There’s now way around it — Acts 8 presents some interesting situations that seem more exceptional than normative in the New Testament, especially in regards to activity surrounding the Holy Spirit. What is one to do and think? Though I indirectly addressed these questions as in my message Sunday, here are the questions in a more direct fashion, with my “opinions” a little more expanded.
Q: Why had the Holy Spirit not fallen on these Samaritan believers? For some reason, God held back the descent of the Spirit here in this newly reached area. We are not explicitly told why, so even our best and most educated “guess” is still exactly that – a good shot, but not a definitive answer. In a nutshell, I think the reasons the Holy Spirit was held back by God was rooted in unity and authority.
Some insight for us about unity…
The relationship between Jews and Samaritans was tenuous at best. For this area to have “received the Word of God” was a massive statement to the initially Jewish church. Holding back the Holy Spirit until Peter and John could actually witness it and verify its reality was probably the best way to bring unity to the Christians in these groups. Without Peter and John attesting to this divine expansion, I tend to think disorder and completion would have no doubt burst forth. God, in his sovereign wisdom, perhaps delayed his Spirit’s fall for the unity of the body of Christ.
One problem I have with this view is that the text simply does not suggest this as a possible reason. Frankly, it doesn’t suggest anything that answers the “why” question. But we at least need to admit this specific angle is more of a cultural and historical induction, not necessarily a textual one.
There seems to be four “Pentecosts” in Acts (2, 8, 10, 19) where the Holy Spirit was held back for unknown reasons. Could it be that it is precisely for unity that God held his Spirit back – so that in each instrumental area, witnessed and affirmed by the apostles, there was no doubt God was pouring out his Spirit as he did originally in Jerusalem? This would align all instances with the first instance and provide much needed unity in the first church.
Some insight for us about authority
Perhaps when Jesus told Peter he was “given the keys to the kingdom,” he was referring to the actual events where Peter would be present and “unlock” new areas to the spread of the Gospel. Granted – this isn’t always the case, but it is the case in at least two of the instances that are required to fulfill Acts 1:8. Thus, I think the instrumental leader in the first church was sovereignly chosen as the one who would “open the door” for the Gospel in the two key places of Jerusalem (Acts 2) and Judea/Samaria (Acts 8).
As far as the third place – “to the end of the earth” (Acts 13) – it is possible Peter, having been released from jail, was in the group in Antioch that laid hands on Barnabas and Saul, which is actually the beginning of the Gospel’s spread to the far regions of the then known world.
Q: How did Peter know they did not have the Holy Spirit? How did he then know they did? Again, the text does not give us an explicit answer to either. Implicitly, though, we can surmise that there must have been an absence of outward manifestations, and probably an appearance of outward manifestations. What these were — or weren’t before receiving the Holy Spirit — we do not know either. Yet, for the apostles to hear they had received the Word of God, then question the situation, well, that action must be rooted in a lack of visible signs, probably like what they remember at Pentecost.
This also seems to be the reason Simon wanted what Peter and John had – visible manifestations of spiritual power! Whatever their “laying on of hands” resulted in, it was enough to bring Simon’s real intentions to the surface, which actually revealed he wasn’t a genuine believer, but simply an attracted and jealous watcher.
Q: Do you think they were believers? While I do not think Simon was a genuine believer, it appears, taking the text at face value, that the Samaritans were, for they received the Holy Spirit after the laying on of hands, while Simon did not (compare 8:17 with 8:20). How is it possible that someone can be a believer and not have the Holy Spirit? Today that isn’t possible (Romans 8:9); it must be, however, that in the beginning of the church – the birth of the new community of Christ – there were times when God knew it was necessary to preserve unity through even a non-normative practice. Such was the case in Acts 2, where the full number was gathered, no doubt believers, but only 12 had earlier experienced Jesus breathing on them the Holy Spirit (John 20:22). All those gathered were, in my opinion, believers, but for some reason God elected not to pour out his Spirit on all of them until Jewish believers from every nation on earth had gathered (Acts 2:5). Again, unity and authority seem to be the implicit reasons.
This is why it is imperative that we remember Acts is a transitional book, and there are a few times when we have to accept that the event in view isn’t typical, but still historical, and in that way, biblical. So though we don’t expect that type of event again or look to repeat that practice, it does not discount the fact of it at the moment it occurred.
A final observation – the point of this passage in Acts 8 isn’t to establish doctrine regarding the Holy Spirit, but rather show us the spread of the Gospel and its effect upon people, even people who initially deceive us. As Bob Deffinbaugh points out, “The focus of this account is not to emphasize the reception of the Holy Spirit, but rather the undue attraction which this power to bestow the Holy Spirit has for Simon” (Christ at Work Through His Church, Deffinbaugh, 1997). Bottom line? This passage is a warning to all that if the usefulness of Christianity unseats the truthfulness of Christ, false conversions follow.