Acts 8 introduces us to one of the more colorful and confusing characters in the New Testament: Simon the Magician. We would be better off thinking of him as a sorcerer in our vernacular, his was a dark magic, probably demonic. He performed works of power that amazed people in Samaria. They even attributed divinity to him: “This man is the power of God that is called Great.” People saw his works of magic and were amazed. He made himself to be someone great, performed works of magic (sorcery), and people paid attention to him. They listened carefully to what he had to say.
Simon is a historical figure, as the early church fathers spoke of “Simon Magus.” In their writings, Simon Magus was responsible for many heresies in the early church, and some view him as the father of Gnosticism. He is not presented in this light in the book of Acts, and it’s better to avoid reading these reports back into Luke’s account in Acts 8.
Simon the Magician serves as a contrast to Philip. Simon was well-known throughout Samaria; Philip was unknown. Simon was a powerful man; Philip was fleeing persecution. The greatest contrast, however, was that Simon made himself great so that people were amazed. Philip preached Christ, making Him great, and people were filled with joy. In this passage, joy is a more desirable response than mere amazement.
As Philip preached Christ, men and women throughout the city believed and were baptized. Even Simon! Yes, “The Great, Powerful, and Amazing Simon the Sorcerer” entered the water and was baptized with the Samaritan believers. But was this a true conversion?
We are immediately suspect of the legitimacy of his conversion experience in the following verses. He “continued with Philip” (not a phrase used of discipleship, more like a groupie or fan) and was amazed by his miracles. It sounds like Simon has not experienced much change — he is still enamored by works of power, presumably for making himself great.
As the passage continues, Peter and John make their way from Jerusalem to pray that the Samaritans will receive the Holy Spirit, and as they laid hands on them, the Spirit came upon them with observable manifestations. Simon the Magician again reveals his nature as he tries to purchase the power to dispense the Holy Spirit. Incidentally, the corruption of buying position and authority within the church is known as “simony” — not the best legacy!
Peter gives him a strong rebuke, rendered “To hell with you and your money” by the Philips Translation. He also offers him grace, by inviting him to repent.
But then the story abruptly stops. What happened with Simon? Did he repent? Was he restored? Was his a true conversion? What he just a new believer learning to overcome his past sin? We don’t know from the context of Acts 8. And ultimately, it is not the point of the passage. Simon is not just a literal man, he also serves a literary purpose in Acts 8. There were many people in Samaria. Many stories that could be told. But Luke singles out Simon, and tells his story. He is a literal person in history, but he serves a literary purpose in Luke’s account. I see at least two purposes Simon serves:
Literary Purpose 1: Uniting the Jews and Samaritans Required the Power of God
The main point of this passage is the gospel coming to Samaria. This is the beginning of the Church reaching outside Jerusalem to fulfill the commission of Jesus in Acts 1:8. But it is no easy task to unite Jews and Samaritans. Their animosity spanned centuries of history. This was racial, political, and religious division at its worst. Only the power of God, working through the message of the gospel, could bring them together.
To demonstrate the power of God, Luke includes the story of “The Great, Powerful, and Amazing Simon the Sorcerer.” He was well-known as a powerful man in Samaria. He was “The power of God that is called great.” He made himself great by his magic and all were amazed. They paid attention to this powerful man. But he was no match for the power of God.
Philip’s proclamation of the gospel was confirmed by the miraculous works of God through him. And instead of paying attention to Simon, the people paid attention to Philip. Simon himself was amazed. Simon even believed and was baptized. The great and powerful Simon bowed before the power of God working through the message of the gospel.
Only a God this powerful could accomplish the unthinkable: Jews and Samaritans were filled with joy together, recognizing one God, one Lord, one Spirit, one baptism, and one Church.
Literary Purpose 2: To God Be the Glory
When Simon tried to purchase the authority to give the Holy Spirit to others, his wrongly thought the power resided in the apostles. Instead of recognizing this as a work of God, he saw it as a miraculous ability of Peter and John….and one by which he could make a sizable profit! The selfish nature of his heart was laid bare, and the rebuke from Peter was clear and pointed.
The timing used by Luke is telling. The Holy Spirit has come to the Samaritans. The Jews and Samaritans are filled with joy together at this outpouring from God. And abruptly, we read of Simon’s offer. Against the backdrop of what God just accomplished, his request is offensive and out of place. But it serves a purpose. It’s a reminder that all the glory belongs to God, not to people. How ridiculous to think that Peter and John had authority over the Holy Spirit, that they could command him to come wherever they laid hands on people! To drive this point home, Luke used the request of Simon. His foolish request to purchase this ability highlights that this power belongs only to God. He deserves the glory, not Peter, John, Philip…and certainly not Simon.
And so Simon, who lived to make himself great and amaze people, is used in the book of Acts to highlight the power of God and remind us to give him the glory. God alone could unite Jews and Samaritans through the gospel. This is the theme of Acts 8. It is not a passage about Simon’s conversion, it is about the power and glory of God!