Was Simon Magus a Christian?

Don Johnson

Simon Magus is the name for a man also called “Simon the sorcerer” in Acts 8. He made his living (undoubtedly a lucrative one) by astounding fellow-Samaritans with magic arts. Until Philip, the evangelist came to town, that is. When Philip arrived preaching the good news of salvation in Christ (and accompanied by real signs and miracles of healing) many people abandoned Simon and came to Christ. The whole scene was so powerful that Acts 8.13 tells us Simon himself “believed also: and when he was baptized, he continued with Philip.” Later, as Peter and John came to Samaria to aid in the ministry, he offered to purchase the power of laying on of hands so that people could receive the Holy Spirit. Peter sternly rebuked him and called on him to repent. In the passage, Luke takes leave of Simon with a cryptic quotation that leaves us wondering. Was Simon Magus a Christian? We don’t know for sure, but examining the question gives us insight into questions some professing believers ought to ask themselves.

What is the attraction?

The first part of the account is the synopsis of Philip’s evangelistic efforts in Samaria, Acts 8.5-8. A notable feature of the Samaritan evangelism was the signs that accompanied Philip’s preaching. The paralyzed and the lame walked, those possessed of unclean spirits experienced dramatic deliverance. There was “much rejoicing in that city,” Luke reports.

When the people followed Simon, it was due to his magic (μαγεύω mageuo) activity. In Acts 8.9-13, Luke says that Simon was so amazing the people called him “the Great Power of God.” His magic had their attention. Now they turned to Philip. Was it simply a matter that someone had “out-magiced” Simon? After all, Philip’s mighty deeds would certainly draw a crowd and get attention.

Luke gives us a key distinction, however. The people turned their attention from Simon (Ac 8.10) to what Philip said (Ac 8.6) — from a person to preaching, from a magician to a message. Actually, the impact of Philip’s ministry was so great that Simon, himself, believes (Ac 8.13). The attraction, then, according to the Scriptures, was the Word of God. So it is with anyone who is born again. Men come to Christ out of a multitude of circumstances, but all who come to Christ come in response to the gospel message.

Was Simon’s faith genuine?

What kind of belief did Simon have? The statement of Simon’s conversion and baptism offer no clues. He believes (Ac 8.13) just as the Samaritan public believed (Ac 8.12). He is baptized (Ac 8.13), just as the Samaritan believers are baptized (Ac 8.12). Apparently, none of them received the Holy Spirit (Ac 8.16), so in every respect, at least outwardly, Simon is just like all the other professing believers in Samaria.

The absence of the Holy Spirit is a problem. (The text doesn’t tell us how Philip knew this.) Perhaps this prompted Philip to call for the apostles’ assistance. In any case, the apostles came in the persons of Peter and John, representing the whole group (Ac 8.14). Immediately they pray for the people to receive the Holy Spirit and begin laying hands on believers so that they are receiving the Holy Spirit. (Ac 8. 15, 17 — Again, we are not told how this was obvious to onlookers.)

Simon is impressed with this trick. His interest is piqued as a professional magician. Perhaps he smells an opportunity. Regardless, he offers money to Peter so that he might get in on the secret and be able to convey the Spirit to whomever he likes. This seems in marked contrast to the rest of the people: they are paying attention to what Philip said; he is paying attention to what Philip did (Ac 8.13). We wonder about Simon’s faith.

Peter’s Strong Rebuke

Analyzing Peter’s rebuke of Simon (Ac 8.20-23) increases our doubts concerning Simon’s faith. He begins, “May your silver perish with you,” (20). The word perish means “consigned to destruction.” It can mean, according to Thayer, “in particular, the destruction which consists in the loss of eternal life, eternal misery, perdition, the lot of those excluded from the kingdom of God.” It is not clear that this connotation is meant, but nonetheless, this is a strong rebuke. Even stronger is verse 21: “Thou hast neither part nor lot in this matter:” The word translated matter is λόγος logos, usually translated word. Does he mean Simon has no part in The Word, i.e. the Gospel? Peter concludes in the same verse: “thy heart is not right in the sight of God.” This is certainly clear. Something is not right with the man.

Peter concludes by calling Simon to repentance (Ac 8.22). Is it a call to salvation? He declares concerning Simon’s spirit that he is “in the gall of bitterness, and in the bond of iniquity.” The rebuke, with all its strong language sounds like Peter doesn’t think Simon is a Christian, though he doesn’t explicitly make the declaration.

Simon’s Response (Ac 8.24)

Then answered Simon, and said, Pray ye to the Lord for me, that none of these things which ye have spoken come upon me.

The response doesn’t seem like repentance. It seems insolent. “Me, pray to the Lord? You pray to the Lord.” Of course, we could be reading this tone into the text. Conservative readers who think Simon is nonetheless a believer read this verse more sympathetically.

According to Justyn Martyr, a second century church father, and himself a Samaritan, this Simon went on to a career of magic in Rome. There he posed as a god, impressed many and even had a statue erected in his honor. Present-day scholars question this story, but we must remember that Justyn is writing at a much closer distance to the event than we are (no more than one hundred years), he, too, is a Samaritan, and he is a defender of the Christian faith. Whether the story is true, the strong words of Peter are enough to give us pause as we consider the testimony of Simon.

What are we to draw from this?

First, I think it is obvious that at best the state of “not being right with God” represents a wrong pursuit in worship. The fascination with sensation – with magic on the one hand and miracles on the other – shows a heart fixed on the rush of sensation before devotion to God. The miracles that Philip performed were not the point; the word that he preached was the point. In our era, many Christians want sensation in worship, or else they say, “That church is so dead.” They might seek sensation in health and wealth gospel, in charismatic experience, in a wind-sucking evangelistic show, or in any number of other ways. God does move, sometimes profoundly, in worship services, but a heart seeking sensation ahead of God is not right with God.

Second, there is at least a strong possibility that Simon was not born again. His reluctance to pray humbly in repentance at the end of the passage may be the most damning evidence of all. Is it possible that there are men and women sit in church pews today with a heart not right with God, focused on little gods instead of following the true God, living a show of religion without the heart of religion? Is it possible that they aren’t even Christians at all? Yes, it is possible. Actually, it’s more than possible. It is a reality. What is your heart-motivation in following Christ, in claiming Christianity? Simon’s motivation looks very much like “a new profit center.” There can be many more. If you claim Christianity because of family tradition, cultural convenience, the contacts you can make for your sales business, or any reason other than “God be merciful to me, a sinner,” you ought to examine your heart. Your heart may well not be right with God.

The Bible doesn’t answer the questions we have about Simon. We need to be sure that we don’t approach the Scriptures simply to satisfy our intellectual curiousity about Simon. We need to take warning, to cling to our Saviour, and depend on Him alone for our spiritual life.

Don Johnson is the pastor of Grace Baptist Church of Victoria, Victoria, BC, Canada.

1 Comment

  1. Mike Evans on February 8, 2018 at 8:51 am

    We discussed this in a Sunday School lesson a few weeks ago. Maybe the answer is unclear so that we will regularly assess our own hearts, as the article states; revisit our motives for “church”. Thanks for the good read!

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