Simon Magus’ view of the Holy Spirit in the first half of Acts 8 was pathetically limited and insultingly wrong. To him the Spirit was merely an “ability” (verse 19) he could add to his other magical powers by simply placing his hands on people (verse 18). Imagine the impact that would have, this amazing power being released through his fingers, which he could pull out of his bag of magic tricks to sway people Into believing he truly had “divine power” (verse 10). The Holy Spirit, in other words, was something he could control and use to wow people into believing his ministry was from God (verse 21) – much like so called faith healers do today.
Peter, however, labelled Simon’s attitude for what it was: “wickedness” (verse 22). But why was it so wicked?
We’re about to find out in the next half of Acts 8, because there is a massive contrast between the limited, insulting view that Simon had of the Holy Spirit and what the Spirit is really like – the first hint of which occurs in verse 26 when, out of the blue, “an angel of the Lord” arrives on the scene to give Philip his next assignment.
Imagine being in Philip’s sandals when this happens. In Acts 6 he’d just been chosen by the church as one of seven men to organize the care and feeding of the widows and many others pouring into the church in Jerusalem. That was his job. But in Acts 8:5 we find him on the road to Samaria instead, to “proclaim Christ there,” where he’s doing “miraculous signs” (verse 6), freeing people from evil spirits and healing paralytics and cripples (verse 7).
And Philip wasn’t even an apostle, but here he was doing apostle level miracles. It meant leaving his carer’s job in Jerusalem to go to Samaria and now he’s being told by an angel to leave Samaria and head south on a “desert road” (verse 26) with no idea or explanation where he was going or what for. It was all completely and totally unexpected. And it probably didn’t make much sense to Philip either, because why was he being asked to leave Samaria when all the action was happening back there (verse 25)?
But here he is, walking along an empty desert road with not a soul, house or village in sight, and no clue what he’s there for – when a chariot appears, and the Spirit tells him, “Go to the chariot and stay near it” (verse 29).
The timing is exquisite, because the man in the chariot is reading aloud from Isaiah 53. Philip asks if he understands what he’s reading, the man wants to know and Philip explains how those verses tie in with “the good news about Jesus” (verses 30-35). It’s exactly what the man needs to hear, because he stops the chariot a few miles down the road and wants to be baptized where water just happens to be (verses 36 and 38). That job done “the Spirit of the Lord suddenly took Philip away,” verse 39.
How wicked it was of Simon, therefore, to think the Holy Spirit was merely a power he could control for his own ends and agenda. Because look at the massive contrast between Simon’s pathetic and insulting view of the Spirit to this exquisitely choreographed story of the Ethiopian Secretary of the Treasury on his way home from Jerusalem on this totally deserted road reading aloud from Isaiah 53, wondering who it’s referring to, and alongside his chariot appears Philip, who is able to tie in Isaiah 53 with what Jesus was all about.
No one else is there to witness it either. It’s just between these two men, one who’s willing to go wherever the Spirit blows, and the other at that specific time being ready for hearing the gospel. No one had set this up or planned it in their five year church plan for missions. It was all the Spirit’s doing.
But the Spirit knew Philip, that Philip would accept receiving instructions from an angel and being spoken to by the Spirit, and finding himself on an empty desert road with no idea why.
Imagine, then, what could have happened if Simon Magus had been like Philip. What incredibly unexpected things would the Spirit have done through him that would have shown Simon’s many followers how wonderfully unpredictable but timing perfect the Spirit truly is?
Simon never got to know the Spirit was like that. But for those who see in this story in Acts 8 that this is what life with the Holy Spirit is like, it spells a life of adventure, challenge and a Philip-like trust that what happens in our lives is being directed by a power that knows us well and knows exactly what to gift us with and when, so that we can have a “share in Jesus’ ministry” too (verse 21).