25 Now when they had testified and spoken the word of the Lord, they returned to Jerusalem, preaching the gospel to many villages of the Samaritans. (Acts 8:14-25 (ESV)
There is so much going on in this short bit of text. It is no wonder that it has causes so much confusion in the world of Christendom today. This text is often cited when people want to argue against baptismal regeneration. They use it to say that the Holy Spirit isn’t given in baptism, but see the apostles had to lay on hands. And then with this understanding they undermine baptism and start ever so many gnostic sects such as Simon Magus became famous for in the early church.
So what is going on? It seems the persecution in Jerusalem had ebbed and things were calm there. Some went back to get Peter ad John to come to Samaria to witness the work that had been going on. Many had come to believe and were baptized by the preaching of Philip. When Peter and John get there, it is said they pray for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit because it had not yet fallen on any of them.
The apostles are there to witness the work, and validate it. Given the long history of animosity between Jews and Samarians this has to take place that everyone is aware that those hatchets are buried. But while the apostles are there they notice something lacking. The Holy Spirit hasn’t fallen on any of them. It’s a peculiar phrase. Obviously, if the people had come to faith the Holy Spirit has been working among them. They are baptized and with that comes the gift of the Holy Spirit. But then the Holy Spirit has many gifts to give and not all are given to everyone at once. Paul himself speaks of sharing spiritual gifts with other congregations. And this is largely the same thing. And by having the Apostles from Jerusalem bestow these gifts at this time while they are there in Samaria, the work of Phillip is confirmed.
The gifts that are bestowed with this particular reception of the Holy Spirit are not articulated. But with the laying on of hands it seems the people receive powers that impress the old Adam in Simon who begins to fall back into his old ways. He was a magician, interested in all things supernatural. But magicians think they can control and manipulate the underworld. Demons will even do a magicians bidding from time to time all the while playing the magician like a puppet. But the Holy Spirit won’t be manipulated in such ways. Simon is jealous of what he sees others being able to do. He offers money to the disciples so that he can have the power. In other words he sees them as magicians themselves, and the Holy Spirit as something to be manipulated by humans for their own ends. He sees the Holy Spirit as just another black art from which he can profit.
With that the Apostles curse him and tell him to repent of his grievous sin. And the text itself indicates that he may have done this. Subsequent stories of the early church say he did not in fact repent, but became hardened and started the first of the gnostic sects. His name also became famous for Simony, the practice of buying and selling church offices. Mine only cost me $40,000 in student loans, a bargain if I do say so myself. (I jest. I feel I have to actually say that here. As a matter of fact I paid for an education that qualified me for a very complex but enjoyable occupation I am privileged to have. I hear people complain from time to time about student loan debt today, and it is high. Certainly the debt can’t be paid down as fast on a pastor’s salary as they could in other occupations. And this does cause a good deal of stress on the church as a whole. Pastors out of seminary are less able to take on the work of smaller congregations and so forth. On the other hand, I cannot imagine taking this job without that which I learned at seminary. And I am happy for the education I received there. Also, I find the job to have been well worth it. There are aspects of it that are not pleasant to be sure. Every job has that. But I do cringe when I hear pastors complain about this career. We get to proclaim God’s word to his sheep, baptize their children, absolve them of their sins, feed them forgiveness in his body and blood! Honestly, if there was a job worth buying, it is this one.)
But there is another aspect in which many in Christendom today fall into the same trap as Simon. That is they expect the Holy Spirit to be something that can be controlled and manipulated. They think he is only present where particular gifts are present, and are completely oblivious to other areas of his activity. In fact the whole focus on the Holy Spirit is really wrong. The Holy Spirit isn’t there to draw attention to himself, but to Christ. He points to Christ and the cross. He bestows his gifts on the church where and when he wills so as to focus the church on Christ and to bring others to Christ through the work of the church. When T.V. preachers and Pentecostals put his gifts up for sale, you can be sure it isn’t the Holy Spirit at work. His gifts can’t be bought for a twenty dollar pledge. The Holy Spirit gives them to his own where and when they have need of them to accomplish his purposes, and they are often things that people themselves are largely unaware of because He has focused them on the cross, where all their sins are forgiven.