9 But there was a man named Simon, who had previously practiced magic in the city and amazed the people of Samaria, saying that he himself was somebody great. 10 They all paid attention to him, from the least to the greatest, saying, “This man is the power of God that is called Great.” 11 And they paid attention to him because for a long time he had amazed them with his magic. 12 But when they believed Philip as he preached good news about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptized, both men and women. 13 Even Simon himself believed, and after being baptized he continued with Philip. And seeing signs and great miracles performed, he was amazed. 14 Now when the apostles at Jerusalem heard that Samaria had received the word of God, they sent to them Peter and John, 15 who came down and prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit, 16 for he had not yet fallen on any of them, but they had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. 17 Then they laid their hands on them and they received the Holy Spirit. 18 Now when Simon saw that the Spirit was given through the laying on of the apostles’ hands, he offered them money, 19 saying, “Give me this power also, so that anyone on whom I lay my hands may receive the Holy Spirit.” 20 But Peter said to him, “May your silver perish with you, because you thought you could obtain the gift of God with money! 21 You have neither part nor lot in this matter, for your heart is not right before God. 22 Repent, therefore, of this wickedness of yours, and pray to the Lord that, if possible, the intent of your heart may be forgiven you. 23 For I see that you are in the gall of bitterness and in the bond of iniquity.” 24 And Simon answered, “Pray for me to the Lord, that nothing of what you have said may come upon me.” 25 Now when they had testified and spoken the word of the Lord, they returned to Jerusalem, preaching the gospel to many villages of the Samaritans.
The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church is a fascinating resource and a valuable one. It is a great big book that contains helpful articles on various issues related to Christianity and the Christian Church. One of the entries in the book describes a particular crime that became widespread pretty early on in Christian history and against which the Church has had to fight in many different places and in many different ways. The crime I am speaking of is what is referred to as “simony.” Here is what The Oxford Dictionary of the Church says about simony.
The term …denotes the purchase or sale of spiritual things…[S]imony became frequent in the Christian Church after the age of the persecutions. The Council of Chalcedon (451) forbade ordination to any order for money. St. Gregory the Great later vigorously denounced the same evil. It came to be very widespread in the Middle Ages, esp. in its form of traffic in ecclesiastical preferment, which was frequently forbidden, e.g. by the Third Lateran Council (1179). It was treated in detail by St. Thomas Aquinas and again strenuously opposed by the Council of Trent…In post-Reformation England the English Canons of 1604 exacted an oath from all ordinands and recipients of benefices to the effect that their offices had not been obtained by simoniacal transactions.
This offense, simony, is still forbidden today. Why is it called simony? It is called simony because of a gentleman we are going to meet tonight: Simon Magus, or Simon the Magician. What Simon did in the passage we will now consider was so shameful and so wrongheaded that has name is now affixed to the ugly act of attempting to purchase a position in the Church.
We have seen that the martyrdom of Stephen unleashed a persecution that led to the scattering of the Church and the spread of the gospel, for as the Church scattered, it preached. One such person was Philip the deacon who traveled to a city in Samaria and was doing great things there. As Philip grew in fame and in the respect of the people, he caught the attention of another man, Simon, who was likewise famous in the region, but for very different reason.
To get at that strange episode of Simon the Magician, let us consider two essential truths.
It is possible for a person to want the gifts of Christ more than Christ and then to mistake this desire for gifts as genuine belief.
The story of Simon is a strange one, and a significant one. It serves as a cautionary tale against all who would attempt to reduce spiritual matters to commodities.
9 But there was a man named Simon, who had previously practiced magic in the city and amazed the people of Samaria, saying that he himself was somebody great. 10 They all paid attention to him, from the least to the greatest, saying, “This man is the power of God that is called Great.” 11 And they paid attention to him because for a long time he had amazed them with his magic.
It needs to be understood that a magician in the first century was not like a magician in our day. In our day, all but the gullible watch magicians knowing that it is a trick. Our response to a magician is, “How did he do that?” In the first century a magician was considered to be a man with real spiritual power. Likely, he did have a kind of power, though, of course, we would see that power as emanating from the kingdom of darkness and not from God.
Clinton Arnold notes that “although no hard examples of first-century Samaritan practices of magic survive today, over 230 papyrus documents have been discovered illustrating the practice of magic generally for the Greco-Roman period.” He then quotes an example from “a Greek magical papyrus discovered in Egypt and now housed in the British Museum in London.”
Come to me, spirit that flies in the air, called with secret codes and unutterable names, at this lamp divination which I perform, and enter into the boy’s soul, that he may receive the immortal form in mighty and incorruptible light, because while chanting, I call, “IAO ELOAI MARMACHADA MENEPHO MERMAI IEOR AIEO EREPHIE PHEREPHIO CHANDOUCH AMON EREPNEU ZONOR AKLEUA MENETHONI KADALAPEU IO PLAITINE RE [an additional seventeen magical names are called upon].”
This gives us a bit of a sense of the kinds of things Simon Magus was likely doing. He was likely invoking spiritual powers that had bound him and were binding others in spiritual darkness. It is into this charged atmosphere that Philip comes with the gospel.
12 But when they believed Philip as he preached good news about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptized, both men and women. 13 Even Simon himself believed, and after being baptized he continued with Philip. And seeing signs and great miracles performed, he was amazed.
“The light shines in the darkness,” John writes in John 1:5, “and the darkness has not overcome it.” He wrote this of Christ, and it is true of the incarnate Christ as well as the proclaimed Christ. Wherever the gospel is preached darkness is dispelled. So Philip preaches and the people believe. We are told that “even Simon himself believed” and he was baptized. Interestingly, Luke immediately informs us that Simon “was amazed” by the signs that God was working through Philip. This is significant. It gives us a glimpse into Simon’s spiritual constitution: he was a man fascinated by signs of power. To a great extent, Simon had yet to repudiate his magician mindset.
Before we continue with the story of Simon, however, we need to consider the fascinating and strange fact that though the Samaritans believed, the Spirit did not come until Peter and John journeyed to them from Jerusalem.
14 Now when the apostles at Jerusalem heard that Samaria had received the word of God, they sent to them Peter and John, 15 who came down and prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit, 16 for he had not yet fallen on any of them, but they had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. 17 Then they laid their hands on them and they received the Holy Spirit.
This is a most controversial passage and it has been debated throughout the history of the Church as to its meaning and implications. For our purposes, let me simply say that there are numerous reasons to believe that what we are seeing here is something exceptional and not normative. Another way to understand this might be by employing the prescriptive/descriptive distinction. Not everything that is described in the Bible is necessarily prescribed. Sometimes we are simply privileged to hear an account of something that happened while the events that happened are not being taught as normative for the Church.
This seems to be the case in this instance. Contrary to what some have deduced from this passage, the New Testament does not depict salvation as a two-staged process of (a) belief and (b) the baptism of the Holy Spirit. Instead, the normal model is of belief and the reception of the Spirit at that moment.
F.F. Bruce has marshaled some very helpful evidence for why this delay of the Spirit’s reception until the laying on of apostolic hands should not be seen as normative for the Church today.
If confirmation by an apostle were necessary for the reception of the Spirit, one might have expected this to be stated more explicitly in one or more of the relevant New Testament passages. But no such thing is hinted at, even in passages where it would certainly be introduced if there were any substance in it. It is not suggested by Paul when he speaks in 2 Cor. 1:21–22 of Christians’ being anointed, sealed, and given the Spirit in their hearts as a guarantee; he does not include the power of thus imparting the Spirit among the spiritual gifts listed in 1 Cor. 12:4–11, and when he thanks God that he did not baptize more than a handful of his Corinthian converts (1 Cor. 1:14–16) the whole force of his argument would disappear if we had to suppose that, even so, he confirmed them all. In other places in Acts, too, there is no hint that apostolic hands were laid on converts before they received the Spirit. Nothing is said about this being done to the Pentecostal believers at Jerusalem (2:38–42) or, later, to the household of Cornelius at Caesarea (10:44–48). The only near parallel to the present occasion is the exceptional case of the Ephesian disciples in 19:1–7. In general, it seems to be assumed throughout the New Testament that those who believe and are baptized have also the Spirit of God.
What, then, is happening here? It will be helpful for us to realize that the preaching of the gospel in Samaria represents the first formal expansion of the Church outside of Jerusalem. On top of that, it signaled the expansion of the gospel into Samaria, of all places. This is significant because Jews despised Samaritans and vice versa. The Samaritans, to put it simply, represented a kind of halfway step towards the Gentiles. They were not really Jews or Gentiles and would have been crudely seen as “half-breeds” by the Jews of the time. You will remember, for instance, the disciples discomfort at Jesus venturing into Samaria for His meeting with the woman at the well in John 4.
Thus, it is profoundly fascinating to see Philip take the gospel to the Samaritans. Perhaps, as a Hellenistic Jew, Philip understood what it felt like to be viewed with suspicion by the hometown Jews of Jerusalem. Who knows? Regardless, that is where he goes. He goes and he preaches and the people believe. They believe and are baptized but they do not receive the Spirit. So Peter and John come to see what has happened and lay hands on them.
Why? Because if the gospel was going to advance around the globe as God intended, the earlier rift between the Jews and the Samaritans needed to be healed. There needed to be no question whatsoever in the minds of the apostles that these Samaritans were indeed in the family of God and had received the Spirit. If they did not witness this, and if the Samaritans did not receive this blessing through the hands of the apostles, Christianity may have splintered from the very beginning.
The journey of Peter and John to Samaria and the laying on of their hands brought healing to the Samaritans as well as to Peter and John. Let us remember that in Luke 9, John asked Jesus if he could pray down divine fire onto the Samaritans!
51 When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem. 52 And he sent messengers ahead of him, who went and entered a village of the Samaritans, to make preparations for him. 53 But the people did not receive him, because his face was set toward Jerusalem. 54 And when his disciples James and John saw it, they said, “Lord, do you want us to tell fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” 55 But he turned and rebuked them. 56 And they went on to another village.
Amazing! The last time John was in Samaria he wanted God to burn it to the ground. Now he is laying hands on the new believers! What has happened? Jesus has happened. The gospel of Christ, when properly understood, heals old divisions and brings formerly hostile parties together in unity and peace! How beautiful that Peter and John traveled to Samaria to find brothers and sisters there where once there had only been enmity and strife.
Michael Green put it beautifully when he argued that this delay of the giving of the Spirit was “a divine veto on schism in the infant church, a schism which could have slipped almost unnoticed into the Christian fellowship, as converts from the two sides of the ‘Samaritan curtain’ found Christ without finding each other. That would have been the denial of the one baptism and all it stood for.”
There is one more way we might look at this delay of the giving of the Spirit. It was an initial step towards the apostles’ and the Church’s ability to fathom and accept the eventual taking of the gospel to the Gentile world. It is almost as if God is easing them into the full implications of the gospel so that when they see it all they can begin to handle it. The Church would go on to struggle with the full implications of the gospel, even as it does today, but this step was crucial to preparing the minds and hearts of God’s people for exactly what it was that He was going to do through them.
Simon the Magician was struck by this laying on of hands and coming of the Spirit, but for different reasons. He was impressed by the power of it all.
18 Now when Simon saw that the Spirit was given through the laying on of the apostles’ hands, he offered them money, 19 saying, “Give me this power also, so that anyone on whom I lay my hands may receive the Holy Spirit.” 20 But Peter said to him, “May your silver perish with you, because you thought you could obtain the gift of God with money! 21 You have neither part nor lot in this matter, for your heart is not right before God.
Here, Church, we see the first act of simony in the history of the Church. Simon attempts to buy divine power from Peter. Peter, in turn, offers him a scathing and withering rebuke! Why? Because it is clear that Simon loved the gifts of Christ more than Christ Himself and had mistaken his belief in the gifts for belief in Christ! I am trying to be careful at this point on offering an opinion about whether or not Simon was truly saved at all. That is a contentious issue, and one that we should leave to God. However, he is truly acting like a lost person here and Peter addresses him, apparently, as such.
In the religious marketplace that is modern America, we are especially prone to this error: loving the gifts more than the Giver. We may see this in peoples’ fascination with TV preachers who promise them wealth and goods if only they will truly believe. We see this in the idea of financial seed sowing in which viewers are told that if they sow a seed of, say, fifty dollars, God may just give them a harvest of one thousand dollars!
Dear friends, please make sure that it is Christ whom you love and not the gifts of Christ! Make sure it is Christ that you want and not what you think you will get from Him! Beware the trap of Simon who saw the faith as a means to an end of personal betterment. Beware the example of Simon who sought to import into the faith the values he held before he claimed to believe.
This consumer approach to Christ keeps an actual relationship with Christ from developing.
What is the great danger of the sin of Simon? The great danger of desiring the gifts more than the One who gives them is that this approach keeps an actual relationship from forming. We can see this in Peter’s continued rebuke and in Simon’s pitiful response.
22 Repent, therefore, of this wickedness of yours, and pray to the Lord that, if possible, the intent of your heart may be forgiven you. 23 For I see that you are in the gall of bitterness and in the bond of iniquity.”
Peter’s call for Simon to repent was nothing less than a call for Simon to allow his belief to move from his mind into his heart and take root there. Repentance is what keeps us from trafficking in empty confessions. It is what makes our professed belief in Christ real, or, rather, it is what reveals that our professed belief in Christ is, in fact, real. Repentance is the hammer which God uses to smash our pretensions and our religious games. It is the tool by which we are brought to the end of our ownselves.
Simon is told to do two things: repent and pray. His response, as I mentioned, was most pitiful:
24 And Simon answered, “Pray for me to the Lord, that nothing of what you have said may come upon me.” 25 Now when they had testified and spoken the word of the Lord, they returned to Jerusalem, preaching the gospel to many villages of the Samaritans.
Did you notice that Simon does not pray? He asks Peter to do so for him. What does this means? It means two things. First, it means that Simon has no real relationship with Christ. He has professed belief but does he really know Christ? The evidence would suggest that he does not. And it also means that he is still thinking in terms of spiritual power belong in the hands of the few at the top. As a magician, he exercised a kind of power in this role. Now, claiming to have trusted in Christ, he reveals that this mindset still has a hold on him. It is heartbreaking. So Simon disappears from the story and the text tells us that Peter and John return to Jerusalem, preaching as they go.
Friends, the gospel is not a good to be consumed. The gospel is a person: Jesus. It is a call to a relationship. It does not seek personal advancement. It seeks God. It is offered freely to all, and it promises the Spirit to all. It smashes the old order of things and removes the supposed hierarchies that are so precious to us. It levels the playing field. The ground at the cross is level.
Poor Simon. He loved the gifts more than the Giver. The faith to him was a fascinating show and he wanted to be at the heart of it. But the gospel is not a show. It is an invitation. It is an invitation to the end of ourselves and a new life in Christ.
 F.L. Cross and E.A. Livingston, eds. The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church. Third Edition Revised (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), p.1514.
 Clinton E. Arnold, “Acts.” Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary. Vol.2. Clinton E. Arnold, gen. ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2002), p.238.
 Bruce, F.F. (1988-06-30). The Book of Acts (New International Commentary on the New Testament) (p. 169). Eerdmans Publishing Co – A. Kindle Edition.
 Stott, John (2014-04-02). The Message of Acts (The Bible Speaks Today Series) (Kindle Locations 2794-2795). InterVarsity Press. Kindle Edition.