|Original picture by Flickr user Waiting for the Word|
Phillip had just gone to Samaria preaching the word after the persecution in Jerusalem broke out. The power of the Gospel and the power of the witness of the signs Phillip was performing convinced many of the Samaritans to believe and be baptized. One of those people was Simon. The fact that Simon was convinced based on what he saw and heard is testimony in itself as to the power of the Spirit of God working in and through Phillip. You see, Simon was a sorcerer. Just listen to how Luke describes him:
"Now there was a man named Simon, who formerly was practicing magic in the city and astonishing the people of Samaria, claiming to be someone great; and they all, from smallest to greatest, were giving attention to him, saying, 'This man is what is called the Great Power of God.'" - Acts 8:9-10How is that for a con artist!? If there was anyone who could spot a deception, it should have been Simon! But when he saw and heard the message of Christ, he knew he was seeing the real thing. Luke tells us that he believed, he was baptized, and then he began following Phillip.
Not long after, the apostles in Jerusalem heard what was happening and they sent Peter and John to lay hands on the new Christians so that they too would receive the Holy Spirit. And when Simon realized that the Spirit was giving through the laying on of hands, he asked to buy the ability to do that so that he would have the power to pass the Holy Spirit on to others just as Peter and John did. And that request is what drew such a strong rebuke from Peter.
Most who read this story have said that Simon's fault was that he wanted to purchase the power of God for selfish reasons. He wanted to profit from the miraculous gifts of the Holy Spirit. But the text doesn't say that. It simply records his request...and then it records his repentance when he is convicted by Peter. I may be wrong, but I believe Simon had good motives when he tried to pay for the "gift of God with money." We know Simon really believed and was converted. We know he was convinced that he really would die at the hand of God if Peter did not pray for his forgiveness. This does not sound like a man who is still full of pride and thinking of selfish gain. It sounds more to me like a man who is confused about how things work in the kingdom of God.
You see, before his conversion, he was used to big displays of power that captivated his audience and made him somebody important. In order to hold their attention, he had to rely on his ability as a magician. And he was very good at it. So good, in fact, that they called him "the Great Power of God." I believe Simon was simply trying to bring his old manner of doing business into the kingdom of heaven, not realizing that the power seen in the kingdom of heaven must always rest in the hands of God and not man or his ability.
I think he was very unfamiliar with the concept that Paul would write about later when he said,
For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel, not in cleverness of speech, so that the cross of Christ would not be made void. For the word of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God....I was with you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling, and my message and my preaching were not in persuasive words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith would not rest on the wisdom of men, but on the power of God. 1 Corinthians 1:17-18; 2:3-5Simon did not realize that dependence on self- on money, on talents, on abilities, on reputation, on "cleverness of speech," and "persuasive words of wisdom"- would make the "cross of Christ void" both for himself and for those whom he tried to influence through only those means. The fact that even after conversion to Christ he did not understand his dependence on Christ made it all too clear to Peter that he was still "in the gall of bitterness and captive to sin." How could he not be if he still pridefully thought that God's power could bought similarly to how I'm sure he must have paid for magic tricks in the past!
Don't get me wrong, I believe it is very clear that God has given us both natural and spiritual gifts and abilities and expects us to use them for His kingdom and for His glory. But we are to use them in a way that is fully dependent upon God instead of thinking that we can "buy the gift of God with money." I heard a speaker describe the gospel spreading like wildfire through a third world country because a few local men who had become Christians simply began walking through villages asking people if they would like to study the Bible. He asked those men why they were being so successful. They told him they didn't know at all other than the fact that it was the work of God. This speaker- who is a very talented speaker and author- then said passionately, "I long to be a part of something that can only be attributed to the power of God!"
Perhaps sometimes in our churches, we fall prey to the mistake of Simon, too. It wouldn't be hard to argue that we fall pray to his mistake even if other interpretations are correct and his mistake was using the gospel for selfish gain! But that is not what I'm referring to here. What if we have focused so much on the ability of well-crafted programs, and golden-tongued preachers, and comfortable seating, and highly efficient and streamlined orders of worship that will suit the tastes of all present that we, too, could be accused of trying to "buy the gift of God with money." No, not literally trying to bribe someone for some gift (although, to our shame, that often also goes on in some of our churches in the form of preferences and decisions made through knowledge of the donations given...or withheld) But buying the gift of God in the sense that we rely on slick marketing and talented speakers and trips to Six Flags to convert people to Christ instead of relying on the message of the Gospel and the power of the Spirit.
I long to be a part of something that can only be attributed to the power of God. I will use my gifts and abilities to serve Him. But I pray that I will stop using them in a way that they could ever be thought to be independent of Him. I cringe at the thought of the "cross of Christ being made void" in my life or anyone else's based on my dependence on human means instead of Godly means.
May our churches be filled with people who are filled with and in awe of the power of the Spirit of God. May others who have seen gimmicks and magic in the past in the form of marketing and great sales pitches recognize in us the real Thing. And may they be converted to Him in the same way we have.