The Gospel of the Kingdom Marches On
Topic: Missions & Evangelism Passage: Acts 8:1–8:25
We’re picking up right on the heels of Stephen’s martyrdom. Let’s read together and then pray. Verse 1…
1 And Saul approved of [Stephen’s] 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 18 Now when Simon saw that the Spirit was given through the laying on of the apostles’ hands, he offered them money, 19 saying, “Give me this power also, so that anyone on whom I lay my hands may receive the Holy Spirit.” 20 But Peter said to him, “May your silver perish with you, because you thought you could obtain the gift of God with money! 21 You have neither part nor lot in this matter, for your heart is not right before God. 22 Repent, therefore, of this wickedness of yours, and pray to the Lord that, if possible, the intent of your heart may be forgiven you. 23 For I see that you are in the gall of bitterness and in the bond of iniquity.” 24 And Simon answered, “Pray for me to the Lord, that nothing of what you have said may come upon me.” 25 Now when they had testified and spoken the word of the Lord, they returned to Jerusalem, preaching the gospel to many villages of the Samaritans.
To this point in Acts, Jesus is reigning in heaven, victorious over sin, death, and the devil. He sent the Spirit to empower his people for mission. The gospel of the kingdom is spreading outward from Jerusalem. But as it does, as it enters new territories and encounters new cultures, it hits several obstacles. We wonder, “Will those obstacles stop the mission of the risen Christ. We encounter four obstacles today, and they have everything to do with obstacles you experience in life.
How many of you read stories about the persecuted church and wonder whether the persecutors will win? Or, you read stories of influential people passing policies that don’t tolerate Christian witness, and you fear for the church’s survival?
How many of you are tempted by the evil one and the powers of darkness? If you’re not a Christian, the Bible says you follow the devil around like a slave to a master (Eph 2:2). If you are a Christian, the Bible says the devil has been cast out of heaven and he makes war against the saints on earth (Rev 12:17). The devil works through deception (John 8:44), sexual temptation (1 Cor 7:5), physical ailment (2 Cor 12:7), relational struggles (Eph 4:25-26), desires for praise (1 Tim 3:6), selfish ambition (Jas 3:14-15). I don’t have to list any more to help you taste the battle.
How many of you have been affected by ethnic pride and prejudice? For the last couple of years, events and stories have peppered the media provoking all kinds of discussions on racism, both individual and corporate. In some cases, Christians have taken constructive steps forward in addressing these issues with the gospel. John Piper’s Bloodlines is a very good example. In other cases, though, the ignorant responses of some Christians can leave one wondering, “Will the injustice prevail if even Christians lack insight to these matters, if even Christians remain divided?”
Or, how many of you have grown rather frustrated with false teachers and pretenders in the church? You wonder, “Will their deception eventually mean the downfall of Christ’s kingdom?” Persecution, powers, prejudice, pretenders—these are real obstacles we face. But there’s good news in today’s passage. In the end, all these obstacles prove to have no power over the crucified and risen Jesus Christ. Obstacles will rise, but the gospel of his kingdom will march on. Jesus and his word are unstoppable. That’s the message of this passage.
Obstacle 1: Religious Persecution
So let’s look at some of these obstacles. The first obstacle we see is that of religious persecution. Stephen was just martyred (Acts 7:54-60). Then it says, “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” (Acts 8:1). Verse 3 says that “Saul was ravaging the church, and entering house after house, he dragged off men and women and committed them to prison.” Saul is ripping families apart, Christian men away from their wives, Christian women away from their children. Will the fire of these early witnesses be snuffed out by persecutors?
No. Look at verse 4: “Now those who were scattered went about preaching the word.” This is not an accident. In 1:8 Jesus said, “You’ll be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria.” Where did the persecution scatter them according to 8:1? Throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria. God is sovereign over persecution and its results. Persecution didn’t stop the gospel’s advance. It relocated some Christians right where Jesus wanted them, in Judea and Samaria preaching the word.
Persecution moves Christians around, but it can’t keep them quiet about Jesus. Those who were scattered went about preaching the word. “Preaching” may be an unfortunate translation in our culture, because we normally think of preaching as something a pastor does behind a pulpit. But in this case, the idea is that they simply shared Christ with others. Not just the leaders shared, but all the scattered Christians shared the word with the people they met.
Listen, unplanned circumstances will move us around sometimes. But we must stay alert to the opportunities God gives us to share Christ wherever we go. It’s simply part of who we are. Wherever we happen to find ourselves placed, we share. We’ll return to that at the end. For now, take in the fact that the obstacle of persecution didn’t stop the gospel; it actually served to spread the gospel.
Obstacle 2: Demonic Powers
Another obstacle the church encountered was demonic powers. One example of demonic powers comes in verse 7: “For unclean spirits, crying out with a loud voice, came out of many who had them…” Many were oppressed by demons in Samaria.
Another example of demonic powers comes in verse 9 with Simon the magician. It says that he “previously practiced magic in the city and amazed the people of Samaria, saying that he himself was somebody great.” When you think of magic, don’t think of some clown at a kid’s birthday party. We’re talking about a guy who manipulated the supernatural to get results. He performed miracles. He amazed the people: “This man is the power of God that is called Great” (Acts 8:10).
In 13:10 we’ll run into another magician, Elymas; and Luke makes his connection to the demonic explicit. He calls him a “son of the devil” and an “enemy of all righteousness.” Simon works for the same dark lord. His whole life revolves around manipulating powers to gain attention for himself. He wants their worship. That’s demonic. He put them in long-standing bondage to false worship. Verse 11 says, “They had paid attention to [Simon] because for a long time he had amazed them…”
So we have the obstacle of demonic powers: unclean spirits, a celebrity magician they worship. We don’t think much about the demonic in Western culture. We have the tendency to interpret the world merely by what we can see. But we need to know that demonic influence wasn’t just their “uneducated way” of explaining problems. When the Bible speaks about the demonic, it’s portraying the way things really are. The Bible reveals reality beyond the visible world to the invisible world.
And demonic influence is real. First John 5:19 says that “the whole [rebellious] world lies in the power of the evil one.” In other places the Bible links the sin of idolatry with the worship of demons. Revelation portrays the great Dragon controlling kings and kingdoms who do his bidding. He has a kingdom of darkness that deceives people and oppresses people and systematically sets people against Christ.
When we’re talking about the church encountering demonic powers, we’re talking about the collision of two kingdoms—the kingdom of Christ with the kingdom of darkness. But what do we see happening in the Gospels when Jesus comes? They’re certainly not equal kingdoms. We see the kingdom of darkness bow before Jesus’ authority.
Jesus doesn’t give in to the devil’s temptations, proving that he is stronger than the strong man. He casts out demons and unclean spirits with a word. They bow before him. They know he has the power to destroy them. He grants 72 disciples authority over all the power of the enemy (Luke 10:18). He explains that when he’s lifted up on the cross, he will cast out the ruler of this world (John 12:31). First John 3:8 says that “the reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil.”
Through his life, death, and resurrection, Jesus overthrows the devil’s place of authority in people’s lives, so that now when the gospel spreads his chosen ones believe in him (2 Cor 4:4-6). That’s happening in Philip’s ministry. These demonic powers can’t withstand Philip’s word. He casts out the unclean spirits; and as they’re freed from their oppression, verse 8 says that great joy fills that city. Freedom in Christ from oppression leads to joy. That’s why we sing!
Notice also that the people stop listening to Simon and they start listening to Philip’s message about Jesus’ kingdom, and in verse 12 a number of them even get baptized. They identify themselves with Jesus instead of Simon. The gospel rescues them from their long-standing bondage. In other words, these demonic powers cannot withstand the ministry of the risen Jesus through the church. These demonic powers will try to keep people deceived, but the gospel of Christ sets people free.
That’s why we must preach the gospel—the gospel transfers people from the domain of darkness into the kingdom of God’s beloved Son.
Obstacle 3: Ethnic Pride/Prejudice
A third obstacle the church faces: ethnic pride and prejudice. We need to remember the relational tension between Jews and Samaritans. We could recall Jesus’ conversation with the Samaritan woman in John 4. Bold move by Jesus, since, as John tells the story, Jews had no dealings with Samaritans (John 4:9). In Luke 9, Jesus sends some messengers ahead to make preparations for him. They enter a village of the Samaritans, but the people don’t receive Jesus. So James and John notice this and say, “Lord, do you want us to tell fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” Not the best of friends—“Tell us how you really feel, James!”
This ethnic tension largely has to do with the monarchy ripping apart a thousand years earlier, and later the Assyrians intermarrying with those in Samaria, spreading their foreign culture and religion. To a Jew, a Samaritan was a political rebel, a racial half-breed, and a religious phony. The closest illustration from our own country’s history is that of public water fountains labeled “Whites” and “Colored” under the Jim Crow laws. Cruel, ugly hatred. That’s the ethnic pride and prejudice.
And yet Philip goes down to Samaria and shares Christ without discrimination. They believe, get baptized. And then something very odd happens: the Holy Spirit doesn’t fall on them. Peter promised in 2:38 that when somebody repents and gets baptized, God gives them the Spirit. But here there’s a delay.
Verses 14, “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.”
Why the delay until after the apostles come? It wasn’t because it’s necessary to have an apostle present—later on Ananias prays for the Holy Spirit to come upon Paul, and Ananias is no apostle (Acts 9:17). It’s also not because they needed a second blessing of the Holy Spirit—Luke very clearly states that the Holy Spirit had not yet fallen on any of them (Acts 8:16). The closest parallel to this is the initial group of 120 disciples before Pentecost. They had believed, but they were waiting for the Spirit to come. Luke’s point isn’t to argue for a subsequent spirit-baptism.
The best explanation is that God intentionally withheld the Spirit until the apostles came, in order to show the incorporation of the Samaritans into the Jerusalem church.[i] As Acts continues, this fits a much larger pattern where Luke is showing the spread of the gospel and the gift of the Spirit to new groups of people until no new groups exist. Jerusalem at Pentecost in chapter two, then to Samaria here, and next will be to the Gentiles in Acts 10-11.
The point is to show the Samaritans and the Jews that they’re united to the same Savior and brought into the same church by the one Spirit. The gospel that saves Jews in Jerusalem is the same gospel that saves Samaritans outside Jerusalem. It’s another way of saying, “Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all”—Colossians 3:11.
Governments and secular organizations will attempt to make laws and regulations to break down ethnic barriers. The world will create social groups and liberation movements to reform society. But the truth is that no person, group, agency, or movement that lacks the gospel of Jesus Christ can overcome ethnic pride and prejudice in the heart. The only power that overcomes ethnic pride and prejudice is the power of the gospel to all who believe. It is only the message of Christ crucified and risen that shatters ethnic pride and unites people in one body.
What’s the greatest thing you can do to address our society’s questions and confusion and division and anger over ethnic pride? The greatest thing you can do is share the gospel, starting with yourself, then your family, your church, and your neighbors. Ethnic pride and prejudice are great obstacles to overcome. But they’re no match for the gospel of Jesus Christ and the work of his Spirit.
Obstacle 4: Manipulative Pretenders
One more obstacle the church faces here: manipulative pretenders. I’m talking about Simon. In terms of outward appearance, Simon believes and he’s even baptized (Acts 8:13). He joins up with Philip. But we’re already given some clues as to the nature of his faith. Luke notes in verse 13 that Simon is quite infatuated with the miracles Philip performs. We’ve seen this kind of spurious faith before in John’s Gospel. It gives us some pause. It makes us wonder whether Simon has mistaken Christianity for some new and better kind of magic.
Now Luke himself is very careful to distinguish the miracles of Philip from the miracles of Simon, so that none of his readers mistake Christianity for magic. They differ in power. The power is not in the magician (Acts 8:10). Rather, Philip performs his miracles by God’s power in the name of Jesus Christ.[ii] They differ in content: Simon preached a message about how great he was (Acts 8:9), but Philip preaches the message about how great Jesus is (Acts 8:5, 12). They also differ in morality: Simon performed miracles to bring himself glory (Acts 8:9)—Philip calls it wickedness in verse 22—but Philip performs miracles to draw attention to Christ and bring healing to others.
Finally, their miracles also differ in belief, what the two of them are trusting in. Philip trusts in Christ alone, quite apart from anything he can do to earn God’s favor. Simon, however, proves that his belief is actually defective; it’s not genuine at all. Outwardly he went through the motions. But he proves to be a pretender. After all, what he was really trusting in was another divine power he could manipulate.
What happens in verse 18? “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.’” He totally misses the gospel. The true gospel teaches that we can do nothing to merit God’s grace. And yet here, Simon tries to buy the Spirit. God gives the Spirit as a free gift to his people, and yet Simon tries to turn the Spirit into a prostitute for selfish gain. Simon warps the gospel into a false gospel.
Peter then rebukes him with the severest language. Verse 20, “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.” He exposes Simon as a pretender.
The idea is that if he thinks God is just another power to be bribed, then Simon can go to hell with his money. He has “neither part nor lot in this matter.” In other words, “Simon, you have no share in the true gospel and the kingdom of God, thinking this way.” His heart is not right before God. His bondage to his old ways remains. Simon must repent. Simon must trust in Jesus as he truly is, and not as Simon thinks Jesus is.
So Simon responds, “Pray for me to the Lord, that nothing of what you have said may come upon me.” It’s still difficult to tell his true spiritual state in verse 24. Is this genuine repentance? Or just fear and worldly sorrow? We’re left hanging. The text doesn’t tell us whether Simon continued with the church or not.
The point, though, is clear enough: the true gospel exposes pretenders, and Christ’s kingdom does not welcome false gospels. The church should not be a place where pretenders feel comfortable, but where pretenders are exposed and called to repentance. It’s not loving to let people keep believing that they can manipulate God with anything they do or have. It’s not loving to let people keep believing false things about Jesus, which will lead them to perish.
Rather, we must tell pretenders to bow their knee to the truth of Jesus Christ. Pretenders may come, but they too are no match for the gospel of Jesus. The gospel exposes pretenders for what they are and reveals the true God in Christ.
Persecution, powers, prejudice, pretenders—all real obstacles, but none of them possess the power to stop the risen Christ. The gospel of his kingdom will march on. What does that mean for us? Four brief exhortations…
Share the gospel with people
First, share the gospel with people. Wherever God has you, share the gospel. Share it with your friends, with your spouse, with your kids, with your neighbors, your coworkers, acquaintances. Don’t fear the various obstacles that will come. Jesus is unstoppable. Will it go smoothly every time you share Christ? No. These rebel powers don’t give in easily. But these rebel powers aren’t ultimate. Jesus has proven his superior power over them in his life, death, and resurrection. He continues to reveal his superior power as the gospel rescues people from darkness.
What is the gospel word that we should share? It summarizes it in verse 4 as simply “the word”: “those who were scattered went about preaching the word.” But as you read, “the word” becomes more specific. It’s called “the word of God” in verse 14; “the word of the Lord” in verse 25. It’s not a message that originates with man; we share the message that originates with God. He stands behind it. God’s message is about God’s kingdom. Verse 12 says that Philip “preached good news about the kingdom of God.” God’s kingdom is breaking into the present order to replace all rebel kingdoms with his own glorious kingdom.
Jesus Christ is the central figure in that kingdom. Verse 5 says that Philip “proclaimed to them the Christ”[iii] Herein lies the heartbeat of the gospel. The gospel is about what God accomplished in Christ to reconcile sinners to himself. It’s about God the Son becoming a man to identify with us. It’s about his perfect obedience everywhere we failed. It’s about his substitutionary death to take away our punishment. It’s about his resurrection and ascension back to the Father, his present heavenly reign, and his final return to consummate God’s kingdom on earth. This is the message we share. This is the message that overcomes demonic powers and ethnic pride.
Expose false gospels
Second, as you share the true gospel, expose false gospels. Simon believed that he could win God’s favor with money. For the sake of his own soul and the church, Philip exposes him. What false gospels does our age preach? “God is loving and we’re all okay;” “Just trust your heart;” “God only helps those who help themselves;” “Just try harder and God will accept you;” “Believe in Jesus and you will be healthy and wealthy;” “You just need to get your act together;” “Jesus is the best way, but not the only way;” “Sin all the more so that grace may abound;” “Sin doesn’t matter, I’m still going to heaven”—these are false gospels; and there are hundreds more.
They’re detrimental to faith, they do not reveal Jesus in truth, and they’re leading people to hell. Let us be careful not to believe them. And let us be careful to point others away from them, and call them to repentance.
Pray for the Spirit’s power
Third, pray for the Spirit’s power. Philip did none of this in his own strength. We must remember from 6:3 that Philip was a man “full of the Holy Spirit.” We must remember from Matthew 12:28 that demons only come out of people “by the Spirit of God.” We must remember that the uniting of these Jews and Samaritans into Christ’s body, the church, comes by receiving the Spirit. Let’s not leave here with triumphalist mentalities in an attempt to tear down demonic powers and ethnic pride in our own strength. We cannot do it. We must pray for the Spirit to fill us, or our labors will be in vain. Only God the Spirit can accomplish these things; pray for him to empower you, for him to set captives free, and for him to root out ethnic pride.
Don’t lose hope; God’s kingdom will prevail
Lastly, don’t lose hope. Don’t lose hope when you face obstacles like these. God’s kingdom will prevail. God’s word will never cease to advance, until people from all nations believe. Yes, some of these obstacles will affect us very deeply. We may lose loved ones to persecution. The devil may pluck away the seed of the gospel at times. Our own pride will hurt others, or their pride will hurt us. Pretenders will do great damage to churches. We still live on this side of the final kingdom.
But the decisive victory has been one. And Acts is giving us glimmers of how the risen Christ is spreading his kingdom on earth. The powers at be cannot win. Compared to Jesus, they are lesser powers and fleeting powers. Soon Christ will return to replace all rebel kingdoms with his own, and multitudes will sing, “Hallelujah! Salvation and glory and power belong to our God” (Rev 19:1). Until then, let’s gather some more worshipers to join us in that song by sharing Christ in the power of the Spirit.
[i]For further discussion, see Carson, Showing the Spirit, 143-46; Peterson, Acts, 286-87; Schnabel, Acts, 410-411.
[ii]Philip’s miracles come within the framework of the “name of Jesus Christ” (Acts 8:12), as prior miracles did (Acts 3:6; 4:10), and as a “gift of God” (Acts 8:20).
[iii]Cf. also Acts 8:11, “and the name of Jesus Christ.”