Acts 8:5-8, 14-17
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Acts 8:5-8, 14-17 Biblical Commentary:
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).
ACTS 8:5-8. PHILIP PROCLAIMED TO THEM THE CHRIST
5 Philip went down to the city of Samaria, and proclaimed to them the Christ. 6 The multitudes listened with one accord to the things that were spoken by Philip, when they heard and saw the signs which he did. 7 For unclean spirits came out of many of those who had them. They came out, crying with a loud voice. Many who had been paralyzed and lame were healed. 8 There was great joy in that city.
“Philip went down to the city of Samaria, and proclaimed to them the Christ” (v. 5). There are two Philips in the New Testament:
• The first is Philip the Apostle, who was commissioned as an apostle in Matthew 10:3 (See also Mark 3:18; Luke 6:14). He is mentioned frequently in the Gospel of John (1:43-48; 6:5-7; 12:21-22; 14:8-9)—and once in the book of Acts (1:13).
• The second is Philip the Evangelist, who was one of the seven men chosen to take care of certain administrative tasks (Acts 6:1-6). He is called Philip the Evangelist in Acts 21:8. The Philip mentioned here is Philip the Evangelist.
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 persisted until 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).
The city known as Samaria (inside the province of Samaria) had been destroyed a century earlier, but Herod the Great had it rebuilt and named Sebaste in honor of the Emperor Augustus. This was probably the city where Philip went to preach, but we can’t be certain of that.
The fact that Philip is proclaiming Christ to the citizens of a Samaritan city serves to highlight the fact that the Gospel is open to everyone. That message will come through loudly and clearly in Acts 10, when God will send the apostle Peter to the home of the centurion Cornelius—and will show Peter a vision of various animals, clean and unclean, with instructions to kill and eat. Peter will protest, “Not so, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is common or unclean” (Acts 10:14). But God will respond, “What God has cleansed, you must not call unclean” (Acts 10:15). That will be the beginning of the end of the division between Gentiles and Jews in the church—but Philip’s visit to Samaria to preach the Gospel is the beginning of the beginning.
“The multitudes listened with one accord to the things that were spoken by Philip, when they heard and saw the signs which he did” (v. 6). The multitudes receive Philip enthusiastically—listening “with one accord to his preaching and observing the signs (miracles) that he performed.
What is a sign? A sign is something that points to a reality beyond itself. In both Old and New Testaments, “signs” or “signs and wonders” crack open heaven just a bit to give earth-bound people a glimpse of Godly truths. That’s what happened when Philip preached, exorcized demons, and healed.
“For unclean spirits came out of many of those who had them. They came out, crying with a loud voice. Many who had been paralyzed and lame were healed” (v. 7). These are the signs that Philip worked. They break down into two categories: First, the exorcism of unclean spirits and second, the healing of people who had been paralyzed or lame. These signs served two purposes:
• First, they helped the individuals who were healed or from whom unclean spirits were exorcized.
• But most important, they got people’s attention and confirmed that Philip was working by the power of God. These were miracles with an evangelistic purpose.
“There was great joy in that city” (v. 8). Of course, there was great joy! It had been a great day! People had gotten together in a large crowd, and had seen signs and wonders. Marginal people had been transformed so that they were no longer marginal. That in itself would have occasioned great joy.
But there was something else going on here too—something even more important. Philip had proclaimed Christ to them (v. 5). While we know nothing further about the content of his preaching, Philip must have told them that Christ had come to forgive their sins so that they might find salvation and eternal life. We who have been exposed to the ideas of grace and salvation for most of our lives tend to take those things for granted. However, people like the Samaritans, who had never heard of such things, would hear them with great excitement and great joy.
ACTS 8:9-13. NOT IN THE LECTIONARY READING
9 But there was a certain man, Simon by name, who used to practice sorcery in the city, and amazed the people of Samaria, making himself out to be some great one, 10 to whom they all listened, from the least to the greatest, saying, “This man is that great power of God.” 11 They listened to him, because for a long time he had amazed them with his sorceries. 12 But when they believed Philip preaching good news concerning the Kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptized, both men and women.13 Simon himself also believed. Being baptized, he continued with Philip. Seeing signs and great miracles occurring, he was amazed.
While these verses are not in the lectionary reading, the preacher should be aware of them. They tell the story of Simon the sorcerer—a man with a reputation for great power. However, when Philip preached the Good News, the people believed and were baptized—and Simon the sorcerer also believed and was baptized. “Seeing signs and great miracles occurring, (Simon) was amazed.” The point is that Simon was a man who was accustomed to wielding great power, but who came to see in the ministry of Philip even greater power at work.
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, they sent Peter and John to them“ (v. 14). 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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Copyright 2013, Richard Niell Donovan