When Philip preached in Samaria the people listened, believed the Gospel and were baptized (Acts 8:5-7, 12). However, Luke tells us that, when Peter and John learned of the Samaritan’s repentance and came to the Samaritan village where Philip was preaching (Acts 8:14), they found the new believers had not received the Holy Spirit (Acts 8:16)! Why would this be so? Was anything lacking in Philip’s preaching?
First of all, let it be understood that nothing was lacking in Philip’s ministry. After all, when he preached to the Ethiopian eunuch later, the man believed, was baptized, and went away rejoicing (Acts 8:39), showing evidence of the fruits of the Spirit. Moreover, the Apostles didn’t need to assist Philip there, nor later, Ananias when he laid hands on and baptized Saul of Tarsus (Acts 9:17-18).
So, what was Luke showing us in that Samaria had to wait for the Apostles to come and lay hands upon them (Acts 8:15), before they received the Holy Spirit? I think Luke may have had two things in mind in recording Philip’s ministry in Acts 8. First of all, because of the anomaly of the method of receiving the Holy Spirit, Luke forces us to consider all other places in the New Testament where believers were baptized and received the Holy Spirit. In doing so we find there is absolutely no fixed method or ritual whereby the Holy Spirit would fall upon the believer. In Acts 2 on the first Pentecost there is little doubt that he fell upon all believers who submitted to baptism. However, the Samaritans waited for prayer and the laying on of hands by the Apostles (Acts 8:15, 17). The Ethiopian eunuch seemed to receive the Holy Spirit simultaneously as he submitted to baptism (Acts 8:36-39). On the other hand, Saul of Tarsus received the Holy Spirit with the laying on of hands and was later baptized (Acts 9:17-18). Still later, Cornelius and his family and friends received the Spirit as they listened and believed Peter’s preaching, without hands being laid upon them at all. Only later was baptism commanded (Acts 10:44-48). So, very early in Acts Luke presents us with the clear understanding that God does not come to us through correct words and defined ritual, but he does look upon our hearts and comes to those who truly believe.
The second and equally important reason why the Samaritans had to wait for the Apostles to lay hands upon them was for the benefit of both Jerusalem and Samaria. They had been bitter enemies for centuries. A formal and mutual reception and understanding had to occur. The Apostles were surprised when they learned of Samaria’s repentance (Acts 8:14; cp. Matthew 10:5), and the Lord forced them to pray for them and perform the initial ceremony of laying on of hands, so they could be welcomed into the Kingdom of God. On the other hand, it was necessary for the Samaritans to understand that God did not receive them so they could return to their old religion. They waited for the gift of the Holy Spirit, so they would be forced to look the Jerusalem church for leadership. The old ways and the old religion had to be left behind. This was done only to the Samaritans—not to any other group of believers whether Jewish or Gentile. It was done simply because of the hatred between the Jews and the Samaritans (cp. John 4:9). They were comfortable having nothing to do with one another, but this was not the way of the Kingdom of God. If one does not love his brother, how can that one claim to Love God and Jesus who died for all (1John 3:14, 17; 4:20-21)?