That all of essential importance has not been said about baptism even yet is evident from a letter recently received from Mr. Melvin E. Johnston (see Vol. 27, pp. 243-252); and evidently more needs to be said about Acts 8. He writes:
To me it appears that there is a good deal to be said for the idea in the Note to the 1930 C.V. at Acts 8:9. The Samaritans and Simon, the user of magic, all had faith (Acts 8 : 12, 13) which, as the Note says, was" founded on miracles, which is very different from the faith which is based on God's word, apart from the evidence of the senses. Many believed in the Lord when they beheld the signs which he did, yet Jesus did not entrust Himself to them, because He knew what was in humanity (John 2:23-25)."
Philip evangelized these people of Samaria and they were baptized (8:12, 13); yet when this occurred they did not receive holy spirit, but only when subsequently Peter and John prayed and then placed their hands on them (8:15-17). Yet when, later on, Philip baptized the Ethiopian eunuch, holy spirit does appear to have been received by him (36-39). But can we be sure? The text reads very awkwardly, particularly when literally translated. The reason for the pair of brackets close together will become apparent: "Now when they stepped up out of the water, spirit ( ) of Lord snatches Philip, and the eunuch did not perceive him any longer for he went on his way rejoicing." There is, however, a longer text which adds in the bracketed space after spirit, "holy has fallen upon the eunuch, yet angel." So we are faced with a curious choice: between the best-attested text, which sounds either incomplete or awkward; or a poorly attested reading which not only fills the gap in sense but also the gap in thought; for it would have been strange, to say the least., if holy spirit had not in the circumstances fallen on the Ethiopian eunuch.
I shall not attempt to choose; but I feel I must stick to my words on p. 20, lines 4-28. It is all very well to contend, as most scholars do, that an interpolation was made because the genuine text seemed incomplete; it is equally reasonable to argue that the generally accepted text sounds incomplete because seven words were accidently omitted by a copyist at a very early date. From my experience in typing my own manuscript and correcting printer's proofs, I believe that the late A. E. Knoch was right in his rule: "Omissions are easily made: restore them. Additions are rare: weigh them." (1930, C.V., p. 36). The only thing that surprises me is that he did not follow it more often. After all, it is exceedingly difficult to interpolate anything that makes sound sense into the work of a good writer such as Luke was, as anyone who cares to make the experiment will quickly find out.
However, what happened in Acts 8:36-39 can hardly have any bearing on a previous event that occurred before the apostles in Jerusalem took action at Samaria. The C.V. Note quoted above indicates the real lesson of Acts 8:4-24. Philip evangelized the Samaritans, but he did so with signs and cures as well (which was quite in order for one of the Twelve), and he did so in full view of a magician who also carried out wonders (of a sort), but who presently acknowledged Philip as his superior and was duly baptized (vv. 4-13). This faith was, therefore, largely of the flesh, the ceremony of baptism and no more, as nowadays among the many who suppose that some sort of baptism is enough: "yet only, they existed baptized ones—into the name of the Lord Jesus" (v. 16). To the emissaries, the Apostles Peter and John, was given the task to "pray concerning them;so that they may be obtaining holy spirit" (v. 15). The account is very reticent; but taken as a whole it appears to be a direct exercise of Peter's authority (Matt. 16:18) backed by John. The effect was to sort out those who genuinely believed God from those who believed only in so far as the evidence of their senses compelled them, and not sufficiently to be the sort of faith, true faith, that believes God without any visible demonstration. That Simon the magician did not have the right sort of faith is all too evident from what follows. For "he believes, and, being baptized, was waiting on Philip. Besides, beholding great signs and powers coming about, he is amazed" (v. 13). It was for him all Philip and what he did. So, when the apostles, Peter and John, come down to Samaria, Simon was not one of the "them" on whom they placed their hands, and who obtained holy spirit. He was only the onlooker; and when he perceived what was going on he even dared to offer money in order to obtain the same apostolic authority as they had!
We have no reason to suppose that any of the Twelve had the kind of powers which nowadays (when they are supposed to exist) are described as "psychic." Philip was not to know that Simon the magician's faith was only superficial. That such knowledge was not automatic is evident from the fact that the prayers of two other apostles were required to put the matter to the final test. Proof came by certain Samaritans receiving holy spirit when Peter and John prayed concerning them, and Simon was not among them. We should observe that the account does not say that Simon was alone in this respect. It almost pointedly leaves the question open: "Now Simon, perceiving that. . . the spirit is being given." (v. 18).
The apostles learned, like we do, bit by bit as the Holy Spirit revealed truth to them. The difference is that they learned it direct. They recorded it; while we have to search it out from their records. That process affords the real "Christian experience" as distinct from the subjectivism often so described.
The Apostle Peter spurned Simon's blasphemous demand in one of the most scathing reproofs recorded in Scripture (vv. 20-23). He tells Simon bluntly that the heart of him is not straight in front of God. He adds: "Repent, then, from this evil of thine, and be thou beseeching of the Lord whether, after all, the notion of thine heart shall be forgiven thee. For, into bile of bitterness and fetter of unrighteousness, I see thou art (come)." (vv. 22, 23).
Simon's reply to this shows very plainly indeed that he was only frightened, not convicted of sin (v. 24). Nothing further remains to be said, and the account bluntly ends. This Simon the magician is the prototype of all those who believe up to a point, but only what they want to believe.
Here one's mind naturally passes over to James' words, "Thou art believing that God is one. Ideally are you doing—and the demons are believing, and are shuddering!" (James 2:19) Often have I heard it said, in effect: "Only believe, for nothing more is needed." This is a very dangerous simplification. We can say of Simon the magician that he carried out this exhortation. Nevertheless, it did not do him the very slightest good.
The truth is that faith cannot be entirely separated from works, because if it is real faith it must eventuate in works of some sort. James quotes Abraham's faith as having worked together or jointly worked with his works in offering up his son Isaac on the altar (James 2:20-24). This has been used to sever James from the Apostle Paul's teaching in Romans; but wrongly; for there, too, Abraham's faith eventuated in works, albeit of a somewhat different sort. For hear what Paul says of Abraham: "... yet into the promise of God was not made to judge differently by unbelief; but he was invigorated as to the faith, giving glory to God, being fully assured also that what He has promised He is able to do also. Wherefore, also, it is accounted to him as equivalent to righteousness."
Comparison of this with Simon's wholly negative belief shows fully clearly why the latter was without avail. It was an imposed belief-imposed by the striking force of irrefutable fact, utterly and absolutely different from the joint-faith-and-works shown by Abraham. Doubtless this apparent heresy will horrify some readers; but that is only because few of us ever give ourselves the trouble of thinking clearly and deeply about these matters; It! is untrue that Paul ever puts into opposition faith and works! always, the opposition is between faith and law-works, or works of law. Anyone who may have misgivings about this should study the occurrences of law-works. They are not many, nine in all: Rom. 3:20, 28; 9:32; Gal. 2:16 (thrice) 3:2, 5, 10. They will speak for themselves.
The profundity of the difference between true faith and the sort of belief imposed on Simon the magician is one of the startling facts about Acts which recent research has brought to light; though no doubt it has been noticed before. Acts is one of the most misunderstood books of Scripture, largely because it is supposed to contain little doctrine. Instead, its doctrine is very deep and, indeed, the ultimate foundation of doctrine in the epistles. This point will be developed elsewhere. Here only the one aspect is in view.
Another question is whether the baptism of Matt. 28:19, 20 involves water-baptism. All one can say here is that nothing is said about it. So brief is it that little more can apparently be got out of it; but one cannot be sure, for nowhere can we be sure that all possibility of further investigation is exhausted. (But see "A Note on Matthew 28:19" in Vol. 28, pp. 225-231, written after this).
R.B.W. Last updated 10.3.2006