What did Simon the Sorcerer see in Samaria?

A traditional Pentecostal doctrine says that every case of baptism with the Holy Spirit must be accompanied by the ‘sign’ of speaking in tongues. They deduce this from the incidents in Acts where the two appear together.

Of course, the difficulty with this deduction is that tongues are not mentioned in all of the accounts of Spirit baptism. For example, there is this incident with Simon in Samaria, but there is also the baptism of Paul in Acts 9:17-19, where the only evidence reported after Ananias prayed for Saul to receive the Holy Spirit was that he stopped being blind. Of course, we know that Paul spoke in tongues – he tells us so himself later – but it would be an argument from silence to say it was when Ananias prayed for him. There are many instances in Acts where people became believers and the Holy Spirit is not even mentioned, which would be strange if the disciples had an understanding that Spirit Baptism accompanied by tongues was so essential to true salvation. I feel sure they made sure that all were baptised in the Holy Spirit. It was certainly vital for a believer then, as it is today. But they didn’t seem to see a need to mention it. It was just a normal part of becoming a follower of Jesus.

Receiving of the Holy Spirit was assumed as a normal part of the process and only remarked upon when a particular theological or historical milestone was reached, such as the conversion of the first Jewish belivers, the first Samaritan believers, and the first Gentile believers. This is similar to the only teaching on tongues being in Paul’s response to a behavioural difficulty that needed to be confronted in the one church in Corinth. Apart from this it is just normal Christianity – everyone does it and it needs no further mention. But again, some feel the need to build a whole doctrinal structure around that one aberration, and so again placing limitations on the freedom of the Spirit to move in the people they ‘serve’. In a very real sense, what was intended to be a wide-ranging spiritual ‘tool’ becomes redefined in terms that only relate to its misuse. All that Paul did not refer to because the Corinthians did not have a problem with it is now ignored, or even forbidden,  because Paul didn’t mention it. 

Back to Simon the Sorcerer. In Acts 8, after Philip had preached in Samaria and people believed, Peter and John were sent to them so they could receive the Holy Spirit. They placed hands on them and they were filled with the Spirit. Simon the sourcerer, who had also believed, saw this and wanted to buy the ability to bestow the Spirit, but Peter rebuked him for his wrong heart, and he repented.

What had Simon seen that got his attention? Many Pentecostals insist it must have been their speaking in tongues. The passage says nothing about this, but because they have a doctrine that speaking in tongues must immediately accompany filling with the Spirit, they can not see any other possibilities.

Even if tongues was the most likely answer to what Simon saw, this can not be used to make a doctrine. The passage says nothing, and it is just a guess.

Personally, I believe he could have seen a number of the manifestations we have seen when a person is filled with the Spirit, such as prohesying, praising God, shaking, falling over, perspiration, healing, and experiencing and describing real peace and joy. Quite likely it was speaking in tongues, which is more easily ‘seen’, but the peace and joy is also a good candidate. However, while this seems likely, and might even be a reasonable assumption, we can not actually know. So we should not use our guesses to fill a gap in the story so we can ‘prove’ a doctrine, which is what I have seen done so often to ‘prove’ that tongues is ‘the’ necessary sign of Spirit baptism.

Why does being baptised in the Spirit need a sign anyway? I knew when I was baptised in water because I got wet. I didn’t need a supernatural revelation. I knew when I was filled with God because I experienced his presence in a way I had not known before. Years later I found I could speak in tongues. But long before that I was already healing people, prophesying, having words of knowledge, casting out demons, playing keyboard in the spirit and making music that I could not play alone, teaching effectively, and giving wise advice far above my own knowledge or ability. All this despite being an introvert. Should I conclude that this wasn’t the Spirit because I hadn’t yet spoken in tongues?

By making a doctrine out of a denominational distinctive we risk limiting what can happen in our experience. This places unnecessary restrictions on what the Spirit will do among us, because we do not give him permission to do so. Perhaps this also explains why we do not see many people raised from the dead in our culture, whereas in some other places it is not so uncommon. After all, Jesus does expect us to do this too.

Another result of making tongues into a ‘mere’ sign’ is that we lose sight of its more important purposes. It has become one of the most useful tools in our ministry, as well as a reliable means of spiritual, emotional and even physical refreshment.

This entry was posted in Acts, Bible, Experience, Healing, Holy Spirit Baptism, Ministry, Pentecostal, Speaking in Tongues, Spirit baptism, Spiritual Gifts, Teaching, Tongues, Tradition and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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