KEY THOT: This passage presents some challenges to interpret for some churches, especially those from the reformed/conservative traditions: how could the Samaritan believers who were already baptized not have received the Holy Spirit? We read that “he (Spirit) has not fallen on any of them, but they had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus” (v.16). One way to get around this incident to fit our theological construct is to assert that the Samaritan case was unique and non-normative (in other words, not a pattern to follow for other believers). But why was this incident unique? Because the Samaritans were half-Jews and the apostles have to extend the “right hand of fellowship” to them to include them into the Church. But such cultural interpretation cannot explain the other occasions in Acts when the Spirit was received, especially as they involved only Jews.
The theological challenge presented by this incident is the understanding of the Pentecostals that this incident proves that the blessing of the Spirit is a “second experience” to be sought after salvation. However one may interpret this incident theologically, this two-step initiation into the Body of Christ (water baptism followed by laying on of hands) is not unique to the Samaritan believers. (In fact, the Lutherans and the Anglicans still keep this two-step initiation in their liturgy for baptism: first water, then laying on of hands).
This two-step initiation is implied throughout Acts but clarified in Acts 19:5-6 when Paul baptized a group of Jewish disciples of John whom he initially thought were disciples of Jesus: “On hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. And when Paul had laid his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they began speaking in tongues and prophesying” (Acts 19:5-6).
While outwardly, this two experiences were separated through two unique acts (water baptism and laying on of hands), spiritually and theologically, they should be seen as one experience of initiation into Christ but received in sequence, first through water baptism for the forgiveness of sins followed by laying on of hands for the gift of the Spirit. This dual-gift of salvation (gift of forgiveness and gift of the Spirit) is also given in Peter’s call to the Jews gathered in Jerusalem on the Day of Pentecost: “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38)
However, God is sovereign and free in his action so that even the normal order of reception of gifts of salvation could be reversed and the laying on of hands dispensed with, as in the case of the Cornelius household: "Can anyone withhold water for baptizing these people, who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?" (Acts 10:47). In this case, the gift of the Spirit was given before water baptism: "While Peter was still saying these things, the Holy Spirit fell on all who heard the word. And the believers from among the circumcised who had come with Peter were amazed, because the gift of the Holy Spirit was poured out even on the Gentiles" (Acts 10:44-45).
While the conservatives and charismatics continue to debate whether the reception of the Spirit is a “second and subsequent” experience, it’s more correct theologically to understand these two gifts (forgiveness and Spirit) as one initiatory blessing received at baptism--but the experience of it may be subsequent due to ignorance. The reason why the experience is lacking (and so becomes subsequent) is the lack of teaching in the matter of the Spirit. Even the experience of forgiveness of sin can become a "subsequent" experience for baptised Christians still suffering from self-condemnation and guilt arising from their past life if the teaching of Christ's atoning sacrifice is deficient.
This was probably the case among the Samaritan believers: the apostles Peter and John probably realized the deficiency in Philip’s teaching of baptism and so completed it by teaching about the Spirit before laying their hands upon these believers to complete their baptismal experience. Lack of teaching of truth is often the cause for a lack of experience of the truth.
Father, thank You that You have blessed us in Christ with forgiveness of sins and the gift of the Spirit. May we experience both of these salvation gifts fully in our own daily walk with You. Amen.