Recently Highland staff and elders worked through a book which explores the spiritual state of young adults in the United States. This book is part of what led us to conclude that, as part of Vision 2018, God wants Highland to reach and involve over 200 young adults. The book we read is the second of a two-book series by David Kinnaman. His first book, entitled UnChristian explored what non-Christian young adults think about Christianity. The second book, entitled You Lost Me, explored what Christian young adults think about Christianity.
Both books have something positive to say. Kinnaman finds that non-Christian young adults and Christian young adults love Jesus. They are interested in spiritual things. But both books also have something negative to say. Kinnaman finds that non-Christian young adults and Christian young adults hate church. They are disconnected from and disappointed with the church. The first book uses its title UnChristian to summarize how non Christian young adults view the church. They believe churches today behave in ways that are “unchristian.” One outsider said, “Christianity has become bloated with blind followers who would rather repeat slogans than actually feel true compassion and care. Christianity has become marketed and streamlined into a juggernaut of fearmongering that has lost its own heart.” The second book uses its title You Lost Me to summarize how Christian young adults view the church. The church has lost these young adults. One young Christian recounts coming to faith in an evangelical church. But then she started noticing things. The church always seemed to want more money. And when people missed services, church leaders got mad. Then there was a controversy when the leadership of the church disbanded a group of Christians where were meeting in a non-sanctioned gathering. The woman ended up leaving church all-together. She concluded, “I just don’t believe in the church anymore.”
Many today see the church as a community of the selfish bringing harm to the world. Christians and non Christians see something wrong with the church. To them, the church seems to be passionate only about its own selfish purposes and intent on gaining power and prestige in the culture. They view the church as something that brings harm to the world. Some of you may feel this way. Many of you may have friends or family who feel this way.
And at times, the Bible agrees. Scripture acknowledges the harm which the church brings to the world when it is led by selfishness. We see this in the book of Acts. The Bible’s longest and most in-depth treatment of the church is found in the book of Acts. And one of the things we see quickly in Acts is that there were times when the church acted selfishly.
Acts 8 gives us a clear example: 9 But there was a man named Simon, who had previously practiced magic in the city and amazed the people of Samaria, saying that he himself was somebody great. 10 They all paid attention to him, from the least to the greatest, saying, “This man is the power of God that is called Great.” 11 And they paid attention to him because for a long time he had amazed them with his magic. 12 But when they believed Philip as he preached good news about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptized, both men and women. 13 Even Simon himself believed, and after being baptized he continued with Philip. And seeing signs and great miracles performed, he was amazed. 14 Now when the apostles at Jerusalem heard that Samaria had received the word of God, they sent to them Peter and John, 15 who came down and prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit, 16 for he had not yet fallen on any of them, but they had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. 17 Then they laid their hands on them and they received the Holy Spirit. 18 Now when Simon saw that the Spirit was given through the laying on of the apostles’ hands, he offered them money, 19 saying, “Give me this power also, so that anyone on whom I lay my hands may receive the Holy Spirit.” 20 But Peter said to him, “May your silver perish with you, because you thought you could obtain the gift of God with money! 21 You have neither part nor lot in this matter, for your heart is not right before God. 22 Repent, therefore, of this wickedness of yours, and pray to the Lord that, if possible, the intent of your heart may be forgiven you.23 For I see that you are in the gall of bitterness and in the bond of iniquity.” 24 And Simon answered, “Pray for me to the Lord, that nothing of what you have said may come upon me.” (Acts 8:9-25 ESV).
If Luke, the author of Acts, had only wanted to put a positive spin on church his story about the church in Samaria would have ended at vs. 13: “Even Simon himself believed, and after being baptized he continued with Philip.” Notice everything Luke tells us about Simon: he had “amazed” the people of Samaria; “They all paid attention to him, from the least to the greatest”; “they paid attention to him” and “for a long time he had amazed them with his magic.” Magic in the ancient world was used for more than entertainment. Ancient magicians were believed to have the ability to heal people. One scholar writes that Simon had the power and prestige that a noted physician would have in our culture today. Simon is widely known. First graders recognize him. TV stations feature him. He is the local celebrity. He is to Samaria what Elvis or Danny Thomas is to Memphis. And he has become a member of the church in Samaria. Some gospel meetings are held, Simon marches down the aisle one hot summer night and says, “I want to be baptized.” And he becomes the most prominent member of the fledgling Samaria church. What a victory for the church. The church now has standing in the community. The church now has inroads to media and politics. Simon’s conversion gives credibility to this new faith.
Luke could have ended the story right there. But he doesn’t. To all the critics of the church—ancient and modern—Luke says, “I know. I understand exactly what you’re saying. Sometimes the church is a source of harm. Sometimes the church is a community of the selfish.” As proof, Luke tells the rest of the story. God sends the apostles themselves to Samaria. Through them God provides the Christians in Samaria the gift of the Holy Spirit. And Simon sees this. Simon, the most notable church member in Samaria, wants this ability for himself. Why, with this ability to mediate divine power, he could become the most famous magician in the world. He would pack Christian cruises. He would fill stadiums. He’d be interviewed on every Christian radio station. He’d be invited to the White House. This was Simon’s ticket to even greater fame. Simon could leverage his Christian faith and this new Christian power for greater prestige.
Just consider it: the most famous Christian in Samaria tries to bribe high-level church leaders so he can gain power and prestige. Simon the church member wasn’t going to use this divine power for the poor in Samaria. He wasn’t going to use it to heal racial tension in Samaria. He wasn’t going to use it to lead others to Christ. All this church member wants is to find a way to get bigger headlines and brighter spotlights.
And through history Simon the church member becomes synonymous with the worst the church has to offer. Yale historian Jaroslav Pelikan reports that Simon’s name eventually became the term used to describe any sin of trying to gain spiritual resources through money. “Simony” came to refer to any act by which a person tried to bribe his/her way into spiritual resources. In addition, Simon was blamed by later church leaders as being the origin of some of the worst heresies to hit the church. Justin Martyr, Iranaeus and others believed Simon was the root of what was wrong with the early church.
It’s a painfully honest portrait isn’t it? Luke admits that the church can be a community of the selfish bringing harm to the world. The church can be filled with people like Simon only concerned about themselves and their success. Some of us have known Simons. Some of us have been Simons. We know first-hand the harm the church can bring when it’s filled with Simons.
But Luke uses two themes from Acts 8 to help us see that the church has another side to it. Luke takes the themes of the Holy Spirit and Samaria and brings them together again in Acts 1. And in Acts 1 Luke use the Holy Spirit and Samaria to show that the church is capable of being a community of the Spirit bringing help to the world. Not only does the church, at times, act as a community of the selfish bringing harm to the world. But at its best, the church is a community of the Spirit bringing help to the world: 1 In the first book, O Theophilus, I have dealt with all that Jesus began to do and teach, 2 until the day when he was taken up, after he had given commands through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen. 3 He presented himself alive to them after his suffering by many proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God. 4 And while staying with them he ordered them not to depart from Jerusalem, but to wait for the promise of the Father, which, he said, “you heard from me; 5 for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now. 6 So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” 7 He said to them, “It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority. 8 But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” (Acts 1:1-8 ESV).
Notice how Luke introduces Acts. He references his first book, what we call the Gospel of Luke. Luke calls that book “all that Jesus began to do and teach.” The implication is that Acts is what Jesus continued to do and teach. At least the best parts of the story of the church, according to Luke, are the story of what Jesus continued to do—through the church. Ideally, the church exists not for selfish purposes but to continue the work that Jesus began.
And the Holy Spirit was the means by which Jesus continued his life-changing ministry through the church. According to Luke 3, the Holy Spirit descended upon Jesus and he began his helpful and life changing work. According to Acts 1 and 2, the Holy Spirit would soon descend upon Jesus’ followers and they would continue that helpful and life changing work. The church would be baptized in, set aflame with, the Holy Spirit. They would become a community of the Spirit. And that Spirit would inspire them and empower them to carry on the helpful and life changing work of Jesus.
This is why the book of Acts is sometimes called “The Book of the Acts of the Holy Spirit.” It’s not just a story about the church. It’s a story about how the church became filled with God’s Spirit and through that Spirit carried on the transformative ministry of Jesus.
And Jesus tells his followers that one of the first places where that Spirit-driven ministry of the church will take place is in Samaria: 8 But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” Samaria would become one of those places where we see the church at its Spirit-filled best. As we’ve already seen, Samaria was a place where we saw a church member at his worst. But upon further consideration, it’s also where we see church members at their Spirit-filled best.
To fully appreciate what takes place in Acts 8 and what Jesus is saying here in Acts 1 we need to appreciate the political, racial and religious division that existed between Jews in Jerusalem and the people of Samaria. This deep-seated division began in the tenth century B.C. when Samaria defected from the nation of Israel. These people made Samaria their new capital. This created political tension. Two hundred years later, the area was captured by a foreign enemy, citizens were relocated, and the area was repopulated by foreigners. This created racial tension. In the sixth century, when the Jewish people returned from a similar exile, the Samaritans refused to help them rebuild their temple in Jerusalem. This created religious tension. And the religion tension worsened: in the fourth century, the Samaritans built their own temple, rivaling the one in Jerusalem. And they rejected Old Testament Scripture except the first five books of the Bible, the Pentateuch. Thus, for one thousand years, Jews in Jerusalem and Samarians were divided by politics, race and religion. Hatred and suspicion characterized the relationship. I don’t think it’s stretching things to say they felt about each other the way that radical Muslims in the Middle East feel about Westerners—and vice versa. They felt about each other the way that blacks and whites felt about each other in the South in the 1960’s.
But according to Acts 1, one of the first marching orders Jesus gives the church is to go to Samaria. Not to conquer Samaria. But to serve. To help. And in Acts 8, Philip, a prominent church member from Jerusalem, does just this. It is no coincidence that in Acts 6 Philip is called a man who is “full of the Spirit.” Led by the Spirit and not by selfishness, Philip goes to Samaria. He risks being blacklisted by the Jews back home. He risks being persecuted by the people in Samaria. But led by the Spirit he goes. He wants to help the people of Samaria know Jesus.
And, as we read in Acts 8, two others go to Samaria. Peter and John—two of the most prominent church leaders in Jerusalem, go to Samaria. It’s is remarkable that John makes this goodwill visit. Earlier in Lk. 9 John wants to call fire down from heaven to consume a Samaritan city. That’s how full of hatred John was. Yet here he is in Acts 8, traveling to Samaria with Peter to bring the Samaritans the supreme gift—the Holy Spirit.
Up to this point in Acts, when a person is baptized, God gives that person the gift of the Holy Spirit. But for some reason, when Philip baptized people in Samaria, God withheld that gift. He did not give the Spirit to them himself. Instead, he sent two church leaders from Jerusalem to deliver that gift personally. Why? Because God wanted to address the racial, political and religious division between Jerusalem and Samaria. And he wanted to use the church to do it. He wanted two church leaders from Jerusalem to literally hand-deliver the gift of the Spirit as a sign of goodwill. In this way people in Jerusalem would see first-hand that God loved the Samaritans. And, in this way, the people of Samaria would see that something good and helpful could come from Jerusalem, through the church. 
What we see in Samaria is the worst side and the best side of church. When led by selfishness, the church brings harm to the world. But when led by the Spirit, the church brings great help to the world. The church was the first group to topple this wall of 1,000 years of political, racial and religious division between Jerusalem and Samaria. The church did what the government in Jerusalem would not do. The church did what non-profits in Samaria could not do. The church did what diplomats had failed to do. The church was the sole organization capable of healing this wound. How? Because it was the only organization led by the Holy Spirit.
And Act reveals that, when led by the Spirit and not by selfishness, the church continued to bring tremendous help into the world:
- In Acts 9, the church welcomes a former terrorist named Saul, and by their love, transforms him from a force of evil to a force of good.
- In Acts 10, prominent church leader Peter crosses another Grand Canyon of a divide in the ancient world. He welcomes a Gentile into the church for the very first time.
- In Acts 19 new church leader Paul heals the sick in Ephesus and removes evil spirits from innocent victims.
- In Acts 20 church minister Paul brings life back to a young boy who fell to his death.
Over and over in Acts, great help came to the world through the church—by means of the Spirit.
And that help just kept coming.
- Led by the Spirit, the church transformed the place of children in the ancient world. Historian O. M. Bakke wrote a study called When Children Became People: The Birth of Childhood in Early Christianity. He noted that in the ancient world, children who were unwanted or deformed were often just left to die. This custom changed because of a church who remembered that they were followers of a man who said, “Let the little children come to me.” It was the early church that gave rise to orphanages.
- Led by the Spirit, the church helped birth libraries and schools like Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard and Yale.
- Led by the Spirit, the church helped transform treatment of the sick. One of the primary reasons for the spread of Christianity was the way the church responded to the sick. Dionysius, a third-century bishop, wrote this: “Heedless of the danger, they took charge of the sick, attending to their every need, and ministering to them in Christ. And with them departed this life serenely happy, for they were infected by others with the disease, drawing on themselves the sickness of their neighbors, and cheerfully accepting their pains.”
- Led by the Spirit, the church was the first movement which sought to include “every single human being, regardless of nationality, ethnicity, status, income, gender, moral background, or education.”
- Led by the Spirit, the church helped create the “Hallelujah Chorus,” the Messiah, Mozart’s Requiem, the Sistine Chapel, and the DaVinci’s Last Supper.
When led by selfishness, few groups could bring more harm to the world than the church. Yet when led by the Spirit, no group could bring greater help to the world. Because through the Spirit, Jesus was continuing the work he began in the flesh.
And that work continues today. One author writes this about the book of Acts: “The records of these acts of the Holy Ghost have never reached completeness. This is the one book which has no proper close, because it waits for new chapters to be added so fast and so far as the people of God shall reinstate the blessed Spirit in his holy seat of control. [John Stott]” Luke’s book of Acts ends in chapter 28. But we are writing chapter 29. This book of the Acts of the Holy Spirit has no proper close. Because it waits for new chapters to be added. As we, the church, follow the Spirit rather than our selfishness, we bring great help to the world around us. That’s the function of the Spirit. That’s why God has given us this gift. That’s what it means to “catch fire.” What chapter will you help write this week?
 UnChristian, 15.
 William H. Willimon Acts Interpretation (John Knox), 69.
 Jaroslav Pelikan Acts Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible (2005), 110, Kindle edition.
 John R. W. Stott, The Message of Acts The Bible Speaks Today, 33.
 Stott, 147.
 F. F. Bruce Acts NICNT, 170.
 John Ortberg Who is This Man? The Unpredictable Impact of the Inescapable Jesus (Zondervan, 2012).
 Ortberg, 14-15.
 Ortberg, 30.
 Ortberg, 39.
 Stott, 33.