Stephen’s impassioned sermon from our last lesson incited such blood-lust in his listeners that he was immediately stoned to death. In praying for forgiveness for his killers, Stephen imitates Jesus on the cross in Luke 23:34.
But Stephen’s broken body inspires a pogrom, so Hellenist believers flee to the Judean countryside and north to Samaria, preaching as they go (Acts 8:1, 4). Philip heads for a city in Samaria. Through him we find God’s healing power unleashed on sick and demon-possessed people (8:6-8).
Outside the Jewish homeland, miracles of healing and exorcism look like magic. Medicine in the ancient world was rudimentary and usually unhelpful. Instead, divine healing powers were appealed to through the practice of magic. Philip’s activity is not lost on Simon, a magician so skilled at manipulating these powers that Samaritans call him “Simon the Great.” Samaritans were not polytheists, so he also attributes his powers to God.
But Philip ties his “signs and wonders” to the proclamation of “the [inbreaking] kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ” (8:12). God’s reign through Jesus is shown by the absence of charging fees for these healing mercies. The economic sharing among the Jesus-believers makes a pay-as-you-go fee both unnecessary and exploitative.
We know Simon best through “simony,” the selling of spiritual things, such as the 16th-century practice of paying indulgences to the Catholic Church in order to be released from purgatory. But was he really so bad? “Even Simon himself believed” and was baptized (8:13). Perhaps Simon was just a capitalist entrepreneur.
The visit of Peter and John from Jerusalem fully unleashes the Spirit’s power when they pray (8:17). And now Simon is really interested! That little bag of coins under his mattress could be multiplied many times with that kind of power. So Simon wants to cut a deal. How much does this power cost?
Most translations of 8:20-23 mask the vehemence with which Peter responds. The Greek actually conveys, “To hell with you and your money! You cannot buy God’s free gift!” Because we Americans swim in market capitalism like fish in water, we miss the full thrust of Peter’s outburst. Not only can one not put a price on God’s mercy and power, but when the reign of God is made manifest in the shared community-of-goods, there is no need to do so. Miracle workers already have their material needs met.
What would Peter say to our capitalist economy today, where everything has a price? Should church congregations instead form communities-of-goods and share a common purse? If not, how do we differentiate ourselves from people like Simon the Great?
We pass over the delightful story of Philip and the Ethiopian transgender eunuch, as well as Saul’s conversion on the road to Damascus. A dramatic conversion may be a high point in someone’s life, but there is rarely a smooth “happily ever after.” In Saul’s case, his 180-degree turnaround is so thorough that his former enemies become his friends, and vice versa. The persecutor has become the persecuted.
Saul stays in Damascus and begins preaching. The Jesus-believers are “amazed,” and the other Jews there are “confounded.” Luke uses the same Greek words to describe their reactions as he does in Acts 2:6-7 when the crowd at Pentecost hears the inspired speaking of the disciples under the influence of the Holy Spirit. Is this a mini-Pentecost?
Luke underscores “the Jews” as murderous opponents of Saul, to the extent that they wait by the city gates in order to kill him when he leaves Damascus. Nevertheless, Saul escapes with the help of supporters (now called “his disciples”) who one dark night use a basket to let him out through an opening in the city wall. Saul (later called Paul) also describes this flight in 2 Cor. 11:32-33, but refers to Nabateans under King Aretas as his enemy. By placing blame on “the Jews,” Luke may be setting up a critical tension between Saul and his own people that will work itself out in later chapters.
Such a rapid shift of allegiance to Jesus, however, raises suspicions among believers in Jerusalem. It takes Barnabas, the encourager, to vouch for Saul. But the unbelieving Hellenist Jews, having done away with Stephen, are now out for Saul’s blood. Again, he is helped by members of the young church, who for his safety whisk him back to his home city of Tarsus (8:26-30). Only then do the churches of Judea, Galilee and Samaria have peace and continue to grow in numbers.
Question: Are there people in your church(es) whose activism and outsize personalities make more trouble than they are worth at the time?
Reta Halteman Finger is retired from Messiah College, teaches Bible part-time at Eastern Mennonite University and has written Of Widows and Meals: Communal Meals in the Book of Acts.