Simon the Magician vs. Philip the Evangelist

If we were to compare the “modern” Church to the Church of Scripture, we would find that it has become a shell of its former self. It is difficult to find preachers, teachers, and evangelists who are willing to stand on the foundation of Scripture. This view has become more prevalent with the growth of pop-culture celebrities within the Christian Church.

These pop-culture Christians are the ones who have created generations of pseudo-believers. And now these pop-culture Christian leaders are leading the pseudo-believers in a mass exodus from the Christian Church. As they proudly site their rejection the foundational principles of Scripture, those left are scrambling to undo the damage the pop-culture Christian leaders had done.

This mass falling away can only be placed at the feet of past generations of pastors, teacher, and evangelists who thought numbers were better than making true disciples. This misstep allowed the pop-culture Christian leaders to bring millions of pseudo-believers in to many congregations. Thus, the reshaping of the Christian Church went primarily unnoticed.

Now, the true believers within the Body of Christ cannot discern the difference between a true believer and a pseudo-believer. This is nothing new. The Scriptures provides for us two examples of how to tell the difference between a believer and a pseudo-believer.

The two examples that are given to us in the Book of Acts. In the Book of Acts we are introduced to two men. The first is Philip the Deacon (Evangelist), and the second is Simon the Magician. Let us explore the book of Acts as we survey the development of these two men’s beliefs of what a believer is to be.

Philip the Evangelist

Acts 8:4-8 Now those who were scattered went about preaching the word. Philip went down to the city of Samaria and proclaimed to them the Christ. And the crowds with one accord paid attention to what was being said by Philip, when they heard him and saw the signs that he did. For unclean spirits, crying out with a loud voice, came out of many who had them, and many who were paralyzed or lame were healed. So there was much joy in that city.

The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Acts 8:4-8

Philip the Evangelist A deacon chosen to oversee the distribution to the poor (Acts 6:5). One of the first Christians to preach the gospel outside Jerusalem.

The narrative of Acts 8 depicts Philip as the first missionary to Samaria, where he encounters the magician Simon (Acts 8:4–13). In response to Philip’s success spreading the gospel, Peter and John travel from Jerusalem to Samaria and pray for the converts there to receive the Holy Spirit (Acts 8:14–17).

After Philip’s mission to Samaria, an angel instructs him to go to the road between Gaza and Jerusalem. There, he preaches to the Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8:26–39). After Philip baptizes the eunuch, the Holy Spirit transports him to Azotus (ancient Ashdod), 20 miles north of Gaza (Witherington III, Acts, 300). At the conclusion of Acts 8, Philip is preaching the gospel on the Mediterranean coast, from Azotus to Caesarea.

Ronald D. Roberts, “Philip the Evangelist,” ed. John D. Barry et al., The Lexham Bible Dictionary (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2016).

What we know about Philip is that once the persecution began, Philip departs Jerusalem. As mentioned above, some see Philip’s entering Samaria as a “mission;” however, Scripture says he entered Samaria after the murder of Stephen. He was not on a “mission,” but was fleeing.

This dispersion, due to a violent persecution, is how the Gospel spread. Jesus commanded His followers to “go;” however, they nested in Jerusalem. Philip’s going to Samaria was not to share the Gospel, but to escape the prediction. We know that Peter had no interest in communicating the Good News to the Gentiles (Acts 10). Philip went to Samaria, due to the hatred the Jews had for them.

Philip knew that they would not pursue him there. For him to have gone as a missionary, like Paul would go out, he would have had been commissioned by the church. He was not commissioned to go by the church in Jerusalem, but by Christ.

The best guess for Philip’s sharing the Good News is that it was in his nature to do so. Though he was on the run, he gladly shared the Good New with the people of Samaria. After all, he was one of the first deacons (Acts 6:1-15).

It is, at this time we are introduced to a controversial figure. A man who would take what he learned from Philip and try and turn it to his advantage. This man, who was seen as “somebody great” in the eyes of the Samaritans, can serve as a contrast to understanding the Good News through the lens of human nature.

Enter Simon the Magician

Scripture does not go in to detail about the man referred to as Simon the Magician. The information we are given is recorded in Acts 8. Though we are given very little insight about the man, in Scripture, we can find some references about Simon the Magician in historical texts.

Acts 8:9-25 But there was a man named Simon, who had previously practiced magic in the city and amazed the people of Samaria, saying that he himself was somebody great. They all paid attention to him, from the least to the greatest, saying, “This man is the power of God that is called Great.” And they paid attention to him because for a long time he had amazed them with his magic. But when they believed Philip as he preached good news about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptized, both men and women. Even Simon himself believed, and after being baptized he continued with Philip. And seeing signs and great miracles performed, he was amazed.

Now when the apostles at Jerusalem heard that Samaria had received the word of God, they sent to them Peter and John, who came down and prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit, for he had not yet fallen on any of them, but they had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. Then they laid their hands on them and they received the Holy Spirit.

Now when Simon saw that the Spirit was given through the laying on of the apostles’ hands, he offered them money, saying, “Give me this power also, so that anyone on whom I lay my hands may receive the Holy Spirit.” But Peter said to him, “May your silver perish with you, because you thought you could obtain the gift of God with money! You have neither part nor lot in this matter, for your heart is not right before God.

Repent, therefore, of this wickedness of yours, and pray to the Lord that, if possible, the intent of your heart may be forgiven you. For I see that you are in the gall of bitterness and in the bond of iniquity.” And Simon answered, “Pray for me to the Lord, that nothing of what you have said may come upon me.” Now when they had testified and spoken the word of the Lord, they returned to Jerusalem, preaching the gospel to many villages of the Samaritans.

The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Acts 8:9-25.

We are not giving much information about what happened with Simon Magus. Unlike Philip, who we know was whisked away by the Holy Spirit to carryon. Simon’s story ends with his being chastised by Peter for his misunderstanding, or purposeful intent to use the power of God to continue his work as a magician.

There are a few extra biblical mentioning of Simon Magus. Justin Martyr, a second century historian places the start of Gnosticism at Gitta, Simon’s birth place. As stated,

The earliest attestation of Simon Magus in the post-New Testament era is from Justin Martyr (ca. ad 150) in his First Apology and Dialogue with Trypho. In these texts, Justin Martyr associates Simon with demonic activity (First Apology 1:26; compare Ferreiro, Simon Magus, 3). Justin also provides details about a woman named Helena who was an influential advocate of Simon’s teachings.

Justin identifies Simon’s birthplace as Gitta, a city in Samaria. This detail, coupled with the fact that Samaria at the time was an emerging center of Gnosticism and other heretical sects, prompted later church fathers like Irenaeus to allege that Simon was the founder of Gnosticism. However, evidence for this claim is lacking and was likley embellished by Irenaeus; it’s also possible to interpret Irenaeus’ comments as him indicating that the ideas of Gnosticism emerge with Simon (compare Ferreiro, Simon Magus, 38; Yamauchi, Gnosticism, 56–68). According to Haar, Justin’s works demonstrate that Simon “performed mighty acts of magic in the city of Rome, through the agency of demons at work within him” (Haar, Simon Magus, 85).

 Matthew D. Aernie, “Simon Magus,” ed. John D. Barry et al., The Lexham Bible Dictionary (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2016).

Later works will tell us that Simon was “the quintessential heretic.” Simon’s inability to shake the thought that the power of the Holy Spirit, that was demonstrated by Peter and John, was nothing more than some advanced magic is reflected in the works of Tertullian, Epiphanius, and the so-called pseudo-Clementine literature. As stated,

Simon also appears in the writings of others from the early church period, such as Tertullian, Epiphanius, and even in the so-called pseudo-Clementine literature, which depicts Simon as a deceiver (Haar, Simon Magus, 118–131). Throughout the post-New Testament literature, Simon Magus is viewed as a counterfeit believer and antagonist of the Christian faith. These disparaging portrayals continued through the medieval era and into early modern traditions in both literary and artistic renditions. As a result, it is likely that Simon Magus will forever be identified as the quintessential heretic (for a detailed discussion of Simon throughout the centuries, see Ferreiro, Simon Magus).

 Matthew D. Aernie, “Simon Magus,” ed. John D. Barry et al., The Lexham Bible Dictionary (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2016).

The only conclusion that can be gleaned from what is presented is that a true conversion leads one to genially want to spread the Gospel. “As you are going, make disciples.” is the command given. Philip’s story, as recored in Scripture, clearly depicts him doing as commanded.

Simon, by contrast, is presented as one who comes from receiving the accolades of man. He my have been a part of the evangelistic efforts of Philip, but his reaction to power of the Holy Spirit shows that he did not see it as a sign of God. His attempt at buying the power of God is an example of how false converts exist in the Body of Christ.

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