believed and was baptized too. But as we can see, Luke emphasizes what Simon is doing. He was more focused on what was happening and less on whom it was coming. Simon followed Phillip everywhere, watching what he was doing, and when Peter and John came, he did the same. Yet, while he was among the believers and fulfilled the external practice of the faith, which was baptism, in his heart he remained a magician who craved control over others.

Simon the magician remains a reminder that faith in the Lord is more than just the external practices of a religion. It is yielding our hearts to the Lordship of Jesus Christ. It is wanting to be God’s instrument and not wanting to use God or religion for selfish purposes.

  • Simon the magician was believed by some of the ancients to have been the founder of a very dangerous cult, one that became a thorn in the side of Christianity in its early days. Luke follows Scripture and thus confines magic to demonic forces (see Acts 13:10; 19:13-20). Magicians exercised real power and influence over people, but it was always for the benefit of the magician, very much like sect or cult leaders or false prophets and apostles, as described in the Scriptures. There are three distressing facts when it comes to cults and sects. The first is that Christians are prime targets for cults. All too many cult members or members of a sect are genuine about their beliefs that God speaks through their leader. However, it is often the case that these cult or sect followers are poorly grounded in the Scriptures. Therefore the absolute importance of knowing the Word of God. These cult leaders always claim to have a unique touch with God. The second distressing fact is that a number of cult founders and leaders oftentimes have their beginning within the evangelical world, but depart from it. The third distressing fact is that some of the cults are so close to Christianity, at least in their professions and in their propaganda, that it is difficult to determine whether they are really Christian or not.

So, let us get ourselves familiar with Scriptures. Let us be enthralled with God’s love and desire for our lives. Let us seek to discern the will and truth in the community of believers. I want to leave with this word from the apostle Paul to the Thessalonians:

19 Do not quench the Spirit. 20 Do not treat prophecies with contempt 21 but test them all; hold on to what is good. (1Thessalonians 5:19-21). Amen!

Pastor Romero