Saul was persecuting the church (8:1-3), and “those who were scattered abroad went around preaching the word” (8:4). Philip went to the city of Samaria, where he proclaimed the Messiah and the crowds responded eagerly (8:5-6).
Philip the evangelist was one of the “seven men of good report, full of the Holy Spirit and of wisdom,” appointed earlier to relieve the apostles of routine church administrative tasks (6:1-7). He is remembered today primarily as the one who proclaimed the good news of Jesus to the Ethiopian eunuch and, when the eunuch responded positively, baptized him (8:26-40). He will be mentioned later as Paul’s host in Caesarea (21:8).
But back to Samaria! Philip exorcised many unclean spirits and cured many people of their infirmities. Even Simon the magician, astounded by the miracles that Philip was working, became a believer and was baptized (8:13)—although his faith turned out to be quite immature (8:18-24). Many others were also baptized in that place (8:12).
ACTS 8:14. THE APOSTLES AT JERUSALEM SENT PETER AND JOHN
14Now when the apostles who were at Jerusalem heard that Samaria had received the word of God, they sent Peter and John to them,
“Now when the apostles who were at Jerusalem heard that Samaria had received the word of God“ (v. 14a). Samaria is the region located between Judea (to the south) and Galilee (to the north). To understand the relationship of Jerusalem and Samaria, we must first understand something of Samaria’s history. In the eighth century B.C., Assyria conquered Samaria and exiled most of its inhabitants, replacing them with people from Cuthah, Avva, Hamath, and Sepharvaim (2 Kings 17:24)—essentially repopulating the area with people other than Jews.
However, some Samaritans remained faithful to Yahweh (Jeremiah 41:5), and offered their assistance in rebuilding the temple to Zerubbabel after the Babylonian Exile. But Zerubbabel responded, “You have nothing to do with us in building a house to our God” (Ezra 4:3)—thus antagonizing the Samaritans and initiating a period of antagonism between Samaria and Judea that was still present in New Testament times.
But Jesus wasn’t antagonistic to Samaritans. He made a Samaritan the hero of one of his most famous parables (Luke 10:29-37). While traveling through Samaria, he healed ten lepers (Luke 17:11-19). He spoke with a Samaritan woman and changed her life for the better (John 4:4-41). And he specified Samaria as the first place outside Jewish territory that the disciples were to go with the Gospel (Acts 1:8).
“they sent Peter and John to them“ (v. 14b). The Jerusalem church is the mother church, and the apostles constitute its key leadership. Luke doesn’t specify the motive for sending Peter and John to Samaria, but there are at least three possible motives:
• First, they would want to verify that the new believers in Samaria were well-grounded in the faith.
• Second, they would want to render assistance, to the extent that assistance might be needed.
• Third, they would want to demonstrate their acceptance of the Samaritan believers as fellow-members of the church. The breach that had existed for centuries between Judea and Samaria must not be allowed to define the relationship between Christians in Judea and Christians in Samaria.
It is interesting that John would be one of the two apostles sent to Samaria. Earlier, he and his brother, James had been with Jesus as he traveled through Samaria toward Jerusalem. The Samaritans “didn’t receive him (Jesus), because he was traveling with his face set towards Jerusalem” (Luke 9:53). James and John responded by asking Jesus, “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from the sky, and destroy them, just as Elijah did?” (Luke 9:54)—an offer that drew a rebuke from Jesus (Luke 9:55).
We have seen Peter and John together on a number of occasions (3:1, 3-4, 11; 4:1, 13, 19), but this is the last time that they appear together in the Book of Acts.
ACTS 8:15-16. PETER AND JOHN PRAYED FOR THEM
15who, when they had come down, prayed for them, that they might receive the Holy Spirit; 16for as yet he had fallen on none of them. They had only been baptized in the name of Christ Jesus.
We don’t know why these believers have not yet received the Holy Spirit. There is no suggestion here that there was anything wrong with Philip’s evangelism or that the Samaritans’ belief is defective. They have been “baptized in the name of Lord Jesus”—the usual way that people are baptized in the Book of Acts. Everything seems to be in order—with the exception that they have not received the Holy Spirit in spite of doing everything right.
Nor are we told how it is apparent that they have not received the Holy Spirit. Perhaps the apostles are looking for a confirming sign—possibly speaking in tongues.
But it seems possible that God withheld the Spirit to give these apostles from Jerusalem an opportunity to bring their personal ministry to bear upon these Samaritans, who until very recently would have been considered by the apostles to be a lower form of life.
“They had only been baptized in the name of Christ Jesus” (v. 16b). In that culture, people considered a person’s name to be more than a simple label to identify that person. They believed that something of the person’s identity was tied up in the name—that the name expressed something of the person’s identity. They also assumed that a name possessed something of the power of the one who wore that name.
ACTS 8:17. AND THEY RECEIVED THE HOLY SPIRIT
17Then they laid their hands on them, and they received the Holy Spirit.
“Then they laid their hands on them“ (v. 17a). The Jewish people practiced the laying on of hands as a way of conveying authority or power. In the Old Testament, Moses laid hands on Joshua to commission him (Numbers 27:18-23). In the New Testament, the apostles laid hands on people to heal them (Matthew 9:18; Acts 28:8), to impart the Holy Spirit (Acts 8:17; 19:6), and to ordain them for a particular work (Acts 6:6; 13:3; 2 Timothy 1:6).
In this instance, the laying on of hands has another very special connotation. It demonstrates that these apostles from Jerusalem regard these Samaritan believers as worthy of spiritual gifts.
“and they received the Holy Spirit“ (v. 17b). We aren’t told how people knew that they had received the Holy Spirit, but it must have had a visible manifestation such as speaking in tongues. Simon, the magician, was sufficiently impressed that he offered the apostles money if they would give him the power to convey the Holy Spirit through the laying on of his hands—an offer that the apostles rejected soundly (8:18-24).
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
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Bruce, F. F., The New International Commentary on the New Testament: The Book of Acts (Revised)(Grand Rapids: William B Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1988)
Brueggemann, Walter; Cousar, Charles B.; Gaventa, Beverly R.; and Newsome, James D., Texts for Preaching: A Lectionary Commentary Based on the NRSV—Year A (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1995)
Craddock, Fred B.; Hayes, John H.; Holladay, Carl R.; Tucker, Gene M., Preaching Through the Christian Year, A (Valley Forge: Trinity Press International, 1992)
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Gaventa, Beverly Roberts, Abingdon New Testament Commentaries: The Acts of the Apostles (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2003)
Matthews, Christopher R., “Philip,” in Freedman, David Noel (Ed.), Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible(Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2000)
Polhill, John B., New American Commentary: Acts, Vol. 26 (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1992)
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Williams, David J., New International Biblical Commentary: Acts (Paternoster Press, 1995)
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Copyright 2010, Richard Niell Donovan