Formations 05.14.2017: Philip’s Samaritan Ministry

Acts 8:4-17

Door from Chepstow Castle in Wales

This week’s text begins when Philip, scattered from Jerusalem with most of the other followers, goes down into Samaria. Immediately he starts preaching and healing. There’s great rejoicing and unity. Even Simon, who had been practicing magic and confusing the citizens, believed Philip and was baptized.

Philip’s story is wonderfully inspiring: after being kicked out of his town, he finds a way to continue caring for people. And his story is interesting, particularly as Philip’s conflict with Simon raises all kinds of questions about mystery and magic (vv. 18-19).

But for these reasons, and many more, I didn’t notice the crowds.

I do suppose they are easy to miss. They aren’t ever named. As Luke tells us that some had unclean spirits or that others were paralyzed and that they received the Spirit, the crowds seem to be little more than the medium on which the gospel plays out.

Recognizing Philip’s apprehension in preaching to Samaritans, we would be surprised at the unexpected welcome he receives. But as the surprise wears off, we might see the very reasons that Philip fears the Samaritans as the reasons that he, John, and Peter are welcomed.

The Samaritans had long been cut off from Jerusalem. So while there was a history of animosity between Samaritans and more traditional Jewish groups, they made a point to welcome those who had been kicked out of Jerusalem.

The nameless crowd, then, asks us to see their service and Philip’s differently. It is in their shared scattering that they serve each other. Certainly, Philip and the Samaritan crowd bring different ways of serving each other. Philip brings them a liberating word from God and the Samaritans offer Philip a safe place to stay. But it is from the challenges they all face that their service to each other grows.

Discussion

• When have you encountered hospitality and service in unexpected places?
• What differences do you see between yourself and others that makes it harder to serve?
•What shared experiences do you recognize that might make service easier to undertake?

Reference Shelf

Samaritans

In Acts 8:5-25 Philip evangelizes the Samaritans (cf. 1:8). The Samaritans shared a common heritage with Judaism (descendants of Abraham, adherents of the Torah). They were descendants of those who had intermarried with the mixed population that settled in Israel after the Assyrian conquest of the northern kingdom (2 Kgs 17:24-41) and were regarded as idolatrous by the Jews (Amos 3:9, 12; 8:14; Hos 8:5-6; Isa 8:4; Mic 1:5-6). In the fourth century BC, Manasseh, the brother of the Jewish high priest, married the daughter of the Samaritan Sanballat and was consequently expelled from Jerusalem. He responded by building a temple on Mount Gerizim (Josephus, Antiquities 11.8.2 §§ 306-12; John 4:20). In 128 BC the Hasmonean ruler John Hyrcanus destroyed the Samaritan temple, causing deep and lasting resentment (Josephus, Antiquities 13.10.2-3 §§ 275-83). Sometime in the period 6–9 BC, certain Samaritans desecrated the Jerusalem Temple with human bones, an act that led to their exclusion from the temple (Josephus, Antiquities, 18.2.2 §§ 29-30). Since the route through Samaria was the quickest route from Galilee to Jerusalem (Josephus, Life 52 § 269), pilgrims often tried to go that way. This was sometimes met by Samaritan hostility (Luke 9:52-53). In the time of Claudius, for example, there was a notorious event of Samaritan mistreatment of Galileans on their way to Jerusalem. One pilgrim was actually murdered (Josephus, Antiquities 20.6.1 § 118; War 2.12.3 § 232). By New Testament times, Samaritans were considered by Jews to be apostates from Judaism (Josephus, Antiquities 11.8.6 § 340), the equivalent of Gentiles. Jewish hostility toward them was great (John 4:9; Luke 9:54; Matt 10:5; m. Shebiith 8:10, “He that eats the bread of the Samaritans is like to one that eats the flesh of swine”). One of the things associated in the Jewish mind-set with Samaritans was magic (b. Sota 22a).

In the plot of Acts, the first place the scattered Messianists go when they are driven out of Jerusalem by persecution is Samaria. They receive a warm welcome. There may have been a cultural reason for both the flight to Samaria and the warm welcome. Josephus tells us that when

Alexander died, his empire was partitioned among his successors (the Diadochoi); as for the temple on Mount Gerizim, it remained. And, whenever anyone was accused by the people of Jerusalem of eating unclean food or violating the Sabbath or committing any other such sin, he would flee to the Shechemites, saying he had been unjustly expelled. (Antiquities 11.8.7 §§ 346-47)

Whatever the cultural reasons, the Messianists used them for evangelization.

Charles H. Talbert, Reading Acts: A Literary and Theological Commentary, Reading the New Testament (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2005), 68–69.

Philip’s Message

Philip preaches the word (v. 4), proclaims Christ (v. 5), and speaks “the good news of the kingdom of God” (v. 12). All Christian proclamation, whatever its precise terminology, has to do with offering people the liberating power of God, which frees people from that which binds and corrupts their lives (see ch. 1, Commentary on 1:3). Philip performed signs that offered the liberating power of God over demons and disease. Such “signs” of liberating power provide a concrete link between the work of the Hellenist Philip and that of the twelve apostles (cf. 2:19, 22; 4:16, 22, 30; 5:12) and Jesus, whose characteristic demonstration of liberating power was healing and exorcism (cf. Luke 4:38-44). The gospel message proclaimed by those other than the Twelve is the authentic liberating word.

The people of this Samaritan city gave, “with one accord,” careful attention (proseichon) to Philip’s proclamation (v. 6). Readers see a distinct contrast between the way the Samaritans and the inhabitants of Jerusalem received the word. The latter were divided in their response and, toward the end of the Jerusalem period of witness, almost united in opposition against the Christians. The united receptivity of the Samaritans foreshadows the gospel’s more positive reception among those who live beyond Jerusalem.

J. Bradley Chance, Acts, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2007), 130.

William Scruggs is a graduate of Mercer University. His favorite pastimes are adding music to his listening list, TV shows to his viewing list, and books to his reading list. When he isn’t pretending to check items off these lists, he spends time with friends and plays music. He is excited for the opportunity to continue exploring the rivers of Middle Georgia and to stay in Macon as an associate editor at Smyth & Helwys.

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