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Acts 8:18–24

“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’” (vv. 18–19).

Early Christian literature written after the completion of the New Testament often mentions Simon Magus, the Samaritan sorcerer whom we read about in Acts 8:9–24. Justin Martyr and Irenaeus of Lyons, two very significant post-Apostolic figures, both say that Simon played a central role in the rise of gnosticism, an ancient heresy that said the power of salvation comes through the acquisition of secret, hidden knowledge passed down from the Apostles to a select few individuals. Well into the second century, early defenders of Christian truth were writing against the Simonians, one of the many gnostic groups that plagued the early church.

Today’s passage suggests that there was at least some truth in the claim that Simon Magus was a forerunner or founder of the gnostic heresy. We read that when Simon saw the Samaritans receiving the Holy Spirit through the laying on of the Apostles’ hands, he sought to purchase the Spirit’s power from Peter and John (vv. 18–19). Plainly, Simon thought that the Holy Spirit was something reserved for a select few, something he could receive by paying the right price, much as the gnostics believed that saving knowledge was for only some and even that the teachers who had it could sell it to others.

Peter swiftly rebuked Simon for his request, for thinking that salvation and all its attendant benefits, including the Holy Spirit, were not free gifts of God but things to be bought and sold (vv. 20–21). Then Peter called Simon to repent of his wickedness so that he might be freed of the bonds of his iniquity (vv. 22–23). Hearing this, Simon asked Peter to pray for him so that he could avoid the destruction that Peter said would come upon him (v. 24).

Simon may have sincerely feared condemnation, but his request to Peter was lacking. Matthew Henry points out the problem: “In desiring them to pray for him, his concern is more that the judgments he had made himself liable to might be prevented than that his corruptions might be mortified, and his heart, by divine grace, be made right in the sight of God.” Simon was more concerned with escaping the consequences of his sin than he was with the fact that his sin offended God. His sorrow was the kind of sorrow for sin that we call attrition, not the contrition that is repentance unto eternal life. Repentance unto life is godly sorrow that leads to salvation without regret (2 Cor. 7:10), sorrow for the fact that one has offended the Lord and not merely fear of punishment.

Coram Deo Living before the face of God

Scripture frequently warns us of the consequences of sin to motivate us to repent. If the desire to escape the consequences of our sins is the only thing that moves us to repent, however, then we have not truly turned from our sin. Repentance unto life, as Westminster Shorter Catechism 87 explains, involves a “true sense” of sin and, recognizing God’s mercy in Christ, means grieving and hating our sin while turning to Jesus and endeavoring after “new obedience.”

For further study
  • 1 Kings 8:46–53
  • Isaiah 1:27
  • Matthew 3:8
  • 2 Timothy 2:22–26
The bible in a year
  • Judges 15–17
  • Luke 10:1–24

Pentecost for the Samaritans

Peter and John Return to Jerusalem

Keep Reading Waiting on the Lord

From the April 2024 Issue
Apr 2024 Issue