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  • Writer's picturePaul Cottington

A Wind of Change


“But when they believed Philip as he proclaimed the good news of the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptised, both men and women.." Acts 8:12

In Acts 8:1, we read of, ‘a great persecution (which) broke out against the church in Jerusalem’, following the death of that faithful believer in Jesus, called Stephen. Most of that church fled into exile. They ‘were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria’. Last time, we considered the overruling providence of God. The ‘scattered’ went scattering! They sowed the seed of God’s word into new ground. Verse 4 says, ‘those who had been scattered preached the word wherever they went’. This was despite their Jewish background and the prevailing mindset of that time – the cultural prejudice against the people of Samaria. John 4 tells us starkly, ‘Jews do not associate with Samaritans’. Except one Jew did. He ignored human society’s flawed principles. He had his own guiding principles and they were better. His name was Jesus. He said, ‘follow me’ (see Matthew 16:24). He told his followers to do as he had done. So, it is truly wonderful to see Philip behaving as he did. He seems to have oh-so-quickly understood this new way of life that Jesus demanded.

Like Stephen, Philip was introduced to us in Acts 6. Both men had been chosen by the whole church group to oversee the fair re-distribution of food to those believers that needed this ongoing support. The Twelve apostles laid down selection criteria – particular gifts were essential. They were to choose only those ‘known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom’. If Stephen and Philip are anything to go by, I think the church chose very well. They definitely shared those necessary attributes.

Something else that these two shared is that they had particular spiritual gifts, including the gift of healing. As Stephen proclaimed the gospel message in Jerusalem, it was accompanied by ‘great wonders and signs’ (Acts 6:8). ‘Signs’ accompanied Philip’s preaching also. We read of this in verses 6 & 7. It contributed to the ‘close attention’ that these Samaritans paid to what Philip was saying. So it should – that is the whole point of a sign.

Have you ever walked past an electricity substation? They have signs. They aren’t little. They don’t say things like, ‘Try not to come in here as it may hurt a teeny-weeny bit’. They are in bright yellow. In bold letters, you’ll read, ‘DANGER OF DEATH – ELECTRICITY – KEEP OUT’. As reinforcement, they also have a picture. It’s a big lighting flash hitting a person who is lying very still. The message is obvious – you come in here and that person will be you!’

We read of ‘signs’ accompanying the public ministry of Jesus. He performed miracles - sometimes this involved healing people. At other times it took different forms. The very first miracle he performed was the turning of water into wine at a marriage ceremony, recorded in John 2. That account tells us something very instructive. That miracle, or sign, told people something. Those people who understood what that sign told them – so those who read the sign and understood it - reacted to it. John 2:11 says this - ‘What Jesus did here in Cana of Galilee was the first of the signs through which he revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him’. And John 2:23 says, ‘Now while he was in Jerusalem at the Passover Festival, many people saw the signs he was performing and believed in his name.’ These signs gave credibility to the claims of Jesus that he was the Saviour, promised in the Old Testament scriptures.

So it was when the early church proclaimed the truth of Jesus, following his rising again from the dead and his return to heaven’s glory. Mark 16 tells us that, ‘the disciples went out and preached everywhere, and the Lord worked with them and confirmed his word by the signs that accompanied it’. In that chapter, there is also one of the final promises of Jesus about that early church ministry – ‘these signs will accompany those who believe: in my name they will drive out demons; they will speak in new tongues’ (Mark 16:17 & 20). And in Acts 1:8, in that final statement of Jesus before leaving this earth, he said, ‘you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you’.

That promise was quickly realised in the events that happened on that day of Pentecost in Acts 2. The Holy Spirit had come with these special manifestations, or gifts. ‘Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them’ (Acts 2:2-4). Despite the fact that, on this special celebration day in Israel’s capital, the crowd was made up of people from throughout the Roman world, all of them heard the disciples speak in the hearer’s native language. We read that the ‘crowd came together in bewilderment’ – hardly surprising! Peter explained what was happening. He told them that this had been promised already by the Old Testament prophet Joel. He finished his quote with the words found in Joel 2:32. What happened that one day was awesome. Those words in Joel 2:32 remain awesome – ‘everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved’.

So, do these special gifts really continue beyond the early church? Can Christians speak in languages that they have not learnt, in order to effectively convey Christ’s message? Can believers perform healing miracles? Among Christians there are quite a variety of positions on this. To me, these type of signs, which abounded in this early church period, don’t abound now. But, do I believe that there is no prospect of miraculous healing? No, I don’t. I think the church, now, is quite correct to pray for healing, even when the health circumstances of a person seem beyond the medical profession. They may be – but they aren’t beyond God, and though we would always desire to be wise in what we pray, we should not limit him. In our minds, we should rightly limit the power of doctors, but not the power of the divine.

Do I believe that a circumstance couldn’t arrive where a believer could speak in another tongue in order to convey the gospel to a person with which they have no shared language? I haven’t seen it happen but, again, ‘with God all things are possible’ (Matthew 19:26).

1 Corinthians 12 is the ‘go to’ chapter on spiritual gifts. Whatever our position is on whether some of those gifts mentioned still exist within church life, or not, it has something to say that is always current. The church body is likened to a human body being made up of ‘many parts’. In order for our physical bodies to function fully, all our various parts have to work for the whole. So it is with the church, particularly each local church body. We all have different gifts. We are not to think that one particular gift makes any one member better than another. We aren’t to envy the gift that another member has. We certainly aren’t to look down on another member thinking that their gift is lesser than ours. To do so would be to not only despise a fellow blood-purchased believer, it would be to despise God’s wisdom and distribution within his own family. Because (v.11) ‘all these (gifts) are the work of one and the same Spirit, and he distributes them to each one, just as he determines’. And how has he determined? Not randomly. Not so that one person might feel better, or look good, but so that his whole church body would be served in its various needs by all in their different ways. Verse 7 says this – ‘now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good’. The gift that I have should serve you. The gift, which you have, should serve me, and our other brothers and sisters, ‘for the common good’. So it is for each member of the ‘family of believers’ (Galatians 6:10).

These things are really relevant to our understanding of Acts 8. Here we meet this character called Simon. He ‘practised sorcery’ (Acts 8:9), or ‘magic’ as the ESV and NASB translate it. There is considerable speculation that Simon had devilish assistance in the things that he performed. Maybe. What is certain is that the devil approved of this trickery. I wonder whether Simon was little more than a clever magician, with various ‘tricks up his sleeve’, so to speak. I think Acts 8 suggests this in verse 13. Why was Simon ‘astonished by the great signs and miracles he saw’ Philip perform? My conclusion is that he saw something different. Philip performed genuine miracles, through the power of God’s Spirit. Simon saw the contrast with his own actions which were just elaborate frauds. But despite the lack of substance in Simon’s tricks, a whole raft of people were convinced, ‘both high and low’ (v.10). Not just the poor and uneducated, but those standing higher up society’s creaking ladder, ‘gave him their attention’. They ‘exclaimed’, ‘this man is rightly called the Great Power of God’. This suggests agreement with something previously stated. It doesn’t say, ‘we should call him this’, rather, it says, ‘(he) is rightly called’. I think this tells us that Simon had made this claim for himself. He was doing these things for his own benefit – his own status – that people might praise and worship him. And they did… until Philip arrived to spoil the Samaritan shindig.

Simon’s tricks proclaimed the power of Simon. They pointed everyone to him. They elevated the name of Simon. Philip’s signs powerfully pointed people past Philip. Because, as verse 12 tells us, Philip wasn’t proclaiming Philip, but a better name by far – ‘he proclaimed the good news of the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ’.

This Samaritan audience, with their part Jewish heritage, were awaiting God’s promised Messiah (see John 4:25). Verse 5 says that, ‘Philip… proclaimed the Messiah’. His actions trumped the trickery of Simon, and his words seemed to also overcome all the mixed up erroneous preconception that this people group had inherited. Two words in verse 12 tell us that something happened to them. It’s the greatest thing that the true ‘Great Power of God’ can ever bring into the lives of human beings - ‘they believed’. What followed is what should always follow faith in Jesus Christ – ‘they were baptised, both men and women’. There was room for everyone. Even the man whose past life had been that of a self-exalting con-man. He was welcome to receive forgiveness through Jesus. Because all are welcome here.

It’s all going swimmingly – maybe we should quietly skip verses 15-17, and avoid all the trouble that it has caused the church in the past, as the commentators have grappled with the meaning of these troublesome verses. But that would involve trickery and we need to banish that today!

I think that Simon is the key to these things. Luke, in writing this chapter, isn’t introducing some changed doctrinal perspective, where the Holy Spirit begins his work in people after they believe. His focus is on Simon – he is the key. This mention of the Holy Spirit is specific to the special gifts, those ‘manifestation(s) of the Spirit’ detailed in 1 Corinthians. In God’s infinite wisdom, these people who had truly believed through the power of God’s Spirit, had not yet received any gifting, as had been the norm in the early days of the church in Jerusalem. It allowed this connection with the Jerusalem church to be established as Peter and John are sent as the Lord’s channel, to receive these things. I believe this is borne out by a later, similar, incident in the ministry of the apostle Paul in Acts 19:1-7. ‘He found some disciples’ ‘at Ephesus’. ‘Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?’ The answer was ‘No’. So, after they ‘believed’ - after ‘they were baptised in the name of the Lord Jesus’, something happened. ‘When Paul placed his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they spoke in tongues and prophesied’. The Holy Spirit gave the gifts that the church then needed, ‘for the common good’. I think this is what happens in Acts 8. It isn’t that the Samaritans’ belief is somehow changed from an intellectual understanding of the gospel into genuine faith in Jesus, but simply that they received gifts, that would be needed in that local body in its infancy. And the promise of Jesus to his believing followers in Acts 8:1, of a future coming of the Spirit on them, adds weight to this way of understanding.

Like in Acts 19, in Acts 8 this is conveyed through the laying on of hands. ‘They received’ when ‘Peter and John placed their hands on them’ (v.17). Again, is this a practice that belongs only to the early church? Again, there are differences of opinion. I think that although in our circles this is seldom seen, it is something that is worthy of our consideration. There are New Testament passages that describe incidences in church life when this visual sign might still be relevant. Perhaps that is something for us to look at another time. The way that we are wired, as humans, means that the visual is really important to help us understand. The picture on the substation sign is really simple, but it says something really powerful.

It reminds me of my baptism. This was so many years ago that I can remember almost nothing of what was said to me on that day. I remember only one sentence, which one of my brothers in Christ said to me. And there is a reason why I remember that. It’s because it was accompanied by something visual. My believing friend understood the implication of Galatians 2:9, where the already established members of the Jerusalem church have listened to the account, given by Paul and Barnabas, of their particular gifting by God. They had been given the gift, and the mission, to preach the gospel to non-Jews. The apostles in Jerusalem accept this as true and wish to convey their acceptance of Paul and Barnabas as being part of the church of Christ, despite the different area of service to wish they were called. So they do this visually. Paul says, they ‘gave me and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship’. What is this? Some sort of holy handshake? Kind of. It didn’t actually do anything but it did mean something. That is what happened to me after my baptism. What was said to me was, ‘I extend the right hand of fellowship to you. Welcome to the church’. I’ve forgotten everything else, but remember those words, because they were accompanied by the visual – that beautiful picture of a holy handshake.

It’s really important that we notice something else in Acts 8:15 - prayer. That prayer channel through which gift conveying came was absolutely vital. The laying on of hands was important but, perhaps, somewhat secondary to this request to God. Gifts are then manifest. It is evident that there was a visible manifestation, because Simon ‘saw that…’ (v.18). And Satan saw an opportunity. Simon was tempted. Why was he so tempted? It is all down to his background. His former way of life comes rushing back in, threatening to wash away the new life in Christ that he had recently found. His request is self-centred. He wants this ability that Peter and John had been gifted with. They had been given it, along with the wisdom to use it, ‘for the common good’. Simon wants to use it randomly, not so that gifts can be distributed as God determined, but as Simon determined. He, at that point, wants what he had before – people to say, ‘look at Simon, he still has, ‘the Great Power of God’.

Peter sees the danger. This was a serious situation. Simon’s infant faith was valued by Peter and he faithfully rebukes Simon. He now knew when and how to do it. He had the best teacher of all. Peter’s rebuke is very similar in style and forcefulness to the way that Jesus had rebuked Peter in the past (see Matthew 16:23). He makes a very important point about ‘gifts’, in verse 20.

Let me ask a question. How many times have you received a good gift and then been asked to pay for it? Never. Because, the moment you were asked to pay, is the moment that it would have ceased to be a gift. Peter continues with (v.21-22), ‘Your heart is not right before God. Repent…

Last week, Tim pointed us to the important principle of seeking the prayers of others. He spoke about the request of Paul in Colossians 4 for those believers to pray for him, in order that his gospel service would be successful. Why did the great apostle Paul need prayer? Because he had a problem. He was just a man, as human as we are. He needed more than his own inherent weakness to reach souls for Jesus. Paul needed ‘the Great Power of God’ and called on others to petition the Lord for him. Here, Simon asks Peter to pray for him (v.24). He values the prayers of this man, established in the faith. I trust that Peter will have done just that. I trust that his prayers found the ear of the Almighty.

Like Simon, our backgrounds – our ruinous past – always carries a threat to our Christian life. Our characters, and our upbringing, and our experiences, have shaped us and moulded us, often in very negative ways that need a lot of undoing. My past experience will be different to yours. The temptations that threaten my Christian walk may also be different. The solution is the same, though. God’s word and his good news message must be our place of hope and confidence. I feel the ruin of my past creeping back in and threatening me. It’s like one of those doors with the spring loaded closures at the top. That spring is really powerful. Once I couldn’t open that door. My ruin was a closed door. My past was always in front of me! But then I found something weighty – a heavy book, called the Bible – God’s own word about Jesus his own Son. That door has now been held open by that book and its awesome contents – my past is pushed to the side. But it’s still there. If that book is not in my hand then that past will swing back and smack me in the face and leave me lying on my back.

You may be thinking, ‘that’s how I feel – I didn’t know you felt like that’. Well, I’ve news for you. I suspect you won’t find a Christian who feels different. Do you want to know how often I feel like this? Every single day.

What a wonderful thing God’s word is. We must keep it, and its truth firmly in hand. Then we will have hope. And what a wonderful thing the church family should be. In the future, when my past knocks me down again, I trust there will be a Peter, or a Petra, there, ready to extend ‘the right hand of fellowship’ to get me back on my feet – prepared to pray for me because they know the value of my soul – the price that God himself has put on it – the price that he has paid. And what is that price? Peter tells us in 1 Peter 1:18-19. Peter mentions current coinage – that wasn’t the price. He mentions our ruinous past – that awful inheritance that was ours. I’ll read it from the NLT. ‘For you know that God paid a ransom to save you from the empty life you inherited from your ancestors. And it was not paid with mere gold or silver, which lose their value. It was the precious blood of Christ, the sinless, spotless Lamb of God.’


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