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.