The Conversion of the Samaritans and a Magician

“But there was a certain man called Simon, who previously practiced sorcery in the city and astonished the people of Samaria, claiming that he was someone great…”

The second of the detailed conversions listed in order in the book of Acts is found in the eighth chapter (verses 1 through 25). It is the record of the conversion of first the people of Samaria and in particular, a man whose name is recorded only as Simon with no surname, and who, the record says, had practiced magic or sorcery. Our interest lies mainly with the details concerning Simon. That he is listed as a former “sorcerer” sounds much worse to us in this day than perhaps it should, and that is mainly because the details are not familiar to us.

The English word magic transliterates from the word found in this passage and that is translated as sorcery. Dr. W. E. Vine (a linguist of the biblical Greek) says this of the word — “’to practice magic,’ Acts 8:9, ‘used sorcery,’ is used… of Simon Magnus.” He also states this of the usage in verse 11: “’the magic art,’ is used in the plural in Acts 8:11, ‘sorceries.’” These are the only times this particular word occurs in the New Testament.

Simon Magnus (or Magus as listed below) was one of later legend whom some historians in ensuing ages listed as one-and-the-same as this Simon the Magician. But I rather enjoy reading what Dr. A. T. Robertson (another Greek linguist) had to say of both the name Simon and of the legends. Robertson stated, “Simon. One of the common names and a number of messianic pretenders had this name. A large number of traditions in the second and third centuries gathered round this man and Baur (leader of the German school of “higher” critics in the mid-nineteenth century – RAV) actually proposed that the Simon of the Clementine Homilies is really the apostle Paul though Paul triumphed over the powers of magic repeatedly (Acts 13:6—12, 19:11—19), ‘a perfect absurdity…’ One of these legends is that this Simon Magus of Acts is the father of heresy and went to Rome and was worshipped as a god (so Justin Martyr). But a stone found in the Tiber has an inscription to Semoni Sanco Deo Fidio Sacrum, which is clearly to Hercules, Sancus being a Sabine name for Hercules. The Simon in Samaria is simply one of the many magicians of the time before the later Gnosticism had gained a foothold.”

You can make up your own mind on all of that and you will have plenty of ammunition in either direction from which you might choose to fire. But for me, I think history’s record of Simon is all about heaping nonsense on top of nothing. The record in the sixth chapter of Acts is the only known and valid historical text. What can be said for certain is that this Simon had been a deceiver and a trickster, one who had used his knowledge of legerdemain to make a living, build a following and to gain reputation. That had been his true religion.

Tales grow faster than the truth, and the truth, in this case, has but little to say.

But let us once again see what it is that the truth does have to say. The same rules of examination should always apply. The passage should be read through at least twice. Then a highlighter and/or a pencil should be used to identify words or phrases of interest. Any unknown, difficult or unusual word (like magician or sorcerer) should be looked up in a common dictionary or a Bible lexicon, if you have one available. Then with some reflection, the main points should be written in your own words. Once accomplished, you will have your own study guide for each passage. Be complete and thorough.

These are some of the things that I have noted in my studies. Although the events take place in Samaria, the text says nothing about Simon’s own background or religion. We know nothing of Simon beyond what is said here and nothing of his heritage, his family (if he had one) or of his religion except to note that he was most likely a Jew by birth as his name (as noted) was a common male Jewish name of the period. As he was living in Samaria, if a Jew he certainly would not have been very popular amongst his own people. It is possible that he may have been a Samaritan, and also possible religiously that he was neither a practicing Jew nor a practitioner of the religion of the Samaritans. But nothing is said about any of these things.

He is listed as a person of note — someone of reputation. I already noted that he was on the edge of society by having been a practitioner of magic and then using that in Samaria to make his name. Yet by this time he was not any longer employing trickery to make his way as that had already been accomplished. He had been good enough at deception so that the people said that he was “the great power of God.” In effect we have the case here of a man practicing his own form of religion, one of his own making, and whose end was his enrichment and the advancement of his position. As such he became well known. The Samaritans were his flock. He worshipped at the church of his choice, and if you can’t find any televangelists, preachers, teachers, and notables around today who are doing the exact same things, then you need to have your eyes examined.

“But when they believed Philip as he preached the things concerning the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, both men and women were baptized. Then Simon himself also believed; and when he was baptized he continued with Philip, and was amazed, seeing the miracles and signs which were done.” This statement is to the effect that many believed Philip and the gospel message and among those was numbered Simon. What is not discussed here is any sinister or secret motive on Simon’s part. There has been a lot of conjecture from teachers that Simon was somehow insincere or that he was not a “true” believer. But the text lends no room for such theories or speculation, as it states only “Simon himself also believed…” Therefore nothing of this sort may then be inferred.

Simon was listed as a believer. Simon had been baptized to attain to this listed position. What is implied is that Simon heard the message Philip taught, and that he saw the works of God in the establishing of the gospel message, was convinced and convicted. What is plainly stated is that he believed those things and that he became a disciple upon his baptism. This is the same sequence of events that we noted previously in the essay on the first converts on Pentecost. Hear, believe, repent and be baptized. On these things the record remains unchallenged. There is nothing at all about spurious motives or feigned belief. Certainly Philip with his indwelling of the Spirit could tell the difference even though we may not be able.

“Simon… continued with Philip, amazed by the miracles and signs that were being done.” Simon knew the real thing when he saw it. He could tell the difference between true healings and fakery, between slight of hand or misdirection and the miracles of God. And Philip would likely not have allowed him to be a companion of his if he had any hint that Simon was off on some religious tangent.

In time (and it took time to get to Samaria — you couldn’t take the A train), once they heard of the conversion in Samaria, the disciples in Jerusalem sent Peter and John with a specific purpose — to transfer to the new disciples the person of the Holy Spirit.

We have noted this repeatedly on this site, but once again, here goes: the only way that the Holy Spirit might then be granted to others was through the hands of the apostles (aside from the two and only two occurrences of Baptism of the Holy Spirit — of which this is not). This is exactly what is explained and proven in verses 14 through 17. In order that the new disciples in Samaria might have guidance in the word of God, they were to be granted the presence of the Holy Spirit, but this could only be affected through prayer by and through the laying on of the hands of the twelve. This is what the record states. Notice that it nowhere states that all of the converted were to have this indwelling.

Simon observes the granting of the miraculous gifts and the passing of the presence of the Holy Spirit through the actions of the two apostles and decided that he would like to have a piece of that, and so he offered them money so that he might be able to grant the presence of the Holy Spirit to whom he might have chosen. To speculate on his motives is irrelevant. The text states that his heart was not right with God in asking for this gift (verse 21), and that is certainly sufficient. But we can identify why his request was a sin.

First, money has nothing at all to do with God’s work. You cannot purchase your salvation. You cannot buy your way into God’s favor. Second, Simon had nothing at all to do with the working of the Comforter in the gospel plan of salvation, and nothing at all to do with the sending or reception of the Holy Spirit there in Samaria or anywhere else at any time. This was the singular domain of the twelve apostles and of the apostle to the Gentiles. No one else had any part to play in that. And third (but most important), Simon had no idea at all what he was asking for, and his asking was with the intent that he might be the one through whom the power of God was passed — he was still thinking about himself and not about God. This was the old Simon the Sorcerer taking over again. And all of this is sufficient to understand Simon’s error.

When Simon drew out his purse, Peter answered him addressing each of these things in order just as we noted above. “Your money perish with you, because you thought that the gift of God could be purchased with money. You have neither part nor portion in this matter, for your heart is not right in the sight of God.” (V. 20 — 21) Peter then called for Simon to repent, “Repent therefore of this your wickedness, and pray God if perhaps the thought of your heart may be forgiven you. For I see that you are poisoned by bitterness and bound by iniquity.” Notice that Peter stated that Simon was overtaken in sin and that his soul was in danger, as apparently he did not prefer the reproof of the apostle and he was not of a mind to be corrected very easily. You and I probably would not react differently.

When the apostle concluded, Simon asked for his prayers on his behalf. His words: “Pray to the Lord for me, that none of the things which you have spoken may come upon me.” It can be inferred from the remarks that Simon was at the least somewhat unwilling to be told that he had sinned in this matter, but that doesn’t change the call or the need for repentance. At least he was granted some time to think about what he had done and his need for repentance, and that unlike Ananias and Sapphira who also sinned openly, he apparently lived to see another day. I will not speculate as to whether or not he repented, for the scriptures are silent on that. All that we know is that the need was presented, that he was given the opportunity, and that he requested the prayers of the apostles on his behalf. But we must also note that nothing is recorded of him stating that he had done wrong and no record exists stating that he voiced any sorrow or had repented. Yet to suggest that he continued on in sin is more speculation, as once again the scriptures are silent on the outcome, and we should have some respect for that.

At the end of these things, some other facts can be assigned beyond the things we have already identified. The required items necessary to salvation or in becoming Christians are so far identified as hearing the word of God, believing what is taught from the word, and repentance and baptism. Simon had trouble turning from the way of the world (we don’t even know if he made the second turn). We are not any different.

Each of the Samaritans had to hear and respond to the gospel as taught by Philip, and then be baptized when they believed and Simon was listed among them. Baptism of the Holy Spirit is not so much as mentioned, and the indwelling of the Spirit then could not be any prerequisite for becoming a Christian. Indeed, there is no evidence that Simon ever received the presence of the Spirit (and that would certainly be contrary to the very teaching that Peter put forth). It is not baptism of the Spirit to which the Samaritans and Simon had submitted, but rather baptism in water. It is still hear, believe, repent, and be baptized.

Therefore, aside from the attendant details, this conversion identifies the same items as necessary in putting on Christ as did the previous: to hear the word, to believe what is heard, to turn from the old way and to the new, and to be baptized in water. That some (or even possibly all — we simply cannot tell) of the Samaritans eventually benefited from an indwelling of the Spirit is incidental to the manner in which they became Christians.

If you need to come to Christ today, what then should you do? Would you wait for the spirit to overtake you late in the night? Would you wait for the answer to a prayer? Or would you be wiser to do what the religious men on Pentecost and now the Samaritans did? To hear, believe, repent, and be baptized. The choice is yours, just as it was mine, and just as had been theirs.

In the next installment we will assess the attendant details in the conversion of the treasury of Ethiopia found in this same chapter.