Commentary on Acts 8:14-17
If we pull together various baptism passages from the New Testament, a picture starts to emerge. Jesus’ baptism and the baptism of Jesus’ followers bear a striking resemblance. Baptism by water is assumed or supposed to be accompanied by baptism of the Spirit.
In addition, baptism is the means by which God’s family is demarcated on the earth. It starts with Jesus as the beloved son, receiving the Spirit (see Luke 3:22), and expands to everyone who receives the Spirit of adoption as God’s children (see Romans 8:14–15; Galatians 4:6). Baptism is about belonging to God. Because of this, baptism is also about belonging to a community. Baptism is about following Jesus. Because of this, baptism is also about receiving the Spirit.
This web of interconnections can help us navigate the significance of our story in Acts 8, in which people don’t receive the Spirit when baptized, but only after the apostles came from Jerusalem, prayed, and laid on their hands.
Spirit arrivals in Acts
Perhaps the single most important thing to know about dramatic arrivals of the Spirit in the book of Acts is that they happen when the gospel breaks through a new geographical or sociological barrier. Put differently, Acts does not show that the Spirit comes dramatically and tangibly on each individual when they come into the community.
Instead, the Spirit serves as proof that the gospel has, in fact, reached a new group of people. It starts with Jerusalem at Pentecost (Acts 2). In our text the Spirit comes to the people of Samaria (Acts 8). Next we see a dramatic arrival when Peter preaches to the Gentiles (Acts 10). Finally, a group of disciples who traced their lineage to John the Baptist’s baptism receive the Spirit when Paul updates their baptism to that of Jesus (Acts 19).
The Spirit does not fall visibly on each individual who comes to faith in Jesus. We hear of it when people are newly incorporated into the body. There is one more level to this observation. These incidents map remarkably well onto Jesus’s commission in Acts 1:8. “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” Jerusalem was home base for the Jewish apostles, located in the region of Judea. On the day of Pentecost, they receive the Spirit (Acts 2).
Samaria was a region of contested Jewish identity. Samaritans were worshippers of the same God but with different beliefs from other Jews. When the gospel goes there, God affirms its arrival with the gift of the Spirit (Acts 8, the text for today).
The ends of the earth are Gentile territory: that of the non-Jews, the people who never worshipped the God of Abraham. When Peter preaches to these people, God affirms their embrace into the community through the gift of the Spirit (Acts 10). The Spirit marks the advance of the gospel into new places. It is also tied to baptism (Acts 2:41; 8:16; 10:47–48; 19:2–6).
Gospel in Samaria
In Jerusalem and at Cornelius’ house the Spirit arrives prior to water baptism. Here it is reversed. The Samaritans have been baptized with water but have not yet received the Spirit. In part this seems to be due to the fact that the apostles were not the ones who brought the message. Despite Jesus’ charge to them that they should take the message to “all Judea and Samaria” (Acts 1:8), we find that the twelve hunker down in Jerusalem while everyone else gets scattered throughout Judea and Samaria during a time of persecution (Acts 8:1).
So it is Philip, one of those chosen to “wait on tables” so that the apostles could focus on the word of God and prayer (Acts 6:2, 5), who ends up taking up the mantle and preaching in Samaria (Acts 8:5). And baptizing.
Verse 16 is in parentheses in the NRSV, telling us that the Samaritans hadn’t received the Spirit but had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. The interesting thing about this aside is that it shows us the assumption that someone who was baptized should also have received the Spirit. The two go together. But it’s only when the apostles come up from Jerusalem and lay their hands on the people that they receive the Spirit. Despite the apostles missing out on their calling to preach in Samaria, they maintain their role of mediating the Spirit. At least for now.
Spirit, baptism, community
Spirit and baptism are markers of a people. Not just persons. Not just children of God, but the family of God. Maybe this is why it was so important for the apostles to come and participate in the ingathering of Samaria. Not because of their authority. Not because they control the Spirit.On the contrary, in every case, bestowing the Spirit is the free act of God. The disciples did not control it on their own but prayed to God for the Holy Spirit to be given.
The disciples come and mediate the gift of the Spirit because it needs to be clear that those who were formerly the “other” are now part of “us.” The old divisions that kept Samaritans and Jews at odds would be undone in the family of God baptized into Jesus. The same baptism, the same Spirit, would mark them all as beloved children.
Even as baptism and the Spirit had marked out Jesus as God’s beloved son.