Alexander Maclaren.

Expositions of Holy Scripture: the Acts online

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special engagement. But Stephen saw and proclaimed more clearly than
they did the passing away of Temple and ritual; and Philip, on his own
initiative, and apparently quite unconscious of the great stride
forward that he was taking, was the first to carry the gospel torch
into the regions beyond. The Church made Philip a 'deacon,' but Christ
made him an 'evangelist'; and an evangelist he continued, long after he
had ceased to be a deacon in Jerusalem (xxi. 8).

Observe, too, that, as soon as Stephen is taken away, Philip rises up
to take his place. The noble army of witnesses never wants recruits.
Its Captain sends men to the front in unbroken succession, and they are
willing to occupy posts of danger because He bids them. Probably Philip
fled to Samaria for convenience' sake, but, being there, he probably
recalled Christ's instructions in chapter i. 8, repealing His
prohibition in Matthew x. 5. What a different world it would be, if it
was true of Christians now that they 'went down into the city of
So-and-So and proclaimed Christ'! Many run to and fro, but some of them
leave their Christianity at home, or lock it up safely in their
travelling trunks.

Jerusalem had just expelled the disciples, and would fain have crushed
the Gospel; despised Samaria received it with joy. 'A foolish nation'
was setting Israel an example (Deut. xxxii. 21; Rom. x. 19). The
Samaritan woman had a more spiritual conception of the Messiah than the
run of Jews had, and her countrymen seem to have been ready to receive
the word. Is not the faith of our mission converts often a rebuke to us?

But the Gospel met new foes as well as new friends on the new soil.
Simon the sorcerer, probably a Jew or a Samaritan, would have been
impossible on Jewish ground, but was a characteristic product of that
age in the other parts of the Roman empire. Just as, to-day, people who
are weary of Christianity are playing with Buddhism, it was fashionable
in that day of unrest to trifle with Eastern magic-mongers; and, of
course, demand created supply, and where there was a crowd of willing
dupes, there soon came to be a crop of profit-seeking deceivers. Very
characteristically, the dupes claimed more for the deceiver than he did
for himself. He probably could perform some simple chemical experiments
and conjuring tricks, and had a store of what sounded to ignorant
people profound teaching about deep mysteries, and gave forth
enigmatical utterances about his own greatness. An accomplished
charlatan will leave much to be inferred from nods and hints, and his
admirers will generally spin even more out of them than he meant. So
the Samaritans bettered Simon's 'some great one' into 'that power of
God which is called great,' and saw in him some kind of emanation of

The quack is great till the true teacher comes, and then he dwindles.
Simon had a bitter pill to swallow when he saw this new man stealing
his audience, and doing things which he, with his sorceries, knew that
he only pretended to do. Luke points very clearly to the likeness and
difference between Simon and Philip by using the same word ('gave
heed') in regard to the Samaritan's attitude to both, while in
reference to Philip it was 'the things spoken by' him, and in reference
to Simon it was himself to which they attended. The one preached
Christ, the other himself; the one 'amazed' with 'sorceries,' the other
brought good tidings and hid himself, and his message called, not for
stupid, open-mouthed astonishment, but for belief and obedience to the
name of Jesus. The whole difference between the religion of Jesus and
the superstitions which the world calls religions, is involved in the
significant contrast, so inartificially drawn.

'Simon also himself believed.' Probably there was in his action a good
deal of swimming with the stream, in the hope of being able to divert
it; but, also, he may have been all the more struck by Philip's
miracles, because he knew a real one, by reason of his experience of
sham ones. At any rate, neither Philip nor Luke drew a distinction
between his belief and that of the Samaritans; and, as in their cases,
his baptism followed on his profession of belief. But he seems not to
have got beyond the point of wondering at the miracles, as it is
emphatically said that he did even after his baptism. He believed that
Jesus was the Messiah, but was more interested in studying Philip to
find out how he did the miracles than in listening to his teaching.
Such an imperfect belief had no transforming power, and left him the
same man as before, as was soon miserably manifest.

The news of Philip's great step forward reached the Apostles by some
unrecorded means. It is not stated that Philip reported his action, as
if to superiors whose authorisation was necessary. More probably the
information filtered through other channels. At all events, sending a
deputation was natural, and needs not to be regarded as either a sign
of suspicion or an act necessary in order to supplement imperfections
inherent in the fact that Philip was not an Apostle. The latter meaning
has been read - not to say forced - into the incident; but Luke's
language does not support it. It was not because they thought that the
Samaritans were not admissible to the full privileges of Christians
without Apostolic acts, but because they 'heard that Samaria had
received the word,' that the Apostles sent Peter and John.

The Samaritans had not yet received the Holy Ghost - that is, the
special gifts, such as those of Pentecost. That fact proves that
baptism is not necessarily and inseparably connected with the gift of
the Spirit; and chapter x. 44, 47, proves that the Spirit may be given
before baptism. As little does this incident prove that the imposition
of Apostolic hands was necessary in order to the impartation of the
Spirit. Luke, at any rate, did not think so; for he tells how Ananias'
hand laid on the blind Saul conveyed the gift to him. The laying on of
hands is a natural, eloquent symbol, but it was no prerogative of the
Apostles (Acts x. 17; 1 Tim. iv. 14).

The Apostles came down to Samaria to rejoice in the work which their
Lord had commanded, and which had been begun without their help, to
welcome the new brethren, to give them further instruction, and to knit
closely the bonds of unity between the new converts and the earlier
ones. But that they came to bestow spiritual gifts which, without them,
could not have been imparted, is imported into, not deduced from, the
simple narrative of Luke.


'Thou hast neither part nor lot in this matter: for thy heart is not
right in the sight of God.' - ACTS viii. 21.

The era of the birth of Christianity was one of fermenting opinion and
decaying faith. Then, as now, men's minds were seething and unsettled,
and that unrest which is the precursor of great changes in intellectual
and spiritual habitudes affected the civilised world. Such a period is
ever one of predisposition to superstition. The one true bond which
unites God and man being obscured, and to the consciousness of many
snapped, men's minds become the prey of visionary terrors. Demand
creates supply, and the magician and miracle-worker, the possessor of
mysterious ways into the Unknown, is never far off at such a time.
Partly deceived and partly deceiving, he is as sure a sign of the lack
of profound religious conviction and of the presence of unsatisfied
religious aspirations in men's souls, as the stormy petrel or the
floating seaweed is of a tempest on the seas.

So we find the early preachers of Christianity coming into frequent
contact with pretenders to magical powers. Sadly enough, they were
mostly Jews, who prostituted their clearer knowledge to personal ends,
and having tacked on to it some theosophic rubbish which they had
learned from Alexandria, or mysticism which had filtered to them from
the East, or magic arts from Phrygia, went forth, the only missionaries
that Judaism sent out, to bewilder and torture men's minds. What a fall
from Israel's destination, and what a lesson for the stewards of the
'oracles of God'!

Of such a sort were Elymas, the sorcerer whom Paul found squatting at
the ear of the Roman Governor of Cyprus; the magicians at Ephesus; the
vagabond Jews exorcists, who with profitable eclecticism, as they
thought, tried to add the name of Jesus as one more spell to their
conjurations; and, finally, this Simon the sorcerer. Established in
Samaria, he had been juggling and conjuring and seeing visions, and
professing to be a great mysterious personality, and had more than
permitted the half-heathen Samaritans, who seem to have had more
religious susceptibility and less religious knowledge than the Jews,
and so were a prepared field for all such pretenders, to think of him
as in some sense an incarnation of God, and perhaps to set him up as a
rival or caricature of Him who in the neighbouring Judaea was being
spoken of as the power of God, God manifest in the flesh.

To the city thus moved comes no Apostle, but a Christian man who begins
to preach, and by miracles and teaching draws many souls to Christ.

The story of Simon Magus in his attitude to the Gospel is a very
striking and instructive one. It presents for our purpose now mainly
three points to which I proceed to refer.

I. An instance of a wholly unreal, because inoperative, faith.

'He believed,' says the narrative, and believing was baptized. It is
worth noting, in passing, how the profession of faith without anything
more was considered by the Early Church sufficient. But obviously his
was no true faith. The event showed that it was not.

What was it which made his faith thus unreal?

It rested wholly on the miracles and signs; he 'wondered' when he saw
them. Of course, miracles were meant to lead to faith; but if they did
not lead on to a deeper sense of one's own evil and need, and so to a
spiritual apprehension, then they were of no use.

The very beginning of the story points to the one bond that unites to
God, as being the sense of need and the acceptance with heart and will
of the testimony of Jesus Christ. Such a disposition is shown in the
Samaritans, who make a contrast with Simon in that they believed Philip
_preaching_, while Simon believed him _working miracles_. The true
place of miracles is to attract attention, to prepare to listen to the
word. They are only introductory. A faith may be founded on them, but,
on the other hand, the impressions which they produce may be
evanescent. How subordinate then, their place at the most! And the one
thing which avails is a living contact of heart and soul with Jesus

Again, Simon's belief was purely an affair of the understanding. We are
not to suppose, I think, that he merely believed in Philip as a
miracle-worker; he must have had some notion about Philip's Master, and
we know that it was belief in Jesus as the Christ that qualified in the
Apostolic age for baptism. So it is reasonable to suppose that he had
so much of head knowledge. But it was only head knowledge. There was in
it no penitence, no self-abandonment, no fruit in holy desires; or in
other words, there was no heart. It was credence, but not trust.

Now it does not matter how much or how little you know about Jesus
Christ. It does not matter how you have come to that knowledge. It does
not matter though you have received Christian ordinances as Simon had.
If your faith is not a living power, leading to love and
self-surrender, it is really nought. And here, on its earliest conflict
with heathen magic, the gospel proclaims by the mouth of the Apostle
what is true as to all formalists and nominal Christians: 'Thou hast
neither part nor lot in this matter, _for_ thy heart is not right.' One
thing only unites to God - a faith which cleanses the heart, a faith
which lays hold on Christ with will and conscience, a faith which,
resting on penitent acknowledgment of sin, trusts wholly to His great

II. An instance of the constant tendency to corrupt Christianity with
heathen superstition.

The Apostles' bestowal of the Holy Ghost, which was evidently
accompanied by visible signs, had excited Simon's desire for so useful
an aid to his conjuring, and he offers to buy the power, judging of
them by himself, and betraying that what he was ready to buy he was
also intending to sell.

The offer to buy has been taken as his great sin. Surely it was but the
outcome of a greater. It was not only what he offered, but what he
desired, that was wrong. He wanted that on 'whomsoever I lay hands, he
may receive the Holy Ghost.' That preposterous wish was quite as bad
as, and was the root of, his absurd offer to bribe Peter. Bribe Peter,
indeed! Some of Peter's successors would have been amenable to such
considerations, but not the horny-handed fisherman who had once said,
'Silver and gold have I none.'

Peter's answer, especially the words of my text, puts the Christian
principle in sharp antagonism to the heathen one.

Simon regards what is sacred and spiritual purely as part of his
stock-in-trade, contributing to his prestige. He offers to buy it. And
the foundation of all his errors is that he regards spiritual gifts as
capable of being received and exercised apart altogether from moral
qualifications. He does not think at all of what is involved in the
very name, 'the Holy Ghost.'

Now, on the other hand, Peter's answer lays down broadly and sharply
the opposite truth, the Christian principle that a heart right in the
sight of God is the indispensable qualification for all possession of
spiritual power, or of any of the blessings which Jesus gives.

How the heart is made right, and what constitutes righteousness is
another matter. That leads to the doctrine of repentance and faith.

The one thing that makes such participation impossible is being and
continuing in 'the gall of bitterness, and the bond of iniquity.' Or,
to put it into more modern words, all the blessings of the Gospel are a
gift of God, and are bestowed only on moral conditions. Faith which
leads to love and personal submission to the will of God makes a man a
Christian. Therefore, outward ordinances are only of use as they help a
man to that personal act.

Therefore, no other man or body of men can do it for us, or come
between us and God.

And in confirmation, notice how Peter here speaks of forgiveness. His
words do not sound as if he thought that he held the power of
absolution, but he tells Simon to go to God who alone can forgive, and
refers Simon's fate to God's mercy.

These tendencies, which Simon expresses so baldly, are in us all, and
are continually reappearing. How far much of what calls itself
Christianity has drifted from Peter's principle laid down here, that
moral and spiritual qualifications are the only ones which avail for
securing 'part or lot in the matter' of Christ's gifts received for,
and bestowed on, men! How much which really rests on the opposite
principle, that these gifts can be imparted by men who are supposed to
possess them, apart altogether from the state of heart of the would-be
recipient, we see around us to-day! _Simony_ is said to be the securing
ecclesiastical promotion by purchase. But it is much rather the belief
that 'the gift of God can be purchased with' anything but personal
faith in Jesus, the Giver and the Gift. The effects of it are patent
among us. Ceremonies usurp the place of faith. A priesthood is exalted.
The universal Christian prerogative of individual access to God is
obscured. Christianity is turned into a kind of magic.

III. An instance of the worthlessness of partial convictions.

Simon was but slightly moved by Peter's stern rebuke. He paid no heed
to the exhortation to pray for forgiveness and to repent of his
wickedness, but still remained in substantially his old error, in that
he accredited Peter with power, and asked him to pray for him, as if
the Apostle's prayer would have some special access to God which his,
though he were penitent, could not have. Further, he showed no sense of
sin. All that he wished was that 'none of the things which ye have
spoken come upon me.'

How useless are convictions which go no deeper down than Simon's did!

What became of him we do not know. But there are old ecclesiastical
traditions about him which represent him as a bitter enemy in future of
the Apostle. And Josephus has a story of a Simon who played a degrading
part between Felix and Drusilla, and who is thought by some to have
been he. But in any case, we have no reason to believe that he ever
followed Peter's counsel or prayed to God for forgiveness. So he stands
for us as one more tragic example of a man, once 'not far from the
kingdom of God' and drifting ever further away from it, because, at the
fateful moment, he would not enter in. It is hard to bring such a man
as near again as he once was. Let us learn that the one key which opens
the treasury of God's blessings, stored for us all in Jesus, is our own
personal faith, and let us beware of shutting our ears and our hearts
against the merciful rebukes that convict us of 'this our wickedness,'
and point us to the 'Lamb of God which taketh away the sin of the
world,' and therefore our sin.


'And the angel of the Lord spake unto Philip, saying, Arise, and go
toward the south unto the way that goeth down from Jerusalem unto Gaza,
which is desert. 27. And he arose and went: and, behold, a man of
Ethiopia, an eunuch of great authority under Candace queen of the
Ethiopians, who had the charge of all her treasure, and had come to
Jerusalem for to worship, 28. Was returning, and sitting in his
chariot, read Esaias the prophet. 29. Then the Spirit said unto Philip,
Go near, and join thyself to this chariot. 80. And Philip ran thither
to him, and heard him read the prophet Esaias, and said, Understandest
thou what thou readest? 31. And he said, How can I, except some man
should guide me? And he desired Philip that he would come up and sit
with him. 32. The place of the scripture which he read was this, He was
led as a sheep to the slaughter; and like a lamb dumb before his
shearer, so opened He not His mouth: 33. In His humiliation His
judgment was taken away; and who shall declare His generation? for His
life is taken from the earth. 34. And the eunuch answered Philip, and
said, I pray thee, of whom speaketh the prophet this? of himself, or of
some other man? 35. Then Philip opened his mouth, and began at the same
scripture, and preached unto him Jesus. 36. And as they went on their
way, they came unto a certain water: and the eunuch said, See, here is
water; what doth hinder me to be baptized? 37. And Philip said, If thou
believest with all thine heart, thou mayest. And he answered and said,
I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God. 38. And he commanded the
chariot to stand still: and they went down both into the water, both
Philip and the eunuch; and he baptized him. 39. And when they were come
up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord caught away Philip, that
the eunuch saw him no more: and he went on his way rejoicing. 40. But
Philip was found at Azotus: and passing through, he preached in all the
cities, till he came to Caesarea.' - ACTS viii. 26-40.

Philip had no special divine command either to flee to, or to preach
in, Samaria, but 'an angel of the Lord' and afterwards 'the Spirit,'
directed him to the Ethiopian statesman. God rewards faithful work with
more work. Samaria was a borderland between Jew and Gentile, but in
preaching to the eunuch Philip was on entirely Gentile ground. So great
a step in advance needed clear command from God to impel to it and to
justify it.

I. We have, then, first, the new commission. Philip might well wonder
why he should be taken away from successful work in a populous city,
and despatched to the lonely road to Gaza. But he obeyed at once. He
knew not for what he was sent there, but that ignorance did not trouble
or retard him. It should be enough for us to see the next step. 'We
walk by faith, not by sight,' for we none of us know what comes of our
actions, and we get light as we go. Do to-day's plain duty, and when
to-morrow is to-day its duty will be plain too. The river on which we
sail winds, and not till we round the nearest bend do we see the course
beyond. So we are kept in the peaceful posture of dependent obedience,
and need to hold our communications with God open, that we may be sure
of His guidance.

No doubt, as Philip trudged along till he reached the Gaza road, he
would have many a thought as to what he was to find there, and, when he
came at last to the solitary track, would look eagerly over the
uninhabited land for an explanation of his strange and vague
instructions. But an obedient heart is not long left perplexed, and he
who looks for duty to disclose itself will see it in due time.

II. So we have next the explanation of the errand. Luke's 'Behold!'
suggests the sudden sight of the great man's cortege in the distance.
No doubt, he travelled with a train of attendants, as became his
dignity, and would be conspicuous from afar. Philip, of course, did not
know who he was when he caught sight of him, but Luke tells his rank at
once, in order to lay stress on it, as well as to bring out the
significance of his occupation and subsequent conversion. Here was a
full-blooded Gentile, an eunuch, a courtier, who had been drawn to
Israel's God, and was studying Israel's prophets as he rode. Perhaps he
had chosen that road to Egypt for its quietness. At any rate, his
occupation revealed the bent of his mind.

Philip felt that the mystery of his errand was solved now, and he
recognised the impulse to break through conventional barriers and
address the evidently dignified stranger, as the voice of God's Spirit,
and not his own. How he was sure of that we do not know, but the
distinction drawn between the former communication by an angel and this
from the Spirit points to a clear difference in his experiences, and to
careful discrimination in the narrator. The variation is not made at
random. Philip did not mistake a buzzing in his ears from the heating
of his own heart for a divine voice. We have here no hallucinations of
an enthusiast, but plain fact.

How manifestly the meeting of these two, starting so far apart, and so
ignorant of each other and of the purpose of their being thrown
together, reveals the unseen hand that moved each on his own line, and
brought about the intersection of the two at that exact spot and hour!
How came it that at that moment the Ethiopian was reading, of all
places in his roll, the very words which make the kernel of the gospel
of the evangelical prophet? Surely such 'coincidences' are a hard nut
to crack for deniers of a Providence that shapes our ends!

It is further to be noticed that the eunuch's conversion does not
appear to have been of importance for the expansion of the Church. It
exercised no recorded influence, and was apparently not communicated to
the Apostles, as, if it had been, it could scarcely have failed to have
been referred to when the analogous case of Cornelius was under
discussion. So, divine intervention and human journeying and work were
brought into play simply for the sake of one soul which God's eye saw
to be ripe for the Gospel. He cares for the individual, and one sheep
that can be reclaimed is precious enough in the Shepherd's estimate to
move His hand to action and His heart to love. Not because he was a man
of great authority at Candace's court, but because he was yearning for
light, and ready to follow it when it shone, did the eunuch meet Philip
on that quiet road.

III. The two men being thus strangely brought together, we have next
the conversation for the sake of which they were brought together. The
eunuch was reading aloud, as people not very much used to books, or who
have some difficult passage in hand, often do. Philip must have been
struck with astonishment when he caught the, to him, familiar words,
and must have seen at once the open door for his preaching. His abrupt
question wastes no time with apologies or polite, gradual approaches to
his object. Probably the very absence of the signs of deference to
which he was accustomed impressed the eunuch with a dim sense of the
stranger's authority, which would be deepened by the home-thrust of his

The wistful answer not only shows no resentment at the brusque
stranger's thrusting himself in, but acknowledges bewilderment, and
responds to the undertone of proffered guidance in the question. A

Online LibraryAlexander MaclarenExpositions of Holy Scripture: the Acts → online text (page 18 of 57)