In Acts 6-8, Luke gives us an interesting look at the continual battle between the true believers in Jesus Christ, and those who are in it for their own selfish purposes.
To begin, Luke describes the dramatic confrontation between Stephen, a true contender for the faith, and the religious leadership of the Jewish council, whom we know from the gospels were hypocrites of the worst kind. In fact, in his famous “Seven Woes” of Matthew 23, Jesus describes these men as blind guides and fools who are leading the people on a straight path to hell.
In Acts 8, we are introduced to another New Testament deacon–Philip. Luke begins to describe the evangelistic work of Philip and the spread of the gospel into Samaria, which is step two of Jesus’ strategic plan for the gospel outlined in Acts 1:8.
Intersected with the work of Philip, Luke tells the story of another pretender, this time Simon the Magician. There is much written about Simon in extra-biblical writings from the first century. Many believe he was the founder of Gnosticism, a heresy that plagued the early church for the first three centuries. As Luke alludes to in Acts 8, Simon was the worst kind of pretender because he mixed a satanic blend of Christian truth with subtle variations. Gnosticism became a deadly virus within early Christianity for this very reason–it was difficult to spot.
Acts 8 concludes with another shining example of Philip the Evangelist interacting with an unbeliever. This time, it is an Ethiopian Eunuch, a man of stature and authority. Led by the Spirit, Philip engages the Eunuch in conversation and is able to explain the “good news about Jesus” (the gospel) in clear, unmistakable terms. Upon hearing the gospel, the Eunuch is saved and baptized.
Spotting Contenders and Pretenders can be a difficult task. Sometimes a pretender so grossly misrepresents the Scriptures it is easy to spot them as a false teacher. Many times, however, the deception is much more subtle and crafty.
One clear advantage we have is the Spirit of God within us that guides us and leads us to a clear understanding of Scripture. In many cases, a clear distinction between a contender and a pretender is their motive. Both Stephen and Philip served the Lord with a selfless, unhindered passion, while the Council and Simon the Magician were more interested in their own power and reward than in the spread of the gospel.
Contenders and pretenders: ask the Holy Spirit to give you discernment to spot the difference.–Chris Eller