Simon the Magician: The Peril of Pursuing Greatness
Missionary to India, William Carey, once exhorted a Baptist gathering in England by saying, “Expect great things from God; attempt great things for God.” I love that quote. We don’t want to squander our lives on trivial, unimportant pursuits. But we must heed the Bible’s warning in Acts 8: if we attempt great things so that others will see us as great, we are in grave spiritual peril.
After Stephen had been brutally stoned to death, intense persecution broke out against the Christians in Jerusalem. Many were driven off to the towns and villages of Judea and Samaria.
At the time, few likely saw these horrible events as a means Jesus was using to fulfill his word: “…you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea, and Samaria” (Acts 1:8). This is good for us to remember. The last phrase of that verse, “and to the end of the earth,” has not yet been completed. We don’t need to lose heart when the world’s hostility towards Christians increases. Jesus will not lose. Every time the world tries to stamp out the gospel, the gospel spreads.
Philip, Stephen’s co-servant to the Hellenistic widows, headed to Samaria and preached and performed signs and wonders in a city there. Large numbers of Samaritans professed faith and were baptized. A man named Simon was one of them.
Simon was a local celebrity. He was a magician of sorts, and had mesmerized the locals with his arts. And they had given him the title The Great Power of God. And he loved it. He basked in his reputation and fed off the admiration and respect he received.
But when Philip arrived, the game changed. The gospel Philip preached and the signs he performed were beyond Simon’s abilities. Simon watched with covetous awe as the real, great power of God flowed through Philip.
Then Peter and John showed up from Jerusalem. And when they prayed, people were filled with the Holy Spirit. This drew even more crowds. Everyone was talking about them. Everyone was mesmerized by them (or so it seemed to Simon).
No one was mesmerized by Simon anymore. He was a has-been, a diminishing star. And like many who have once experienced the euphoric drug of other people’s adoration, he wanted that rush again. If he could somehow get this Jesus power, then once again he could be great. Once again people would hold him in awe. He was willing to pay a high price for that drug.
So at a discreet moment, he approached Peter and John with a proposition. If they would let him in on the secret they possessed, if they would share their power with him, a small fortune in silver would be theirs and no one would ever know.
In a split second Simon knew he had miscalculated. Peter’s eyes seemed to burn right into his heart. And then Peter’s words seemed to slice him open:
May your silver perish with you, because you thought you could obtain the gift of God with money! You have neither part nor lot in this matter, for your heart is not right before God. Repent, therefore, of this wickedness of yours, and pray to the Lord that, if possible, the intent of your heart may be forgiven you. For I see that you are in the gall of bitterness and in the bond of iniquity. (Acts 8:20-23)
Simon cringed and said meekly, “Pray for me to the Lord, that nothing of what you have said will come upon me.”
* * *
Peter’s words to Simon were not merely harsh. They were full of mercy. The love of self-glory is an extremely dangerous cancer of the soul and is spiritually fatal if not addressed. This cancer requires a straightforward, serious diagnosis. Both Peter and John had been beneficiaries of the Great Physician’s graciously severe rebukes. Maybe Simon would repent and be delivered.
The Bible does not tell us if he did. Early church literature suggests that Simon later became a heretic, which, if true, means he tragically ignored Peter’s warning.
But God does not want us to ignore the warning. This account is in the Bible so that we will remember that God’s power is not a commodity to be traded. It’s not a means for us to pursue our own greatness or wealth.
We can all relate to Simon. We are all tempted to pursue our own glory, even in the work of the kingdom. When we recognize that familiar craving we need to deal severely with it. We must confess it (often to others, not just God), repent, and resist. Because if left alone, it can develop into a spiritual cancer that can blind us to real glory, and may ultimately kill us.
So, let us expect great things from God and attempt great things for God. But let us take Peter’s advice and do so “by the strength that God supplies—in order that in everything God may be glorified through Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 4:11).
Trusting with you the God who opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble,
P.S. This month our featured message is titled, “Simon’s Perversion of Signs and Wonders.” This sermon by John Piper further unpacks the story of Simon the Magician and draws out some other very helpful applications.
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