Buying God

Acts-The Holy Spirit in his people  •  Sermon  •  Submitted   •  Presented   •  25:25
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In Acts 8, the church grows beyond its cradle of Judaism. In Samaria a famous sorcerer, Simon, is wooed by the power of the Holy Spirit, but his response is disastrous. What did Simon get wrong, and what can we learn from it?

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Last week we saw how the early church responded to attempts to silence the Gospel with increased boldness. But it’s important to realise that, while the church was increasingly bold in Jerusalem, it wasn’t necessarily spreading out from Jerusalem with the Good News.
Instead, God needed to send more opposition, more persecution to scatter the church. He did this with Saul, who God had big plans for.
Let’s pick up the history just after the disciples Stephen has been executed for his faith, and Jerusalem has become a dangerous place for the believers.


Acts 8:4–25 NLT
4 But the believers who were scattered preached the Good News about Jesus wherever they went. 5 Philip, for example, went to the city of Samaria and told the people there about the Messiah. 6 Crowds listened intently to Philip because they were eager to hear his message and see the miraculous signs he did. 7 Many evil spirits were cast out, screaming as they left their victims. And many who had been paralyzed or lame were healed. 8 So there was great joy in that city. 9 A man named Simon had been a sorcerer there for many years, amazing the people of Samaria and claiming to be someone great. 10 Everyone, from the least to the greatest, often spoke of him as “the Great One—the Power of God.” 11 They listened closely to him because for a long time he had astounded them with his magic. 12 But now the people believed Philip’s message of Good News concerning the Kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ. As a result, many men and women were baptized. 13 Then Simon himself believed and was baptized. He began following Philip wherever he went, and he was amazed by the signs and great miracles Philip performed. 14 When the apostles in Jerusalem heard that the people of Samaria had accepted God’s message, they sent Peter and John there. 15 As soon as they arrived, they prayed for these new believers to receive the Holy Spirit. 16 The Holy Spirit had not yet come upon any of them, for they had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. 17 Then Peter and John laid their hands upon these believers, and they received the Holy Spirit. 18 When Simon saw that the Spirit was given when the apostles laid their hands on people, he offered them money to buy this power. 19 “Let me have this power, too,” he exclaimed, “so that when I lay my hands on people, they will receive the Holy Spirit!” 20 But Peter replied, “May your money be destroyed with you for thinking God’s gift can be bought! 21 You can have no part in this, for your heart is not right with God. 22 Repent of your wickedness and pray to the Lord. Perhaps he will forgive your evil thoughts, 23 for I can see that you are full of bitter jealousy and are held captive by sin.” 24 “Pray to the Lord for me,” Simon exclaimed, “that these terrible things you’ve said won’t happen to me!” 25 After testifying and preaching the word of the Lord in Samaria, Peter and John returned to Jerusalem. And they stopped in many Samaritan villages along the way to preach the Good News.

Where are we in Acts?

Before we get into the meat of this passage it’s important to recognise where we are in Luke’s account of the development of the church.
Remember in Acts 1 Jesus returned to heaven, commissioning the disciples to build the church? He gave them a pattern for the future:
Acts 1:8 NLT
8 But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you. And you will be my witnesses, telling people about me everywhere—in Jerusalem, throughout Judea, in Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
And now, in chapter 8, we see the transition from the first geographical and ethnic location, Jerusalem and Judea, through the second one, Samaria, and onto the third, the rest of the world. Acts 8 starts with the church in Jerusalem being scattered by Saul’s persecution:
Acts 8:1 NLT
1 Saul was one of the witnesses, and he agreed completely with the killing of Stephen. A great wave of persecution began that day, sweeping over the church in Jerusalem; and all the believers except the apostles were scattered through the regions of Judea and Samaria.
And after chapter 8 ends Luke’s attention turns permanently to the Apostle to the Gentiles, Paul.
Now, a question: Do you think the apostles planned this dispersion?
It sounds like the apostles were too busy doing church in Jerusalem, and it was God’s hand that hurried them along, right?
To be honest, I never planned to be a pastor, leading a church. It was not one of my life goals. All I wanted to do was to use the gifts God has given me to serve him in whatever way was best.
In fact, none of us who were here at the beginning of Renew set out to plant a new church, did we? Like the scattered disciples, we were forced into this situation by persecution of a kind. (Fortunately we didn’t have a Saul trying to kill us!)
You may have the idea that if you started a work for God unintentionally, then it’s not really valid. Well, let Acts chapter 8 put your mind to rest. The entire church was spread through the world, not because the apostles created a strategic five-year plan, not because Peter was a genius leader, but because God used persecution to push them out of the nest.
Too often we think we’re not ready to do the work God has for us. The reality is, we’re never ready! We’re never ready because the work God has for us is always impossible for us. God’s work needs God’s Spirit working in and with us to accomplish it, so we’re never going to be ready to do it on our own.
So, take encouragement from the early church, Renew! God’s church is not carefully mapped out and strategised and focus-grouped. It’s lead by the Spirit in the direction God wants it to go in. As Jesus said to Nicodemus:
John 3:8 ESV
8 The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
Perhaps I should stop there? Seems like enough encouragement for the day?
But Luke builds chapter 8 around something more than persecution. We had better see what that is!

Simon’s encounter with the Way

At the core of chapter 8 is Simon the Sorcerer’s encounter with the Way.
Let me say that again. The core of chapter 8 is Simon the Sorcerer’s encounter with the Way.
Now, it might be helpful to define two of the words in that sentence to make sure we all understand what this means.

What is a sorcerer?

The first word is “sorcerer.” In Luke’s original Greek of Acts, he says that Simon is a mageuon, this is of course where we get our word “magician” from. I’ve used the word “sorcerer” here because 1) it sounds cooler to say “Simon the Sorcerer,” and 2) because the nuances of the English word “sorcery” imply something bad, whereas “magician” is more neutral.
Throughout the Bible, the concept of magic, sorcery, etc. is recognised as a genuine power. God’s miraculous power is real, and the Biblical worldview recognises other supernatural powers at work in our world. However, magic is always a power that is distinct from and opposed to God’s power.
So it would seem that Simon’s sorcery had some supernatural, but ungodly source. Given the worldview described in the New Testament, we can understand that Simon was working with unclean, evil spirits who wanted to fool the Samaritans into thinking he was a man of God, perhaps even the Messiah. The Samaritans were so eager for the Messiah that they were willing to believe in Simon unclean power.

What is the Way?

Which brings us to the second definition: what is “the way” that Simon had an encounter with? Well, in the very next chapter of Acts, we find Paul pursuing any who belonged to “the Way.”
Acts 9:2 NLT
2 He requested letters addressed to the synagogues in Damascus, asking for their cooperation in the arrest of any followers of the Way he found there. He wanted to bring them—both men and women—back to Jerusalem in chains.
Followers of Jesus were not yet called “Christians,” so at this time the movement was called “the Way.” This is an appropriate name for our faith, when you think about Jesus’ words in John 14:6:
John 14:6 NLT
6 Jesus told him, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one can come to the Father except through me.
The Way, as Jesus explained in this famous saying, is an exclusive one—no-one cam come to the Father except through him. As we saw last week, the church was very much aware of this exclusivity, and so we might even say that it’s name is better pronounced as “The Way,” with an emphasis on the definite article.

The encounter

And so now, hopefully, the reason for this encounter is becoming clear.
Simon’s previous life was dedicated to a powerful lie: a lie that told him and those around him that he had power over creation. As Luke writes,
Acts 8:10 NLT
10 Everyone, from the least to the greatest, often spoke of him as “the Great One—the Power of God.”
But now Simon encounters the true power of God, the Holy Spirit, through his indwelling presence in Philip the follower of Jesus.
To his credit, Simon is open to the reality of the power Philip wields. He recognises that this is genuinely the power of God—this is a greater power than the one he previously had access to. And so Simon believes Philip’s message, he is baptised, and he stays close to Philip.
But then Peter & John arrive, and they bring with them an even greater power: the ability to share the power Philip has!
Simon demonstrates his complete misunderstanding of what he is seeing and experiencing when he offers to buy this power from Peter. Peter’s disgusted response shows how horribly Simon has misunderstood:
Acts 8:20 NLT
20 But Peter replied, “May your money be destroyed with you for thinking God’s gift can be bought!
Why does Peter react so strongly? Well, imagine that you have a spouse who is a great cook, and one day you meet someone who is wowed by your spouse’s cooking, and so they offer to buy your spouse off you. How would you react? Much like Peter, right?
But Simon’s sin is even worse than that. The Holy Spirit isn’t merely another person—he is God himself. Simon has offered to buy God himself, as if God were a tradable commodity like wheat or cattle!
Remember that the entire record of Acts up to this point has emphasized how the Holy Spirit has been the one in the driving seat. You might ask why Peter & John were needed in Samaria to allow the people to receive the Holy Spirit. Is it not most likely that God required the Jewish church to actively participate in releasing the Spirit to the world? Peter & John do not possess any control over the Spirit.
God is in control, not Peter, not John, not Philip, not the Jerusalem church, and most definitely not Simon the Sorcerer! Simon should have been offering his life to God—that’s what Philip baptised him into, but instead he’s trying to buy God with a handful of metal. Peter is right when he describes Simon’s heart:
Acts 8:23 NLT
23 for I can see that you are full of bitter jealousy and are held captive by sin.”
It’s easy to judge Simon. Even his response to Peter seems to continue his reluctance to deal with a filthy heart:
Acts 8:24 NLT
24 “Pray to the Lord for me,” Simon exclaimed, “that these terrible things you’ve said won’t happen to me!”
He still doesn’t seem to get that the terrible things are a consequence of his rebellious heart.

What about our hearts?

But are we any better?
Do we try to buy God? Do we try to bargain with him: if I give you this, will you give me that?
I’ve learnt not to approach God this way, but I still try to buy things back from God. I might want a few hours to do what I want and not think about what God wants at all. Or I might want to treat someone in a way contrary to God’s directions because it’s too hard to treat them right. But if God is God, every moment of every part of my life should be his. Buying stuff back is basically still buying God’s rightful position and responsibility, even if it’s only for a while.
I’d like us all to think for a minute or so about how we try to either keep control over, or buy, or sometimes even steal back parts of our lives that are rightfully God’s. Think about what we do with that, and how it impacts us and God’s plans.
Did you manage to think of something? You don’t have to share it. Just keep that in mind as we hear the words of Jesus to his followers:
Mark 8:34–38 NLT
34 Then, calling the crowd to join his disciples, he said, “If any of you wants to be my follower, you must give up your own way, take up your cross, and follow me. 35 If you try to hang on to your life, you will lose it. But if you give up your life for my sake and for the sake of the Good News, you will save it. 36 And what do you benefit if you gain the whole world but lose your own soul? 37 Is anything worth more than your soul? 38 If anyone is ashamed of me and my message in these adulterous and sinful days, the Son of Man will be ashamed of that person when he returns in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”
The paradox of Christianity is that the only way to gain what we need is to give up want we want. We must “give up our own way, take up our cross [that is, take up a life of sacrifice], and follow Jesus.”
The reason this is necessary is because it takes God to run a world free from pain and suffering. We are not God. We do not have his infinite knowledge. We do not have his infinite goodness. We do not have his infinite love. When we take control away from God, when we follow our own way, when we try to “buy God”, we are guaranteed to cause unimaginable pain and suffering to ourselves and everyone around us.
This is not a message that people want to hear. We think God should come with personal preference settings, like everything else in our life. Why doesn’t God pay attention to my playlist, to my wishlist, to my settings?
But God is God. Not only does he know what’s best for us, he wants whats best for us. Every variation we demand makes things infinitely worse, and so often we blame God for that.
Let’s not make Simon’s mistake and try to fit God into the rest of our lives, like a Spotify playlist or a Netflix viewing history. Let’s recognise that it is only under the intimate and loving direction of the Holy Spirit that we can live truly good lives. Lives that are a blessing to those around us, and to us as well.
Let’s pray,
Lord, we know that often our hearts are like the hearts of Simon the Sorcerer: we are embittered by jealousy and held captive by sin. Set us free, we pray. Help us to recognise your goodness, your love, your righteousness, your truth.
Empower us with your Holy Spirit so that we might share your love with the world.
In Jesus name, Amen.
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