Simon Magus tries to buy the Holy Spirit
This is the twenty-fourth entry in the Bible Junkies Online Commentary on the Acts of the Apostles. This entry deals with the apostles Peter and John taking up Philip’s mission to Samaria and Simon the magician offering money for the Holy Spirit.
For previous entries, please now go to the Complete Acts of the Apostle Commentary, where you can find links to each of the entries updated after each new blog post.
D) Persecutions of the “Hellenist” Jewish Christians and the First Mission outside of Jerusalem (6:1-8:40): Mission to Samaria and Simon the Magician (8:14-25):
14 Now when the apostles at Jerusalem heard that Samaria had accepted the word of God, they sent Peter and John to them. 15 The two went down and prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit 16 (for as yet the Spirit had not come upon any of them; they had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus). 17 Then Peter and John 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 also this power 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 God's gift with money! 21 You have no part or share in this, 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 the chains of wickedness." 24 Simon answered, "Pray for me to the Lord, that nothing of what you have said may happen to me." 25 Now after Peter and John had testified and spoken the word of the Lord, they returned to Jerusalem, proclaiming the good news to many villages of the Samaritans. (NRSV)
The narrative of the apostles Peter and John traveling to Samaria in response to an oral report is intriguing at a number of levels. One level is textual, since the report intrudes on what would otherwise be a constant narrative of Philip the evangelist in chapter eight. The second is the seeming need, at least on Luke’s part, to have the apostles come in to authorize what would seem to be a successful mission by Philip. The third is the turn from Simon Magus as someone who accepts the Gospel openly with Philip to someone who wants to buy the power of the Holy Spirit.
The apostles come in where Philip has already trod, but as is sometimes the case in Acts, baptism does not always imply the giving of the Holy Spirit, just as sometimes in Acts, as we will see with Paul in chapter nine and Cornelius and his family in chapter ten, the giving of the Holy Spirit sometimes precedes baptism. As Holladay says Acts 2:38 seems to indicate that baptism and the Holy Spirit go together, but it is not always the case in practice (Holladay, “Acts,” 997). In the case of Samaria, Peter and John attend it is implied because although the Samaritans “had accepted the word of God” (Acts 8:14), they did not receive the Holy Spirit. Pervo calls this a “shock” and wonders if this indicates that Philip’s baptisms were “defective” (Pervo, Acts, 213). Are we intended to see this as due to a fault or lack in Philip, however, which resulted in “defective” baptisms which only apostles can rectify?
The text here does not say that directly, but it might be assumed since the two apostles “prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit (for as yet the Spirit had not come upon any of them; they had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus) (Acts 8:15-16). Joseph Fitzmyer notes that this detail of the text is “strange,” and Richard Dillon calls it an “anomaly” (Dillon, “Acts,” in NJBC, 743), but it connects to Luke’s view of the institutional church and the need for the authority of the apostles to be present to confer the authority (Fitzmyer, Acts, 400-01). Carl Holladay describes the scene as “apostolic authentication,” while Johnson refers to it as “continuity of this new venture with the Church in Jerusalem” (Holladay, “Acts,” 997; Johnson, Acts, 151). I would not say that the baptisms were, therefore, “defective,” but that Luke finds it essential to interject apostolic authority into the whole mission to verify its authenticity.
On the other hand, as we will see in the completion of Acts 8, the Spirit certainly seems active in Philip’s life and that of the Ethiopian eunuch at his baptism. Nevertheless, it was only when “Peter and John laid their hands on them” that “they received the Holy Spirit” (Acts 8:17).
It is at this point, in the context of the activity of the Holy Spirit “given through the laying on of the apostles' hands” (Acts 8:18) – which activity we should probably understand as mimicking that of the ecstatic behavior in Acts 2 – that Simon makes his request of the apostles for the Holy Spirit by offering them money (Acts 8:18). Simon asks them to “Give me also this power (exousian) so that anyone on whom I lay my hands may receive the Holy Spirit” (Acts 8:19). The fact that Simon, when he was baptized, did not try to buy miraculous power from Philip, who did show evidence of it in Acts 8:13, indicates either that he saw more amazing things from the apostles or sees them as the authority figures from whom he can obtain this authority, which is the best translation of exousia (cf. Pervo, Acts, 214).
The fatal error here is Simon thinking that such authority or power can be bought and are not freely given. Fitzmyer believes that Simon’s misguided intentions might be based on the practice of buying priesthoods in the pagan world, which often went to the highest bidder (Fitzmyer, Acts, 401). Pervo likens it to Luke 4:16 and Satan’s offer to Jesus, though, and think that Luke intends to indicate that Simon “remains, at heart, a magician” (Pervo, Acts, 214). Holladay also points out, however, that Simon might be misconstruing “the true nature of the Spirit” by thinking that someone outside of the apostolic circle should have access to it (Holladay, “Acts,” 998), but that does not seem to be the major issue, since the apostles can indeed confer the Spirit on others. Money is the issue here. Indeed, the term “simony,” the act of attempting to buy a church office, emerges based on this act (Gilbert, “Acts” in JANT, 215-16).
Peter’s response to Simon’s offer makes clear the errors in Simon’s thought and his intentions. Pervo calls Peter’s response “quite vigorous and somewhat eloquent” (Pervo, Acts, 214). Holladay makes the intriguing suggestion that Peter’s rebuke “takes the form of a curse, ironically almost magical in form if not in effect” (Holladay, “Acts,” 998). Peter’s rebuke is certainly direct when he responds to Simon’s misguided request:
“May your silver perish with you, because you thought you could obtain God's gift with money! You have no part or share in this, 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 the chains of wickedness.” (Acts 8:20-23)
Peter indicates in his response that Simon’s “intent” of his heart is misguided because he is in “the gall of bitterness and the chains of wickedness.”
Peter directs him to repent, unlike Ananias and Sapphira, who also go astray because of money (Pervo, Acts, 215). And it does seem that Simon takes advantage of his opportunity and repents, for he asks Peter, “Pray for me to the Lord, that nothing of what you have said may happen to me” (Acts 8:24). Fitzmyer says in fact that Simon “learns his lesson” and “the episode ends with his repentance” (Fitzmyer, Acts, 401). Holladay is less certain of Simon’s repentance and Pervo says, echoing Holladay’s claim that Peter’s rebuke has the character of a curse, that “since few, least of all magicians familiar with such actions, wish to experience the effects of a curse, his disposition remains unclear” (Holladay, “Acts,” 998, Pervo, Acts, 215). Whatever the case, this is the last we hear of Simon (Magus) in Acts of the Apostles, though he becomes a major figure in the heresiology of the later Church. His final intent does indeed seem to be that of repentance, but nothing more is said of him, and Pervo takes the “open ending” as a sign that he does not return to the church’s fold.
The narrative ends with Peter and John “proclaiming the good news to many villages of the Samaritans” and then returning home to Jerusalem, their work in Samaria accomplished by bringing apostolic authority into the account of Simon Magus and, more significantly for Luke, bringing the Holy Spirit. Fitzmyer argues that Luke’s intent is also to make an argument that faith and baptism are not the only things necessary for salvation, but right conduct is essential too (Fitzmyer, Acts, 401). I suppose that is possible, but it seems that the more obvious lesson is that God’s grace is given freely to all those who believe not something that has to be purchased.
What this passage also points to, however, as did Philip’s previous activity in Samaria, is the movement of the Gospel not just beyond Judea but beyond the Jews. The Samaritans are not Jews, but closely related. Are we to understand Simon as a Samaritan? Or perhaps a pagan? The lines are being blurred as to whom the Gospel can be taken and we will see in the next passage even more of a blurring of these lines as to whom can respond and accept the Gospel message freely.
Next entry, Philip the evangelist and an Ethiopian eunuch.
John W. Martens
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 Johnson, Acts, 152 is by far the harshest in his understanding of Luke’s portrayal of Simon as in thrall to the “demonic realm,” indicated by money: “the use of possessions symbolizes the disposition of the heart…that is the attitude of the demonic realm.”
Pervo notes that the “D- text” of Acts 8:24 reads: “”Simon replied to them, ‘Will all of you please intercede with God […] that none of these evil things you have mentioned will happen to me.’ He continued to weep ardently.” Here you get a full-fledged scene of repentance. See Pervo, Acts, 215.
 By the way please see this terrific free online book (or e-book for download) called Jew and Judean for a discussion of various scholars’ views regarding if “Jew” is the same as “Judean.” This is a scholarly distinction that is quite important. I am a student of Adele Reinhartz, however, and do follow her understanding of the distinction.