In Acts 8:12 we read of a group of Samaritans who “believed Philip as he proclaimed the good news of the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, [and] they were baptized, both men and women.” However, when we get to Acts 8:16, we find that “the Holy Spirit had not yet come on any of them; they had simply been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus.” We understand, based on passages such as 1 Corinthians 12:13, that Christians receive the Holy Spirit at the moment of salvation. How was it that the Samaritans whom Philip evangelized did not receive the Holy Spirit?
First, it is good to remember the book of Acts is a history of how God started the church. It is the record of the transition between the Old Covenant and the New Covenant, and much of what we see in Acts relates to that transition. The Samaritans’ manner of receiving the Spirit should be taken for what it is—an accurate account of what happened in their case. It should not be construed as normative in every case. The believing Samaritans had been baptized in water, but, for God’s own reasons, they had not yet been baptized in the Spirit.
Second, we should note that the Spirit did come upon the Samaritans (Acts 8:14–17), but not until the apostles Peter and John were present. There are some good reasons why God waited until Peter and John were present before He sent the Holy Spirit upon the Samaritans:
1) Jesus had given Peter the “keys to the kingdom” (Matthew 16:19). Peter was present—and was the main spokesman—at Pentecost (Acts 2), when the Spirit was given to the Jews. Peter was present in Samaria (Acts 8), when the Spirit was given to the Samaritans. And Peter was present in Cornelius’s house (Acts 10), when the Spirit was given to the Gentiles. Jesus used Peter to “open the door” to each of these people groups.
2) The church was to be “built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets” (Ephesians 2:20). Philip the evangelist had been a deacon in the Jerusalem church, but he was not one of the twelve apostles. Peter and John needed to be in Samaria for the “official” start of the Samaritan church, just as they had been in Jerusalem for the start of the Jewish church.
3) The presence of Peter and John kept the early church unified. Remember, there was great animosity between Jews and Samaritans (John 4:9). If the church in Samaria had begun on its own, with no connection to the “Jewish” church, the church in Jerusalem would never have accepted it. The Samaritans were known historically as corruptors of Judaism (John 4:20). So God made sure that Peter and John, apostles and Jews from Jerusalem, were present to witness the gift of the Spirit given to the Samaritans. God’s message: the church in Samaria was no heretical start-up. The Samaritans were part of the same church that had been started in Jerusalem, and they were filled with the same Spirit (see Galatians 3:28). Peter and John were eyewitnesses. Their testimony was clear: what happened in Samaria was not a separate religious movement. In this way, God prevented the early church from immediately dividing into different sects.
The Lord took pains to ensure the unity of the early church. Jesus had commanded the gospel to be preached in Samaria (Acts 1:8). Philip the evangelist obeyed that command, and God blessed. Whatever animosity existed between the Jews and the Samaritans was overcome by the unity of the Spirit. The church today should continue to “make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:3).