When one thinks of Simon Magus (Simon the magician) from the book of Acts, one typically thinks of the time when he asked if he could buy the Holy Spirit from the Apostles. We might even go so far as to imagine that he was was jealous of the Apostles’ miracles showing up his lame magical talents, and that he wanted to find out their secret, hence his offering them money to try and buy his way into their circle of secret power. And although there is probably truth to this implied motive, what is easily forgotten is the fact that he is first reported in Acts as a convert.
Simon started off as a renown magician in Samaria, and when Philip arrived, preaching the gospel, Simon was among those who converted. Specifically: 12But 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. 13Even Simon himself believed, and after being baptized he continued with Philip. And seeing signs and great miracles performed, he was amazed.
This is the background for the better-known story which immediately follows. Interestingly, despite baptism and what appears to be saving faith, the Holy Spirit hadn’t come upon the Samaritans yet, so the Apostles Peter and John had to come and lay their hands on them. Different camps will explain this phenomenon differently:
- the Spirit had technically indwelt the Samaritans, but this was a special filling of the Holy Spirit (typically an Evangelical opinion)
- their water baptism was not enough; they needed the Spirit to baptize them too (typically a Charismatic opinion)
- they needed a leader in the Church to come and lay hands on them to Confirm their baptism (typically a Catholic opinion)
Whatever the case may be, Simon saw this new thing happening and asked for the power to confer the Holy Spirit upon people too, like Peter and John were doing. What’s really interesting here is the fact that Simon wasn’t coveting the Holy Spirit’s power, but the ability/privilege to confer the Holy Spirit. He wasn’t trying to buy spiritual gifts or magical secrets, rather, he was trying to buy the authority that Peter and John had, hence Peter’s rebuke.
So Simon was not an unbeliever trying to buy his way into the power of the Spirit. He was a believer who was trying to buy his way into the leadership of the Church.
The good news in this particular story is that Simon repented: “Pray for me to the Lord, that nothing of what you have said may come upon me.” Remember, God is a friend to those who confess their faults and seek forgiveness, and Jesus gave his Apostles the authority to forgive the sins of others in His name. So it’s not like we should consider Simon some great apostate heretic; he just committed a noteworthy sin which we would do well to avoid ourselves. For the inordinate desire for authority in the Church is, as Peter put it, a result of an ill-intentioned heart, bitterness (of others’ authority), and the bond of sin.
Turning these warnings around, we can derive corresponding expectations of what Christian leaders should exhibit: a well-intentioned heart (especially with respect to one’s relationship with God and with the flock), humility (able to live under authority), and free from the bond of sin (not perfect, as that’s impossible, but at least free from habitual destructive sin). And for those of us who aren’t leaders in the Church, we are to pursue these virtues as well, so as to live peaceably with those who are our leaders.