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Study Resources :: Text Commentaries :: Don Stewart :: Baptism with the Holy Spirit

Don Stewart :: Why Did Peter and John Lay Hands on the Samaritans to Have Them Receive the Holy Spirit?

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Why Did Peter and John Lay Hands on the Samaritans to Have Them Receive the Holy Spirit? (Acts 8)

Baptism with the Holy Spirit – Question 19

There is an episode in the Book of Acts that seems to teach that the Holy Spirit was not given immediately at the point of salvation, but rather following it. This is found in the account of the conversion of the Samaritans. The Bible says.

Now when the apostles at Jerusalem heard that Samaria had accepted the word of God, they sent Peter and John to them. The two went down and prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit (for as yet the Spirit had not come upon any of them; they had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus). Then Peter and John laid their hands on them, and they received the Holy Spirit (Acts 8:14-17 NRSV).

Does not this delay prove that the Holy Spirit is given subsequent to salvation? The fact that there was a delay in the Samaritans’ receiving the Holy Spirit after they were saved is clearly taught. If everyone receives the Holy Spirit upon being saved, why was there a delay in this case? Therefore, it is understandable to see why some would point to this occurrence as a pattern for believers concerning their experience with the Holy Spirit.

How then, should we respond to this argument?

There Are a Number of Difficulties with This Account

Several points need to be made. First, in every other instance after the Day of Pentecost, people who believed in Jesus Christ immediately received the Holy Spirit – this is the one exception to the rule. According to this account, the people had believed the gospel and had been baptized by Philip, yet the Holy Spirit did not indwell them. This only occurred when Peter and John arrived and hands were laid upon them.

Furthermore, this is also the only account in the New Testament where the gift of the Holy Spirit came about with the laying on of hands. No other instance speaks of any “laying on of hands” for a person to receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. None.

Some Think They Were Not Believers until the Apostles Arrived

There is also the point of view that the Samaritans did not really believe in Jesus until Peter and John arrived. Their belief is similar to the multitudes that were said to have believed in Jesus but He did not commit Himself to them. John wrote.

Because of the miraculous signs he did in Jerusalem at the Passover celebration, many people were convinced that he was indeed the Messiah. But Jesus didn’t trust them, because he knew what people were really like. No one needed to tell him about human nature. (John 2:23-25 ESV).

The New Living Translation puts it this way.

Because of the miraculous signs he did in Jerusalem at the Passover celebration, many began to trust in him. But Jesus didn’t trust them, because he knew human nature. No one needed to tell him what mankind is really like (John 2:23-25 NLT).

Jesus knew that their belief was not genuine. Thus, He did not entrust Himself to them. This, it is argued, is what initially happened with the Samaritans. While it says they believed the message of Jesus their belief was insincere.

This view is further evidenced by the situation of a person named Simon Magus. This man was a sorcerer. It is said that he also believed and was baptized. We read.

Then Simon himself also believed; and when he was baptized he continued with Philip, and was amazed, seeing the miracles and signs which were done (Acts 8:13 NKJV).

The same word is used of Simon’s belief as it is with the belief of the Samaritans.

However when Peter spoke to him, it is clear that he did not have saving faith. We read the following words of the apostle.

You won’t have any share in this because God can see how twisted your thinking is. So change your wicked thoughts, and ask the Lord if he will forgive you for thinking like this. I can see that you are bitter with jealousy and wrapped up in your evil ways” (Acts 8:21-23 God’s Word).

If this is true of the other people in Samaria, then we have people who had not yet trusted Jesus Christ as Savior. Consequently, this account records the initial reception of the Holy Spirit only when Peter and John arrived. Previous to this their belief was not genuine. Thus, what we have here is not a delay in receiving the Holy Spirit after they were saved.

Observations about This Account

There are a few preliminary observations that need to be made. They include the following.

Their Experience Was Never Repeated

While it is clear that the Holy Spirit did not indwell the Samaritans until Peter and John laid their hands upon them, this is the only time we find this occurring. Never is this experience repeated in the New Testament. Therefore, we consider this to be the exception, not the rule. This being the case, then no doctrine or pattern of behavior should be derived from this episode.

It Is Not a Second Blessing

It is clear at Samaria that the believers were not waiting for a second blessing; rather they were waiting to receive the initial reception of the Holy Spirit. The text explicitly says that they had not received the Holy Spirit. Therefore, this account should not be used to prove the need for a second experience with the Holy Spirit that occurs some time after the initial reception.

The Transitional Nature of the Book of Acts Must Be Considered

There also must be some appreciating of the transitional nature of the Book of Acts. Acts records the beginning of a new age on the Day of Pentecost. The gospel would now go out from Jerusalem to Judea, Samaria, and then to the uttermost parts of the earth. Samaria was one of these key places.

It is also possible that the normal New Testament experience – the Holy Spirit would immediately indwell all believers, is only something that happened gradually. It has been argued that until it was recognized that the Gentiles would make up the church as well as the Jews (Acts 10) that the Holy Spirit was given to individual Gentile believers by the laying on of hands. Once the Jewish believers realized that the Gentiles were to be part of the church, then the Holy Spirit was received immediately upon belief.

Therefore, before the events recorded in Acts 10, any reception of the Holy Spirit apart from the Jewish believers, whether it was Samaritans or Gentiles, may have been accompanied by the laying on of hands by the apostles.

They Were Expecting Some Indication of the Arrival of the Holy Spirit

What is also obvious from the text is that the believers were expecting some sign to follow the reception of the Holy Spirit at Samaria. There had to be some way in which they knew that the Samaritans had not received the initial giving of the Holy Spirit. Exactly what it is we are not told.

The Apostles Were Jesus’ Special Representatives

It must also be remembered that the apostles were the special representatives of Jesus Christ. Certain requirements were necessary for one to be an apostle. Peter listed the proper qualifications as follows.

He must be one of the men who accompanied Jesus with us the entire time that the Lord Jesus was among us. This person must have been with us from the time that John was baptizing people to the day that Jesus was taken from us. The disciples determined that two men were qualified. These men were Joseph (who was called Barsabbas and was also known as Justus) and Matthias (Acts 1:21-23 God’s Word).

The apostles were indeed a special group with distinct qualifications. What took place in Samaria made it necessary certain of the leaders of the church to go to that area.

Peter Was Promised the Keys to the Kingdom

We find that it was necessary for Peter to go to Samaria because the Lord promised him the keys to the kingdom of heaven. After Peter was the first of the disciples to confess Jesus as the Christ he was given the following promise.

I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven (Matthew 16:19 NRSV).

The Book of Acts tells us that Peter is the one who uniquely opened the door of the gospel to the Jews on the Day of Pentecost, to the Samaritans in the episode we are considering here, as well as to the Gentiles.

The Nature of the Samaritans Gives a Key to the Explanation

Another explanation for the delay of the reception of the Holy Spirit has to do with the special nature of the Samaritan religion and its relationship to the Jews. The Samaritans had their own religious system that was a rival to the Jews. They had their own temple and their own center of worship. The two groups did not interact. We read about this in John’s gospel in an episode when Jesus met a certain Samaritan woman at a well. Scripture says.

The Samaritan woman said to him [Jesus], “How is it that you, a Jew, ask for a drink from me, a woman of Samaria?” (For Jews have no dealings with Samaritans) (John 4:9 ESV).

There was a clear division between Jews and Samaritans to the place where they had no dealings with each other.

The Samaritans Identified with the Apostles

It was important for the Samaritans who believed in Jesus Christ to identify with the apostles in Jerusalem. Likewise, it was important for the Jewish element in the church to see that the Samaritans were part of the same body of Christ.

When the Holy Spirit was given by the laying on of hands of Peter and John, who were personal disciples of Jesus Christ and the leaders in the Jerusalem church, there was no doubt that these two groups were one in Christ. This delay in the Samaritans’ receiving the Holy Spirit kept the early church from having two centers of authority, Samaria and Jerusalem.

This Was Not the Norm for the Church Age

The fact that the norm for the New Testament was the immediate reception of the Holy Spirit shows that this was a special occurrence and not to be considered the pattern for every believer.

Whether the Samaritans had earlier believed in Jesus or whether they only believed when the apostles arrived, it is clear that their situation was unique.

Summary – Question 19
Why Did Peter and John Lay Hands on the Samaritans to Have Them Receive the Holy Spirit? (Acts 8)

Scripture records that when the people in the area of Samaria first received the Word of God there was a unique event which took place. These people believed in Jesus Christ, were baptized in water, yet did not receive the Holy Spirit.

Therefore, Peter and John came down from Jerusalem and laid hands on the Samaritans. At that point, they received the Holy Spirit. While some people use this as an argument for a second reception of the Holy Spirit it is clearly not the case.

To begin with, the text makes it explicitly that the Samaritans had not received the Holy Spirit. Consequently they were not looking for any second work of the Spirit – rather they were looking for His initial coming.

There is also the point of view that the faith of the Samaritans was not saving faith. Their belief was similar to the crowds who saw the miracles of Jesus. Jesus knew what was in their heart and did not entrust Himself to them. This is one possible explanation which attempts to explain what took place.

Whatever the explanation may be, there are a number of things we know for certain.

First, this is the only episode in the New Testament where there was a delay in the reception of the Holy Spirit. Indeed, this never happened before or since.

We also know that this was not a second blessing for the Samaritans since none of them had received the Holy Spirit.

An argument that has been put forward is that until the Gentiles would later receive the Holy Spirit each believer in Jesus, who was not a Jew, was given the Holy Spirit by the laying on of hands by the apostles. There is also the fact that it was obvious that these Samaritans had not received the Holy Spirit upon belief. This seems to indicate they were expecting some outward sign to confirm the reception of the Spirit.

It is a fact that the apostles were Jesus’ special representatives. Furthermore, Peter was promised by Jesus that he would be given the keys to the kingdom of heaven. This promise was fulfilled. The Book of Acts records Peter opening the door of the kingdom to the Jews, Samaritans, and Gentiles.

The best explanation for the delay concerns the nature of the Samaritans as well as their worship. They had no dealings with the Jewish people. Indeed, they had their own temple and their own worship system. Had they received the Holy Spirit apart from identifying with the Jewish apostles the separation between the Jews and Samaritans would have continued. However, with the laying on of hands of the apostles it became clear that they were all “one in Christ.”

One final point to emphasize is that this was certainly not the norm for the church age. As we stated, this was a unique event in the history of the church. Therefore, we should not attempt to find any pattern from what took place so long ago in Samaria.

In What Sense Was Joel's Prophecy Fulfilled at Pentecost? ← Prior Section
Did Saul of Tarsus, the Apostle Paul, Receive the Holy Spirit after His Conversion? Next Section →
CONTENT DISCLAIMER:

The Blue Letter Bible ministry and the BLB Institute hold to the historical, conservative Christian faith, which includes a firm belief in the inerrancy of Scripture. Since the text and audio content provided by BLB represent a range of evangelical traditions, all of the ideas and principles conveyed in the resource materials are not necessarily affirmed, in total, by this ministry.


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