Acts 8:1–25 records the great persecution of the church by Saul and the consequent spread of the gospel to Samaria through Philip. “Philip went down to the city of Samaria and proclaimed to them the Christ” (Acts 8:5), and “there was much joy in that city” (Acts 8:8; cf. 8:6–7).1
Prior to Philip’s coming, “a man named Simon” had wowed Samaria with his magic (8:9–11). “But when they believed Philip” (Acts 8:12), so also “Simon himself believed,” was “baptized,” and even “continued with Philip” (Acts 8:13). Whereas Samaria was once “amazed…with his magic” (Acts 8:11), it was now Simon who was “amazed” at Philip’s “signs and great miracles” (Acts 8:13).
After Simon’s apparent conversion, however, he made a troubling request, indicating that he had never truly become a Christian. Peter and John had come to see the salvation of Samaritans, “laid their hands on them,” and “they received the Holy Spirit” (Acts 8:17; cf. 8:14–17). Simon then “offered them money, saying, ‘Give me this power also, so that anyone on whom I lay my hands may receive the Holy Spirit’” (Acts 8:20). For the next four verses in Acts 8:20–23, Peter rebuked him in multiple ways:
Simon was condemned: “May your silver perish with you”—Simon himself would perish, and his silver stood as a part for the whole of why he would perish—his hope to use it to purchase the Spirit to benefit himself by being seen as great like the apostles (cf. Acts 8:9–11). It was previously (and obviously inaccurately) said of him as a magician, “This man is the power of God that is called Great” (Acts 8:10). His request, “Give me this power,” seems to betray his desire for a power that shows him as great in the eyes of others (Acts 8:19).
Simon’s theology was corrupt: “you thought you could obtain the gift of God with money”—if ever the NT gives us an example of the prosperity gospel, it is here. Give silver to God, and He will give the Spirit’s power to me, Simon thought. But a gift cannot be purchased. The Spirit comes with faith. And in this unique transitional episode in Acts, faith came first, and the Spirit came with the laying on of the apostles’ hands.
Simon had no share in the Spirit: “You have neither part nor lot in this matter”—these words indicate that the “matter” of the Spirit was something altogether outside Simon’s experience. He was not one who possessed or would receive (or let alone give) the Holy Spirit.
Simon’s heart was in the wrong: “your heart is not right before God”—his intentions were sinful (see below).
Simon had not repented: “Repent”—his request was something to acknowledge as sin and indicated that he had never turned from sin to begin with.
Simon’s request was wicked: “this wickedness of yours”—this is a further description of his view of the Spirit’s work as something to buy as a means to enhance his greatness.
Simon’s desire was sinful: “pray…that…the intent of your heart may be forgiven you”—it was not just the request, but more than that, it was the sinful intention of his heart that needed forgiving.
Simon was idolatrous: “you are in the gall of bitterness”—this description echoes the OT and needs a bit of explanation. Deuteronomy 29:18 uses a metaphor to describe the person who turns from God to follow the stubbornness of his heart, even in the midst of God’s people—he is “a root bearing poisonous and bitter fruit.” Such a description had undertones of the coming judgment of God for the person who was this root (cf. Deut 29:20–21; Heb 12:15 speaks to this effect as well). For Simon, despite his presence among the new believers in Samaria, he was still following the unbelieving stubbornness of his heart. Remembering that gall is a bitter liquid (whether bile or something just as bitter; cf. Matt 27:34), Simon was himself the root bearing the gall of bitterness, so much so that he was “in” it. His idolatrous heart led to the rotten produce of treating the Spirit as something to purchase for him to use for his promoting his own personal greatness.
Simon was in bondage to sin: “you are…in the bond of iniquity”—this self-explained phrase parallels and helps to explain the one before it. Just as Simon was “in the bond of iniquity,” so also he could be said to be “in the gall of bitterness.”
With this litany of indictments, Peter’s rebuke makes one thing certain—Simon was not a true believer. But what is not certain for some is how to understand Simon’s response in Acts 8:24, “And Simon answered, ‘Pray for me to the Lord, that nothing of what you have said may come upon me.” Did Simon finally become a Christian at this point?
Some conclude that Simon was so humble that he would not pray for himself but asked for Peter to do so now that his sin was exposed. Surely such humility indicated his now-penitent heart. On the other hand, others point out that Simon dodged the personal responsibility of praying himself, disobeying Peter who had commanded him to do so (Acts 8:22, “Repent… and pray to the Lord”). Rather than taking a third and unsatisfying view that the text is indecisive, that Simon sees no conversion in Acts 8 is best for multiple reasons found within the text.
First, despite Simon’s apparent conversion in Acts 8:13, we find out that he never truly believed the first time around. This fact nudges us to understand his otherwise elusive response in Acts 8:24 in the same way.
Second, Simon never did what Peter commanded him to do—pray and repent (Acts 8:22). We are left to assume that Simon was thus never forgiven.
Third, looking more closely at Simon’s request in Acts 8:24, it was for Peter to intercede for the sake of removing judgment. Given Simon’s background and request to purchase the Spirit’s power, it seems that, just as he saw the apostles as vendors who could sell the Spirit, so also he carries on seeing them as talismans to pray for his protection.
Fourth, in the flow of Acts, our last episode in dealing with something like this was Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5:1–11). Just as they were false worshipers in the midst of God’s people, so also it seems Simon was as well.
In the end, from his own words, Simon neither repented nor prayed and merely wished to escape judgment. As best we know, he never believed and was judged accordingly. Such is the unfortunate and sad case of Simon the magician.
May Simon’s case be a warning to all of us—many profess Christ, are baptized, and continue to be among the true children of God. May God give them a Peter or John to point out their sins in this life, leading to true repentance, something more than a mere desire to escape judgment. Otherwise, the hidden sins of their heart will appear in their day of judgment, leading to an eternally unhappy end.
- All biblical quotations are from the ESV.