Who Was Simon the Sorcerer

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Simon the Sorcerer is one of the most provocative characters in the New Testament. Luke tells us Simon’s story as he describes the gospel moving beyond Jerusalem into the outlying territories.

For an overview of Simon’s story, check out this scene from the Book of Acts film.

Now let’s jump into the Bible to see what we can discover about this fascinating person!

The gospel in Samaria

Luke wrote the Book of Acts to document the growth of the church. And while we become privy to exciting characters and details, the spread of the gospel is Luke’s focus.

The story of Simon the Sorcerer is really about the fulfillment of Jesus’ words, which He spoke back in chapter one:

Then they gathered around him and asked him, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?”

He said to them: “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:6–8).

The disciples had grown up believing that someday the Messiah would come and set Israel free from Rome and all future oppression. Now that Jesus rose from the dead, they expected this to occur now.

Jesus sidesteps their question and tells them what they should expect. First, the Holy Spirit would come to empower the disciples, and then they’d be His witnesses. Now pay attention to the trajectory:

  • Jerusalem:
    This is where the Spirit fell at Pentecost and became the base of operations.
  • Judea:
    This is the region that Jerusalem is in. So it’s like Jesus saying, “You will be my witnesses in Chicago and all of Illinois.”
  • Samaria:
    Remember, Israel hated Samaria. That’s the whole reason Jesus used a Samaritan as the hero of His famous parable. Instead of delivering Israel from all their enemies, He’s sending them out to minister to them.
  • The ends of the earth:
    From Samaria, this message would spread outward, fulfilling the Great Commission.

It’s important to understand that these words were more prophetic than instructive. Left to their own devices, the disciples might have put off going into Samaria forever. But their situation would see to it that Jesus’ words came true.

The dispersion of the disciples

The seventh chapter of Acts closes with Stephen’s martyrdom. Condemned for blaspheming the temple, Stephen was stoned to death.

On that day a great persecution broke out against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria (Acts 8:1).

Luke wants us to pick up the connection between Jesus’ last words and the situation now. Things have erupted in Jerusalem, and the disciples left to avoid persecution. Luke then tells us that “those who had been scattered preached the word wherever they went” (Acts 8:4). He then tells us that Philip had gone into Samaria, and miracles of healing and deliverance were happening.

It is in this context that we meet Simon the Sorcerer. Philip is outside of Israel, and the miracles in his ministry will collide with someone else who is practicing his own “miracles.” But the first thing we need to notice is that this is the first instance of the disciples preaching in Samaria, and Luke wants to give us a glimpse of what they were up against.

Simon the Sorcerer

The story about Simon begins this way:

Now for some time a man named Simon had practiced sorcery in the city and amazed all the people of Samaria. He boasted that he was someone great, and all the people, both high and low, gave him their attention and exclaimed, “This man is rightly called the Great Power of God.” They followed him because he had amazed them for a long time with his sorcery (Acts 8:9–11).

Luke tells us that Simon had set up his home base in a city and had built a loyal following of people who believed he had godlike powers. As we’ll see, Simon is probably running a racket in this town. But it’s interesting to notice that Luke doesn’t indicate that Simon’s “powers” are fake.

What is sorcery? 

Sorcerers claim to receive their powers from the spiritual world. This is one of the reasons that sorcery is condemned throughout Scripture. We see Pharaoh’s sorcerers copying the miracles God performed through Aaron and Moses until God’s miracles surpassed the sorcerers’ abilities.

As in Egypt, the practice of sorcery crops up in many of Israel’s neighboring countries. In Deuteronomy, sorcery is listed among the detestable practices among other nations that Israel was to avoid (Deuteronomy 18:9–13). And we see magical practices cropping up in Babylon under King Nebuchadnezzar (Daniel 2:2).

But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t a problem in Israel. For example, King Manasseh was judged harshly for practices related to sorcery:

He sacrificed his children in the fire in the Valley of Ben Hinnom, practiced divination and witchcraft, sought omens, and consulted mediums and spiritists. He did much evil in the eyes of the Lord, arousing his anger (2 Chronicles 33:6).

And in Galatians, Paul lists sorcery among the practices associated with sinful and unrepentant hearts (Galatians 5:19—21).

Simon believes and is baptized

But when they believed Philip as he proclaimed the good news of the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptized, both men and women. Simon himself believed and was baptized. And he followed Philip everywhere, astonished by the great signs and miracles he saw (Acts 8:12–13).

The fact that Philip is baptizing Samaritans is critical. Samaritans traced their roots back to Judaism, but the split happened when Assyria conquered Israel in 722 BC. Then, most male Samaritans were circumcised, and they worshiped with a Torah that had differences in some of the biblical stories.

A Samaritan could become a Jew in good standing, but they had to publicly disavow Samaritan beliefs and acknowledge the correctness of Jews. But Philip isn’t worried about all that. Instead, he is simply trying to lead people to Jesus.

Simon is among the people who came to faith in Jesus. For someone who has made a name for himself as the local sorcerer and “the great power of God,” Simon is amazed by the miracles God performs through Philip. There’s no substitute for the genuine power of God.

Samaria receives the Holy Spirit

When the apostles in Jerusalem heard that Samaria had accepted the word of God, they sent Peter and John to Samaria. When they arrived, they prayed for the new believers there that they might receive the Holy Spirit, because the Holy Spirit had not yet come on any of them; they had simply been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. Then Peter and John placed their hands on them, and they received the Holy Spirit (Acts 8:14–17).

Jerusalem is still operating as the capital of this new movement. So when the apostles who are still hiding out in Jerusalem receive news that folks in Samaria are accepting the gospel, they’re faced with a dilemma. You can’t overlook the potential difficulty of this new Jewish movement incorporating Samaritan believers.

Peter and John head to Samaria to see what’s happening for themselves. Through the laying on of hands, these new believers receive the Spirit. This act seals them into the church. Then, when push comes to shove, no one would be able to argue that these Samaritans were unworthy to be part of God’s new community. He had demonstrated their place by filling them with His Spirit.

Simon tries to buy God’s gift

When Simon saw that the Spirit was given at the laying on of the apostles’ hands, he offered them money and said, “Give me also this ability so that everyone on whom I lay my hands may receive the Holy Spirit” (Acts 8:18–19).

Luke doesn’t explicitly mention manifestations of the Spirit given to these new Samaritan believers, but they were obviously present. Simon saw that the Spirit had been given, so there was likely speaking in tongues or prophesying occurring. To Simon, this was a new kind of magic.

Like most sorcerers of that day who would buy spells from one another, Simon approaches the apostles to purchase the secret to their magic.

Peter answered: “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. Repent of this wickedness and pray to the Lord in the hope that he may forgive you for having such a thought in your heart. For I see that you are full of bitterness and captive to sin” (Acts 8:20–23).

Peter recognizes that Simon was enticed by God’s miracles through Philip. This request revealed that Simon wanted to amass more magic and thought these Christians were the key to new powers and abilities. His response is strong.

As far as Peter is concerned, Simon’s request revealed a heart that wasn’t fully submitted to the Lord.

Then Simon answered, “Pray to the Lord for me so that nothing you have said may happen to me” (Acts 8:24).

While we can read a story like Simon’s and look for clues, we can’t be sure how his story turned out. If you read a couple of different commentaries on this passage, you might leave with drastically different views about how things ended up for Simon.

Some scholars believe that Simon never had a legitimate salvation experience and that he professed faith and got baptized only to avail himself of this new power. Others would argue that Simon was as sincere as possible, but still struggling to understand what this new faith entailed. Simon’s response will have a different flavor depending on where you land. Was he trying to simply avoid a painful outcome, or was he genuinely remorseful for offending the Lord? We can’t know.

But we can be sure of God’s sincere desire to be reconciled with Simon. And we can know for certain that this is only a snapshot of Simon’s story. Who knows how Simon’s story progressed from this point forward? Did he go back to his old ways, or did he wholeheartedly repent and embrace a new life in Jesus? We can’t know for certain.

Luke wants us to understand that the disciples were taking the gospel into new territory. And outside of Jerusalem, the good news was encountering new challenges and obstacles—but that wasn’t going to diminish the power and spread of the gospel. And we see that in how Luke finishes this story.

The gospel takes hold

After they had further proclaimed the word of the Lord and testified about Jesus, Peter and John returned to Jerusalem, preaching the gospel in many Samaritan villages (Acts 8:25).

The fact that Peter and John had to come into Samaria and see to this new missionary movement gave them an opportunity to help Philip spread the gospel throughout the Samaritan villages they passed through—and Jesus’ words proved themselves to be true.

If you’re interested in knowing more about how the gospel spread from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth, check out this article on the “Missionary Journeys of Paul” or watch the Book of Acts film and see the birth of the church dramatized.