An Unusual Situation (Part 2) – Acts 8:5-25

by Roger McCay
1 September 2019
Sermon Passage: Acts 8:5-25
Link to Audio Version

Remember Balaam’s Donkey? It’s that passage in the Bible that lets us know that all animals can really talk. It’s right there in the Bible—Numbers 22:28: “Then the Lord opened the mouth of the donkey, and she said to Balaam, “‘What have I done to you, that you have struck me these three times?’” So, be nice to your animals. If you aren’t, they just might rebuke you for your meanness, as they are as intelligent as humans. Although, it’s the Lord’s will for them to keep silent most of the time. It’s right there in C.S. Lewis’ Narnia. Remember how most of the animals can talk in Narnia? Lewis is expounding upon this universal truth that we have right here in Numbers 22:28 with Balaam’s Donkey. It’s is the doctrine of donkeylinguism.

I hope ya’ll realize I’m kidding. Balaam’s Donkey was a very unique, very unusual event in the Scriptures. Most people, I hope, would agree with this position. It is a ludicrous idea to universalize it—to say it is a normative way for the Lord to work. Rather, this was a non-normative work of the Lord, and a way that the Lord used a donkey towards his purposes in bringing a blessing from a prophet upon Israel, when the intent of Balak the King of Moab, who had hired Balaam, was for him to bring down a curse upon Israel.

In interpreting the Bible, there is a whole minefield of potential errors that, if fallen into, can warp our understanding of reality, and how God works in reality. This is a very real danger when we misunderstand and misapply what the Lord is revealing and communicating to us.

One of these hazards is a tendency to partition God’s work, embracing a part to the exclusion of the whole. This not only happens with the handling of the Scriptures, but we also tend to partition how God works among his people. We focus on a particular church (our church here, for example), or only what’s going on in our denomination. Doing so we lose sight of the whole body, which can lead to division in the body of Christ, and not unity—division in doctrine; division in fellowship. The thing is, there is only one church, one people of God, one gospel of Jesus Christ, one Word of God (his Scriptures), and one baptism of the Holy Spirit upon us all— all God’s work.

And in our passage today, there is a potential hazard, which has brought whole denominations into error —the misunderstanding and normalizing a unique event that happens here—the later coming of the Spirit on the Samaritans. Similar to the speech of Balaam’s donkey, such is a unique event. To say otherwise is to fall into the error of donkeylinguism.

How do we know? Context helps. We need to always try to put the passage we are studying in its historical context. This is imperative when it comes to the narrative genre, because in narratives, the doctrine isn’t typically spelled out. The events are merely recorded, and we are left to come to our own conclusions as to what is right, wrong, normal, or abnormal from and in those events. So, studying historical context, among other things, like careful study of words and grammar, and the context of the passage and how it fits in the whole of the chapter, the book, and the Bible helps us in that task.

You may have noticed that is not an easy formula. It requires work. Yet, it is a worthy endeavor. There are few things worthier.

So, let’s look at the context here. Due to the persecution of the church, particularly against the Hellenistic Jewish Christians in Jerusalem, the church fled into the surrounding country of Judea and Samaria, taking the gospel message with them. Philip, one of the seven deacons in Jerusalem, fled in this diaspora to Samaria, and he preached the gospel there. This was a key part of phase two of the Lord’s plan for his disciples to take the gospel to the world (Acts 1:8). Many of the Samaritans heard the message, and the Lord worked through Philip providing signs and wonders. The people believed the gospel, and they were baptized in droves by Philip.

Now, who were the Samaritans? There was a long history of animosity among the Jews and the Samaritans.

It goes all the way back to the Northern Kingdom of Israel, of which we read of in the book of Kings. In 722 B.C. the Northern Kingdom of Israel was conquered by the King of Assyria. He carried off a large portion of the population from Samaria, leaving a few who escaped the exile. However, the Assyrian king then imported other populations to replace the one he had exported (2 Kings 17:24). The remaining Jews intermarried with these people. So, unlike the exiles of Judah, the southern kingdom, who were carried off to Babylon in 586 B.C. and returned in 538 B.C., the Samaritans, due to the intermarriage, were not of pure Jewish blood. However, the Lord had provided a priest for them so they might “fear the Lord”—i.e. know Yahweh, his law, and worship him (2 Kings 17:28). Despite this, with the import of other nations, other Gods were imported, and worship became distorted in Samaria. So, when the returning exiles from Babylon came back to Jerusalem, they turned their noses up at the Samaritans, considering them half-breeds with a warped syncretic religion. Hence, what we saw in Ezra 4, our OT reading today. The Samaritans came to offer to assist Zerubbabel in the rebuilding of the temple, but they were turned away by the pure-blooded Jews.

It went down as you’d expect. Many centuries of animosity began between the Jews and the Samaritans. The Jews considered the Samaritans as being unclean, so they were excluded from worship. This animosity was mutual, as you can imagine.

So, what did they do? In order to worship the Lord, the Samaritans rejected the Jewish Old Testament, claiming that the Jewish texts provided by Ezra had been corrupted, and that theirs was the true text. Samaritans later built a temple that rivaled the temple in Jerusalem on Mt. Gerizim to worship the Lord, with priests carrying out priestly duties and offering sacrifices, while claiming that Mt. Gerizim was the original sanctuary. This claim was due to a different reading of Deut. 12:5 in their version of the Pentateuch than the reading in the Jewish version. This, along with their only using Pentateuch based logic to justify their location for worship being chosen by the Lord at Mt. Gerizim.

Now, you can imagine how that went down with the Jews. It just deepened the animosity between the two people, and over time a lot of other divisive incidents occurred, like John Hyrcanus, a Maccabean leader and Jewish high priest, destroying the Samaritan temple around 110 B.C.

As it was, the Jews despised the Samaritans and vice-versa. There was even a prayer the Jews prayed that said, “… and, Lord, do not remember the Samaritans in the resurrection.”

Despite all this, the Samaritans did hold on to a version of the Pentateuch. And what is found in the Pentateuch? Not only the law, but the promise of the one to come—the Messiah—as found in Deut. 18:15, where Moses prophesied, “The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your brothers—it is to him you shall listen.”

So, the Samaritans were waiting on the Messiah to come and settle the issue of true worship of Yahweh, the Lord. They yearned for this day. You may remember this was the topic of conversation Jesus had with the Samaritan woman at the well in John 4. In part of that conversation, in John 4:25-26, “The woman said to [Jesus], “I know that Messiah is coming (he who is called Christ). When he comes, he will tell us all things.” Jesus said to her, “I who speak to you am he.” As a result of this woman’s testimony about Jesus, many Samaritans in her town believed.

So, just a relatively short time later, due to the persecution of the Christians by the Jews, Philip was a refugee from Jerusalem in Samaria, proclaiming the same message Jesus had given to the woman at the well—that Jesus was the Messiah, and he had come. Philip, of course, filled in a lot of the blanks with the whole gospel (crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension, etc.), calling for them to “Believe and be saved.”

Now, for the Samaritans, the gospel was a confirmation that all they hoped for had come to pass. Salvation had come to them in their land in the form of the Messiah—Jesus. And the gospel of Jesus Christ that Philip preached was corroborated by the signs and wonders given to Philip by the Lord. So, in great joy, the Samaritans believed and were baptized.

However, there was a danger—a danger of an alternate church rising up in Samaria separate from the Jewish Christians because of the ancient animosity between the two peoples. How would the Lord intervene to keep the unity in his church as it spread from Jerusalem to the world?

Beginning in Acts 8:14, we see that the apostles sent Peter and John to check out what was going on in Samaria. The Samaritans had heard the same gospel preached in Jerusalem and had believed. People were coming to faith in the Lord, this was great! So, when they arrived, they realized that although these folks had believed and been baptized just like believers in Jerusalem, “the Holy Spirit had not yet fallen upon them” (meaning that the Holy Spirit had not manifested his full power on the people),which was unusual.

So, what was different? The difference was that this was outside of Jerusalem. Hence, the Lord wanted the apostles, his designated authoritative representatives, to do something to indicate that the Samaritans were Christians just like the Jerusalem Christians, unified together in Christ. The Lord was ensuring that not only was there one gospel and one baptism, but that his people were also one people.

So, Peter and John prayed and laid hands on the Samaritans—a very personal and real way of showing fellowship. For a Jew, touching a Samaritan would have made them unclean. For these Christian Jews, touching the Samaritans brought unity of fellowship in the Lord Jesus Christ. Hence, at that point, the Holy Spirit came down upon them, confirming the unity of the Samaritan Christians with the Jerusalem Christians. In the Lord’s wisdom, this later coming of the Spirit upon the Samaritans was a necessary and unique work meant to tie the Lord’s church together—for his church is one, just as God is one.

Sadly, there are many folks, even denominations, who read this and conclude that such is the normal practice for the Spirit (that he comes at some later time after belief and baptism), calling it a “baptism of the Holy Spirit.” This is very problematic, and ironically divides the church while using a passage meant to unify the church.

Acts 8 and Acts 2 tell of two different inaugural events for the new work of the Lord after the completion of Christ’s covenantal saving work. The first inaugural event, in Acts 2, was the coming of the Spirit in a new way upon his people, who were all Jews at that point. And this is referred to as a “baptism of the Holy Spirit” in Acts 1:5 and Acts 11:16. The disciples up to that point had had, as Wayne Grudem puts it, a “less-powerful experience of the Holy Spirit in their lives,” which Old Testament believers typically experienced.[1] The disciples, like Abraham, before Pentecost, were saved by grace through faith, enabled by God to believe (Matt. 16:17 and Gal. 3:5-6). Yet, the Spirit had not yet come upon them in power, as Jesus had promised, and as was prophesied in Joel 2:28. At Pentecost, the Lord gave the disciples a more powerful experience of the Holy Spirit’s work in their lives. They received power (Acts 1:8), power for living the Christian life and carrying out Christian ministry.

Now, notice that the Samaritan experience is not labeled as such in Acts 8. It says they had not yet “received the Spirit,” and “the Spirit had not yet fallen on any of them.” This has to do with the Samaritans being sort of an in-between step as the gospel spread from the Jews to the Gentiles. Their coming to faith was a new thing, which, according to God, required another inaugural event. This event was not exactly like Pentecost. It was a unique event of its own, similar to Pentecost—hence some call it the “Samaritan Pentecost.”

Now, it is interesting that the “Baptism of the Holy Spirit” is only mentioned seven times in the Scriptures: four times in the gospel narratives (by John the Baptist telling of what Jesus would do); twice in Acts narratives (referring to Pentecost); and once in 1 Cor. 12:13 (a teaching passage which refers to the experience of every believer). In the Corinthian passage, Paul writes, “For in, [or “by” (both valid translations)]—one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit.” Paul, here, uses the same Greek construction used in all the other six passages that mention “the baptism of the Holy Spirit. Various translations interpret the preposition in different ways, (e.g. “with,” “in,” or “by” … the Holy Spirit). Yet, it is clear in the original language that each of the seven passages is referring to the same event—Baptism ‘with’/‘in’/or ‘by’ the Holy Spirit into one body (the church). The passage is a didactic passage, meaning it is a teaching passage, as James Boice explains, giving us “the doctrine upon which the other passages” (which are all narrative passages) … the doctrine upon which they “are to be interpreted.”[2] In it, Paul describes this Spirit baptism as the normal experience of believers, as we were “all baptized by one Spirit into one body,” and it happens at conversion.

And this makes sense. The Scriptures teach that no-one can believe with saving faith unless God himself enables him or her. So, for us, such enabling to have saving faith happens when the Lord baptizes us in his Spirit. Upon that baptism, the Holy Spirit resurrects us from being spiritually dead to spiritually alive (Eph. 2:4). This is our being “born again,” which Jesus talks about in John 3:1-8. 1 Peter 1:23 confirms that this being born again is the experience of every Christian.

What this means is that there are not two levels of Christians: one being ordinary Christians (sometimes called carnal Christians) and the other being Spirit-baptized Christians (also called Spiritual or Sanctified Christians); or disciples distinct from ordinary Christians; or even priests or saints distinct from ordinary Christians. There is only one division in humanity, and that is Christians and non-Christians.

So, with all that said, what was it that happened in Acts 8? There is no indication that Philip’s message was deficient, or that he, who was filled with the Spirit, discerned that the Samaritans’ belief was anything other than true saving faith. Philip even baptized them. What we see here is that God, for the sake of the unity of his church, chose to wait to give the empowering of the Holy Spirit to the Samaritans through the hands of the apostles, who had received that empowering at Pentecost. This solidified everyone’s understanding that the Samaritans, despite not being full Jews, were full members of the church—the one church—the one body of Christ. There was no distinction.

As a special, unique event, Samaritan Pentecost is not a pattern that follows today. As one man explains, “It was simply part of the transition between the old covenant experience of the Holy Spirit and the new covenant experience of the Holy Spirit.”[3]

But, what about the sense that there is some sort of second experience of the Holy Spirit? This is also entirely biblical, and it is referred to typically in the Scriptures as being “filled with the Spirit.” Indeed, the Bible tells us that this can happen not only once, but many times in a Christian’s life. Paul references it in Eph. 5:18: “Do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery; but be filled with the Spirit.” Paul goes on to explain that such filling of the Holy Spirit results in renewed worship and thanksgiving, and renewed relationships with others. Wayne Grudem, in his Systematic Theology, elaborates:

Since the Holy Spirit is the Spirit who sanctifies us, such a filling will often result in increased sanctification. Furthermore, since the Holy Spirit is the one who empowers us for Christian service and gives us spiritual gifts, such filling will often result in increased power for ministry and increased effectiveness and perhaps diversity in the use of spiritual gifts.[4]

We’ve seen these things just in our journey through Acts up to this point, where there is a repeated filling of the Spirit on the same people. In Acts 2:4, the apostles and all with them were “filled with the Holy Spirit” at Pentecost. Then in Acts 4:8, Peter, before the Sanhedrin, was “filled with the Holy Spirit” and enabled to speak. Then we see in Acts 4:31 that the Spirit filled the church in Jerusalem, in response to their prayer, after the persecution of the church had begun, enabling them to boldly speak the word of God despite opposition. And we also see it with Stephen, who is described as being filled with the Spirit and wisdom (Acts 6:3-5), and later, at his stoning, receiving a fresh new filling of the Spirit in power in Acts 7:55.

So, with all that said, for us, according to Scripture, the normal Christian experience is baptism of the Holy Spirit at conversion, when the Spirit initially fills us. And then, at times, we are further filled with the Spirit for various reasons, according to his purposes. Grudem gives an analogy that it’s like a balloon. It can be full of air, even when there is not a lot of air in it. But it can also be filled with more air, and the balloon expands making it more-full.[5]

So, what are some take-aways? For one, let us be careful in our reading of the Scriptures. Let Scripture interpret Scripture. Study the Bible carefully, and educate yourself on sound principles of interpretation in order to not fall in a trap like “donkeylinquism.”

And, if you need help, ask. I’m here for you. They call me a “teaching elder” for a reason, and I would be delighted to discuss it with you. If I don’t know the answer to your question right off, I can probably help you find it. There are also numerous other sources that can help you with your endeavor.

Also, let us rest in our assurance that we all have the Holy Spirit if we are a true Christian.

This means you. If you truly trust in Jesus as your Lord and your Savior from your sins, the Spirit of God indwells you. You aren’t some sort of inferior Christian who has to wait for the Spirit to come upon you, to baptize you. He already has. And rejoice in the fact there are times when he will fill you even more, to empower you to do his will in ministry, thanksgiving, sanctification, loving God and your neighbor in word and deed, and in the use of your Spiritual gifts.

And third, let us live the reality of our Spirit-filled life with joy, as we follow Jesus in denial of self, taking up our cross, each and every day!

The Lord our God, the Lord is one (Deut. 6:4). His work, reflecting his being, is also one: one church, one people of God, one gospel of Jesus Christ, one Word of God (his Scriptures), and one baptism of the Holy Spirit upon us all. And, since the Lord is one, we should embrace the whole of his work.


[1] Wayne A. Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Leicester, England; Grand Rapids, MI: Inter-Varsity Press; Zondervan Pub. House, 2004), 771.

[2] James Montgomery Boice, The Gospel of John: An Expositional Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2005), 1124.

[3] Grudem, 774.

[4] Grudem, 782.

[5] Ibid.