It is important to notice that when Philip began his ministry in this new area, we find him doing exactly what the apostles and other evangelists had been doing before him. Verse 4 said of those others: “Those who had been scattered preached the word wherever they went.” Now verse 5 declares, giving a specific example of one who did this: “Philip went down to a city in Samaria and proclaimed the Christ there.” In other words, he preached the Gospel. The Gospel was centered in Jesus Christ, and they had all been preaching Jesus all along.
Why did they not adopt some new methods? Why did they not hold rap sessions or set up therapy groups or hold discussions of great books? Paul explains the reason for their choice in Romans 1:16, when he says, “I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile.” It is through the preaching of the Word (in formal settings) and testifying to the Word (in informal conversations) that the power of God is known. It is how God has chosen to reach people. Transformations take place through the preaching of the Word. So that is what Philip did. He preached the Gospel, and God blessed his teaching.
Philip is the first person—indeed, the only person, in the New Testament to be called an evangelist (Acts 21:8). It is interesting that he was a layman. It has always seemed to me that those people who have been particularly effective in telling others about Christ have been laymen. We do not often think that way. We think that ministers are to be evangelists, and certainly there are ministers who are evangelists. But my experience has been that those who are most effective as evangelists are laymen. I do not think this is accidental. This is because, although some ministers are evangelists, the chief task of the ministry is not evangelism. It is, as Paul says to the Ephesians, “to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up” (Eph. 4:12). Works of service include evangelism. So a minister’s job is to teach the Bible so that those in the church who are taught, particularly those who have the gift of evangelism, can exercise their gift (or whatever other gift they may have) in reaching others.
We do not know where Philip had received his teaching. He may have been a disciple of the Lord, though I do not think so. Probably he learned what he knew from the apostles. However and wherever he learned it, he took the message to distant places boldly. And God blessed him, even by his doing miracles! The text says that “evil spirits came out of many, and many paralytics and cripples were healed” (v. 7).
This is particularly significant in view of the story that follows. One of the reasons, perhaps the chief reason, God allowed Philip to do the miracles he did was for the impact they had on a man whose name was Simon. Simon was a miracle worker. He had impressed the people of Samaria by his tricks for some time, giving out that he was some great person. The text says that he called himself “the Great Power” (v. 10). This is like “Blackstone the Great” or “Simon the Magnificent!” He had been making a magnificent impact on the city before Philip came.
Now, for the first time in his life, he saw a power that really did what it seemed to do. Simon had been doing tricks. He had been fooling people and knew that he had only been fooling them. Suddenly Philip was doing the real thing, not operating at all the way Simon was operating, not trying to draw attention to himself but rather speaking of someone else—pointing to Jesus Christ—and it was through the power of this Christ that real miracles were being done. It was in a sort of professional capacity that Simon thought to himself, “If I am going to advance in my profession or even just recapture the following which I have had until now, I had better get the power that the Christian has.”
This is a puzzling story, however, and what makes it so puzzling is verse 13, which says, “Simon himself believed and was baptized.” This raises the question: Was Simon actually a believer? Was his baptism a true baptism? Or was he just carried along by his enthusiasm for Philip, professing something that had not really happened in his heart? The easiest answer is that Simon was not a true believer. But it is possible to make a case for the other side, as some commentators do, though they do not necessarily endorse the position.1 They suggest that nothing is said in the story that necessarily excludes the fact that Simon may have been a true Christian.
I suppose that is true. Later Peter, who had come to Samaria by this time, says, “May your money perish with you, because you thought you could buy the gift of God with money! You have no part or share in this ministry, because your heart is not right before God” (vv. 20-21). That is strong language. But when Peter says, “You have no part or share in this ministry,” it is interesting that he employs the same words Jesus used for him when Peter had objected to Jesus’ washing his feet in the Upper Room. Jesus said, “Unless I wash you, you have no part with me” (John 13:8). Strong words. Still Peter was not an unbeliever; he was just out of the will of God.
1For example, F. F. Bruce, Commentary on the Book of the Acts (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1975), 179: “The nature of his belief must remain uncertain. No doubt it was sincere as far as it went, but [it] was very superficial and unsatisfactory.”