“When the apostles in Jerusalem received the report that Samaria had accepted God’s Message, they sent Peter and John down to pray for them to receive the Holy Spirit. Up to this point they had only been baptized in the name of the Master Jesus; the Holy Spirit hadn’t yet fallen on them. Then the apostles laid their hands on them and they did receive the Holy Spirit.” Acts 8:14-17, The Message
Most people who read this passage of Scripture are drawn to it because what they think it has to say about their particular version of pneumatology (i.e., the study of the Holy Spirit and spiritual things); whether Luke is saying that Holy Spirit-infilling normally is a separate event following salvation or this was a solitary “out of the ordinary” kind of experience for a decidedly out-of the-ordinary event. (Whichever way you choose to answer that usually says more about your personal convictions about these things than it has to do with the story itself). But what gets my attention is the descriptive statement, “Then the apostles laid their hands on them...” In that small gesture, something of incredible significance is occurring right before our eyes but if we're not paying attention we'll totally miss its import.
|Philip if he had lived in the "old" West|
Like a lot of biblical writers, Luke is known for his economy of words. Case in point is his comment describing the after-effect of Philip's ministry in Samaria. Philip shows up practically out of breath from running away from Jerusalem where at the moment a young zealot by name of Saul is rounding up the Christians there following the death of Stephen. But instead of keeping a low profile, he gets up on a stump, preaches Jesus and is used by the Lord to heal many paralyzed individuals as well as exorcise demonic spirits from many others. And all Luke will say about these remarkable things is: “So there was great joy in that city” (v. 8). He clearly was not a 21st century writer who would have relayed this story in far more dramatic fashion.
|When it happens in the Bible it's a big deal|
In like manner, he relays what happens when Peter and John show up to confirm the rumors they had been hearing in Jerusalem that Samaria had received the word of God. Luke doesn't bother to bring us into the moment of what their follow-up entailed but I infer that it involved some conversations with Philip and at the very least, having a meal or two with these new Samaritan believers. Whatever they saw was confirmation enough that the rumors were true, that there were now Christ-followers in Samaria and so at Philip's urging they prayed for these new believers in Jesus to receive the Holy Spirit. And what happens next is a “whoa” moment in Scripture because in sacramental fashion, Peter and John, both law-abiding Jewish men lay their hands – probably for the first time - upon redneck, lowlife Samaritans. The moment is awe-ful, fateful and rather humorous all at the same time.
Most of us who have grown up in church or at least are familiar enough with our Bible, know enough to understand that Samaritans in Jesus' day were considered inbreds by the rest of the Jewish population of that region. Though once upon a time they had been part of the family, following the end of the Northern Kingdom in 722 BC much of the population had been deported. The current denizens of Samaria were the descendents of a mixed bag of people who had been planted there by later foreign kings to work the land. Ajith Fernando has this to say about the centuries old schism between the two groups:
|"Dude, what are you doing?"|
Animosity toward Jerusalem among the Samaritans had deep historical roots. They were refused a share in rebuilding the Jerusalem temple (see Ezra 3:7-4:5), so they erected a rival temple on their hill, Gerizim. The Judean ruler John Hyrancus destroyed this temple and conquered Samaria in the second century B.C. When the Romans conquered Palestine in 63 B.C. they liberated Samaria from Judean control. (Acts: The NIV Application Commentary, p.273)
That all adds up to a lot of bad blood. No wonder the woman at the well in John 4 is incredulous that Jesus, a Jew, would even bother to talk with her. No wonder, at another time James and John asked Jesus for permission to call hellfire down on a bunch of inhospitable Samaritans (Luke 9:53-54). And yet a year or so later here is the same John back in Samaritanland, along with Peter, ready to bless their ancient foe with the blessing of the Father that had been given to them. I wonder at the moment if he was amused by the irony of it all?
But in that gesture, that laying on of hands, Peter and John are declaring that these Samaritans are equals, members and participants in the new covenant with Jesus Christ. Whether or not they had the theology of it all worked out at that moment isn't clear but by laying their hands on them it can only mean that ultimately they will reach that conclusion. Of this particular episode in the history of the Church, John Stott says,
|More radical than this|
...the Samaritan schism had lasted for centuries. But now the Samaritans were being evangelized, and were responding to the gospel. It was a moment of significant advance, which was also fraught with great peril. What would happen now? Would the long-standing rift be perpetuated? The gospel had been welcomed by the Samaritans, but would the Samaritans be welcomed by the Jews? Or would there be separate factions of Jewish Christians and Samaritan Christians in the church of Jesus Christ? The idea may seem unthinkable in theory; in practice it might well have happened. There was a real 'danger...of their tearing Christ apart, or at least of forming a new and separate church for themselves' [quoting Calvin]. (The Bible Speaks Today: The Message of Acts, by John R.W. Stott, p. 157)
I'm sure at the time in the Jerusalem church there were some who longed for the old rift to be healed. I'm also sure there were others who would allow the Samaritans to come back in on a probationary status while pedigrees could be checked out. But here in one fell swoop it is the apostles' assessment that these distant “cousins” were in fact now “brothers and sisters in Christ” and should be respected and welcome as such. I wonder how quickly the Jerusalem Jewish “pure-breds” embraced their “mudblood” relations? Based on the previous conflict between the Hebrew Christians and the Hellenized Christians (see Acts 6), probably quickly in some places and not so quickly in others. So for Peter and John to act as such not only did it show spiritual insight but also demonstrate moral courage. Had they held back it very well could have meant, the development of a new and subtle schism in the Body as, to use Michael Green's words, “converts from the two sides of the 'Samaritan curtain' found Christ without finding each other.” Indeed.
|One small step that changed everything|
In 1969, when Neil Armstrong stepped upon the moon for the first time he uttered the now famous line, “That's one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind.” It wouldn't be too much of a stretch to say that when Peter and John laid their hands on these new believers, Samaritans the lot of them, it was one small touch for these men, one giant embrace for the Church universal – the first of many more embraces to come (see Acts 15). That kind of change would take generations to get into the milieu of Jewish disciples. Acceptance of Gentile believers would take even longer. But great shifts in perspective always begin such – a small seed, a small step, a small gesture made that in time results in great good. As Fernando puts it,
It is providential that through the ministry of leaders from the Jerusalem church the Samaritans received the Spirit. It helped maintain the unity of the early church...It helped [the new Samaritan Christians] begin their life as Christians with an attitude of warm love toward their traditional enemies. Perhaps somewhere in this process, they repented of their attitudes of animosity toward Jerusalem. For the Jerusalem Christians too, it was important that the authenticating sign of the conversion of the Samaritans took place when the apostles were there and through their mediation. Accepting Samaritans to their fold also involved some major attitude shifts on their part. Therefore, clear evidence that God was in these events was necessary. (Acts: The NIV Application Commentary, p. 273)
One thing is for sure, as they leave town everyone has undergone change. The Samaritans have been blessed with the Holy Spirit – a blessing, as it has already been pointed out, mediated by the Jewish apostles. But Peter and John leave changed as well for on their return journey to Jerusalem they stop in many a Samaritan village to share Jesus there (8:25). It's a brand new day for everyone, the first of many new days to come for all believers everywhere.