Studies in the Book of Acts

Most of this series was written by Paul Kroll, a journalist working for Grace Communion International. Copyright Grace Communion International. The research was done in the mid 1990s, but all articles were edited in 2012 by Michael Morrison, PhD, professor of Biblical Studies at Grace Communion Seminary.

Acts 8:14-17

Peter and John go to Samaria (8:14)

The overwhelming success of the mission to Samaria soon reaches the ears of the apostles in Jerusalem. Peter and John are sent to Samaria as emissaries of the Jerusalem church (8:14). There are several reasons why the apostles go to Samaria. For one, it is a mission of goodwill — to show that the church is one body. By sending the apostles to Samaria, the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem are demonstrating their brotherly bond with the Samaritan disciples. The Jerusalem church also needs to satisfy itself of the genuineness of the Samaritan conversions. Once they do so, there will be no question of the mother church accepting these new converts.

By going to Samaria, Peter and John are also confirming the validity of the Hellenistic Christians’ ministry of evangelization. During the early years of the church, the apostles seem to exercise a general supervision over the progress of the gospel in general (11:22). But we should also note the collegial method of decision-making at Jerusalem. It is the church that sends the apostles to Samaria (8:14).

Samaritans receive the Spirit (8:15-17)

When the Samaritans are baptized in Jesus’ name (8:12, 16), there is no visible evidence that they receive the Holy Spirit. Only after the apostles pray for the Samaritan disciples and lay hands on them, does God give visible evidence of the Spirit (8:17).

Why this delay? Luke does not hint at any deficiency in the Samaritan believers’ faith. Philip does not perceive any, and neither do the apostles. Nor do the apostles need to enlighten the Samaritans any further about the faith. (On the other hand, it must be pointed out that Simon’s sin is not evident right away, either — it becomes known when he tries to buy the power to give the Holy Spirit.)

An important point may be behind the delay in the evidence of the Holy Spirit for the Samaritan believers. Luke may be implying that the Samaritans need to be brought into the church as a whole, not just into its Hellenistic branch. This does not mean that converts can receive the Holy Spirit only through the apostles. Ananias, with no known ministerial function (and certainly not an apostle), is the human instrument through which the Holy Spirit is given to Paul (9:17). Luke may be trying to show that God wants a link established between Jerusalem and the new venture in Samaria. So God seems to delay the Spirit until the Jerusalem apostles validate the Samaritans’ conversion so they might become fully incorporated into the community of believers.

If the Spirit came on the Samaritans immediately upon their baptism, perhaps they would remain under suspicion by the mother church in Jerusalem. But when two apostles of high standing in the church validate the Samaritans’ conversion, and show that God fully accepts this despised ethnic group, they will also be fully accepted by believers in Jerusalem. Since the apostles are the instruments through whom the Holy Spirit comes, something of a Samaritan “Pentecost” occurs (8:15-17), giving further proof that God is working among the Samaritans. The conclusion is inescapable: God loves Samaritans in the same way that he does Jews.

How do people know that the Samaritans receive the Spirit? Luke’s story assumes it can be known, but he doesn’t say how. Some speculate that the original Pentecost charismatic gifts occur again, such as speaking in other languages. For example, Simon “sees” something when the Spirit is given, and we might wonder what visible manifestation Simon reacts to (8:18). But Luke gives no indication that charismatic gifts are manifested every time converts receive the Spirit. Luke makes no mention of any such gifts in this account. Perhaps the Samaritan converts outwardly exhibit a sense of spiritual joy, which is a gift of the Holy Spirit (Galatians 5:22). Luke and Paul both indicate in their writings that in some cases the evidence of joy can signal the presence of the Spirit (13:52; 16:34; 1 Thessalonians 1:6).

In this case, the Holy Spirit is given only after the laying on of hands. However, we should not assume that this is a requirement in all cases. For example, Luke does not say that the believers converted on Pentecost had hands laid on them (by the apostles or anyone else) before receiving the Spirit (2:38-42). The laying on of hands is also not mentioned in Luke’s account of the household of Cornelius receiving the Spirit (10:44-48). The point is that believing in Christ and being baptized is the fundamental path to “receiving” the Spirit, not laying on of hands. F.F. Bruce writes, “In general, it seems to be assumed throughout the New Testament that those who believe and are baptized have also the Spirit of God.” [F.F. Bruce, The Book of Acts, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Rev. ed., Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1988), page 169.]

The laying on of hands, however, is an important outward symbol of acceptance. The person doing the action represents the community, which extends its acceptance of the people who are putting their faith in Christ. The ceremony is also a symbol of the transfer of God’s power, through the church, to an individual. The laying on of hands is used in various situations in the early church, and so it is today. The apostles pray and lay hands on the Seven, ordaining them to a particular task (6:6). Paul lays his hands on the father of Publius and heals him (28:8). And it is done here so the Samaritans will receive the Spirit.

The elapsed time between the Samaritan’s baptism and receiving of the Spirit has given rise to two widely held beliefs in the Christian world. One is the doctrine of “confirmation” and the other is “the baptism of the Spirit” as a second work of grace after conversion. In some Christian circles a person is baptized, perhaps during infancy, and later in life is “confirmed” in the church by a profession of faith. In a few other denominations, a person may be regarded as converted but later be “confirmed” by exhibiting a special outward manifestation of charismatic gifts.

Nothing of either idea is suggested in Acts 8. The delay in God’s granting the Holy Spirit is simply due to a special situation, as discussed above. It is important that the Samaritan believers be accepted as full converts in the church community, and this requires the involvement of the apostles. Also, the Samaritans are baptized as adults, and they receive the Spirit within days or weeks. Luke does not mention any accompanying charismatic gifts, such as glossolalia, as occurring here. Thus, no doctrinal innovations are intimated in Luke 8, and none should be drawn out of the account.