Who was Simon the Sorcerer, mentioned in the New Testament book of Acts? What is the significance of his story for Christians today?
The Simon mentioned in Acts 8:9-24 is commonly called Simon the Sorcerer or Simon Magus. Although the term “Magus” is not found in this passage, it is also an appropriate description since in Act 8:9 “the present participle mageúōn is used, and is translated … ‘used sorcery’” (The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, 1947, “Simon Magus”).
Sorcery is another name for witchcraft. It is a means of working magic with the assistance of the devil or evil spirits. This practice is specifically forbidden by God.
God told the ancient Israelites: “There shall not be found among you anyone who makes his son or his daughter pass through the fire, or one who practices witchcraft, or a soothsayer, or one who interprets omens, or a sorcerer, or one who conjures spells, or a medium, or a spiritist, or one who calls up the dead. For all who do these things are an abomination to the LORD” (Deuteronomy 18:10-12).
Simon the Sorcerer had “bewitched” (Acts 8:9, 11, King James Version) the people of Samaria “with his sorceries for a long time” (verse 11). The people of that city mistakenly assumed that he was “the great power of God” (verse 10).
“This ‘power’ was considered a spark of God himself” (A.T. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament, commentary on Acts 8:10). “They believed Simon was an impersonated power of God” (M.R. Vincent, Word Studies in the New Testament, commentary on Acts 8:10).
Simon the Sorcerer may have claimed to be a revealing angel from God, or this could have been the origin of the gnostic doctrine of emanations or various spirit beings “emanating” from the Godhead. The Samaritans viewed angels as “powers.”
Simon the Sorcerer’s status was apparently threatened when Philip entered the city and preached the gospel of the Kingdom of God.
When people “believed Philip as he preached the things concerning the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, both men and women were baptized” (verse 12). Simon was among those who believed and was also baptized. He “was amazed, seeing the miracles and signs which were done” through the power of God (verse 13).
Since the people Philip baptized had not yet had hands laid on them for the receiving of the Holy Spirit, Peter and John came from Jerusalem to perform this important part of baptism (verses 14-16). Seeing that people received the Holy Spirit through “the laying on of the apostles’ hands,” Simon offered them money if they would give him power to give people the Holy Spirit (verses 17-19).
Historically, this is the origin of the word “simony”—the buying or selling of a church office or an ecclesiastical power.
Sadly, Simon’s request was based upon impure motives. Perhaps he saw this as an opportunity to make more money or enhance his own reputation. It was common for magicians to purchase tricks from one another, so Simon may have viewed the apostles as religious “magicians” or hucksters and was trying to purchase their “trick.”
Realizing that his motive was wrong, Peter strongly corrected Simon the Sorcerer, saying, “Your money perish with you, because you thought that the gift of God could be purchased with money! You have neither part nor portion in this matter, for your heart is not right in the sight of God. Repent therefore of this your wickedness, and pray God if perhaps the thought of your heart may be forgiven you. For I see that you are poisoned by bitterness and bound by iniquity” (Acts 8:20-23).
The final piece of information recorded in the Bible regarding Simon the Sorcerer is that, instead of actually repenting of his sin, he just asked Peter to pray for him that “none of the things which you have spoken may come upon me” (verse 24).
Sorcery versus the gospel
This account of Simon the Sorcerer exemplified one of the great challenges for those who preached the gospel of the Kingdom of God in the early centuries. As The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia explains, “It is not strange to find the gospel brought into direct conflict with magicians, for in the 1st and 2nd centuries there were a multitude of such persons who pretended to possess supernatural powers by which they endeavored to deceive men” (ISBE, “Simon Magus”).
A few years later, the apostle Paul had a similar experience with a sorcerer. When explaining God’s way of life to a proconsul named Sergius Paulus at Paphos, “Elymas the sorcerer (for so his name is translated) withstood them, seeking to turn the proconsul away from the faith” (Acts 13:8).
Confronting this man who tried to deceive the proconsul, Paul said, “O full of all deceit and all fraud, you son of the devil, you enemy of all righteousness, will you not cease perverting the straight ways of the Lord? And now, indeed, the hand of the Lord is upon you, and you shall be blind, not seeing the sun for a time” (verses 10-11).
To counter the deception of sorcerers such as Simon the Sorcerer and Elymas, God gave His servants the ability to work miracles through the power of the Holy Spirit. In dealing with Simon the Sorcerer, Philip performed miracles and signs (Acts 8:13). In his confrontation with Elymas, Paul told the sorcerer that he would be temporarily blind (Acts 13:11).
A number of early Christian writers mention Simon the Sorcerer. They confirm the biblical account and add additional details. Justin Martyr wrote that Simon came from the city of Gitton. Jerome said that Simon’s own writings stated, “I am the Word of God, I am the Comforter, I am Almighty, I am all there is of God” (Henry Longueville Mansel, The Gnostic Heresies of the First and Second Centuries, 1875, p. 82).
Irenaeus said that Simon the Sorcerer had purchased a prostitute named Helena and that, through her, “he [Simon the Sorcerer] conceived the thought of making the angels and archangels” (ibid.).
Followers of Simon the Sorcerer were called Simonians. Members of this small gnostic sect combined elements of paganism, Judaism and Christianity in their misguided beliefs. Origen wrote that they mistakenly called Simon the Power of God. Origen and the other early writers previously mentioned regarded Simon as the founder of gnosticism.
As for the sorcerer’s death, several traditions exist. One claims that he told people to bury him in a grave and that he would rise after three days. But he didn’t rise. Another tradition says that he was flying around Rome with the aid of evil spirits but crashed to the ground and died (ISBE, “Simon Magus”).
Lesson for today
Although it is difficult to know with certainty whether these legends about Simon the Sorcerer are true, there is a sure biblical lesson for us today. In correcting Simon the Sorcerer, Peter told him, “Your heart is not right in the sight of God. Repent therefore of this your wickedness, and pray God if perhaps the thought of your heart may be forgiven you” (Acts 8:21-22, emphasis added).
The instruction to have a “loyal” and “clean” heart toward God is a theme that runs throughout the Bible (1 Chronicles 28:9; Psalm 51:10). The point is, God expects us to fully serve Him in our thoughts and deeds. We cannot be double-minded, attempting to serve God while living in a worldly manner (James 4:8; Matthew 6:24).
What will you do with the knowledge of God that you read on this website? Will you strive to wholeheartedly act on this information? Or will you let this priceless knowledge—which can give you a better life now as well as eternal life in the future—simply pass you by?
Choose life! Choose the way God wants you to go! See the “Change” section on this website to learn how to have the kind of heart that will please your Creator and give you the most satisfying life possible.