Before looking into this passage, I want to say that it has been one of the more difficult passages that I have ever had to work through. There are in fact, two difficulties that I have wrestled with in the text. The first is the “believing” of Simon mentioned in verse 13 in comparison to Peter’s judgment of him in verse 21. The second is what occurs with the Samaritan believers concerning them not yet receiving the Spirit while they had believed and been baptized when Peter says in Acts2:38, “Repent and let each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”
Therefore, I have decided to simply tackle one of these issues tonight and give myself more time in studying the other that we will come back to and look at next week. So tonight I want to focus on this man named Simon, for I believe the main message of this passage comes in understanding what occurs with Simon. I believe Luke is trying to show us a warning against misplaced faith. Therefore, let me show you what I think are the highlights of Luke’s intent in this section of his narrative, showing how I think they serve as a warning against misplaced faith, and then I will exhort us as to what this means that we should understand and do.
Here is what I think Luke wants us to see:
First, the purpose of signs and wonders is to draw our attention to Jesus Christ.
Look at the difference between what is happening with Philip and Simon, the magician. Luke tells us that both of them were performing great signs. Verse 6 says that the Samaritans “saw the signs which [Philip] was performing.” But he also writes in verses 9-11 that there was a man named Simon in Samaria that was performing great magic arts, so much so that they called him, “the Great Power of God.” John Stott asserts to the validity of such a man in history, writing, “Certainly in the middle of the second century Justin Martyr, who himself came from Samaria, described ‘a Samaritan, Simon’, who ‘did mighty acts of magic’, so that ‘he was considered a god’ and was worshipped not by ‘almost all the Samaritans’ but even by some in Rome who erected a statue in his honour” (see note 1).
They were both performing signs and wonders (we should remember that Satan can counterfeit signs and wonders), but the difference is found in what they said. Luke tells us that the Samaritans “were giving attention to what was said by Philip, as they heard and saw the signs which he was performing.” And what was he talking about? Verse 12 says, “They believed Philip preaching the good news about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ.”
Philip was talking about Jesus. His whole purpose for working the signs and wonders was to draw attention to Christ. Simon, on the other hand, was speaking of himself, “claiming to be someone great” (v. 9). Do you see the contrast here? Signs and wonders are never meant to draw attention to anyone but Jesus.
So, if you are longing for God to use you to heal for any other reason than to draw glory to him and love your neighbor as yourself, then you are in the wrong. And this goes for all areas of longing for God to work greatly. I have often prayed, “God, do a great work among us.” However, I check my heart daily to make sure my only motive is to reflect and draw attention to his glory.
The second thing that I think Luke makes apparent (and this is probably the most crucial in understanding the passage) is that Simon believed in the validity of the signs and wonders but did not have genuine saving faith in Jesus.
Verse 13 tells us that after many of the Samaritans believed that “even Simon himself believed; and after being baptized, he continued on with Philip.” And with that, he leaves us no reason us to believe that Simon was only pretending to believe. He does not say that he was trying to trick Philip or deceive those around him. In this verse, we do not have any reason to doubt that Simon truly believed Philip. But it seems that he had misplaced his faith. I will describe that more in a minute, but first let me describe further why I am saying that Simon did not have genuine, saving faith.
The reason I want to do that is because someone could say, “If there is no reason in 8:13 that the belief was not genuine, saving faith in Jesus Christ, then you should not assume otherwise.” I think that the rest of the text speaks for us, however, and verse 13 itself gives us a hint of his faith not being saving faith in Christ. Here are the reasons that I believe Simon’s faith was not genuine saving faith:
1) Peter later tells him as he asks to buy the power of the Spirit, “You have no part or portion in this matter, for your heart is not right before God” (v. 21). And when we are born again, the result is that we are justified, that is say, we are made “right before God.”
2) Peter instructs him to repent and “pray the Lord that if possible, the intention of your heart may be forgiven you” (v. 22). Peter seems to indicate here that he has never repented and therefore has not been forgiven.
3) James says that faith that does not bring forth good works is dead faith, not saving faith. And clearly Simon’s profession of faith is not followed by works, which should always be the product of a changed heart. In fact, Peter says that he is “in the gall of bitterness and in the bondage of iniquity.”
4) There are other times in Scripture when someone is said to believe but did not really have genuine, saving faith. One example is in John 2:23-25. “Now when [Jesus] was in Jerusalem at the Passover, during the feast, many believed in His name, beholding His signs which He was doing. But Jesus, on His part, was not entrusting Himself to them for He knew all men, and because He did not need anyone to bear witness concerning man for He Himself knew what was in man.” Jesus, it seems, could look into their hearts and tell that it was not real saving faith. Again in 1 Corinthians 15:1-2, Paul writes, “I preached to you, unless you believed in vain.” There is then a belief that is “in vain.” I think it is the same kind of faith that James talks about, “dead faith” that even the demons have in God.
So, there can be a faith that rises up when signs and wonders are displayed, and even when the correct gospel is preached. However, just because those things occur does not necessitate that the faith is genuine saving faith. It might simply be a profession of faith that in most cases probably deceives even the professing individual himself. That is why some will say of someone who hates God, is cold toward the church, and is living in unrepentant, blatant sin, “Well, at least I know that he is saved because I remember him believing in a service when the gospel was preached and he said he believed what was said, and he even went to church for a while.” However, our lives after such a profession tell the real answer. That is why Jesus can tell that a good tree brings forth good fruit. The implication is that you cannot think one is a good tree unless his life is bringing forth good fruit. That is why Peter can look at Simon and say, in essence, “Though you believed in what he said, it was not genuine, saving faith, and therefore you are still in need of repentance.”
So there is a “believing” that is not genuine, saving faith.” I remember Bill Mounce coming to Union and saying, “My son recently made a profession of faith. And that is exactly what it is—a profession. The years ahead will tell if it was genuine, saving faith” (see note 2).
Also, it seems that Luke wants us to see that people can believe the validity of miracles and not be born again.
That is the idea I get about Simon in reading through this text. First of all look at what Luke points out is Simon’s focus in verse 13. He writes, “And even Simon himself believed; and after being baptized, he continued on with Philip; and as he observed signs and great miracles taking place, he was constantly amazed.”
His attention is on the amazement of the signs and miracles. It could be that Simon believed the validity of the miracles so much that he wanted to join Philip’s group and experience that same kind of power. And we see the possibility of that intent even more in his actions as the apostles lay hands on the Samaritans and they receive the Holy Spirit. As Simon sees that, his response is, “Give this authority to me as well, so that everyone on whom I lay my hands may receive the Holy Spirit” (v. 19).
He was not repentant, sorrowful for his sin, and wanting to turn from his lifestyle to follow Jesus. He wanted more power. The word “authority” in verse 19 can even mean “power.” He wanted glory and power. And yet he was baptized right in the midst of many genuine believers.
That, again, is the precise reason that Jesus can describe the kingdom in Matthew 13 as a dragnet being pulled up on shore, and the fisherman throwing out the bad fish. There are going to be bad fish among the good simply because people like healing more than holiness, glory instead of repentance, and power more than humility. There will be people that the power of the kingdom will pull in (as with the dragnet), only to show that they are not genuine believers in the end.
Therefore, it seems that this was yet another attack from Satan against the church, and yet (once again) the Spirit enabled the church to discern the attack and speak the truth of the need of repentance for salvation.
Now, in all of this, there are definitely things that we need to learn.
First, we should not rest on our haunches every time someone says he believes and leave them alone. That is why God created the church. Individuals need to be discipled and need to be nurtured to ensure that their faith is genuine. I know this is hard to comprehend, but we can play a role in the completion of men’s salvation, aiding them in their endurance while simultaneously knowing that if their faith is genuine saving faith, that God himself will endure them until the end. Philippians 1:6 says that “He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus.” But we need to remember that to ascribe to God complete sovereignty does NOT eliminate the responsibility that man has. That is why Paul can later tell the Philippians “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling” while also saying, “It is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” God is more complex than our thinking, so we cannot figure it out. Nonetheless, let us hold fast to fighting for one another to show forth in our lives genuine, saving faith while also holding on to the fact that the sovereign grace of God will endure those to the end who have truly believed. Things like this are why Paul can write, “Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God? How unsearchable are His judgments and unfathomable His ways? For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who became His counselor?” (Romans 11:33-35).
Second, we should ensure that every longing we have for God to work greatly in and through us is driven by a desire to exalt Christ (like Philip) and not a desire to exalt ourselves (like Simon).
You are walking on dangerous ground to long for God to work so that you might receive glory. That is the epitome of the root of man’s sin. It is found at the base of what makes us evil. We are constantly wanting to exalt ourselves above God and draw glory to ourselves above him and all things.
Finally, do not let the danger of struggling with your pride lead you to miss the things of God.
In other words, as we go over our second point of application, you might be thinking, “Amen, that is why we need to quit longing for people to be healed, or things to happen that only can be explained as the work of God, or whatever else like that.”
Such a thought is wrong. We cannot throw out the good because of the risk of the bad, because all sin is a perversion of what is good. Anyway, if we carried such a thought to its logical conclusion, we would quit reading the bible because of the risk that knowledge puffs up (1Corinthians 8:1); we would stop preaching or singing because someone might look and focus on us instead of on God; we would quit praising God with instruments or raising our hands or a number of other things because of the risk that we could become prideful and people could be drawn to us and not to God.
Rather, I think this should serve as an example to long after such things, only keep a close eye on your heart daily, asking God to examine your heart and reveal any wicked way that might be in you. Therefore, let us strive to be a people, wanting God to use us greatly. Let us long to live in such a way that men may glorify our God and declare his faithfulness, while constantly examining our hearts each day to ensure that such remains our heart’s intent. May we truly be people who live for his glory and whose hearts are longing for the same.
May God grant us the grace to have pure hearts. Amen.