(Act 8:1-3 ESV) And Saul approved of his execution. And there arose on that day a great persecution against the church in Jerusalem, and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles. 2 Devout men buried Stephen and made great lamentation over him. 3 But Saul was ravaging the church, and entering house after house, he dragged off men and women and committed them to prison.
Saul appears to be a leader of considerable influence among the opposition. Whereas the authorities in Jerusalem had earlier been timid in their threats against the church, the murder of Stephen emboldened them.
Before, they couldn’t even keep the apostles in jail, but now they were able to lynch and to imprison Christians. In their minds, the tide had been turned.
It seems odd that the apostles were spared, but Witherington makes the point that First Century Jews would have been terrified to persecute such workers of miracles. I think the truth is a little more subtle, as the authorities had already imprisoned and flogged the apostles. Rather, it’s likely that the people would have protested — even stoned — soldiers sent to arrest them. They were simply too popular to be arrested.
Therefore, Saul and other persecutors adopted a more insidious attack — they went into people’s homes and imprisoned the followers of the apostles. Little did they realize that this would lead to the spread of Christianity.
It’s surprising that the Christians would flee to Samaria, as the Samaritans hated the Jews and would not have given them shelter from persecutors. But the following account of Phillip’s conversion of the Samaritans explains how that relationship changed.
(Act 8:4-8 ESV) 4 Now those who were scattered went about preaching the word. 5 Philip went down to the city of Samaria and proclaimed to them the Christ. 6 And the crowds with one accord paid attention to what was being said by Philip when they heard him and saw the signs that he did. 7 For unclean spirits, crying out with a loud voice, came out of many who had them, and many who were paralyzed or lame were healed. 8 So there was much joy in that city.
Samaria was a place of great symbolic significance. When Israel was divided into the Northern and Southern Kingdoms following the death of Solomon, Samaria was established as the capital of the Northern Kingdom — the Kingdom that rejected the Davidic dynasty and instead chose Jeroboam as king.
While the Southern Kingdom was ruled by David’s descendants until the Babylonian Captivity, the North was ruled by a series of dynasties, until conquered by Assyria.
Thus, in the minds of the Jews, Samaria symbolized the division of God’s people, and bringing Samaria into the Kingdom would have been a symbolically powerful re-establishment of David’s throne over both halves of David’s kingdom.
Thus, in Acts 1:8, when Jesus tells the apostles to preach first in the Jerusalem, and then to Samaria, and then to the Gentiles, there is more to Samaria than the fact the Samaritans were hated halfbreeds. Their conversion would be the fulfillment of prophecy to re-establish the Kingdom over all Israel.
(Eze 16:53-55 ESV) 53 “I will restore their fortunes, both the fortunes of Sodom [Jerusalem] and her daughters, and the fortunes of Samaria and her daughters, and I will restore your own fortunes in their midst, 54 that you may bear your disgrace and be ashamed of all that you have done, becoming a consolation to them. 55 As for your sisters, Sodom and her daughters shall return to their former state, and Samaria and her daughters shall return to their former state, and you and your daughters shall return to your former state.”
Of course, bringing in the Samaritans was also a powerful testimony to the Kingdom because of the intense hatred between the Jews and Samaritans. In fact, it was the sort of healing that could only happen by the hand of God.
Given the importance of taking the gospel to Samaria — from the lips of Jesus himself as well as the Prophets — why was it a deacon who brought the good news? Why not the apostles?
(Act 8:9-11 ESV) 9 But there was a man named Simon, who had previously practiced magic in the city and amazed the people of Samaria, saying that he himself was somebody great. 10 They all paid attention to him, from the least to the greatest, saying, “This man is the power of God that is called Great.” 11 And they paid attention to him because for a long time he had amazed them with his magic.
Notice the contrast between the magic of Simon and the Spirit-empowered miracles of Phillip.
(Act 8:12-13 ESV) 12 But when they believed Philip as he preached good news about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptized, both men and women. 13 Even Simon himself believed, and after being baptized he continued with Philip. And seeing signs and great miracles performed, he was amazed.
The conversion of Simon demonstrated convincingly the superiority of the power of God to the magic of Simon.
(Act 8:14-17 ESV) 14 Now when the apostles at Jerusalem heard that Samaria had received the word of God, they sent to them Peter and John, 15 who came down and prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit, 16 for he had not yet fallen on any of them, but they had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. 17 Then they laid their hands on them and they received the Holy Spirit.
Notice that the apostles didn’t visit Samaria until a crisis arose — a crisis created by God himself. The Holy Spirit “had not yet fallen on” the Samaritans. In other words, it was expected that, in the ordinary course, those baptized in the name of Jesus would receive the Spirit — and the Samaritans had not.
Some believe this is a reference to the miraculous gifts that the Spirit gives, but the language is plainly referring to the Spirit: “he had not yet fallen on them.”
Now, this gives rise to all sorts of puzzles. After all, how did they know? Up until this point, the only Christians recorded as having miraculous powers are the apostles and Phillip. Repeatedly, Luke makes clear that it’s the apostles who were doing miracles, not all Christians.
This being so, the fact that the Samaritans had no miraculous abilities would hardly have required a trip by the apostles from Jerusalem. Rather, the Samaritans were missing the Spirit himself — which was promised to all converts (Acts 2:38-39). This does, however, leave open the question of how the absence of the Spirit was evidenced. After all, the presence of the Spirit, when there are no miracles involved, is not necessarily an obvious sort of thing.
The simplest explanation is that Phillip, being miraculously empowered, knew because God told him.
You see, in Acts there are at least these three occasions where the Spirit is received separate from baptism: the original 120 at Pentecost, Samaria, and Cornelius. And these three events parallel the words of Jesus in Acts 1:8 —
(Act 1:8 ESV) “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.”
And in each case, God drove the gospel to the next step by his choice regarding the giving of the Spirit. Indeed, in the case of Samaria and Cornelius, the apostles appear to have been reluctant to take the next step. After all, they were trained and tasked as missionaries, and yet they didn’t go to Samaria until after Phillip had baptized converts and they failed to receive the Spirit. They only went to solve this God-created crisis.
But given the importance of Samaria and the long history of discrimination and outright hatred for the Samaritans, it was essential that the apostles endorse the conversion of the Samaritans to assure that they be treated as full members of the household of faith. Peter and John didn’t just bring the Spirit, they brought unity and acceptance.
Thus, I think the best theory for why the Spirit wasn’t received immediately upon baptism is that God withheld the Spirit to force the apostles to appear and endorse the Samaritan ministry with their presence — and honor the command given them by Jesus.
The same is true of Cornelius and his household. Peter was reluctant to preach to them, and he only baptized them after God took the first step of baptizing them with the Spirit. God was driving the apostles to act contrary to their culture and customs to spread the gospel to all nations.
Therefore, the laying of hands on the Samaritans did not provide merely gifts of the Spirit. In this case, it resulted in God providing the Spirit himself. Indeed, Luke refers to the Spirit “falling” on them — the same verb used in Acts 10:44 and 11:55 for the falling of the Spirit on Cornelius — which happened entirely without the laying on of hands and, as here, refers to the Spirit himself.
In fact, in the case of the Samaritans, Luke gives more credit to prayer —
(Act 8:15-17 ESV) 15 who came down and prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit, 16 for he had not yet fallen on any of them, but they had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. 17 Then they laid their hands on them and they received the Holy Spirit.
They prayed for the receipt of the Spirit. The Spirit came following the laying of hands, but the grammar credits the prayer at least as much. The Spirit fell on them — presumably from heaven — not via the laying on of hands. (How would the Spirit fall from their hands?)
Why laying of hands, then? In the early church, hands were laid on Christians to charge them with a mission (Acts 6:6; 13:3). But we see the laying of hands as part of the ordinary conversion ritual, associated closely with baptism —
(Act 19:6 ESV) And when Paul had laid his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they began speaking in tongues and prophesying.
(Act 9:17 ESV) So Ananias departed and entered the house. And laying his hands on him he said, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus who appeared to you on the road by which you came has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.”
(Heb 6:2 ESV) and of instruction about washings, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment.
But these are not two different things. To be converted and baptized is to be charged with a mission. Thus, the laying on of hands was not so much to magically convey the Spirit as to commission a new Christian for Kingdom work.
(1Ti 5:22 ESV) 22 Do not be hasty in the laying on of hands, nor take part in the sins of others; keep yourself pure.
(1Ti 4:14 ESV) 14 Do not neglect the gift you have, which was given you by prophecy when the council of elders laid their hands on you.
Then again, the laying on of hands is also associated with healing —
(Luk 4:40 ESV) 40 Now when the sun was setting, all those who had any who were sick with various diseases brought them to him, and he laid his hands on every one of them and healed them.
(Luk 13:13 ESV) 13 And he laid his hands on her, and immediately she was made straight, and she glorified God.
(Act 9:12 ESV) 12 and he has seen in a vision a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him so that he might regain his sight.”
(Act 28:8 ESV) 8 It happened that the father of Publius lay sick with fever and dysentery. And Paul visited him and prayed, and putting his hands on him healed him.
Therefore, we can’t dogmatically insist that gifts of the Holy Spirit are always given by the laying on of hands. Certainly, that is not what happened in Acts 8, as it was the Spirit himself that was given — by prayer but following the laying on of hands.
Why hands? Because the Samaritans had a defective conversion that needed to be cured. And the laying on of hands was a normal means of both healing and commissioning a new Christian.
Moreover, the physical touching of the Samaritans by the apostles — something a proper Jew would never do — symbolized the full inclusion of the Samaritans in the Christian community.
(to be continued)