It was inevitable, as the early Jesus movement spread from one city to the next, that people would covet its power without loyalty to its source.
One imagines that the movement’s leaders were as surprised as anyone to see the power of Christ flowing through their words and hands to liberate the mad and heal the sick. Happily, the Book of Acts provides more than one glimpse of the earliest stewards of such remarkable power fending off the misguided adulation of the crowds. But sometimes the threat of corruption reared its head via the jealousy of impressed onlookers who stood outside the immediate circle of the Jesus community.
Philip went down to the city of Samaria and proclaimed to them the Christ. And the crowds with one accord paid attention to what was being said by Philip when they heard him and saw the signs that he did. For unclean spirits, crying out with a loud voice, came out of many who had them, and many who were paralyzed or lame were healed. So there was much joy in that city. (Acts 8:5–8 ESV)
Someone would want a piece of this action. It was only a matter of time. And the clock was ticking.
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. They all paid attention to him, from the least to the greatest, saying, ‘This man is the power of God that is called Great.’ And they paid attention to him because for a long time he had amazed them with his magic. 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. Even Simon himself believed, and after being baptized he continued with Philip. And seeing signs and great miracles performed, he was amazed. (Acts 8:9–13 ESV)
Market share was in play. Simon was shrewd enough to read the trends, and schooled enough in the power dynamics of public deception to imagine that he could buy into a good thing to mitigate the risk with which these mobile Christians invaded his turf.
Then (the apostles) laid their hands on them and they received the Holy Spirit. Now when Simon saw that the Spirit was given through the laying on of the apostles’ hands, he offered them money, saying, ‘Give me this power also, so that anyone on whom I lay my hands may receive the Holy Spirit.’ (Acts 8:17–19 ESV)
It takes only a modicum of experience in cultures less spiritually sterile than the modern West to understand that denying the power of magic and folk religion is a desperation ploy. There is power. Indeed, the Christian Scriptures are candid about the fact that there are powers, though they display a principled reticence to explore them, let alone engage them.
Had Simon built his business on manipulation of real powers? Or on the deceptive appearance of that capacity?
It is impossible to be sure. Power and deception, outside of foundational commitments that monitor the former and prohibit the latter, are a lethal cocktail, always blended, often inebriating.
The early Jesus movement thrived on that foundational commitment. Most—tragically, not all—of its heirs do still.
But Peter said to him, ‘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 ESV)
The Christian message and the ethic that is nourished by it privilege transparency. All are invited to come and see, to sift the evidence, to inquire into its tactics and its truth, to discover their own mind in the light of its revolutionary demands.
Deception—any and all forms of it, for this is one arena in which absolutism is absolutely reasonable—has no place in Christian belief, Christian life, and in the Christian’s declaration of both to his or her neighbor.
Deception is, for followers of Jesus, the canary in the coal mine. The bare whiff of it silences the singing bird with dark foreboding of danger that must be stopped. Or escaped.
Simon’s half-believing attempt to buy his way into circles of power likely was of a piece with the public practice that drew fame to him. He cannot be faulted for inconsistency.
The nascent Christian movement was to enjoy on this occasion and more than one other the opportunity to contrast the transparency of Christian claims with all deceptive competitors and counterfeits. Events in the first decades of the movement were to school its sons and daughters in the reality that half-truths are no truth at all.
It was to be an enduring lesson, yet one that must be taught and learned in every new generation.
We who follow their Christ look away to our peril.