The Gospel Conquers Sorcery

Acts 8:1-25
P. G. Mathew | Sunday, August 23, 1998
Copyright © 1998, P. G. Mathew

Acts 8:1-25 speaks about the spread of the gospel to Judea and Samaria. The church father Tertullian made this profound statement: "The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church." Persecution of the church promotes the preaching of the gospel, which, in turn, results in great increase of the church. In this study we want to look at three things: first, the persecution of the church; second, the progress of the gospel; and third, the power of the evil one defeated and exposed.

Persecution of the Church

In the previous chapters we read about Stephen, the first Christian martyr, who was killed for his bold declaration of the gospel before the Sanhedrin. Stephen's assertion that the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ had rendered Judaism and the temple obsolete was seen by the Pharisees and Sadducees as a threat to Judaism. These Jewish leaders united against Christianity, especially the Hellenistic Christianity of Stephen, which was more enlightened and radical, and began to persecute the church, as we are told in Acts 8:1, "On that day a great persecution broke out against the church at Jerusalem."

This persecution was especially led by the inquisitor of Jerusalem, a brilliant Hellenistic Jew named Saul of Tarsus. Saul had been a student of the great teacher Gamaliel and was convinced that this Jesus of Nazareth about whom Stephen spoke was a cursed blasphemer. He knew Jesus had been crucified recently in Jerusalem for the crime of blasphemy. As a serious student of the Old Testament, Saul was familiar with the verse in Deuteronomy which says, "Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree." Knowing of Jesus' death on the cross, Saul deduced that Jesus was a blasphemer.

What was the problem with Saul's conclusion? If Jesus was a blasphemer, then the declaration of Stephen and other Hellenistic Christians that Jesus of Nazareth was the Savior, the Messiah, the Lord, the Holy One, and the Righteous One of the Scriptures, was utterly false. However, if Stephen was right, then Judaism and the entire system of temple worship was wrong. The Christian gospel, therefore, threatened the very existence of Judaism, and it also threatened the very life, passion, and mission of this zealous defender of Judaism, Saul of Tarsus. Saul concluded that Christianity must be eradicated, and that could be done only through the destruction of Christians. In Saul's mind such bloodshed would be an act of great service rendered in pious devotion to God.

Saul spoke about this in Acts 26:9-11, "I too was convinced that I ought to do all that was possible to oppose the name of Jesus of Nazareth. And that is just what I did in Jerusalem. On the authority of the chief priests I put many of the saints in prison, and when they were put to death, I cast my vote against them." From this we learn that Stephen was not the only Christian who was killed for his faith. Saul continued, "Many a time I went from one synagogue to another to have them punished, and I tried to force them to blaspheme. In my obsession against them, I even went to foreign cities to persecute them."

Saul's understanding of the implications of Stephen's gospel motivated him to persecute the church. Demonized by his hatred, Saul focused on one purpose: to wipe Christianity from the face of the earth by destroying Christians. Saul became like a ferocious wild animal, seeking to devour the church, as we read in Acts 8:3. The Greek word used for "destroy" refers to wild animals destroying a vineyard or mangling, devouring, and tearing bodies to pieces. And in Acts 9:1 we read that Saul breathed out slaughter and threatenings against the church, the disciples, Christianity, and Jesus of Nazareth.

Do you think someone as zealous as Saul could destroy the church? No. In Matthew 16 Jesus had said, "I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it" (Matt. 16:18). Saul was determined to destroy the church and wipe it out from the face of the earth, but even he soon discovered that no one can frustrate the Lord's eternal purpose. God's purpose is to build his church, and no one can oppose God.

The Progress of the Gospel

The second point we want to examine is the progress of the gospel. In Acts 9:1 we find Saul on the move, instigating persecution of the church wherever he went. The church was also on the move as it fled the persecution of Saul and the Jewish leaders. Strange as it seems, this movement of the church is exactly what Jesus had intended. This persecution resulted in the progress of the gospel from Jerusalem to Judea, Samaria and the uttermost parts of the earth.

Before he ascended into heaven Jesus gave a command to his disciples: "Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised" (Acts 1:4). But he also said, "But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria," or Judea/Samaria in the Greek, "and to the ends of the world" (Acts 1:8). On the day of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit was poured out upon the church, and Peter preached to all Jerusalem that Jesus Christ is Lord. Many people on that day cried out, "What must we do to be saved?" and Peter told them, "Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ, and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit." These people also received the Holy Spirit promised by Jesus.

The Holy Spirit had come, yet the apostles stayed in Jerusalem. No doubt they were influenced by the Old Testament idea that only in Jerusalem could people worship God and learn about him, and, therefore, people from far countries must come to Jerusalem. Jesus changed all of that and told his disciples to go out from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth. People no longer needed to go to Jerusalem; they could worship God anywhere.

The apostles did not understand these things, but they should have. They should have moved north to Judea and Samaria, but they were comfortably situated in Jerusalem and did not think of moving. Additionally, people from outlying towns were constantly bringing their sick into Jerusalem to be healed by the apostles, as we read in Acts 5. As these people were healed, some of them heard the gospel and believed. The apostles probably thought that the Samaritans and Galileans should also come, like these people, to Jerusalem to hear the gospel. But God had clearly commanded that his disciples should go north from Jerusalem to Judea and Samaria and preach the gospel.

What other reason did the apostles have for not going north? They may have been reluctant to go to Samaria, despite Jesus' command to do so. You see, there was some discrimination even in the early church. The fourth chapter of John's gospel tells us that Jews and Samaritans had no dealings with each other, and in Luke 9 we read how John and James, the "sons of thunder," asked Jesus if fire should be called down upon Samaria. Like most Jews, the disciples looked down upon the Samaritans because they were half-breeds--a mixture of Jews and pagans. Additionally, there was even mixture in their worship. Samaritans worshiped pagan gods as well as Jehovah, and such obvious idolatry was abhorrent to the Jews.

This discrimination was very real, but Jesus Christ did not practice it. In John 4 we read that Jesus Christ had to go through Samaria and because he did, he brought salvation to many Samaritans. Like our Lord Jesus Christ, we must realize that all people are sinners, whether black or white, Jews or Samaritans, Moslems or Hindus, and that Jesus is the only Savior of the whole world. It is God's determination and eternal purpose to save sinners from all nations on the earth. That is why Jesus told his disciples to go into all the world.

The apostles were comfortable staying in Jerusalem. But God had purposed to save Samaritans, and they would be saved by the only possible means, the proclamation of the gospel of Jesus Christ. God used Saul's persecution of Christians to fulfill his program of salvation.

Persecution Leads to Gospel Progress

In Acts 8:1 we read that on the day Stephen was martyred, "great persecution broke out against the church at Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria." God's plan of spreading the gospel beyond Jerusalem was now being fulfilled. God was using man's persecution for the advantage of his kingdom by scattering Christians, especially the Hellenistic believers. And instead of going south to Egypt or to other parts of the earth, these believers remembered Jesus' words, "Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria," so they went north. Even while they were being persecuted, these Christians were led by the Spirit of God.

The disciples now understood they did not have to stay in Jerusalem to worship God because they understood the gospel more clearly than they had at first. They realized that they didn't have to make sacrifices at the temple anymore because the final sacrifice had been offered by Jesus Christ. A new and living way was opened up for people to God the Father through Jesus Christ.

Jesus intimated these things when he spoke to the Samaritan woman in John 4:21, "Believe me, woman, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain," meaning Mount Gerizim, "nor in Jerusalem," meaning at the temple. He was speaking of the time following his own death and resurrection. Then he described God's true way of worship, "God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship him in spirit and in truth."

Scattering the Gospel

Persecution of the church fulfilled God's eternal purpose by casting out God's people from Jerusalem to Judea and Samaria. God has his own way of spreading the gospel. If necessary, he will push us out from our comfortable habitations so that we will declare the gospel to the world. God spreads the gospel by scattering Christians.

The Greek word used for scatter is diaspeiro, from which we have the term diaspora. This word is used of a farmer scattering the seed in the field. When Christians are scattered to the far ends of the earth, they take the word of God with them and speak to others about Christ.

Therefore, the kingdom of God benefits from persecution, as we read in Acts 8:4, "Those who had been scattered preached the word where they went." These people were refugees who had been driven out from their own homes and cities. But instead of talking about their misery and the persecution they had suffered, these Christians spoke about the greatest thing that had ever happened to them, which was their relationship with Jesus Christ, the King of kings and Lord of lords, their Prince and Savior, the author of life who had given them eternal life. Wherever they went, they proclaimed the gospel of salvation in Christ, which they had experienced.

Not only did these first believers tell other Jews about the gospel wherever they went, but in Acts 11:19 we read, "Now those who had been scattered by the persecution in connection with Stephen traveled as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus and Antioch, telling the message only to Jews. Some of them, however, men from Cyprus and Cyrene, went to Antioch," meaning Syrian Antioch, "and began to speak to the Greeks also, telling them the good news about the Lord Jesus." Now the gospel began to go, not only to Jews, but also to Gentiles. What brought this about? Persecution.

The Divine Necessity of Preaching the Gospel

With God all things work together for good. Even though Stephen was killed, God raised up another man to take his place in spreading the gospel. Philip was a Hellenistic Christian who also believed Stephen's gospel that salvation is not tied to the ritual of the temple. As a result of the persecution following Stephen's death, Philip traveled to Samaria and began to preach Christ.

Let us be very clear about what we as Christians are called to do. In Acts 8:4 we read, "Those who had been scattered preached the word." These people were preaching the objective, historical facts about Christ. We must preach God's word, not our own subjective experience. "I was blind but now I see" may sound nice, but it will not save anyone. Christians are to preach the word of God, especially in regard to the person and work of Jesus Christ.

In Acts 8:5 we read, "Philip went down to a city in Samaria and proclaimed the Christ," meaning the Messiah. And in verse 12 we read, "But when they believed Philip as he preached the good news of the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptized, both men and women." It is so important for us to preach the objective, historic gospel.

"Preach the word," Paul told Timothy as he neared the end of his life, and in 2 Timothy 4 he instructed Timothy to preach the word, in season and out of season. Guard it and preach it, Paul said, because the word is the power of God unto salvation for everyone who believes. In other words, we are not told to preach stories or shed tears. Those things will not save anyone. Only the person and work of Jesus Christ will save a person.

What is the chief activity of God in the world since the fall of man? Salvation of sinners. Everything else is background to this grand purpose of God. The most important thing God does in this world is to save his people from his wrath, from their sins, from death and from hell, and he accomplishes this through the proclamation of the gospel of his Son. As we preach the gospel, others hear it, believe it, call upon the name of the Lord and are saved.

Preaching, therefore, is divine necessity. As Christians, we must bear witness to the gospel--that is God's plan for our lives. The primary purpose for our lives is not becoming educated or getting married or having children or making money or building houses or exercising political power. All that is background. The primary purpose of our lives is to proclaim the gospel.

What Is the Gospel?

God saves elect sinners through the human proclamation of his mighty gospel. In all of life, there is only one thing needful--that people come to know the Lord Jesus Christ and be saved. Why do they need salvation? Because, as we read in Romans 1:18, "the wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness." We are all born sinners, and the Bible says God is against sinners daily. Additionally, it tells us the wrath of God is constantly abiding on sinners because they are suppressing truth with their wickedness.

But that is not the only message of the Bible. It is true that God must damn all people and send them to hell because all are sinners who have violated his revealed law. But in Romans 1 we read something else: "In the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed. . ." (Rom. 1:17).

The Bible tells us man is unrighteous, wicked, and unholy, and the wrath of God is being revealed against him because of these things. Yet the Bible tells us something else, that a righteousness from God is revealed in the gospel in the person and work of Jesus Christ, and that sinners can receive this righteousness by faith. This is the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ!

Man's Greatest Need

In Romans 1:16 we read that the gospel "is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes." If you asked people, "What is your greatest need?" they will come up with many answers, won't they? People want relief from back pain, healing from cancer, freedom from heart attacks, relief from loneliness. People want husbands and wives and children, homes and lands and possessions. Now, these are all legitimate needs, but they are not the greatest need man has. Man's greatest need is to be forgiven of his sins and to be in right relationship with God.

If you are spiritually blind, you will say, "My greatest need is for a wife," or "My greatest need is for a husband," or "My greatest need is to be cured of my disease." But when the Spirit of God comes upon you and says, "Let there be light," your eyes will suddenly be opened and you see as you never have before. Only when this happens will you say, "O God, I finally realize that my greatest need is forgiveness for all my sins. I finally realized that I am a sinner against you, the infinite God, almighty God." And if you have been enlightened by God, you will also say, "God, I realize that not only do I need forgiveness of sins, but I also need perfection, meaning perfect righteousness, because my sin has cut me off from your presence. I know I cannot have fellowship with you unless I am perfect because the Bible says, 'Be ye therefore perfect even as your heavenly Father is perfect.' But, God, I know I can't make myself perfect. I also know perfection and forgiveness do not come from the law. Where, then, can I find forgiveness of sins and perfection, meaning the gift of divine righteousness?"

The Bible tells us that forgiveness of sins and divine righteousness can only come to us through the gospel of Jesus Christ. That is why the church must preach the word of the Lord, meaning the good news of the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ of history. Nothing else can help us.

The Bible also tells us that a man outside of Christ is dead, lost, and wicked. Under the wrath of God, he is headed to hell. But it also tells us that man's soul is immortal. Our souls are more valuable than the entire universe, as Jesus implied when he asked, "What does it profit if you gain the whole world and lose your soul?" and, as he said elsewhere, "Man shall not live by bread alone but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God."

The answer to man's fundamental problem of sin and unrighteousness is the gospel of Jesus Christ. The only answer is Jesus Christ--not our subjective experience, not psychology, not science, not economics, not politics, not philosophy. Those are all based on the word of man, but we must preach the word of God. That is why Jesus told his disciples, "You shall be my witnesses. You must declare the great historical facts governing who Jesus Christ is."

We must also tell people that there is a hell as well as a heaven and that life in hell as well as in heaven will last forever. How do we know there is a hell? Jesus Christ, the Son of God, said it exists and we believe what Jesus Christ said.

Additionally, we must preach the word concerning the kingdom of God. We must tell people that there are only two kingdoms--the kingdom of God, which is the kingdom of light, the kingdom of righteousness, the kingdom of life, the kingdom of divine sovereignty--and the kingdom of Satan, and that all people are either in one or the other. We must say that all people are born into the kingdom of Satan, who is the god and prince of this world, because we are all born sinners and spiritually dead. But God's Son Jesus Christ, who is very God and very man, takes some out of the kingdom of Satan by a mighty operation of the Holy Spirit and places them into the kingdom of God, which is righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit. How can he do that? Jesus Christ is stronger than Satan. He is the Creator God, the eternal God, and so he binds Satan, who is a creature of limited power, rescues elect sinners and transports them into his kingdom.

The mission of Jesus Christ was to defeat the devil, which he accomplished in his death on the cross. In 1 John 3:8 we read that "the reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the devil's work." The devil is only a creature, and Jesus Christ, the Son of God, completely disarmed the devil by his death, and now he sets free everyone who repents and trusts in Jesus Christ. He freely saves them from the dominion of Satan and brings them into the kingdom of God.

The Bible tells us Jesus Christ was crucified for our sins and raised for our justification, and in him we receive forgiveness of all our sins and the perfection of his righteousness. In Jesus Christ we enter the sphere of the kingdom of God, the kingdom of life everlasting which cannot be destroyed by death, by sword, by principalities, by powers, by the present, by the future--anything! That is what salvation is all about.

Preaching the Gospel of Christ

Therefore, when we go to our own Judea and Samaria, let us not talk about our subjective experiences, though they are wonderful. Don't say, "I was blind but now I see; I was lost, I am found; I was dead, I am alive." All those experiences are wonderful, but they do not save anyone.

What should you tell people? Tell them about the word, about the Christ, about the kingdom of God, about the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth. Tell them about the great facts of history as recorded in the Bible.

We must preach the word of God! That means we must not speak just anything that comes into our mind at any moment. The word of God is very definite and has been written down in the Bible. We need to study the Bible carefully and preach from it, because it alone is the word of God, the gospel of Christ. We must preach about the Jesus of history, Jesus of Nazareth, who was born of a virgin. We must tell people that he is the Holy One, the Son of God, the second person of the Trinity, the author of eternal life, the Righteous One, the Prince and Savior, the Suffering Servant, the Messiah, the Deliverer, the Prophet, the Priest, and the Mighty King of the universe!

When you preach these things, people may ask you, "Then why was Jesus crucified?" Saul of Tarsus did not understand why until God opened his eyes on the road to Damascus. But when he understood, he recorded the answer in the New Testament for all of us: "Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written, 'Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree'" (Gal. 3:13). And in another place he wrote, "God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God" (2 Cor. 5:21). When we understand these things, we will look at Jesus Christ on the cross and say, "He is hanging on that tree in my place, thereby removing my curse and my sin. Behold, the Lamb of God, who taketh away the sin of the world!"

That is why we glory in the cross, not in ourselves. We glory in the cross because in his death on the cross Jesus Christ took away our curse, our sin, our hell, and the wrath of God that we deserved. That is why Paul said he wanted only to know Christ and him crucified. Paul knew that the wisdom or philosophies of this world cannot save anyone. They are but the mutterings of blind fools.

What, then, should we preach?

  1. We must preach that Jesus Christ was crucified in our place to make atonement for our sins. This is the most important fact of history! You may know everything else there is to know. You may go to many universities and do research and accumulate all the knowledge in the world, but none of that knowledge will save you. No other book can save you, no other man can save you. Philosophy cannot save you, psychology cannot save you, science cannot save you. Man can discover and invent many things, but he cannot control them. They can kill us, but they cannot save us.

  2. We must preach that there is only one who is able to save us--Jesus Christ, the Savior of the world. He alone was crucified and buried and raised again by God on the third day. He alone was seen by his disciples, ascended into the heavens, and is now seated in heaven at the right hand of God the Father. He alone poured out his Holy Spirit upon the church, and we are told God the Father placed all things under his feet, including us.

  3. We must preach the spiritual reality that there is an eternal God, who is spirit--invisible, eternal God--and there is the devil, a creature, and his invisible demons. Satan wants to keep us blinded, without understanding these things, but we must understand these realities.

  4. We must preach that Jesus Christ is given a name above every name, "far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every title that can be given" (Eph. 1:21). He alone is the Supreme Lord of the universe.

  5. We must preach what Jesus Christ is doing right now. In 1 Corinthians 15:25 we read, "For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet." The Lord Jesus Christ is reigning now as the Supreme Lord of the universe, and he will conquer, bringing every rebel under his feet. The Father placed all his enemies under the feet of his Son.

  6. We must preach that Jesus is saving his people, the elect sinners of Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and from the uttermost ends of the earth. Whenever the gospel is preached, the Lord opens the heart of elect sinners. The Holy Spirit regenerates them, performing a mighty work in their hearts to make them alive. He opens their eyes and gives them understanding and conviction of their sin until they cry out in true repentance for forgiveness of sins and are given saving grace.

    No one can be saved by decisional salvation, meaning, "I decided; therefore, I am saved." No! Many people make decisions for Christ, but to do so without the mighty experience of the Spirit of God in their hearts is a delusion and they are not truly saved. We must decide to trust in Christ, but if we are truly saved, we will love God and keep his commandments. That is what true salvation means. I call this dynamic salvation as opposed to decisional salvation.

  7. We must preach what Peter preached, that "salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved."

  8. We must preach that every sinner who is ordained to salvation will repent and believe on the Lord Jesus Christ. This includes even a wild, devouring beast like Saul of Tarsus, the Jerusalem inquisitor and great persecutor of the church. Instantly such people can be converted and become Christians. That is why we must preach the gospel of Jesus Christ.

We All Can Spread the Gospel

Samaria was ripe unto harvest, so God, through a mighty persecution, thrust reapers from Jerusalem out to the harvest. Philip preached the word of God to the Samaritans and God performed mighty miracles to confirm it. Crowds of people heard the gospel, believed in Christ, and were baptized.

But not only was Philip preaching the word officially in Samaria, there were others who were preaching as well. These were ordinary Christians, not professional ministers--refugees from Jerusalem. They also spread the word of God informally by continuously speaking the gospel of great salvation that filled them. The great persecution had not quenched the fire of life within them. They went out to their friends and neighbors and naturally started talking about Jesus Christ of Nazareth--that he was crucified, buried, raised and is seated on the right hand of God the Father as the Lord of the universe. They told people that this Jesus Christ saves sinners. "What must I do to be saved?" the people would ask. And these displaced Christians, these refugees, these ordinary people, would reply, "Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you shall be saved."

You do not have to be a professional minister to witness to Jesus Christ. If you are faithful to share the gospel spontaneously, you will see many people getting saved. Therefore, I encourage you to know the gospel, enjoy the gospel, and, in the power of the mighty Spirit of God, preach the gospel, declaring the greatest facts of history. As you exalt Jesus Christ and him crucified, he will save sinners through you.

Let me warn you: Do not give people a watered-down, palatable gospel that is nothing. Don't be a false prophet; tell the truth. And begin to share the gospel by sharing with your own children. Ask them if they are saved or not. If they are, they will know it, because they will love Jesus Christ, obey Jesus Christ, and declare Jesus Christ with their own mouths. They will detest sin, run from Satan, and embrace Christ. That is what we do if we are really saved by the mighty operation of the Holy Spirit. No persecution can quench the fire of the gospel within us.

What will be the result of our spreading the gospel? In Acts 8:8 we read, "So there was great joy in the city." What was the reason for this joy? Jesus Christ had set these people free from sin, from Satan, from death, from hell, from the wrath of God, from fear, and they were given life, forgiveness of sins, and perfection of Christ's righteousness.

The Power of the Devil Defeated and Exposed

The third point we want to speak about is the power of the devil defeated and exposed. After the death of Stephen, a great persecution broke out against the church of Jesus Christ. But this persecution fulfilled God's plan to spread the gospel beyond Jerusalem. Through the believers who were scattered, the gospel progressed to Judea, Samaria and beyond. Now we want to look at the power of the devil defeated and exposed, which we read about in this account of Simon Magus, the sorcerer of Samaria.

Counterfeit Salvation

If God offers people salvation through his Son, Jesus Christ, what does the world have to offer? The world offers us counterfeit salvation, and it does so through sorcerers and magicians.

We read about magicians and sorcerers several times in the Bible, especially in reference to Egypt and Babylon. Sorcerers are always able to do some false miracles by the power of the devil and his demons, and we see many such miracles in Exodus 7 and 8. But, although they can perform certain miracles to some degree, the world's magicians and sorcerers always fail. In the final analysis, the world is impotent, and all its magicians and sorcerers cannot save anyone.

In Exodus 7 and 8 we read of Egyptian magicians. At first they could falsely imitate the authentic miracles of Moses and Aaron, but finally they could do no more. So in Exodus 8:19 we read, "The magicians said to Pharaoh, 'This is the finger of God.' But Pharaoh's heart was hardened and he would not listen, just as the Lord had said." There is a limit to what the devil can do through human beings because he himself is only a creature.

We see the same thing in Babylon. There the magicians failed Nebuchadnezzar and Belshazzar after some time, and only Daniel, by the power of the living God, was able to interpret what God was saying to these kings.

All the world can offer is sorcery and witchcraft. It has its own philosophy and gurus, rich and famous, drugs and scientists, and higher critics. It has its own human saviors who pretend to be gods, as well as its artists, movie stars, and Forbes 400 members. But the salvation they offer is counterfeit. True salvation is only from God through Jesus Christ.

A Counterfeit Messiah

In Acts 8:9 we read about a man in Samaria named Simon. Simon was a sorcerer who amazed all the people of Samaria with his tricks, we are told. And we notice that Simon was an egoist who boasted as if he were someone great. All the people of Samaria--the high and low, the rich and famous, the intellectual and the ignorant--followed this sorcerer Simon.

We see this type of thing today as well. People who hate the gospel will follow every other sorcerer, magician, or philosopher. The sophisticated people of the world are offended by the cross. As Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 1, the cross is foolishness to the Greeks and a stumbling block to the Jews, but it is the power of God unto salvation to those who believe.

As we said before, the Samaritans were a mixed race of people, not pure Jews. In 722 B.C. the Israelites who were left in Samaria intermarried with pagans who were brought in by the conquering Assyrian king Sargon. We are told in the New Testament that the pure Jews had no dealings with Samaritans and considered them second-class citizens. The Jews did not permit Samaritans to worship in Jerusalem, so they had their own temple in Mount Gerizim where they worshiped Jehovah as well as pagan gods. They accepted the Pentateuch and believed in a Messiah whom they called Ta'eb, as mentioned in Deuteronomy 18:15.

Simon boasted he was someone great, and the rich and famous of Samaria said, "Oh, this man is the Great Power of God--the hero of the Samaritans." Of course, he charged money for his tricks, and so became very rich. It may be that he even boasted that he was the Ta'eb--the Messiah, the Restorer--and as he amazed people with his tricks, they believed him. But Simon was a counterfeit savior, used by the devil to deceive people. Did you know the devil is capable of deceiving, if possible, even the very elect? Simon was filled with demons and inspired by the power of the devil in order to deceive and mislead people from the true Savior, Jesus Christ.

Like the Samaritans of Simon's day, many people today are not interested in an intellectual understanding of the gospel. They come to church to be amazed, saying, "Do some tricks, Pastor. Do some tricks." They are interested in amazement, rather than seeking to understand the gospel that will deliver them from sin and its power, from the devil, from death, from hell, and from the wrath of God. What they want is tricks. "Do some tricks," they will say to the pastor. "Make us feel happy. Show us some phenomena. Cause our eyeballs to come out of their sockets, and then we will tell everyone what a great preacher you are.'"

Acts 8:9 tells us Simon's sorcery amazed all the people of Samaria. And in verse 11 we read, "They followed him because he had amazed them for a long time with his magic." We must ask ourselves a question at this point: Are we interested in amazement or are we interested in putting our faith in Jesus Christ and following him, the real Savior of the world?

Simon the Magician

There is no question there was greater darkness in Samaria than in Jerusalem and Judea. The rabbis used to say, "Let no man eat the bread of the Kuthites," meaning the Samaritans, "for he who eats their bread is as he who eats swine's flesh." They also used to pray, "Lord, do not remember the Samaritans in the resurrection."

Simon Magus took advantage of this great darkness, claiming to be the Great Power of God, the Messiah, and all the people of Samaria exclaimed, "He is the Great Power of God. He keeps us entertained morning and evening for a price." Simon kept performing tricks of magic, amazing and fooling gullible people from all walks of life with his sorcery. Unthinking, emotional, pleasure-seeking people--high and low, rich and famous, intellectual and ignorant--all were devotees of Simon.

It is the same today. People hate the gospel, yet they believe in everything else. They follow every cult and false religion. Why? They would rather believe in human trickery than in God. They prefer the counterfeit gospel to the real thing.

Simon fooled many people and made a lot of money from his sorcery. There are many preachers today in this country who also seek to fool people with their brand of a false gospel and to make a lot of money from it. These preachers perform tricks and call them miracles, but they are all falsehood and lies. They are inspired by Satan. They are demonized, in other words, but they make a lot of money. Wherever these preachers go, gullible people empty their pocketbooks and make them rich. I saw one such trick-making person once when I was traveling. He was in the first-class compartment, along with a lot of attendants. That is what these people will do with your money.

Simon Meets the Messiah

What is the bottom line for these tricksters? Money! But then Philip came to Samaria, preached the gospel and demonstrated an infinitely greater power than Simon's--the power of the Holy Spirit. Demons began to come out of people, shrieking and shouting. Paralytics were healed. People were converted and their lives were changed as they trusted in Jesus Christ.

The power of the gospel amazed Simon Magus. He was astonished as he saw the genuine miracles performed by Philip in the power of the Holy Spirit. He realized that this was something far greater than the creaturely, demonic power he had been exercising. Simon confessed faith in Christ, was baptized and became a disciple.

Simon could recognize a good thing when he saw it. He decided he needed to get this Holy Spirit power too, so he could sell it as a commodity for a price. It is my judgment that Simon professed faith in Christ, was baptized, and began spending time with Philip for the singular purpose of trying to become the bishop of Samaria so that he could make a lot of money. In fact, the word simony in the English language comes from this chapter. Simony means the buying of an episcopacy or some ecclesiastical office with money.

Peter and John were sent from Jerusalem to oversee this Samaritan revival to see whether it was genuine or not. Even though John had earlier wanted to bring down fire on the Samaritans, he was now truly converted and filled with the Holy Spirit. He, along with Peter, came and certified that what Philip was doing was indeed genuine. They began to pray for the Samaritan believers to receive the baptism in the Holy Spirit. They laid hands on them one after another, and these new Christians began to speak in other tongues and prophesy.

But when the apostles came to Simon Magus, they refused to pray for him. The Holy Spirit gave them the understanding that he was a charlatan, a sorcerer and, at heart, an idolater. In other words, Simon was a fraud in the church. His faith was not genuine and his baptism did him no good. He was a pretender who had come into the church to obtain an office for the purpose of making money.

The Defeat of the Devil

When Simon saw the other believers receiving the Holy Spirit, what did he do? He offered the apostles money. Simon was no fool. He knew everyone wants money. Peter and John were no exceptions, Simon thought.

I am sure he brought a lot of money to Peter and John, and we can imagine what Simon told them: "Okay, Peter and John, here's the money; give me the Holy Ghost. You are just like me, aren't you--someone who likes money? Let me give you this money so you can lay hands on me and give me the Holy Ghost. Then I can be the bishop of Samaria and can give people the Holy Spirit when I pray for them."

What a commodity--the Spirit of the living God! Simon was an entrepreneur. He was always looking for a viable business enterprise. He figured he could make a lot of money with the Holy Ghost.

We see the same thing today. There are many preachers in this country who make a lot of money pretending that they can give the Holy Ghost to people. They pretend to perform all kinds of miracles and wonders, and at times it seems that the Holy Ghost is in their back pockets and miracles are just coming out of their ears. Thousands of people go every day to see such preachers. Why? They want to be amazed. They fall down on the floor, shriek, and jump up and down. They are amazed at these preachers. So this Simon Magus-phenomenon is not an old phenomenon. It is a very current thing.

But what did Peter say to Simon's offer? "To hell with your money and with you!" That is exactly what the Greek says: "Your silver together with you unto perdition, unto destruction, unto hell with you!" In other words, Peter was pronouncing a curse on Simon. "Simon," Peter was saying, "Your heart is not straight. You are a captive to sin and full of wickedness. We don't want your money!"

Simon Is Exposed

It is a serious issue when people say they believe in Christ. Don't think everyone in the church believes aright. Many people get baptized and join the church, but that doesn't mean they are all genuine. The question you must ask is, "Is your salvation dynamic or decisional?" meaning, "Did you just make a decision, or did God also do anything in your heart?" When God saves a sinner, he does one essential thing: He changes his heart from the inside out and gives him a new heart--a heart of flesh--a new mind, new emotions, and a new will with which he loves God and wants to do his will.

Simon never experienced this inside change. Therefore, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, the apostles told him, "Simon, your heart is not right. You are a wicked person. You are still a sorcerer. To hell with you and your money!"

What a response! This shows that Peter and John were truly led by the Holy Spirit. Additionally, it shows that their primary interest was not money. In Acts 3 we find a congenital cripple who asked the apostles for money and Peter told him, "Silver and gold have I none, but such as I have I give unto you." Didn't Jesus say, "Freely you have received, freely give" (Matt. 10:8)?

That doesn't mean a Christian worker should not take care of his family. He should, because we read in the Bible, "The worker deserves his wages" (Luke 10:7 and other places) and "Anyone who receives instruction in the word must share all good things with his instructor" (Gal. 6:6). But a Christian must never sell the gospel for money.

Simon had the faith of the devil. James 2 tells us that even the devil believes in God and trembles, but his heart is never changed. We must think seriously about these things. When we say that we are Christians, we must ask ourselves: Has there been a change in the depth of my being?

The gospel is the power of God unto salvation. When the gospel is preached, there is an external call, but there must also be an internal call, which is the work of the Holy Spirit, regenerating us and making us different, granting us a divine nature, and planting within us a spiritual disposition.

Simon was not transformed by the gospel. He remained the old sorcerer he had been, and some church fathers tell us that he later went to Rome where he practiced his sorcery and opposed the preaching of the gospel by Peter. Other church fathers tell us that he became the father of gnosticism, a heresy which opposes the gospel teaching that Christ died for our sins and was raised for our justification.

Satan Versus God

The truth is, spiritual warfare is occurring all the time. There is constant friction between the power of God on the one hand, and the power of Satan and his demons on the other hand. But God is infinitely more powerful than Satan. In his time he comes to his elect and sets the captives free. "In the name of Jesus of Nazareth, rise up and walk!" Peter told the congenital cripple, and he walked. To others he said, "In the name of Jesus of Nazareth, be converted!" and they are saved.

Yes, there is God's power of the Spirit operating in the preaching of the gospel. The power of Satan operates in the world against the gospel, but the Lord Jesus Christ is the conqueror of all evil. He came to destroy the work of the devil, and he did so.

Jesus Christ saves elect sinners who are in the grip of Satan. He saved even Saul of Tarsus, that wild beast of a Pharisee, who became the apostle Paul, the battle-scarred veteran of the cross. And at the end of his life Paul wrote, "I only want to know one thing: Jesus Christ and him crucified."

In the name of Jesus of Nazareth, Satan's slaves are being set free, and if the Son sets you free, you are free indeed. Brothers and sisters, may we fully understand the glorious freedom we have in Christ! Jesus Christ sets us free from the dominion of sin and the devil, and plants into us an abundance of love for God.

True Salvation in Christ

Even today God is setting sinners free. As the Bible says, now is the accepted time, now is the day of salvation. This is the year of jubilee!

The Holy Spirit is at work wherever the gospel is preached. Therefore, may we as Christians move out into our own Judea and Samaria. May God help us to trust in him and declare the gospel in all its purity and soundness. May we preach expecting to see the Spirit of the living God to change human beings and save them from their sins, break their chains and set them free.

Jesus Christ alone sets sinners free from sin, from fear, from death, from guilt, from the world, and from hell. He takes rotten sinners and makes them sons of God, ushering them into his kingdom, the kingdom of God, the kingdom of his dear Son, the kingdom which is characterized by righteousness, peace, life, light, joy, and power.

Samaria was a pagan place. Full of darkness, misery and hopelessness, it was the devil's playground. But God loves people who live in dark, pagan places, and in Isaiah 9:1-2 we read, "Nevertheless, there will be no more gloom for those who were in distress. In the past he humbled the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the future he will honor Galilee of the Gentiles, by the way of the sea along the Jordan--The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned."

In God's time the gospel came to Samaria through Philip and these pagan Samaritans, these worshipers of Simon Magus, suddenly saw the light of the gospel by the power of the Spirit of the living God. The dead were raised to life, and people were set free from the devil's grip. Their gloom dispelled, their fear left, and they were gloriously saved. In Acts 8:8 we read, "So there was great joy in that city."

Brothers and sisters, if we are Christians, if we are set free by the gospel, if the Son has set us free, then we ought to be characterized by great joy. The Christian life is a life of great liberation. Paul says, "We rejoice even in tribulations also."

Are We Helping the Gospel to Progress?

God's plan is for the gospel to progress throughout the earth. In Acts 9:31 we read what happened after the conversion of Saul of Tarsus: "Then the church throughout Judea, Galilee and Samaria enjoyed a time of peace. It was strengthened; and encouraged by the Holy Spirit, it grew in numbers, living in the fear of the Lord." And as we continue to read in the book of Acts, we read about churches being established throughout Judea, Samaria, Galilee, and beyond. No longer were God's people constrained to go to Jerusalem alone to worship God. "If two or three are gathered together in my name, there I am in the midst of you," Jesus said, and so these churches were established throughout the world to worship God in the manner he required, in spirit and in truth. Judea, Samaria, Galilee were filled with churches of people set free by Jesus Christ.

Only through the gospel of Jesus Christ do we receive this life, this peace, this joy, this love and this power. Therefore, may we go to our own Judea, and Samaria and proclaim the gospel so that others may come to experience the great joy of salvation in Jesus Christ.

What about you? Do you have this great joy? If we claim to be Christians, we should have great joy. Why? Because we have been given eternal life in Jesus Christ. We have been brought into the kingdom of God--into its safety, salvation, and life-- and into fellowship with the Father and the Son. The apostle John says our fellowship with the Father and the Son, and it will last forever and ever.

Do we experience this joy in our homes? A Christian home is a place where there is great celebration and joy, a home where Jesus Christ is worshiped and adored. Do you live in such a home?

May we examine ourselves and see whether we are in the faith. May we all make our calling and election sure. May we test ourselves, not being satisfied with anything less than God's dynamic salvation which will give us great joy, great power, and great motivation. Then we will be able to say "No" to ungodliness and "Yes" to holiness, and praise God forever for what he has done. Amen.

Copyright © 1998, P. G. Mathew

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