On the Acts of the Apostles.

Chapter 8:14-17.

Taken from The Bible Treasury Number 308 - January 1882


Chapter 8:14-17.

The tidings of God's gracious work in Samaria could not but make a powerful impression on all saints; and of these none would estimate its importance so deeply as the personal companions and most honoured servants of the Lord in Jerusalem. His will and glory, as well as love to the objects of His grace that they might be blessed more abundantly, drew their hearts to the spot where God had wrought so manifestly. Indeed the Lord risen (Acts i. 8) had specially named Samaria as a scene of future testimony for the disciples. What a contrast with Jews having no intercourse with Samaritans!

"Now when the apostles that were in Jerusalem heard that Samaria bad received the word of God, they sent unto them Peter and John, the which, on coming down, prayed for them that they might receive [the] Holy Spirit; for as yet he had fallen upon none of them: only they had got baptized unto the name of the Lord Jesus. Then they laid their hands upon them, mid they received [the] Holy Spirit" (ver. 14-17).

Some important principles of truth are illustrated here.

The independency of congregationalism is shown to be as far as possible from the will of God. There was no holding aloof on the part of the chiefs in Jerusalem, though we hear of no request for their intervention on the part of the Samaritans. The apostles felt as members of the one body of Christ for the fresh objects of divine grace; and yet the chosen future exponent of that great mystery was still in his sins and unbelief.

Nor was there the smallest jealousy in Philip, because other servants of Christ came whose place in the assembly was so much higher than his own. The "way of surpassing excellence" as yet prevailed; and as the. members generally had the same care one for another, in •none did this appear so conspicuously as in those whom God set in the church first: for Christ's sake and according to His word they were in the midst of them serving as bond-men. Nothing was farther from the heart of the chiefs who ruled, than o the one hand to be called Rabbi, Father, and Master, or on the other to affect the lordly patronising of the Gentiles. It was on all sides the power of the life of Christ.

Again, it will be noticed that the apostles send two of their number, not James (son of Alphaeus) and Thaddeeus, nor Simon Can. and Matthias, but their unquestionably choicest pair, Peter and John. Can any believer be so dull as to conceive that this had no far-reaching purpose in the mind of Him who dwells in the assembly and knows the end from the beginning and would give the sure light of His word to such as look to Him for guidance? Not even Satan, I am bold to think, yet indulged in the dream of an exclusive1 chair for Peter's direction of the church as a whole; still less of a present throne in command of the powers that be, with a triple crown of pretensions over heaven, earth, and hell. On the contrary, without' a thought of these vanities of ecclesiastical ambition and most profane assumption, the apostles in love and wisdom send, to those that had received the word of God in Samaria, Peter and John. Who better qualified, were it needed, to judge and report truly? or who could be the bearer of better blessings from on high? or who in fine be more jealous for the glory of the "one Shepherd," in dealing with these "other sheep" which were not of the Jewish "fold?"

And what could more become servants of Christ when they did come down? They "prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit." God had hitherto withheld this, the great and characteristic privilege of the christian. But the apostles in Jerusalem were in the current of His will and ways. And Peter and John on the spot perceived the lack and spread it out before God, not out of doubtful mind, but reckoning on His faithfulness to nuke good the promise of the Spirit. Even at Pentecost Peter was led to look beyond the Jews and their children to all that were afar off, as many as the Lord their God might call to Him. "For as yet He was fallen upon none of them: only they had got baptized unto the name of the Lord Jesus."

So plainly then is the situation laid before us, that doubt is inexcusable. On the one hand these Samaritans believed the word, as they were also thereon baptized" on the other hand not one of them had as yet been sealed with the Holy Spirit of promise, which the Jewish saints had at once received on the day of Pentecost in Jerusalem. Yet from the days of the so-called fathers down to the Reformers, and hence till our own day, not merely the superstitious but men beyond most for godliness, ability and learning, as to this seem at sea, as if they had no chart. It is indeed one of those deep blanks in traditional theology (Catholic or Protestant, Arminian or Calvinist, being here almost equally at fault) .which involves incalculable loss practically as well as in spiritual intelligence, and is nowhere more felt than in the worship of God. The soul's entrance into the truth has commensurate blessing in its train, as those know who have made the transition from ignorance of this truth into the enjoyment of it.

Thus Chrysostom (Cramer's Cat. Pat. iii. 136) and Œcumenius speak of the Samaritan converts receiving the Spirit for remission! but not for signs: a manifest departure from Scripture, which never designates the first vital work of the Spirit in the soul as "the gift of the Spirit," nor consequently as a question of "reception" (compare Acts ii. 38; xix. 2).

But, leaving the Fathers, one must content the reader with J. Calvin's remarks as well as J. Lightfoot's as a sufficient sample. The former are purposely cited from Beveridge's edition of the early English Version given in the series of the Calvin Translation Society (Acts i. 338, 9). "But here ariseth a question, for he saith that they were only baptized into the name of Christ, and that therefore they had not as yet received the Holy Ghost" but baptism must either be in vain and without grace, or else it must have all the force which it bath from the Holy Ghost. In baptism we are washed from our sins; Paul teaches that our washing is the work of the Holy Ghost (Tit. iii. 5). The water used in baptism is a sign of the blood of Christ; but Peter saith that it is the Spirit by whom we are washed with the blood of Christ (1 Pet. i. 2). Our old man is crucified in baptism that we may be raised up in newness of life (Rom vi. 6)" and whence cometh all this save only from the sanctification of the Spirit? And finally what shall remain ill baptism of it be separate from the Spirit (Gal. iii. 27)? Therefore we must not deny but that the Samaritans, who had put on Christ indeed iii Baptism, had also His Spirit given them (!); and surely Luke speaks not in this place of the common grace of the Spirit whereby God doth regenerate us, that we may be His children, but of these singular gifts wherewith God would have certain endued at the beginning of the gospel to beautify Christ's Kingdom. Thus must the words of John be understood, that the disciples had not the Spirit given them as yet, for as ouch as Christ was vet conversant iii the world" not that they were altogether destitute of the Spirit, seeing that they. had from the same both faith and godly desire to follow Christ" but because they were not furnished with these excellent gifts wherein appeared afterwards greater glory of Christ's kingdom. To conclude, forasmuch as the Samaritans were already endued with the Spirit of adoption, the excellent graces of the Spirit are heaped upon them, in which lied showed to His church, for a time as it were, the visible presence of His Spirit, that He might establish for ever the authority of His gospel, and also testify that His Spirit shall be always the governor and director of the faithful."

This is enough to show where pious and enlightened men are in general as to the truth of the Spirit and indeed of redemption also. They are not aware that the gift (δωρεά) of the Spirit, whilst over and above that communication of life which is common to all saints in Old and New Testament days, is at the same time quite distinct from the gifts (χαρίσματα,) and more especially from powers and tongues, the sign-gifts which the Spirit distributed in honour of the risen Lord Jesus when inaugurating that new thing, the church the body of Christ, here below. Nor is christian baptism a sign of life, but rather of sins washed away and of death to sin with Christ. That is, it is a, sign of salvation, the demand before God of a good conscience by the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, the present clearance of a christian, and not merely what the heir had in his nonage under law. Then it was a perfectly sure promise, now full accomplishment for the soul (1 Pet. i. 9) which baptism expresses as a figure. But this is quite distinct from the Spirit, given to the believer as the seal of redemption and earnest of the inheritance; and this distinction in particular the great French Reformer ignored, as people do to this day. Hence in his great anxiety to guard against sacramentalism (though even here his language is unsafe and has been used for evil by men of that school), he lowers the reception of the Spirit to transient displays of energy and thus involves himself in hopeless antagonism to scripture. The words of John (xiv.–xvi.) go far beyond miracles, healings, or kinds of tongues. They are to be understood of the far different presence of the Paraclete Himself, who was to dwell with the disciples and be in them" and this is not "for a time as it were" but to abide for ever.

The Samaritan believers were saints then, and children of God; hut as yet they were not endued with the Spirit like the Old Testament saints who, though horn of the Spirit, never received that great gift, which was not and could not he till redemption, when God sent forth the Spirit of His Son into hearts already renewed, crying, Abba, Father. No doubt sensible gifts then and for awhile accompanied the Spirit's presence thus vouchsafed; but we err greatly, if we either confound the gift with the gifts, or deny the new and abiding privilege with what all saints had before redemption.

A brief extract from what our learned Dr. Lightfoot says (viii. 125-128, Pitman's edition) will suffice. "The Holy Ghost thus given meaneth not his ordinary work of sanctification, and confirming grace; but His extraordinary gift of tongues, prophesying, and the like. And this is evident, by the meaning of that phrase, 'the Holy Ghost' in the scriptures when it denoteth not exactly the person of the Holy Ghost or the third person in the Trinity." Here again we have the same confusion of God's new and distinctive endowment of the church, the ever abiding gift of the Holy Ghost, with the gifts, some of which took a visible form and others not. It is admitted that what is called "sanctification of the Spirit" (1 Pet. i. 2) is different and previous; as it is that vital work of separating a soul to God which takes place in conversion or quickening, and therefore has always been and always must be, as long as God in His grace calls sinners to Himself from among men. This typically is what answered to the washing of the unclean in the Levitical figure: then followed the application of the blood of sacrifice" and lastly the anointing oil, which only is what the New Testament designates the reception of the Spirit, wholly distinct from the new birth (which answers to the water), the blood intermediately being the token of being brought under redemption. The gifts, however important in their place, were quite subordinate, and might be some of them but temporary, though all of course were in full force when the Spirit was given at Pentecost.

Are christians then grown wiser in our day? Let Deem Alford bear witness (The Greek Test., ii. 88, 89, fifth edit.), who like the rest, takes advantage of the accompanying gifts, which might be seen, to ignore the incomparably more momentous unseen gift of the Holy Ghost. Further, he cites the very remarks of Calvin as "too important to be omitted," which we have seen to be a heap of confusion, that might with justice be exposed more unsparingly still, were this the task in hand. They all agree in the great error of reducing the gift of the Holy Spirit to the outward "miraculous gifts," instead of seeing along with these the unprecedented and transcendent privilege of Himself given to be the portion of the saints fur ever. It is the more inconsistent (and error is apt to be inconsistent) in Dean Alford, inasmuch as he owns in his note on John xvi. 7, "that the gift of the Spirit at and since Pentecost was and is something TOTALLY DISTINCT from anything before that time: a new and loftier dispensation." His own emphasis is given as it is.

One of these objections is that the imposition of hands preceded that gift here as well as in ch. xix., where the apostle Paul laid his hands for a like purpose and with a like result on the twelve disciples at Ephesus. But why should this offend them? They may not like the ritualistic effort to base confirmation on a scripture which gives no real countenance to that ceremony; they may feel grieved at or ashamed of a mare form without power; they may justly censure B. Nelson (or any. citing him) for untruly referring to Calvin as if he thought confirmation was instituted by the apostles. For in fact in the Institutes (iv. ch. xix. 76) he disproves the very thought attributed to him. But to deny that it was the Holy Spirit Himself, that was communicated at Samaria and Ephesus by imposition of apostolic hands, is to fly in the face of God's words; to construe it into the gifts, and not the gift, of the Spirit, is to prepare the way for the most withering unbelief and the less of the spring of all true power. For what is the church without the personal presence of the Holy Ghost? and what is the christian without His indwelling? That which baptizes into unity does not exist otherwise; there is no power adequate to constitute the believer a member of Christ; for both depend on the gift of the Holy Ghost.

Let it be observed that the two main occasions of 'that gift were to the Jewish believers (Acts ii.) and to the Gentiles (Acts x.), on neither of which is there a word expressed or implied about laying on of hands. Indeed one has only to weigh both accounts (Pentecost being of course the fullest and chief) to gather that there could be nothing of the sort on either day. The peculiar cases of Samaria and Ephesus, which some would unintelligently erect into a rule to supersede those more general, were but ancillary as events, though the blessing conferred was of course, as far as it went, the same; and on each of these, where the laying on of hands occurred, the principle was, it would seem, to guard against rivalry, to bind the work of G )d together, and to put the most solemn sign of divine honour, first on the Jewish apostles, and next on the apostle to the uncircumcision. This was of moment to mark; but we do not find it repeated, save for special reasons and with other features, on Timothy personally (1 Tim. iv. 14; 2 Tim. i. 6). But God had taken care at an early day to anticipate and cut off possible misuse by employing a disciple, not the apostle, in the very conspicuous instance of the great apostle himself (Acts ix. 17), as if to break beyond dispute all thought of a successional chain.

It may be well also to say that the effort to make the anarthrous form mean no more than a special gift or particular operation of the Holy Spirit is not borne out by scriptural usage. For we find πν. ἁγ. employed with and without the article, so as to demonstrate that this expression in no way excludes His blessed personality, but only falls under the usual principles of the language. Where it is intended to present Him as a distinct object before the mind, the article appears" where it only characterises, the phrase is as ever anarthrous. Here, to go no farther, we have πν. ἁγ. in ver. 15, 17; but in, 18 τ πν. Were it merely previous mention, we should have had the article in. 17 as well as 18. The true solution however is not here contextual, but the intention is not to present objectively. Where this is not so, the accusative of a transitive verb is regularly without the article, as being only the complement of the notion expressed by the verb; where it is sought to present the governed word as an object before the mind, the article is added. The usage therefore is thoroughly exact. So in Acts xix. 2 we have twice πν. ἁγ. without the article, but in 6 the article in its emphatic "duplication" where it seems vain to contend that the Holy Spirit is not meant in all these cases. Is there then not a difference? Unquestionably; but the difference lies, not in the contrast of a special gift with His general influence, as men say, or even with His person, but in the questioned character of what was received in the one case, with the definite object before the mind in the other most suitably accompanying such a phrase as "came" upon the men described.

This is the true key to Acts i. 2, 5. not the mere circumstance of the preposition (strangely supposed by some to be exceptional) which serves to define" as the phrase in ver. 8, brings the Spirit into an objective point of view. But it is the self-same Spirit in each case; and could a mistake be greater than to allow that Christ only gave injunctions by a particular gift, and that the disciples enjoyed Him in all His fulness 1" Compare also Acts x. 38, with 44. So, on the eventful day when the promise of the Father was fulfilled, we find in Acts ii. 4 the Spirit both without and with the article, and there according to the principle enunciated when used to characterise what filled all, it is designedly anarthrous" when the phrase presents a distinctively objective cast of thought, the article is as correctly inserted. The presence or the absence of the article leaves the holy Spirit untouched and only affects the aspect meant—person or power. Compare ver. 17, 18, 33, 38; iv. 8, 31 (a very remarkable expression in the text of the oldest codices)" v. 3; vi. 5; vii. 55; viii. 29, 39; ix. 17, 31; x. 38, 44, 45, 47; xi. 15, 16, 24, 28; xiii. 2, 4, 9, 52; xv. 28; xvi. 6, 7. The Epistles would only add and confirm, were this needed.



1) The bare structure of the phrase in the Text. Rec. of the Greek, one article for Peter and John, joins both in a common position here. But the great uncials do not favour its insertion.