Dealing with Difficult Texts: Acts 8:14-25

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. Acts 8:14-17

Topics: The Bible

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. Acts 8:14-17

Why had the Samaritans who had received the word of God not yet received the Holy Spirit? Is this evidence of a “second baptism” or “baptism of the Holy Spirit” which is necessary for us today? Does this mean that a true Christian might not yet have the Holy Spirit?

Context

In order to answer these questions, we must first understand the larger context of the book of Acts. This is the absolute earliest stages of the church. Paul is still Saul and has not yet been converted, much less appointed as an apostle to the Gentiles. Peter has yet to have his vision of the sheet and foods and the declaration of God’s acceptance of Gentiles (chapter 10). Though persecution has risen against the church and believers are scattering throughout the region, the apostles themselves are still gathered in Jerusalem.

Prior to this persecution, the ministry of the word has not spread much beyond Judea, but the suffering effectively marks the beginning of the movement of the gospel in fulfillment of the promise of Acts 1:8. As part of this movement, Phillip, one of the seven men appointed in chapter 6 as a servant (perhaps deacon), travels to Samaria and preaches the gospel there with boldness and power. Many believe the gospel through his preaching and are baptized (Acts 8:12). When the apostles hear of the signs, miracles, and belief in Samaria, they send Peter and John who go to testify, speak the word of the Lord, and pray that the Samaritans may receive the Spirit.

A critical theme in the book of Acts as a whole is the role of the apostles as witnesses. Note the following passages:

  • Acts 1:8 But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.
  • Acts 1:21-22 So one of the men who have accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us “one of these men must become with us a witness to his resurrection.
  • Acts 2:32 This Jesus God raised up, and of that we all are witnesses.
  • Acts 3:14-15 But you denied the Holy and Righteous One, and asked for a murderer to be granted to you, and you killed the Author of life, whom God raised from the dead. To this we are witnesses.
  • Acts 10:39-43 And we are witnesses of all that he did both in the country of the Jews and in Jerusalem. They put him to death by hanging him on a tree, but God raised him on the third day and made him to appear, not to all the people but to us who had been chosen by God as witnesses, who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead And he commanded us to preach to the people and to testify 1 that he is the one appointed by God to be judge of the living and the dead. To him all the prophets bear witness that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.

From these verses, we can see that bearing witness to the resurrection of Christ was both the prerequisite and commission of the apostolic office. Apostles were chosen and appointed to authenticate the historicity of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.2

Within the context of the early church, we see a consistent struggle with understanding the relationship between Jew and Gentile within the faith. Throughout the book of Acts and referenced in other books as well (see Galatians 2:11-14), Jewish believers wrestled with how to view those Gentiles who professed belief in Christ. Must they come under the Torah, or at least the sign of the Abrahamic covenant (circumcision)? Are they to be considered fellow heirs or some sort of sub-Christians?

The role of the apostles as witnesses and the early criticism of Gentile inclusion into the church shed light on the sending of Peter and John. As apostles, they were commissioned to legitimate or disprove the validity and continuity of the work in Samaria. In effect, they were sent to find out whether or not the work being done among the Samaritans was consistent with that in Jerusalem. We see this same question arise when Paul and his companions travel to Jerusalem to report about their work among the Gentiles. This is also why it was so important that Peter preach to the Gentiles (Acts 10) Even he had to report back to the other apostles in Jerusalem (Acts 11) in order to prove continuity between what the Spirit was doing in Judea and what He was doing elsewhere.

Why Did the Samaritans Not Immediately Receive the Spirit?

In light of this understanding of the context, I think that Peter and John went to Samaria as apostolic leaders in order to examine the ministry there and give approval The sign that accompanied the consistency of the message was the giving of the Holy Spirit I believe that the Holy Spirit was not given to the Samarians at the time of their justification/regeneration as He is with believers today in order to allow the apostles to show up as witnesses and to prove that what was happening in Samaria was explicitly connected with that which was occurring in Jerusalem Had the apostles not authenticated the work in Samaria, people would have thought that the works in Samaria were disconnected with those in Judea, that the work among the Samaritans was different from the work among the Jews. Such thoughts would have only fostered the centuries old wall of separation between Jews and Gentiles (see Ephesians 2:11-22). Instead, we find that they are explicitly connected and are both of the same Spirit working throughout the book of Acts.

Is this Evidence of a 2nd Baptism Experience that is Applicable Today?

Many who share the belief in the continuation of the gifts would interpret this passage as demonstrating the necessity of a second baptism experience, a ”baptism of the Spirit.“ They would state that it is possible to be saved and yet lack the power of the Spirit and thus what is needed is a distinct ”baptism of the Spirit.“

Though we would agree that it is possible to believe and yet not walk in the fullness of the power of the Spirit, we would not say that what is needed is some sort of distinct and unique baptism of the Spirit, but rather a continued reliance upon the already accomplished work of Christ and the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit within. Paul, in writing Ephesians, speaks of only one baptism (4:5), but also about a filling of the Spirit that is to be pursued (5:18). We would not commend true believers to look to another one-time experience, but rather the continued experience of the filling of the Spirit.

It is extremely important to note that in Acts 8 the question is not whether certain gifts or power of the Holy Spirit were given to the Samaritans, but rather whether the Spirit Himself was given. According to the text, the believers of Samaria had not yet received 3 the Spirit that leads us to the question of whether or not it is possible today to believe and yet not have received the Spirit.

Before answering that question though, I want to give some resources to those who are curious about the distinction between a second ”baptism of the Spirit“ and the ”filling of the Spirit.“

  • Chapter 39 of Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology
  • ”Our Great Advantage,“ a Village teaching on the Holy Spirit, briefly discusses this question.
  • A John Piper sermon addressing this question

Could this Happen Today?

Is it possible today to experience a conversion similar to the Samaritans in Acts 8 in which you have trusted the gospel, and have been baptized into the name of Jesus, and yet have not received the Spirit? When I have asked this question in the past, I have often received back the answer that God can do whatever He wants and with this I certainly agree. The question is not whether God is capable, but rather whether He is willing. If He has revealed in His word that He will or does not do something, then it is accurate to say that it could not happen. For example, God ”could“ cut off all flesh from the earth by flood, but has specifically promised that He will not and thus we could say that it cannot happen today.

In reading through Acts, it is always good to remember that things were being hashed out within a perplexed periphery of believers around a core of apostles who themselves were at times unsure of how to proceed The book is therefore much more descriptive than prescriptive in its approach. To take what the Bible describes and to prescribe it or to attempt to apply that particular narrative outside of that particular context is dangerous interpretation.

The problem with attempting to apply the particulars of the experience of the Samaritans in Acts 8 to believers today is that we have explicit testimony from the Scriptures that this kind of event will not occur. Paul writes in Romans 8:9 that ”anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to Him.“ According to this passage, the test of whether or not someone is a Christian is whether or not he or she has the indwelling Spirit. To claim that it is now possible to be a true believer and yet devoid of the Spirit is to contradict what Paul writes in Romans. Acts is a book about transition and should be read as such. Romans reveals a very explicit statement about the universality of the Spirit’s indwelling presence in every believer and this revelation must be affirmed today.

Conclusion:

In attempting to interpret difficult passages within historical narrative (which is the genre of Acts), I find it important to consider the following:

  1. Major themes developed in the book ” such as the role of witnesses
  2. Historical context “ such as the transitional period of the early church
  3. The distinction between descriptive and prescriptive language ” nowhere does the text say that we are to seek an experience similar to the Samaritans
  4. Other pertinent texts “ especially from the epistles that function as a more doctrinally direct genre.

When I evaluate these elements, I am led to conclude that Acts 8 is not speaking of a distinct experience that believers should pursue today. We are surely to experience the Spirit. We are to seek Him and to earnestly desire His gifts. We are to be filled with Him. We are to love Him and to know His love. It is unfortunate and dangerous that the ministry of the Spirit is often neglected today, but I do not think the solution is some one-time experience, but rather a consistent and growing awareness of the reality of the indwelling presence and love that all who have believed have already received.


Footnotes

1 The Greek word often translated ”witness“ in these passages origin of our English word ”martyr.“ The word translated ”testify“ is from this same Greek root.

2 I realize that Paul did not witness the ministry of Christ, but he did observe the resurrected Lord on the road to Damascus. Perhaps this distinction is why he refers to himself as ”one untimely born“ (1 Corinthians 15:8).

3 Some would attempt to distinguish the incoming of the Spirit at conversion with the receiving of the Spirit as a second experience in which we invite Him further into our lives. They would therefore perhaps say that the Samaritans had the first experience, but not the second, given that the text says that they had not ”received“ the Spirit. However, it is important to note ”the Spirit was given“ through the apostles, not that the Samaritans merely received a further blessing.