“The Sad Case of Simon the Sorcerer”

Categories: Bulletin Articles, M. W. Bassford

When it begins, the chronicle of Acts 8:4-24 looks like another one of the success stories of the early church.  As often happens throughout the book, when someone (in this case, Philip the Evangelist) brings the gospel to a new location (in this case, the city of Samaria), it is received with joy.  As also happens, like Elymas in Cyprus, Sosthenes in Corinth, and Demetrius in Ephesus, an opponent of the gospel emerges, somebody who views the early church as spiritual competition.  In Acts 8, this opponent is Simon, a (stage) magician who had been leading the people astray for a good while.

However, in Acts 8, the narrative doesn’t go in the expected direction.  Rather than being blinded or getting beaten, Simon himself becomes a disciple.  He believes in Jesus!  He is baptized!  Indeed, he abandons his deceptive lifestyle, following Philip and being amazed himself rather than amazing others.

Tragically, events expose Simon to a temptation that he fails to resist.  Peter and John come to town and, as only apostles can do, begin to impart miraculous spiritual gifts to others by laying hands on them.  Simon’s reaction, though, reveals that despite his conversion, he has come to the Lord with significant baggage.  He offers the apostles money in exchange for the ability to pass along the Holy Spirit himself.  Though the text doesn’t say so, we can infer that Simon wasn’t planning to offer those gifts for free. 

Peter forthrightly condemns Simon for his covetous heart, and Simon’s ambiguous reply leaves us uncertain whether he has repented or not.  Ultimately, he proves to be little different than the other villains of the book of Acts.

Nonetheless, Simon’s example offers us two valuable spiritual lessons.  First, he shows us that it is all too possible for us to fall away.  This is denied by Calvinists, who hold to the doctrine of eternal security.  Typically, they will argue that Simon wasn’t really saved.  He only appeared to be.

However, rather than offering security, this argument merely replaces uncertainty about our ultimate fate with uncertainty about our initial salvation.  If Simon was not saved despite having believed and having been baptized, none of us can be sure that we were saved through belief and baptism either.  Additionally, if Jesus says in Mark 16:16 that those who believe and are baptized will be saved, who are we to disagree, even in the case of Simon?

Second, Simon shows how the flaws in our character before we come to the Lord can distort our service to Him.  He had been a con man, and despite his awe at the power of God, it ultimately meant nothing more to him than a way to make money.  So too for us.  If we are not careful, the lust, pride, or greed that ruled us before Christ will simply find a new expression in a religious context.  If we wish to inherit eternal life, we must succeed where Simon failed by making no provision for the flesh and its lusts.