Real Repentance vs. Counterfeit Conversions
But when they believed Philip preaching the things concerning the kingdom of God, and the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptized, both men and women. Then Simon himself believed also: and when he was baptized, he continued with Philip, and wondered, beholding the miracles and signs which were done. (The Acts 8:12-13)
The Word of God is always applicable to all of us at all times.
Sometimes, though, it’s as if the Lord tailored a text just for you and me in Greene County.
Take this morning’s passage, for instance. In only a few verses of sacred history, you and I find three distinct threads, each of which we need to hear: a word of encouragement; a word of joy; and a word of warning. That’s good news for the struggling saints – and for the false professors of Christ – in our community.
In The Acts 8:3-25 – the account of Philip’s preaching and Peter’s ministry in Samaria – the Lord encourages you who are suffering from others’ sins: He is still working out His perfect plan for you. The Lord speaks joy to you who love Christ: indeed, your sins are forgiven. And the Lord speaks a warning to all of you who profess to follow Jesus: check your heart, lest your confession of Christ be found false.
Jesus truly does bring you genuine joy – but only if your faith in him is genuine.
We first encounter a word of encouragement for those of us struggling in a sin-scarred world: God is working through others’ sins to perfect His plan for your life.
A moment ago we noted that this passage records the ministries of Philip, Peter and John in Samaria, but it’s important first to understand how they even started preaching in Samaria. You’ll observe that Saul – the witness to St. Stephen’s martyrdom – was going from house to house wreaking havoc on the church. Saul was a monster, ravaging the church by imprisoning whomsoever he chose.
Surely it wasn’t fun to be the object of Saul’s viciousness. You and I scarcely can imagine what it must’ve felt like to be a Christian back in those days, living within reach of Saul’s long, hateful arm.
But the glorious news is this: our victorious and sovereign Lord Jesus Christ works through and overcomes the evil of others to bring about his perfect plan in your life and mine!
Because of Saul’s persecution of the Christians in Jerusalem, some of the apostles were scattered and forced to go down to Samaria and preach the good news of Christ’s atoning work. You’ll recall that the Samaritans weren’t exactly accepted as full Jews; they were racially mixed and, therefore, often scorned by the Jews in Jerusalem.
Yet they were sinners.
And they needed Jesus, just as badly as any other set of humans.
Our gracious Lord knew this; so He used Saul’s sinful persecution of the church in Jerusalem to force His preachers to go where they hadn’t planned on going. The Lord used the struggles of the Jerusalem Christians to bring the saving light of Jesus to the Samaritans.
As we’ve seen in the record of Joseph in Genesis – or even in the imprisonment of the apostles earlier in Acts – what malefactors intend for evil, God works for good. Now, this isn’t an endorsement of sin by any means. Rather, it’s a word of encouragement to struggling saints.
Perhaps someone at work is treating you hatefully; a superior unfairly might have placed you on a new, less-appealing, project or detail. Perhaps a situation in your life doesn’t work out like you planned because of others’ failure. Perhaps someone has spread lies about you, forcing you out of your previous environment.
Certainly it hurts. And no, it’s not fair.
But Christian, take comfort: Jesus, who is victorious over all evil, is able to use the wickedness of others to do great things in your life.
The Lord secondly speaks a word of joy to you and me: genuine joy, flowing from genuine conversion to Jesus Christ.
Sometimes it’s easy to get caught up in the day-to-day rhythm of life and take salvation for granted. Reading an account of conversion like this one, however, reminds you and me just how joyous it is to be a child of the living God.
Philip, Doctor Luke informs us, preached Christ to them. He preached the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus to the Samaritans; those phrases encapsulate the saving work of Jesus Christ in his life, death, resurrection and ascension – and that’s what Philip preached to them. Even today, it’s the gospel, and only the gospel, that saves souls.
Of course you and I note the miraculous signs Philip worked among the Samaritans, but remember that those miracles only confirmed the gospel’s truth: they were not the object, but rather the catalyst, of faith for the Samaritans. It’s interesting to note how Luke mentions the “loud cries” with which the evil spirits left those converts: Satan is Christ’s ever-present and fierce enemy, crying even to the end; but Jesus is still too powerful for him! Jesus, likewise, is more powerful than any guilt or spiritual foe you might face as well.
The Spirit of God clearly was at work in these Samaritans. They had, to a man, once followed a sorcerer named Simon, who had bewitched them for many years with his magic. Indeed, they referred to him as the “great power of God” – did they go so far as to reverence him as God?
For years they had walked in darkness and in evil. They had loved lies. Now, however, those Samaritans were listening to Philip with rapt attention, receiving the word of Christ and turning from their former ways. Luke also tells us that Peter and John came as official emissaries from the Jerusalem church to lay hands on the Samaritans and pray the Holy Spirit to come down on them, empowering them for further service to Christ. (You’ll note that their earlier baptism “in the name of Jesus” surely was in the Trinitarian formula, and they already had received the common baptism of the Spirit in their regeneration. This special coming of the Spirit might have been similar to that at Pentecost, scholars estimate, in that the Spirit came on believers in the early days of the church to empower them to spread the gospel. Such coming of the Spirit with those manifestations now has ceased.)
The important point is that these hardened sinners, once dwelling in great darkness, had turned from their old ways of thinking, believed on Christ as Savior and experienced the perfect joy that comes from being brought into God’s family. There is no greater joy in all the world.
Is this joy yours as well?
There is a third, and sobering message, that you and I need to hear in this text: sometimes, professions of faith are false.
As you and I read of Simon the Sorcerer’s power over the entire population and of his own great boasting about himself, we marvel all the more at his professed conversion to Christianity. After all, the man held sway over the populace; they even might have viewed him as divine. Did he really convert to worship the true God?
Such conversions do occur, and when they do you and I praise the Lord with all our strength. You and I have seen such conversions to Christ in our midst, and nothing but the power of the ascended Christ can explain them.
If you’ll look again, though, you’ll note that while the people were fixated on Philip’s message of Christ, Simon was fixated on the miracles Philip worked. And when Simon saw Peter laying on hands and the Spirit coming down, his true colors came out of his crooked heart: he still wanted what he assumed were “magical powers” over others. True repentance involves turning from the old, pre-Christian ways of thinking, speaking and living and doing battle with those sinful tendencies. Simon, we’re told, leapt right back to his former ways.
Peter’s stern words to Simon – that he and his money were bound for hell so long as he remained in the bond of sin – startle you and me. We’re even more stunned by the conditional nature of Peter’s exhortation to Simon: beg God, and perhaps He’ll forgive your evil designs. Perhaps. That word unsettles you and me terribly.
Of course the Lord is ever ready to receive a penitent sinner. But Simon, and you and I, need to be sure we understand what repentance really involves.
Simon’s response doesn’t inform us as to whether or not he personally turned from his old patterns. Only the Lord knows; let us leave such judgment to Him.
There is enough in this passage, however, that you and I can – and must – devote ourselves to contemplating.
Perhaps you’re hurting because of someone else’s sinful actions. That hurt is real, and your Father knows it. But rest assured that Jesus has conquered all sin and evil, and He will use that evil for your good and for his glory. He might use your witness to someone you otherwise might not have met to draw that person to Christ.
Perhaps you’re just muddling through daily life without much joy or spark. Well, here’s God’s remedy: preach the gospel to yourself every morning. If you truly believe on Christ, you can’t help but be flooded with joy – and moved to service.
Or perhaps you’ve gone through the motions of Christianity in your life, professing faith in Jesus but showing no real change – or even struggle with your former beliefs and ways. It’s not comforting – now – to hear Peter’s stern warning. Hear him anyway, lest you perish.
The uniting theme in our passage is that God loves you and me so much that He sent His only Son to redeem us from the hell we’ve deserved. The Lord is determined that you know that fact, and that you know the joy only Jesus can bring.
Knowing the joy of salvation, of genuine conversion, let’s go into the world – confident that come what may, the Lord will use you and me to bring that joy to others.