Clearing Ground: Simon the Magician

(Message given at Newberg Friends Church on March 13, 2016)

The judgment of history looks different depending on what century you are in.

1 egypt

If you were a time traveler and dropped in around 1500 BC, the Egyptian Empire was the mark of success.

2 roman

Fast forward to around 100 AD and success was defined by the Roman Empire.

3 Umayyads

By around 700, it would have looked like Islam had taken over with the Umayyad Caliphate.

It’s sort of amazing how relatively quickly things changed when you look at a long term scale.

4 mongol

By 1200, it’s the Mongol Empire that is the mark of worldwide success. Through the age of exploration, you have Dutch, Spanish, and Portuguese empires at different times, until by 1900 a vast majority of the world was either part of the Russian Empire

5 russian

or the British Empire.

6 british

Yet today, just 100 years later, Britain’s reach is far smaller.

It really calls into question the practice of naming God’s blessing based on “success”. If you believe “success” is a sign of God’s blessing, it looks as if you have to believe God changes God’s mind quite a bit.

Today we aren’t really talking about empires, but I started there to give some perspective to this story we are studying today in Acts 8. Turn with me to Acts 8:4. 

Interestingly (and completely unplanned), there’s a Samaria theme that has run through this entire Lent series; David and Solomon unifying the northern kingdom of Israel which became Samaria, then last week Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well, and today from the book of Acts we’re in Samaria as well.

   Those who had been scattered preached the word wherever they went. Philip went down to a city in Samaria and proclaimed the Messiah there. When the crowds heard Philip and saw the signs he performed, they all paid close attention to what he said. With shrieks, evil spirits came out of many, and many who were paralyzed or lame were healed. So there was great joy in that city.
Now for some time a man named Simon had practiced sorcery in the city and amazed all the people of Samaria. He boasted that he was someone great, and all the people, both high and low, gave him their attention and exclaimed, ‘This man is rightly called the Great Power of God.’ They followed him because he had amazed them for a long time with his sorcery. But when they believed Philip as he proclaimed the good news of the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptized, both men and women. Simon himself believed and was baptized. And he followed Philip everywhere, astonished by the great signs and miracles he saw.
When the apostles in Jerusalem heard that Samaria had accepted the word of God, they sent Peter and John to Samaria. When they arrived, they prayed for the new believers there that they might receive the Holy Spirit, because the Holy Spirit had not yet come on any of them; they had simply been baptized into the name of the Lord Jesus. Then Peter and John placed their hands on them, and they received the Holy Spirit.
When Simon saw that the Spirit was given at the laying on of the apostles ‘hands, he offered them money and said,’ Give me also this ability so that everyone on whom I lay my hands may receive the Holy Spirit. ‘
Peter answered:’ May your money perish with you, because you thought you could buy the gift of God with money! You have no part or share in this ministry, because your heart is not right before God. Repent of this wickedness and pray to the Lord in the hope that he may forgive you for having such a thought in your heart. For I see that you are full of bitterness and captive to sin. ‘
Then Simon answered,’ Pray to the Lord for me so that nothing you have said may happen to me. (Acts 8:4-24, TNIV)

So here’s the tie-in with the empires and the “success” introduction I did. Clearly in the way the early church looked at this incident, Simon is the non-successful one, the rejected one, the bad example. God’s perspective is behind Peter and John, and I heartily uphold that perspective.

But the truth is, history shows that Simon became a major figure in the world after this. While Christianity remained a minority and persecuted group until Emperor Constantine became a Christian in 313 AD, Simon gained influence in the Roman Empire much sooner. If you went in your time machine to Rome in the early second century, it would be Simon, not Christians, who had the mark of success.

Justyn Martyr is an early Christian whose writings have been preserved. He was born around 100 AD in Samaria, actually, and he writes about what a major figure Simon Magus, Simon the Magician, played in the Roman Empire. He writes:

There was a Samaritan, Simon, a native of the village called Gitto, who in the reign of Claudius Caesar, and in your royal city of Rome, did mighty acts of magic…He was considered a god, and as a god he was honored by you with a statue…erected on the river Tiber, between two bridges, and bore this inscription, in the language of Rome, “Simoni Deo Sancto,” “To Simon the holy god.” And almost all the Samaritans, and a few even of other nations, worship him and acknowledge him as the first god. [Justyn Martyr, First Apology p. 26, as quoted in Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, Acts Vol.)

F.F. Bruce tells us that Simon is given credit for…or maybe better said, he is blamed by the early church for being “the father of all Gnostic heresies.” Clearly in Acts he is portrayed as a negative example, as someone Peter sees with a wicked heart. Yet the historical record tells us that even with a wicked heart, he could still become famous and successful in the eyes of history.

Why start there? Why bring up his seeming success?

In this season of Lent, we’ve been looking at ways to clear ground in our spiritual lives, in order for God’s activity in our lives not to be crowded out by other things. When we began, we talked about how this growing, farming metaphor is different than an industrial, mechanical model. I wanted to come back to that as we near the end of Lent.

We can’t assume that our obedience is going to immediately pay off with “success” dividends, just like we can’t assume that letting weeds grow will immediately cause failure. It’s not an immediate, “a + b = c” type of situation. We might do great work clearing spiritual ground, but the results don’t come in the timeframe we expect. We also can’t be discouraged by today’s version of “Simon”, the people who seem to be letting weeds grow and yet still find “success” and fame.

We might have to look more long term, and not be discouraged by how things look now.

Look with me again at Acts 8, and we’ll explore more in depth.

One of the things that stands out first is that Simon already had influence and standing in Samaria. He was used to people seeing him as great, proud of being recognized, and even was seen as a godlike figure. The people of Samaria were impressed by demonstrations of spiritual power that were seen as magical.

When Philip arrives, it’s clear that God’s Spirit gives him the ability to do similar acts of spiritual power. In a climate like Samaria, this was a good way to demonstrate God’s power in the world. And many people believed in Jesus because of it, including Simon. He is impressed, “astonished” it says by the signs and miracles Philip can do. But it does say that Simon himself believed in Jesus and was baptized.

With this first beat of the story, you aren’t sure how it’s going to play out. At the start in verse 9, Simon is described as the opposite of how Jesus is described in Philippians 2: Simon “boasted that he was someone great”, while Jesus “made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant.” Is Simon’s acceptance of Jesus going to bring a deep change?

The next scene moves away from Philip and Simon to Peter and John.

Before Jesus’ death and resurrection, when he sent the disciples out to spread the news about Jesus, he doesn’t allow them to go into Samaria. Though Jesus himself shared with the Samaritan woman and most of the town came to hear Jesus because of her, he didn’t allow his disciples to go to Samaria.

But then after the resurrection, as Jesus is ready to return to heaven, he tells his disciples that when the Holy Spirit empowers them, they will be his witnesses “in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

So Acts 8 is a big moment! The early church is seeing the promise Jesus made come to life, and so they send Peter and John there. Scholars wrestle to understand why, even though they were baptized with Philip, why they don’t receive the Holy Spirit until Peter and John arrive and place their hands on them. The best answer seems to be that this made it really clear to everyone that the most important people in the early church, Peter and John, were putting their blessing on God’s work in enemy Samaria.

This is a work of power and unity, the first “seed” planted for a worldwide harvest. God is proving Jesus’ promise is sure. The gift of the Holy Spirit to these Samaritans is the first step of God’s worldwide, long term plan. It’s a celebration of God’s work through Jesus Christ, drawing attention to God and the future work. Here with Samaritans accepting Jesus, as F.F. Bruce writes, “The Church of Jesus Christ had succeeded in bringing the whole kingdom of David under the sway of his Son’s sceptre, something the Jews had tried with much less success by force of arms during the last five hundred years.”

But it appears Simon misses the intent of this.

Instead of seeing a work that draws attention to God, he sees an ability that he wants, an ability that will return him to verse 10…when “all the people, both high and low, gave him their attention.” He doesn’t just want Philip’s ability, the ability to do miraculous things; that’s something Simon already had. No, Simon offers money to get the new thing, the power Peter and John demonstrate by giving the Holy Spirit to others.

Some of the early church writers notice things that I miss while reading this story. All through the book of Acts, we are reminded that the early church shared all possessions. They sold their property, gave all the money to the church, and they shared it to make sure everyone had enough to eat. Simon is offering money to people who aren’t motivated by wealth or possessions! Cyril of Jerusalem wrote:

[Simon] offered money to people without possessions… He did not realize that they who trod underfoot the wealth offered for the sustenance of the poor would surely never sell him the power of the Holy Spirit for a price. (Catechetical Lecture 16.10, Cyril of Jerusalem, as quoted in Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, Acts Vol.)

So many signs that Simon is missing the Jesus flavor! Pride rather than humility, money as a way to gain influence rather than money as something shared for the good of all. F.F. Bruce writes, “The poisonous root of superstitious self-seeking had not been eradicated from his heart; his soul was still held in the fetters of unrighteousness.”

But even as much as Simon is missing it, Basil the Great in the 4th century shows the worse damage that comes if the church were to sell the gift of God:

He who through ignorance wishes to buy is less guilty than he who sells the gift of God, making it a business transaction. And, if you sell what you have received as a gift, you will be deprived of its grace. (Letter 53, Basil the Great, as quoted in Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, Acts Vol.)

As followers of Jesus, part of the ground we need to clear is our own need for influence over other people.

In so many ways, the spiritual journey is releasing our need to be celebrated and liked, releasing the need to be the center of attention. It is learning how to make Christ the object of OUR attention, how to live in such a way that points others not to ourselves, but to Jesus.

The contrast between what Simon does and what Peter and John do is right out in front of us. Simon looks to grab a power for himself that will give influence, while Peter and John came to honor former outcasts and give them gifts from God. They are joining God as a gift-giver, joining God’s expanding mission.

Even as Peter confronts Simon, you see Peter giving Simon authority to act himself. Peter tells Simon to repent and to pray to the Lord himself, in essence building up Simon’s ability to act even as he points out his wrong.

Simon, however, asks Peter to pray for him. He doesn’t take his own action, but waits for Peter to pray on his behalf. And it may be that is what ultimately kept Simon from becoming a Christian leader: he can’t take the one action that would clear ground, the action of confessing to God that he needs forgiveness and freedom from bitterness and sin.

How do you identify with this story?

Are there ways Simon’s actions bring light to ways you seek power or attention from others? Or are there ways you identify with Peter and John, serving on behalf of others, joining God in giving good gifts?

The later trajectory of Simon and of the church remind us how important it is to choose to let Jesus be the center of the universe instead of trying to put ourselves there. Political and spiritual recognition can often come when we follow Simon’s path of grabbing what power we can.

But over the long haul, making room for God’s work makes all the difference. Thousands of years later, there are followers of Jesus Christ on every part of the planet. The work Philip and Peter and John ushered in by serving the people of Samaria showed God’s plan for the whole world hasn’t stopped. Simon’s statue is long destroyed, and we only know of his existence because of the book of Acts and Christ-follower Justin Martyr.

How might you need to release the need to be celebrated and liked? For what power or attention seeking do you need to ask repentance? How might you better offer your service and God’s gifts freely to others? This is how we clear ground.

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