Oct. 21, 2012
Background Scripture: Acts 8:4-24
Devotional Reading: 1 Corinthians 1:18-25
To spare you some confusion, I need to point out that Philip the Deacon (one of The Seven) in Acts 8 is not the same person as Philip the Apostle (one of the Twelve) in the four gospels.
In Mark 3:18, Matthew 10:3 and Luke 6:14 he is mentioned simply as one of the apostles. But in John we learn quite a bit more; he is among the first apostles called by Jesus (1:42), instrumental in bringing Nathaniel to Jesus (1:45-49), mentioned in the feeding of the 5,000 (6:3-7) and in one of Jesus’ major discourses (14:8,9). In John 1:43 Jesus calls Philip to “Follow me,” and this future apostle is from Bethsaida, the home also of Andrew and Peter.
On the other hand, Philip the Deacon, also known as Philip the Evangelist, is introduced to us in Acts 8:4. Like Stephen, he was one of the seven who were chosen to superintend the distribution of food (Acts 6:1-6).
Also, like Stephen, although he was chosen to relieve the apostles from the nitty-gritty work of the congregation, Philip immediately did some preaching and teaching with spectacular results: “Philip went down to the city of Samaria and proclaimed the Messiah to them. The crowds with one accord listened eagerly to what was said by Philip, hearing and seeing the signs that he did …” (8:4-8).
So, his work for Jesus included not only waiting on tables, but also witnessing for Christ. The title “deacon” was appropriate for these seven deacons, because in Greek it can mean a “servant,” an “attendant” or a “minister” (one who serves).
In “authority” the apostles were preeminent, but in “service,” none exceeded the deacons. Preaching and teaching were not in the job description, but Philip was willing to go beyond those expectations. (Are you?)
Another event in this passage is the evangelization of Samaria. We need to remember the Samaritans despised the Jews and the Jews hated the Samaritans. In 722 B.C. the Assyrians carried the upper echelon of the Jews into captivity and non-Jews settled the territory, intermarrying with the Jews left behind. In time they built their own temple on Mt. Gerizim and developed their own liturgy and scriptures.
To the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem, preaching the Gospel in Samaria was unthinkable. But, at God’s prodding, that is what they did, and these Jewish disciples of Jesus were coming to realize that the Gospel was for all, not just the Jews.
So, on one hand, persecution of Christians forced many to flee Jerusalem and Judea, but God was able to use that persecution for His purposes. Joseph had reassured his brothers although they sold him into slavery, God used this act of theirs to accomplish His purpose: “Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today” (Gen. 50:20).
Similarly, in the early days of the Jerusalem Christians, persecutors intended to wipe them out, but God used this intention to accomplish His ultimate will: To propel the good news of Jesus Christ out into all Palestine and the world beyond. God can and does still work in this manner today.
Another example of God’s power to bring good out of bad is evident in that the Christian Jews of Jerusalem were moved to overcome their anti-Samaritan prejudice and they sent two apostles, Peter and John, to the new converts in Samaria. This was a landmark occasion.
Recently, we learned of the death of Neil Armstrong, the first human being to set foot on the moon. We recall his proclamation from its surface: “One small step for man; one giant leap for mankind.” The acceptance of Samaritan Christians into the early church may seem a small step to us, but it was truly a giant leap for the followers of Jesus. (What giant leaps might we make today?)
A gifted man?
I had remembered Simon Magus as a despicable man, but as I re-read Acts 8:9-24, I discovered instead of ending in condemnation, the story of Simon, as far as it goes in Acts, is one of possible redemption.
He was obviously a gifted man who rode a wave of popularity with the crowds. Seeing the gift of the Holy Spirit with the laying-on-of hands, Simon’s materialistic mind assumed this power was a commodity to purchase. And he wanted it.
From Simon’s name and opportunistic outlook comes the term “simony,” meaning the practice of buying or selling church offices and positions of authority – long a practice in the Church. Actually, it occurs to me that his attitude is not as rare today as we might suspect.
For some, the Gospel is a power to exploit, and there are those who preach a gospel of prosperity: “God wants you to have all these goodies!” All too often it is assumed that success in the church is measured by a dollar sign. If a minister is “successful” in his ministry, it is expected to show in the way he dresses, the cars he drives and the mansions in which he and his family live.
If that is truly the measuring stick, then Jesus was an abject failure.
The story of Simon, I believe, can end on an upbeat note: “Pray for me to the Lord, that nothing of what you have said may happen to me” (8:24). True, he is focused on escaping the consequences that Peter has described, but perhaps Simon can be converted from what he has been to what he can become.
Perhaps we can, too.
The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of Farm World.