Through her time in Jerusalem the church of Acts 1-7 was prepared for a world-wide future (Ac 1:8). Now the day has dawned for her to move out. Some believers spread into Judea, but others go further and enter Samaria (Ac 8:1). This might be expected to cause trouble since this northern kingdom has had a bad relationship with its southern neighbour for centuries (1Ki 12:16). Their long and complicated history has left the semi-Jewish Samaritans with an alternative worship site (Jo 4:20) and a place in Jewish minds as despised (Jo 4:9) foreigners (Lk 17:16-18); reunification of the two peoples seems impossible. Yet here the Christian church begins the task successfully as Philip preaches that Jesus is God’s king, to responsive crowds (Ac 8:5-8). Repairing rifts like this is at the heart of the Christian message. God has shown great mercy to us; we must feel the need to show mercy to others (Mt 18:35). In the church we are to put aside all kinds of differences which might separate us, in order to build loving unity in Christ (1Co 12:12-13) by his Spirit.
Unity, however, must also build on truth, as Jesus once told a Samaritan woman (Jo 4:22,23). That’s what we see here. The city Philip visits has been under the influence of a conman named Simon, whose lies have entranced many and given him a great, but false, reputation (v9-11). Philip’s proclamation of Jesus’ name, however, breaks the spell (v12). As he tells them of Jesus’ life, teaching, death and resurrection, the true message comes with a peculiar power and many are baptised in response, giving a remarkable commitment to this Jewish king. Such beautiful unity has broken out, which is then strengthened by Luke’s comment on how both sexes come to faith. Every citizen in Jesus’ kingdom, male and female, needs their own faith in him (Ga 3:26-29) and becomes his disciple (Lk 10:39). It’s true that Jesus does call just men into leadership roles in his church – hence the 12 male apostles. But this flows from his upholding of the creation pattern of temporary marriage (Ge 2:20-23) designed by God for life now (Mt 19: 4,5). Jesus knows that the eternal, resurrection world will be a different place (Mt 22:30).
Strikingly, Simon also joins the baptised (v13), having been deeply impressed by the signs Philip performs; clearly, his own wonders were no more than the act of a highly skilled trickster. But, as we see with Simon, Philip’s miracles do not have, in themselves, the power to convert. Indeed, miracles can garner too much interest and divert people away from the message of Jesus. The temporary kindness of a miracle can be all a person is focussed on, which is why Jesus and his apostles had to handle them with care. The miracles of the early days of the church are really like the celebrations given when a new king is crowned. They’re exciting, proclaim his rule and give a taste of the rich and bountiful life he hopes his citizens will enjoy one day. But they do not provide the long-term life of the kingdom. So it is with King Jesus. The miracle Christians now should focus on is that of the resurrection life which has been promised to all who believe in Christ through the message of the gospel. That miracle will never fade.
Well, back in Jerusalem the apostles hear of Samaria’s turn and send Peter and John to visit (v14). But it’s no ordinary trip. These two key leaders go in order to ratify what Philip has done. Jesus said he’d extend into Samaria (Ac 1:8); the apostles, as his representatives, go to confirm this has now happened. Believing it has, they request the Lord’s approval (v15,16) which he gives by giving the Holy Spirit to the Samaritan church in an unrepeatable event (v17). That, however, brings out Simon’s true colours. He’s still all about power & influence, and so tries to buy what the apostles have got (v18,19). This brings a stinging rebuke from Peter (v20,21) and the warning that he must turn from such wickedness and seek forgiveness (v22,23); Simon is left shaken (v24). Did he repent? Later Christian history does not speak well of his future career in Rome. But we must certainly learn. The Holy Spirit is with us to teach humility and love, not pride and boasting; to build a church on service not money. We must ask if this is how we live.