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Acts 8:4-40

Philip (who was he?) Evangelised in Samaria. Peter and John sent in response to conversions, Spirit given. Simon sorcerer. Philip sent to Ethiopian (who was he?), witnessed, baptised, removed and preached up west coast to Caesarea. Sermon on The Holy Spirit.

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We need to remind ourselves what had just happened in Jerusalem. Stephen had been stoned to death, and verse 1:

On that day a great persecution broke out against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria.

We now pick up our reading from verse 4

4 Those who had been scattered preached the word wherever they went. 5 Philip went down to a city in Samaria and proclaimed the Messiah there.

Who was Philip?There were two Philips. Philip the Apostle who was called by Jesus to follow him the day after he had called Andrew and Simon (John 1:43-46); and this one who was then known as Philip the Evangelist, one of the seven Deacons (Acts 21:8).

What do we know about Samaria and Samaritans? Traditionally Jews did not associate with Samaritans, yet when Jesus preached to them, many had believed (John 4:9, 39-42). (They were people who believed in the same God as the Jews, but with different doctrines and practices – perhaps with tensions similar to those that have existed in some places between Protestants and Catholics.)

We are told in Acts 21:9 that Philip had four unmarried daughters so it was sensible for him to move his whole family out of trouble, and Samaria was an obvious choice. But he was no secret disciple and empowered by the Holy Spirit he began to preach and minister to the people there.

6 When the crowds heard Philip and saw the signs he performed, they all paid close attention to what he said. 7 For with shrieks, impure spirits came out of many, and many who were paralysed or lame were healed. 8 So there was great joy in that city.

Obviously the Sanhedrin had no authority in Samaria and so Philip was free to preach, and the people were free to respond, to his message of salvation through Jesus. And note the result: ‘there was great joy in that city’. However this freedom from religious control led to other problems:

9 Now for some time a man named Simon had practised sorcery in the city and amazed all the people of Samaria. He boasted that he was someone great, 10 and all the people, both high and low, gave him their attention and exclaimed, ‘This man is rightly called the Great Power of God.’ 11 They followed him because he had amazed them for a long time with his sorcery.

In Jerusalem he would have been quickly dealt with by the authorities. Here though he was acclaimed by ‘all the people, both high and low’.

What is Sorcery? The use of magic, especially black magic - satanic.

We are not told what form his sorcery took but it was so amazing that people were attributing his counterfeit powers to God. How could Philip confront this obvious error? He didn’t have to:

12 But when they believed Philip as he proclaimed the good news of the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptised, both men and women. 13 Simon himself believed and was baptised. And he followed Philip everywhere, astonished by the great signs and miracles he saw.

The Sanhedrin’s response to people who would not ‘toe the line’ was to kill them. God’s response is to offer them eternal life. Simon’s experience was astonishing – both for him and also no doubt those who knew him!

14 When the apostles in Jerusalem heard that Samaria had accepted the word of God, they sent Peter and John to Samaria.

The Apostles themselves needed to be weaned off the belief that the Messiah had only come to the Jewish Nation, and the Samaritans provided a good half-way-house to their full understanding that Gentiles too could be saved. But for now this news was new and confusing, so their chief men were sent to check that what they had heard was true.

15 When they arrived, they prayed for the new believers there that they might receive the Holy Spirit, 16 because the Holy Spirit had not yet come on any of them; they had simply been baptised in the name of the Lord Jesus.

17 Then Peter and John placed their hands on them, and they received the Holy Spirit.

Well now, these three verses are going to be difficult, but I’ll do my best!

First let’s look back at Acts 2:38-41 38 Peter replied, ‘Repent and be baptised, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. 39 The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off – for all whom the Lord our God will call.’

40 With many other words he warned them; and he pleaded with them, ‘Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.’ 41 Those who accepted his message were baptised, and about three thousand were added to their number that day.

Baptism was an outward sign of repentance and faith and was performed by people to one another. But the coming of the Holy Spirit was from God alone and was the seal of their acceptance, their adoption into God’s family. Many believe that at the moment of our conversion we are ‘in Christ’ and he is ‘in us’

(For more on this see the study on ‘being in the Vine’: John15c), and verse 38 above suggests that conversion, baptism, and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, went together.

In 1 John 3:24 we read: ‘The one who keeps God’s commands lives in him, and he in them. And this is how we know that he lives in us: we know it by the Spirit he gave us.’

But it seems that here the Holy Spirit had not yet been given (v16), so perhaps the people had simply repented and been baptised like Apollos in Acts 18:24-26, and the disciples in Acts 19:1-7.

It has also been suggested that the coming of the Holy Spirit had been deliberately delayed in order for the Apostles to take a full part in the conversion of Samaritans and their subsequent acceptance into the Christian church.

I have included as a supplement to this study, a sermon by John Piper which may be helpful.

18 When Simon saw that the Spirit was given at the laying on of the apostles’ hands, he offered them money 19 and said, ‘Give me also this ability so that everyone on whom I lay my hands may receive the Holy Spirit.’

Simon had previously performed ‘signs and wonders’ as a magician. Here though, he saw the amazing, life-changing results of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit and he thought he could simply purchase the trick from the Apostles.

20 Peter answered: ‘May your money perish with you, because you thought you could buy the gift of God with money! 21 You have no part or share in this ministry, because your heart is not right before God. 22 Repent of this wickedness and pray to the Lord in the hope that he may forgive you for having such a thought in your heart. 23 For I see that you are full of bitterness and captive to sin.’

24 Then Simon answered, ‘Pray to the Lord for me so that nothing you have said may happen to me.’

Were Simon’s motives bad?

Was Simon’s conversion real?

Did he simply have a lot to learn, with the Lord having plenty of sanctifying work still to do?

Is it true that some people experience a dramatic change in their lives at conversion, while for others it can be a long struggle?

25 After they had further proclaimed the word of the Lord and testified about Jesus, Peter and John returned to Jerusalem, preaching the gospel in many Samaritan villages.

For Peter and John this whole trip had been an eye-opening experience, and they were happy themselves to evangelise Samaritans as they made their way back to Jerusalem.

Next we are introduced to the Gospel reaching out to a Gentile:

26 Now an angel of the Lord said to Philip, ‘Go south to the road – the desert road – that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.’


This was the road that left Jerusalem heading south-west towards the coastal town of Gaza – and Philip then was at least 20 miles to the north! But that didn’t deter Philip: ‘27 So he started out’

27 So he started out, and on his way he met an Ethiopian eunuch, an important official in charge of all the treasury of the Kandake (which means ‘queen of the Ethiopians’). This man had gone to Jerusalem to worship, 28 and on his way home was sitting in his chariot reading the Book of Isaiah the prophet.

What can you tell me about this man?

Ethiopian: person from Ethiopia, a country south of Egypt on the Nile River.

Eunuch: technically a castrated man, but could also mean court official.

Important official: rich and powerful – he had a chariot and driver(s) v38. (But an important official may well have had a retinue of others accompanying him and his supplies)

To worship: as an Ethiopian, and a eunuch, he would have been barred from taking a full part in the Jewish religious ceremonies (Deuteronomy 23:1) but he certainly had a strong desire to worship God: the Journey by road would have covered roughly 4000km / 2500 miles (Addis Ababa to Jerusalem by Nile boat and coast road) and would have required considerable planning and supplies.

Reading: obviously able to read and speak several languages – (here and v30).

Book of Isaiah: scrolls were rare and expensive, not the sort of thing individuals would normally own. Was this his own copy? Had he borrowed it from the palace library? Had he bought it in Jerusalem? The journey could have taken four months – he needed some reading material!

Why are we introduced to him here? The Gospel was spreading (v1) as predicted by Jesus: ‘first to Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth’ (Acts 1:8) so it is appropriate to now hear about an Ethiopian – from the ends of the earth!

29 The Spirit told Philip, ‘Go to that chariot and stay near it.’

The Ethiopian’s party would have probably travelled at walking pace so it wasn’t a problem to walk along beside it.

30 Then Philip ran up to the chariot and heard the man reading Isaiah the prophet. ‘Do you understand what you are reading?’ Philip asked.

31 ‘How can I,’ he said, ‘unless someone explains it to me?’ So he invited Philip to come up and sit with him.

Philip ‘the evangelist’ was quick to start the conversation!

32 This is the passage of Scripture the eunuch was reading: (Isaiah 53:7-8)

‘He was led like a sheep to the slaughter,
and as a lamb before its shearer is silent,
so he did not open his mouth.
33 In his humiliation he was deprived of justice.
Who can speak of his descendants?
For his life was taken from the earth.’

34 The eunuch asked Philip, ‘Tell me, please, who is the prophet talking about, himself or someone else?’

The Spirit has again demonstrated impeccable timing, bringing Philip at that exact moment.

35 Then Philip began with that very passage of Scripture and told him the good news about Jesus.

36 As they travelled along the road, they came to some water and the eunuch said, ‘Look, here is water. What can stand in the way of my being baptised?’

All restrictions of Race or Law are swept away – nothing can prevent anyone from coming to Jesus in faith and repentance.

Where is verse 37?

Philip said, ‘If you believe with all your heart, you may.’ The eunuch answered, ‘I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.’

Eight translated texts dated between 4th and 9th century AD do not have this verse. The earliest text with it in is dated to 6th century. This verse seems to have been added by a later editor to conform to their ‘modern’ baptismal question and answer practises.

38 And he gave orders to stop the chariot. Then both Philip and the eunuch went down into the water and Philip baptised him. 39 When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord suddenly took Philip away, and the eunuch did not see him again, but went on his way rejoicing.

A brilliant end to this story!

40 Philip, however, appeared at Azotus and travelled about, preaching the gospel in all the towns until he reached Caesarea.

The Lord knew that the Ethiopian could easily have encouraged Philip to return to Ethiopia with him as his personal Rabbi so to avoid any difficulty he simply ‘took Philip away’ !

Azotus was a town on the coast road heading north from Gaza. From here Philip could travel north with little hindrance from the authorities in Jerusalem. This he did, preaching the gospel as he went, and finally settled with his wife and daughters in Caesarea (Acts 21:8-9).

What Does It Mean to Receive the Holy Spirit?

The following is copied from:

Message by

John Piper

Scripture: Acts 8:14–17 Topic: The Holy Spirit

Were the Samaritans Already Converted?

This passage raises the question of whether the Pentecostal understanding of the baptism in the Holy Spirit has a good basis here. What I mean by the Pentecostal understanding of the baptism of the Holy Spirit is simply the view that there is a definite experience of the Holy Spirit to be sought and enjoyed after conversion that is different from the indwelling of the Holy Spirit which starts when we first believe, and that this second experience is signified by speaking in tongues.

There have been many non-Pentecostals who agree that the baptism with the Holy Spirit is a distinct second experience but not necessarily accompanied by tongues. For example, A.J. Gordon, Reuben A. Torrey, Dwight L. Moody, Charles Finney, etc.

Those who believe that there is a distinct second experience use this passage in Acts 8 to support their position. The Samaritans seem to be already converted—that's the first experience—and yet there is an experience of the Holy Spirit that they don't have—that's the second experience. Verse 15 says that Peter and John came down from Jerusalem and "prayed for [the Samaritans] that they might receive the Holy Spirit; for it had not yet fallen on any of them, but they had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus." So it is obvious they are missing something. The Spirit has not "fallen on them." They have not "received" him.

But in spite of this lack, they seem to be genuine believers. Not everyone agrees with this. Since James Dunn's book, Baptism in the Holy Spirit, many now think that the Samaritans were not true believers before Peter and John came down to pray for them. There are good arguments on both sides, some suggesting that the Samaritans were not yet true believers, and some suggesting that they were.

Clues That They Were

For example, here are some clues that make it look like they are indeed true believers.

In verse 6 it says that they "gave heed to what was said by Philip." That same phrase is used in Acts 16:14 where it says about Lydia, "The Lord opened her heart to give heed to what was said by Paul." So giving heed to what a gospel preacher says seems to be something that is genuine because it is possible because the Lord opens the heart to make it happen. So it looks like the Samaritans really were giving heartfelt heed to the preaching of Philip.

Verse 8 says they were experiencing much joy, like the Ethiopian eunuch after his conversion (8:39).

Verse 12a says they "believed Philip as he preached the good news about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ."

Verse 16 says that they were baptized in the name of Jesus. And when the apostles came down to lay hands on them, there is no mention that they baptized them again, even though Paul re-baptized the disciples who only knew the baptism of John in Acts 19:5.

All this suggests that the Samaritans were true believers when Peter and John came down to lay hands on them to receive the Holy Spirit. This was the view of John Calvin and Matthew Henry and Henry Alford and most commentators until recently.

Therefore many teachers conclude that this event here in Acts 8 is an illustration, just like Pentecost, that there is a definite receiving of the Holy Spirit to be experienced after conversion. And many identify this with the baptism in the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:5; 11:16).

Clues That They Were Not

There are three reasons that other commentators think the Samaritans were not true believers when Peter and John came down from Jerusalem:

Verse 12a says that the Samaritans "believed Philip" instead of believing the gospel or believing in Christ.

Simon the sorcerer is also said to believe (v. 13) and yet we will see that he may not have been a true believer (v. 21—"you have neither part nor lot in this matter").

If we assume the Samaritans do not have the Holy Spirit in any sense, then Romans 8:9 proves they are not Christians: "Any one who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him."

If these arguments are compelling, then what Peter and John were praying for when they came down from Jerusalem was not a second work of the Holy Spirit, but the first work of converting grace. This is the view of Anthony Hoekema (Tongues and Spirit-Baptism) and James Dunn.

Some Suggest These Events Aren't Normative

Many interpreters would say that even if the Samaritans were already true believers and the Holy Spirit was given in two stages, this was not meant to be normative for all Christians. Instead it was an exceptional pattern so that (for example) the Jewish apostles would come down to Samaria and signify by their laying on of hands that there is oneness between the Samaritan and Jewish church in spite of age old hostilities between Jews and Samaritans.

How Is Receiving the Holy Spirit Portrayed in Acts?

Now what are we to make of all this? It can get very confusing. The approach I want to take is this: I want to come at this issue of the baptism with the Holy Spirit indirectly by asking what we can say with a good deal of certainty about receiving the Holy Spirit in the book of Acts.

Experientially Not Just Inferentially Known

I would start by saying that in the book of Acts everywhere the receiving of the Holy Spirit is described, it is experiential. What I mean is that it's not just a logical inference that you know has happened to you only because something else has happened. Instead it has effects that are clearly discernible. In the book of Acts a person knows when he receives the Holy Spirit. It is an experience with effects you can point to.

Let me illustrate this from Acts 19:2. The situation is that Paul has come to Ephesus and found there some disciples who, as it turns out, only know the baptism of John the Baptist and have not been baptized into the name of Jesus. Paul detects something wrong and breaks the whole thing open by asking a key question in verse 2: "Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?"

Now that is a remarkable question for evangelicals who have been taught by and large that the way you know you have received the Holy Spirit is that you are a believer. We have been told that you can know that you have the Holy Spirit because all who believe have the Holy Spirit. It's a logical inference. So if we want to know if someone has received the Holy Spirit, we would ask, "Have you believed on Jesus?" If the answer is yes, then we know the person received the Holy Spirit. Receiving the Holy Spirit is a logical inference, not an experience to point to.

But Paul's question isn't like that, is it? Paul says, "Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?" We scratch our heads and say, "I don't get it, Paul. If you assume we believed, why don't you assume we received the Holy Spirit? We've been taught that all who believe receive the Holy Spirit. We've been taught to just believe that the Spirit is there whether there are any effects or not. But you talk as if there is a way to know we've received the Holy Spirit different from believing. You talk as if we could point to an experience of the Spirit apart from believing in order to answer your question."

And that is in fact the way Paul talks. When he asks, "Did you receive the Spirit when you believed," he expects that a person who has "received the Holy Spirit" knows it, not just because it's an inference from his faith in Christ, but because it is an experience with effects that we can point to.

That is what runs all the way through this book of Acts. All the explicit descriptions of receiving the Holy Spirit are experiential (not inferential).

Luke's Ways of Describing the Coming of the Spirit

It's possible to sum up all Luke's ways of describing the coming of the Holy Spirit. There are seven words or phrases. He speaks of:

  1. the Holy Spirit being given to people (as a gift)—8:18; 5:32; 15:8 (as we); 11:17 (gift: 2:38; 8:20; 10:45; 11:17);
  2. the Holy Spirit falling upon people—8:16; 10:44; 11:15 (as we, pointing back to Pentecost);
  3. the Holy Spirit coming upon people—1:8; 19:6;
  4. the Holy Spirit being poured out on people—2:17; 10:45;
  5. people receiving the Holy Spirit—2:38; 8:15,17; 10:47 (as we, pointing back to Pentecost);
  6. being baptized in the Holy Spirit—1:5; 11:16 (as we);
  7. being filled with the Holy Spirit—2:4; 9:17.

All these ways of describing the coming of the Holy Spirit are found in six stories or instances in the book of Acts and in every one the coming of the Spirit is with experienced effects.

  1. At Pentecost there was speaking in tongues and praising the mighty works of God and power to witness (1:8; 2:4, 11);
  2. in Samaria there is something so obvious in experience that Simon saw it and is amazed and wants to buy the power to make it happen (8:18);
  3. in Caesarea at the house of Cornelius there was speaking in tongues and praising God (10:46);
  4. in Ephesus where Paul found the disciples of John the Baptist there was speaking in tongues and prophesying (19:6);
  5. at Paul's conversion there is extraordinary boldness and empowering to witness (9:17, 22);
  6. and in Acts 5:32 Luke says that God "gave the Holy Spirit to everyone who is obeying him." So obedience to God is a mark of his presence.

Luke Expects a Real, Identifiable Experience

So in every case of the Holy Spirit's coming or being received in the book of Acts there are definite effects that one can point to as evidence that the Spirit has been received. The ones mentioned are speaking in tongues, prophesying, freely praising the great things of God, boldness and power in witness, and obedience to God. And if we take the subsequent empowering of the Spirit into account after the initial one, the list would, of course, include the working of miracles, signs, and wonders (Acts 6:8, 13:9–11).

The point is this: whether Luke expects these kinds of effects to happen in one initiatory receiving of the Holy Spirit or in a two step process with "baptism in the Holy Spirit" after conversion, or in an ongoing sequence of fillings (or some combination of these three), one thing is clear: Luke expects the receiving of the Holy Spirit (however we receive him) to be a real, identifiable experience of the living God, not just a logical inference from a human act of will.

Power for Evangelizing the World

And we can say more about this experience. There is no promise in the book of Acts that everyone who receives the Spirit will speak in tongues or prophesy. But there is the promise in Acts 1:8 that when the Spirit comes upon us, we will receive power; and in this power we will be able to evangelize the whole world. That promise is made to everybody on whom the Holy Spirit comes, not just a few.

Then what we see in the book of Acts are illustrations of what this power looks like as it comes on different groups. It comes with speaking in tongues for some (2:4; 10:46; 19:6). It comes with the gift of prophecy for some (2:17; 19:6; cf. 10:46). It comes with free and overflowing praise of God's greatness (2:11; 10:46). It comes with obedience to the commands of God (5:32). It comes with courage and boldness of witness (2:14–36; 9:17–22). And it brings the working of various gifts (Hebrews 2:4), and miracles (Galatians 3:5), and signs and wonders (Acts 6:8).

Did You Receive the Holy Spirit When You Believed?

But however it comes, it is an experience of divine reality. It is not just an idea about our spiritual condition that we infer from a decision we have made. It is supernatural. You can use it to answer the question, "Did you receive the Spirit when you believed?"

You can say:

But if you can't answer the question, "Did you receive the Spirit when you believed?" then it may be that you have not believed and still need to. Or it may be that for some reason there has been a delay or a blockage in the manifestation of God's power in your life, and you need to seek his fullness in prayer. Or it may be that he is doing more in your life than you realize because you have never been taught how to recognize what is the work of God.

In any of these three cases, I urge you to pray now. Declare your faith to the Lord; ask for the release and outpouring of the Holy Spirit in your life; ask for the ability to discern his work. Amen.

By John Piper. © Desiring God Foundation. Source:

John Piper is founder and teacher of and chancellor of Bethlehem College & Seminary. For 33 years, he served as pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church, Minneapolis, Minnesota. He is author of more than 50 books, including A Peculiar Glory.

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