Backpedalling in Samaria

I am working on a book, “Missions in Samaria.” It is based on an article I wrote before. It started with the birth of the Samaritan identity up through the book of Acts. Then I jumped to how one can think about Missions in terms of OUR Samarias today. In other words, what places are we called to share the gospel that may be close to us but we have the tendency to ignore ministering to, or even sabotage doing ministry?

But then I did some more research and found that an important chapter was lost in looking at Samaria. In the first century, Samaria was a region with a sizable populace and a vibrant faith. Not so today. Why is this? One might suspect that they lost the war in battle of ideas/ideologies. Or perhaps there was a mass conversion to Christianity since the Book of Acts describes such a mass conversion.

The truth is that the Samaritan faith did not die so much as was murdered. Samaritism did not just fall, it was pushed.

During the time of the Byzantine Empire, Samaria was a turbulent place. Christan writers often used Samaritans or Samaritanism in negative analogies. The government was oppressive, and under Emperor Justinian, the faith was essentially made illegal. There were several uprisings that were crushed violently, killing hundreds of thousands of Samaritans. With the Islamic invasion, there was a bit of a temporary reprieve. However, that reprieve was far from complete with periodic forced conversions to Islam by the more “evangelistic” caliphs.

Today, the people who identify themselves as Samaritans are located in two small communities and number in the hundreds. There seems more of a tendency today to see it as a unique sect of Judaism, as opposed to a distinct competitor of that faith. In some ways, the remaining Samaritans are a testimony to the tenacity of faith.

Sadly, they are also a testimony to the tendency of Christians not to take the message of Christ seriously. Jesus sought to undermine the prejudices of the Jews regarding Samaritans, and specially commanded His apostles to reach out to them with the Good News. Yet as Christianity grew in power these prejudices grew in strength and violence, in opposition to Christ’s message.

This should serve as a warning to us.

Project Samaria 3: The Potential in Samaria

Icon of the Pentecost
Icon of the Pentecost (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

With Pentecost, the church age started, and the twelve disciples were now commissioned as apostles… going out into the world to share the good news of Christ. So what did they do?

 They stayed in Jerusalem. Not a bad idea at first. But they stayed in Jerusalem quite awhile. That wasn’t really good. They were designated to be apostles. The term apostle means that they are called out, or sent out, or act as ambassadors. They were not supposed to stay in Jerusalem or any church. They were supposed to reach out to new areas and new peoples.

 But finally, the people in Jerusalem began to reach out to neighboring towns and communities… because of St. Paul. Now at this time, he wasn’t yet a saint. And at this time Luke tends to call him Saul. According to Acts chapter 8, Saul went around Jerusalem house to house of Christians dragging them off to Jail. So Christians began to scatter and tell others about Christ. Persecution is NOT always bad. Suffering is NOT always bad. Let’s read Acts 8, starting in verse 4.

4 Those who had been scattered preached the word wherever they went. 5 Philip went down to a city in Samaria and proclaimed the Messiah there. 6 When the crowds heard Philip and saw the signs he performed, they all paid close attention to what he said. 7 For with shrieks, impure spirits came out of many, and many who were paralyzed or lame were healed. 8 So there was great joy in that city.

Philip was not one of the twelve disciples. He was not one of the original 12 apostles. He actually was a deacon at the church of Jerusalem. In Acts 6 there were 7 deacons assigned to help out in the church. Philip was one of them. Philip was different from the twelve disciples in that he was what we would call a Hellenized Jew. That is, he was Jewish by blood but Greek in many ways by culture. It is interesting that many of the great early missionaries and evangelists of the early church were people who were comfortable living in two different cultures. Philip had roots in Jewish culture and in Greek culture and appeared to be comfortable in sharing with people of other cultures.

So Philip leaves Jerusalem because of the persecution and goes to Samaria, and he begins sharing God’s love with the people of Samaria. And they responded! They wanted to follow Jesus!

14 When the apostles in Jerusalem heard that Samaria had accepted the word of God, they sent Peter and John to Samaria. 15 When they arrived, they prayed for the new believers there that they might receive the Holy Spirit, 16 because the Holy Spirit had not yet come on any of them; they had simply been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. 17 Then Peter and John placed their hands on them, and they received the Holy Spirit.

Here we get to an area of apparent contradictions in the Bible. The Samaritans received the Holy Spirit and did so linked to a miraculous gift… in this case speaking in foreign languages. Now this is not the only time where the receiving of the Holy Spirit was linked to a miraculous gift. In fact, four times in Acts, the receiving of the Holy Spirit was tied to a miraculous gift.

Another thing is that in this case there is a time difference between belief in Christ and the receipt of the Holy Spirit. This is the only case that we know of after Pentecost where this has happened. In fact, this is the challenge. When we go the Epistles, such as Ephesians and I Corinthians, Paul makes it very clear that all Christians have the Holy Spirit, but not all Christians have miraculous gifts.

Different groups choose different directions to deal with the contradiction. Some focus on the events of Acts over the aparent statement in the Epistles. Some focus the statements in the Epistles and view the unique events in Acts as non-normative. You can decide for yourself… you don’t need me or anyone else to tell you what to think. However, for myself, I believe the statements of Paul describes how God ordinarily works. We accept Christ by Faith and we immediately of one church and one Spirit. We don’t have to wait for something more to come along later. What is described in parts of Acts is God acting in an extraordinary way.

I consider this to be good exegesis (you may or may not agree) but it does have an added value that implies a functionalist or missiological purpose for events and record of the Book of Acts.  I believe that God was still trying to teach his disciples (and us) something very important.

  • The first miraculous arrival of the Holy Spirit was to the Jews… the 120 in the upper room on the day of Pentecost… in Acts chapter 2.
  • The second miraculous arrival of the Holy Spirit was to the Samaritans, here in Acts 8.
  • The third miraculous arrival of the Holy Spirit was to the Gentiles, in Acts 10.
  • The final miraculous arrival of the Holy Spirit was to followers of John the Baptist who followed Christ in Acts 19. <The followers of John the Baptist could easily have been thought of by the early Christians as the one group that might “inclusively” be redeemed by Christ without following Christ>

    Each one was a sign. The Baptism of the Holy Spirit (that is, the immersion of individuals into a new divine community of faith) is available to all people who place their faith in Christ… to Jews, to Samaritans, to Gentiles. In the New Testament the concept of baptism of the Holy Spirit is not something that happens to individuals. It happens to the church. The church is baptized of the Holy Spirit so when we in faith come to Christ, we are part of His church and share in the baptism of the Holy Spirit.

 But why would the Holy Spirit delay in coming to the Samaritans when, as far as we know, He never delayed elsewhere after Pentecost? The Apostles were present at Pentecost. Peter was present in the house of Cornelius when Gentiles came to Christ. Paul was present when the followers of John the Baptist accepted Christ. But the apostles were not there when the Samaritans accepted Christ. God needed the apostles to see that the Samaritans were baptized by the same Holy Spirit into the same church the same way that the Jews were. But the apostles were not there when the Samaritans accepted Christ. Only Philip the Evangelist… a deacon of the church of Jerusalem was there. God needed them to see something not just hear about it. We are the same way sometimes. It is not good enough to hear about something amazing, or read about something amazing. We need to see it.

The question is, did it work? Did the apostles learn something that changed their attitude and actions. The answer is without a doubt, YES!! Look at verse 25

25 After they had further proclaimed the word of the Lord and testified about Jesus, Peter and John returned to Jerusalem, preaching the gospel in many Samaritan villages.

Peter and John stayed in Jerusalem for years without sharing the Gospel with Samaritans. When Peter and John went up to Samaria to see what Philip was doing, it appears that they went directly there without sharing the Gospel with Samaritans on the way. But once they saw that Samaritans were accepted by God in the same manner as Jews, it said that they stopped in many Samaritan villages along the way preaching the Good News.

Some years later, Peter spoke at the Jerusalem Council and summed things up. Acts 15: 6-11. The question was whether a non-Jew had to become a Jew… or at least act like a Jew to become a Christian. A good question. But Peter learned something from this event and the event with the Gentile Cornelius and his family.

6 The apostles and elders met to consider this question. 7 After much discussion, Peter got up and addressed them: “Brothers, you know that some time ago God made a choice among you that the Gentiles might hear from my lips the message of the gospel and believe. 8 God, who knows the heart, showed that he accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as he did to us. 9 He did not discriminate between us and them, for he purified their hearts by faith. 10 Now then, why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of Gentiles a yoke that neither we nor our ancestors have been able to bear? 11 No! We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are.”

Yes the Apostles learned their lesson, and because of that the Gospel of Christ has gone from Jerusalem, to Judea and Samaria, and even to the ends of the earth.

So why did I call this “The Potential in Samaria.” It’s pretty simple. The disciples of Jesus saw the problems of Samaria. God saw the potential of Samaria. Jesus set up the plan for Samaria, training His disciples so that they could not only see the potential, but be part of turning that potential into a reality.

Samaria Part 2: The Preparation for Samaria

Clearly, the disciples were not ready to reach out to Samaritans. Much like Jonah, they seemed more open to the thought of God destroying them than saving them.

Clearly, the attitude of the disciples needed to be changed first. It is hardly surprising that Jesus warned the disciples not to go off and work in Gentile or Samaritan villages. They needed to be prepared.

Jesus prepared them on a number of occasions. He made statements making it clear that His message and mission was to all people (Luke 4 for example). He used non-Jews in positive roles in his messages (such as “The Good Samaritan”) and even compared them favorably to Jews on a number of occasions. He even did miraculous acts for Gentiles, such as to the Gadarene demoniac, and the Samaritan leper.


The Faith of a Canaanite Woman Matthew 15:21-28

21 Leaving that place, Jesus withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon. 22 A Canaanite woman from that vicinity came to him, crying out, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me! My daughter is demon-possessed and suffering terribly.”

23 Jesus did not answer a word. So his disciples came to him and urged him, “Send her away, for she keeps crying out after us.”

24 He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.”

25 The woman came and knelt before him. “Lord, help me!” she said.

26 He replied, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.”

27 “Yes it is, Lord,” she said. “Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.”

28 Then Jesus said to her, “Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.” And her daughter was healed at that moment.

In this you can see three attitudes the Jesus showed.

  1. Not worthy of my time v. 23
  2. Not worthy of my attention v. 24
  3. Not worthy of my respect v. 26

Jesus was mimicking the disciples’ attitude. The disciples said to Jesus… Send her away… she is annoying us… she is bothering us. She is not worthy of our respect, not worthy of our attention, not worthy of our time.

But in the end, Jesus gave her all three. He gave her His time. He gave her His attention. He gave her His respect.

The question is, Did the disciples get the message? I believe they did. For one thing… 30 years after this event, Matthew remembered it and took time to tell us it. Not only did Matthew remember, but Peter did as well, because Mark recorded Peter’s version of this event as well.

Secondly, according to Matthew, right after this event Jesus took them to an area near the Sea of Galilee, but this was an area where the people were also Gentiles. We often talk about the feeding of the 5000, but we often ignore the feeding of the 4000. But for many of us, perhaps, the feeding of the 4000 is more important. The feeding of the 5000 was for the Jews. But the feeding of the 4000 was for the Gentiles.This event was the largest single event where Jesus shared the good news with Gentiles (non-Jews), and he did it right after helping the Canaanite woman. Continuing with Matthew 15:

Jesus Feeds the Four Thousand

29 Jesus left there and went along the Sea of Galilee. Then he went up on a mountainside and sat down. 30 Great crowds came to him, bringing the lame, the blind, the crippled, the mute and many others, and laid them at his feet; and he healed them. 31 The people were amazed when they saw the mute speaking, the crippled made well, the lame walking and the blind seeing. And they praised the God of Israel. 32 Jesus called his disciples to him and said, “I have compassion for these people; they have already been with me three days and have nothing to eat. I do not want to send them away hungry, or they may collapse on the way.”33 His disciples answered, “Where could we get enough bread in this remote place to feed such a crowd?”

You will notice in this story…. the disciples did not tell Jesus to send those people away because they were bothersome. They did not suggest that the people were not worth their time, attention, and respect. The only thing negative was that they did not know how they could help in feeding them.

Understand that the feeding of the 5000 already occurred. You might say that they should have known what Jesus would do. But to be fair, Jesus did not feed every group that came to him. And the only other group that Jesus fed was made up of Jews. Perhaps the disciples were not ready to see that what Jesus did with the Jews, He desired to do, and could do, with the Gentiles.

34 “How many loaves do you have?” Jesus asked.Seven,” they replied, “and a few small fish.” 35 He told the crowd to sit down on the ground. 36 Then he took the seven loaves and the fish, and when he had given thanks, he broke them and gave them to the disciples, and they in turn to the people. 37 They all ate and were satisfied. Afterward the disciples picked up seven basketfuls of broken pieces that were left over. 38 The number of those who ate was four thousand men, besides women and children.

This showed Jesus working with Gentiles. Jews did not like Gentiles… but they had even bigger problems with Samaritans. Jesus gave another lesson.

A third passage was John 4. This is a long passage, you can read it yourself.

  • In the first passage, Jesus goes to a Gentile region and reaches out to a Canaanite, or Gentile woman.
  • In the second passage, Jesus goes to a Gentile region and reaches out to a group of Gentiles.
  • In this third passage, Jesus reaches out to a Samaritan woman, and then to an entire Samaritan village.

What do we see. Jesus spoke to the Samaritan Woman… in a caring manner. He did this when the disciples were not around. When they came back they were surprised to find Jesus talking to a Samaritan woman. But this time they were getting smarter… They were thinking (in verse 27) “What is Jesus doing… why is he talking to her.” But they kept silent.

Jesus let them know that he was planting the seed of God’s work in this Samaritan village and giving the disciples the opportunity to join in God’s work by harvesting what was not planted. <Verse 37> It goes on to say that many Samaritans <Verses 38-42> The disciples were able to witness a great revival and even, in some small way, be a part of it.

What about us? Let me suggest that we need to be prepared to reach the Samaritans… the people around us who are not like us:

  1. We need to learn that others are worthy of our attention
  2. We need to learn that others are worthy of our time
  3. We need to learn that others are worthy of our respect
  4. We need to learn to interact with others (talk, share, help)
  5. We need to see that God is already working with others
  6. We need to jump in and join God in what He has already started with others