Sunday, August 13, 2017
Lesson: Acts 8:26-39; Time of Action: 32 A.D.; Place of Action: Between Jerusalem and Gaza
Golden Text: “Then Philip opened his mouth, and began at the same scripture, and preached unto him Jesus” (Acts 8:35).
I. INTRODUCTION. This week’s lesson reveals the first Christian foreign missionary effort that the Bible describes. Jesus had commissioned His apostles to take the good news to Samaria (see Acts 1:8). It was not a great distance from Jerusalem, but ministering to Samaritans meant crossing an ethnic and cultural barrier that Jews rarely stepped over (see John 4:9). In our lesson, we find Philip the evangelist (see Acts 21:8) was chosen for spiritual leadership along with Stephen and several others (see Acts 6:5). But how differently Philip’s career turned out! God gave him a long and fruitful ministry. In this lesson we will study Philip’s encounter with a queen’s treasurer.
II. LESSON BACKGROUND. The first phase of the church’s expansion came to an end with the martyrdom of Stephen. The city of Jerusalem had been thoroughly evangelized (although not everyone there believed), and it was time for Jesus’ followers to spread His message to new areas. The expansion of the church was initiated by the “great persecution” (see Acts 8:1) that now descended on the church. This persecution was led by Saul of Tarsus, a fanatical Pharisee (see Acts 8:3). Believers fled for their lives into Judea and Samaria; but wherever they went, they were “preaching the word” (see Acts 8:4). Thus the ministry was multiplied. Among those scattered into Samaria was Philip (see Acts 8:5). We know this man was not Philip the apostle because the apostles remained in Jerusalem during the persecutions (see Acts 8:1). Rather, he was one of the seven who had been appointed to minister to widows (see Acts 6:5). He also became a gifted evangelist, and years later would be known as “Philip the evangelist” (see Acts 21:8). Philip went down to the city of Samaria and proclaimed Jesus Christ to the Samaritans who were extremely receptive (see Acts 8:5-13). When the apostles received word that the Samaritans had received God’s word, they sent Peter and John to pray for them and they received the Holy Ghost (see Acts 8:14-17). After dealing with a new believer named Simon who thought he could buy the ability to lay hands on people and cause them to receive the Holy Spirit (see Acts 8:18-24), Peter and John preached the word of the Lord and then returned to Jerusalem (see Acts 8:25). As for Philip, the Lord had a new ministry for him which would bring him closer to witnessing to the Gentiles. This is where our lesson begins.
III. PHILIP’S CALL (Acts 8:26-29)
A. The Lord gives Philip general directions (Acts 8:26). Our first verse says “And the angel of the Lord spake unto Philip, saying, Arise, and go toward the south unto the way that goeth down from Jerusalem unto Gaza, which is desert.” While Philip was ministering in Samaria (see Acts 8:5), “the angel of the Lord spake unto Philip.” God sent an angel with a message for “Philip” that was undoubtedly through the Holy Spirit who was also instrumental later in giving “Philip” further directions. “Philip” was told to “Arise, and go toward the south unto the way that goeth down from Jerusalem unto Gaza, which is desert.” He was directed to go southward taking the road leading “from Jerusalem unto Gaza which is desert.” In other words, he was to head toward “Gaza” taking the road that went through the “desert.” Note: The city of Gaza was located two miles from the Mediterranean Sea in the southern part of Palestine. Nearly all traffic passed through this city on the way to Egypt. Gaza was one of five coastal cities in Palestine that was once held by the Philistines. It was also the scene of Samson\s exploits and death (see Judges 16:1-3, 21-30). It was destroyed sometime between 96 and 93 B.C., and later a new city bearing the name “maritime Gaza” was constructed by the Romans in 57 B.C. on the seacoast on a different site.
B. The Lord directs Philip to a specific contact (Romans 8:27-29).
1. (vs. 27). This verse goes on to say “And he arose and went: and, behold, a man of Ethiopia, an eunuch of great authority under Candace queen of the Ethiopians, who had the charge of all her treasure, and had come to Jerusalem for to worship.” In compliance with the instructions from the Lord, Philip did as he was told for “he arose and went.” While God was directing Philip to Gaza, He was also preparing a man to whom Philip would minister. As Philip departed from Samaria on the desert road toward Gaza, we are introduced to “a man of Ethiopia, an eunuch of great authority under Candace queen of the Ethiopians, who had the charge of all her treasure.” First, we are told that he was “a man of Ethiopia” meaning he was from “Ethiopia.” In ancient times, “Ethiopia” was not exactly the same as modern “Ethiopia” today. It was directly south of Egypt along the upper Nile River, and was originally called Cush in the Old Testament after one of the sons of Ham (see Genesis 10:6). It may also have included the northern part of modern Ethiopia. In more recent times the area has been called Nubia and Sudan. Second, he is described as “an eunuch of great authority under Candace queen of the Ethiopians, who had the charge of all her treasure.” The term “eunuch” normally referred to a male who was castrated (see Matthew 19:12). However, since such persons were often put in charge of royal harems, the word also came to mean any royal court official, whether he was a physical “eunuch” or not. We have no way of knowing in what sense this man was a “eunuch.” If he was indeed a physical “eunuch” who was castrated, he would have been banned by the law from the full privileges of worship in the temple (see Deuteronomy 23:1). The fact that he “had come to Jerusalem for to worship” does not necessarily mean that he was a Jew. A devout proselyte or Jewish convert would do the same thing although as a Gentile he would not be allowed to enter the temple beyond the court of the Gentiles. However, if he had been castrated, he could not be a full convert to Judaism, but he could be a partial convert, or what was known as a “proselyte of the gate” in order to worship at the temple. The term “Candace” was not a proper name for the “queen of the Ethiopians.” It was a title taken by a series of “queen” mothers who ruled on behalf of their sons similar to the title of Pharaoh. The fact that the “eunuch” had “great authority” indicates that he held a prestigious position under this particular “queen of the Ethiopians.” Therefore, he was in “charge of all her treasure.”
2. (vs. 28). This verse continues to say “Was returning, and sitting in his chariot read Esaias the prophet.” Having been to Jerusalem to worship, the eunuch was now “returning” home. While “sitting in his chariot” as he rode home, he was reading from “Esaias the prophet.” Of course “Esaias” is simply another spelling of Isaiah. The fact that the Ethiopian was reading from the Book of Isaiah bears witness to his spiritual hunger. He was probably not content with the temple worship, or maybe he didn’t fully understand it. So he continued to search for enlightenment from the Hebrew Scriptures as he traveled home. Note: Here we have a man who was ready to hear the gospel of Jesus Christ. Although he was rich and influential, he had come hundreds of miles to seek spiritual satisfaction in Jewish worship. He was seeking answers in the Scriptures, and the Lord had directed him to one of the great messianic prophecies in Isaiah.
3. (vs. 29). This verse says “Then the Spirit said unto Philip, Go near, and join thyself to this chariot.” At the precise moment when the two men’s paths crossed, “the Spirit said unto Philip, Go near, and join thyself to this chariot.” This is a marvelous example of how God leads humans to accomplish His purpose. “Philip,” who was aware that he was being divinely led, and the Ethiopian who was not aware of the same thing, were brought together on a desert road. God also directed “Philip” to take the initiative in approaching the man who was in spiritual need. If he waited for the Ethiopian to contact him, the upcoming conversation between them may not have taken place.
IV. THE ETHIOPIAN’S NEED (Acts 8:30-34)
A. The Ethiopian’s desire for understanding (Acts 8:30-31).
1. (vs. 30). This verse says “And Philip ran thither to him, and heard him read the prophet Esaias, and said, Understandest thou what thou readest?” In obedience to the Holy Spirit, “Philip ran” with haste to overtake the Ethiopian’s chariot. With eagerness he seized the opportunity to bear witness of Jesus Christ. Maybe if we were more eager to witness, more opportunities would be given to us. Note: If “Philip” had tarried in order to think over the instructions he was given before obeying them, he might not have witnessed to this man. After all, “Philip” didn’t know the eunuch nor did he know what the eunuch was doing until he caught up with him. Nor did the evangelist know how the eunuch would respond to him. But God had spoken and “Philip” knew it, and there was no choice but to obey the Lord. As “Philip” came alongside the chariot, he “heard him (the Ethiopian) read the prophet Esaias.” Following the normal ancient practice, the Ethiopian was reading aloud so “Philip” was able to hear him as he came closer to the chariot. As a result,“Philip” knew immediately that the Ethiopian was reading and what text he was reading from. As a Jew, “Philip” was no doubt very familiar with the Old Testament Scriptures so he recognized the passage the eunuch was reading. Now as a Christian, “Philip” also knew that this passage of Scripture was messianic with its fulfillment in Jesus Christ. Therefore, “Philip” asked the Ethiopian, “Understandest thou what thou readest?” The Greek construction of this question indicates that the evangelist was expecting the eunuch to answer “no.”
2. (vs. 31). This verse goes on to say “And he said, How can I, except some man should guide me? And he desired Philip that he would come up and sit with him.” In response to Philip’s question, “do you understand what you’re reading?” the Ethiopian said “How can I, except some man should guide me?” In other words, the Ethiopian was saying “How can I understand unless someone explains it to me?” He was admitting that he needed someone to help him understand what he was reading. This interchange between the evangelist and the eunuch reminds us that although Scripture can make a person “wise unto salvation” (see II Timothy 3:15), just reading it is not always enough to achieve that goal. Note: Here we should observe that although the meaning of much Scripture is self-explanatory, some passages are difficult to understand. Sometimes full comprehension may demand that other relevant passages be used for further understanding. In addition, prophetic passages may require additional insight for proper interpretation. For this reason, God has provided gifted men who through study and the Spirit’s illumination can expound His Word (see Romans 10:13-15; Ephesians 4:11). “Philip” was equipped with the gift of evangelism and an understanding of Scripture so that he could give guidance to this searching Ethiopian soul. The Ethiopian was so anxious to have his questions answered that “he desired Philip that he would come up and sit with him.” Sensing that “Philip” wanted to help him, the Ethiopian invited the evangelist to join him in his chariot because he wanted to learn God’s truth. We cannot help but acknowledge that the Spirit of God was working in the eunuch’s heart just as He was working in Philip’s heart. The Holy Spirit has an important function in bringing people to salvation (see John 16:7-11). Without the working of the Holy Spirit, we would be powerless in our witnesses.
B. The Scripture passage that was perplexing to the Ethiopian (Acts 8:32-33).
1. (vs. 32). This verse says “The place of the scripture which he read was this, He was led as a sheep to the slaughter; and like a lamb dumb before his shearer, so opened he not his mouth.” The passage of “scripture” that the Ethiopian was reading was from Isaiah 53:7-8 apparently from the Greek translation of the Old Testament called the Septuagint. It spoke of a person who was led away and put to death but who offered no resistance. This is the meaning of the words “He was led as a sheep to the slaughter; and like a lamb dumb before his shearer, so opened he not his mouth.” What the Ethiopian was reading was a striking description of undeserved punishment.
2. (vs. 33). This verse continues to say “In his humiliation his judgment was taken away: and who shall declare his generation? for his life is taken from the earth.” The passage the Ethiopian was reading continued describing this person who had experienced undeserved punishment saying “In his humiliation his judgment was taken away.” The Greek translation or the Septuagint rendered the Hebrew slightly different. The Hebrew says “he was taken from prison” but the Septuagint says “In his humiliation.” Note: If the passage the Ethiopian was focused on was perplexing to him, he must have really wondered what the preceding passages meant as well. The entire passage of Isaiah 52:13 through 53:12 which includes Isaiah 53:7-8, pictures the substitutionary sufferings of the Servant of Yahweh, and the blessings that would result from them. The passage also speaks of the divine Servant having His appearance marred in order to bring cleansing to many nations and to astonish and silence kings (see Isaiah 52:13-15). It’s a picture of the Suffering Servant lacking majesty, rejected by man, and assumed to be rejected by God as well, even though His sufferings were for us (see Isaiah 53:1-4). It then reveals that His afflictions were purely substitutionary for us, who are wayward sinners (see Isaiah 53:5-6). All of this must have raised questions the Ethiopian could not answer. In the passage the Ethiopian was reading when Philip joined him, the Servant is seen meekly submitting to unjust treatment, as a sheep goes quietly to be slaughtered or a lamb to be sheared. There is no semblance of justice. From our vantage point centuries after the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, Isaiah 53 is one of the most vivid descriptions of that event in prophetic Scriptures. The Lamb of God (see John 1:29) went silently to the place of sacrifice (see Matthew 26:63; 27:12-14). He was deprived of due process (see Luke 23:13-25) and humiliated by His accusers (see Matthew 26:67-68; 27:27-31,39-44). When He died, He left no natural progeny because He never married. For sure, Jesus’ crucifixion was the most blatant act of injustice in the history of the world. Since we have the completed Bible, all of this may be obvious to us, but for someone like the Ethiopian, who was unacquainted with the experiences of Jesus, the Isaiah passage remained a mystery.
C. The Ethiopian’s pivotal question (Acts 8:34). This verse says “And the eunuch answered Philip, and said, I pray thee, of whom speaketh the prophet this? of himself, or of some other man?” The picture being presented by the passage of Scripture that the Ethiopian was reading was both confusing and troubling to him. This caused “the eunuch” to question “Philip” saying “I pray thee, of whom speaketh the prophet this? of himself, or of some other man?” In other words, “the eunuch” was asking if Isaiah, “the prophet” was talking about himself or someone else. Because he was not well versed in the Jewish Scriptures, “the eunuch” didn’t know who the “prophet” Isaiah was talking about in the passage he was reading. He knew the passage was referring to an individual, but he was not sure who that individual was. However, this Ethiopian was not alone in his confusion. Jewish scholars themselves held differing views. Some early Jewish teachers believed the passage spoke of the Messiah, but most of the later Jewish teachers believed that it referred to Israel. Note: Probably nothing says more about Isaiah chapter 53 than the striking fact that Isaiah 52:12 through chapter 53 is never read in Jewish synagogues today. The passages just before it and just after it are read, but this important chapter is omitted (Aston, The Challenge of the Ages). So the question may be, have the Jews always purposely overlooked this important passage of Scripture? The answer is no. For several centuries after Christ’s ministry on earth, Jewish rabbinical writers accepted the picture of the Suffering Servant in Isaiah 52:12 through chapter 53 to be the Messiah. However, the modern Jewish commentators point to the passage as a personification of the nation of Israel. Of course, this could not refer to Israel because at no time has Israel been offered for the sins of others. No atonement can be found in the sufferings of Israel—only in Jesus Christ.
V. THE ETHIOPIAN’S CONVERSION (Acts 8:35-39)
A. Philip preaches the transforming message (Acts 8:35). This verse says “Then Philip opened his mouth, and began at the same scripture, and preached unto him Jesus.” After the Ethiopian eunuch asked the evangelist if Isaiah was talking about himself or someone else, we are told that “Then Philip opened his mouth, and began at the same scripture, and preached unto him Jesus.” Now, “Philip” knew why God had called him to this desert place; one individual needed Jesus Christ. And now that the door of opportunity had swung open, he walked through. “Philip opened his mouth, and began at the same scripture.” The words “began at the same scripture” mean that the evangelist began witnessing to this Ethiopian with the “same scripture,” Isaiah 53:7-8 that the eunuch had been reading when “Philip” joined him in the chariot. The evangelist applied what the eunuch was reading from Isaiah to Israel’s Messiah, the Lord Jesus. “Philip” could not have found a better text for an evangelistic sermon. The New Testament gospels were not written yet, but much of the gospel message can be found in the Old Testament from which the evangelist “preached unto him Jesus.” Jesus Himself had expounded Old Testament passages for His apostles after His resurrection, showing how He had fulfilled those passages (see Luke 24:25-27, 44-47). The apostles, in turn, had passed these explanations on to other believers such as “Philip.” Now he could pass the message on again. Therefore, the evangelist was able to show how Jesus had fulfilled exactly what Isaiah had foretold. Note: Although a complete summary of Philip’s message is not given, several important things stand out. First, his message was biblical, and Christ centered. Philip started at the Isaiah text, but the words “he began at the same scripture” implies that the evangelist referred to other passages as well. Whatever Scripture he used was from the Old Testament since the New Testament had not yet been written. Yet Philip was able to preach “Jesus” from it. Likewise, our evangelism should always be biblical and Christ centered. We should not embellish it with human ideas. The response we get should be from the message and not just an emotional stirring. Second, Philip’s preaching was authoritative. The evangelist didn’t compare his message to the views held by rabbis. He applied it to Jesus without hesitation. Third, Philip “preached unto him Jesus.” He didn’t focus on a system of theology or a code of ethics, but on a Person—the only Person who could meet the Ethiopian’s needs—Jesus. While it is the Word of God that reveals the truth to sinners, the Lord uses people like us to explain it to them and persuade them to believe it. It’s crucial that we know the Bible and are willing and able to present the gospel clearly to others.
B. The Ethiopian’s evidence of faith (Acts 8:36-38).
1. (vs. 36). This verse says “And as they went on their way, they came unto a certain water: and the eunuch said, See, here is water; what doth hinder me to be baptized?” As they proceeded on their journey, it is obvious that Philip must have informed the Ethiopian in his explanation of the gospel that one should be baptized as evidence that they believed the Lord Jesus died and rose again for their sins (see Mark 16:16; Romans 10:9). Those who believe and confess this, also identify with Jesus Christ through water baptism. Now, “as they went on their way,” the “eunuch” applied the gospel to his need. Soon “they came unto a certain water” or a body of water. Seeing this pool, or stream of water along the road, the eunuch himself exclaimed, “See, here is water; what doth hinder me to be baptized?” In other words, the “eunuch” said, “Look! Water! Is there anything that can prevent me from being baptized?” His language indicates that he expected Philip’s answer to be “no.” The “eunuch” had accepted Jesus Christ and now he wanted to give evidence, or declare his faith openly. He could do this by believer’s water baptism. This is still God’s desire for those who enter His family. Note: Of course, water baptism has no saving power, but it is an important act for Christian believers. Jesus included it in the Great Commission to His apostles when He commanded them to make disciples (see Matthew 28:19). Water baptism signifies the identification of the new believer with Jesus Christ and His spiritual body, the church. It is also an outward sign of the baptism of the Holy Spirit (see Mark 1:8; I Corinthians 12:13).
2. (vs. 37). This verse goes on to say “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.” Before water baptism takes place, there must be the new birth (see John 3:3, 7, 14-16). There is no saving merit in observing the rite of baptism. Philip wanted to be sure that his stranger-friend had in fact met the condition for baptism so he told the eunuch, “If thou believest with all thine heart, thou mayest.” Faith in the Lord has always been the factor that brings salvation (see Genesis 15:6; Romans 4:1-5). Quickly the eunuch replied, “I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.” He accepted the deity of Jesus Christ and His death for salvation based on the understanding of Scripture he received from Philip. The eunuch’s answer indicates that Philip had given him more instruction than what is recorded here. Note: The words in this verse are not in the most ancient Greek manuscripts and are omitted by some ancient translations as well. Therefore, the words in this verse were probably not in the original text, but were added to explain why Philip baptized the new convert. However, the statements in this verse attributed to the two men are biblically accurate: faith in Jesus Christ as the Son of God is essential to a valid Christian baptism.
3. (vs. 38). This verse says “And he commanded the chariot to stand still: and they went down both into the water, both Philip and the eunuch; and he baptized him.” Coming upon the pool of water and Philip having approved his baptism, the eunuch “commanded the chariot to stand still.” He ordered his driver to stop “the chariot.” Then “they went down both into the water, both Philip and the eunuch; and he baptized him.” The emphasis on this verse seems to be on the fact that the two of them went into the water together with Philip fulfilling Jesus’ command to baptize new disciples (see Matthew 28:19), and the eunuch identifying with his Lord and Savior (see Romans 6:3-4). The togetherness of these two men—an African and a Hellenistic Jew—in this act also symbolized the unity and equality that the Lord intended for His church. The church was not reserved for converted Jews and Samaritans only. It would include people from around the world.
C. The gratifying conclusion of this meeting (Acts 8:39). Our final verse says “And when they were come up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord caught away Philip, that the eunuch saw him no more: and he went on his way rejoicing.” After the baptism, when both men came “up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord caught away Philip.” Just as quickly as God’s Spirit had led “Philip” to the Ethiopian, He took him away just as quickly to Azotus, and eventually to Caesarea where he continued to preach (see Acts 8:40). However, the eunuch “went on his way rejoicing.” The perplexing question he had about Isaiah’s prophecy was answered in the Person of Jesus Christ, and the Ethiopian had demonstrated his conversion through baptism. Now he could share his joy with his fellow countrymen. The fact that “the eunuch saw him no more” is confirmation that this meeting was a supernatural intervention that brought these two men together. God had accomplished much through their brief encounter. He had brought a searching soul to Himself through the preaching of Jesus Christ (see John 14:6). Through Philip’s evangelizing of this Ethiopian eunuch, God had opened the door for His gospel in a new country, Ethiopia, and a new continent, Africa. The Lord had made it clear that He wanted the gospel message spread to the entire world. Note: The Lord’s calling of Philip to bring the gospel to the Ethiopian eunuch was an important step in the further spread of the gospel. The gospel had previously gone to the Jews and Samaritans, but now it came to a Gentile who was devoted to Judaism, and through him it would reach farther into the Gentile world. Jesus’ command in Acts 1:8 was progressively being fulfilled just as it still is today. For Philip and for us, God also had personal lessons. One was that personal contacts in remote places are just as important as public appearances in large cities. Only God knows how great an impact a personal witness to a single individual can have. Another lesson was that adversity has a bright side to it. The dispersion of believers caused by persecution in Jerusalem brought wonderful new opportunities for the spread of the gospel. Of course, we should not pray for hardship, but if God chooses to send it, we should seek to take advantage of the unique openings it provides. And if there are any kinds of barriers, remember that God can and will break down all barriers to fulfill His will (see Galatians 3:27-28; Colossians 3:11).
VI. Conclusion. Cultural barriers often get in the way of sharing the gospel with others. However, the gospel of Jesus Christ should be offered to everyone, regardless of race, color, or financial status. One of the problems of the Jewish nation and a reason for their rejection of the gospel was their failure to grasp the universal scope of God’s plan. Christians today sometimes have the same problem. They believe that God obligates Himself to one group or nation over others. Actually, God always desired the salvation of all sorts of people (see I Timothy 2:3-4), whether through the nation of Israel or through the church. The Ethiopian official whom Philip met on the road to Gaza was not a full proselyte to Judaism, but he was a seeker of truth who feared the God of Israel. Through the study of the prophecy of Isaiah, God was preparing him for the good news of Jesus Christ. Philip was willing to obey God’s angel and journey across the wilderness to an unknown appointment. He had the boldness to approach a royal caravan, and he was prepared to give the words of eternal life to an eager inquirer. Tell me, are you willing, bold, and prepared to accept divine appointments with those who are seeking the truth? We all should be!
***The Bible Expositor and Illuminator, Union Gospel Press***