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Pastor Scott L. Harris
Grace Bible Church, NY
December 11, 2005
Persecutions’ Failure, Pt. 1
Last week we studied the ministry and martyrdom of Stephen. This week we will be looking at Acts 8 and the rise of great persecution against the early church. The purpose of persecution of believers has always been the same. It is generated by a hatred for Jesus Christ and true righteousness and its desire is to shut the mouths of believers, keep the church from growing, and if possible, destroy it. But persecution of the church has always failed in its endeavors.
There is an old adage first said by Tertullian that the “blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.” We find the truth of that statement with the very first martyr, Stephen. While his murder became the release point for the outbreak of severe persecution against the followers of Christ in Jerusalem, it also became the point at which the gospel spread even farther with even more coming to faith in Jesus Christ. That principle has continued to hold true from then to the present. St. Basil (330-379) wrote of his own time, “Then the persecutors were manifest, and manifest too the persecuted. Then the people grew more numerous by being attacked. Then the blood of the martyrs, watering the Churches, nourished many more champions of true religion, each generation stripping for the struggle with the zeal of those that had gone before.”
Great Persecution (vs. 1-3)
Its Rise and Its Effect (vs. 1)
Recall from last week that Stephen was bold in proclaiming Jesus Christ even to the Sanhedrin. He defended himself by showing that he did not blaspheme God or Moses and that he did not speak against the Law or the Temple. He held to God’s revelation to Abraham and the establishment of a covenant with him and his descendants. He believed Moses to be a man from God specifically called to deliver the Israelites from bondage in Egypt and that through him God gave His law. He also respected the Temple, but also quoted Isaiah 66:1,2 that no building can contain God. Stephen stated in no uncertain terms that they were like their fathers who had killed the prophets of old because they were also resisting the Holy Spirit and had killed the Righteous One, and they needed to repent. That cut them to the quick, but instead of repenting they became angry. When Stephen then saw a vision of Jesus standing at the right hand of the Father, they could no longer stand it and these elders of Israel became a mob that laid their robes at the feet of a young man named Saul while they stoned Stephen to death.
Acts 8:1 begins by stating, “And Saul was in hearty agreement with putting him to death.” Luke specifically points out Saul’s involvement as a willing accomplice in Stephen’s murder because Paul will become the major character of the book in Chapters 13-28, and it is important to understand Paul’s background.
Stephen’s death removed the restraint that had been on those who opposed the Church. The Sanhedrin was no longer afraid because the lies of the false witnesses had stirred up the people causing them to lose the favor they had shown toward the believers. Verse 1 continues, “And on that day a great persecution arose against the church in Jerusalem; and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles.”
Luke specifically points out that this great persecution began on the same day that Stephen died. It was specifically directed against the church in Jerusalem because the church had not spread much beyond that yet, but that very persecution caused the church to spread throughout Judea and Samaria. Remember that the commission given to the church in Acts 1:8 was for them to be witnesses of Jesus in Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria and to the uttermost parts of the world. The persecution forced the church to move to this second phase of their commission.
Note that though the church as a whole scatters because of the persecution, the Apostles do not leave Jerusalem. Note as well that nothing is said about any personal persecution of the apostles. It is not until chapter 12 that we find that James, the brother of John, is put to death by Herod who then arrests Peter. The apostles have already shown themselves to be fearless before the Sanhedrin, and there was still ministry to do in Jerusalem in proclaiming the gospel and caring for those that responded. The purpose of the persecution failed. It did not destroy the church, nor did it keep believers from proclaiming Christ. It only served to spread the church over a greater area.
Burial of Stephen (vs. 2)
In verse 2 we read, “And some devout men buried Stephen, and made loud lamentations over him.” We are not told who these men are other than that they were “devout men.” [Luke uses this phrase elsewhere to describe pious Jews, so some think these men were not believers, but that is speculation]. These men were obviously friends of Stephen’s and they were of God-fearing character so that were more concerned about doing what was right than any risk to themselves. They not only buried Stephen that day according to Jewish custom, but they also made a lout lament over him which was also according to Jewish custom, but was forbidden by the Talmud to be made for the death of criminals. Their lament made it clear that they viewed Stephen’s death as an illegal murder, not a legal execution. These were brave men, because regardless of how soon the great persecution did break out, it is risky to identify that closely with a man who has just been murdered by a mob.
Saul’s Actions (vs. 3)
Verse 3 gives us details about the great persecution that began that day. “But Saul [began] ravaging the church, entering house after house; and dragging off men and women, he would put them in prison.” The key figure in this great persecution is Saul. The term “ravaging” (lumaivnomai / lumainomai) means to “treat shamefully or with injury, to devastate, ruin.” Saul’s intent was to destroy the church and his actions demonstrate the violence with which he would do it including searching house to house to find them and then dragging them off to prison. [Dragging = suvrw / surô) – violently dragging]. His testimony in Acts 22:3 includes that he even persecuted to the death and to foreign cities. Saul’s participation in Stephen’s death and his persecution of the church would become his great regrets after he himself was saved (1 Cor. 15:9; 1 Tim. 1:13). It is significant that this persecution ended and the church had peace when Saul was saved (Acts 9:31).
Salvation of Samaritans (vs. 4-8)
In verse 4-8 we find the wonderful story of the spread of the gospel beyond Jerusalem and even to the Samaritans. 4 Therefore, those who had been scattered went about preaching the word. 5 And Philip went down to the city of Samaria and [began] proclaiming Christ to them. 6 And the multitudes with one accord were giving attention to what was said by Philip, as they heard and saw the signs which he was performing. 7 For [in the case of] many who had unclean spirits, they were coming out [of them] shouting with a loud voice; and many who had been paralyzed and lame were healed. 8 And there was much rejoicing in that city.
Luke points out first that those who left Jerusalem because of the persecution did not keep quite about their faith in Jesus Christ. They went out “preaching the word” wherever they went. This refers to proclaiming the gospel message [eujaggelizovmenoi toVn lovgon / euangelizomenoi ton logon]. Luke then points out the specific ministry of Philip. This is the Philip who is one of the Seven from Acts 6:5. Later, in Acts 21:8, he is living in Caesarea and is called “Philip the evangelist.” He goes down from Jerusalem to Samaria and begins proclaiming Christ to them. [Some have questioned as to whether this is former capital of Israel, “Samaria,” – which was about 40 miles north of Jerusalem and called Sebaste at that time or a unspecified city in Samaria. Textual evidence leans to it being the city of Samaria].
Remember that the Samaritans and the Jews hated each other. The Samaritans were the descendants of the remnant of Jews that had been left in Israel after Assyria conquered them in 722 B.C. and the foreign people that Assyria had brought into populate the land. They intermarried and developed a hybrid religion that included aspects of worshiping the true God along with serving the gods of their home lands (2 Kings 17:33). The Jews and Samaritans had viewed each other with contempt ever since the Jews returned to Jerusalem under Zerubbabel in 538 B.C. By the time of Jesus, the Samaritans had abandoned most of their idolatry and claimed to worship the true God, but in their own temple on Mt. Gerizim. It was a Samaritan woman from Sychar that Jesus talked to in John 4 and told that they worshiped what they did not know, but that God was looking for those who would worship Him in Spirit and truth.
Philip preaches Christ to them, and since they were looking for the coming of Messiah, it was relatively easy for them to believe in Jesus as they heard his message which was accompanied with signs that authenticated his message. Verse 7 specifically points out miracles of casting out demons and healing the lame and even the paralyzed. The response was much like the one Jesus received in John 4 with many rejoicing and believing (vs. 12).
Simon’s Background (vs. 9-13)
In verse 9-13 Luke gives the background on Simon so that we might understand his response in verse 18-24 and why he posed the next threat to true Christianity. It would seem that wherever the genuine work of God occurs, our adversary quickly finds a way to either attack it or subvert it. Nevertheless, God inevitably reveals and protects the truth for those who will follow Him.
9 Now there was a certain man named Simon, who formerly was practicing magic in the city, and astonishing the people of Samaria, claiming to be someone great; 10 and they all, from smallest to greatest, were giving attention to him, saying, “This man is what is called the Great Power of God.” 11 And they were giving him attention because he had for a long time astonished them with his magic arts. 12 But when they believed Philip preaching the good news about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were being baptized, men and women alike. 13 And even Simon himself believed; and after being baptized, he continued on with Philip; and as he observed signs and great miracles taking place, he was constantly amazed.
From his practices this man Simon is also called Simon the Magician or Simon Magnus (which means magician) in later literature. He is described here as claiming to be someone great and as having great powers and ability with which he deceived the people of Samaria, so much so they called him the “Great Power of God” or “Mighty One of God” which may have even been a claim to deity. His abilities were not from God, but from demons, but they did enable him to amaze the people and gain a large following from all levels of society.
We must remember that Satan and his demons do have abilities that are beyond our own, and so appear to be from God. Even in Job the reports given to him about the actions caused by Satan are described in terms of something that God did including not only a “great wind” that came from across the wilderness,” but also “the fire of God falling from heaven” to burn up the sheep (Job 1:16, 19). Jesus warned that Satan is a deceiver who would through false prophets perform signs and wonders that would, if possible, deceive even the very elect. It is not “signs and wonders” alone that prove whether someone is from God. For as Moses warned in Deut. 13, their message must not lead people astray from the true God. They must be consistent with what God has already revealed. But people are easily swayed by things they do not understand, so many are still tragically deceived by such false teachers today, and even more will be deceived in the future. Simon had been such a deceiver.
Luke points out that many men and women were responding to Philip’s message and coming to faith in Christ and being baptized. Simon also joined in with this group. At this point he gives every indication of being a genuine believer, but we must remember that profession and reality are not always the same. In Jesus’ parables in Matthew 13 He explained that the seed of the gospel falls on different types of soil and that two of them, the shallow rocky soil and the soil full of thorns, may give the initial appearance of success, but the plants there die out. In addition, there are tares among the wheat. Simon gives the initial appearance of being genuine, but Luke also points out verse 13 that something is amiss, for Simon continues on with Philip as he observes the signs and great wonders Philip is doing so that he is constantly amazed. While Simon yields to the man with greater power than his own, his interest is more focused on those abilities than they are in message being preached.
Apostolic Ministry (vs. 14-24)
Imparting the Holy Spirit (vs. 14-17)
Verses 14-17 records the response of the Apostles when news about what was happening in Samaria reached them. “14 Now when the apostles in Jerusalem heard that Samaria had received the word of God, they sent 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 upon any of them; they had simply been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. 17 Then they [began] laying their hands on them, and they were receiving the Holy Spirit.”
The text emphasizes the ministry that Peter and John brought in imparting the Holy Spirit to them. While the text does not state it, there may have also been some sense that they were checking this report out to see whether it could be true that the Samaritans were actually being saved, though their earlier experience with Jesus in John 4 when many Samaritans came to believe on Him would have greatly tempered their surprise. When Peter and John do arrive they see the genuineness of these Samaritan believers, and because it was also evident to them in some way that they had not received the Holy Spirit, they lay hands on them and they receive the Holy Spirit.
There are some that want to take this passage and teach that the Holy Spirit comes subsequent to salvation. However, as has already been pointed out in previous messages, such a teaching ignores both the transitional nature of Acts, the other examples in Acts, and the teachings of the epistles. There are only two New Testament passages in which the Holy Spirit comes after salvation. Here and in Acts 2 when He first fell upon the believers. In Acts 10 He comes upon the Gentiles while Peter is still speaking, and in Acts 19 He comes upon the disciples of John in conjunction with their belief and baptism. In 1 Cor. 12:13 Paul makes it clear that it is the baptism with the Holy Spirit that places a person into the body of Christ, and in Romans 8:9 Paul states that if you do not have the Spirit of Christ, you do not belong to Him. The Book of Acts transitions from the Old Covenant in which the Holy Spirit would come and go upon a person to the New Covenant in which He permanently indwells the believer. In this age, if you are saved, then you have the Holy Spirit. If you do not have the Holy Spirit, then you are not saved.
Why then the delay in the Holy Spirit coming? It is not because He has to come through apostles. In Acts 9:17 it is Ananias who is not an Apostle that lays hands on Paul so that he received the Holy Spirit. The delay was used by God to ensure that the Jewish and Samaritan believers would be unified. The Apostles were eyewitnesses to the Holy Spirit coming upon the Samaritans so they were assured that they were true disciples of Jesus. The Samaritans were reminded that salvation is from the Jews (Jn. 4:22) and that they also were under apostolic authority. They were not independent of the Jewish believers.
The text does not tell us how the Holy Spirit manifested Himself when they received Him, but it was in some manner recognized by the Apostles and the Samaritans, and also that attracted the attention of Simon.
Rebuking Simon (vs. 18-24)
18 Now when Simon saw that the Spirit was bestowed through the laying on of the apostles’ hands, he offered them money, 19 saying, “Give this authority to me as well, so that everyone 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 no part or portion in this matter, for your heart is not right before God. 22 “Therefore repent of this wickedness of yours, and pray the Lord that if possible, the intention of your heart may be forgiven you. 23 “For I see that you are in the gall of bitterness and in the bondage of iniquity.” 24 But Simon answered and said, “Pray to the Lord for me yourselves, so that nothing of what you have said may come upon me.”
While verse 12 & 13 would indicate that Simon had become a Christian, these verse show that his profession of faith was false. There is no indication in the text that the Holy Spirit came upon him, just that he was an observer of it who wanted to gain the ability to do this with others. True to his background as a magician, he offers money to the Apostles in order to get this power from them. This is not so much a bribe as it is the normal business practices of magicians. This reveals much about his view of the apostles and what they were actually doing. He viewed them more as fellow magicians than the representatives of the living God.
His attempt to purchase the ability to impart the Holy Spirit gave rise to the term “Simony,” which is the buying and selling of church offices. It also revealed a very serious misconception about the working of God. Neither God nor anything from Him is for sale. Anything that comes from God comes as a gift from Him including your life, salvation, talents, spiritual gifts, and everything you have use of in this life. (Remember, you do not actually “own” anything, but simply have control over and use of it the few years of your life). If he also erred in thinking in someway that salvation was also purchased or earned, then his faith was placed in the wrong object and he was not saved. It is not faith that saves, but the object of faith, so faith must be in the correct object, which is the person and work of Jesus Christ.
What removes all doubt about Simon’s salvation is Peter’s rebuke in verses 20-23. First, Peter rebukes him for trying to purchase the gift of God. The rebuke is strong. It is somewhat toned down in the NAS, KJV & NIV. It is more literally, “May your silver go with you to destruction/perdition.”
Second, Peter states that Simon “has no part or portion in this matter.” This is an idiom meaning that Simon had no share or inheritance in the matter of the Holy Spirit. Simon had not received the Holy Spirit and would not in his current state, which Peter reveals is not right before God, and therefore he would have no part in the Spirit’s ministry.
Third, Peter calls on Simon to repent of his wickedness [kakiva / kakia = a depraved or malignant quality]. Simon needed to turn from the evil intention of his heart to the Lord if there would be any hope of receiving forgiveness from God. Such a strong call to repent and pray (devomai / deomai = implore) would not have been necessary for a believer. There would not have been a question about the Lord’s forgiveness either. The question is not whether the Lord would forgive if he repented, but whether he would repent to receive it.
Fourth, in verse 23 Peter reveals the nature of Simon’s wrong heart of being in the “gall of bitterness and in the bondage of iniquity.” This may be an allusion to Moses’ warning in Deut. 29:18 about the poisonous fruit and wormwood that comes from worshiping other gods. Simon is in a very harsh and disagreeable condition with a bitter spirit within him that he would impart to others. In short, Simon is jealous of Philip, Peter and John and wants back the attention that he used to get. He thinks the way to get it is to purchased these powers from them just as he would have purchased tricks and incantations from other magicians.
Simon’s response is similar to that of Pharaoh in Exodus 8-10 who asked Moses to entreat God to remove the plague that was upon him, but he never repented to seek God himself. Simon does not want the consequences, but neither does he seek the Lord himself. Whether Simon ever actually repented or not is not stated in the text, only his request for Peter to pray for him, and we can be confident that Peter would have prayed for Simon’s repentance. If that was the last that was every mentioned about Simon, the matter would be left as one of those things we will finally find out when we get to heaven, but church history does speak of Simon again. There is a reason that Luke includes so much detail about him.
Irenaeus ( A.D. 120-202) contrasted him with Jesus Christ (Against Heresies, Book 2, Chapter 32). Hippolytus (A.D. 170-236) wrote a long section in his book, “The Refutation of All Heresies,” about a heretical theological system he traces to Simon. It would appear from these comments, and those made by later writers, that Simon did not repent, but continued in apostasy.
Persecution failed in its purpose. The effort to oppress only resulted in it spreading. The believers proclaimed Christ wherever they went. In the preaching of Philip, the gospel went to the Samaritans and the centuries old wall that separated them from the Jews was broken down by a common faith in Jesus Christ. God’s plan was going forward.
But just because the gospel is being proclaimed does not mean that all those who hear and profess faith are true believers. Simon the magician was able to fool himself and Philip so that he was even baptized, but God revealed the truth about him through Peter and he was exposed for what he was, a tare among the wheat. He could have been saved if he had repented and turned from his pride and sin to Christ, but church history indicates that he did not.
The tragedy is not only are there so many that are like Simon, but that there are also so many that have not been exposed. They fool themselves and others into thinking they are saved when the reality is that they are not followers of Jesus Christ. Jesus Himself warned in Matthew 7:22,23 “Many will say to Me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?’ 23 “And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness.'” Those are the most tragic words anyone could ever here. To think you are serving Christ throughout your life and then to find out in the end that you were only fooling yourself because your life was marked by disobedience to Him rather than love (Jn. 14:15).
Our assurance of salvation is not based in anything we have done, but in 1) Jesus Christ Himself and His promises, 2) the internal witness of the Holy Spirit and 3) the changes that He makes in our lives. Paul said in 2 Cor. 13:5, “Test yourselves to see if you are in the faith; examine yourselves! Or do you not recognize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you – unless you fail the test?” It is not wrong to question your salvation as long as it drives you back to the truth of Jesus Christ. Our confidence grows as we bring our doubts to the Bible and have them resolved there. It would be wrong to fool yourself into believing something that is not true, and tragic to hear Jesus’ words of Matthew 7:22,23 applied to you.
If you have any doubts about your eternal destiny, then talk with myself or one of our church leaders today. Don’t leave without having a clear understanding of salvation and your relationship to Jesus Christ.
Parents, you are responsible to apply God’s Word to your children’s lives. Here is some help.
Young Children – draw a picture about something you hear during the sermon. Explain your picture(s) to your parents at lunch.
Older Children – Do one or more of the following: 1) Write down all the verses mentioned in the sermon and look them up. 2) Write down the names of the people mentioned and how many times their name is used. Talk with your parents about how you can be sure if you are saved or not.
THINK ABOUT IT!
Questions to consider in discussing the sermon with others.
Why was Stephen killed? Why was Saul approving of it? What were the positive and negative results of the great persecution? How long did that persecution last? Why did the Apostles stay in Jerusalem? Why was it significant that those who buried Stephen made a loud lament over him? Describe Saul’s persecution of the church. What does Paul say about this later? What did the believers who left Jerusalem do wherever they went? Describe the historic relationship between the Jews and the Samaritans. Describe Philip’s ministry. What was the response of the people? What is Simon’s background – describe. Why does Luke give this much detail about it? What was the response of the people and Simon to Philips preaching? What was Simon’s interest? Why did the Apostles come from Jerusalem? What did they accomplish when they arrived? Why was this important? What is the relationship between a person, the Holy Spirit and salvation? When does the Holy Spirit come upon a believer? Why does Simon try to buy the gift of the Holy Spirit? What four things indicate that Simon was not a true Christian? What does church history have to say about him? What will Jesus say to those with a false profession of faith? How can you make sure your profession of faith is not false? What should you do with your doubts?
Sermon Notes – December 11, 2005
Great Persecution (vs. 1-3)
Its Rise and Its Effect (vs. 1)
Burial of Stephen (vs. 2)
Saul’s Actions (vs. 3)
Salvation of Samaritans (vs. 4-8)
Simon’s Background (vs. 9-13)
Apostolic Ministry (vs. 14-24)
Imparting the Holy Spirit (vs. 14-17)
Rebuking Simon (vs. 18-24)
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