Saving Faith

“Now those who were scattered went about preaching the word. Philip went down to the city of Samaria and proclaimed to them the Christ. And the crowds with one accord paid attention to what was being said by Philip, when they heard him and saw the signs that he did. For unclean spirits, crying out with a loud voice, came out of many who had them, and many who were paralyzed or lame were healed. So there was much joy in that city. But there was a man named Simon, who had previously practiced magic in the city and amazed the people of Samaria, saying that he himself was somebody great. They all paid attention to him, from the least to the greatest, saying, “This man is the power of God that is called Great.” And they paid attention 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 he 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 this power also, so that anyone on whom I lay my hands may receive the Holy Spirit.” But Peter said to him, “May 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.” Now when they had testified and spoken the word of the Lord, they returned to Jerusalem, preaching the gospel to many villages of the Samaritans.” (‭‭Acts‬ ‭8:4-25‬ ‭ESV‬‬)

Have you ever pointed at something and told someone to “look”, but they were unable to see what you saw? Or perhaps, you have had a small child sitting on your lap and you point towards a bird on the porch or in a tree, but the child only sees your pointing finger and not the bird? Or maybe you’ve seen a billboard or commercial with some beautiful scene or some fascinating story, but can’t recall the company it was about? Sometimes our best efforts at pointing people to God falls on the ears of those who simply cannot see God because they only see our pointing finger or a beautiful sign. In today’s story, we meet Simon who had the same problem. Simon couldn’t see God because he was focused on Philip’s “signs” and his own pride. Let’s take a look…

As I mentioned last week, the persecution that arose from Stephen’s death has caused the church to scatter across the region of Judea and Samaria. While the Apostles remained in Jerusalem, the bulk of the believers have had to relocate to escape the persecution. While we resist the idea that this persecution is “caused” by God, you cannot deny that God “uses” the persecution to accomplish His purpose. The church scatters and the ministry and message of the Gospel spreads, too. As the parable says, the sower is sowing the seed, and it is falling on different soil conditions (see Mark 4 or Matthew 13).

Philip arrives in Samaria and begins proclaiming the gospel and God begins moving and displaying His power and glory through “signs” from Philip’s hand (or pointing finger – see above). Simon is watching, but he seems to miss the point. Simon is focused on Philip’s hand (the signs), not on God. Pay attention to this, the point of a sign is NOT the sign itself. The point of a sign is the “message” or the object of the sign and not the sign. A miracle or sign is not really about the miracle, but is all about the grace, glory, power and authority of God. The miracle points at God, but we often miss the point because we are so focused on the miracle or sign.

Simon has always been the focus of attention in this Samaritan city. His magic and charismatic character has caught the people’s attention in the past. In fact, Luke points out that Simon’s abilities “amazed” the people of Samaria. He had always been the center of attention, that is until Philip arrived. Suddenly, Simon is out of the spotlight and people are being “amazed” by God. In fact, Luke points out that even Simon is “amazed” by God’s signs through Philip’s hand. And while I have no doubt that there are others in the crowd who are more focused on Philip’s signs than on God, Simon serves as Luke’s primary warning to us. Don’t focus on the signs, focus on the object of the signs – God.

You might think this is easy to do, but this issue is very prominent in our culture. We have quite a number of messengers who emphasize signs or self and not the object of true glory, God. Because of this, I want to point out a very real danger we see in this story…

Luke tells us that the crowds in Samaria, and even Simon himself, believed Philip’s message regarding Jesus as the Christ. Many came to faith in Christ and were baptized, in Jesus name. Simon was even baptized and began to accompany Philip on his preaching mission across the city. So, Simon the Sorcerer publicly declares his belief in Jesus. What a testimony. What an advertising campaign for the church. Can’t you hear the people talking about it or see the headlines in the local newspapers? “Sorcerer Succumbs to Spirit, Simon Saved by Signs” Yes, I know they didn’t really have newspapers. But make no mistake, the news began to spread across the city. If you thought Simon was something special, you had better check out Philip. He’s the real deal.

Word of the Samaritan revival reached Jerusalem and the church dispatched Peter and John, the dynamic duo, to go check out this new development. While I could spend an entire post on just this part of the story, I’m going to simply point out that the Jerusalem church wanted confirmation that God was indeed bringing salvation to Samaritans. When Peter and John arrived, they acknowledged their baptism in Jesus name but the Holy Spirit had not yet come upon them. So, Peter and John gathered the new disciples and laid hands on them and they received the Holy Spirit.

It is at this point in the story that we encounter the focus of Luke’s warning. Simon the Sorcerer observes that the Holy Spirit comes upon the others when Peter and John placed their hands upon them. At one time, others had been amazed by Simon’s powers. Now, they are amazed at God’s power. Honestly, even Simon “the famous Sorcerer” is amazed at God’s power. In fact, so much so, he desperately desires to have that same power and offers Peter money for this ability. Everything’s for sale at the right price, isn’t it? Even the power of God, right?

Simon’s desire is very revealing. He didn’t believe the truth of the Gospel unto salvation but rather unto “sale”vation. He didn’t want Jesus because of who Jesus was, but because of what Jesus could provide – amazing power that would restore Simon to his position and standing in the community. So, just what is Luke’s point? It is possible to “believe” while not believing unto salvation. Or, to put it another way, it is possible to believe in Jesus with your head but not your heart. Even though Luke notes that Simon “believed” and was baptized, Peter states emphatically that Simon has no “part or lot in this matter” and that his heart is not right before God. This doesn’t appear to be simply a believer committing some sin after they’ve been saved and needing to repent, but someone who professed “belief” without true repentance.

We often want to reduce faith in Jesus to a formula. If you will just do this, say that, pray a particular prayer and get baptized then you’re saved and go to heaven. Uh, no. Doesn’t work that way. True faith is not JUST a matter of “doing” the right thing(s) or even “believing” the right thing(s). It includes those things but is ALSO a matter of the heart. To many, the concept of faith has become synonymous with orthodox beliefs or reciting a creed or liturgy. While orthodox beliefs and biblical creeds are critically important, Biblical faith in Christ is so simple that even a child is able to truly believe. So, just what is Biblical faith that leads to salvation? Stay with me…

If you’ve paid attention to the story, Peter pointed out the real issue with Simon’s “faith.” Simon recognized, acknowledged and had “faith” in God’s power and authority, but Simon failed to recognize his own sin and need for a Savior. He “believed” in the power and authority of God, but he failed to submit himself and his actions to that authority. Simon saw what he wanted from God, but not what he needed from God. Peter says that Simon needed to repent of his “wickedness.” You see, saving faith doesn’t just entail who Jesus is but also who you are in relation to Him, a sinner in need of a savior. Saving faith ALWAYS involves true repentance from sin. Paul says, “For by grace you have been saved through faith.” (Ephesians‬ ‭2:8‬a ‭ESV‬)

By grace, through faith. Those go together, always. Grace. God’s undeserved love and forgiveness. Grace is the neon sign that Simon missed. Simon saw the signs of God’s power in Philip’s actions but he missed the sign of his own sin. Simon’s faith couldn’t result in salvation from sin because he failed to acknowledge his own wickedness and sin and repent. Simon’s faith in God fell short, not because Simon wasn’t good enough to be saved but because Simon thought he was SO good he didn’t need to repent and seek forgiveness.

This is a real issue in our culture, today. There are many who believe in God, but without an acknowledgement of their own wickedness and sin. They believe in God, but don’t see their need for God’s grace and forgiveness…

Forgive me? For what? I’m a good person. I haven’t done anything really bad. I believe in God and just want to be a good person and experience God’s blessings in my life.

To deny our sin, our personal wickedness, and our need for repentance is to deny the truth of the Gospel and the very reason for Jesus. To believe in the power of God while denying our sin is to completely miss out on saving faith. It is to profess faith in God, like Simon, while missing salvation through Christ. (See James 2:19 for more on this)

Please, don’t see the sign and miss the Savior.

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