By Simon ManchesterSunday 18 Dec 2016Christian Growth with Simon ManchesterFaithReading Time: 19 minutes
I am sure that I don’t need to tell you that our foundations are revealed over time. A good foundation is therefore incredibly valuable. We may not appreciate the foundation that we stand on, but over time, it just goes on doing us good. And a bad foundation, of course, is eventually a tragedy.
Sooner or later, it crumbles away. To place your life on the Lord Jesus is, therefore, priceless. To place your life on fragile self is desperate. And the reason is, that the Lord Jesus Christ sustains a person forever, whereas self-reliance collapses. We see it in the news. And self-reliance suffers horrendously in the long-term. Now we expect there to be two foundations in the world. We expect there to be the believer and the unbeliever – the person who’s built on Christ and the person who’s not built on Christ. But do we expect two foundations in the Church? Do we expect to find in a gathering on a Sunday people built on Christ and people who are built on self? Because we are going to see in the passage this morning, two foundations in the congregation.
Two Types of People in the Church
It’s Acts Chapter 8 Verses 1-25. Two types of people in the Church. And it’s incredibly important for us to see how these two foundations differ, and then to test yourself this morning. I want to read to you from John Piper, his new book called ‘God is the Gospel’. This is how he begins his book, ‘It is stunning today to watch the shift away from God, a radically man-centred view which permeates our culture and our churches. From the time they can toddle, we teach our children that feeling loved means feeling made much of. We have built whole educational philosophies around this: parenting skills, motivational strategies, therapeutic models and selling techniques. Most modern people can scarcely imagine an alternative understanding of feeling loved, other than feeling made much of’. If you don’t make much of me, we think, you do not love me. And you see what’s happened, is that we now direct the praise and the honour and the glory to self. And it’s happened so quickly. It’s just happened really in the last 10-20 years. And John Piper asks this question – do you feel more loved because God makes much of you, or because, at the cost of His Son, he enables You to enjoy making much of Him forever? It’s a very, very different question, isn’t it. And the Church, even the Church can move over to a foundation of sand so quickly. All we need is a little bit of light-weight clever marketing from the world, absorbed by the Church and suddenly, we are self-focussed and self-founded. It’s incredible. And at the end, of course, to build yourself on ‘self’ is tragic and godless. And that’s why Acts Chapter 8 is such an important passage.
I am going to shift and change the analogy now. We are no longer talking about architecture and foundations. We are going to talk about whether you are a real plant or a weed within the congregation. That’s how Acts Chapter 8 raises its question. I am going to talk for a few minutes about the Lord of the sowing of the seed. And then, the Lord of the reaping of the harvest. Acts Chapter 8.
Now if you were here last week, we saw that Stephen was martyred for his faith. He was one of the eight administrators of the early Church. The blood of the martyrs is an ever-continuing, every century event. But if you think that the Lord Jesus was somehow ruthless this week, or careless, or helpless, or hopeless, remember what took place in the death of Stephen, that there – even as Stephen was stoned – the Lord Jesus stook in glory to welcome him. And then, according to Acts Chapter 8, as a result of the stoning, caused a tremendous dispersion of His people. The sovereign hand of God, you see, on the very apparent tragedy. And so, as people have often said, ‘The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church’. The very day Stephen died – Acts Chapter 8 Verse 1 – persecution broke out, and believers were scattered, all through Judea and Samaria. I remind you this morning, that in the very worst things that we are facing there is a sovereign God and a gracious God, able to make the best of what is going on.
A newspaper reporting this apparent tragedy of the believers being scattered from their homes might write, as the headline, ‘Christians forced to flee’… and of course, that would be partly right. But a discerning Christian perhaps would remember that in Acts Chapter 1 Verse 8, Jesus said, ‘You will be My witnesses in Jerusalem, then Judea, then Samaria, and then the ends of the earth’. And the Christian will say, ‘Ahh. He’s keeping His promises. In His own mighty, sovereign way, He is keeping His promises. He has arranged it.’ Thousands, tens of thousands are now going to hear the Good News because He is the Lord over all. He’s even the Lord of a tragedy. He’s even the Lord of persecution.
We are told in Chapter 8 Verse 1 that the Apostles were not scattered. It’s hard to work out why the Apostles didn’t leave Jerusalem. Were they being left alone because they had endured enough? Or, were they refusing to go and were intending to stay like captains on a ship? We don’t know. But good men buried Stephen and Saul, who later became Paul, started to attack the Church. And in Verse 4, we read that those who had been scattered preached the Word wherever they went.
Imagine this week, persecution of you, for being a Christian – you must leave this city. And so you find yourself moving north to Newcastle, and West to Bathurst, and down to Canberra and Wollongong. And as you move in with your bag, and people say to you, ‘What are you doing here?’… you say, ‘We have had to leave the city because we belong to Jesus Christ. And a door opens for the Gospel, and, as one commentator (Howard Marshall) says, ‘It seems to have been the natural thing for these wandering Christians to spread the Gospel’. And Philip went down to Samaria. He was one of the eight administrators as well. And so not only was the Lord Jesus sovereignly spreading out His people, but He was also very gracious because He sent Philip to Samaria.
Now I want to tell you why it was gracious for the Lord to send Philip to Samaria and I want to give you a little piece of history. I know history is perhaps a little bit boring for many of you, but if you understand the history of Samaria, you will appreciate even more why the Lord is gracious. Samaria, home to the Samaritans, was not a popular place. The Samaritans were not a popular people. After King Solomon had died, you remember the kingdom split into north and south. And the people in the north set up, as their capital, Samaria. They did not recognise Jerusalem. Not only did they set up their capital Samaria, but they became cool, if not hostile, to the south and to Jerusalem. When eventually the north was overrun by the Assyrians, hoards of pagans came into the north. And the Samaritans inter-married, and so there became a kind of a mongrel race, a half-breed. And they built their temple on Mt Gerizim, which was a kind of an opposition to the temple of Jerusalem. The temple was built in the 4th Century BC, and it was destroyed in the 1st Century BC.
And so the Samaritans were setting themselves up not just independently but quite rebelliously toward the south and the people of God. They rejected most of the Old Testament – they only believed the first five Books, and they were cool or hostile to the people of God. But when the Lord Jesus came, you may remember that He loved them. You remember, for example, that He wanted to visit their cities and preach to them. Do you remember that He drew near to the woman at the well who was a Samaritan and gave her eternal life? And He healed a leper who was a Samaritan. He was as loving toward the Samaritans as anybody in the world. And He preached the famous parable of the Good Samaritan, to speak kindly of them.
And here, he sends Philip to this city of Samaria because Philip has been transformed by the love of Christ and He goes down to offer the Good News. And so we read in Chapter 8 Verse 5 that he went to Samaria and Samaria is a loaded word. Now I said they were unpopular. I didn’t say they were unworthy because it is hard to know where to send anybody to find a worthy person for the Gospel. There isn’t anyone who deserves the Gospel. We are all unworthy. And therefore, the Samaritans are like me – unworthy. And the Samaritans are like you – unworthy. But God, who sovereignly organises the spread of the Gospel, also graciously brings the Gospel to the unworthy.
The Bible says that while we were sinners, Christ died for us. He didn’t die for us when we took notice of Him. He didn’t die for us when we suddenly pulled up our socks and improved. He didn’t die for us when we got back to Church. When we were sinners, Christ died for us – when we were proud, when we were selfish, when we were stupid, when we were ugly, Christ died for us. And once you see yourself in a Samaritan class, you never look down on another group again, or at least it is not as easy to. You look up to God with great tanks and say, ‘You reached even me!’ And you look at the other people in the world and you say, ‘And I have something great to share with you’.
And so when you come into a building like this and you are walking down the carpet, and you see people already sitting in a pew or a row, do you say to yourself, ‘There is somebody there, and I don’t like the look of them… I will pick my own seat’ or is there a Gospel affection which enables you to say, ‘I will sit with this person’. Or, if you are already in your seat, and somebody comes and sits next to you and you don’t like the look of them, do you find yourself saying, ‘I wish that person hadn’t sat next to me’ or do you find that there is a new Gospel affection which says, ‘Hello’. And in your neighbourhood, you find that there are certain people, certain looks or types or attractions which appeal to you more. It is natural, isn’t it. But you see, the love of Christ is a very unusual love, because it crosses over that kind of barrier, and is interested in a person full stop. Well, perhaps we can put this into practice after our meeting today, and cross the road, cross the path, cross the room… and be loving toward any person at all.
Well, here is Philip. He goes down, under the Lord’s sovereign hand and gracious hand, and he is an instrument. And he gets to Samaria, and look at what happens: he begins to proclaim (Verse 5) Jesus Christ. That’s his message. And when the crowds heard (Verse 6) and saw the miraculous signs that He did – spiritual healing and physical healing – they were drawn to the message of Christ. This is the Lord of the sowing. He impacts a city – an unlovely, unattractive, unworthy, unwilling city – and He uses ordinary people, and He uses Philip, just as He may use ordinary people like you or me in passing on an invitation in these next weeks. That’s the Lord of the Sowing.
Second. The Lord of the Reaping (Verses 9-25). If you were listening to the story of Simon the Sorcerer, you would know what a strange story it is. And I have to tell you, I still have a few nervous twitches when this story appears because we had a guest preacher once and he came, and he preached. Weirdly… well unusually, he decided to preach on Acts 8. And he preached on Simon the Sorcerer. And I still remember sitting in the front row, and him saying on a regular basis in a loud voice, ‘Simon was a fake… Simon is a fraud… Simon is a hypocrite’. And I don’t know if it’s a persecution complex, but I started to get quite jumpy about this, and whenever I see this passage, back comes to this deeply personal sermon that affected me in a weird way.
Now why are we told? Why are we told this story of Simon the Sorcerer? Well, partly because it is true, but it is also very instructive. Whenever the Lord sows Gospel seeds, the devil also sows his seeds. There is a spiritual backlash inside a congregation. I have experienced, in the last week, little signs of spiritual backlash as we move toward a mission. It’s been quite unusual to see the certain signs of the devil’s hands, interfering and messing with so many of the good things that are planned.
I was reading this week that when Jonathon Edwards, who was a preacher in the United States in the 18th Century and saw God bring revival to his area, the revival was so wonderful, that all the people in business – in their offices, in their workplaces, were not talking about their business or their work. They were talking about the things of Jesus Christ. Huge numbers of people becoming Christians. And, at the same time, there were great works of darkness, so that in his town, there was a rash of people committing suicide. At the very time, there was this great blessing, there was this absolute despair, leading to suicide. The spiritual battle.
And you see in Chapter 8 Verse 8 that there was great joy in Samaria because of the Gospel, but then in the very next verse, there was deceit because of this guy Simon the Sorcerer. He practised sorcery in Samaria, magic. He boasted about himself. He won the crowds. He was called by the crowds ‘the great power’. It must have been a very heady time for him. And you will notice that the Samaritans were therefore not very discerning. Because they had turned their back on the ways of God in so many ways, they were suckers for deceit. They were suckers for lies. Their opposition to God was not just a rejection. It left the door open for error, and error walked right in, in the person of Simon the Sorcerer. And you will see that the crowds were amazed (Verse 9 and Verse 12).\
Now isn’t that interesting. Can you imagine coming to Church on a Sunday and at the end of it, you say, ‘That was amazing. That was gripping. That was impressive. That was astounding’. But it’s got nothing to do with God whatsoever. In fact, it’s perfectly possible for the devil himself to amaze and astound and grip and impress. And the only way we can test whether it’s a work of God is whether it brings glory to Jesus Christ and helps people to follow Him. Because if it doesn’t do that, if it doesn’t have that effect, it’s very hard to work out what is going on. And religious people are extremely gullible. And that’s why we need the lesson of Simon.
Well, Philip entered the city of Samaria, with Simon having done his work already, and Philip began not to do sorcery, but to do the works of God. And he began to proclaim not himself, but Jesus Christ. And he began to not seek applause, but people’s joy. And the crowds, look at Verse 12, very important, they believed, and they were baptised. Now look at Verse 13 – Simon also believed and was baptised. And so it looks as though Simon has become a convert. It looks as though he has become a Christian. He’s believed and been baptised. He looks as though he is now safe and secure and has eternal life and he is on his way to eternal glory. But watch the next incident from Verse 14. I am going to read it to you. ‘When the Apostles heard the word that Samaria had accepted the Word of God, they sent Peter and John to them. And when they arrived, they prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit because the Holy Spirit had not yet come upon any of them. They had simply been baptised into the name of the Lord Jesus. Then Peter and John placed their hands on them, and they received the Holy Spirit. When Simon saw that the Spirit was given at the laying on of the Apostles’ hands, he offered them money and said, “Give me also this ability, so that everyone on whom I lay my hands may receive the Holy Spirit” and Peter answered, “May your money perish with you, because you thought you could buy the gift of God with money. You have no part or share in this ministry because your heart is not right before God. Repent of this wickedness and pray to the Lord. Perhaps He will forgive you for having such a thought in your heart. For I see that you are full of bitterness and captive to sin.”
Now there is a whole sermon that could be preached on why the Apostles came and laid their hands on these believers, and then they received the Holy Spirit. Now I am going just to stop for a minute and say something about that because it is important. What is going on with this apparent two-step conversion? Was it not enough to listen to Philip and hear the message of Jesus and believe? Because that is what we have done. It doesn’t look as though in Acts Chapter 8 that is enough. Do the Samaritans need Apostles to visit them? Well, two sections of the Church have built sky-scraper ideas on this passage. The more Catholic end of the Church has introduced the need for some senior official to come and lay hands on you so that you might be a real believer. And the Pentecostal Church has also built a huge skyscraper on this, saying that it’s possible to believe in Jesus, but receive the Holy Spirit much later.
I just want to say something briefly about this, because it’s not the main point of the passage. It’s an incident in the experience of Simon, the sorcerer. But I do want to explain this to you, in case you ever want to scratch your head about what is going on. When the Gospel came to Samaria, the Gospel crossed a geographical border which is unique. For the first time, the Gospel moved geographically beyond the land of the Jews, into the land of what we might call the half-Jews or the non-Jews. And it was very important, since this was a crucial border, for God to give His endorsement or His blessing, or His confirmation that this was for His good purposes. Because non-Jews were getting converted, and unpopular non-Jews were getting converted. And because I say this is a unique border to cross with the Gospel, there is a unique endorsement to be given. And God, through the Apostles adds a kind of confirmation, a blessing, a Yes, an endorsement which says, ‘I care about these people. I love these people. I want these people saved’. And so Peter, who the Lord Jesus said would have the keys, along with the other Apostles of the Kingdom, was present on the day of Pentecost when the Gospel came to the Jews. And then was present when the Gospel came to the Samaritans. And later would be present when the Gospel came to the Gentiles (Chapter 10). He didn’t go to every work that was done – but these were special borderlines, where the Gospel was moving geographically. Unique border… unique endorsement. Do not build a doctrine on an experience in the Scriptures. Build your experience on a doctrine. And nobody, could, of course, look back and doubt that these Samaritans were wonderfully included in God’s purposes. Nobody could doubt that they were blessed by God. Nobody could resent that they were blessed by God. And therefore, the Holy Spirit seems to have been held back, waiting for this endorsement, blessing, confirmation from God.
Well, for Simon, this was too much to believe. This was the magic power of all magic powers, and he offered to pay for the ability to lay hands on people so that they would receive the Holy Spirit. And by of course offering to pay money, he made a mockery of the fact that the Holy Spirit is a gift. He wanted to be the source of power. He probably thought he was a great power, since people called him the great power.
Now, what is it that marks Simon out as a fake? This is a disturbing thing, isn’t it. The Bible says he believed and was baptised, and so we should say, ‘Well, that’s enough.’ But Peter turns around and says – No, you are not a believer. So what are we meant to make of this? First, some believing is just dead orthodoxy. I believe in God – tick. I believe in Jesus lived and died and rose – tick. I believe in the words of the creed – tick. It can be just dead orthodoxy. Do you remember that Jesus said, in the lovely Sermon on the Mount, that many will come to Me and say: Lord, Lord, don’t You remember that we did all these great things? And He will say: I never knew you. We never met. We never connected. I held out My hands to you – you never took them.
James tells us, in Chapter 2, Verse 19, that the devils believe there is one God. The devils believe that Jesus died, rose, lives will come again. But they have never connected, they have never met Him. That’s why they don’t have life because He is the life. It’s only when you take hold of Christ, you have life, and He takes up residence in your heart. It seems that Simon never repented and never got a new heart. That’s what Peter says. The second thing about Simon is he seemed just to drift with the crowd. He was a moment man. Chapter 8, Verse 12 – when the crowds believed, Simon himself believed. It’s very easy to believe when the crowds believe, isn’t it. Sadly, how many hundreds went forward at Billy Graham crusades? We bless God for Billy Graham – what a wonderful number of people were converted – but how many people went forward with the crowds, who were never converted? But they saw the crowd go forward and so they went forward. And you will see in Verse 18 that when Simon saw the Apostles lay hands on people, he wanted to be able to lay hands on people. So he just responded horizontally. He didn’t seem to respond vertically at all. In fact, in Verse 13, we read that he followed Philip. So he seems to have been a people person, not a Christ person.
And the third thing is, he never saw himself as desperate. And he never saw Jesus as the solution to his desperate situation. It’s one of the lovely things that Jesus does for people – He knocks on the door of their life and says, ‘I want to come in’. And we just give Him no welcome at all. And so, He comes back and knocks on the door, and we give Him no welcome. And He comes back and knocks on the door, and we give Him no welcome. What’s He going to do? Well, He can knock the house over, if He wants to – and for many people, He knocks the house over. Not because He doesn’t love the person, but because they don’t listen to the front door. And He’s saying, ‘I am now going to move in, and when I move in, I will take that little shack, and I will turn it into a palace, and I will rebuild your world, and I will make your new world forever’.
Well, Simon never saw himself as desperate. He just operated on a horizontal basis. He just wanted power. He seems to have kind of played a religious game. He never really wanted to deal with Jesus Christ. There was nothing vertical. Even when Peter said to him, ‘Pray to the Lord’, he didn’t even want to send up a prayer. He said, ‘No, you pray for me’. And so Simon appears to be, in the Book of Acts, a weed or a tear in the harvest of God’s huge blessing. And mostly those weeds will stay in the congregation until the Lord does His harvest at the end. When the Lord does His harvesting at the end, suddenly all the weeds and all the tears will be seen for what they are. But in the Book of Acts, a lot of that final stuff is brought into the present, so we would know what God actually will do. And here is a man who is judged in the present.
I want to suggest to you that Simon is a very frightened character because he heard the Gospel. He saw miracles. He professed faith. He got baptised. He was never converted. Samuel Marsden, who was the second chaplain in NSW has a lovely phrase, in a book I read on him. He described a man as ‘varnished with religion, never visited by grace’. And what a sad, sad situation that is, to be varnished with religion, but never visited with grace. This character, Simon the sorcerer was a self-man. His message was himself. His reputation was himself. His religion was himself. His motive was himself. And then his end was himself.
And the Lord Jesus has come to rescue people from self and turn their mind and their heart and their prayer up to Him, so that they call to Him and receive Him and live and go forward, forever, with Him. And here is the Lord, the Lord of the sowing and the Lord of the reaping and He obviously knows who is a tear and who is a weed, but He loves and delights to see people come to Christ and be part of the harvest, which will last forever.
Let’s take warning from Simon and let’s take encouragement from a God who is so gracious, that He would send the Gospel to the unworthy, and if at all possible, if He can do it at all possibly, encourage every believer that they do belong.
Let’s pray. Let’s bow our heads. Our Heavenly Father, we thank You for giving us this sobering story, so that we might check our foundations. And we pray that You would unsettle every person in this building who is not built on Christ and we pray that You would bring every person in this building, in Your goodness and power, to lay their life on Christ. And we pray that we might have the joy on the last day, on standing firmly, joyfully, and so we commit to You this need and this good news. In Jesus’ name. Amen.