Was the New Testament's Simon Magus a true believer or a fraud?

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NICHOLAS ASKS:

In the New Testament, Acts chapter 8 says that Simon Magus “believed” and then was baptized. But he was not saved. Does this teach us there’s a gap between mental assent and change of heart? Or what?

THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:

The intriguing figure known in Acts 8 as just Simon was later designated “Simon Magus,” which helped distinguish him from the Bible’s other Simons. His name led to the sin called “simony,” the corrupt buying or selling of spiritual powers, benefits, or services.

In its earliest phase, the Christian movement was centered in Jerusalem and entirely Jewish in membership. Acts 8 depicts the new faith’s very first missionary venture, Philip’s visit to neighboring Samaria. The Samaritans were despised by Jews due to historical enmity and their quasi-Jewish religion. For instance, the Samaritans regarded only the first five books of the Bible (the Pentateuch or Torah) as divine Scripture, and did not believe in the future coming of the Messiah.

Philip’s preaching was accompanied by miraculous healings, which won the attention of Simon, who had “amazed the nation” with his magic performances. We’re told that Simon described himself as “somebody great” (thus that “Magus” moniker) and that people thought “the power of God” was at work through his magic.

As Samaritans began accepting Philip’s message to follow Jesus Christ, “Simon himself believed, and after being baptized he continued with Philip.” That must have caused quite a stir. But – believed what, exactly?

The apostles in Jerusalem then dispatched Peter and John to Samaria, where they laid hands on the new converts who “received the Holy Spirit.” This passage underlies the Catholic, Eastern Orthodox and Anglican belief that ministers must be formally set apart by the laying on of hands, in a line of “apostolic succession” that traces back to Jesus’ original founding apostles.

The Acts passage also inspires Pentecostalism’s belief that an infilling or “baptism” with the Holy Spirit is a necessary experience separate from conversion and water baptism. Non-Pentecostals think other Bible passages indicate that all water-baptized believers in Jesus Christ have God’s Spirit, for instance Romans 5:5 and 8:9 and 1 Corinthians 12:13. We’ll leave aside those ecclesiastical debates and turn to Nicholas’s topic.

Simon offered to buy spiritual “power” so that people he himself laid hands on would receive the Holy Spirit. Peter denounced Simon for this “because you thought you could obtain the gift of God with money. . . Your heart is not right before God. Repent therefore of this wickedness” and pray that “if possible the intent of your heart may be forgiven you.” Simon responded, “Pray for me to the Lord that nothing of what you have said may come upon me.”

So, was Simon only pretending to be a Christian believer in hopes of gaining authentic spiritual powers instead of magic trickery? Or was he a sincere convert, yet unformed and trapped in old ways of thinking?

Or, as Nicholas proposes, did he have a merely intellectual knowledge of what Christians taught without a change of heart and a true commitment to follow Jesus as his savior? After all, the demons depicted in Mark 1:21-28 stated as a fact that Jesus was “the Holy One of God,” and James 2:19 says that “even the demons believe – and shudder.”


Continue reading “Was Simon Magus a true believer or a fraud?”, by Richard Ostling.

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