After Stephen was murdered, a more general persecution of Jesus-followers in Jerusalem began. The apostles remained in the city, but other believers fled to outlying areas. Some even went north into Samaria, despite the ongoing ethnic and religious rift between Samaritans and Jews.
But they didn’t go there to fight, and they didn’t go there to just quietly lay low. They brought the gospel with them.
Philip, like Stephen, was one of the seven Greek-speaking Jews chosen in Acts 6 as what today we might call deacons. And also like Stephen, his gifts went well beyond serving tables. Luke writes:
Philip went down to a city in Samaria and began to preach Christ to them. The crowds were united by what they heard Philip say and the signs they saw him perform, and they gave him their undivided attention. With loud shrieks, unclean spirits came out of many people, and many who were paralyzed or crippled were healed. There was great rejoicing in that city. (Acts 8:5-8, CEB)
The fact that these Samaritans listened closely to Philip and rejoiced over the miracles he did doesn’t necessarily mean that they gave themselves to Jesus on the spot. Indeed, the verb Luke uses to describe the “undivided attention” they gave to Philip is the same as the one for the attention they gave to a local sorcerer named Simon, whose magic tricks baffled them and made them think he had the power of God (we’ll see Simon’s story in the next post).
To these Samaritans, then, Philip may at first have been little more than the latest and greatest attraction. But if their adulation at first was superficial, it didn’t stay that way: “After they came to believe Philip, who preached the good news about God’s kingdom and the name of Jesus Christ, both men and women were baptized” (Acts 8:12).
Soon, the news got back to Jerusalem, and Peter and John were sent to Samaria to check it out. Think about it: this is the same John who, with his brother James, wanted to call down heavenly fire to incinerate an entire Samaritan village for having the cheek to snub Jesus.
It would have been a delicious, holy irony if John was being sent to the same city.
We’ll never know.
When Peter and John arrived, they prayed for these new believers to receive the Holy Spirit, and laid hands on them. Luke doesn’t say it directly, but one may presume from the context that something happened to show that the prayer had been answered.
Pentecost had come to Samaria. Of all places.
There’s been much chicken-and-egg debate over the relationship between belief, the receiving of the Holy Spirit, and the laying on of hands. Certainly, nothing can be proven from this passage alone, and I doubt that Luke intended to make a point one way or the other.
Instead, it’s worth pondering how the passage speaks to our own ethnic divisions and conflicts. The Jewish Christians (possibly mostly Greek-speakers) who fled Jerusalem brought the gospel to Samaria, and the Samaritans believed.
Who knows what the first reaction was among the apostles in Jerusalem? They must at least have wanted to be sure of what was happening, since this was (literally) new territory for them. They may also have been skeptical.
But what they didn’t do was write off the movement. And they didn’t second guess the ministry of Philip. Peter and John placed their hands on the people who were supposed to be their ethnic enemies and prayed for them to receive the Spirit — prayed for them to be part of the family God was building across geographical and ethnic boundaries.
That act alone would have spoken volumes to any Jewish believers who still wondered what God could be thinking.
And it should speak volumes to us, who still live according to our sometimes unacknowledged, self-righteous prejudices.