Acts 8:14-17 (9 Jan 2022)

In a series on TV called the Universe, Professor Brian Cox told us about stars, planets and galaxies. He told us about the Black Hole called the Sagittarius A Star at the centre of the galaxy.

It seems that black holes are extremely dense things with an immense gravitational force so that anything which comes near it is inexorably drawn into it.

It seems that the picture we should have is of cosmic bodies scattered around a 3 dimensional sheet which makes up the universe.  This means the objects are in space, each some distance from the others.  In addition, we see the distant objects by way of light which left them a long time ago, so what we have is a universe made up of both time and space.

What the black hole sucks in is this space-time sheet  along with the objects in it so that once in the black hole time and space cease to exist.  Everything in a black hole is at the same place and at the same time as everything else.

It was thought that nothing would ever escape the back hole but the brilliant Stephen Hawkins showed that a form of radiation named after him does escape in the form of information.

Having explained all this Professor Cox ended with some comforting and encouraging words…

[Brian Cox explains Black Holes]

I call them comforting and encouraging words because the Bible readings for today lead us to talk about the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of God, the Spirit of Jesus, to talk about the Holy Trinity. 

No one has or can experience things like black holes and without the experience we can only try to understand them in the light of whatever we can observe and thus deduce. There are things scientists speak of as facts but which are inevitably and forever beyond our experience and understanding.

In the same way no one has or can understand the mind of God, the God who mingles in human history as God the father, in human form as God the Son and in our lives as God the Spirit, God for whom neither space nor time applies any limits. 

The limits of being human mean we can never fully understand God.  That’s OK in this scientific world and we are encouraged by knowing that even brilliant and articulate cosmologists admit there are limits in their understanding of their own field of expertise.

What we know is what God himself has told us, what he has revealed to us. From that we do our best to come to the best understanding we can and then live according to that understanding.

We start with today’s reading, Acts 8:14-17

When the apostles in Jerusalem heard that Samaria had accepted the word of God, they sent Peter and John to Samaria. When they arrived, they prayed for the new believers there that they might receive the Holy Spirit, because the Holy Spirit had not yet come on any of them; they had simply been baptised in the name of the Lord Jesus. Then Peter and John placed their hands on them, and they received the Holy Spirit.

The evangelist, Philip had been at work in the region of Samaria and numbers of people responded to the gospel, learning about Jesus’ death and resurrection, repenting and being baptised in the name of the Lord Jesus.

There had been no warm feelings between the Jews and the Samaritans for generations, so much so that Jesus had used the neighbourly actions of a Samaritan to show up the religious hypocrisy of Jewish leaders in his parable we call the Good Samaritan.

Now the Christian leaders in Jerusalem decided there was a need for Peter and John to visit and see for themselves what was going on, especially as it was Samaritans, not Jews who were responding to the gospel.  It was also instructive for the apostles to learn and accept that the gospel is for all people, not just Jews.

Surely they had confidence in Philip, yet when they got there they found something missing. 

“The Holy Spirit had not yet come on any of them; they had simply been baptised in the name of the Lord Jesus. Then Peter and John placed their hands on them, and they received the Holy Spirit.”

Commentators see this passage raises questions they like to discuss.  For example,

  • Why had the Holy Spirit not yet come on any of them?
  • How did they know the Holy Spirit not yet come on any of them?
  • They had simply been baptised in the name of the Lord Jesus.  What’s wrong with that? It implies something is missing if they had simply been baptised in the name of the Lord Jesus.  What was missing?
  • Peter and John placed their hands on them, and they received the Holy Spirit. Is placing their hands on them significant? How did they know that they had now received the Holy Spirit?
  • Hadn’t Philip told them about the Holy Spirit?

While the commentators mull over these questions I read the passage and think how much this sounds like my own experience.

After completing a science degree majoring in maths and physics I spent a year at the teachers college with nice long lunches. These lunch times were spent with other students sharing opinions, which meant sharing opinions on the opinions of each other.

One of the on-going discussions was between David who was an evangelistic Christian and Ron, the avowed atheist. Over the weeks I heard the arguments pro and con but could pick no winner. Christianity or atheism? How should I work out which way to turn?

As a new graduate in science I decided to use a scientific approach.

David had put before me a hypothesis, a theory.  God created the world, including me. He has the right to rule the world, including me. I had to admit that I had rebelled against God’s right to rule, against his clear commandments and against clear moral standards even I could understand.

In order to create a right relationship between me and God he had taken on the form of a man, Jesus, who was crucified and, if I accepted this, then his death would be seen as payment of any debt or failure on my part.

In addition, because Jesus was raised from the dead when I commit to him this living Jesus would make himself known to me, live in and with me.

There’s the hypothesis.  Test it.  Believe these things and see if it works. Conduct an experiment.

I came to a crisis when I heard a talk on Romans 12:1-2

Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God – this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is – his good, pleasing and perfect will.

The experiment required me to acknowledge that Jesus’ commitment to me was in every way complete - even to death on the cross - and to understand that my response was to be equally total, unreserved, no escape clause, no strings attached.

For some weeks I struggled with this because it seemed to too much to ask, more than I could manage.  At least not on my own.

Can you see who’s missing? David had explained God the father and God the son, Jesus, but not God the Holy Spirit. I was in much the same condition as these Samaritan believers.  They had not received the Holy Spirit and it seemed, neither had I.

Now, I am sure that David knew the Holy Spirit and Philip certainly knew the Holy Spirit.  In the power of the Holy Spirit Philip had been casting out demons as part of his evangelism. Shortly after theses events an angel led him out into the desert to meet the Ethiopian and explain the gospel to him from the book of Isaiah. Philip knew the Holy Spirit.

This is a short passage that raises questions but within the passage it does not give us direct answers.  As always, the way to interpret a passage is to see it in the light of the rest of the Bible. So, as I read the Bible some things came clear.

Jesus himself explained that the only way someone could discover the truth about who he was is for the Holy Spirit to reveal it to them.  To a non-Christian the Holy Spirit is a complete unknown and completely unknowable. 

Jesus said, “And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you for ever – the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you.” (John 14:15-17)

Like the Samaritans and other unbelievers, I had no idea as to who the Holy Spirit is, and no understanding about the work of Jesus.  I was being told that the living, resurrected Jesus would live in and with me without telling me that he would do this in the person of his own spirit, come as another advocate, helper, strengthener and protector.

Again, like the Samaritans, I had decided to give this a go, to make a commitment to Jesus.  The Samaritans had gone so far as to be baptised in Jesus’ name as an indication of their commitment. We had at least come to an understanding that we were rebels, sinners who needed forgiveness, but how had that come about?

Jesus went on to say, “When he comes, he will prove the world to be in the wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment:about sin, because people do not believe in me;about righteousness, because I am going to the Father, where you can see me no longer;and about judgment, because the prince of this world now stands condemned.” (John16:8-11)

No one understands how serious sin in God’s eyes unless God the Spirit sheds his light on it, convicting us of the righteousness and judgement of God, showing us that in the simplest possible terms, sin is not believing in Jesus. 

Whether we knew the terms or not, whether or not we had received the Holy Spirit, that Spirit of Jesus had been at work in us enabling us to see ourselves as God sees us and come to a living faith in Jesus as our saviour and Lord. However, if we were asked, ‘have you received the Holy Spirit?’ Our answer would have been, ‘who?’, ‘what?’ Or ‘no.’

I can tell you what happened to the Samaritans next because it tells us in the passage.   Peter and John placed their hands on them, and they received the Holy Spirit.

What I can’t tell you is what happened next, how they knew they could tell they had, in fact, received the Holy Spirit. The passage says no more.

However the Bible tells us what to expect.

Galatians 5:22-23 tells us  But the fruit of the Spirit which is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.

We are gradually changed by the Holy Spirit to be more and more in the image of Jesus, having been born again, being new creatures.

For this to happen he changes us to produce the fruit of the Spirit, even when you don’t notice it happening. The fruit of the Spirit are for the benefit of other people, anyway. Let’s face it, I am so much more like Jesus and so much better company when I show love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness and self-control.

In those first weeks and months of being a Christian, Both for the Samaritans in the text and for myself, the Holy Spirit had been at work in our lives but much of the evidence for this is of the type that grows on you, becomes part of you in time, becomes experiences and events which convince you and others that you have received the Holy Spirit.

Romans 8:16 tells us “The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children.

God the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Jesus, moves into us.  Of course, the Holy Spirit understands God very, very well but he also understands us very, very well so when he communicates to us he does so with complete authority and clarity. And what he assures us is that we are God’s children.

Or, in Ephesians 1:13-14 And you also were included in Christ when you heard the message of truth, the gospel of your salvation. When you believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God’s possession – to the praise of his glory.

Sooner or later and from time to time when we need it and at the deepest spiritual level you know you have received the Holy Spirit because he assures you, reassures you, reminds you that you are sealed, stamped, guaranteed, redeemed as having an inheritance with Jesus which is eternal.

For me, this assurance convinced me that I had received the Holy Spirit even though I couldn’t have said as much at the time. It just became a strong reality to me that Jesus had been so wonderful to me, that he loved me deeply and that he was renewing my mind, making the Bible exciting, satisfying reading. That part of David’s hypothesis worked: Jesus was alive in me, with me.

 But then we read about the Samaritan converts, “The Holy Spirit had not yet come on any of them; they had simply been baptised in the name of the Lord Jesus. Then Peter and John placed their hands on them, and they received the Holy Spirit.

Once again there is the question, how do we know they received the Holy Spirit? 

With the Spirit comes assurance, guidance, revelation, comfort and the fruit of the spirit but that takes time.  But the Bible also tells us of the gifts of the Spirit given to build and equip the church. Like the fruit of the Spirit it can take some time for gifts of the Spirit to show up, to be recognised, to be practiced. 

Sometimes, though, they are quite obvious. 

In Acts 19:1-6 there is an account of part of Paul’s travels.

While Apollos was at Corinth, Paul took the road through the interior and arrived at Ephesus. There he found some disciples and asked them, ‘Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?’

They answered, ‘No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.’

So Paul asked, ‘Then what baptism did you receive?’

‘John’s baptism,’ they replied.

Paul said, ‘John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance. He told the people to believe in the one coming after him, that is, in Jesus.’ On hearing this, they were baptised in the name of the Lord Jesus. When Paul placed his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they spoke in tongues and prophesied.

It may be, although the passage does not give details, that something like this happened to the Samaritan believers. 

At this point we come across controversy.

There are those called Cessationists who believe the gifts of the Spirit ceased with the death of the last Apostle.

There are the Charismatics who accept the gifts still show up in the church.

There are the Pentecostals who believe that we should all practice these gifts.

Some go further and say that you have not received the Holy Spirit until you speak in tongues.

I became troubled when some of the young Christians in the group at the school where I taught were being told this because it is simply not true. Jesus gives people gifts as he sees there is a need for them. We should make ourselves available as he determines.  And, if you are looking for a gift, look for the ones most useful to the church, the body of Christ - especially look for the gift of love.

1 Corinthians 12

Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good. 

All these are the work of one and the same Spirit, and he distributes them to each one, just as he determines.

So I decided to visit the offending church one evening and put them straight.  In fact, at the time I was convinced the gifts, especially tongues, had ceased to exist. I was young and lacked wisdom at the time. Now I am old and lack wisdom.

I sat in the back of one of their meetings one evening and watched. They began with some singing of songs I knew. There was a short Bible study talk. Then they began a time of prayer. I could hear people praying together although not what was being said and I knew that I could pray, too.  So I did, quietly in my place.

After a few minutes I heard someone praying gently in tongues nearby.  As I listened more carefully to hear what was being said I slowly realised the person praying in tongues was me and that the Holy Spirit was gently, lovingly rebuking me for being so judgemental, so proud as to think I could correct these Christian brothers and sisters.

Sometimes, when God wills it, the Holy Spirit might make himself more clearly manifest in our lives. Mostly he does so in much more gentle ways.

It is not easy to understand these things but it is wonderful to know they are true, so we should be comfortable taking up the invitation in Luke 11:11-13

’Which of you fathers, if your son asks for a fish, will give him a snake instead? Or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!’

1354 Modified: 19-08-2022
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