Acts 8 contains two “conversion” stories, accounts of people becoming Christians. The first has to do with Samaritans becoming Christians. The second with an Ethiopian official. Each account is worthy of a sermon, but we will concentrate on a question from the Samaritan story: Why didn’t the Samaritans receive the Holy Spirit when they were baptized? It is, after all, what we would expect given Peter’s sermon and statement in Acts 2:38. Yet, in the case of the Samaritans, it did not happen.
Some have speculated that they did receive the Holy Spirit – just not the miraculous measure of the Spirit which could only be bestowed by the apostles.
There are problems with this view. First, the text plainly says they did not receive the Spirit. Second, the Bible does not teach, in any place, that there are “measures” of the spirit – miraculous or otherwise. You either have the Spirit or you don’t. Third, the apostles never get to decide who can perform miracles. The gifts of the Spirit are decided by the Spirit and the Spirit alone. Fourth, if the Samaritans performed miracles after receiving the Spirit, the text is silent about the matter.
So why the interval of time?
The apostles were given the task of making sure the gospel, intended for all mankind, moved from its roots among the Jewish people to the rest of the world. It was to be a programmatic movement: first to Jews, then to those with Jewish roots (Samaritans), then to the gentiles (see Acts :8). As the foundation of the Church, this was Apostle responsibility. Yet, for at least three years, the gospel had not moved past Judea. When it does move, it is not carried by an Apostle, but by Phillip – a servant of the Church certainly, but not an Apostle.
The Apostles would have to sanction this spread to the Samaritans, a result unlikely to be accepted by the Jewish church. And so, the Holy Spirit was withheld until the Apostles could arrive from Jerusalem and place their imprimatur upon the movement. It was God’s way of forcing the issue, an issue that would not have had to be forced if the Apostles had been doing their job. Significantly, the Apostles, as a group, begin to lose their prominence here as leaders in the spread of the Kingdom of God.