The “gall of bitterness” in Acts — it isn’t resentment, by Rebecca Davis
Bitterness is often a term used to shame and blame victims of abuse who are seeking help from their churches. This post is second in a series addressing the concept of bitterness in the Bible and what it really means in context. The first post in this series addressed the root of bitterness in Hebrews, explaining how it isn’t unforgiveness, as it’s often presented to be, but is something else instead.
Many thanks to Rebecca Davis for this series. It was originally published at BJUGrace, and is expanded on in her book, Untwisting Scriptures that were used to tie you up, gag you, and tangle your mind* [affiliate link].
In Acts 8 Peter came to a certain city — where Philip had been preaching and working miracles, where there were now many new Christians — and laid his hands on the new Christians, who received the Holy Spirit. Whatever it was that happened when they received the Holy Spirit (the Scripture doesn’t say), one new believer named Simon was so completely bowled over with astonishment and wonder and awe that he immediately offered to pay Peter to show him how to do the same thing.
But Peter said to him,
May your silver perish with you, because you thought you could obtain the gift of God with money! You have neither part nor lot in this matter, for your heart is not right before God. Repent, therefore, of this wickedness of yours, and pray to the Lord that, if possible, the intent of your heart may be forgiven you. For I see that you are in the gall of bitterness and in the bond of iniquity. Acts 8:20-23
This is a pretty shocking statement, on the face of it. One might have thought that Simon had simply made a mistake, but from Peter’s Spirit-inspired words that is clearly not correct.
Acts 8:13 had said that Simon believed Philip and had even been baptized. But here Peter makes it ever so clear he wasn’t a real believer in Jesus Christ.*
But what was Simon’s “bitterness”? Was it “active hatred” according to the Oxford English dictionary? Was it “stinging, cutting, harsh, virulent” words? Was it “intense overt hostility”?
Was it unforgiveness or resentment toward God, as many people preach? Was it discontentment and an unwillingness to accept God’s will for his life, as Bob Wood preached in the BJU chapel in 2010?
What was Simon’s bitterness?
The beginning of Acts 8 presents Simon as a sorcerer before whom everyone in his city stood in awe because of what they thought were his supernatural powers. When the Christian missionary Philip arrived, though, the people forgot about Simon, listened to Philip, saw Philip’s miracles, believed in Jesus Christ, and were ultimately baptized. Simon was astonished by Philip’s miracles too, followed him, and claimed to be a believer.
That’s the backdrop to the words of Peter later in the chapter. It seems pretty clear from the context that Simon wanted to keep the control over the people that he had formerly had but now saw slipping away. In other words . . .
Simon wanted the gifts of the Holy Spirit without any understanding of the Holy Spirit. He wanted power without surrender. He wanted to pay for the ability to work miracles that Peter and Philip exhibited, but wasn’t at all interested in the love and transformation that was essential to it. Instead, he wanted to use the Holy Spirit as a commodity to advance his personal position, reputation, and sense of power.
His bitterness (literally, poison) was related to a lust for power and self-exaltation, along the very same lines as Deuteronomy 29:18-19. This would, if carried through, bring great grief on all the people of the city, just as poison does — imagine, if their former leader had been able to do similar miracles to those of Philip and Peter, except that these miracles would be in his own name rather than in the Name of Jesus!
Thinking of this possibility (along with Peter’s reference to gall) reminds me of some words that the prophet Amos spoke to the Israelites.
Amos 6:12-13 But you have turned justice into poison [gall] and the fruit of righteousness into wormwood — you who rejoice in Lo-debar, who say, “Have we not by our own strength captured Karnaim for ourselves?”
Again we see a similar theme: Someone wants to be able to boast in himself, in the work of God as if it is his own work. This poison of bitterness is the poison of defiling and perverting justice and righteousness to be All About Me.
This is the bitterness of Acts 8:23. And once again, it has nothing to do with unforgiveness or resentment. Simon’s bitterness is not about being “discontent” with the life God has given you. The poison of his bitterness was that of seeking to pervert the mighty work of the Holy Spirit to be all about his own power, of wanting to exalt himself.
In fact, it’s very similar to the root of bitterness in Hebrews. We may be finding a common theme.
*It seems that Simon was like one of those “believers” in John 2:23-25, which says about Jesus, “many believed in his name when they saw the signs that he was doing. But Jesus on his part did not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people and needed no one to bear witness about man, for he himself knew what was in man.” Just like these people, Simon apparently “believed” in a way, but not with saving faith that put all his trust in Jesus Christ.