The Acts of the Spirit, Part 4: The Evangelization of the Samaritans
Joseph D. McPherson
Date Posted June 11, 2009

Most interesting is St. Luke's account in Acts 8 of the evangelization of a people known as Samaritans. They were a mixture of Jewish and Gentile extraction. Their religion was likewise a mixture or mongrel kind of faith and worship. For these reasons, we understand that the Jews despised them even more than they despised the Gentiles.

Under the impact of persecution that followed the martyrdom of Stephen the disciples were scattered abroad "throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles." Up to this time Christian believers had been concentrated in Jerusalem. This scattering of the disciples was in accord with the command of Christ: "When they persecute you in this city, flee to another" (Matt 10:23). A literal obedience to this command resulted in a rapid spreading of the Gospel. It was in a city of Samaria that Philip proclaimed Christ with boldness. He like Stephen was one of the seven lay officers or deacons chosen to supervise the temporal affairs of the church. This man, who was first a deacon, later became an effective evangelist.

We are informed in verses 6-8 that "multitudes [of the Samaritans] gave heed with one accord unto those things that were, spoken by Philip, when they heard, and saw the signs which he did. For from many of those that had unclean spirits, they came out, crying with a loud voice: and many that were palsied, and that were lame, were healed. And there was much joy in the city." Their joy was the result of hearing the good news of the Gospel and witnessing various miracles of healing.

This story, however, is far from over at this point. What follows is an account of two leading apostles being sent to follow up the ministry of Philip. "Now when the apostles which were in Jerusalem heard that Samaria had received the word of God, they sent unto them Peter and John: Who when they were come down, prayed for them, that they might receive the Holy Ghost: (For as yet he was fallen upon none of them: only they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. Then laid they their hands on them, and they received the Holy Ghost." These words reflect a sense of urgency among the leading apostles at Jerusalem. It was without delay that Peter and John were sent to Samaria.

There have been different explanations offered for the meaning of this passage. For instance, there are those who wish to believe that all these Samaritans were recipients of a measure of the Spirit common to regenerated believers and that Peter and John were sent to be instruments of God's dispensing miraculous gifts upon a few consecrated leaders. The context, however, does not show this to be the Apostles' intention and purpose. The concern of the leaders in Jerusalem was that the Holy Spirit "as yet was fallen upon none of them."

Others see Peter and John as human instruments by which the Samaritans were entirely sanctified through their receiving the Holy Ghost on this occasion. Some are even of the persuasion that the Holy Spirit is received only in the work of entire sanctification. These views reflect an exceedingly low and unscriptural standard of regeneration.

We believe that a third view will appear more reasonable and far more scriptural. To assist us, however, in our understanding of this unusual occurrence let us first consider other New Testament sites wherein the Holy Ghost was given to newborn converts.

We know that the Corinthian believers were not only babes in Christ but carnal and yet the Apostle Paul assures them in 1 Corinthians 3:16, that "the Spirit of God dwelleth in you." Again in 6:19 he writes: "your body is the temple of the Holy Ghost which is in you." In the same letter wherein he prays that the Thessalonian believers might be sanctified "wholly," he testifies that they had become "followers of the Lord, having received the word ... with joy of the Holy Ghost" (1 Thess 1:6). Again, he testifies to the fact that the Galatian believers had previously "begun in the Spirit" (Gal 3:3). We therefore have scriptural assurance that justified and regenerated believers are in possession of the Holy Ghost even before they are entirely sanctified. Jesus promised His disciples in Acts 1:5 that they would "be baptized with the Holy Ghost not many days hence." "And so are all true believers, to the end of the world," wrote Mr. Wesley.

In one of his letters to Joseph Benson, Mr. Wesley gave a lengthy description of what it is to be entirely sanctified. He then ended with the following statement: "If they like to call this 'receiving the Holy Ghost,' they may; only the phrase, in that sense, is not scriptural, and not quite proper; for they all 'received the Holy Ghost' when they were justified. God then 'sent forth the Spirit of his son into their hearts, crying, Abba, Father.' O Joseph, keep close to the Bible, both as to sentiment and expression!"

We find St. Paul assuring the Corinthian babes in Christ that "by one Spirit are we all baptized into one body ... and have been all made to drink into one Spirit" (1Cor 12:13). This single verse makes it clear that by the baptism of the Holy Spirit we all enter the body of Christ, becoming new Christian converts and members of His Church. With a believer's continued obedience of faith and a walking in the light, this same Holy Spirit is sure to bring that soul to full cleansing and a state of perfection so often mentioned in the New Testament. "Being confident of this very thing," writes Paul to the Philippians, "that he which hath begun a good work in you will perfect it." When Christ justifies believers, he has also begun the work of sanctification and is sure to carry on this work unto perfection in hearts who are faithful to the grace continually given them.

Dr. Robert Lyon makes the following observations:

It is said ... that they [the Samaritans] believed Philip's message (v. 12). They had received the word (v. 14) and had been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus (v. 16). This account sounds as if they were truly converted. But questions arise. Everything that is said about the Samaritans is also said of Simon Magus who certainly had problems. If they were Christians, so was he at this point. Further, the reference in verse 16 to the fact that the Holy Spirit has not yet fallen upon them sounds as though this is abnormal and a surprise. Something was not quite right. I suggest, then, that the sending of Peter and John was to provide some sort of corrective. One thing, however, is quite certain, viz., that when Peter and John laid their hands upon them and they "received" the Holy Spirit, it was their first experience of the Spirit and cannot be counted as a second experience. In the schema of the book (see 1:8) it is the incorporation of the Samaritans into the body. It was, so to speak, the culmination of their conversion.

Yes, the receiving of the Holy Spirit was, as Dr. Lyon concludes, "the culmination of their conversion." It is scripturally impossible for any to be evangelically regenerated without receiving the Holy Spirit. An early church Father by the name of Origen infers that until the arrival of Peter and John on the scene the initial salvation process of the Samaritans was "not complete." Another church Father by the name of Cyprian assures us that "Peter and John supplied what [the Samaritans] lacked" toward their salvation. One will search in vain to find early church Fathers and later reformers teaching that Peter and John were instruments by whom the Samaritans received the experience of entire sanctification.

Saving faith according to Mr. Wesley "is a gift of God. No man is able to work it in himself. It is a work of omnipotence. It requires no less power thus to quicken a dead soul, than to raise a body that lies in the grave. It is a new creation and none can create a soul anew, but He who at first created the heavens and the earth."

James Dunn believes that there are a number of reasons for concluding that the faith and commitment of the Samaritans under Philip's preaching were defective. After a thorough exegesis and study of this passage in the Greek New Testament, Dunn concludes in a convincing manner that the faith of the Samaritans was more of a mental assent to the truth preached by Philip and was lacking in full commitment. A New Testament scholar by the name of William H. Baker informs us that "New Testament use of the word believe can have a range of meaning, from mental assent to certain facts (John 2:23; James 2:19) to justifying commitment (Rom 10:9-10)." The Samaritans seem to have believed the man Philip but lacked a vital faith in Christ Jesus which alone brings the kingdom of heaven to the human heart with regenerating power. These Samaritans might be considered Christians in an outward form only, but not in the New Testament sense of the word. Such could be said of many in today's congregations. They may have been baptized. They may have appeared at our altars. Better yet they may have given full mental assent to the doctrines of the Gospel and even rejoiced in the truth without ever experiencing the inward reception of the Holy Spirit.

We have already noticed that when the apostles in Jerusalem learned that the Holy Spirit was not yet fallen upon the Samaritans through Philip's ministry, they dispatched Peter and John immediately to the scene. Their praying and laying hands on the Samaritans resulted in their receiving or being baptized with the Holy Spirit. Interestingly, we know that the Corinthians were not yet entirely sanctified when Paul wrote to them his two letters. Yet we also know that he had previously lived and ministered in Corinth for a period of eighteen months. Can it be thought possible that during that eighteen months of ministry he would have failed to lay hands on the Corinthians that they might receive or be baptized in the Holy Ghost? Doubtless this was the way by which they came to have the Spirit of God dwelling within them (1Cor 3:16; 6:19).

"The mistake of many commentators," writes Dunn, "is to assume that because the conditions of Acts 2:38 had apparently been fulfilled, therefore, [the Samaritans] were Christians and in possession of the Spirit. The New Testament way is rather to say: Because the Spirit has not been given, therefore the conditions have not been met. This," continues Dunn, "is why Luke puts so much emphasis on the Samaritans' final reception of the Spirit, for it is God's giving of the Spirit which makes [one] a Christian, and, in the last analysis, nothing else."

St. Paul assures the Romans that "if any man have not the Spirit of Christ, he is none of his" (Rom 8:9). Dr. Lyon assures us that "From Pentecost on, all believers receive at conversion the Holy Spirit as promised.... No biblical basis exists," says he, "for a distinction between receiving the Spirit and being baptized in ... the Spirit." Furthermore, he concludes that, "The dynamic of conversion to Jesus Christ is such that perfection in love [or entire sanctification] is the mandatory follow-up." It is not sufficiently realized that in New Testament times the possession of the Spirit was the hallmark of the Christian. The apostles did not conclude, as many would today, that merely being baptized or merely going forward to the altar is proof of having received the Spirit. The fact that these Samaritans had not yet received the Holy Spirit under Philip's ministry is a critical factor in this narrative. Luke's aim is to highlight the difference between true and false Christianity. He, like the apostle Paul, emphasized the great difference between the Christian and non-Christian. Only the Christian is in possession of the Holy Spirit.