So Stephen was dead and, as those who hated the church swept through Jerusalem to arrest and imprison every believer they could find, the rest of us fled for our lives, not sure what to think! Satan, the enemy of God, seemed to be winning, killing Jesus’ followers and making it almost impossible for us to carry on meeting together. As for me, Philip, I escaped Jerusalem just in time and started to go north, to the area called Samaria. The Jews hate the Samaritans because they think that Samaritans aren’t proper Jews but a mixture of Jews and non-Jews and so they avoid Samaria and Samaritans as much as possible. I hoped that would put off those persecuting the church from following me there. Mind you, it’s not really a good place for any Jew to go, because the hatred goes both ways, and the Samaritans hate the Jews just as much, the two groups having as little to do with each other as possible.
As I pondered on all that was happening, I couldn’t help thinking about another time when Jesus’ followers had thought that Satan had won – when Jesus was crucified! Back then, the disciples didn’t understand or believe that, even when Jesus was taken to the cross to be executed, God was still in control. And, because God was still in control, when Jesus died on the cross, far from it being a great victory for Satan, it removed all Satan’s power as Jesus took away our guilt so that Satan couldn’t tell God how terrible we were any more! So, now, when things seemed so bleak with Stephen dead and the rest of us scattered, was God still in control? Of course He was! And yet, what was I supposed to be doing?
As I arrived in Samaria, the words of Jesus that the apostles had told us about came to mind. Jesus had said that we’d be witnesses to Him in Jerusalem, yes! But He’d also said we’d be witnesses to Him in Samaria and I was in Samaria! And, anyway, I just couldn’t keep quiet about all the Lord had done, so, when I entered the city of Samaria, I started telling them about the Messiah, about Jesus. I didn’t know what to expect, but I simply couldn’t keep quiet!
God was with me as the Holy Spirit worked with great power through me, enabling me to do all kinds of miracles. Those possessed by evil spirits were freed and the demons left with a shriek! The sick were healed – both paralysed and lame – and, because of it, the people listened very carefully to everything I had to tell them about Jesus and there was lots of joy in the city. (PAUSE)
One thing I’ve learnt is that, when the Lord’s at work through His people, Satan’s at work as well! (P) In that city there was a man called ‘Simon the Sorcerer’. For many years he’d claimed to be someone of great importance and all the people, from the most ordinary right up to the rulers, often called him ‘the Great One – the Power of God’. The reason they all thought so much of him was because of the magic he performed. But now, many people in that city believed the message I brought them about the Kingdom of God and about Jesus. And because of that many men and women were baptised. Even Simon seemed to believe what I said and was baptised. Yet, rather than getting on and showing he really believed by doing what God wanted, he followed me around everywhere I went, wanting to see the miracles God was doing through me. And, when he saw them, he was amazed! – But more on Simon later.
I don’t know if you remember, but God had shown us that when we believed, He’d send the Holy Spirit to us in a special way. He’d ‘baptise us with the Holy Spirit’, to use Jesus’ words. But a funny thing happened when I was in Samaria. Many people had heard my message about the Kingdom of God and believed what I said and been baptised into the name of Jesus, and yet, the Lord hadn’t baptised them with the Holy Spirit! (P) Anyway, when what was left of the church in Jerusalem heard that the people in Samaria had accepted God’s message, they quickly sent Peter and John to see what was happening. And, it was when Peter and John arrived that I began to see why the Lord had held back the Spirit.
Jews hate Samaritans! Samaritans hate Jews! But the church Jesus has given us must not be split! It would be so easy for the Jerusalem believers and the Samaritan believers to be two separate churches, but what Peter and John and I had seen was that the people in Samaria were saved in exactly the same we’d been saved! By believing the Good News about who Jesus is and what He’s done, by believing that Jesus died not just for the people of Jerusalem, but for everyone else as well! And so, when they saw this, Peter, the leader of the church, and John laid their hands on the believers in Samaria, and they received the Holy Spirit - showing beyond doubt that everyone who believes in Jesus is saved in exactly the same way and that they all belong together as one church!
But, getting back to Simon the Sorcerer, when he saw that the Holy Spirit was given when the apostles, Peter and John, placed their hands on the believers’ heads, he actually offered the apostles money to buy that power for himself! ‘Let me have this power as well,’ he pleaded, ‘so that, when I put my hands on people, they’ll receive the Holy Spirit through me!’
Peter couldn’t believe what he was hearing! Here was someone who said they were a believer and yet what they really wanted was fame for themselves – for people to think more highly of them than anyone else! So Peter replied, ‘May your money perish with you for thinking that you could buy the gift of God! Your heart isn’t right with God, so you can’t have any part to play in this ministry. Turn away from your wickedness and pray to the Lord. Maybe He’ll forgive you for having such evil thoughts in your heart, because I can see that you’re full of bitterness and captive to sin!’
I think that what Peter said to Simon really frightened him but, instead of doing what Peter said and turning away from this evil thought and saying sorry to God and being forgiven, he pleaded with Peter, ‘Please, pray to God for me so that those terrible things won’t happen to me!’ (P)
After spending some time with the new believers in Samaria, telling them about Jesus and preaching in the city about all that Jesus has done, Peter and John returned to Jerusalem, stopping off in many Samaritan villages along the way, to tell them the Good News as well.
They left me in Samaria to carry on the work that the Lord had started through me. However, one day, an angel sent from the Lord came and spoke with me. He said, ‘Go south down to the desert road that runs from Jerusalem and on to Gaza.’ This was outside of Samaritan territory, but I did as the Lord asked. Now, as I was going along the road, I came across a chariot with a really important official from the land of Ethiopia in it. He was the treasurer to Queen Candace, queen of Ethiopia. This man must either have had Jewish parents, or become a Jew when he was older, because he was going back home again, having spent some time worshipping in Jerusalem. But what was very interesting was that, as he sat in his chariot, he was reading out loud from the book of Isaiah.
As he started to pass me by, the Holy Spirit spoke to me, ‘Go over and stay near that chariot.’ So I trotted over to it and kept jogging alongside. And, as I did so, I heard the man reading from Isaiah, so I asked him, ‘Excuse me, do you understand what you’re reading?’
‘How can I,’ the man replied, ‘when there isn’t anyone who can tell me what it means? Why don’t you come up here and explain it to me?’
The passage he’d been reading was this: ‘He was led as a sheep to the slaughter. And as a lamb is silent before the shearers, He did not open His mouth. He was humiliated and received no justice. Who can speak of His descendants? For His life was taken away from the earth.’
After he’d read this out loud, the official turned to me and asked, ‘Tell me, who’s the writer of this passage talking about? Himself or someone else?’ So I started by explaining that very passage and continued to tell him the Good News about Jesus. And, as we talked and travelled along the road, we came to a place where there was some water. ‘Look, there’s some water here,’ the official said to me. ‘Why shouldn’t I be baptised?’ So he ordered the chariot to stop and the two of us got out and went down into the water and I baptised him.
When we came back out of the water, the Holy Spirit suddenly took me away from the Ethiopian official, and we never met again - although I did hear later how the official had gone on his way rejoicing at what the Lord had done for him. (P) As for me, I found myself up north in the city of Azotus. And, starting there, I told people the Good News about Jesus in every city along the way until I came to Caesarea.