February 16, 2014

Commentary on the Acts of the Apostles

By: Tom Lowe

Topic #III: The Church Scattered into Palestine and Syria (8:4-12:25)     Subtopic A. The Ministry of Philip (8:4-40).                                           

 

Lesson III.A.2: Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch (8:26-39)

 

Introduction

 

The first mentioned of Philip is found in the account of the dispute between the Hebrew and Hellenistic disciples in Acts 6. He is one of the deacons appointed to administer the daily distribution of food and alms, and to remove all suspicion of partiality. The persecution of which Saul was the leader must have stopped the "daily ministrations" of the Church. The teachers who had been most prominent were compelled to take flight, and Philip was among them. Philip flees to the city of Samaria, where he preaches the gospel effectively. He is the precursor of St. Paul in his missionary work, as Stephen had been in his teaching. The scene which brings Philip and Simon the sorcerer into contact with each other (Acts 8:9-13), and the magician has to acknowledge a power over nature greater than his own, is interesting. This step is followed by another. On the road from Jerusalem to Gaza he meets the Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8:26). The History that follows, which makes up this lesson, is interesting since it is one of the few records in the New Testament of the process of individual conversion. A brief sentence (Acts 8:40), tells us that Philip continued his work as a preacher at Azotus (Ashdod) and among the other cities that had formerly belonged to the Philistines, and, following the coast-line, came to Caesarea. Then for a long period—around eighteen or nineteen years—we lose sight of him. The last glimpse of him in the New Testament is in the account of St. Paul's journey to Jerusalem. It is to his house that St. Paul and his companions turn for shelter. He has four daughters, who possess the gift of prophetic utterance and who apparently give themselves to the work of teaching instead of entering on the life of a wife and mother (Acts 21:8, 9). One tradition places the scene of his death at Hierapolis in Phrygia. According to another, he died bishop of Tralles.

 

Scripture

26 But an angel of the Lord said to Philip, "Rise and go toward the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza." This is a desert road.

27 And he rose and went. And behold, an Ethiopian, a eunuch, a minister of the Can'dace, queen of the Ethiopians, in charge of all her treasure, had come to Jerusalem to worship

28 and was returning; seated in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah.

29 And the Spirit said to Philip, "Go up and join this chariot."

30 So Philip ran to him, and heard him reading Isaiah the prophet, and asked, "Do you understand what you are reading?"

31 And he said, "How can I, unless some one guides me?" And he invited Philip to come up and sit with him.

32 Now the passage of the scripture which he was reading was this: "As a sheep led to the slaughter or a lamb before its shearer is dumb, so he opens not his mouth.

33 In his humiliation justice was denied him. Who can describe his generation? For his life is taken up from the earth."

34 And the eunuch said to Philip, "About whom, pray, does the prophet say this, about himself or about some one else?"

35 Then Philip opened his mouth, and beginning with this scripture he told him the good news of Jesus.

36 And as they went along the road they came to some water, and the eunuch said, "See, here is water! What is to prevent my being baptized?"

37 And Philip said, If thou believest with all thine heart, thou mayest. And he answered and said, I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.

38 And he commanded the chariot to stop, and they both went down into the water, Philip and the eunuch, and he baptized him.

39 And when they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord caught up Philip; and the eunuch saw him no more, and went on his way rejoicing.

 

Commentary

26 But an angel of the Lord said to Philip, "Rise and go toward the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza." This is a desert road.

We have seen the first movements, indicated in the commission of Jesus (Acts 1:8): “In Jerusalem, in Judea, and Samaria.” Now we have the first movement beyond, toward “the uttermost part of the earth.” Philip the deacon was given the work of first expanding the commission of Jesus to win one for Him from among the number of those whom the Jews considered outside the covenant of promise. Though Luke gives no indication of God commanding Philip to preach to the Samaritans, or where he was when he received the command to go to Gaza; but God did sovereignly direct him toward Gaza.

Samaria is an area that lies north of Jerusalem. Now Philip is told to go way down south. What we know as the Gaza strip is south, over along the Mediterranean. This was the trade route down into Egypt and Ethiopia. He would probably travel through Jerusalem to get there.

Philip had been speaking to multitudes in Samaria, and now he is sent down to a desert. He is leaving a place where there has been a great movement of the Spirit of God, to go into a place, a desert, where there is nobody. However, when he gets there, he finds that God does have someone to whom he is to witness.

“This is a desert road” perhaps may be better stated: “This place [that is, Gaza] is deserted.” Old Gaza, formerly one of the five chief cities of the Philistines, was situated about two miles from the sea, had been destroyed by Alexander and was at this time “deserted.” New Gaza, on the coast, was not destroyed until A.D. 66. The highway is referred to as “the desert road,” but the expression may refer to either a desert road or a desert city. Old Gaza was called Desert Gaza.

You and I are not likely to have angels instruct us, but we can know the guidance of the Holy Spirit in our witnessing, if we are walking in the Spirit and praying for God’s direction.

27 And he rose and went. And behold, an Ethiopian, a eunuch, a minister of the Can'dace, queen of the Ethiopians, in charge of all her treasure, had come to Jerusalem to worship

We have come to the very wonderful account of the conversion of the Ethiopian eunuch, a son of Ham. You will notice from this account, as well as the accounts of the conversion of Saul of Tarsus and Cornelius (which is coming up), that three factors must be brought into focus before there can be a conversion. All three of these are evident in the conversion of the Ethiopian eunuch.

  1. The work of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit had taken this man Philip to Samaria where there had been a great moving of the Spirit of God. Then the Holy Spirit moved him down to Gaza, and again we see His working in the heart of the Ethiopian eunuch. The Spirit of God had gone ahead to prepare the heart of the Ethiopian and also to prepare the messenger.

  2. The Word of God. “So then, faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the Word of God” (Romans 10:17). The Word of God is the second essential component. The Holy Spirit will take the things of Christ and will reveal them to an individual. It is the Spirit of God using the Word of God. But, wait a minute, there must be a human instrument.

  3. The man of God. The Spirit of God uses the man of God who delivers the Word of God to produce a son of God, one who is born again. We will see this in the record of the conversion of this Ethiopian eunuch.

The Ethiopians were the Nubian race dwelling in the Nile region south of Egypt proper. The country included all the land from Aswan in southern Egypt to Khartoum, Sedan. The Bible calls this area Ethiopia, but it is not the country we know as Ethiopia. It is only in modern times that they have been confused with the Abyssinians, who ethnologically and linguistically are Semitic. He is a eunuch, and therefore would be excluded by the Law from the “assembly of the Lord.” I believe he was the first of the African race to become a Christian. It is now established that at least three centuries before Christ, Greek literature and thought had permeated that Central African district, and that a most remarkable civilization was realized under Candace. Probably this word Candace is not the name of a woman, but rather a title, like Pharaoh. Governmental power rested in the hands of Candace, since the royal son was worshipped as an offspring of the sun, and was therefore above such mundane activities as ruling over a nation. Rulership was therefore vested with the queen-mother.

 We read here that this man of Ethiopia had charge of all the treasure of the queen. Today we would call him the Secretary of the Treasury. He was an official, and a high official of that day, a man of property and prominence. This man was not traveling alone. He had a great retinue of servants and minor officials with him. He wasn’t setting in a chariot with a reins in one hand and a book in the other hand, as we have seen him pictured. This man was setting back in a chariot drawn by oxen and protected from the sun by a canopy. He had a private Chauffeur and was riding in style. He was a citizen of Ethiopia, but he had come to Jerusalem to worship. This indicates that he was a proselyte to Judaism. Jews had penetrated into all lands that offered opportunities for commerce, so the official could have heard of Jehovah, the God of Israel, from them. This story offers a great principle: “He that seeketh findeth.”

28 and was returning; seated in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah.

This Ethiopian eunuch had just been to Jerusalem, the center of the Jewish religion. Although Judaism was the God-given religion, he was leaving the city still in the dark. He was reading from a scroll on which was recorded the words of the prophet Isaiah, but he was not understanding what he was reading. The fact that the Ethiopian was a pilgrim returning from Jerusalem, and that he was reading Isaiah, indicates that he already was at least a Jewish proselyte—a proselyte of the gate, a proselyte of righteousness. If this was so, he would not be admitted to the inner sanctuary at Jerusalem, but he would be allowed to stand in an outer court, in order to worship. In addition, the Law prohibited eunuchs from entering the Lord’s assembly—“He whose testicles are crushed or whose male member is cut off shall not enter the assembly of the LORD” (Deut. 23:1). However, Isaiah 56:3-5 predicts great blessing for eunuchs in the Millennial age—“Let not the foreigner who has joined himself to the LORD say, "The LORD will surely separate me from his people"; and let not the eunuch say, "Behold, I am a dry tree." For thus says the LORD: "To the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths, who choose the things that please me and hold fast my covenant, I will give in my house and within my walls a monument and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name which shall not be cut off.” The eunuch was concerned enough about his spiritual life to travel over 200 miles to Jerusalem to worship God, but his heart was still not satisfied.

If the eunuch at this time could not enter the congregation of Israel, Philip was able to afford him the opportunity through faith in Christ to enter the congregation of the new Israel of God. In this sense then what Philip did was a new departure.

The conversion of the Ethiopian is significant, not because it introduced a new principle, but as an illustration of how far afield the gospel was already spreading.

Jesus had sent Philip to this desert region and what he found there was this Ethiopian, who was seeking something, diligently, sincerely, earnestly, not self-satisfied, reaching out for something more than he had ever known before, and yet a man not understanding what it all meant. While in Jerusalem he must have been told about the death of Stephan and about the man that was proclaimed to be the Messiah by His followers. He saw many converts to this new religion who seemed happy and were willing witnesses of Jesus; he may have heard some of the disciples preaching to the crowds of pilgrims who were there to celebrate the feast of tabernacles.

In Philip’s time there were just two ways to spread anything about which you are greatly interested. The first was to live it yourself, and the other was to talk about it. That is what happened during the early days of Christianity. The early Christians drew other people to them because they had something that other people recognized as supremely worthwhile. In the second century Tertullian wrote, “See how these Christians love one another.” That is the real reason why this movement spread. But they also talked about it, and the interesting thing is that when Philip climbed up into the chariot with the Ethiopian, he opened his mouth (v. 35). When people saw the early Christians they cried, “Look at them!” And that exclamation was followed by, “Listen to them!”

29 And the Spirit said to Philip, "Go up and join this chariot."

The Holy Spirit is leading Philip by an unmistakable voice within (as in Acts 10:19 and 16:6-7), and he was on the scene ahead of Philip as He must in any conversion. He is preparing the man’s heart by making him discontented and causing him to realize his own ignorance. God directed Philip to the right person at the right time. Philip is the man of God whom the Spirit of God is using. The Word of God is already in the chariot, because the Ethiopian is reading from the prophet Isaiah.

Interestingly, Philip was guided first by an angel (v. 26) and then here by the Holy Spirit. The instruction, "Go up and join this chariot" would reveal to Philip the previously unknown object of his journey, and encourage him to expect something extraordinary to happen.

30 So Philip ran to him, and heard him reading Isaiah the prophet, and asked, "Do you understand what you are reading?"

Since it was customary for the ancient people to read aloud, Philip could have easily heard the portion of Scripture the eunuch was reading.

31 And he said, "How can I, unless some one guides me?" And he invited Philip to come up and sit with him.

While he was profoundly interested in what he was reading, he was equally ignorant. He said, "How can I, unless some one guides me?" This was an expression of great discontent. “He invited Philip to come up and sit with him.” If he was filled with discontent he was also full of desire for instruction.

32 Now the passage of the scripture which he was reading was this: "As a sheep led to the slaughter or a lamb before its shearer is dumb, so he opens not his mouth.

33 In his humiliation justice was denied him. Who can describe his generation? For his life is taken up from the earth."

The quotation is from Isaiah 53:7-8 and is important as the first definite application of the passage to Jesus as the Suffering Servant.

Before the coming of Christ, the Jews did understand that this was a Messianic passage and that the sufferings of the servant was a prophesy of the sufferings of their Messiah. Later some assumed the suffering servant to refer to the prophet and others to the people of Israel.

34 And the eunuch said to Philip, "About whom, pray, does the prophet say this, about himself or about some one else?"

This quotation from Isaiah was perplexing to the eunuch. He knew the passage described an individual, but was it Isaiah or someone else? His confusion was understandable, since even the Jewish experts were divided on the meaning of this passage. Some believed the slaughtered sheep represented Israel; others thought Isaiah was referring to himself, and others thought the Messiah was Isaiah’s subject.

The respect with which he addresses Philip was prompted by the reverence for one whom he perceived to be his superior in spiritual things.

What a marvelous place to begin to talk about Jesus! When the Spirit of God leads, how wonderfully everything opens up! He will take the things of Christ and make them clear.

35 Then Philip opened his mouth, and beginning with this scripture he told him the good news of Jesus.

The Holy Spirit will use the Word of God. Philip seized the opportunity to present the good news about Jesus from Isaiah 53. He showed the eunuch that the passage he had been reading was a prophesy of Jesus. This goes back to our Lord’s own teaching that He had come to serve and give his life a ransom for many—“For the Son of man also came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). We can be certain that Philip included Isaiah 53:4-6 when he preached the good news about Jesus. The lesson may have lasted for hours as the chariot was driven slowly on, and it brought full conviction to the heart of the Nubian potentate. Jesus Christ was the sheep led to the slaughter.

Simon Peter, whom the Lord used so wonderfully in the conversion of multitudes, makes it clear that the Word of God must be involved if a person is saved. He wrote in his first Epistle: “You have been born anew, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God; for "All flesh is like grass and all its glory like the flower of grass. The grass withers, and the flower falls, but the word of the Lord abides for ever." That word is the good news which was preached to you. (1 Peter 1:23-25).

We will see that the Ethiopian was beginning to understand the gospel because the Holy Spirit was opening up his mind to God’s truth. It is not enough for a lost sinner to desire salvation; he must understand God’s plan of salvation. It is the heart that understands the Word that eventually bears fruit—“As for what was sown on good soil, this is he who hears the word and understands it; he indeed bears fruit, and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty” (Matthew 13:23).

36 And as they went along the road they came to some water, and the eunuch said, "See, here is water! What is to prevent my being baptized?"

“Faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of God” (Romans 10:17). The first consequence of Philip’s evangelization was the Ethiopian’s conversion. He believed on Jesus Christ and was born again. His response, “What is to prevent my being baptized?” indicates that water baptism was the seal of a personal decision to trust in Christ—“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19). Presumably, the subject of baptism was part of the teaching of Philip on this occasion.

The road to Gaza crosses several river beds or wadis, and the salvation experience was so real to him that he wanted to be baptized immediately, so he stopped the caravan at the first appearance of water. He was no “closet Christian;” he wanted everyone to know what the Lord had done for him.

37 And Philip said, If thou believest with all thine heart, thou mayest. And he answered and said, I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.

Remember that Philip had an experience with Simon the sorcerer up there in Samaria. He is not about to have a repetition of that. When this man asks for water baptism, Philip wants to be very sure that he believes with all his heart.

This verse is included only in late Greek manuscripts and therefore was probably not in the original manuscripts.

38 And he commanded the chariot to stop, and they both went down into the water, Philip and the eunuch, and he baptized him.

39 And when they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord caught up Philip; and the eunuch saw him no more, and went on his way rejoicing.

We saw the first result of Philip’s evangelism was the conversion of the Ethiopian (v. 36), and now we see that the second result was joy—he “went on his way rejoicing.” A third result was a further outreach of the gospel to one who was neither Jew nor Samaritan, but a Gentile (African) worshipper of Yahweh who was not a full-fledged proselyte to Judaism.

The “Spirit of the Lord” is mentioned in the Old Testament as having “caught up” Elijah—“And they said to him, "Behold now, there are with your servants fifty strong men; pray, let them go, and seek your master; it may be that the Spirit of the LORD has caught him up and cast him upon some mountain or into some valley. . ." (2 Kings 2:16). In Acts the phrase is only used here; but in Acts 16:7 there is the phrase, “the Spirit of Jesus,” which is probably the meaning here—“And when they had come opposite My'sia, they attempted to go into Bithyn'ia, but the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them”—the title “Lord” being transferred as usual from Yahweh to Christ. No gift of the Spirit is said to follow baptism, unless we read with the Western text: “The Holy Spirit fell on the eunuch, but the angel of the Lord caught away Philip.” Tradition says that the eunuch went on to be a missionary to his own people. Philip’s mysterious disappearance was a powerful confirmation to the caravan that Philip was God’s representative.

He had found Christ, and the key to the Scriptures; his soul was set free, “and he went on his way rejoicing.” He had lost his teacher, but gained what was infinitely better, he felt like a new man and “his joy was full.”

Let us not be satisfied until we get faith, as the Ethiopian did, by diligent study of the Holy Scriptures, and the teaching of the Spirit of God; let us not be satisfied until we get it fixed as a principle in our hearts.

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