The Trinity in Scripture: Acts 8. The Trinity, Simon Magus, and the Apostolic Church

In Acts 8 we have a rather perplexing account of the work of the Trinity in the salvation of Samarians and the salvation, or perdition, of Simon the sorcerer.

As a result of the persecution ignited at Stephen’s martyrdom, the church in Jerusalem was scattered. I know there is a latent tendency in some to always assume the worst, and so I have heard that God used persecution to move these Christians into obeying the Great Commission. I have my doubts as to whether this was really the case. If the believers were that lackadaisical why not just deny Christ, or not confess him openly, and return to synagogue worship? That would have been a lot easier than fleeing home. In any event, God did use the persecution to accomplish the spread of the gospel.

Philip went down from Jerusalem, north to Samaria. His ministry is summarized in Acts 8:5 & 12:

Philip went down to the city of Samaria and proclaimed to them the Christ. . . . 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.

Special attention is given to the magician named Simon. Simon’s prominence in the community is given in 8:9-11: “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. They all paid attention to him, from the least to the greatest, saying, ‘This man is the power of God that is called Great.’ And they paid attention to him because for a long time he had amazed them with his magic.”

Of note is the qualifying statement in verse 9, “previously practiced magic.” What would cause the most popular guy in town to give up the source of his popularity? Apparently Simon was included in the number of those who believed. The evidences of his salvation are pretty compelling. First we have the statement of Scripture itself in 8:13, “Even Simon himself believed, and after being baptized he continued with Philip. And seeing signs and great miracles performed, he was amazed.” As if the statement he believed was not sufficient, Acts 8:9-13 tells us that Simon gave up the sin that characterized his unbelief (8:9); that he was baptized (8:13); and that he continued to receive instruction from Philip (8:13). Any pastor would be happy to receive Simon into church membership.

But something, rather Someone, is missing in the account of the gospel’s spread to Samaria.

Now when the apostles at Jerusalem heard that Samaria had received the word of God, they sent to them Peter and John, who came down and prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit, for he had not yet fallen on any of them, but they had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. Then they laid their hands on them and they received the Holy Spirit.
Acts 8:14-17

In all of the great people movements for salvation seen so far in the book of Acts, the work of the Trinity was explicit. But even after the people of Samaria received the good news of the kingdom of God and salvation in the name of Jesus Christ, they did not have the Holy Spirit. It was not until the apostles Peter and John came and prayed for the Spirit’s coming that He actually did so.

The coming of the Spirit must have been wondrously evident, for Simon, no stranger to the fantastic, was taken aback. “Now when Simon saw that the Spirit was given through the laying on of the apostles’ hands, he offered them money, saying, ‘Give me this power also, so that anyone on whom I lay my hands may receive the Holy Spirit.’” (8:18-19). And suddenly, our certainty about Simon begins to crumble.

But Peter said to him, “May your silver perish with you, because you thought you could obtain the gift of God with money! You have neither part nor lot in this matter, for your heart is not right before God. Repent, therefore, of this wickedness of yours, and pray to the Lord that, if possible, the intent of your heart may be forgiven you. For I see that you are in the gall of bitterness and in the bond of iniquity.” And Simon answered, “Pray for me to the Lord, that nothing of what you have said may come upon me.” Acts 8:20-24

From showing all the signs of a true work of God in the heart, we are suddenly presented with the possibility that not only is Simon not saved, but that salvation might be impossible for him. What else are we to make of Peter’s statement, “pray to the Lord, that if possible…” It appears as if Simon is on the verge of committing the unpardonable sin of blaspheming the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit himself leaves the matter up in air: Scripture never tells us what became of Simon. (Tradition, on the other hand, presents Simon as the arch-heretic. See Justin’s Apology I.26.)

While speculation for either proposition could be made, it is always the best course to pay the closest heed to what Scripture does say and to not be overly concerned with what it does not say. What do we know from this mysterious account in Acts 8?

We are reminded again that salvation is a work of the Trinity. In all the pondering about Simon’s spiritual state after the apostolic visit it is easy to lose sight of the fact that none of the Samaritans were saved before that visit. They responded to God and Christ, but had nothing of the Spirit. Their salvation was incomplete, hence, non-existent. Acts 8 teaches us that no one is saved apart from the Trinity. Does a sinner have to believe in the Trinity, confess allegiance to the Athanasian Creed, to be saved? No, but someone who is saved will soon believe what the Creed teaches because he will have experienced the work of the Trinity in his salvation. Salvation is necessarily Trinitarian.

Secondly, and more controversially, we see that salvation does not occur outside of the apostolic church. Phrases like, “he who does not have the church for his mother has not God for his Father;” and “outside the church there is no salvation” are not found in Scripture. Yet the spirit of those statements is found in texts like Acts 8. Until the apostles Peter and John came, the people in Samaria were not saved members of the church. The church is Christ’s body, and the Spirit of God places believers into Christ’s body. If these people had not received the Spirit, what reason is there to believe they had received the work of the Spirit? If they had not received the work of the Spirit, what reason is there to believe they had received the result of that work? The “believers” in Samaria were not converts until the apostles “laid their hands on them and they received the Holy Spirit.”

This passage does not so much teach apostolic succession as it does apostolic continuation. The household of God is built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets. The foundation, or boundary, is determined. Anything outside of that bound is not God’s house.

I believe in one God, the Father Almighty
And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God
And I believe in the Holy Ghost, the Lord and Giver of Life
And I believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church.

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