Acts 8:9-25 (AD 31)
This looked like it was shaping up to be a great conversion story.
Then it wasn’t.
And we don’t even know how it ended.
By avoiding a neat narrative, God emphasised that the lessons are elsewhere. For example:
- No-one is so far gone that God can’t reach them (v.13)
- People who come to Jesus aren’t ticks in a box, they’re new disciples in need of careful discipling (v.18-19)
- Saying you’re a Christian doesn’t make you a Christian (v.18-19)
- It is possible to say that you’re Christian, persuade someone to baptise you, and yet still be ‘full of bitterness and captive to sin’ (v.23).
- God will forgive anything, and everything…if we repent (v.22)
And lesson number six, which I want us to focus on:
Whatever attracts people to God is, to some degree, what they will be looking for in order to stay.
The miracles attracted Simon. He found himself outdone in his trickery by the genuine miracles of Philip. So there might have been something about the gospel that he found attractive, but ultimately “he followed Philip everywhere, astonished by the great signs and miracles he saw” (v.13).
There’s nothing wrong, in itself, in putting on attractive events to encourage people to attend. However, that’s not what the apostles were doing – the miracles were designed to prove that their message was divine, and not their own. Similarly, John tells us in chapter 20 verses 30-31 of his gospel that Jesus performed miracles to prove his identity.
Simon exposed his real desires when he tried to buy the presence of his Holy Spirit. Ignorance wasn’t a problem, but it became apparent that his conversion, such as it was, had more to do with furthering his career than becoming reconciled with God.
When we preach, teach, or mostly just chat with people one-on-one, what do we tell them is the reason they should become a Christian? However you answer that question will be the thing they expect to find within Christianity. There’s a temptation to make that less than the gospel. For example, being a Christian often – and should – result in being part of a close-knit community. But if that’s their reason for coming to church then as soon as the sense of community dissipates, or they’re in a church that’s struggling, they’ll likely up and leave, looking for a more welcoming club.
So by all means tell people of the sense of community, the sense of belonging, the reason for being, the idea of being part of something bigger than yourself, the lack of being judged, the relaxed atmosphere, the knowledge that you’re never alone. But remember that all those things come out of the gospel – they are not the gospel itself. People who become Christians are those who repent, and to repent they need to be given a reason. And that’s the tricky part, the truth that – when we share it – can make people not like us.
When someone comes to Christ wanting forgiveness and reconciliation with God, they can never be disappointed because forgiveness is final and God never leaves. So let’s focus our witnessing on offering the person of Jesus, and his ministry of reconciliation and forgiveness.
Footnote regarding v.15-16, quoting from the NIV Study Bible (2015):
“The delay of the Holy Spirit is surprising considering that the more common pattern in Actts is an immediate receiving of the Spirit upon belief (2:38; 10:44; Luke himself treats it as unusual here). While some claim that the Samaritans’ faith was inadequate or that they had received the Spirit, a better explanation is that God delayed giving the Spirit for the sake of Christian unity: 1.) to confirm to the Samaritans that they were one with the Jerusalem church, and 2.) to confirm to the Jerusalem church that the Samaritans were indeed saved. The period of Acts is a time of transition, and the book’s purpose is to show the gospel’s relentless advance, not to establish normative patterns for church life and polity.”