Behind the Magic: Peter, Simon, and an Episode in Samaria

The book of Acts is a favorite of preachers, so you are likely familiar with the showdown in Acts 8:9–24 between Peter and Simon the Magician. Luke tells us that Simon had practiced his magic in a city in Samaria where he had been hailed as “God’s Great Power.” Simon heard the gospel preached by Philip and believed, but later, after Peter’s arrival, he tried to purchase the power of the Holy Spirit from Peter.

His name consequently has not been remembered for any great deeds, but for the payment of money for church office (“simony”). But is that all there is to the story? Hardly. Don’t look away now or you’ll miss what’s behind the magic.

Simon, God’s Great Power

Let’s look at how a first-century audience would have comprehended the episode in its Samaritan setting. That Simon was referred to by the people of the Samaritan city as “God’s Great Power” is significant. That title comes from the Samaritan Targum—an Aramaic translation of the Samaritan Hebrew Bible, known as the Samaritan Pentateuch. In the Samaritan Targum, the Hebrew word ʾel (אל, “God”) is translated hela (חילא, “power”). God is then called “great” (רב, rab). Not surprisingly, “the Great Power” was used in Samaritan hymns and writings as a substitute for the divine name, much in the same way orthodox Jews say ha-shem (השם, “the Name”) instead of pronouncing the divine name Yahweh.

But how could the Samaritans speak of Simon as though he were God? Well, Simon was able to do amazing things. We aren’t told if what he was doing was something he picked up learning magical trickery or enablement from a demonic power, but the effect was the same. Second, the plural of “power” (helin) was also used by Samaritans of angels. Like many Jews and Christians, Samaritans considered one particular angel—the one in whom Yahweh’s name dwelled (Exod 23:20–23)—as the embodied Yahweh. Since this angel was viewed as a physical manifestation of the true God—the “Great Power”—Simon’s acts of magical power had convinced many Samaritans that he, too, was a fleshly manifestation of God.

It’s easy to see how Luke, writing in full knowledge of the incarnation of God in Christ, would have sought to use this encounter. The drama is palpable. Philip had taken the message that God had become man in Jesus Christ to Samaria, where they already had their own incarnate deity, Simon the Magician, “God’s Great Power.” Incredibly, Luke records that the power of the gospel broke through to Simon, moving him to embrace the message of Philip. And when he saw the signs and miracles Philip performed, “Great Power” was drained. So much for all that Hogwarts tuition!

The Real Great Power

From Luke’s account, Simon must have realized very quickly that his own repertoire of tricks, however stunning they were to the masses, fell far short of what he had seen from Philip. Simon’s conversion reads quite genuine. Luke is careful to note, though, that Simon saw the powerful deeds of Philip only after he believed, when he began accompanying Philip in the city (Acts 8:13). But he hadn’t seen anything yet.

Luke tells us that when the apostles at Jerusalem heard that the gospel had reached the Samaritans—a people hated by “pure” Jews for centuries (John 4:9)—they sent Peter and John not to investigate whether it was true, but to pray for the Samaritan believers that they might receive the same Holy Spirit (Acts 8:14–17) that had abided with them since the explosion of the gospel at Pentecost (Acts 2). This alone is a powerful message. Two Jewish men who had grown up with their own prejudices about the Samaritans didn’t doubt that the grace of God included people they had scorned. Nothing Jesus had promised was to be withheld from them.

Unfortunately, Simon had a lot to learn about the real Great Power. When Simon saw that the Samaritans upon whom Peter and John laid their hands had received the Holy Spirit (no doubt evidenced in some tangible, powerful way), he wanted to experience that power himself. That’s understandable. But where he went wrong was trying to pay for it (Acts 8:18–19). Peter rebuked him harshly, and Simon repented immediately (Acts 8:20–24).

Nevertheless, Simon’s name lives on in infamy. Because of his on-the-spot repentance, not to mention the fact that he’d probably only been a believer for at most a couple of weeks, it seems unreasonable to vilify Simon. In Simon, we have a man who was one day hailed as the incarnate God but the next repented at the words of a couple of fishermen. We should remember the broken heart more than the misguided gesture.

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why is the bible hard to understandDr. Michael S. Heiser is a scholar-in-residence for Faithlife, the makers of Logos Bible Software. He is the author of The Unseen Realm: Recovering the Supernatural Worldview of the Bible and has taught many Mobile Ed courses, including Problems in Biblical Interpretation: Difficult Passages I.

This article is excerpted from Dr. Heiser’s book I Dare You Not to Bore Me with the Bible.

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Comments

  1. Thank you Dr. Heiser for the wonderful words. Yes, it is true we remember simony as being synonymous with Simon and his intentions. In the army, we often got away with what were called “Private” mistakes, referencing the immature mistakes a Private makes when learning military disciplines. But once we became mature, we could no longer claim that as an excuse. Perhaps Simon in his spiritual infancy was just guilty of a “babe in Christ” mistake. In our own spiritual infancy weren’t we all like Simon in some fashion or other, making theological miscues and even sharing the gospel like Apollos, who had to be pulled aside by Aquila and Priscilla to be taught the “way of God more accurately?” Blessings!

  2. Shane Ball says:

    This opened my perspective on the topic. Thank you. I have read this story and listened to it probably in excess of 30 times and had on occasion wondered if he repented what then happened to him. Very good question I would say and to remember his act and then to see yes he probably had a broken heart is wisdom I had failed to have on the topic. Enlightening Dr. Heiser.

  3. Disagree — hard to believe a conversion took place in Simon because of the following:
    1) others have “believed” but were not converted. (See John 2:23,24);
    2) Simon was rebuked very harshly – not confirmed – by the Apostles.
    3) confession must come from the “believer” himself, not a “stand in”. (see Rom 20:9,10).

  4. Dot Smith says:

    What a precious new way of looking at this passage. Thank you Dr Heiser, i

  5. Alan Good says:

    Excellent article. A little more insight into the account would deal with the attitudes directed toward the Samaritans. True, the “pure” Jews had great disdain for the “half-breeds” (at best!), but remember that Jesus and the Disciples were raised “on the wrong side of the tracks” so they were not inherently considered by the elite as “pure”! Being raised in “the North”, yet requiring several festive pilgrimages to Jerusalem, probably had them on the “shortcut” through Samaria more often than not which may have led to the knowledge that Jesus had of the woman at the well and that village. Here John, Phillip and Peter had the intimate encounter with Jesus and the village people over several days. I would say that the Disciples may have carried some preconceived philosophies about “Samaritans” but were not nearly as prejudice as the authoritarian Jews. In fact, the rejection of the “Christian” movement by the Jews would allow better relational understanding by the “Christian” Community toward the Samaritans. The “Church” was merely responding to God’s call toward the neighboring Community in need of maturing in completeness and the Apostles sent their best.

  6. Hamilton R. says:

    Good clarification.

    What is to be done with leaders that should be mature, yet they are not?

    The modern day parallel comes to mind:

    Persons in Leadership not with higher gifts of the Holy Spirit, and thus not appointed by God to lead, talking trash against those that do, but are not working for any one particular human organization but for God Himself at it has always been in original Ekklesia.

    By their fruit will you know who is who: imprecatory praying, being part of organizations that in hidden agenda try to sabotage true God appointed leaders, comments in the like of “The church (and thus the Pastor) is the hope of the world”, when in reality Jesus Christ is the hope of the world and the church but a fit aid to Him, pastor a mere facilitator for the edifying of the Body.

    Since Athanasius many strange theological constructs appear and are held by some: “Divinity through Christ”… did he mean having self- existence eventually like God?

    From the Bible it is clear that being a living stone part of the New Temple of God is not the same as the Holy Spirit that indwells that New Temple.

    Only God has self-existence, and thus why He is the only worthy of praise and worship.

    Many of the leaders (not with the accompanying higher gifts) hold to the “will be like God eventually mentality”, and thus want to put human agenda in the life of Jesus Christ’s church (His body).

    Modern magic and Simon like attitude: will try to get by any means what can only be bestowed by God: Higher calling and higher gifts.

    Very interesting spin offs can come of this clarification of yours Dr. Heiser, It would be great to have a mobile ed course to explore deeper many of the issues you bring to the spotlight.

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