Bitterness Against Others: Simon the Magician

Bitterness kills relationships and destroys lives. Bitterness is the anger and hatred that we direct at other people because of our own selfish ambition and pride. It is a topic that is only explicitly mentioned a handful of times in the Scripture, but the passages are rich with helpful instruction about how to overcome this relationship slayer.

Here is a general idea of where we are headed:

  • Bitterness Against Others: Simon the Magician (Acts 8:18-24)
  • Bitterness Against God: Job (Job 7:11, 9:18, 10:1, etc.)
  • The Destructive Nature of Bitterness (Hebrews 12:15, Ephesians 4:23-24)

I want to begin our study on bitterness with a look at Simon the Magician in Acts 8:18-24. It was an exciting time in the early church. Luke records in Acts 8 that the gospel of Jesus Christ was spreading like wildfire and souls were being added to the church each day. Philip, the evangelist, had gone to Samaria to preach the gospel, and God was changing hearts. God allowed Philip to perform great miracles in the town of Samaria-casting out demons, and healing the paralyzed-and the town was very excited (8:8).

All this excitement drew the attention of a man named Simon who was a magician in the town. He was the Samaritan equivalent of a David Copperfield or Criss Angel. His abilities were well-known in Samaria so much so that they described him as the "Great Power from God." He made his living on wowing audiences with his magical skills (8:11), but his abilities paled in comparison to the power of God working through Philip. It is safe to assume that Philip's work in the town was really bad for business.

Initially Simon expressed a belief in Christ and was baptized. When it came time for the apostles, Peter and John, to come and pray for and lay hands on the new believers, Simon approached them about purchasing the power to give the Spirit to other people (this is where we get our term simony from). Peter's response is quite abrupt and some would even say over the top, after all it was not unheard of to buy and sell religious offices. Peter says that Simon and his money should "go into destruction" (literal translation). One translator has accurately rendered the passage this way, "To hell with your money! And you along with it." Strong words from an apostle. Peter then goes on to reveal the underlying motive for Simon's inquiry. He tells Simon that his heart is not right and he needs to repent and beg God to forgive him because he is in bondage to iniquity.

Peter then makes an interesting observation that is especially pertinent to our discussion. He tells Simon that he perceives him to be in "the gall of bitterness." This is an idiomatic phrase which basically means that Simon is jealous and bitter (the NET Bible translates the phrase "bitterly envious"). Peter says that the motivating force behinds Simon's desire for spiritual ability was a jealous bitterness against Philip and the apostles. This is quite instructive for us, and I want to draw a few conclusions from this account:

  1. Bitterness is often linked with an unfulfilled desire for power and financial affluence. Simon was not trying to grow spiritually. He was trying to maintain his status as the "Great Power from God" (Acts 8:10) among the people of Samaria. His livelihood was being challenged, and he harbored great jealousy and bitterness towards those who would usurp his position. It is possible that you have had a financial setback, a job loss or a change in your status that might tempt you to harbor bitterness at your situation. It can be easy to justify your anger at your circumstances and those who have caused them. But Peter identifies these feelings as making someone's "heart...not right with God."
  2. Bitterness will often masquerade as being spiritual. Simon didn't barge in and start bartering for spiritual ability. He first expressed assent or belief in the gospel and was even baptized. It wasn't until later that his actions betrayed his lack of true faith. It can be easy for us to clothe our bitter feelings or words toward someone in spiritual terms. We can come up with all sorts of reasons why we are speaking bitterly about someone, but ultimately our bitter heart will reveal itself.
  3. Bitterness is often associated with jealousy and envy. James 3:14 speaks about those who claim to have wisdom and spirit-motivated good deeds, but they are actually filled with "bitter jealousy and selfish ambition." You can imagine how difficult it was for Simon to see the spotlight shift from him to this interloper. Maybe you have been replaced by someone at work or had your position of influence given to someone else. The temptation to be jealous and bitter can be quite overwhelming.Bitterness can be overcome by the power of God. Peter encouraged Simon to pray and beg God for forgiveness. We should also heed Peter's warning. Paul encourages us to put off, among other things, bitterness and to treat each other with kindness (Ephesians 4:23-24).
  4. Bitterness can be an incredibly destructive force in our lives and, as we will study later, in the lives of other people (Hebrews 12:15), but it does not have to go unchecked in our hearts. We can overcome bitterness by the power of God.

 

 

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