Saturday 8 June 2013

Greatness (Acts 8:9-25)

Who you would consider as someone great? Someone you look up to or someone whom you aspire to be like?

If I asked that question ten, twenty years ago, I would get answers like: the Prime Minister or Martin Luther King or Einstein. “I want to change the world.” Today, most would say, “I want to be famous.” Or, “I want to be rich and successful.”

Greatness today has to do with popularity. How many people follow you on Twitter. Greatness today is about winning the X-Factor or being the next Apprentice. We’ve stopped trying to change the world. Instead, we want to known all over the world.

I think, because our perception of what greatness means has changed, so has our perception of God changed. We think of God’s greatness the way we want to be great. God is lovable, God is always helping me out - Isn’t God great? (in the same way we use “awesome” to mean cool). Moreover, we think that the way we display God’s greatness is by being great: By being a great church, by being famous on the Internet, by getting lots of people to come to church.

Today’s passage is about greatness. It’s about a guy who thinks he is great; who thinks he is hot stuff. We see that he is an entertainer, who knows how to draw a crowd. And here in Acts, Simon, who starts out a magician, becomes a Christian, gets baptised and aspires to become a church leader. The scary thing is: We see a lot of Simons in churches today. Many of us want a guy like Simon leading upfront. The tragic thing in Acts is, he is exposed as a fake. In verse 21, Peter says to him, “You have no part or share in this ministry because your heart is not right with God.” Peter questions whether Simon is even a Christian.

Again, the scary thing is: Simon’s the kind of guy we look out for: Someone who has the stuff. We’re looking for someone to impress us.

We’ll see three points in today’s passage that have to do with greatness: We’ll see (1) The attraction of greatness, (2) The deception of greatness and finally (3) The reflection of greatness. Attraction, deception and reflection.

1. The attraction of greatness

The first thing we see is attraction of greatness. We are naturally drawn towards greatness.

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. But when they believed Philip as he proclaimed the good news of the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptised, both men and women. Simon himself believed and he was baptised. And he followed Philip everywhere, astonished by the great signs and miracles he saw.
Acts 8:9-13

Something changed when Philip arrived at Samaria. Suddenly Simon was no longer the centre of attraction. Suddenly, everyone was giving their attention to Philip - to the gospel he was preaching. Look back to verse 6.

When the crowds heard Philip and saw the miraculous signs he did, they all paid close attention to what he said.
Acts 8:6

The same guy preaching the same message but two different responses. They saw the signs and this caused them to ask, “What do these signs mean?” They paid close attention to what he said. Simon, on the other hand, was still focussed on the packaging. Verse 13, “He followed Philip everywhere, astonished by the great signs and miracles he saw.” The signs were packaging for what the signs pointed to - the message. The signs were meant to draw your attention to what the signs were pointing to - the gospel. But Simon loved the miracles more than the message. He was caught up with the packaging.

Philip preached the same message. He did the same miracles. But there were two different results. It ought to remind us of Jesus and his ministry. Lots of people were following Jesus because of the signs he did. Lots of people were fans of the signs he did. But again and again, Jesus was differentiating the fans from the followers and he did this through his words. “He who has an ear, let him hear.” Are you listening to what I’m saying - really listening? Or are you in love with an image, an idea of what impresses you about me?

It happened to Jesus. It happened to Philip. Notice verse 12: “Philip... proclaimed the good news of the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ.” Here was a guy who was faithful. He stuck to the message of the gospel. And praise God for that, people became Christians through his preaching. Even so, some were drawn to him impressiveness instead of his faithfulness.

If you are someone who gets up in front often here in church, you need to be aware of that. As a song leader, as a speaker, even if you’re simply reading the passage this week, people will notice the clothes you wear, your accent, your confidence. And if you’re not careful, you may end up being more of a hindrance than a help. How can you avoid drawing attention to yourself rather than God? You do that by drawing attention - yes, to God’s goodness and God’s greatness and God’s presence instead of your own; or you might try to do that by drawing attention away from yourself, by telling self-deprecating jokes (this rarely works, by the way), or getting more people involved in leading the service by taking turns to pray and introduce the songs.

But let me suggest to you the way you do that most effectively is by drawing attention again and again back to God’s word. The Samaritans saw the signs but they paid attention to what Philip said - about the kingdom of God, about the name of Jesus. The way to ensure that our worship and attention is rightly focussed on God, and not ourselves or any one person, is by coming back again and again to God’s word. This is what God says. This is who God is.

Song leaders: More important than what you wear or what the powerpoint looks like is what you say when you talk about God. Musicians: More important than what the music sounds like is what the lyrics tell us about God. You are drawing attention to who God is, to what God has done.

Now some people sitting in the pews will still be like Simon. Some will get stuck at the packaging. But for those who hear the message and respond to the message of the gospel, you would have helped them to know Jesus - who is great, who does deserve our attention, our love and our worship.

2. The deception of greatness

The second thing we see is the deception of greatness. Greatness blinds us to our sin. The great deception is thinking the solution to our sin is success. Or, as in Simon’s case, we mistakenly think the solution to our sin is ministry.

When Simon saw that the Spirit was given at the laying on of the apostle’s 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.”

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 8:18-23

That’s kind of harsh, isn’t it? When Peter says, “May your money perish with you.” The problem we usually have with money is greed but notice that’s not his problem. Peter isn’t saying to Simon, “You’ve not been generous in your giving.”

No, Peter is accusing Simon of buying his way into ministry. What is he saying? “You think its a career path.” The truth is, many today go into Christian ministry expecting to climb a career ladder. I know some of you hear that and think, “That’s crazy! Being a pastor or a church worker is donkey’s job. Low pay. No career prospects.”

But we have just seen that Christian ministry is attractive. You become the centre of attention. You exercise influence over over Christians. Simon sees that - he sees the apostles Peter and John laying their hands on believers and the Holy Spirit comes upon them - and he says to them in verse 19, “Give me also this ability.” I want this power. I want this position and I’m willing to pay for it.

Peter’s response? To hell with you and your money (I’m paraphrasing verse 20, but it’s not far from what Peter means). That’s harsh. Peter questions whether Simon is a genuine Christian, whether he is going to hell. Verse 23, “I see that your heart if full of bitterness and captive to sin.” Now the problem is not that Simon is being overly ambitious. The problem is that Simon is blind to his own sin. The problem is that Simon is filled with jealousy and bitterness of sin.

Now maybe Peter has special X-ray eyes that allows him to see into Simon’s soul to be able to tell this spiritual condition of Simon’s heart. But aren’t there obvious clues the passage wants us to be able to see for ourselves? His past career perhaps as a magician, when he was known as the Great Power of God (verse 10), enjoying the praise of all his friends? Or the way he hero-worships Philip and follows him around like a crazed Justin Bieber fan?

Yet I think the biggest clue lies in the way Simon tries to bribe the apostles. He is willing to pay good money. He knows you don’t get something for nothing - not in the business world, you don’t, nor in the political world - and Simon is willing to exchange his wealth for this new form of power. In essence, Simon is willing to pay for this new position within the church.

And friends, I want you to see that what Peter did in response to that was loving and truthful. He rebuked Simon. He warned Simon of God’s judgement over his sinful heart. “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.” Would you dare say that to a successful businessman who says he wants to be a worship leader? Would you rebuke an ambitious Cambridge graduate who wants to be a pastor? You should if that brother is blind to his own sin because of his success. You should if that brother is deceived into thinking he doesn’t need to deal with his sin as long as he is serving in the church.

Ministry is not a stepping stone to worldly success. And yet some people will only consider going into ministry if God gives them that guarantee of a successful ministry - being senior pastor in five years, getting the chance to speak at a national conference, being a published author - otherwise, they wouldn’t give it a second thought. The saddest thing is, some of these aspiring ambitious multi-talented ministers may not be Christians believers. Some, like Simon, chase after success in the church in order to hide sin in their hearts. The fundamental question we need to ask a pastoral candidate, a potential missionary, a new Sunday School teacher, is not: Have you had a special calling from God into ministry? No, the fundamental question is this: Are you done with sin? Have you turned away from your sin?

3. The reflection of greatness

Finally, we see the reflection of greatness. And we see this in our humility. God’s greatness is truly reflected in our submission to his will.

So far, we have been looking at story of Simon. But Acts interweaves this account of Simon into a second story about the apostles. Two of the apostles, Peter and John, go to Samaria to investigate something so surprising and so unexpected, they had to see it with their own eyes: The Samaritans had become Christians! This was big news because the Samaritans were not Jewish (well, they were half-Jewish, but that made it worse as they were seen by the Jews as impure and unclean).

The Samaritans and the Jews never got along. They were neighbours (Samaria was to the north, Judea was to the south) who avoided each other, who told their kids not to mix with one another. And so for the longest time, none of the Jewish Christians ever thought of sharing the gospel with their Samaritan neighbours. But now, thanks to Philip, these Samaritans heard the gospel and became Christians. And quite frankly, I’m not sure whether the apostles were shocked or surprised or suspicious, but whatever it was, they felt they needed to check things out for themselves.

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 baptised into 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

Why did Peter and John have to pray for the Holy Spirit to come on these Samaritan? Why didn’t the Holy Spirit come on these Samaritan Christians before the apostles arrived in town - like when they first believed?

Over the centuries, Christians and bible experts have proposed several solutions to this problem. Some suggest that the Samaritans weren’t real Christians - after all look at Simon who was also said to have believed and been baptised but turned out to have serious sin issues. But Acts goes to great lengths to tell us that Philip told them the gospel. He proclaimed the Christ (verse 5), he explained the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ (verse 12) - Acts goes out of its way to say that these Samaritans responded and trusted in the real message of the gospel - “They accepted the word of God” (verse 14).

Others say that this passage teaches the need for second blessing. It is proof that even genuine Christians need to pray for the Holy Spirit to give them the gift of tongues as a guarantee that they are the real thing. Some churches go so far as to suggest that unless you have this sign of the Holy Spirit’s presence, you’re not a real Christian. But this goes against what Peter promises about the Holy Spirit in his first sermon in Acts 2:38, “Repent and be baptised, every one of us, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” Everyone who trusts in Jesus receives the gift of the Holy Spirit, Peter says. In fact, the only way you can repent and trust in Jesus is if the Holy Spirit enables you to repent and trust in Jesus. You don’t believe first and get the Holy Spirit; no, the Holy Spirit comes first to cause new birth and to enable you to believe in Jesus.

Still others suggest that what this passage demonstrates the apostolic authority of Peter and John, over against the authority of Philip who wasn’t an apostle. Hence, the Holy Spirit is given only at the laying on of the apostles’ hands because only they have the authority to establish the church, and so it is suggested that Philip didn’t have the right authority to baptise these new converts. Now, I do agree that in some sense, there is an authenticating factor here about the apostles special role in the mission of the church. However, in the very next chapter we see the Holy Spirit coming on Saul when he is baptised but Ananias who is not an apostle, or when Philip baptises the Ethiopian eunuch, are we saying that he wasn’t a real believer?

These common thread running through these suggestions is that they try to see the problem from the believer’s perspective: What’s wrong with the Samaritans? Why didn’t they receive the Spirit? When in reality the focus is on the apostles. You see, the apostles hear of this news. The apostles send Peter and John. The apostles lay their hands on these believers. The account is being told from the apostles’ perspective because Acts is telling us: God is dealing with a problem that the apostles had with this situation. The giving of the Holy Spirit was a solution given by God to solve a problem to do with the Samaritans, but which the apostles struggled with in regard to God’s mission to the Samaritans.

The problem was this: How could God save the Samaritans? For thousands of years, the Jews had been the people of God. But now with the coming of Jesus Christ, in a strange turn of events, the church was being kicked out of Jerusalem, the city of God, and a new church was being planted amongst foreigners; people who weren’t Jews.

Right from the beginning of the book, Jesus said, “And you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you, and you will be my witness in Jerusalem, in Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” And I’m sure those words would have been ringing in the apostles’ ears, “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem... but also in Samaria.” It shouldn’t have been a surprise, but it was still a surprise to the apostles, who up till Chapter 8, had concentrated all their witness in Jerusalem.

And here the Holy Spirit is held back from the Samaritan believers - why? For the benefit of the apostles, Peter and John, so that they can see that what has happened in Samaria was God’s doing. Jesus was working through his Spirit to bring the gospel to the nations

How did the apostles respond to this? Imagine you are Peter or John and your own church in Jerusalem is destroyed. It used to be a church of thousands and thousands of people but overnight, everyone gets driven out of town because of persecution. But then you hear news that Yao goes to Arbury and starts a new church. Not a Chinese Church, but a church filled with … dun dun dun!!!... English people! What would you do?

Would you be tempted to turn that into another Chinese Church? Would you go there and say to them, “These are our traditions and rules which you have to follow, otherwise, you’re not a real church?” Would you question God for allowing that church to prosper and yours to shrink?

Here is the amazing thing about the apostles, because notice in verse 25, what did they do? Two things: They preached the gospel and they they left. That is amazing!

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

Firstly, the preached the gospel. Their main job was to strengthen the church through the teaching of the bible. But they didn’t just do that in the one town of Samaria, they were “preaching the word in many Samaritan villages.” Now the interesting thing about that phrase is how it is the exact same expression we find in Acts 8:4, “Those who had been scattered preached the word wherever they went.” They were gossipping the gospel in other towns in Samaria. Or in our case, not just Chinese people, but especially to local villages.

But this expression also tells us that the apostles were doing what all the other Christians were doing all along. They were humble enough to recognise that even as apostles, they had something to learn from the other believers. Philip was preaching to the Samaritans before they did. Everyone else was reaching the Samaritans before they did. A proud leader would be tempted to stick to his own ways, to say, “I’m the boss. My employees should do what I tell them to do, not tell me how I should do my job.” No, these apostles recognised that what these Christians were doing was God’s mission to the nations and they were humble enough and godly enough to join them in that mission.

So, that’s the first thing they did. But the second thing they did was even more amazing. They returned to Jerusalem. That is, the apostles didn’t set up a committee to report back to Jerusalem, they just left. Why? Because, and this is very important to recognise, these Samaritan believers were the real thing. They were their brothers and sisters in Christ, full citizens of the kingdom of God. It would have been very tempting to make them sub-members. Remember, the Samaritans were half-Jews, they had a history of idolatry. It would have been very easy to turn the Samaritan church into a kind-of sub-church under the headship of Jerusalem. To justify that kind of actions by saying, “They aren’t mature enough, they need our guidance and supervision.” The apostles did not do any such thing.

What they did do was teach the bible. Again, verse 25, goes out of its way to emphasise this, “They further proclaimed the word of the Lord and testified about Jesus.” The one thing they did was strengthen the Samaritan church’s confidence in Jesus through their confidence in his word.

Here we see the reflection of true greatness. It isn’t seen through impressive acts of grandeur. It is seen through the submissive obedience to God’s word. That shouldn’t surprise us because we follow a Saviour who was himself a servant; who was himself humble and obedient under his Father’s will.

Christ Jesus, who being in the very nature God,
did not consider equality with God
something to be used to his own advantage;
Philippians 2:6

We reflect God’s greatness by reflecting the cross of Jesus Christ. That is God’s greatest act of salvation - his masterpiece - and what we see when we look at the cross is the humility, obedience and submission of Jesus Christ.

Who has felt the nails upon His hands?
Bearing all the guilt of sinful man
God eternal, humbled to the grave
Jesus, Saviour, risen now to reign

Behold our God seated on His throne
Come, let us adore Him
Behold our King—nothing can compare
Come, let us adore Him

(“Behold our God”, Sovereign Grace).

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