This evening I want to ask the question, “What does ‘receiving the Spirit’ in this eighth chapter of Acts mean?” and “Why did there have to be a delay with the Samaritans?” The reason that I ask these questions is because the situation with the Samaritans is a unique one in the book of Acts, but if “all Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-17), then shouldn’t we be able to glean something from this story even in its uniqueness?
Let me first show you why I say that it is “unique.”
1. In Acts 2:38, Peter tells the people, “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.”
And with that statement, it does not seem to me that Peter is implying that they should believe and be baptized and then wait a few days to receive the Spirit. However, it is not implicitly clear in the statement that he did mean immediately, and the Spirit is sovereign, blowing where he wills, so who could say?
2. There is not a waiting with the Gentiles in Acts 10, for the Scripture says that “While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit fell upon all those who were listening to the message” (10:44).
It would seem that if this delay were just a thing that occurred with non-Jews that it would have happened here. But it does not.
3. Paul says in Romans 8:9, “You are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God dwells in you. But if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to him.”
So, if “receiving the Spirit” means that the Spirit comes to dwell in you, then it was an exception to the statement that Paul makes in Romans 8:9, and to crack the door open for saying that there can be exceptions to truths we find in Scripture is opening a door that is dangerous to open and forfeits our security in the Scripture.
Therefore, I think that it is “unique.”
People have worked around the unique situation, however, in a variety of ways. Here are a few ways.
Some have said that the Samaritans were not genuine believers until the Apostles came down.
Such an argument might go as follows:
(1) Simon was right there in the midst of them and was said to believe also, but no one thinks his believing was genuine, saving faith because of what was proved later in his mind, heart, and actions. Therefore, maybe none of the people were genuine believers.
(2) Verse 12 says that they “believed Philip,” and maybe this is Luke’s way of showing that they had believed what Philip had said but had not believed in Christ for salvation.
(3) Therefore, if it is a confusing text and is not clear what exactly happened, then we need to look elsewhere in the Scripture, for Scripture is the best commentary on itself.
(4) Romans 8:9 is a very clear passage that states that someone who does not have the Spirit dwelling in him is not a believer.
(5) The Samaritans obviously did not have the indwelling of the Spirit since they were said not to have received the Spirit, and therefore, they were obviously not believers.
(6) Therefore, when the apostles came down and laid hands on them, they were being converted right there. We witness their salvation in verse 17.
But Luke seems to give strong evidence to say that the Samaritans were true believers, having genuine, saving faith.
(1) He says in verse 12 not simply that they “believed Philip” but that they “believed Philip preaching the good news about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ.” Therefore, their faith was not simply in Philip but in the gospel message that he was preaching.
(2) Verse 8 says that they were “rejoicing in that city.” And Luke says the same thing of the Ethiopian in verse 39 of this chapter, when he was obviously a genuine believer.
(3) Finally, after verse 17, it does not say that the Samaritans on whom the apostles laid their hands were baptized. Now, you may say that they were already baptized in verse 12, but if they are not converted until verse 17 when the apostles come down, then shouldn’t they be baptized upon their conversion?
One might answer saying that baptism was not as big of a deal as we make it today, ensuring that someone is baptized after his or her conversion and not before. Therefore, they never would have baptized someone in Scripture who had already been baptized.
However, there is a situation in the book of Acts where such is done. In Acts 19, Paul
runs into a few “disciples” who are asked by Paul, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit
when you believed?” And when they say that they had not, he asks, “Into what then
were you baptized?” Finally, when he preaches to them Jesus, and they believe in his message. And verse 5 says that he baptized them in the name of the Lord Jesus. Therefore, Paul actually did baptize them again when he found out that though they were sincere disciples of John, they did not understand that his message was pointing to Jesus.
Therefore, it seems that if the apostles had determined that they were not believers in Christ until they laid hands upon them, then they would have baptized them, and Luke does not tell us that they did.
With all that, then, if you accept that they were not believers, then the situation is probably settled. However, if you think that they are believers, which Luke seems to indicate as well, then the questions we must answer are: What does receiving the Spirit mean in this passage? and “Why was there a need for a delay?”
Let me give you three options (I will leave out mentioning that the Samaritans were not actually believers until the apostles came since I already went through that one), answer the questions accordingly, and then give us a conclusion and application that we might walk in obedience.
Option 1 is that when Luke mentions that the apostles were coming down to pray for them that they might “receive the Holy Spirit,” he means that they might receive extraordinary gifts of the Holy Spirit.
John Calvin believed this, writing, “To sum up, since the Samaritans had the Spirit of adoption conferred on them already, the extraordinary graces of the Spirit are added as a culmination” (see note 1). And by graces, he means gifts.
He would most likely point to 1 Timothy 4:14 for support where Paul tells Timothy, “Do not neglect the spiritual gift within you, which was bestowed upon you through prophetic utterance with the laying on of hands by the elders.” And might also point to Romans 1 where, having already called them saints, called by God, in verse 7, he tells them in verse 11, “For I long to see you in order that I may impart some spiritual gift to you, that you may be established.”
Therefore, you obviously have this occurring with apostles and elders, and most likely through the laying on of hands since that is what happened with Timothy and would explain the need for Paul to go to the Roman believers to impart the spiritual gift to them.
The argument would probably be: The elders lay hands on Timothy, and he receives a spiritual gift. Also, Paul, as an apostle, goes to the Roman believers to impart to them a spiritual gift. Therefore, if there is precedent for such action, then why not assume that this is what happened in this confusing passage in Acts 8:14-17 with the laying on of hands by the apostles?
This answers the question “What is receiving the Spirit?” by saying receiving extraordinary gifts of the Spirit, and it answers, “Why the delay?” in saying that there was a pattern of delay in such things if you look to the other examples of Timothy and the Roman believers.
But to most, there is doubt that Luke would mean the “gifts of the Spirit” in simply writing, “Spirit.”
Option 2 is that even though Paul can say that there cannot be genuine believers unless the Holy Spirit indwells someone, this was a special case because the believers were Samaritans.
Therefore, even though the Samaritans were converted when Philip preached to them and they believed, God in his divine plan (while declaring them just) withheld the deposit of the indwelling Holy Spirit so that the apostles could be present and he could show his endorsement of these who were called “half-breeds” by the Jews.
After all, Philip, a Greek-speaking Jewish Christian, would hardly be a worthy endorsement of these outsiders since the Aramaic-speaking Jews were already at odds with them because the Greek-speaking Jews felt like their widows had been missed in the food distribution. Therefore, the disciples were the only ones worthy to make such an endorsement, and so God withheld his Spirit in this unique situation differently than he usually did or does because this was an exceptional event.
This answer the first question by saying that “receiving the Spirit” was to receive the indwelling of the Spirit, and answers the second in saying that it was because they were “half-breed” Samaritans. And the cultural argument is a strong one.
The final option is that the Samaritans were believers, therefore (according to Romans 8:9) did have the Spirit dwelling in them, and this was a baptism or filling with the Spirit where they were clothed with power.
The argument would find its strength first of all in Romans 8:9 which indicates that the Samaritans should have had the Spirit already indwelling them if they are genuine believers. And it also has strength in the fact that the disciples were able to tell that these Samaritans had not, and then had, received the Spirit. The logical conclusion being that they saw a manifestation of the power of the Spirit as occurs throughout the book of Acts when someone is filled with the Spirit, whereas that had not been present until then.
Therefore, such an argument would equate “receiving the Spirit” not with being indwelt by the Spirit but with being “filled” or “baptized” with the Spirit.
Such an argument would point out Luke’s seeming ability to interchange terms meaning the same thing throughout the book. For example:
In Luke 24:49, Jesus says that they will be “clothed with power.” However, when we read parallel account in Acts (by the same author) he says that Jesus says that they will be “baptized with the Spirit” (1:5) only to describe the same even in 1:8 as the Spirit “com[ing] upon” them. Therefore, he has already made “clothed with power,” “baptized with the Spirit,” and the Spirit “coming upon them” synonymous terms. However, when we get to Pentecost and these things are fulfilled, Luke writes that they were “all filled with the Holy Spirit” (2:4). And yet, when he begins to explain the events he said that what was happening was what Joel had prophesied when he said, “God says, ‘That I will pour forth of My Spirit upon all mankind’” (2:17). Therefore, in the end of Luke and the first two chapters of Acts we already see a parallel in Luke’s vocabulary between, “clothed with power,” “baptized with the Spirit,” the Spirit “coming upon” individuals, “being filled with the Spirit,” and God “pouring forth” his Spirit.
And when you get to Acts 10, it gets even more intertwined. Peter is preaching to the Gentiles, and verse 44 says, “While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit fell upon all those who were listening to the message.” So how does Luke go on to describe this “falling upon” by the Spirit? He says in verse 45, “And all the circumcised believers who had come with Peter were amazed, because the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out upon the Gentiles also.” He equates it with the Spirit having been “poured out” upon them. Then in verse 47, Peter determines that they had “received the Spirit” from what he saw as they were “speaking in tongues and exalting God” (v. 46). And finally, when he is reporting the events at Jerusalem he says, “And [as they received the Spirit] I remembered the word of the Lord, how He used to say, ‘John baptized you with water, but you shall be baptized with the Holy Spirit’” (11:16).
Therefore, he has tied “receiving the Spirit” back to “being baptized with the Spirit” which he had already described as “being filled with the Spirit” which occurs with believers in the book of Acts multiple times after their conversion. And then the conclusion is drawn that what happened with the Samaritan believers in Acts 8:17 is what happened with the believers in 2:4, 4:8, 4:31, 9:17, 13:9, and 13:52. It was something that occurs from Pentecost on where though “the Spirit becomes a permanent possession of God’s people [upon conversion] … believers may still be repeatedly ‘filled’ in order to speak courageously for Christ” (see note 2).
And with that answering the first question, the answer to the second question would probably be that the Samaritan believers could have been filled with the Spirit apart from the apostles, but because they were a questioned people, God chose to fill them with the Spirit and power through the hands of the apostles because he wanted to endorse them as his people.
Now, in all this, I am not exactly sure where to come down. I believe that (according to Romans 8:9) someone is indwelt by the Spirit if he or she has saving faith. I believe that the Spirit can and does fill believers, empowering them for minsitry—especially carrying out the great commission. And I believe that we are able to receive gifts from the Spirit. Therefore, it is not so much that I find all these arguments uncompelling. Rather, I am not exactly sure which to say happened in this passage with the Samaritans.
Therefore, let me conclude by asking you then three questions. The first one is, “Have you repented and placed your faith in Christ for salvation.” If not, then the Spirit which we have talked about tonight is not indwelling you. And, worse than that, you are storing up for yourself the wrath God that awaits you in eternal hell. Therefore, I encourage you to repent and beg God to give you a faith in (and love for) him that you may be his and enjoy him forever, even as you pass from this life to another upon your death.
The second question I would ask is, “Are you desiring spiritual gifts?” Scripture commands it in 1 Corinthians 14:1. And the reason why is so that you may edify and encourage your fellow brothers and sisters in the body. We desire spiritual gifts out of our love for and joy in God overflowing into a passion to love one another. Mutual encouragement and building up the body is exactly why Paul wanted to bestow a spiritual gift upon the Romans. He wrote, “For I long to see you in order that I may impart some spiriutal gift to you, that you may be established; that is, that I may be encouraged together with you while among you, each of us by the other’s faith, both yours and mine” (Rom. 1:11-12).
And finally, “Are you crying out for the Spirit to fill you in order that you may advance his kingdom for the sake of his glory in all the nations?” The goal of him pouring out the Spirit on his people is to empower them to spread his great glory throughout our county, state, nation, and world. If that is your heart, then you need to cry out for the Lord to fill you with power.
Therefore, let us long to know “all the fullness of God” (Eph. 3:19) that we may spread his glory to all the peoples.
O God, grant us your grace as our passion is for your glory. Pour out your Spirit upon us. Revive your pride. Amen.