The word “persecute” means to pursue, harass, trouble, or molest. In the New Testament record, Christians suffered unjustly for the cause of Christ (1 Pet. 4:16). Some still do. The church was put to flight by the severe wave of persecution which broke out after the martyrdom of Stephen. Saul ravaged the church, going from house to house. Long after his conversion, he would still lament his part in the effort (1 Tim. 1:12-14). Jewish authorities and their enforcers intended to forever extinguish the gospel. They would only succeed in fanning the flame. As disciples of Jesus left Jerusalem, they spoke of the Savior everywhere they went. The Great Commission was now truly underway (Matt. 28:18-20; Acts 1:8). Philip took the message of Christ and the powerful demonstration of the Spirit into Samaria.
In Samaria, the gospel confronts sorcery or magic. Such encounters will continue through the book of Acts. The exact nature of Simon’s bewildering work is not known, but people mistakenly concluded he was God, or a god. Sleight of hand and human trickery would be no match for the gospel of Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit.
Simon himself quickly surrendered to the truth and power of the gospel (Rom. 1:16-17). He obeyed the gospel in just the way others did. Although he would soon afterward display his weakness, there is no indication his conversion was not genuine. To defend the “once saved always saved” point of view, it is too easy to say that a fallen person was never truly saved. We will see that Peter’s answer to Simon’s quick fall is not to be baptized again, but to turn to God in repentance and prayer.
The gift of the Holy Spirit was promised at baptism, along with forgiveness of sins, (Acts 2:38). When the apostles sent Peter and John to impart the Spirit to converted Samaritans, something other than the indwelling promised at baptism is under consideration. Up to chapter 6, only apostles had performed miracles. They had received such ability through baptism in the Holy Spirit. However, when the apostles laid hands on the seven men chosen to assist the widows, those men also began performing miraculous signs (Acts 6:8, 8:6). Although Philip himself could perform miracles, he could not pass that ability to others. The apostles laid their hands on some in Samaria, and they received ability such as Philip and Stephen had. Simon correctly concluded that miraculous gifts of the Spirit were given only by laying on of apostles’ hands (Acts 8:18).
Simon did not ask the apostles for only a gift such as others had. Rather, he dared trying to purchase the ability to impart the Spirit to others as the apostles did. In this, Simon reveals his great weakness. He wished to determine who else might receive the “magical” spiritual gifts, and perhaps to profit. The rebuke by Peter is withering. Simon had received forgiveness and he was a saved man, but he had to overcome his fascination with the spectacular. His desire to be greater than others captivated him still. The way of forgiveness for a fallen child of God is revealed—repentance and prayer (Acts 8:22-24; James 5:16). We all bring baggage with us at conversion, but we must overcome our weaknesses instead of being overcome by them.
The conversion of the Ethiopian treasurer leads to the gospel reaching Africa. The truth marches on. The Lord continues to use Philip as a mighty evangelist. Philip is guided by both an angel and the Spirit to his meeting with the treasurer. It is important to note that neither the angel nor the Spirit present the gospel to the sinner. Instead, another human is used (2 Cor. 4:7). It seems the Lord was taking care, lest people become wrapped up in the one who brought them the gospel.
The Ethiopian treasurer is a man truly ready to receive the gospel. As an adherent to the Jewish religion, he had journeyed all the way to Jerusalem to worship. He had great interest in the Scriptures, reading Isaiah as he traveled in his chariot. In those days people typically read aloud. When Philip asked if he understood the Scripture he was reading, the treasurer humbly expressed his need for help. All of us have needed help along the way to grasp the message. The Bible can be understood without direct guidance by the Spirit, but those with prior understanding and knowledge must be ready to assist others (1 Pet. 3:15). The passage being read was Isaiah 53, the great Messianic chapter about the suffering of the Messiah/Christ. “Then Philip began with that very passage of Scripture and told him the good news about Jesus” (Acts 8:35). Would we not love to know all Philip said on that occasion? We do conclude that preaching Jesus includes the process of obedience to the gospel. Having heard, the treasurer asks, “Look, here is water. Why shouldn’t I be baptized?” (Acts 8:36).
Verse 37 helps lead into the baptism, but it is not found in any New Testament manuscript until several hundred years after Christ. Bibles that do not contain the verse are not removing something from the Scriptures. Translators have weighed the textual evidence and concluded that the verse was added by an editor many years after Luke wrote Acts. Surely this was done with good intention, but we must not add to the Scriptures. We are responsible for correct handling of the Bible, both in translation and teaching (2 Tim. 2:15).
Luke records an effective word picture of the treasurer’s baptism. It is an inspired snapshot of immersion in water, obedience to Christ (Mark 16:15-16). It is not water that saves, but we are washed by the blood of Jesus in the act of baptism. In this act of obedience, we receive the benefits of the death of Jesus (Rom. 6:1-4). Jesus died to make forgiveness possible (Matt. 26:28). We are baptized to appropriate that forgiveness (Acts 2:38; 1 Pet. 3:21). Our faith in Christ and baptism into Christ accomplish the new birth, making us children of God (Gal. 3:26-29). Have you been baptized into Christ, dear reader? If not, we would love to assist you.
My comments are not an inspired commentary, but rather a few words to draw attention to the background, context, and dynamic situation of the book of Acts. May God bless your reading of His Word. T.C.