Summary: Simon the Sorcerer showed wrong understanding and wrong motivation in his desire to purchase the gift of the Spirit. Some times bad examples make good teachers.
Luke is a story-teller, a narrator, a writer of historical biography. Paul, in his letters, provides guidance and encouragement through mostly through direct teaching—exposing false teachings and explaining right understanding. Luke, in his gospel and in Acts, provides guidance and encouragement mostly through telling the story.
In the Book of Acts, Luke tells the stories of the leaders: Peter and Stephen and Philip and Paul... He tells the stories of ordinary believers: Aeneas and Tabitha and Lydia and Cornelius...
Luke tells the stories of missionary endeavors that were well-received: In Berea, “they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true” and many believed, both Jews and Greeks. He tells the stories of missionary endeavors that met with more than a little resistance: In Iconium, Paul and Barnabas had to flee to escape being stoned.
Luke tells the stories of those who are models of faithful discipleship: Priscilla and Aquila (who traveled far and wide with the good news), Jason (who welcomed Paul and Silas into his home and ended up in prison because of it). He tells the stories of those who were not such great models: Ananias and Sapphira (who lied to God to maintain an appearance of piety), and Simon (who tried to purchase the Holy Spirit to increase his own powerbase).
2 Timothy 3:16 says that “all scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness,” even the stories of those who were not such great models.
Ok…so how is this passage about Simon the Sorcerer useful?
Well, for one thing, if you’re thinking about trying to purchase the power to dispense the Holy Spirit as you wish, don’t.
Simon liked being the center of attention. When he was a sorcerer, people oohed and ahhed at his magic. You can be sure that whatever power he had, it did not come from God, but the folks in Samaria sure thought there was something divine about it. Simon had the reputation for having a direct link to some sort of divine power station. He was the local franchise-holder of GP…Great Power.
The Bible is not neutral about sorcery. It is not of God, period. When Moses was giving the Israelites instructions before they entered the Promised Land, he taught them to stay away from sorcery, lumping it in with child sacrifice and other activities involving manipulation of supernatural forces. Deuteronomy 18:9 and following says: “When you enter the land the Lord your God is giving you, do not learn to imitate the detestable ways of the nations there. Let no one be found among you who sacrifices his son or daughter in the fire, who practices divination or sorcery, interprets omens, engages in witchcraft, or casts spells, or who is a medium or spiritist or who consults the dead.”
Simon was a Samaritan. Most likely he had ancestors among the multitude that entered the Promised Land under the leadership of Moses and Joshua. Most likely he knew that the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob prohibited sorcery. Still, Simon was attracted to the power he could wield through sorcery. He liked being able to draw a crowd of appreciative onlookers who turned on his every move.
When Philip came to Samaria, he too demonstrated power. Philip wasn’t doing magic tricks, though. The Holy Spirit was with him. As he preached the good news of the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, as he cast out demons and healed the sick, the powerful love of God was made manifest for the people. Philip drew even more attention from the crowds than Simon did. Many believed, both men and women, and were baptized.
The text says that Simon himself believed and was baptized.
Then he followed Philip everywhere, astonished by the great signs and miracles he saw.
Two observations here:
First, the fact that Simon was a sorcerer did not exclude him from candidacy for baptism. Jesus came, after all, to save sinners. Simon, like everyone else who heard Philip’s message, was invited to turn away from his old ways and turn to Jesus. When he professed faith in Jesus, Simon was welcomed. He was baptized with all the other sinners who turned to Jesus.
Second, already there is a hint that Simon turned to Jesus for the very same reason he had turned to sorcery earlier. Simon was attracted to the power that he saw manifested in Philip’s ministry. He was fascinated by the signs and miracles. No doubt he was also quite aware of the attention that came Philip’s way. When Simon turned to Jesus, he did not repudiate the power to which he had given his allegiance in the past, he merely acceded that a greater power was now present. Simon wanted from Jesus the same thing he wanted from sorcery—the power to amaze and manipulate the crowds.