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Author:Rev. George van Popta
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Congregation:Jubilee Canadian Reformed Church
 Ottawa, Ontario
Title:The Sovereign Holy Spirit
Text:Acts 8;4-25 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday
Topic:The work of The Holy Spirit

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Acts 8:4-25

Ps. 108:1,2
Ps. 119;49-51, after the law
Hy. 47:2, after the reading
Ps. 108:3, after sermon
Hy. 50
* As a matter of courtesy please advise Rev. George van Popta, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

Beloved in the Lord,

In this little summer sermon series, we are looking at some passages of the Book of Acts that tell us about the work of the Holy Spirit. Each passage tells us something different about his work.  This rather long passage about the Holy Spirit and Samaria does as well.  It is rather long for one passage. It starts with Philip (the deacon, not the apostle) going down from Jerusalem to preach in Samaria and ends with Peter and John preaching in Samaria, and going up to Jerusalem.  In between we read about the extension of the church into Samaria and the free and powerful work of the Holy Spirit.  And we read about a sorcerer’s attack upon that work. As we consider this account of the gospel coming to Samaria, we will focus on the autonomous and magnificent work of the Holy Spirit.

The Holy Spirit, by freely giving himself to repentant people, brings about the unity of the church

The Holy Spirit:

1. Fosters ecumenical unity

2. Refuses human forgery

3. Demands prayerful humility

1. In this story about the Samaritan conversion we have the only record in the NT of people believing the gospel, accepting Christian baptism, but, nevertheless, not receiving the Holy Spirit (vv 14-17).  The reason for this unusual incident was important for the early church in both Jerusalem and Samaria to understand. It is equally important for us, today, to understand.

Why was this? Why had the Holy Spirit not yet come upon these baptized believers? Luke understands that it was an exception. The words “not yet” show that: v. 16, the Holy Spirit had not yet come upon any of them. The word “yet” tells us that normally he would have. And, indeed, in other places in Acts, faith, Christian baptism and the Holy Spirit are always tied together. The order varies: sometimes the one comes before the other, but the three are closely tied together. Here, in Samaria, they are separated. As I said, it is the only time the Holy Spirit holds himself back from baptized believers. Why? What is the problem?

First, we must notice that the problem did not lie with the Samaritans. It does not say that they had insufficient commitment. They are not told to do anything to receive the Holy Spirit. They are not admonished, commanded, or even questioned about the imperfect situation. Nor did the problem lie with Philip.  There is no suggestion that his preaching was insufficient. On the contrary, we would sooner say that his preaching was Spirit-filled. Consider the effect it had. His preaching was accompanied by miracles of all sorts (v 7). And many came to faith, confessed their sins and were baptized (v. 12). We first meet Philip in Acts 6. He was one of the original deacons, and we are told that he was filled with the Holy Spirit. Although today’s office of deacon is rooted in founding of the office as we have it in Acts 6. these deacons had a broader calling than our deacons of today. At least, Stephen and Philip did, for they were mighty preacher of the gospel.

So if the problem of the Spirit not coming upon the Samaritan believers did not lie with either the Samaritans or with Philip, where is the solution to this Samaritan puzzle?

We need to appreciate that Samaria was the church’s first decisive step out of and beyond the Jewish church. To this point, all the believers were Jewish and closely identified with the church in Jerusalem. That Philip went down from Jerusalem, after the great persecution in Jerusalem had arisen, and preached to Samaritans, and that there was a mass conversion of Samaritans, was no small matter. For 100s of years there had been no love lost between the Jews and the Samaritans. The Jews considered them to be half-breeds and heretics. There was a huge racial-religious divide between them. But the gospel of Jesus Christ bridges every divide. The believers in both Jerusalem and Samaria had to understand that with God no barriers exist. God withheld the gift of the Holy Spirit until the apostles Peter and John came to Samaria from Jerusalem (vv 14ff), prayed that the new believers might receive the Holy Spirit, and laid their hands on them. With that they received the Holy Spirit.

 The apostles had an important place in the early church. They had been witnesses to the ministry, death, resurrection, and ascension of Christ. Christ had made them the foundation of his church.  God withheld the outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon the Samaritan believers until the apostles had come because it would not do at all for the first church to be established outside of Jerusalem to have no contact with the apostles. If there had been no apostolic visitation, then what could easily have developed was a Philip/Samaritan church that had no relationship with the apostolic/Jerusalem church.  The old prejudices between Jews and Samaritans could easily have continued. The Samaritan church would have become a sect with no bonds of union with the apostolic church in Jerusalem. If a Samaritan church and a Jewish church had arisen, independently, side by side, without the removal of the ancient and bitter barriers of prejudice between the two, the young church would have been in schism right from the beginning. But when the Holy Spirit came upon the Samaritans in answer to the prayer of the apostles, and in their presence, the barriers were gone for good. In an instant the Holy Spirit created and confirmed ecumenical unity. That is what is going on here in Acts 8. Sadly, today, the church is rent asunder by schisms, but it should not be so, and it was not so from the beginning.  In the Nicene Creed we confess one holy catholic and apostolic church.

 The Holy Spirit fosters ecumenical unity.

 2. He refuses human forgery.

 There was a sorcerer in Samaria, a man named Simon. He had amazed the people of Samaria. He was a boastful man and bragged that he was someone great. Everyone admired him and exclaimed: “This man is the divine power known as the Great Power.” They thought he was like a god.  He had a great following.

 But when Philip came preaching, the people believed the gospel message and were baptized. Simon himself believed and was baptized. He followed Philip everywhere, astonished by the great signs and miracles he saw. He became a Philip-groupie. In Simon’s estimation, Philip was like a rock star. He could not get enough of him.  But he had not seen anything yet. If Philip astonished him, Peter and John blew him away.

 He met Peter and John, these important men from Jerusalem. He heard them pray and saw them lay their hands on the Samaritan believers, and then he saw something change in the people. The Holy Spirit came upon them (v. 18).

 Luke does not tell us what exactly was to be seen. The text does not say that they spoke in tongues. Perhaps they did, but it does not say they did. But there was some visible manifestation of the Holy Spirit upon the people. Something that Simon saw, whatever it was. What the visible manifestation was is not important. What is important is what Simon said and did, and how Peter responded.

 Vv 18 & 19: When Simon saw that the Spirit was given at the laying on of the apostles’ hands, he offered them money and said, “Give me also this ability so that everyone on whom I lay my hands may receive the Holy Spirit.” Simon was all about power. For years he had amazed the Samaritans with his powers. Now he saw a power that he wanted to have, the power to dispense the Holy Spirit! This he had to have, and so he offered money. Everyone has his price, right? Even Peter! Even God! Right?? Wrong?

 This is the fatal error of so many. They think they can buy God off with what they do or contribute. Simon is an extreme example of works righteousness. He thought the gift of God could be bought whereas the gift can only be received. You never buy a gift. When you buy something, you have a right to it. In a commercial transaction, you exchange your money for something that belongs to someone else. After the exchange, the money belongs to the other person and the thing you bought no longer belongs to that person but now belongs to you. You and the other person have made a fair trade. But it not like that with the Holy Spirit, as Peter’s devastating response makes clear.  Peter answered: “May your money perish with you, because you thought you could buy the gift of God with money! 

 The Holy Spirit is a gift. Both giver and gift, as we sang. As a gift, he is freely given and can only be received.

 Simon was a fraud and a forgery. God rejected his approach. And so God rejects all who come to him with their own humanly devised ways of trying to acquire and obtain the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit will not be manipulated. There is only one way to receive the Holy Spirit. You need to do nothing except receive. Believe and receive! Peter and John did not tell the Samaritans to do x, y and z to receive the Holy Spirit. Through the ministry of the apostles, the Spirit was given, freely.

 Today the apostles are not here to lay their hands upon us. There are no apostles any more. When John died in his old age of about 95, the era of the apostles was over. But we have the apostolic word. When the apostolic word is proclaimed, the Holy Spirit is active. When you hear the word of God proclaimed, and when you accept and believe it, the Holy Spirit comes upon you. The gift of the Holy Spirit is freely given unto you, and the only thing you need to do is … nothing, but open yourself to receive the gift. Receive the Holy Spirit, beloved. Let him work the total renewal of life in you.

 If anyone thinks that he can acquire this by human endeavour, the words of Peter against Simon need to be heard:

 “You have no part or share in this ministry, because your heart is not right before God. 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. For I see that you are full of bitterness and captive to sin.”

 Anyone who thinks he can earn or buy anything from God is a fraudster. He needs to repent and pray for the free forgiveness of God.  He needs to get out of his heart any notion that he can do it himself, and must depend upon nothing but the free grace of God. One who does that will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.

 3. What this calls for is prayerful humility.

 Peter told Simon to pray for forgiveness. All who are held in the grips of sin need to humble themselves before God and pray for forgiveness. We need to accept the Bible’s definition of sin. Sin is going against the commandments of God. Sin can be in either doctrine or conduct. To hold to doctrine that is against the word of God is sin and must be repented of. To conduct yourself in a way against what the word teaches is sin and must be repented of.

 Sadly, often people will not humble themselves before the word of God. They won’t pray for forgiveness.

 Do you see that Simon did not? V. 24, Then Simon answered, “Pray to the Lord for me so that nothing you have said may happen to me.

 Peter said, “Simon, you need to pray.” Simon said, “No, Peter, you pray for me.” He did not confess his sin.

 So often, too often, it happens that office bearers speak to a member of the congregation about their sinful doctrine or their sinful conduct, and the member does not accept the remedy proposed by the elders. “I have done nothing wrong,” is the response the elder gets. There is no prayerful humility. No admission of sin. No humbling oneself before the clear teaching of the Word of God. No meekness, but only an arrogant affirmation of how he is right and the elder is wrong.

 Let none of us ever go to that place, the place of arrogant self-affirmation. Let us, rather, always be and stay at that place of humility where we confess our sin and pray for the gift of the Holy Spirit.  As we so truthfully confess in LD 45 of the HC:  God will give his grace and the Holy Spirit only to those who constantly and with heartfelt longing ask him for these gifts and thank him for them. AMEN


* As a matter of courtesy please advise Rev. George van Popta, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.
(c) Copyright 2012, Rev. George van Popta

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