9Now a certain man named Simon had previously practiced magic in the city and amazed the people of Samaria, saying that he was someone great. 10All of them, from the least to the greatest, listened to him eagerly, saying, “This man is the power of God that is called Great.” 11And they listened eagerly to him because for a long time he had amazed them with his magic. 12But when they believed Philip, who was proclaiming the good news about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptized, both men and women. 13Even Simon himself believed. After being baptized, he stayed constantly with Philip and was amazed when he saw the signs and great miracles that took place.
14Now when the apostles at Jerusalem heard that Samaria had accepted the word of God, they sent Peter and John to them. 15The two went down and prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit 16(for as yet the Spirit had not come upon any of them; they had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus). 17Then Peter and John laid their hands on them, and they received the Holy Spirit. 18Now when Simon saw that the Spirit was given through the laying on of the apostles’ hands, he offered them money, 19saying, “Give me also this power so that anyone on whom I lay my hands may receive the Holy Spirit.” 20But Peter said to him, “May your silver perish with you, because you thought you could obtain God’s gift with money! 21You have no part or share in this, for your heart is not right before God. 22Repent therefore of this wickedness of yours, and pray to the Lord that, if possible, the intent of your heart may be forgiven you. 23For I see that you are in the gall of bitterness and the chains of wickedness.” 24Simon answered, “Pray for me to the Lord, that nothing of what you have said may happen to me.” 25Now after Peter and John had testified and spoken the word of the Lord, they returned to Jerusalem, proclaiming the good news to many villages of the Samaritans.
Phillip is drawing many people to the Lord in Samaria; through the power of the Spirit, miracles are happening. But there had been another drawing large crowds and claiming to be great, and the people had listened to him eagerly, thinking his power was from God. His name was Simon, and he was a practitioner of magic. But when the people heard Philip’s message, and were baptized, Simon was baptized along with them. And he followed constantly at Phillip’s side. Now, Luke says nothing about Simon’s sincerity – was he genuinely changed from his former life, or was he seeking a way to continue making money off the people?
The question, of course, is, what is the difference between the magic Simon had practiced and the healing and miracles Phillip performed? Magic is the manipulation of powers, forces of nature, gods, or spirits, to achieve our own ends. Phillip’s healing was God’s gift, never done for profit or for Phillip’s purposes, but only for God’s purposes. Sometimes we treat prayer like magic, thinking that if we pray for something we have performed the “spell” and God is obligated to give it to us. But that is not what prayer is about – prayer is about relationship with God, loving God, and when God answers prayers it is pure gift.
And then Peter and John came down from Jerusalem – and, while the people had not received the Holy Spirit with Phillip’s baptism, they did receive the Spirit when Peter and John laid hands on them. We baptize today “by water and the Spirit”, but we cannot force the Spirit; our baptism is symbolic of the work of the Spirit within a person’s heart – an outward sign of an inward change.
But Simon sees what is happening, and he wants the power to lay hands on people and bring about the presence of the Spirit within them. He wants to possess the magic, but the gift of the Spirit is just that, gift; it is never ours to give or possess. Poor Simon, he does not understand; he offers to buy the power to give the Spirit from Peter. But Peter scolds him vehemently! Repent of this wickedness, and pray for forgiveness! Simon wanted to be a TV evangelist, with a huge following; he wanted to own the private jets and expensive cars, and oh, incidentally, do it all in the name of the Lord! (Well, maybe Simon didn’t know about those things, but people who go after those things are the Simons of today.) The Spirit is always a gift of God, and is never at our beck and call, to perform for us at our will.