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Whyte's Dictionary of Bible Characters

Simon Magus

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BUT who, to begin with, was Simon Magus? And how did it come about that he believed, and was actually baptized by Philip the evangelist; and then was detected, denounced and utterly reprobated by the Apostle Peter? How did all that come about?

Well, you must know that Samaria, where Simon Magus lived and carried on his astounding impositions, was a half-Hebrew, half-heathen country. Samaria had just enough of the Hebrew blood in its veins to make it full of the very worst qualities of that blood, mixed up with some of the very worst qualities of the heathen blood of that day also. And Simon Magus was at once the natural product, and the divine punishment, of that apostate land in which we find him living in such mountebank prosperity. Simon Magus was a very clever man, and he was at the same time a very bad man; till, by his tremendous pretensions, he had the whole of Samaria at his feet There was something positively sublime about the impudence and charlatanry of Simon Magus, till he was actually feared and obeyed and worshipped as nothing short of some divinity who had condescended to come and take up his abode in Samaria. But the whole man and the whole situation is best set before us in the two or three strokes of the sacred writer. "There was a certain man called Simon, which beforetime in the same city used sorcery, and bewitched the people of Samaria, giving out that himself was some great one. To whom they all gave heed, from the least to the greatest, saying, This man is the great power of God. And to him they had regard, because that of long time he had bewitched them with sorceries. But when they believed Philip preaching the things concerning the kingdom of God, and the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptized, both men and women. Then Simon himself believed also; and when he was baptized, he continued with Philip and wondered, beholding the miracles and signs which were done."

Philip had extraordinary success in his evangelising mission to Samaria. It was like New England, or Cambuslang, or 1859-60, or Moody and Sankey's first visit to Scotland. For the people with one accord gave heed unto those things that Philip spake, hearing and seeing the miracles which he did. And there was great joy in that city. 'The very devil himself has been converted and has been baptized by me,' Philip telegraphed to Jerusalem. 'I actually have the name of Simon Magus on my communion-roll.' At the hearing of that, the apostles sent two of their foremost men down to Samaria to superintend the great movement, and God sent the Holy Ghost with them, till the whole of Samaria seemed to have turned to God and to the name of Jesus Christ. Only, Simon Magus was all the time such an impostor that in his conversion and baptism he had completely deceived Philip. Nay, I think it but fair to Simon Magus to say that he had completely deceived himself as well as Philip. I think so. I am bound in charity to think so. When Simon Magus came up out of the water, had a voice from heaven spoken at that moment, it would surely have been heard to say, 'This is an arch-deceiver, deceiving, but, at the same time, being deceived.' some men have far more self-discernment than other men, and self-discernment is the highest and rarest science of all the sciences on the face of the earth. And, usually, there is united with great self-discernment, and as a reward and a premium put by God upon its exercise, the power of deeply discerning other men's spirits also. Now, though Philip was a prince of evangelistic preachers, and a good and an able man, at the same time he was far too easily satisfied with his converts. Philip was far better at preaching than he was at catechising. And thus it was that it fell to Peter and John to purge Philip's communion-roll of Simon Magus immediately on their arrival in Samaria. At the same time, this must be said, that Simon Magus had never come out in his true colours till after Peter's arrival, and till after all the true converts had received the Holy Ghost.

The circumstances were these: It was part of the Pentecostal equipment of the apostles to possess for a time some of the miracle-working powers that their Divine Master had exercised in order to arrest attention to His advent, and to secure a hearing to His ministry. And thus it is that we find the apostles speaking with tongues, healing the sick, opening the eyes of the blind, casting out devils, and many suchlike miracles and signs. Now, Simon Magus, like everybody else in Samaria, was immensely impressed with all that he saw and heard. No man was more impressed than Simon Magus, or more convinced of the divine mission of the apostles. But, with all his wonder and with all his conviction, he was never truly converted. The love of money, and the still more intoxicating love of notoriety, had taken such absolute possession of Simon Magus that he simply could not live out of the eyes of men. He must be in men's mouths. He must have a crowd around him. Themistocles could not sleep because of the huzzas that filled the streets of Athens when Miltiades walked abroad; and the crowds that followed Peter and John were gall and wormwood to Simon Magus. For, still greater crowds used to take him up and carry him on their shoulders in the days of his great power before Philip came to Samaria. Now, Peter had never liked the look of Philip's great convert, and it completely justified Peter's incurable suspicions when Simon Magus came one night into Peter's lodgings, and, setting down a bag of money on the table, said, 'What will you take for the Holy Ghost? If you will show me the secret of your apostleship so that I may work your miracles like you, I have plenty of money, and I know where there is plenty more.' The sight of the bag, and the blasphemous proposal of the owner of the bag, nearly drove Peter beside himself. And the old fisherman so blazed out at the poor mountebank that the page burns red to this day with Peter's denunciation. "Thy money perish with thee, for I perceive thou art still in the gall of bitterness, and in the bond of iniquity!"

"Giving out that himself was some great one." That is our first lesson from this Holy Scripture about Simon Magus. Let those take the lesson to heart who specially need it, and who will humble themselves to receive it. It may be in sorcery and witchcraft like that of Simon Magus; it may be in the honours of the kingdom of Heaven like the sons of Zebedee; it may be in preaching sermons; it may be in making speeches or writing books; it may be in anything you like, down to your child's possessions and performances; but we all, to begin with, give ourselves out to be some great one. Simon Magus was but an exaggerated specimen of every popularity-hunter among us. There is an element and first principle of Simon Magus, the Samaritan mountebank, in all public men. There is still a certain residuum of Simon left in order to his last sanctification in every minister. But the most Simon Maguslike of all sanctified ministers I know is Thomas Shepard, and that just because he is the most self-discerning, the most honest, and the most outspoken about himself of us all. Popularity was the very breath of life to that charlatan of Samaria. He could not work, he could not live, he could not be converted and baptized, without popularity. And there is not one public man in a thousand, politician or preacher, who will go on living and working and praying out of sight, and all the time with sweetness, and contentment, and good-will, and a quiet heart. All Samaria must give heed to Simon Magus from the least to the greatest. And so still with his successors. A despairing missionary to the drunken navvies on a new railway, complained to me the other day that one of our great preachers, who was holidaying in the neighbourhood, would not give an idle Sabbath afternoon hour to the men loitering about the bothy door. It was the dregs of Simon Magus in the city orator; he could not kindle but to a crowd. "Seek obscurity" was Fénelon's motto. Whether he lived up to his motto or no, the day will declare; if he did, there will not be many wearing the same crown with him on that day. But Richard Baxter will be one of them. "I am much less regardful of the approbation of men, and set much lighter by contempt or applause, than I did long ago. All worldly things appear most vain and unsatisfactory when we have tried them most. But though I feel that this hath some hand in the effect, yet the knowledge of man's nothingness, and of God's transcendent greatness, with whom it is that I have most to do, and the sense of the brevity of human things, and the nearness of eternity, are the principal causes of this effect, and not self-conceitedness and morosity, as some suppose." These things will help to do it, but above all these things a completely broken heart will alone cast Simon Magus out of us ministers. A heart broken beyond all mollification or binding up in this world; but not even a broken heart, unless it is daily broken. Nothing will root the mountebank out of us ministers but constant self-detection, constant self-contempt, constant self-denunciation, and constant self-destruction. Oh, my friends, you do not know, and you are not fit to be told, the tremendous price of a minister's salvation. It is this that makes our crucified Master say to us ministers continually, "Few of you there be that find it."

You will not know what a "law-work" is; but Simon Magus was simply lost for want of a law-work. You never nowadays hear the once universal pulpit word. The Romans and the Galatians are full of the law-work, and so have all our greatest preachers been. Those two great evangelical Epistles were not yet written, but there was enough of their contents in the Pentecostal air, if Simon Magus had had any taste for such soul-searching matters. I must not allow myself to say a single word as to Philip's mismanagement of his catechumens' and young communicants' classes. Only, the sorcerer must have sadly bewitched the evangelist before Philip put Simon Magus's name down on his communion-roll. Philip knew his business and his own heart. I dare not doubt that. Only, somehow or other, he let Simon Magus slip through his hands much too easily. Believing, baptism, communiontable and all, Simon Magus had neither part nor lot in this matter of the work of the law. I would not keep either a young communicant or an old convert away from the table because he was not deeply learned in all the Pauline doctrines; but I could not undertake to recommend his name to the kirk-session unless he gave me some evidence of what the masters of our science call the law-work. He might never have heard the word, and I would never mention it to him unless, indeed, he was a man of some mind. But it is mocking God, and deluding men, to crowd the table with communicants like Simon Magus, who do not know the first principles either of sin or of salvation. The best law-work comes to us long after conversion and admission to the table; but neither before his so-called conversion, nor after it, did this arch-impostor know anything about it-"for thy heart," said Peter, tearing it open to its very core, "is not right in the sight of God."

"Fictus," that is to say, a living and breathing fiction, was the name given to such converts as Simon Magus in those early days. Ignorance, Temporary, Pliable, and Turnaway, were some of their names in later days. Now, you are not an impostor by profession like Simon Magus. You do not make your living by deluding other people. But there may very easily be an element of fiction, of self-delusion and self-imposition, in your supposed conversion, as there was in his. Calvin's moderation, saneness of judgment, and spiritual insight, carry me with him here also. "I am not of their mind," he says, "who think that Simon Magus made only a semblance of religion. There is a middle ground between saving faith and sheer dissimulation. Simon Magus saw that the apostles, doctrine was true, and he received the same so far; but the groundwork was all along wanting; that is to say, his denial of himself was all along wanting." Just so. I see and feel Calvin's point. Your religion is not all a sham on your part. You are not a pure and unmixed hypocrite. But neither is your religion of the right kind. It is not saving your soul. It is not making you every day a new and another man. Your heart is not right in the sight of God. It is not, and it never will be, till, as Calvin says, and as Christ says, you deny yourself daily. And that, every day, to your heart's blood, and in the matter of the sin that so easily besets you. With Simon Magus it was the praise of men, and their crowding round him, and their adulation of him. Now, what he should have done, and what Philip should have insisted on him to do, was to discover to himself and to confess to himself his besetting sin, and every day to drive another nail of self-crucifixion into it. Another new nail every day, till it gave up the ghost. Instead of that the poor impostor tried to get Peter to share his apostolic popularity with him for thirty pieces of silver! If you are a platform, or a pulpit, or any other kind of mountebank, seek obscurity, for your soul's salvation lies there. If you are a popular preacher, flee from crowded churches, and hold services in bothies, and in poorhouses, and in barns, and in kitchens. Never search the papers to see what they are saying about you. Starve the self-seeking quack that is still within you. Beat him black and blue, as Paul tells us he did, and as Thomas Shepard tells us he did, every time he shows his self-admiring face.

Simon Magus put the thought of his heart into the form of a money-proposal to Peter. But, bad as the proposal was, it was not so much the proposal that Peter so struck at as the heart of the proposer. "If perhaps the thought of thine heart may he forgiven thee." Now, answer this, as we shall all answer it one day-What about the thoughts of your heart? Are the self-seeking, self-exalting thoughts of your heart dwelt on and indulged, or are they the greatest shame to you, and the greatest torment to you, of your life? Do you hate your own heart as you would hate hell itself, if you were about to be cast down into it? Do you beat your breast and cry out, Oh, wretched man that I am! Has the law entered, and is the law-work deep enough, and spiritual enough, to make all the Simon Magus-like thoughts of your hearts to be an inward pain and shame to you past all knowledge, and past all belief about you, of mortal man? His thoughts, that is, of self-advertisement, self-exaltation, and self-congratulation? Does the praise of men puff you up, and make you very happy? And is their silence, or their absence, something you cannot get over? Is he a good man who follows you about, and believes in you, and applauds you: and is he an unpardonably bad man who prefers Philip, and Peter, and John to Simon Magus? Then, be not deceived, God is not mocked, and neither are the self-discerning men round about you. Both your happiness and your sadness: both your love and your hatred of men; are quite naked and open to those with whom you have to do. "For I perceive that thou art still in the gall of bitterness, and in the bond of iniquity." "We may conjecture," says Calvin, "that Simon Magus repented." Whereas Bengel leaves it to the last day to discover that and to declare that.


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Bibliography Information
Whyte, Alexander. Entry for 'Simon Magus'. Alexander Whyte's Dictionary of Bible Characters. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/wbc/s/simon-magus.html. 1901.

Lectionary Calendar
Thursday, November 14th, 2019
the Week of Proper 27 / Ordinary 32
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