We tend to read through most of the place names mentioned in the Bible without really thinking about what they mean. In the geographic sense mapping out the way the Gospel moved out from Jerusalem and through the Roman Empire is quite amazing. Even more so is WHO the Gospel was brought to. While the Good News most decidedly started among the Jews in Jerusalem, it quickly progressed through the Jews of the Diaspora and now in chapter 8 it is about to land among a segment of society that most would have ignored- the Samaritans. The ethnic origins of the Samaritans harkens back to the Fall of the Northern Kingdom in 722 B.C. but in reality the “religious” division came into being when the kingdom divided after Solomon’s death. Separated from Jerusalem by political aspirations the Northern tribes developed their own Temple and only used their translation of the Pentateuch as their guiding Scriptures. When the Assyrians conquered the Northern Kingdom they carried off most of the original tribes and replaced them with other conquered people groups. Those left behind eventually married and started families with the captives brought in to occupy the territory. As the centuries passed Samaritans were not only viewed as “half-breeds”, their religious practices were considered heretical even though the Samaritans still considered themselves to be “the people of God”. With that cultural and historical backdrop firmly in place, one man is about to revolutionize Jesus’ command to “make disciples of all people” (Mt. 28:19-20) when the Spirit leads him to this unexpected mission field (Acts 8:4-25).
Philip is introduced to us in Acts 6:5 as one of the seven men chosen to oversee the ministry to the Hellenistic widows (widows from the Diaspora, not Greek in ethnicity). His Greek name indicates he was not originally from Jerusalem but along with a good reputation he is noted as being “full of the Spirit and wisdom”. As a result of the persecution in Jerusalem, Philip sets out on a journey which takes him to Samaria where he preaches (literally) “the Christ” to them. The Samaritans had their own idea of the Messiah but Philip’s words and the miracles that took place when he preached affirmed he was speaking on God’s behalf and that was enough to convince the Samaritans. The Gospel took root and continued to spread throughout Samaria and the folks in Jerusalem heard about it! It is important to note here that while it looks like Peter and John show up to make sure this event is “of God” as we might say, that was not the case. The Greek clearly shows they came to take part in this exciting ministry not to question its validity. The Gospel may have been persecuted in Jerusalem but in Samaria it was smashing the stronghold of prejudice.
While it might be tempting to put an emphasis on the healings and other miracles occurring here it must be understood that the Samaritans were not responding to the miraculous; they were responding to the message. This is underscored by the account of the somewhat mysterious figure of Simon. His story clearly shows that when the miraculous assumes priority, it actually becomes a hindrance to real faith. Simon is well-known and has even garnered a god-like status among the people there running a successful “healing ministry” of his own. Luke is clear to point out that Simon is a charlatan making money with his bag of magic tricks- the epitome of smoke and mirrors. Impressed by Philip’s “work” and not understanding it is the Holy Spirit behind it all, he follows Philip around in hopes of catching some of the overflow. He goes through the motions but is his faith real? The answer comes forth when he offers to purchase the “power” from Peter. Magicians of his type would often do this with one another so his actions are not a surprise but Peter’s condemnation is certainly not the response he was looking for. Peter’s assessment of Simon is accurate and Simon shows only a small portion of regret over his actions with no real repentance. The story comes to a hazy conclusion but the Gospel continues to circulate throughout Samaria. Outward signs, such as the healings and exorcisms which took place in Samaria are only there to attest to what the Spirit has done on the inside. The greatest miracle that took place in Samaria was not the signs and wonders performed by Philip but the fact that they took place in Samaria in the first place! This passage poses one important question to us, “How willing are you to go to Samaria?” Philip was willing; are you?
Ann H. LeFevre, M. Div.
https://www.annhlefevre.com; Olivetreeann@mail.com; https://www.linkedin.com/in/annhlefevre; https://www.facebook.com/ann.h.lefevre