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AM Bible Study Archives
Wednesday Evening Home Bible Study
March 12, 2008
Theme: This passages teaches us both the spread of, and challenges to, the early church into the regions beyond Jerusalem.
In our last study, we learned about the church's first martyr, Stephen; and we were also introduced to the church's first great antagonist, Saul of Tarsus. When Stephen was being put to death by the Jews, we read of how a young man named Saul kept the coats of those who performed the execution (7:58). And now, at the beginning of this new phase of the church's history, we read why he served as their "coat-check boy"; it was because "Saul was consenting to his death". And "At that time [or, literally, "in that day"], a great persecution arose against the church which was at Jerusalem" (8:1). Formerly, it was only the apostles and the leaders who suffered persecution; but now, it's the whole church that suffers.
But this was in God's plan. Jesus had promised that the witness of the church would begin in Jerusalem, and then spread from Jerusalem to the surrounding regions of Judea and Samaria (1:8). And it was through the persecutions the church was suffering that the spread of the gospel would occur. In this chapter, the story is told of the church's spread "everywhere" (v. 4); that is, beyond Jerusalem—and specifically into Samaria.
But it also shows us that its spread was not without challenges. The devil will seek to silence the church through persecution from without. But when that doesn't work—and, in fact, when it results in the spread of the church—he seeks to confuse its message through heretical teachers from within. This passage shows us how God worked through both for the spread of the gospel of His Son.
I. THE EARLY CHURCH WAS SPREAD THROUGH PERSECUTION FROM WITHOUT (vv. 1-4).
A. With the death of Stephen, "a great persecution arose" against the church in Jerusalem (v.1). But note that the result was that the believers were "scattered" throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria. Everett F. Harrison (Interpreting Acts, Zondervan Publishing House, p. 139), notes that the ordinary word for "scattering" is not used, but rather the word that is often used to describe the scattering of seeds on the ground. This sort of "scattering" suggests something that is purposeful, and that bears with it the promise of growth. This is how the Jewish believers are described in James 1:1 and 1 Peter 1:1. Only the apostles, we're told, remained in Jerusalem.
B. We're told that not all consented to the death of Stephen. We're told that "devout" men— men who were moved by a reverent fear of God, and who had perhaps come to believe in Jesus through the ministry of Stephen (6:8)—carried his body away to burial and "made great lamentation over him" (v. 2). No doubt, his death was appropriately accompanied by sorrow, but not as those of the world "who have no hope" (1 Thess. 4:13). But it no doubt impacted the church with a sense of the seriousness of the opposition its message was about to receive.
C. We're given only scant information about the nature of Saul's campaign of persecution (v. 3). But we're told that he "made havoc" (that is "harassment" and "destruction") of the church. He went so far as to entering every house that the church met in, dragging off both men and women, and committing them to prison (v. 3). He would later elaborate on his actions as a believer (Acts 22:1-5; 26:10-11); and he would then confess that it made him feel both unworthy to be called an apostle (1 Corinthians 15:9), and yet honored to be an example of the depth of God's saving grace (1 Timothy 1:12-16).
D. The persecution of the believers—apparently headed up by Saul—didn't have the result that was expected. It didn't silence the church at all. Instead, it spread its influence to the regions beyond. Those who were thus scattered "went everywhere preaching the word" (v. 4). We should never despise where it may be that God puts us—or how He gets us there. If we are faithful to preach the word of the gospel, we are being scattered by God for the future growth of Jesus' church (Matthew 10:18-23)! Praise be to the sovereign God!
II. THE SPREADING CHURCH WAS STRENGTHENED BY THE MINISTRY OF ITS LEADERS (vv. 5-17).
A. As the church was spread, it ended up in Samaria. It was then that Philip (one of the seven from 6:3-6) "went down to the city of Samaria" (since any direction away from Jerusalem was "down") and "preached Christ to them" (v. 5). Philip would later earn the name "Philip the Evangelist" (Acts 21:8); and he would demonstrate why he earned that name in the remaining half of this chapter (8:26-40). As one member of 'the seven' (Stephen) departed from this earth, another came to the fore to serve it. Note that, just as Stephen had done, Phillip emphasized Jesus as "the Christ"—that is, in His Messianic identity—to the Samaritans. That Jesus would want the Samaritans to know about Him as Messiah is clear from John 4:3-42 (and from the story of one of the most famous "Samaritans" of all—the woman at the well).
B. The people of Samaria, "with one accord", heeded the things that Philip said about Jesus. His message to them was affirmed not only by word but by action; for they were "hearing and seeing the miracles which he did" (v. 6); even to the point of his casting out unclean spirits, and healing those who were lame and paralyzed (v. 7). The result was that "there was great joy in that city" (v. 8).
C. The many demonic influences in the city may have underscored the situation created by the man we're now introduced to—Simon. Ancient church historians record the horrible damage this man did to the church in later years. (See the extract at the end of these notes from Eusebius' Church History; Book II, chp. 13.) Some even refer to him as the father of the gnostic heresy that the church dealt with in the second and third centuries of it's history. He is described as one who "previously" practiced "magic"—astonishing everyone in the city. He presented himself as "someone great"; and even earned the reputation as "the great power of God", so that the people of Samaria "heeded" him (vv. 9-11). However, when many of the people of Samaria believed Philip's message and were baptized, then Simon himself "also believed" and was baptized, and continued with Philip. Whether Simon's conversion was real or not is questionable; but he was clearly amazed at the miracles and signs which were done by the Lord through Philip (vv. 12- 13).
D. As the church grew in Samaria, and as the apostles heard that the people there received the word, they also sent Peter and John to them. The church leaders are always wise and attentive to go whereever it was that God is working! When they came down, they prayed that the people of Samaria would receive the Holy Spirit; because, as verse 16 says, "For as yet He had fallen upon none of them. They had only been baptized in the name of Jesus." Apparently, a clear, demonstrative signs of the Spirit had not been exhibited in them. When the apostles laid hands on them, and the Spirit clearly manifested Himself in them, then it stood as proof to the church in Jerusalem that the Samaritans had also become the objects of God's saving grace through Jesus. Praise God that this happened! Thus, there was no "Jerusalem church" distinct from a "Samaritan church". The people of God were manifestly one body; and the authority of the apostles was clearly affirmed.
III. THE STRENGTHENED CHURCH WAS CHALLENGED BY SIN FROM WITHIN (vv. 18-25).
A. It was then that we find the sad condition of Simon's heart. When he saw that the Holy Spirit was given by the apostles through the laying on of hands, he thought of it as he thought of his old "magic" practices; and sought it as something he could "buy" with money (vv. 18-19). This is how we got the name of the practice in the church in centuries past called "simony"—that is, the practice of buying church offices. But we should note that Simon wasn't seeking to buy a church office. He was seeking to buy the work of the Holy Spirit (and perhaps with it some measure of apostolic authority), so that he could advance his own standing among the believers.
B. The apostle Peter's response was strong. Remember that Peter himself had once been severely rebuked by the Lord (Matthew 16:23). He told Simon, "Your money perish with you, because you thought that the gift of God could be purchased with money! You have neither part nor portion in this matter for your heart is not right in the sight of God" (v. 20-21). Whether or not this would indicate that Simon was still an unbeliever is hard to say. But Peter does call him to repent, and to pray that the thought of his heart may be forgiven (v. 22); "For I see that you are poisoned by bitterness and bound by iniquity" (v. 23). We can trust Peter's judgment on such things, given his estimation of Ananias and Sapphira in 5:1-11.
C. Whether sincere or not, Simon asked that Peter pray for him, that none of these things would happen to him (v. 24). It's interesting to note that we're not told that Simon himself prayed. Whatever next happened to Simon in the immediate circumstances is unknown to us; but sadly, church history does not paint a favorable picture of him. What a lesson this should be to us: that, first, we should never desire the things of God from out of a sinful motive; and second, that we not tolerate the sin of "bitterness" in the church that later takes root and causes the defilement of many (Hebrews 12:15-17).
D. The closing comment of this section of the story of the spread of the church in the Book of Acts is that, when the apostles testified further to the Samaritans, and further preached the word of the Lord to them, they left and returned to Jerusalem. Along the way, they preached the gospel in many of the villages of the Samaritans—further spreading the message of Christ. Again, when the leaders of a church deal with sin in its midst, the enemy fails again to hinder its message, and the church continues again to grow!
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Eusebius' Church History, on Simon Magus:
BUT faith in our Savior and Lord Jesus Christ having now been diffused among all men, the enemy of man’s salvation contrived a plan for seizing the imperial city for himself. He conducted thither the above-mentioned Simon, aided him in his deceitful arts, led many of the inhabitants of Rome astray, and thus brought them into his own power. This is stated by Justin, one of our distinguished writers who lived not long after the time of the apostles. Concerning him I shall speak in the proper place. Take and read the work of this man, who in the first Apology which he addressed to Antonine in behalf of our religion writes as follows: “And after the ascension of the Lord into heaven the demons put forward certain men who said they were gods, and who were not only allowed by you to go unpersecuted, but were even deemed worthy of honors. One of them was Simon, a Samaritan of the village of Gitto, who in the reign of Claudius Caesar performed in your imperial city some mighty acts of magic by the art of demons operating in him, and was considered a God, and as a God was honored by you with a statue, which was erected in the river Tiber, between the two bridges, and bore this inscription in the Latin tongue, Simoni Deo Sancto, that is, To Simon the Holy God. And nearly all the Samaritans and a few even of other nations confess and worship him as the first God. And there went around with him at that time a certain Helena who had formerly been a prostitute in Tyre of Phoenicia; and her they call the first idea that proceeded from him.” Justin relates these things, and Irenaeus also agrees with him in the first book of his work, Against Heresies, where he gives an account of the man and of his profane and impure teaching. It would be superfluous to quote his account here, for it is possible for those who wish to know the origin and the lives and the false doctrines of each of the heresiarchs that have followed him, as well as the customs practiced by them all, to find them treated at length in the above-mentioned work of Irenaeus. We have understood that Simon was the author of all heresy. From his time down to the present those who have followed his heresy have reigned the sober philosophy of the Christians, which is celebrated among all on account of its purity of life. But they nevertheless have embraced again the superstitions of idols, which they seemed to have renounced; and they fall down before pictures and images of Simon himself and of the above-mentioned Helena who was with him; and they venture to worship them with incense and sacrifices and libations. But those matters which they keep more secret than these, in regard to which they say that one upon first hearing them would be astonished, and, to use one of the written phrases in vogue among them, would be confounded, are in truth full of amazing things, and of madness and folly, being of such a sort that it is impossible not only to commit them to writing, but also for modest men even to utter them with the lips on account of their excessive baseness and lewdness. For what ever could be conceived of, viler than the vilest thing — all that has been outdone by this most abominable sect, which is composed of those who make a sport of those miserable females that are literally overwhelmed with all kinds of vices.
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