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Monday, February 25, 2013

Acts 8: Christian or Churchian?

Acts 8: Christian or Churchian?

Acts 8:18-19

Wide landscape view, deep blue sky, horizon marked by distant green trees, flat land. A small, white church building stands in the center of the frame, with a tall belfry and sharp steeple. The building is flanked on both sides with green trees. A small white house, perhaps the parsonage, peeks from behind the trees on the left side. The image evokes peaceful, quiet faith. Is the faith in the building, in the power of peace, or in their God?

What has gone before...

Simon believed, and was baptized, and must have been among the crowd that received the Holy Spirit. He understood that Peter and John had a special relationship with God that gave them the authority, or the power, to confer the Holy Spirit upon others.

Simon wanted the same authority, the same power, as Peter and John.

Moving on...

Acts 8:18-19 (ESV) "Now when Simon saw that the Spirit was given through the laying on of the apostles’ hands, he offered them money, saying, - Give me this power also, so that anyone on whom I lay my hands may receive the Holy Spirit."

This is the same word used to describe the authority and power of Christ (Matthew 7:29; 9:6). This is the power given to the twelve disciples (Matthew 10:1). It was the power offered by the devil (Luke 4:6). It is the power of God to cast souls into hell (Luke 12:5). It was the power of darkness that murdered Christ (Luke 22:53).

Pilate claimed to have this power over all who lived in Jerusalem, yet Jesus claimed that no one has power except that given by God (John 19:10-11).

Simon sought the authority to confer power upon others. He wanted to be able to lay hands on people, causing them to receive the Holy Spirit. He wanted power beyond that already given him by God.

Simon wanted to be a "grand wizard", as was Peter and John, at least in his estimation. His offer to purchase a divine power seems to have sprung directly from his previous life as a magician.

Peter's response to Simon was direct and strong, even harsh:

"But Peter said to him, - May your silver perish with you, because you thought you could obtain the gift of God with money!" Acts 8:20 (ESV)

Simon called it "power", and Peter called it "the gift of God".

GIFT OF GOD: dorea (a gratuity) and theos (a deity); from doron (a present, specially a sacrifice)

Peter regarded the "gift of God" as being the baptism of the Holy Spirit:

"As I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell on them just as on us at the beginning. And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he said, - John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit. -If then God gave the same gift to them as he gave to us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could stand in God's way?" Acts 11:15-17 (ESV)

Jesus described Himself as "the gift of God" (John 4:10). Paul specifically described God's grace as a gift:

"If many died through one man's trespass, much more have the grace of God and the free gift by the grace of that one man Jesus Christ abounded for many." Romans 5:15 (ESV)

"God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that having all sufficiency in all things at all times, you may abound in every good work...Thanks be to God for his inexpressible gift!" 2 Corinthians 9:8,15 (ESV)

GRACE: charis (graciousness, as gratifying); from chairo (to be "cheer"ful, calmly happy or well-off, to be well)

At the heart of every gift of God is grace: the gift of happiness and well-being, of all sufficiency and abundance. Whether expressed in boldly proclaiming Christ, or in miracles of healing and restoration, the ultimate goal and purpose of God's Holy Spirit in our life is that of grace: undeserved, gracious treatment that brings happiness and satisfaction.

Simon was light-years away from happiness and satisfaction.

"You have neither part nor lot in this matter, for your heart is not right before God. Repent, therefore, of this wickedness of yours, and pray to the Lord that, if possible, the intent of your heart may be forgiven you. For I see that you are in the gall of bitterness and in the bond of iniquity." Acts 8:21-23 (ESV)

HEART NOT RIGHT: kardia (the heart; the thoughts or feelings of one's mind; the middle of a person); from kar ("heart") and ou euthys (not straight, not level, not true); from eu (well) and tithemi (to place, in a passive or horizontal posture)

Simon's thoughts and feelings were misplaced. His fundamental desires and understandings were out of order, out of place and warped.

Peter's term for people who have hearts that are not right is "unrighteous":

"The Lord knows how to rescue the godly from trials, and to keep the unrighteous under punishment until the day of judgment, and especially those who indulge in the lust of defiling passion and despise authority...They have eyes full of adultery, insatiable for sin. They entice unsteady souls. They have hearts trained in greed. Accursed children!" 2 Peter 2:9-10, 14 (ESV)

Peter confronted Simon's wickedness.

WICKEDNESS: kakia (badness, depravity, malignity or trouble); from kakos (intrinsically worthless, depraved or injurious)

It is difficult to imagine Simon as a Christian. He thought he could obtain divine power through buying it with silver. Peter confronts his deep, inner wickedness, using a word that is often translated as malice. Similar wicked maliciousness is found in the Bible describing the "unrighteous", those doomed to eternal wrath.

Yet Simon's desire, on the surface, was good. The power demonstrated by Peter and John was godly power, obviously approved of by God, working miraculous changes in people, all for the good.

Peter, however, saw the root of wickedness that motivated Simon's desire from the beginning: bitterness and iniquity.

"For I see that you are in the gall of bitterness and in the bond of iniquity." Acts 8:23 (ESV)

BITTERNESS: pikria (acridity, especially poison); from pikros (sharp, pungent, acrid); perhaps from pegnymi (to fix, as a "peg"; to set up a tent)

INIQUITY: adikia (injustice, moral wrongfulness of character, life or act); from adikos (unjust, wicked, treacherous, heathen)

WHAT DO YOU THINK? Was Simon a genuine believer? Have you ever met a person similar to Simon? How was your conversion different from that of Simon's? Is it important that a person's standing with God be clearly understood by others?

Peter saw beneath the surface appearance of Simon, discerning the intent of his heart, the purpose of his thoughts and emotions. Asking for the power to confer the Holy Spirit upon others was not sin. Offering to purchase this authority was foolish, but not a grave sin. There was, however, deep within Simon, a piercing bitterness that motivated him to lust for the power. Peter saw that Simon was bound, body and soul, to wicked desires.

We know little about Simon. Little is revealed that would explain how his bitter entanglement in sin began, or what evidence of it was seen by Peter. This, however, was not the first time that Peter had discerned wickedness deeply hidden by cheerful faces. Peter confronted the secret lies of Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5:1).

How could Simon be harboring deep, acrid bitterness, being bound by wicked thoughts and desires, after hearing and accepting the words of salvation from Philip, after joyfully being baptized, after being part of a group which had experienced the Holy Spirit's falling upon them?

Christians are not immune to bitterness and wickedness. Christians remain human, even after spiritual conversion to children of God, and humans on earth are wicked.

All humans.

"All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one. - Their throat is an open grave; they use their tongues to deceive. - The venom of asps is under their lips. - Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness." Romans 3:12-14 (ESV)

Paul was citing Psalms 10 when he condemned all humanity as "full of curses and bitterness". Yet later he used the same words in warning to Christians:

"Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you." Ephesians 4:29-32 (ESV)

The Ephesian Christians were sealed for the day of redemption and Christ had forgiven them, yet still Paul felt he needed to urge them to put aside their bitterness and malice.

We cannot be quick to heedlessly dismiss Simon's sin as due to a failure to accept Christ and become a Christian.

It is possible that Simon was a genuine Christian. More than possible, it seems probable that he was a child of God, however dirty his heart appears.

Christians require confrontation of their sinful behavior, or at least their tendency toward sinful behavior, or their desire for sinful behavior.

Simon's wickedness is not necessarily evidence that he was not a believer.

It is the sad tendency of genuine Christians to relax in God's grace and flirt with the sin that had once separated them from their Saviour. Free from guilt of sin, free from fear of God's wrath, we tend to imagine ourselves free to dress ourselves at times in our old clothing.

Peter described this as a Christian cover-up.

"Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God." 1 Peter 2:16 (ESV)

"Evil" is the same word as "wickedness" or "malice".

Peter's response to Simon, while harsh and confrontational, supports the notion that Peter yet considered Simon to be a Christian:

"Repent, therefore, of this wickedness of yours, and pray to the Lord that, if possible, the intent of your heart may be forgiven you. For I see that you are in the gall of bitterness and in the bond of iniquity." Acts 8:22-23 (ESV)

Peter did not urge Simon to "believe on the Lord Jesus". He did not call him a "child of wrath", nor did he describe him as "seed sown along the path", snatched up by the evil one. Peter did not treat Simon as he had treated Anania and Sapphira, predicting their immediate death and dismissing them without any suggestion of redemption or forgiveness.

Rather, Peter urged Simon to deal with his sin as only a Christian can deal with any sin: repent and seek forgiveness.

REPENT: metanoeo (to think differently, to think afterwards, to reconsider or feel compunction); from meta (accompaniment, "amid", association or succession; participation, proximity, transfer or sequence)

Divine intervention is required for a person to think differently, to regard their condition as sinful. Natural, unsaved, unredeemed people resist the notion that they have sinned.

PRAY: deomai (to beg, as if binding oneself; petition); from deo (to bind)

Only believers pray. Only believers have a heart that has been soften and humiliated, made willing to cling to the feet of a Judge, begging for mercy.

Only a Christian can repent of sin and seek forgiveness. Only a Christian can be given a heart that recognizes sin, and sees God as Saviour, and seeks His forgiveness.

Unbelievers do not recognize their sin. Unbelievers see pain and sorrow follow their choices, but they blame others, or they change behavior to improve their condition, or they curse God.

"People gnawed their tongues in anguish and cursed the God of heaven for their pain and sores. They did not repent of their deeds." Revelations 16:10-11 (ESV)

God does not forgive unbelievers. God pours wrath upon those who are blind to their sin and unwilling to think differently.

"Therefore repent. If not, I will come to you soon and war against them with the sword of my mouth...Remember, then, what you received and heard. Keep it, and repent. If you will not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what hour I will come against you...Because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth. For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked." Revelations 2:16; 3:3,16-17 (ESV)

Did Simon repent? Did he agree with Peter's assessment of his inward, sinful condition? Did he regard Jesus as his Only Hope, his Merciful Judge Who forgives?

"And Simon answered, - Pray for me to the Lord, that nothing of what you have said may come upon me." Acts 8:24 (ESV)

What had Peter said? What fearful consequence Peter described concerning Simon's sin if left unforgiven? Four woes appear imminent unless Simon's heart becomes straight, free from bitterness and iniquity.

  • Perish
  • Neither part nor lot
  • Gall
  • Bond

PERISH: eien (might) and eis (to or into) and apoleia (ruin or loss, whether physical, spiritual or eternal); from apollymi (to destroy fully; to perish or lose, literal or figurative); from apo ("off" or away) and ollumi (to destroy; ruin, death or punishment)

Three Greek words are used to describe this first consequence of unforgiven sin. We translate the three words with a single English word: "perish". Together, the three words imply that the destruction is not certain, but it is final and catastrophic. The conditional word, "might", probably refers to the issue of repentence and forgiveness. Peter is acting as judge, determinining Simon's guilt and appointing him to punishment, but there still remains the possibility of pardon.

NEITHER PART NOR LOT: ou (absolute negative) and meris (a portion) and oude (not however) and kleros (a die, for drawing chances; an acquisition)

"This matter" refers to the conferring of the Holy Spirit upon others by the laying on of hands. This divine privilege is obtainable, as in the example of Peter and John. However, "neither part nor lot" implies that Simon is not eligible for the least of God's consideration. It's as if God were the wealthy patriarch who is considering what portions of his estate to give as inheritance to his children. Each child would be given a die, or a token, representing different portions of the wealth. The die would be cast, or the token drawn at random, thereby determining their share.

Simon is not even involved in the drawing...he's given no die or token.

As it stands now, according to Peter, Simon is completely excluded from any consideration by God concerning the power, or the privilege, of conferring upon others the Holy Spirit.

GALL: chole ("gall" or bile, meaning poison or anodyne, such as wormwood or poppy); from Chloe ("green", the name of a woman)

BOND: syndesmos (a joint tie, a ligament; uniting principle or control); from syn (union; with or together) and desmon (a band; a ligament of the body, a shackle of a prisoner; an impediment or disability)

Peter describes four consequences of Simon's sin.

  • Perish: destruction and loss
  • Neither part nor lot: separation from God
  • Gall: a poisoned life
  • Bond: a shackled life

Simon is shaken. He begs Peter to intervene. In his plea to Peter, Simon is making, second-hand, a prayer of desperation to God, begging to be pardoned for his sin, pleading for a blotting out of his wickedness.

Only a Christian can realize the depth and consequence of sin. Only a Christian can pray for forgiveness.

Simon's understanding of Christ is shallow. He fails to realize that there is nothing preventing him from appealing to Christ himself. He only sees the wickedness of his sin, and he feels so completely dirty and inadequate that he fears to be so bold as to speak directly to Jesus.

But it is to Jesus that he does appeal, although the appeal is made through Peter. Simon recognizes God's right to punish sin, and he agrees that his inner condition is sinful, and he clings to the hope that Jesus is the Savior of sinners.

WHAT DO YOU THINK? Do you struggle with attacks of bitterness or malice, even now as a Christian? Have you experienced the frustrating, empty aftermath of sinful actions or thoughts, even now as a Christian? What now is your opinion of Simon's spiritual condition? Was he a genuine Christian before he met Peter or after he met Peter? Or not at all?

Notice Peter's conditional confrontation, "if possible":

IF POSSIBLE: ei (conditionality: if, whether, that) and ara (an inference, more or less decisive); probably from airo (to lift, to take up or take away; to raise, keep in suspense; to sail away, as to weigh anchor)

FORGIVEN: aphiemi (to send forth); from apo ("off", away) and hiemi (to send); from eimi (to go)

Peter regards the wicked intention in Simon's heart as the potential cause of four terrible consequences. The terrible consequences, however, are not certain to occur. In this moment of confrontation, Simon's life is balanced between joy and sorrow. What will determine his future? Will it be joyful or sorrowful? Simon's repentence and prayer is not the determining factor. Peter is saying to Simon that the terrible consequences of sin depend, not upon Simon's heart and mind, but upon God alone. Peter urges Simon to repent and pray, but even so the consequences remain possible.

Notice that "forgiven" literally means, "to send forth". If Peter regards Simon as a believer, and there is no evidence to the contrary, then his conditional use of the word "forgiven" does not apply to Simon's salvation, but rather to the consequences of Simon's sin, or "the intent" of his heart.

Simon is pleading for rescue from four dreadful consequences of sin:

  • Loss and destruction
  • Separation from God
  • A poisoned life
  • A shackled life

Peter is urging Simon to repent and ask forgiveness of God, but he implies that the result of his prayer is conditional...it depends upon God.

Can this be so?

Can it be that a Christian might live always with the possibility of destruction and loss, poison and enslavement, even after genuine repentence?

Yes.

None of us, Christian or not, can sustain our own righteous standing before God. Peter is completely justified in confronting Simon with the conditional consequences of sin. Our well-being depends upon the continual grace and mercy of God. No action or thought or behavior or lifestyle of ours obligates God to treat any of us in a "nice" way. Our happiness, our health, our wealth, and even our eternal security in Him rests continually upon His constant favor.

Peter cannot guarantee that God will straighten out Simon's heart, replacing wicked intentions with righteous rejoicing. No man can command God. Everything is under God's control. Everything is subject to His grace and determination.

How then do we survive?

How can we live under a "conditional" salvation?

Our eternal, unshakeable confidence and hope is not based upon our own actions or attitudes. Rather, it is based upon what we know of God.

God is good, completely good.

God is powerful, completely powerful.

God is wise, completely wise.

God is loving, completely loving.

"The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness." Exodus 34:6 (ESV)

"You have granted me life and steadfast love, and your care has preserved my spirit." Job 10:12 (ESV)

"By your favor, O Lord, you made my mountain stand strong; you hid your face; I was dismayed. To you, O Lord, I cry, and to the Lord I plead for mercy. What profit is there in my death, if I go down to the pit? Will the dust praise you? Will it tell of your faithfulness? Hear, O Lord, and be merciful to me! O Lord, be my helper! You have turned for me my mourning into dancing; you have loosed my sackcloth and clothed me with gladness, that my glory may sing your praise and not be silent. O Lord my God, I will give thanks to you forever!" Psalms 30:7-12 (ESV)

WHAT DO YOU THINK? Does the notion of "conditional" salvation bother you? Does it oppose, or support, the doctrine of eternal salvation? To what else might Peter have been describing when he said, "if possible"?

Country church landscape by Darryl, Creative Commons Licence