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Simon the Sorcerer

by Stephen Davey Scripture Reference: Acts 8:1–25

Opposition, whether outward persecution or spiritual resistance, is an opportunity God gives us to proclaim the gospel more widely and more boldly. The experience of the early church gives us unique insight into God’s providential workings.


As you can imagine, the amazing growth of the Jerusalem church has enraged the Jewish religious leaders. Some of the apostles have been beaten and told to remain silent; the church has been threatened, and most recently, the religious leaders approved the stoning of Stephen to death.

After Stephen’s death, we read this in Acts 8:1:

There arose on that day a great persecution against the church in Jerusalem, and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles.

Back in chapter 7 as the mob prepared to stone Stephen to death, verse 58 says that they “laid down their garments at the feet of a young man named Saul.” Now, here in chapter 8, we learn that Saul—who later will be converted and become the apostle Paul—is going to take the lead in the persecution that follows:

Saul was ravaging the church, and entering house after house, he dragged off men and women and committed them to prison. (verse 3)

As horrific as this is, keep in mind that before His ascension Jesus told His disciples they would be His witnesses. Where? “In Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8). As this persecution is ignited in Jerusalem, according to verse 4, “those who were scattered went about preaching the word.” Where? Verse 1 says, “throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria.” Satan’s attempt to silence the church simply scatters the seed to regions beyond.

The rest of chapter 8 focuses on Samaria. Remember that the Samaritans and the Jews hated each other and had perpetuated centuries of resentment and prejudice. But the gospel has the power to eliminate prejudice. You do not need a government program or better education or more money to fix this problem. What you need is a converted heart, because a heart filled with the Holy Spirit will not have room for this kind of hatred.

Verse 5 records that Philip “went down to the city of Samaria and proclaimed to them the Christ [Messiah].” Now this is not Philip the apostle, for verse 2 informs us the apostles remained in Jerusalem. This is Philip the deacon from chapter 6—one of the seven men selected to serve the widows. Just like his fellow deacon, Stephen, Philip’s commitment to Christ leads him to a wider ministry opportunity.

Verse 6 tells us the crowds who gathered in Samaria to hear Philip preach “with one accord paid attention to what was being said.” His ministry is also accompanied by those special apostolic powers that included healings and the casting out of demons. Remember, these signs and wonders acted as authenticating credentials of God’s messengers before the New Testament was completed.

However, it is not the miracles that bring about faith in Christ but the preaching of the gospel of Christ. Verse 12 says, “They believed Philip as he preached good news about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ.” As a result, we read, “There was much joy in that city” (verse 8).

It does not take long for Satan to come along and attempt to destroy this genuine work of the Holy Spirit. We are now introduced to a slick showman, a manipulative man who wants in on the action:

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. They all paid attention to him, from the least to the greatest, saying, “This man is the power of God that is called Great.” (verses 9-10)

The word used for “magic” actually refers to sorcery and the occult arts, which Simon used to impress people and gain a following. Such sorcery included conjuring demons, supposedly conversing with the dead, influencing the gods, and providing people with incantations and charms for healing. All that to say, Simon was the biggest show in town.

So here comes Philip performing genuine miracles—obviously empowered by a powerful God. Simon walks down the aisle, so to speak; he professes faith in Christ and gets baptized. What do you know? It looks like the local witch doctor just got saved!

Luke then shifts the camera over to another event, before returning to Simon.

When the apostles at Jerusalem heard that Samaria had received the word of God, they sent to them Peter and John, who came down and prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit, for he had not yet fallen on any of them . . . Then they laid their hands on them and they received the Holy Spirit. (verses 14-17)

Now don’t get confused here. As we said in our study of Acts 2, every believer in Jesus Christ today receives the Holy Spirit at the moment of salvation and is permanently indwelt by Him (see Romans 8:9; 1 Corinthians 12:13).

At this point, however, the church is still in that transitional period where believers are moving from the temporary empowering of the Holy Spirit in the Old Testament to the permanent indwelling of the Spirit in the New Testament.

So, during this transition period, the Spirit is withheld from the Samaritan believers until Peter and John arrive and pray for them. This delay makes it clear that what is happening to them is connected with the apostles of Jesus Christ—they are joining the church that began in Jerusalem. The church is one body, made up of both Jews and Gentiles but led by one Spirit. So, connecting the indwelling Holy Spirit to the hands of the apostles confirmed this gospel foundation of unity in Christ.

Now back to Simon the Sorcerer. He witnesses the Spirit being given through Peter and John. And his true heart is exposed here in verse 19 as he says to them, “Give me this power also, so that anyone on whom I lay my hands may receive the Holy Spirit.” He even offers them money to purchase this ability!

Simon is like so many false teachers and supposed miracle workers today. He did not want the Master; he wanted the miracle. He did not covet the Savior; he just wanted the sign.[1]

Peter responds forcefully:

“May your silver perish with you, because you thought you could obtain the gift of God with money! You have neither part nor lot in this matter, for your heart is not right before God. Repent, therefore, of this wickedness of yours, and pray to the Lord that, if possible, the intent of your heart may be forgiven you.” (verses 20-22)

Simon professed faith in Christ and was baptized, but he had his own agenda. Even after Peter’s rebuke, he expresses fear of God’s judgment in verse 24, but he does not repent.

Simon wanted just a little bit of God—just enough to make him popular and powerful and even comfortable, but not enough to change his life. I cannot help but think of this little poem:

I would like to buy three dollars’ worth of God please . . .
Just enough to equal a cup of warm milk,
Just enough to ease some of the pain from my guilt.
I would like to buy three dollars’ worth of God, please . . .
Not enough to make me love a lesser man.
Not enough to change my heart; I can only stand
Just enough to take to church when I have the time,
Just enough to equal a snooze in the sunshine.
I want the warmth of the womb, but not a new birth.
You see, I would like to buy three dollars’ worth of God, please . . .
Not enough to require change in me,
Not enough to impose responsibility;
Just enough to make folks think I’m OK,
Just enough to get through another Sunday.
I would like to buy three dollars’ worth of God, please.[2]

I pray that is not who you are today.

[1] John Phillips, Exploring Acts, Volume One: Acts 1–12 (Moody Press, 1986), 153.

[2] Wilbur E. Rees, $3 Worth of God (Judson Press, 1971).

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