May 12, 1991
Bethlehem Baptist Church
John Piper, Pastor
SIMON'S PERVERSION OF SIGNS AND WONDERS (Acts 8:9-24)
But there was a man named Simon who had previously practiced magic in the city and amazed the nation of Samaria, saying that he himself was somebody great. They all gave heed to him, from the least tot he greatest, saying "This man is that power of God which is called Great." And they gave heed to him, because for a long time he had amazed them with his magic. But when they believed Philip as he preached good news about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptized, both men and women. Even Simon himself believed, and after being baptized he continued with Philip. And seeing signs and great miracles performed, he was amazed. Now when the apostles at Jerusalem heard that Samaria had received the word of God, they sent to them Peter and John, who came down and prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit; for it had not yet fallen on any of them, but they had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. Then they laid their hands on them and they received the Holy Spirit. Now when Simon saw that the Spirit was given through the laying on of the apostles' hands, he offered them money, saying, "Give me also this power, that any one on whom I lay my hands may receive the Holy Spirit." But Peter said to him, "Your silver perish with you, because you thought you could obtain the gift of God with money! You have neither part nor lot in this matter, for your heart is not right before God. Repent therefore of this wickedness of yours, and pray to the Lord that, if possible, the intent of your heart may be forgiven you. For I see that you are in the gall of bitterness and in the bond of iniquity." And Simon answered, "Pray for me to the Lord, that nothing of what you have said may come upon me."
We will spend two weeks on this text because there are two sermons here. One has to do with how Simon the Magician responded to the Holy Spirit, and the other has to do with how the Samaritans responded to the Holy Spirit. Luke's purpose in telling us about Simon is to give us a warning. And his purpose in telling us about the Samaritans is to give us an invitation.
Today we talk about Simon and the warning. It's a warning for people who are seeing or want to see supernatural signs and wonders. It's not an indictment of signs and wonders; but it is a warning that a person can think and feel about signs and wonders in a way that is very destructive.
The simplest way I can think of to illustrate what went wrong with Simon is an experience every mother of toddlers has had. Suppose you have a one-year-old child sitting on your lap and suddenly in the window there is a beautiful bird and you hold out your hand to point at the bird and say, "Look, look at the bird." What does the child look at? He looks at your hand and the sign you are making with your fingers. He might even try to imitate the sign by putting out his index finger.
He sees the sign. He is excited because you are excited. He joins in imitating the sign as best he can. But the problem is he never sees the bird. The whole point of the sign is missed. That is what happened to Simon the magician here in Acts 8. He saw the signs that Philip was doing. They were better than his own magical signs. He got excited about them. He followed Philip around and wanted to imitate them. But he never saw the bird in the window. He never saw the ugliness of his own sin, the need for repentance, and the glory of Christ in the gospel who forgives and makes new and clean.
Let me unfold this from the text in four steps by way of warning for us.
1. First, there is a "faith," there is a "believing" that does not save, even though it rises in the presence of true preaching and true miracles.
Verse 12 says that Philip was preaching good news about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ. Verse 13b says that Philip was doing "signs and great miracles." So true preaching and true miracles were being done in Samaria by Philip the deacon (Acts 6:5).
Then we notice that verse 13 says, "Even Simon himself believed, and after being baptized, he continued with Philip."
But then something happens that shows this "belief" to be false. The apostles come down and lay hands on the Samaritans so that they receive the Holy Spirit. Then beginning in verse 18 here's what happened:
When Simon saw that the Spirit was given through the laying on of the apostles' hands, he offered them money, saying, "Give me also this power that any one on whom I lay my hands may receive the Holy Spirit." But Peter said to him "Your silver perish with you, because you thought you could obtain the gift of God with money! You have neither part nor lot in this matter (or word), for your heart is not right before God. Repent therefore of this wickedness of yours, and pray to the Lord that, if possible, the intent of your heart may be forgiven you. For I see that you are in the gall of bitterness and in the bond of iniquity."
I take this to mean that Simon was not truly converted. He has no part or lot in this matter of Christianity. His heart is not right with God. He still needs to repent. He is still enslaved to bitterness and iniquity. He is still in his sin and not yet converted. This is confirmed by the entire tradition of the early church that says Simon went on to become a heretic and not a true Christian (cf. Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Jerome, etc.).
And yet Luke says in verse 13a, "Even Simon himself believed." The point I draw out of this is that there is a "faith" or a "believing" that does not save, even though it rises in the presence of true preaching and true miracles.
The same thing is found in John 2:23-25,
When Jesus was in Jerusalem at the Passover feast, many believed in his name when they saw the signs which he did (notice the similar setting to Philip's signs); but Jesus did not trust himself to them, because he knew all men and needed no one to bear witness of man; for he himself knew what was in man.
This "faith" or "believing" was not genuine and Jesus could see into the heart and knew that it wasn't.
The same kind of "faith" is seen in the parable of the four soils. In Luke 8:13 Jesus describes the second soil like this: "And the ones on the rock are those who, when they hear the word, receive it with joy; but these have no root, they believe for a while and in time of temptation fall away." The faith is not real saving faith.
Paul taught the same possibility in 1 Corinthians 15:1-2 when he said, "I preached to you the gospel, which you received, in which you stand, by which you are saved, if you hold it fast--unless you believed in vain." There is such a thing as "believing in vain". James called it "barren" faith or "dead" faith (James 2:20,26).
So I conclude that Luke's point here in Acts 8 is that Simon's "faith"--his "believing" (described in v. 13) is not a saving faith but a false faith, dead, barren, empty. That's the first step in Luke's warning to us. There is such a faith and it can rise right in the presence of true preaching and true miracles.
2. The second step of Luke's warning is that the object of Simon's faith--the thing in which he believes--is the power of supernatural phenomena--the power of miracles that you can see with the physical eye, not Jesus Christ and the glory of his grace.
Simon was a sorcerer. That means he dealt in supernatural power before he ever heard Philip preach or ever heard of Jesus Christ. He used his magical arts for a long time in Samaria (according to Acts 8:9-11), and amazed the people. He knew real power when he saw it.
So when Philip came to town and not only preached but performed signs by healing people and casting out demons (Acts 8:7), Simon knew the power was real, and that it was stronger than his power. So he was ready to switch sides. He even tried to buy the power with money because he wanted it so badly (v. 18).
So the object of his faith was the power of signs and wonders. This is what he believed--he believed that Philip was a real miracle worker. There is real power here. He didn't doubt it. He was not a skeptic. He was ready to leave his own magical arts to join Philip and use this new power.
Philip had stretched out the finger of signs and wonders to point to the glory of Jesus, and Simon had fixed on the finger. He believed in it. He wanted to be able to point like that. He would pay money to point like that. But he never turned his head to look at the window.
The glory of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, crucified for sinners, risen in power, reigning over a humble and holy people was not the object of Simon's faith. And therefore it was not true saving faith. What was it?
3. The third step of Luke's warning is that the experience of Simon's "faith" was simply amazement--amazement at Philip's signs, not brokenness for sin and not humble trust in Jesus as Lord and Savior.
Look at how Luke makes this plain to us. He uses the word "amaze" three times. In verse 9 he says that Simon had "amazed" the nation of Samaria with his magic (sorcery). Then in verse 11 it says again that Simon had "amazed" them a long time by his magic. Then in verse 13b, after Philip had shown the power of God, it says, "And seeing signs and great miracles performed, he (Simon himself) was amazed."
In other words what Simon had been producing in the Samaritans by his sorcery, he was now experiencing in himself when he saw Philip's miracles, namely, amazement.
And amazement at supernatural power is not saving faith. Believing that supernatural power is present and being amazed by it so much that you want it, is not an experience of true faith.
Verse 22 points to what was missing. Peter says to Simon, "Repent therefore of this wickedness of yours, and pray to the Lord that, if possible, the intent of your heart may be forgiven you." What was missing was a heartfelt recognition of sinfulness and a turning to Jesus with a broken and humble trust for forgiveness. Amazement and excitement about signs and wonders is not saving faith.
Signs and wonders are the finger pointing to Jesus. True faith comes when we see the glory of God in the face of Jesus. We can have all the spiritual experiences possible by looking at the finger of power. But until we turn to the Lord himself there will be no true faith.
4. The final step in Luke's warning is that the root of Simon's false faith is a crooked heart.
Verse 21: "You have neither part nor lot in this matter, for your heart is not right (literally: straight) before God." At the root of Simon's false faith was a heart problem. And that is the way it is with every one of us. His heart was not straight before God, it was crooked. His heart needed to be changed.
He was not a simple one-year-old sitting on his mother's lap staring innocently at her pointing finger instead of out the window. He was a man with a crooked heart who willfully suppressed the knowledge of the true God, whose Spirit cannot be bought. He fixed on Philip's finger of power because deep down he still wanted to be a great power broker, just like it says in verse 9b--he was "saying that he himself was somebody great."
So there it is: Luke's warning to us: there is a false faith that does not save; its object is the power of supernatural signs and wonders, not Jesus and the glory of his grace; it's nature or experience is amazement, not brokenness for sin and humble trust in Jesus as Lord and Savior; its root is a crooked and vain heart.
Now I close with a plea that we not misapply the warning. I know that there are many today who would say, "Well, if signs and wonders are liable to that kind of misuse, then why not just avoid them? Especially, some say, in view of the fact that we live in a day when the occult, the new age, witchcraft, Satanism, and drugs are rampant; and rational, objective, clear, Bible-based teaching is so rare. Don't we play right into the hands of the emotionalism, subjectivism, relativism, and individualism of our day by asking the Lord to stretch forth his hand supernaturally to heal and deliver and speak?
My answer is this: Surely there should be no lessening of solid, objective, Biblical teaching. But our day is not too unlike the situation in Samaria. Samaria was saturated with sorceries and magical arts and the occult. Verse 11b says that "for a long time Simon had amazed the people." They were all caught up in the "new age". They were sitting ducks for supernatural subjectivism. And into that situation Philip (not an apostle, but a "deacon") came preaching the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus (vss. 5, 12) AND doing supernatural signs of healing and deliverance (v. 7, 13).
I think deacon Philip would do the same today. Not either/or, but both/and.
One of the reasons I think he would is that not praying for supernatural healing and deliverance and guidance does not solve the problem of fixating on the pointing finger. Suppose the finger pointing to Jesus is a sermon. Do not many people just talk about the sermon instead looking at the reality?
Or suppose the finger is a children's musical pointing to the need to stay on the narrow road and persevere in faith and trust the God who is always there and love the weakest members of the body. Do most people go home dwelling on these things or do we talk most about all the work and the memorizing and good acting? Or suppose the finger pointing to Jesus is a choir anthem or a drama from the Refreshment Committee or a tract called Quest for Joy or a book called The Pleasures of God. Are any of those pointers immune from attracting attention to themselves instead of to Jesus?
In fact I would suggest that if we could rank all the pointers to Jesus today--sermons, tracts, anthems, musicals, drama, books, signs and wonders, etc.--with those at the top that attract least attention to themselves and most to Jesus, and those at the bottom that attract most attention to themselves and least to Jesus, I don't think signs and wonders would be at the bottom. Perhaps not at the top either. That's not the point.
The point is this: when we hear the warning about the danger of signs and wonders, let's be fair and realize it applies to every form of Christian witness.
Which means that whether we preach or sing or act or write or heal we are utterly and desperately dependent on the work of the Holy Spirit to straighten crooked hearts and cause people to look away from us to Jesus who alone can save.
Copyright 1991, 1998 John Piper