One-Chapter Wonder: Acts 8
Blogger note: I had, and have, high hopes to write for this blog every day. I have yet to attain to those hopes. As the old saying goes, “If at first you don’t succeed, skydiving is not for you.” Also, if at first you don’t succeed, try again. Then, if you still don’t succeed, redefine your goals. So, I’m redefining my goals. I intend to give you at least 3 good posts a week here, with 2 definitely in the Through the Whole Bible series, 1 probably from that series, and 1 post that is just the sermon recap from the preceding Sunday. Sorry to any of you whose hopes are dashed by this reduction.
The Book of Acts has the chapter breaks in some strange spots. Acts 8 (link) starts with 3 verses that really feel like they should be in Acts 7, but they start off this chapter. We see the remnant of the narrative of Stephen’s story, as devout men bury him and weep over his death. Meanwhile, foreshadowing hits as we see a man named Saul agreeing greatly with the execution and turning the execution of one man into a persecution against an entire population subset.
That is an alarming reality that continues to this day: it is possible for the persuasive to turn the crowds against a minority population, using only one or two cases to make their point. Dangerous in despotisms certainly, but it is also a fatal blow to liberty and freedom. The excesses that arise in times of general persecution of a group of people are frightening. Historical examples abound, whether the French Revolution, the Salem Witch Trials, or the repression of Baptists in the 17th century are your starting point, you can find these situations everywhere. One example lies just down the road from my house: it’s a place call Rowher, and it’s a reminder of how even a libertine republic can turn on people. There was a Japanese internment camp there. This is not like the Prisoner of War Camp that was near Monticello, though. This was a place where “right-thinking” Americans locked up their fellow citizens simply over skin tone.
Up the road the other way is the site of one of the larger lynch mob events in Arkansas during the Jim Crow era. We have a remarkable capacity for cruelty hidden in our hearts, and unleashing just a bit of it can be like the first sand boil on a levee: that trickle comes, then the whole thing fails.
This outbreak of persecution, the first general persecution of Christianity, results in the scattering of many of the believers. That which was concentrated in one place, Jerusalem, now begins to scatter across the Roman Empire. Likely some people even fled beyond the boundaries, toward the Parthian Empire and farther, but the history in Acts focuses on those within countries with a Mediterranean coast.
The church responds to persecution by clamming up and disappearing, for the faith they held was in something legendary and unknowable, therefore it failed in the light of Greek logic and Roman pluralism. After all, it was not a belief worth holding. So, the story ends here, and there is no real Christianity since then.
The church responds to persecution and scattering by going around, telling people about Jesus and teaching them about Him. In essence, trouble is met with obedience: the people, as they go, make disciples and teach them to follow Christ. One person of note is highlighted in this chapter, but I think he represents the many unnamed believers in this chapter, much as the one-hit singer who rises from karaoke night reminds us of all those who try to make it, who go and do, even if they are only known by the local folks.
That person is Philip. He, too, is one of those first men that we label “deacons” in the early church. However, if he and Stephen are any example, the modern Baptist church has the role of deacon quite wrong. That’s another discussion, though. Let us cast our glance toward the actions of Philip here.
He goes to Samaria. For a good Jew to go to Samaria is like a heavy metal band going to the Grand Ole Opry. The two groups just did not mix. Yet here he is. This is, perhaps, the first witness to the Samaritans since John 4 when Jesus was there Himself. He comes face-to-face with a man named Simon there who could do magic. People thought Simon was something, until they met Jesus.
Then Simon’s not the big draw anymore. The word of God reaches the Samaritans, and it even penetrates the magician’s heart. He believes, and marvels at the signs and miracles done by God through Philip and others. When word of all of this reaches Jerusalem, where most of the Twelve still are, they come to check it out. There is a conflict with Simon, because he wants to buy an apostleship. I might give him the benefit of the doubt and point out that he did not know much, and might have thought he was doing well. Nonetheless, he is rebuked and appears to repent.
Philip, having seen the new believers in Samaria baptized and beginning their walk in faith, follows angelic instructions to go elsewhere. He meets a eunuch from Ethiopia, explains Scripture to him, leads him to Jesus, baptizes him, and sends him on home. He then “finds himself at Azotus” (Acts 8:39) and preaches his way up to Caesarea. Then he promptly drops off the map, appearing in Acts 21 when Paul stops by. For all we have in Biblical record, Philip finds a life in Caesarea and spends his days there. We know he has four daughters, so one could rightly assume he married, but little else is known.
He is, basically, a one-chapter wonder in the New Testament. He does not write a book or even a letter. Whatever his preaching, however great its impact, it was not recorded in the text. Take a look back: he preaches, but no one seems to have recorded his sermon. We see miracles involved in his story, but the text does not accredit these done at Philip’s hand as we see of Peter or Paul.
In short, he’s there, he does what he can, and then he’s gone. His impact is eternal, but his fame was fleeting. I think the challenge for all of us is to realize that we are more likely to be Philip than to be Peter or Paul. Even more likely, we are the “those who had been scattered.” Our names are going to go down unknown to history. Can we cope with that?
Or do we need the acclaim of men so badly that we want to be more? I think this is Simon’s error in Acts 8:19. He wants to go back to being famous, but he cannot. It is not for him to demand or pay for the role: it is for God to grant.
Yet we need to remember this: the Gospel message was not carried only by the big guns of the New Testament. There were the less famous, like Philip and his daughters (Acts 21:9). There were the unknown. Yet we sit here, 2000 years later, saved by grace, living by faith, and guided by the Spirit through the Word because of what all of them did. We are believers because as they scattered, they did not hide. They went about, telling the story. Let us take on the same thing.
Today’s Nerd Note: Simon in this story is also called Simon Magus or Simon the Magician. He is condemned by church history in a couple of ways.
First, he contributes a dictionary entry: simony, the practice of buying/selling ecclesiastical positions. See, in government that’s called normal, but it’s really considered bad in ministry. Yet it was the entrenched practice for many generations. In truth, clerical celibacy evolved in connection with simony: there had to be no way for anyone to inherit a church position, so that it could be resold. So, no marriages for priests. There were additional reasons, but this was part of the logic.
The other thing Simon gets hit with is being the father of heresy in the church. The story is told that he never truly converted, but he was in the church and his fame and charisma allowed him to influence the Samaritan church to believe things not quite true. From there, many of the problems are traced into the flow of church history.
Here is my difficulty: early church history is a good study field, but it’s a challenging one as well. As with many writings of the time, facts and interpretations sit side-by-side and both are often not written for some time after events. Simon may be being scapegoated on this one. Then again, he may be guilty as charged.
He may sit in heaven rejoicing that God’s grace was enough not only for the crimes he committed but also for the ones he never did. He may long for the day he is exonerated before humanity. Or he faces eternal wrath from God for what he did and his refusal of God’s grace.
We don’t know. I don’t know. In this, we are reminded to trust God to judge and not do it ourselves.
The nerdy side of this is this question: What do we do with early church legends? Some of them are more reliable than others. All of these should be approached with the same skepticism we greet any other historical document with, though. It is an article of faith that the Scriptures are accurate. Semi-paranoid reticence about other documents is good, though.