Question: How is it that the new believers who were baptized in Acts 8: 14-16 had not yet received the Holy Spirit? How can someone be a new believer without the Holy Spirit?
The book of Acts records how the Gospel spread from Jerusalem to Judea (1-7), Samaria (8-9), and then on to uttermost parts of the earth (10-28). This is important in understanding the context of Acts 8:14-17, because Acts chapter 8 opens a new phase in the advance of the Gospel: reaching Samaritans for Jesus.
The Samaritans were considered outcasts by the Jews in New Testament times, and the Samaritans had similar feelings about the Jews:
Luke 9:51-53 As the time approached for him to be taken up to heaven, Jesus resolutely set out for Jerusalem. And he sent messengers on ahead, who went into a Samaritan village to get things ready for him; but the people there did not welcome him, because he was heading for Jerusalem.
God chose Philip, a Gentile believer in Jesus who had also grown up knowing social exclusion from the Jewish culture, to be the first to bring the Gospel to Samaria (Acts 8:5-13).
The conversion of Samaritans would pose a serious problem for many Jewish Christians. Racial and social prejudice breeds distrust between people. God had to deliver the apostle Peter from his prejudice against Gentiles as people who were considered “unclean” (Acts 10:28). In a similar way, Jewish Christians would typically find it very difficult to interact with Samaritans who now claimed to be Christians.
To overcome this prejudice, God used Peter and John, sent by the apostles in Jerusalem, to verify the conversion of the Samaritans (v.14). The apostles clearly expected these new Samaritan believers to experience the outpouring of the Holy Spirit in power, and that had not yet been the case (v.16). God used Peter and John to pray for these first Samaritan believers and lay hands on them (a cultural no-no). The result was so obvious that an onlooker named Simon offered to pay the apostles for the ability to lay hands on people to experience the filling of the Holy Spirit (vv. 18-19).
The Samaritan Christians were saved—born again of the Spirit—the moment they believed. But the “receiving of the Spirit” (v. 15) in this context refers to receiving the baptism of the Holy Spirit in a demonstration of power. This was the Samaritan’s “Pentecost.” A similar Pentecost-style experience would take place in the home of Cornelius as the Gospel later penetrated the Gentile world (Acts 10). The experience would build unity between the Jewish, Samaritan and Gentile believers as they all shared in the outpouring of the Holy Spirit as the apostles had experienced at Pentecost.
The Holy Spirit was poured out in demonstrations of power upon new converts at the three most prominent thresholds for fulfilling Jesus’ command to bring the Gospel to the whole world (Jerusalem and Judea [one region], Samaria, and the Gentile world):
Acts 1:8 But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth (i.e., Gentiles).