Do you ever long for something different? Perhaps you've heard of the story that has been told of Franklin Roosevelt, who often endured long receiving lines at the White House. He complained that no one really paid any attention to what was said. One day, during a reception, he decided to try an experiment. To each person who came down the line and shook his hand, he murmured, "I murdered my grandmother this morning." And the guests responded with phrases like, "Marvelous! Keep up the good work. We are proud of you. God bless you, sir." It was not until the end of the line, while greeting the ambassador from Bolivia, that apparently his words were actually heard. Not quite knowing what to say, the ambassador leaned over and whispered, "I'm sure she had it coming."1
Have you ever felt the need for radical change in your life? No, not to murder your grandmother, but something different? Have you ever felt that you wished you could be different? That you would not be limited to the same stuff you are used to day in and day out? Are you perhaps bored with your religious experience?
Architect Frank Lloyd Wright once told of an incident that seemed insignificant at the time, but had a profound influence on the rest of his life. The winter he was nine, he went walking across a snow covered field with his reserved, no nonsense uncle. As the two of them reached the far end of the field, his uncle stopped him. He pointed out his own tracks in the snow, straight and true as the arrow flies, and then young Frank's tracks meandering all over the field. "Notice how your tracks wander aimlessly from the fence to the cattle to the woods and back again," his uncle said. "And see how my tracks aim directly to my goal. There is an important lesson in that." Years later the famous architect liked to tell how this experience had greatly contributed to his philosophy in life. "I determined right then," he'd say with a twinkle in his eye, "not to miss most things in life, as my uncle had."2 Let's determine right now not to miss the best in Christianity.
I invite you to open your Bibles to Acts 8 as we look at a story that invites us to consider the need for change. We'll be looking at the story of Simon the Magician, but we should understand the background first.
Chapter 8 begins by telling us that persecution had caused the church to spread out. Because of that, Philip went to evangelize Samaria or perhaps it was the principal city in the region of Samaria. And it tells us that there was a marvelous response to his preaching. So many accepted the message, and, through Philip, God worked miracles of healing and cast out demons from people. The story of Simon begins with Acts 8:9 10, But there was a certain man called Simon, who previously practiced sorcery in the city and astonished the people of Samaria, claiming that he himself was someone great, to whom they all gave heed, from the least to the greatest, saying, "This man is the great power of God."
So maybe we can call him Simon the Magician or Simon the Sorcerer. Some translations use the word sorcery or witchcraft, but he was a magician and pretty full of himself. He claimed to be someone with divine power, a great man, a "mega-man". That's the original word for what is translated as "great" in our English Bibles, megas. And it means mega, or great, or big, or very important. To that region where he was he wanted to be known as the mega-magic man.
Now when great numbers in that city accepted Philip's message about Jesus, they believed and were baptized. And how did Simon respond to Philip's preaching? Acts 8:13, Then Simon himself also believed; and when he was baptized he continued with Philip, and he was amazed, seeing the miracles and signs which were done.
You could definitely say that Simon was enamored by what he saw, so much so, that he apparently wouldn't leave Philip's side, fascinated as he was by the miraculous power that he was seeing. Anyway, the evangelism was going so well that those at headquarters heard about it and they sent Peter and John to sanction this addition of new members to the church. So Peter and John came and prayed for them to receive the Holy Spirit. Now, for our story this morning, the key part to notice is verses 18-19: Now when Simon saw that through the laying on of hands the Holy Spirit was given, he offered them money, saying, "Give me this power also, that anyone on whom I lay my hands may receive the Holy Spirit."
As the Message Bible says it in Acts 8:18 19 (MSG), When Simon saw that the apostles by merely laying on hands conferred the Spirit, he pulled out his money, excited, and said, 'Sell me your secret! Show me how you did that! How much do you want? Name your price!'
What I believe is crucial to notice here is the contrast between those who are converted and those who are not converted. Those who were converted humbly accepted the apostles' bestowal of the Holy Spirit through the laying on of hands. But Simon shows that he is clearly not converted. Those who are converted don't want to buy the Holy Spirit. Those who are converted don't want to buy apostolic authority. Yet that is precisely what Simon wanted to do. The message of the gospel hadn't taken full hold of the man's heart. Since he offered money for what could be considered no less than apostolic power and authority, he must have thought that he could benefit financially from Christianity.
Perhaps he wanted to use it, as an object of power, without being changed himself. Now, let's notice Peter's response to Simon in Acts 8:20-23. But Peter said to him, "Your money perish with you, because you thought that the gift of God could be purchased with money! You have neither part nor portion in this matter, for your heart is not right in the sight of God. Repent therefore of this your wickedness, and pray God if perhaps the thought of your heart may be forgiven you. For I see that you are poisoned by bitterness and bound by iniquity."
How did Peter describe Simon's condition? His heart was not right before God. And he also says that as a result of that was full of bitterness and chained by wickedness, as one translation puts it. Actually, I really believe this passage helps us to understand the answer to the question, 'What does God really want?' God doesn't want our money. He wants us. He wants our hearts to be healed. He wants us to have a new heart and a right spirit. And He wants us to know and trust Him and be willing to listen to Him of our own choice for the rest of eternity.
He wants something much more than just "believing and being baptized." But Simon hadn't gotten beyond that point. He didn't understand what it was all about he didn't "get it." But as far as the Holy Spirit is concerned, what did it mean to receive the Holy Spirit? Remember that David, in Psalm 51:11, prayed that God wouldn't take His Holy Spirit away from him and he also prayed that the Lord would create in him a new heart and a right spirit (vs. 10). How does God do that? It's through the power of the Holy Spirit in our hearts.
So then to receive the Holy Spirit, which is free, would mean to have the conversion experience of a new heart and a right spirit within us. Simon didn't even get to that point. Wayne Rice in one of his Youth Talks tells about a young man named Jeremy. Jeremy wore inch thick, coke bottle glasses and a perfect bowl haircut. He knew the answers to everything and was the teacher's pet. One day, after an uncharacteristic absence from school, Jeremy showed up in class with a big grin on his face, wearing a goofy looking, Mickey Mouse hat. The teacher asked Jeremy where he got the hat. "I went to Disneyland yesterday!" he said excitedly. "Oh really," said the teacher. "Why don't you tell us about your trip to Disneyland." "Okay! Well, I got to Disneyland and the first thing I saw was the parking lot," Jeremy said. "That parking lot must hold about a million cars! I got on a tram that carried me around the parking lot until I got to the place where you buy the tickets. So I got off and stood in line. I bought a ticket and I also bought this cool hat!" "And then what did you do?" asked the teacher. "Well, I got back on the tram and rode around the parking lot some more. That was really fun! I rode that tram all day!" "All day?" asked the teacher. "Did you go through the turnstiles and under the bridge to Main Street U.S.A., Adventureland, Fantasyland, Tomorrowland, and the rest of the park?" Jeremy thought for a moment and said, "No. Was I supposed to?3
Like Jeremy, Simon the Magician never really went past the ticket booth. He didn't really enter into the spirit of Christianity. So what is the bottom line in this story from Acts? I believe we see here a contrast between what on one hand is a legalistic relationship and on the other hand a genuine, authentic heart-relationship with God. After all, Simon, it says, believed and was baptized. And there are some who teach that's all that is necessary for the plan of salvation. 'Just believe and you will be saved. Oh, and be baptized, of course.'
But that's all they understand the plan of salvation to be. Just believe that Christ died on the cross and accept His substitutionary death on your behalf and everything will be fine. That's all. But is that enough?
Actually, I think that view makes a mockery out of Jesus' sufferings and death. What did God want to happen because of Jesus' sacrificial death? Oh, forgiveness by God was communicated very clearly by Christ's sacrifice, because God Himself is forgiveness personified. But God wanted it to bring us closer to God. He wanted genuine reconciliation and this new-heart, right-spirit relationship-with-God experience to happen. If it doesn't do that, if it doesn't change us, then it is all for nothing as far as we're concerned.
Simon believed and was baptized, but that was not enough in and of itself. After all, Jesus didn't say to Nicodemus, "Unless you are forgiven, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven." He said, "Unless you are born again, you'll never enter the kingdom of heaven."
So what difference does this story make to us now? What difference does it make? I think, first of all, that it should serve as a warning to us to be aware of our motivations for being Christians and for why we associate with the church. What is it that drives us? Is it because we want to control others or gain some kind of selfish authority? Or is it that we want to know Christ and that is what leads us to walk with Him? What are the reasons we perform service in the church?
A soul-search can be good for the soul. Do we seek to associate with the church just so we can use others to achieve our own greed or dysfunctional needs? Or is it so that we can encourage each other to have this new-heart, right-spirit relationship with God and to grow in His likeness? So let's ask the Lord to reveal to us what our true motivation is and ask for His help to change us to the right one. The second thing this story can do for us is that it tells us that whatever we believe as Christians, we should be different as a result of our beliefs. Genuine Christians will want to ask God daily for a new heart and right spirit. And having that, we will want to be willing to listen to Him. Are we willing? And if not, let's ask God to go all the way in our hearts to create newness and grow us into His image. And to do that, sometimes it really helps to get the right instructions in the first place.
During a two week follow up appointment with his cardiologist, a patient informed his doctor that he was having trouble with one of his medications. "Which one?" asked the doctor. "The patch," he replied, "the nurse told me to put on a new one every six hours, and I've run out of places to put it!" The doctor had him quickly undress and discovered what he hoped he wouldn't see. Yes, the man had over fifty patches on his body! The instructions were changed to include the removal of the old patch before applying a new one.4
So sometimes it can be helpful to go back to our heavenly physician for newer or perhaps more clarified instructions. As Christians we can do that by going back to God's word in order to renew our understanding of what He wants for our healing. And as we do, we'll find that what God really wants is that we have a trusting, understanding friendship with Him. And to do that we really need to know God. Micah 6:8 tells us that what God desires is: that we do what is right, love mercy, and live humbly with our God. Hosea 6:6 tells us that what God desires is: steadfast love and the knowledge of God. And Jesus tells us that to know God is life eternal. In other words, knowing God as He truly is will be a life-changing experience.
1. Dynamic Illustrations: July/August/September 2002, (www.sermons.com).
2. Focus on the Family letter (Sept. 1992).
4. The Pastor's Story File, vol. 17, No. 8, June 2001, p. 41.
Hymn of Praise: #240, Fairest Lord Jesus Scripture: Acts 8:5-8 Hymn of Response: #291, We Have Not Known Thee
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last updated 24/7/05 by Bob Beckett and Eric Koester.