The Gospel in Samaria
Even before the foundation of the world, God had a plan to save
all mankind from sin. Just after Adam and Eve transgressed, God promised that
the seed of the woman would bruise the head of the serpent. This plan involved
choosing the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as the chosen nation of
Israel through whom that seed would come. Even during the Old Testament,
prophets foretold that salvation through the coming Messiah would be available
to Jew and Gentile alike.
When Jesus came, He told the apostles to make disciples of all nations, saying that their witness would begin in Jerusalem, then spread to Judea and Samaria, and finally go to the uttermost part of the earth. Even on the day of Pentecost, Peter said that the promise would be to those who are afar off. The first seven chapters of Acts discuss the church in Jerusalem. Then in Acts 8:1-13, after the persecution that arose concerning Stephen, we see that the gospel spread into Judea and Samaria. And, of course, after that it went on into the uttermost part of the world. But this article will focus our attention on the work of Philip in this account of the gospel in Samaria.
First, we see the importance of preaching. "Now Saul was consenting to his death. At that time a great persecution arose against the church which was at Jerusalem; and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles. And devout men carried Stephen to his burial, and made great lamentation over him. As for Saul, he made havoc of the church, entering every house and dragging off men and women, committing them to prison. Therefore those who were scattered abroad went everywhere preaching the word. Then Philip went down to the city of Samaria and preached Christ to them" (Acts 8:1-5).
Christianity is a preaching religion. In Mark 16:15 Jesus commanded, "Go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature." A lot of people today do not like anything which could be called "preaching." If they attend church services at all, they want to go where they will not be "preached" to. But Jesus told us to preach, and that is what we have to do if we are to please Him, whether people like it or not. In fact, preaching the message of salvation is the divinely authorized method of declaring the wisdom of God to a lost and dying world. "For since, in the wisdom of God, the world through wisdom did not know God, it pleased God through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe" (1 Corinthians 1:21).
Thus, to obey Christ, we must "preach the word! Be ready in season and out of season. Convince, rebuke, exhort, with all longsuffering and teaching" (2 Timothy 4:2). Those who are evangelists should preach both "publicly and from house to house" (Acts 20:20). This would include preaching from the pulpit, on the radio or television, in newspapers, by phone, or whatever other public opportunities present themselves, as well as privately in home Bible classes. Yet, remember that it was not only "full-time evangelists" in the first century, but all those who were scattered abroad who went everywhere preaching the word. Each Christian can talk to his or her co-workers, neighbors, relatives, and other acquaintances. We can invite them to services, enroll them in Bible correspondence courses, give them tracts, or ask for home Bible studies. That is preaching the word!
Truth versus Error
Second, we see the importance of distinguishing truth from error. "And the multitudes with one accord heeded the things spoken by Philip, hearing and seeing the miracles which he did. For unclean spirits, crying with a loud voice, came out of many who were possessed; and many who were paralyzed and lame were healed. And there was great joy in that city. But there was a certain man called Simon, who previously practiced sorcery in the city and astonished the people of Samaria, claiming that he was someone great, to whom they all gave heed, from the least to the greatest, saying, 'This man is the great power of God.' And they heeded him because he had astonished them with his sorceries for a long time" (Acts 8:6-11).
Simon claimed to be "the great power of God," or at least accepted this claim made for him by others, and even did magic tricks which seemed to confirm his power. Yet, he was lying. This reminds us that not everyone who claims to teach the truth or speak for God is actually doing so. Jesus warned us about false prophets (Matthew 7:15-16). Paul said that from both outside and from among the disciples men would arise to draw away people from Christ (Acts 20:29-30). And Peter reminded us that just as there were false prophets among the people in the Old Testament, so there will come false teachers in this time (2 Peter 2:1-2). Therefore, we should "not believe every spirit, but test the spirits, whether they are of God; because many false prophets have gone out into the world" (1 John 4:1). The word "test" simply means to examine carefully in order to determine whether one is telling the truth or not.
This is exactly what the church at Ephesus had done. "I know your works, your labor, your patience, and that you cannot bear those who are evil. And you have tested those who say they are apostles and are not, and have found them liars" (Revelation 2:2). Jesus had some things to say against the church at Ephesus, but this was not one of them. Indeed, He was commending them for taking this action. Yet, how do we "test the spirits" and what standard do we use? When Paul preached in Berea, we are told that "these were more fair-minded than those in Thessalonica, in that they received the word with all readiness, and searched the Scriptures daily whether those things were so" (Acts 17:11). Of course, in Philip's day the completed New Testament scriptures were not yet available. However, when the Samaritans compared Philip's true miracles to Simon's fake tricks, they could immediately tell the difference between truth and error, and they accepted the truth. We need the same attitude. We must search the scriptures to tell the difference between truth and error and then accept only the truth.
Third, we see the importance of obedience to salvation. "But when they believed Philip as he preached the things concerning the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, both men and women were baptized. Then Simon himself also believed; and when he was baptized he continued with Philip, and was amazed, seeing the miracles and sings which were done" (Acts 8:12-13). We are not told exactly all the Philip said, but we know that his preaching concerned the kingdom of God into which those who are delivered out of the power of darkness are translated (Colossians 1:13).
And it involved the name of Jesus Christ, which simply stands for doing all things by His authority (Colossians 3:17). Also, we see that as a result of his preaching these things, both men and women were baptized, including Simon. So he must have preached something about baptism too. We might ask, why were they baptized? The text does not specifically say, but other passages of scripture answer the question.
To begin, they were baptized because Jesus Himself commanded it for salvation. "He who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned" (Mark 16:16). According to this, if a person wants to be saved, he must believe and be baptized. Therefore, the Lord plainly makes baptism a part of the gospel which He had just told the apostles to go into all the world and preach to every creature.
Next, they were baptized because inspired men said that baptism is necessary for remission of sins. On the day of Pentecost, after Peter had preached Christ to the people, they were pricked in their hearts and asked what they needed to do. In Acts 2:38 Peter responded, "Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit." According to this, if a person wants remission of sins, he must repent and be baptized.
Then, they were baptized because the scriptures teach that baptism stands between the sinner and being in Christ where he can walk in newness of life. "Or do you not know that as many of us as were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? Therefore we were buried with Him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life" (Romans 6:3-4). This passage says that we cannot be raised to walk in newness of life until after we have been buried with Christ in baptism into death. The Samaritans and Simon did not stand around and argue with Philip about whether or not baptism was really essential to salvation or refuse to be baptized because they thought thatit was a work and had been told that no works can be conditions of salvation. They simply heard the gospel message, believed it, obeyed its terms, and were saved. "Though He was a Son, yet He learned obedience by the things which He suffered. And having been perfected, He became the author of eternal salvation to all who obey Him" (Hebrews 5:8-9).
By Wayne S. Walker
From Expository Files 9.5; May 2003