Persecution of the Whole Church

Acts 8:1-4

The murder of Stephen by a mob of Jewish leaders was a great blow to the church. The church must have felt that it could not afford to lose a man of Stephen's caliber. As a leader, he exemplified being filled with the Spirit. As an evangelist, he possessed a boldness and eloquence that few could match. Therefore, after his death, "devout men carried Stephen to his burial, and made great lamentation over him."

The loss of Stephen was bad enough. But it was only the beginning of trouble. The leaders who stoned Stephen turned their wrath against the whole church in Jerusalem. The one spearheading the persecution was Saul, the same young man who held the cloaks of Stephen's slayers. Saul conducted a house-to-house search for believers, throwing those he found into jail. Fear of imprisonment and death drove many out of the city. Although the apostles themselves remained in Jerusalem, refugees from the persecution spread throughout the region.

Pondering a Question

Why did God allow evil men to trouble His beloved church?

While the persecution was underway, the church probably felt that the cause of Christ was suffering a setback. They probably pleaded with God to bind their enemies so that the work of the gospel might go forward. But in fact, the persecution assisted the work of the gospel. Before all the trouble, the church was almost entirely confined to one place. Afterward, believers were scattered throughout Palestine. Wherever they went, they preached "the word." They won people to Christ who never would have heard the gospel if the church had remained shut up in one city. As a result, assemblies of believers appeared throughout Judea and Samaria, the first two places that Jesus commanded the church to reach after evangelizing Jerusalem. He said, "Ye shall be witnesses unto me both in Jerusalem, and in all Judaea, and in Samaria, and unto the uttermost part of the earth" (Acts 1:8). Thus, although the persecution made it seem that the forces of evil were triumphing, the real victor was the church. The persecution was God's tool for scattering believers and pushing the gospel to new places.

Getting Practical

The nature of evil

Here is an illustration of the principle that God always brings good from evil. Evil is really evil. There is no way to whitewash it as good. We would be foolish to deny that it is evil when believers go to jail or die because of their faith. But evil is not final. It is just the prelude to something good that God will accomplish through it. The church has always become stronger as a result of persecution. There is an old saying: "The blood of martyrs is the seed of the church."

Pioneering Ministry of Philip

Acts 8:5-8

Right after Stephen died, the church must have felt that he was irreplaceable. Who else had his boldness in confronting the lost with the claims of Christ? But God immediately raised up a successor. He was Philip—not Philip the disciple, but Philip the deacon. When the church selected seven men to supervise its practical affairs, such as distributing aid to poor widows, naturally the first they chose was Stephen, yet the second was Philip. No doubt he was, like Stephen, "a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit" (Acts 6:5).

Within a short time, Philip brought the light of the gospel to three new regions. He was the first to preach to the Samaritans. Then he witnessed to an Ethiopian traveling home from Jerusalem. The man believed and carried the Christian faith to Africa. Afterward, Philip spread the gospel to cities along the Mediterranean coast.

Everywhere he went, he had the special blessing of God. In the city of Samaria, he preached with great power and performed astounding miracles. The lame and palsied (that is, paralyzed) were healed. The possessed were delivered from demonic control. When the Samaritans heard Philip and saw the miracles, all believed with joy. In obedience to the Great Commission, all who believed were baptized.

Simon the Sorcerer

Acts 8:9-13

Among those listening to Philip was an unlikely prospect for conversion. He was Simon, a well-known sorcerer. In days past he claimed to be a great person, and all the people of Samaria believed in him, describing him as the "great power of God." He won their respect by bewitching them "with sorceries." The Bible does not describe these sorceries, because it does not wish to encourage an interest in the occult. It is clear, though, that they were very convincing. The people of Samaria did not doubt that the man had supernatural powers.

Pondering a Question

Did Simon really have supernatural powers, or was he merely deceiving them with tricks?

We need not view the Samaritans as the gullible followers of a mere trickster. Simon won the confidence of the whole nation, from least to greatest, and held it for a long time. It is therefore likely that he did have some supernatural powers derived from Satan. Satan can give his servants a limited ability to work so-called magic. In our day, God has imposed rigid boundaries on what magicians can do, but during the Tribulation, He will allow the false prophet—a puppet of Satan—to promote worship of the Antichrist by performing great wonders in his name (Rev. 13:11–15).

Whatever powers Simon had, they paled next to Philip's. As Philip demonstrated the power available through the Holy Spirit, Simon stood by and watched, his eyes full of wonder. He knew that the miracles performed by Philip were far beyond the reach of sorcery. He realized that there was no alternative except to believe in Philip's message, offering salvation through Christ.

Getting Practical

Sorcery vs. prayer

Through the influence of the Harry Potter books and other forces in our society, sorcery is making a comeback. But what a sorcerer can do is pretty unimpressive compared with what any humble believer can do through the power of prayer.

Arrival of Peter and John

Acts 8:14-17, 25

When news of Philip's success reached Jerusalem, the apostles decided to aid his mission to Samaria by enlarging the ministry team. They sent Peter and John, whose purpose was to give the new converts further instruction in the Word of God and to conduct evangelism in more cities. We may assume that Philip remained by their side during the effort.

Upon arriving, Peter and John found that none of the Samaritan believers had received the Holy Spirit. No doubt they were truly saved, because the apostles did not seek to rebaptize them in water. Yet the Holy Spirit had not come to indwell them. God's way of dealing with the Samaritans was most unusual. Ever since Pentecost, there has normally been no delay between being saved and receiving the Spirit.

For example, when Peter went to the household of Cornelius the centurion and the first gentiles believed in Christ, they received the Holy Spirit immediately. His coming had dramatic effects, leaving no doubt of His presence. Peter and his companions "heard them speak with tongues, and magnify God" (Acts 10:46). Later, Peter testified that "the Holy Ghost fell on them, as on us at the beginning" (Acts 11:15). But no signs of the Spirit's coming followed conversion of the Samaritans. To remedy their lack of His indwelling presence, Peter and John laid their hands on them, and with no further waiting "they received the Holy Ghost."

God’s choice to withhold the Spirit from new believers in Samaria was, as we said, most unusual, but it was not a solitary case. Later in the Book of Acts we learn that He also withheld the Spirit from some Ephesian converts who had been disciples of John the Baptist (Acts 19:1–7). In our discussion of their spiritual journey, we will show why God treated them like the Samaritans.

Pondering a Question

How is it possible to be saved and yet lack the indwelling Holy Spirit?

At the Last Supper, the coming of the Holy Spirit was an event still future for Jesus’ loyal disciples (John 14:16–17). Indeed, throughout the long ages before Pentecost, God did not send the Spirit to indwell any believers, even though they were all fully justified by faith (Rom. 4:1–9). It suited the Lord's wise purposes to treat the Samaritan converts in the same fashion, withholding the Holy Spirit until the right moment arrived.

Delving Deeper

Reason for the delay

Why the Samaritans did not receive the Holy Spirit until the apostles laid their hands on them has long perplexed students of Scripture. The best answer takes account of who the Samaritans were. They were a nation with roots going back to when Israel was divided into two kingdoms, a northern and a southern. The northern, known as the Kingdom of Israel, comprised ten of the original twelve tribes. The southern, known as the Kingdom of Judah, comprised the tribes of Benjamin and Judah. In about 720 BC, the mighty Assyrians conquered the northern kingdom and carried many of its people into captivity. Soon they also took people from other places and resettled them in the emptied land to prevent it from becoming desolate. Over time, the newcomers intermarried with the remaining Israelites, the result being a mixed race known as the Samaritans. These Samaritans revered the God of Jacob, but developed their own religion, distinct from the religion of the Jews. They rejected much of the Old Testament, appointed their own priests, and worshiped at their own temple in Samaria rather than in Jerusalem.

When Jesus witnessed to the woman in Samaria, she objected, "Our fathers worshipped in this mountain; and ye say, that in Jerusalem is the place where men ought to worship" (John 4:20). Jesus replied, "Ye worship ye know not what: we know what we worship: for salvation is of the Jews" (John 4:20-22). Jesus was warning her that if she wished to follow Him, she could not cling to the false religion of Samaria.

The religious background of the Samaritan converts made it necessary for God to withhold the Holy Spirit until they met the apostles. For centuries their ancestors had been hostile to Jewish religion. Thus, there was a danger that after believing in Christ they might continue to separate themselves from the Jews—that, instead of accepting the leadership of the apostles and fellowshipping with Jewish believers, they might set up a new sect. To prevent this from happening, God gave the Samaritans a dramatic sign that they were subject to the apostles' authority. He denied them the Spirit until the apostles laid their hands on them.

Lust for Power

Acts 8:18-25

When Simon saw the supernatural change in those who received the Spirit, his reaction showed that he still had the heart of a sorcerer rather than the heart of a believer. A sorcerer's driving motive is lust for power. In days past, Simon had wanted to control supernatural forces and through them to control people as well. Now, after his supposed conversion, he envied the apostles' ability to communicate the Spirit through the laying on of hands. He wanted the same power for himself. Power was still the god he worshiped.

Without the least shame for his arrogance and blasphemy, Simon approached Peter and John as if they were fellow sorcerers. He said, "Give me also this power, that on whomsoever I lay hands, he may receive the Holy Ghost." Simon proposed to cut a deal with them. If they would tell him the secret of giving the Spirit, he would pay handsomely for it. He no doubt reasoned that they, like himself, wanted money. Does not every sorcerer want money?

Peter was appalled. His response shows that the filling of the Spirit did not altogether change his basic personality. Like the Peter we see in the four Gospels, he was still quick and blunt in speaking his mind. He understood exactly what Simon's problem was. He was not saved. Therefore, unless he repented, he would perish just as his money would perish. The obstacle keeping him from Christ was sin. "Gall," referring to liver bile, is often a figurative term for poison. Peter said that Simon's heart was not right because it was poisoned by bitterness and bound by iniquity. He was bitter because the church had displaced him from his former power and influence among the Samaritans.

To impress on him the great wickedness of his proposal, Peter reproved him for thinking that "the gift of God may be purchased with money." This incident is the basis for a word in our language, simony. Simony is the attempt to purchase a religious office or position as if it were an item in the marketplace.

Some months earlier, before Peter healed the lame beggar in the Temple, he declared, "Silver and gold have I none; but such as I have give I thee: In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth rise up and walk" (Acts 3:6). Peter's public boast of poverty must have come to the devil's attention and suggested a way of tempting Peter. Perhaps he thought, "If Peter is poor, perhaps he would like some money." The devil provoked an old sorcerer to sidle up to Peter and suggest that it was perfectly natural to buy and sell spiritual power. Peter saw what the devil was doing and angrily cast the temptation aside.

Peter charged Simon to repent of his wickedness. Then, with a curious choice of words, he added that if Simon prayed for forgiveness, God would "perhaps" forgive him. His actual words in Greek convey the same sense. They clearly show doubt in Peter's mind that Simon was capable of sincere repentance. After long years of gleeful corruption, the sorcerer was bound fast to an evil heart and a lying tongue.

Simon answered Peter's rebuke by saying that he wanted the apostles to pray for him, lest he suffer damnation.

Pondering a Question

Did Simon truly repent of his sin?

Simon's response shows that he was without guilt or remorse. Instead of admitting that he had done wrong, he said only that he wanted to escape the consequences. But to escape them, he refused to do what Peter commanded. Rather than praying on his own behalf, he asked the apostles to pray for him. No doubt he was reluctant to pray for himself, because he did not wish to humble himself before God and confess his sin. Asking the apostles to pray for him was just a convenient way to end the conversation. Truly, he was still a lost man.

Church history confirms that Simon was not saved. His name in church history is Simon Magus—that is, Simon the magician. According to early Christian writers, Simon continued to practice magic after his supposed conversion and founded a sect combining Christian and pagan elements. Irenaeus (AD 120–202), a prominent church leader barely a century later, calls him "the father of all heretics," his conceit being so unbounded that he claimed to be God Himself. He taught that he had "appeared among the Jews as the Son, but descended in Samaria as the Father while he came to other nations in the character of the Holy Spirit." Justin Martyr (AD 110–165), another famous church father in the second century, reports that Simon went to Rome during the reign of Claudius Caesar (41–54 AD) and so impressed the Romans that the people and the senate erected a statue in his honor on the river Tiber, with the inscription, "To Simon, the holy God." As a citizen of Rome himself for many years before his martyrdom, Justin certainly knew whether such a statue existed.

Upon completion of their ministry to new converts in Samaria, Peter and John did not rush back to Jerusalem, but made a tour of many Samaritan villages still unreached by the gospel. Clearly, they viewed outreach to Samaria not as a minor work on the sidelines, but as a priority in God’s program. After all, they well remembered Christ’s instruction that Samaria should be their next objective after evangelizing Jerusalem and Judea (Acts 1:8).

The pronoun "they" in verse 25 probably should be understood as including Philip. In other words, he accompanied Peter and John when they traveled through Samaria and finally returned to Jerusalem.

Mission to a Desert Place

Acts 8:26-35

After his triumphant soul-winning campaign in Samaria, Philip sought God’s direction as to where he should go next. An angel told him that he should, in a literal translation, “go south on the road leading down from Jerusalem to Gaza: the same is desert.” Jerusalem is likely where Philip received his marching orders. Gaza had from the distant past been a major city along the coast near the boundary between Palestine and Egypt. In Old Testament times, it was one of the five principal cities in the Philistine nation, but the Jews destroyed it in 93 BC. Then in 57 BC the Romans rebuilt it although not exactly at the original site. They relocated it a few miles away, nearer the Mediterranean. Because the ruins of the old city were situated in arid surroundings, they became known as Desert Gaza. It is generally believed that this Gaza, not the new city, was the destination intended by the angel.

The angel’s direction to go south probably meant that Philip should take the road that went through Bethlehem and Hebron before turning westward, ultimately passing just south of Gaza before joining the coastal road. Without delay, Philip went to the appointed place. There, probably at the intersection of the two roads, he waited. The eunuch in his chariot may have left Jerusalem along a different road—the main thoroughfare that ran northwest toward Caesarea and met the coastal road at Lydda. If so, when he came to Lydda, he turned south and moved toward Gaza. This route would have been preferable because it offered two roads that, compared with the road Philip followed, were doubtless better constructed, as well as more heavily traveled and therefore safer.

Pondering a Question

Would it not have been simpler to intercept the eunuch before he left Jerusalem?

It would appear, although we are obviously stooping to speculation, that God wanted Philip to be the eunuch’s last Jewish contact before he returned home. Perhaps there was a danger that if Philip met him earlier, another Jew might have approached him later and attacked his newfound faith in Christ with arguments he was unprepared to answer. God in His wisdom never permits more temptation than we can handle (1 Cor. 10:13).

Perhaps soon after Philip arrived at his stopping place, he saw a chariot coming from Jerusalem. The man sitting inside was holding a scroll and reading it aloud. Later, Philip learned that this was a man of considerable importance. He was a high official in the government of Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, who had committed all of her treasure into his care. To earn such trust, he must have been a man of great integrity. He was on the road through Gaza because he was returning home after visiting Jerusalem for the purpose of worshiping at the Temple. Despite living so far from Judea, he had somehow become a follower of the Jewish religion.

At the prompting of the Spirit, Philip ran to the chariot with the intent of starting a conversation. This was easy to do after Philip heard what the eunuch was reading. The text was Isaiah 53, the wonderful prophecy telling that Christ would die in our place to pay the penalty for our sins. Philip asked the eunuch whether he understood. The eunuch, replying that he needed a teacher, invited Philip to sit with him.

Here is a clue that the eunuch was a recent convert to Judaism, for he implied that he had never heard anyone else teach Isaiah. In attempting to understand the prophecy, the eunuch had come to the accurate conclusion that the writer might be portraying someone other than himself. Philip explained that the suffering lamb was not Isaiah, but Christ, and that Christ had recently come in the person of Jesus. He went on to show the eunuch that Jesus also fulfilled many other prophecies in the Old Testament.

The Eunuch's Response of Faith

Acts 8:36-39

It is doubtful that the eunuch could have visited Jerusalem without hearing about Jesus. The whole country was debating whether Jesus rose from the dead and taking sides either for or against the apostles. Everyone was watching the phenomenal growth of the church with great interest. It is possible that the eunuch was examining Isaiah precisely because he wanted to find out if Jesus was the Christ.

For whatever reasons, the eunuch was ready to believe the gospel. As soon as Philip was done teaching him, he announced that he wanted to be baptized. "And Philip said, If thou believest with all thine heart, thou mayest. And he answered and said, I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God."

Getting Practical

In the Great Commission, Jesus instructed His disciples, "Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost" (Matt. 28:19). He intended baptism to be the first step of obedience after receiving the gospel. Thus, as Philip told the eunuch, the only requirement for baptism is whole-hearted belief. Yet he also made it clear that it would be wrong to baptize anyone who is not a believer.

His words give no support to infant baptism, a practice of many churches down through the centuries. An infant is ineligible for baptism because he is incapable of declaring as the eunuch did, "I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God."

Delving Deeper

Verse 37 is missing from virtually all modern translations. The reason is that the text at the basis of most modern translations is not the same as the text underlying the KJV. The text now preferred by most translators is known as the critical text or eclectic text (CT), which modern scholars have developed using the principles of textual criticism laid down by the nineteenth-century scholars B. F. Westcott and F. J. A. Hort. The text at the basis of the KJV is known as the Received Text or Textus Receptus (TR), which the great Renaissance scholar Erasmus assembled from the small number of Greek manuscripts available to him. Acts 8:37 does not appear in CT, but appears in TR.

CT omits the verse because it is missing from most Greek manuscripts. Why then did Erasmus put it in TR? He knew that it is attested not only by some Greek manuscripts, but also by several early church fathers, among them Irenaeus (AD 120–202), Tertullian (AD 160?–230), Cyprian (died AD 258), Ambrosiaster (fourth century AD), Ambrose (AD 340?-397), and Augustine (AD 354-430). Its wide familiarity at an early period led Erasmus to presume that it was original. Indeed, it is hard to imagine how all these writers at different times and places could have taken for granted that it was Scripture if it was not. But its virtual disappearance from writings later in church history is a puzzle that demands solution before we in our day can also accept it as Scripture.

The solution may be very simple, however. Nearly all Greek manuscripts at the basis of CT originated after the third century AD. Christianity won official recognition and perhaps a degree of official favor in AD 313, then rose to the place of state religion in AD 380. Ever afterward, all citizens were expected to associate themselves with a local church. In accordance with longstanding Christian practice, the rite performed when anyone joined a church was still baptism. Under these new circumstances, Acts 9:37 became an obstacle to government policy. It teaches that a prerequisite for baptism is full-hearted belief in Christ. But a state church expects people to undergo baptism whether or not they are sincere Christians. The verse therefore had to be expunged from the Bible, lest it discourage universal membership in the church. Church leaders instructed scribes to skip over it in new manuscripts, and they ceased quoting it in public.

But it is original. If we delete it, Luke uncharacteristically fails to tell us outright that when the eunuch heard the gospel, he responded by believing in Christ (compare with Acts 8:5–6; 13:6–12; 16:30–34; etc.). Also, the eunuch’s question in verse 36 is left hanging without an answer.

The answer is so important that the Holy Spirit who inspired Luke surely wanted us to have it. In fact, nothing hindered the eunuch from being baptized if he simply believed in Christ with his whole heart. He was not disqualified by any circumstance of origin or experience. The gospel was God’s message even to an Ethiopian eunuch.

The road had brought them to a body of water. The account says that both men went "down . . . into" the water, leaving no doubt that they waded in at least far enough to submerge their legs.

Delving Deeper

To go so far into the water was hardly necessary if Philip baptized the eunuch by sprinkling or pouring—modes used by some historic churches either always or only under special circumstances. Indeed, to baptize by sprinkling or pouring did not even require them to find a body of water. They might have used a little of the drinking water that the eunuch doubtless had with him as he traveled through the desert.

Much evidence establishes that immersion was the universal mode of baptism in the early church. The earliest Christian writing outside the New Testament is a work called the Didache, a brief manual of church doctrine and practice, which many scholars date about AD 60. Its description of baptism leaves no doubt that it is referring to immersion.

After Philip baptized the eunuch, the Spirit swept him away by some miraculous means of transport to another place. Whether he flew through the air or changed locations instantly, we do not know. The writer's choice of words suggests that Philip suddenly vanished from the eunuch's sight. For the eunuch, the miracle was a sign confirming the truth of the gospel. It was God's reward for his faith.

Finding himself alone, the eunuch reflected on his new salvation in Christ and "went on his way rejoicing." An ancient tradition says he became an aggressive soul-winner in his home country.

Philip's Zeal to Win Souls

Acts 8:40

Philip was seen next in Azotus, about twenty miles north of Gaza. He then began an evangelistic tour of the coastal cities that took him all the way to Caesarea.

Philip was greatly used of God because he never wasted his opportunities. He went to the Samaritans as soon as God prodded him to go. Others may have hung back because of Jewish prejudice against the Samaritans. When the Spirit instructed him to travel many miles to an uninhabited desert for an undisclosed reason, he went right away, no questions asked, and he witnessed to the first person the Spirit pointed out. When the Spirit took him to Azotus, he probably started preaching the gospel as soon as his feet hit the ground. Wherever he was, he was impatient to get on with the work of God. Because of his outstanding readiness to win souls, he reaped a large harvest for Christ.

Getting Practical

Many of us do not win souls for Christ because our self-centeredness leaves us unavailable for God's use. As we go through our day, we stick to our own agenda, forgetting God's agenda. We view people in terms of how they affect us, not in terms of how we might help them. Instead of seeing them as needy souls, we see them strictly in their role as check-out clerk, insurance agent, or nurse. So blinded, we miss chances to witness. Thus, God brings few people across our path with a heart prepared to believe. If He gave us more opportunities, we would flub them. If we want more, we must, like Philip, be diligent in taking the opportunities we have now.