We are going to spend the next few weeks talking about the life change that Jesus brings to our lives. In many ways, this is a continuation of what we were doing in our look at getting rid of the old you and moving forward with new clothes. But our text for this series will come from the book of Acts. You may remember when we started this series that Luke starts the book of Acts by telling that his first account (the Gospel of Luke) was all that Jesus began to do and teach. The point is that this book, the book of Acts, is all that Jesus continued to do and teach. So we are putting this lens on the book of Acts and looking at the life change that Jesus was bringing to his people. One of the powerful things we observe in first century Christians is that nothing held them back in their faith. You could not hold them back spiritually. We have already observed this with the apostles. But now the author wants us to see this faith in the people who have become followers of Jesus. We turn our attention to Acts 8 where we are going to see three pictures about not being held back.
Not Held Back When Persecuted (8:1-4)
The picture given in the first three verses of chapter 8 are shocking and painful to read. Chapter 7 concludes with the stoning of Stephen. Saul approved and agreed with the execution of Stephen. The disciples bury Stephen and mourn deeply over his death. Just as a side note, we see that we can have sorrow when a disciple dies even though we know eternal life awaits them. Stephen’s death ignites a persecution against the church in Jerusalem so that the followers of Jesus scatter throughout Judea and Samaria. The apostles remain behind in Jerusalem, perhaps because the Sanhedrin had agreed to not put the apostles to death (cf. Acts 5:38-40). Listen to what is happening as we read verse 3.
But Saul was ravaging the church, and entering house after house, he dragged off men and women and committed them to prison. (Acts 8:3 ESV)
Please let those words sink into your minds because it is so easy to read, passing over the significance of what was happening. Saul is harming God’s people. He is going into your house and dragging them off into prison. Saul does not do this once or twice. He is going into house after house, attempting to harm those who believe in Jesus. Just imagine living with that fear and ask yourself what you would do. You are under threat for being a follower of Jesus. If anyone finds out, you can be taken from your home and put into prison. What would you do? Look at what they did. Verse 4 says that they went about preaching the word. Even though they need to leave Jerusalem, they do not stay quiet or stop talking about Jesus. They still preach the word. They did not quit. They did not shut down. They did not give up. The church is still representing Christ, preaching the good news. These disciples would not be held back, even by persecution. In fact, God ends up using the persecution as a means of spreading the gospel. Using the framework of Joseph’s life in Genesis 50, we might be able to say that what Saul meant for evil, God meant for good. Persecution did not mean that God had abandoned them. Jesus had so transformed their lives so that even when persecution arose, they could not be held back in still sharing the good news with others.
Not Held Back By Sin (8:5-25)
But our attention is turned to a man named Simon. We will return to Saul in chapter 9. But now we are going to look at someone named Simon who is a magician. He was able to amaze the people in Samaria to such an extent that people said he had the great power of God (8:9-11). You can imagine his touring name: Simon the Great — the Power of God. People followed him because of the magic and sorcery that he was performing. But Philip, one of the seven selected to help with the distribution to the widows in Acts 6, has come to Samaria preaching Christ. Philip is performing signs and casting out unclean spirits (8:6-7). But what Philip is doing is no trick and no slight of hand. When Philip is preaching Jesus in Samaria, the Samaritans believe what he proclaims and are baptized.
Just a couple important points to see before we press forward. Belief always leads to baptism. You will not read of people believing but not being baptized for the forgiveness of sins (cf. Acts 2:38). Also, men and women are baptized, not children. The reason is because children do not have the saving faith needed to give themselves to the Lord. A few months ago I did a lesson on baptism from Acts 2 where we talked about this. But I will brush it again now. Baptism is not just something you do. Baptism is not a sacrament. Baptism is the response of belief in Jesus. Baptism is a faith response from a heart changed by the gospel message. This is what is happening in Samaria as Philip preaches Jesus and the people respond believing and being baptized.
Now notice verse 13. Even Simon was baptized. Simon does not hear what Philip is saying and see what Philip is doing and expose Philip as a fraud. He does not show that Philip is just doing tricks. Many years ago there was a TV series that had a masked magician who exposed the long time tricks that magicians perform. His reason was that he wanted magicians to stop doing the same old tricks and invent some new acts. Simon would have been able to expose Philip if this was only a trick. But it was not. Simon also believed and was baptized. Simon was also amazed by the signs and great miracles Philip was performing by the Holy Spirit (8:13). Two of the apostles, Peter and John, come from Jerusalem to Samaria, and lay their hands on these Samaritan Christians so that they can receive miraculous spiritual gifts of the Holy Spirit. Notice what happens in verses 18-19. When Simon saw that the Spirit was given by the apostles laying their hands on them, he offers money asking to have the same power to impart miraculous gifts on anyone he puts his hands on. Even though Simon had become a follower of Jesus, it seems that the old Simon came up right here. He sees an opportunity to be great by imparting these gifts to others. Listen to what Peter says.
But Peter said to him, “May your silver perish with you, because you thought you could obtain God’s gift with money! You have no part or share in this, for your heart is not right before God. Repent therefore of this wickedness of yours, and pray to the Lord that, if possible, the intent of your heart may be forgiven you. For I see that you are in the gall of bitterness and the chains of wickedness.” (Acts 8:20–23 NRSV)
Think about what Peter says concerning Simon’s condition. May your silver perish with you! You are going to perish for this. Your heart is not right with God. Repent of this wickedness of yours. Pray that the intent of your heart may be forgiven. You are poisoned by bitterness and in the chains of wickedness. This sounds like Simon cannot recover from this. But he could. Simon asks Peter to pray to the Lord for him so that this judgment will not come on him. Simon repents. Simon is confronted by his sin, convicted by his sin, and immediately turns back to the Lord.
Simon was not held back by his sin. Sometimes we think that our sin is too great or that we are too fake to ever be able to come back to the Lord. But I want us to think about what a stinging condemnation Peter gives to Simon. This is no small sin. You are going to perish. Your heart is not right. You are full of wickedness. You are full of bitterness and envy. You are enslaved to wickedness. Who would not think that we need to write off Simon? Peter does not. Peter tells Simon to repent. Your sins do not have to hold you back. You can repent. Even though everything looked like a sham and a show, you can repent. Once we have been baptized, we can repent after sinning and pray for forgiveness. Your sin is not too great and it is not too late to turn back to Jesus. Do not let your sin hold you back. This transitions into our final picture in Acts 8
Not Held Back From Salvation (8:26-40)
A eunuch from Ethiopia is returning from worshiping in Jerusalem. Verse 27 tells us that he is an important person as he is part of the royal court of the queen in Ethiopia. The Lord tells Philip to go to Gaza where is going to encounter this man returning from Jerusalem. The eunuch is in his chariot reading from Isaiah and Philip overhears him reading. So Philip asks him if he understands what he is reading. The eunuch says that he needs someone to explain this to him. Who is the prophet speaking about: himself or someone else (8:34)? The scripture was from Isaiah 53: “Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter and like a lamb before its shearer is silent, so he opens not his mouth. In his humiliation justice was denied him. Who can describe his generation? For his life is taken away from the earth.” The eunuch wants to know who this is talking about. Philip uses this opportunity to tell him about the good news of Jesus, beginning with this very scripture.
But notice what happens next. As they are going down the road, they pass by some water and he asks what holds him back from being baptized? Now we need to consider something here. Why did the eunuch ask to be baptized? We can draw some conclusions. We draw the conclusion that preaching about Jesus included preaching about baptism. We can also draw the conclusion that baptism was important and necessary because he is asking why he cannot do this now. Why else did the eunuch ask this? What stands in my way of being baptized? The answer is nothing. Nothing is holding you back from being saved. Even a non-Jew, an outsider, is able to come to Jesus. So he commands the chariot to stop and they both went down into the water and he baptized him. Why did they both go down into the water? We see that baptism is picturing the burial and resurrection of Jesus. Baptism means to be immersed in water and that is what happens here.
So what is holding you back from enjoying the salvation that comes from Jesus? I want us to see from this chapter that we need to set aside whatever may be in our mind that is holding us back from being a follower of Jesus. First, nothing is holding you back from being baptized. If you want to belong to Jesus and follow him, then like the eunuch and the Samaritans, you need to believe that Jesus died to forgive you of your sins. He gave his life for you. What is holding you back from giving your life to him? Believe and be baptized so that you can be a follower of Jesus like we have read about in Acts 8. There is no reason you cannot do this today. There is no one too dirty, no one too wicked, or no one too awful for the gospel. What stands in your way of being baptized? Nothing stands in your way.
Second, perhaps you are like Simon where you believed and have been baptized but you are enslaved to wickedness. Your heart is not right with God. Nothing is holding you back from getting right with God right now. Peter does not tell you that it is too late or your sins are too much. You can repent so that you do not perish in your wickedness. Maybe you think you have been a Christian fraud like Simon. But you do not have to continue to be fraud. Ask the Lord to forgive your heart and forgive your wickedness. You can start clean again with Jesus. Nothing is holding you back from returning to him.
Finally, what is holding you back from telling others about the salvation of Jesus that you have experienced? The disciples went everywhere spreading the good news of Jesus, even when it was difficult and dangerous. This is what followers of Jesus do because they have so captured for God’s love for them. Jesus can change your heart and change your life if you will not hold yourself back any longer.