On the day when the Lord Jesus ascended from the Mount of Olives, he said to his disciples,
“But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria and to the end of the earth.” (Acts 1:8 RSV)
The book of Acts is the story of how all that took place, according to the program that Jesus outlined: in Jerusalem, in Judea and Samaria, and unto the uttermost parts of the earth.
We have come in our study of Acts to the point where the gospel begins to go out to Judea and Samaria. Until now it has been centered in Jerusalem. Some time has passed by on this account since the Day of Pentecost, and the apostles and disciples and the church are still in Jerusalem. But now we learn how God thrust them out into Judea and Samaria.
The first period closed with the story of how Stephen was killed by an angry and enraged Sanhedrin who could not tolerate the truth, which he spoke and so stoned him to death outside the city walls. The men who stoned him laid their garments at the feet of a young man named Saul.
Thus the Holy Spirit indicates to us that out of the death of Stephen came at last the preaching of the Apostle Paul, once Saul of Tarsus. The Sanhedrin silenced a voice that was upsetting a city, but, without realizing it, they were awakening a voice that would defeat an empire. That is the way God works. Throughout this book, we will see how God uses opposition to advance his cause. You can see it in the first paragraph of Chapter 8:
And on that day a great persecution arose against the church in Jerusalem; and they were all scattered throughout the region of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles. Devout men buried Stephen and made great lamentation over him. But Saul laid waste the church, and entering house after house, he dragged off men and women and committed them to prison.
Now those who were scattered went about preaching the word. Philip went down to a city of Samaria and proclaimed to them the Christ. (Acts 8:1b-5 RSV)
Notice that the paragraph begins with persecution and ends with a proclamation. The proclamation was due to the persecution. It was using the persecution that arose over Stephen that these early Christians were pressed out of Jerusalem, squirted out into the areas around, into Judea and Samaria, and began to preach the word, all according to the program of God. And God used this young man, Saul of Tarsus, even before he became a Christian to accomplish this.
God works to use the very obstacles thrown in the path of Christians to advance his cause. You can picture young Saul, enraged over what he regarded as a heresy, trying to stamp it out with all the energy of his flesh, entering house after house, dragging off men and women and committing them to prison.
And this is the rage of a tortured conscience, which tries, by zealous activity, to cover up its anxiety, emptiness, and hurt. God uses this as an instrument to accomplish his purpose. He does two things with this rage of Saul’s:
- He forces the church out of Jerusalem into Judea and Samaria to fulfill the divine program as he had outlined, and
- He makes the early church depend not upon the apostles but upon the gifts of the Spirit distributed to everyone — for these who were scattered abroad were not the apostles.
Dr. Luke is careful to tell us that. These were ordinary, plain-vanilla Christians like you and me. And yet they had gifts of the Spirit. But they would never have discovered their gifts if they had not been pushed out, and put to work.
So God used this pressure to place them in circumstances where they began to develop the gifts of evangelism, of witnessing, of helps, wisdom, knowledge, teaching, prophecy, and all the other gifts of the Spirit that had been made available to them.
Sometimes I think that God will have to do this in our day before people will begin to believe that they have spiritual gifts and put them to work. He may have to bring persecution upon us so that there cannot be a dependence upon a central ministry, but each one will begin to utilize the gifts that God has given him.
Are you going through some pressure today? Well, it may not be punishment for sins. The pressure, the trials, and the problems that come are by no means always the result of sin in our lives. Sometimes they are, but it may be God’s way of moving you, of pressuring you into a new experience, into a new understanding of his truth and of his equipment in your life, and giving you a new opportunity to put it to work.
So, the first mark of the way God works in resurrection power is that persecution leads to the proclamation of the truth more widely than it has ever been before. Immediately we pick up the account in Samaria:
And the multitudes with one accord gave heed to what was said by Philip when they heard him and saw the signs, which he did. For unclean spirits came out of many who were oppressed, crying with a loud voice; and many who were paralyzed or lame were healed. So there was much joy in that city. (Acts 8:6-8 RSV)
Here is the ministry of a layman, Philip. It is a ministry of power, the power of the Holy Spirit. The result was a marvelous demonstration of what Christianity is like. The Holy Spirit has deliberately incorporated into this brief paragraph three marks that always accompany a genuine ministry of the Spirit:
- The First Is The Ring Of Truth.
Notice that it says, “The multitudes with one accord gave heed to what was said by Philip.” When a great crowd of people listens intently, it is because they think they hear the truth. The note of reality strikes them.
And this was the way Jesus taught. It was said of him that he did not teach as did the scribes and Pharisees, with quotations from other authorities, but what he said hit people with the truth, and it arrested them.
They said, “Never did any man speak as this man speaks…” (John 7:46)
And this is always characteristic of someone who genuinely proclaims the gospel because the gospel is truth. It is the way things are. As Philip talked this way, people stopped and listened. They said, “This man is saying something that is right on target.” The proclamation of the gospel always has about it that ring of truth and authority.
- Second, Is The Accompaniment Of Power:
“For unclean spirits came out of many who were possessed, crying with a loud voice; and many who were paralyzed or lame were healed.”
Here is power that sets men free, power that delivers. And this was immediately manifested in Samaria when Philip preached there. These miracles — the freeing from demonic spirits, the healings — as we have seen before in Acts, were evidence of the power of God manifested on a visible and physical level, so that they, and we, might be encouraged to understand that God would also free them in the spirit.
That is where man is indeed bound — in spirit –, and he needs to be set free there. These physical miracles were a demonstration of God’s power to heal, both physically and spiritually. Wherever the gospel goes, it gives liberty.
- The Third Mark Is Joy:
“So there was much joy in that city.”
When people are set free, it always fills them full of joy. What other agency in our day can do this?
Our American cities are, for the most part, seething pools of human misery. You drive around them and see people, millions of them, living in squalor and poverty, filth and degradation. And you also know that within them there is loneliness, emptiness, and depression of spirit. Life looks gray and dull, drab and uninteresting to them.
What can set them free? What can fill them with joy? The glory of the gospel is always that, wherever it goes, even though it may not immediately change their outward circumstance, it does fill people with joy. And soon the situation begins to change as well.
And this has been the story throughout history. As people are filled with joy by the power of the Word, they start to change for the better. The gospel gives us joy.
But notice the contrast in the next paragraph. “But…” That word always indicates a corner to be turned:
But there was a man named Simon who had previously practiced magic in the city and amazed the nation of Samaria, saying that he himself was somebody great. They all gave heed to him, from the least to the greatest, saying, “This man is that power of God which is called Great.” And they gave heed to him, because for a long time he had amazed them with his magic. 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. Even Simon himself believed, and after being baptized he continued with Philip. And seeing signs and great miracles performed, he was amazed. (Acts 8:9-13 RSV)
In this section, the Holy Spirit deliberately compares the marks of authentic Christianity with those of a false and counterfeit faith. Simon, the Magician, appears in this account as another manifestation of the attack of the devil against the Church, from within.
Remember that Jesus had said that though he was sowing good seed in the field of the world, an enemy would come at night and plant bad seed in the midst of the wheat and that they would grow up together.
This is the third occasion in the book of Acts when we find the sprouting of the devil’s seed.
- The first was the story of Ananias and Sapphira, who manifested hypocrisy, even though they were genuine Christians.
- The second was the dissension, which sprouted among the disciples when they quarreled over the distribution of goods to the widows.
- The third is this manifestation of religious falseness.
Notice its characteristics. The first and outstanding mark by which this kind of religious falseness can be recognized is given to us right away:
…there was a man named Simon who had previously practiced magic in the city and amazed the nation of Samaria, saying that he himself was somebody great. (Acts 8:9 RSV)
All false faith exalts personalities, makes much over men. It involves the inflation of an individual, usually by self-aggrandizement. These people are always egocentric, always pointing to themselves, exalting themselves, and using religious terminology to make a great deal of themselves. That is the quality of false Christianity.
Genuine Christianity makes nothing of the individual. “We preach not ourselves,” says the Apostle Paul, “but Christ Jesus as Lord and ourselves your servants, for Jesus’ sake…” (2 Corinthians 4:5).
But here we have a man who exalts himself.
False Christianity always attempts to interject a mediator between a believer and his God. But, “There is one mediator between God and man, the man Christ Jesus,” (1 Timothy 2:5); no other.
Counterfeit Christianity tries to insert a priesthood of one sort or another, a mediator, someone great, someone who has an “in” with God, someone who has a special channel to God that other people don’t have. When you hear that sort of thing, you know that you hear again the same kind of false Christianity that appeared here in the book of Acts.
The second mark is a wide following, a widespread delusion:
They all gave heed to him, from the least to the greatest, saying, “This man is that power of God which is called Great.” (Acts 8:10 RSV)
They did not even dare to think of coming to God themselves. They thought of him as so removed, so distant, that he would not appear himself but he would send his “power,” as though the power of God were a different personality from God himself.
They said, “This man is that power of God.” The whole city believed it, from the least to the greatest. It was a widespread delusion. It is from this that false Christianity derives its strength.
The leaders of false cults point to the numbers that follow them and say “Look at all the people who believe in us. 50,000,000 Frenchmen can’t be wrong! With all these adherents we must be right.” But one of the chief characteristics of a false faith is that it can delude millions, and mislead the masses. These corrupt leaders always have significant followings.
The third mark is that of a counterfeit power:
And they gave heed to him because for a long time he had amazed them with his magic. (Acts 8:11 RSV)
When the Scripture uses this term, magic, it is not talking about sleight-of-hand tricks done before an audience. It does not mean slick little maneuvers in which the hand is quicker than the eye so that we think we see something when we don’t.
Rather, it applies to the occult, as performed by those who have somehow established a relationship with demonic powers and are using them to accomplish what look like good wholesome miracles which cannot be distinguished from the real thing. But they never last.
There was such an instance when Moses appeared in Pharaoh’s court, and God told him to throw his staff down on the ground. When he did, it became a serpent. When he picked it up, it again became a staff. Immediately the magicians of Pharaoh’s court threw their staffs down, and these also became serpents. It looked as if they had power equal to that of Moses. But then God told Moses to throw his staff down again. This time it became a serpent, which ate up those other serpents. God always has an edge.
So, Simon was doing miracles which, for the moment, relieved people, but which, later, left them bound worse than before. Many of the demonic people who were released by the preaching of Philip had probably been bound initially by the magic of Simon.
And this explains many of the miracles in these so-called “faith healing” meetings. It has been well established that many of these miracles — which apparently occur and look real at the moment, even to those watching television — are of this nature. Investigation discloses that in two weeks or a month the people are right back in the same condition, or often very much worse. They may have been miracles but they were done by a false, counterfeiting power.
We are seeing the return of the occult in our day. Thirty years ago people would have laughed if you had suggested that the intelligent, educated people of today would believe in witches and warlocks, astrology and horoscopes.
But it is right back with us, and we are going to see much more of it in days to come. We will probably see much of the very kind of thing exhibited here in the book of Acts.
And if you are one of those people who has been trapped into believing what you see, thinking that, because you see it, therefore it must be real, you will be swept right along with all this — because it can appear to be very genuine! But it is false and temporary!
The fourth mark of false Christianity is found in Verse 13:
Even Simon himself believed, and after being baptized he continued with Philip. And seeing signs and great miracles performed, he was amazed. (Acts 8:13 RSV)
The devil must have been the first one who ever said, “If you can’t lick ’em; join ’em.” That is exactly what Simon does. If this were the only statement about Simon in the Scriptures we would have to conclude that he had become a Christian, because the language used to describe him is the same as that used for genuine believers. “Simon himself believed, and was baptized.” He took upon himself the symbol of identification with Jesus Christ and thus openly joined this company who said they belonged to Jesus.
But the rest of the account makes crystal clear that this man was not a believer. He was not regenerate; he was a fraud, a sham. He said the right words and did the right things. He did whatever the others did — whether they raised their hand, or stood up, or came forward — whatever Philip may have asked them to do, Simon did the same. And he was baptized and yet he was unchanged. His heart was unregenerate, as the rest of the account will make clear, and he thus became an example of the favorite trick of the devil: When you can’t lick ’em; join ’em.
The one means by which the church has been rendered weak and ineffective, more than any other, is by unregenerate people coming in and taking on the outer garments of Christianity, calling themselves Christians, but remaining still unchanged in heart and life. That has ruined more churches than anything else possibly could.
Now, to some degree that is impossible to prevent. But, as we will see in later in the chapter, God the Holy Spirit, working in power through his people, can expose this kind of thing.