This week I spent a great deal of time working on the church grounds—something I do not usually do. As David Mills and I were standing in front of the church talking, a woman who lives across the street from the church walked up to us and asked, “Do you men attend this church?” We told her we both were members of the church. She seemed satisfied by this and followed up with this request: “My husband and I went out for a walk and accidentally locked ourselves out of the house. Do you suppose that you could help us get back into the house?” David knew that I had some skill in this area, and so he went on back to his work. I told the woman I would be delighted to help her “break in” to her house if she would not tell anybody what I had done. In less than a minute she was back in her house, pleased to be in so easily, but a little distressed to see the ease with which I got past her front door lock.
Later in the day, David called. He asked if I had been successful. I told him that I managed to get in in less than a minute. It only later occurred to me that there might be a connection between this neighbor’s asking if we were from the church and her asking if we could help her break into her own house. She wanted someone to help her break in, but she also wanted some assurance that the person who did so was trustworthy. In effect, she wanted an honest “second story man.” I guess that was me.
It is strange how things like this work out, isn’t it? It reminds me of another time, when I was helping a friend “break into” his truck. It suddenly occurred to me, as I was standing there in the darkness, clothes hanger in hand, that my friend was holding the light, and I was doing the breaking in. That amused me because he had spent a fair bit of time in prison for dealing in stolen car parts.
The conversion of the Ethiopian eunuch is similar, as I read this text in the eighth chapter of the Book of Acts. Here was a man who had just been to Jerusalem, to worship the God of Israel there. And yet he was not saved in Jerusalem, but in the desert. And rather than being “led to the Lord” by one of the apostles there in Jerusalem, or even by Peter or John in a Samaritan city, he was converted through Philip, who was divinely directed to him in that remote desert place. One would think that the first Gentile convert (specifically mentioned in Acts) would have been won by an apostle. How strange the ways of God are! The salvation of this Ethiopian eunuch was clearly a matter of divine election and calling, as was the choice of the human instrument (Philip) a part of God’s sovereign will. The reasons for this are important, and we shall seek to discover them as we continue on with our study.
25 And so, when they had solemnly testified and spoken the word of the Lord, they started back to Jerusalem, and were preaching the gospel to many villages of the Samaritans.
Stephen’s preaching resulted in his own death, and in the persecution of the whole church in Jerusalem, with Saul as a prominent and dominant force behind this. This brought about the exodus of the church, except for the apostles (Acts 8:1-3). Along with Stephen (and five others), Philip was one of those chosen to oversee the feeding of the widows, giving particular attention to the Hellenistic Jewish widows, who had previously been overlooked (Acts 6:1-6). This same Philip had fled from Jerusalem, and had gone to Samaria, where he performed many amazing signs (Acts 8:4-7). As a result of his ministry, many Samaritans were saved, including Simon the magician (8:9-13). When the apostles in Jerusalem learned of the revival which was taking place in Samaria, they sent Peter and John to Samaria. These apostles laid their hands on the Samaritan believers and prayed that they might receive the Holy Spirit (8:14-15). When they had finished their task, they departed for Jerusalem, preaching the gospel in the Samaritan villages as they journeyed home (8:25).
26 But an angel of the Lord spoke to Philip saying, “Arise and go south to the road that descends from Jerusalem to Gaza.” (This is a desert road.) 27 And he arose and went; and behold, there was an Ethiopian eunuch, a court official of Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, who was in charge of all her treasure; and he had come to Jerusalem to worship. 28 And he was returning and sitting in his chariot, and was reading the prophet Isaiah. 29 And the Spirit said to Philip, “Go up and join this chariot.” 30 And when Philip had run up, he heard him reading Isaiah the prophet, and said, “Do you understand what you are reading?” 31 And he said, “Well, how could I, unless someone guides me?” And he invited Philip to come up and sit with him. 32 Now the passage of Scripture which he was reading was this: “HE WAS LED AS A SHEEP TO SLAUGHTER; AND AS A LAMB BEFORE ITS SHEARER IS SILENT, SO HE DOES NOT OPEN HIS MOUTH. 33”IN HUMILIATION HIS JUDGMENT WAS TAKEN AWAY; WHO SHALL RELATE HIS GENERATION? FOR HIS LIFE IS REMOVED FROM THE EARTH.”
34 And the eunuch answered Philip and said, “Please tell me, of whom does the prophet say this? Of himself, or of someone else?” 35 And Philip opened his mouth, and beginning from this Scripture he preached Jesus to him. 36 And as they went along the road they came to some water; and the eunuch said, “Look! Water! What prevents me from being baptized?” 37 (See marginal note.) 38 And he ordered the chariot to stop; and they both went down into the water, Philip as well as the eunuch; and he baptized him. 39 And when they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away; and the eunuch saw him no more, but went on his way rejoicing. 40 But Philip found himself at Azotus; and as he passed through he kept preaching the gospel to all the cities, until he came to Caesarea.
We are not told how it was that Philip ended up in “the city of Samaria” (Acts 8:5). We can safely assume that Philip left Jerusalem because of the intense persecution that arose in connection with the death of Stephen (8:1). We are not told that Philip was divinely directed to this city. The impression I get is that he simply ended up there. When the power of God was manifested through Philip, both by means of his miracles and his message, many were converted. In the case of the conversion of the Ethiopian, we are very clearly told that Philip was specifically directed to this man, and to the meeting place, in a remote location in the desert.
This divine direction is given through the “angel of the Lord”119 (8:26) and through the Holy Spirit (8:29, 39). I think it is significant that both the “angel of the Lord” and the Holy Spirit are employed in guiding Philip to the eunuch. The “angel of the Lord” is perhaps God’s primary means of specifically guiding individuals in the Old Testament, while the Holy Spirit is the more dominant instrument of guidance in the New. Used together, the guidance of Philip and the salvation of the Ethiopian is shown to be the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies and promises,120 pertaining to the salvation of Gentiles, as well as a New Testament phenomenon, brought about by means of the Holy Spirit. Thus the Old and New Testaments are demonstrated to be in harmony in this matter of the eunuch’s salvation.
There could be no mistaking it. God intended to save this one individual. He was an Ethiopian, a high government official, and possibly a eunuch.121 Had this man been saved in Jerusalem, it might have been looked upon as a kind of fluke, an exception. But this man was being sought by God. Here, in the midst of a Samaritan revival, and before the accounts of wide-spread evangelism of Gentiles, this Gentile was sought and saved by God, a kind of “first-fruits” of that which was to come. According to church tradition, this man was to become an evangelist among his own people. There is no mention of this in the Scriptures, however.
Obediently, Philip went to the place he was directed by the “angel of the Lord.” It was at this place that he saw the eunuch. Then, the Holy Spirit directed Philip to join himself with the chariot122 (8:29), and thus with its rider. While Philip was very precisely guided to the man, he was not told what to say. His message was to be indicated by the passage the eunuch was studying, and the question which he asked.
There is no doubt that Philip was guided to this man, in this remote desert spot. This is clear and it is emphatic in the text. While not so clear, nor so emphatic, it would seem that the eunuch was divinely prepared for Philip’s appearance as well. The man was not on his way to Jerusalem, but from the holy city. He had been there to worship. What could have happened in Jerusalem, which might have prepared the eunuch for his encounter with Philip, and with the gospel?
In the first place, the eunuch may have heard about Jesus. If this were the eunuch’s first pilgrimage to the holy land, he would have many questions. If the eunuch had been in Jerusalem before, he would likely have heard of Jesus, of His claim to be the Messiah, of His ministry, His rejection, His trial, His death and burial, and likely His empty tomb. He may have heard of the apostles, of their radical change after the death of Jesus, and of their ministry and message. At the time of the eunuch’s arrival in Jerusalem, the “headline news” would have had to do with Stephen’s ministry and martyrdom, and of the widespread persecution of the church, led (at least in part) by a Jew named Saul.
It would seem that the eunuch had a strong commitment to Judaism (his pilgrimage to Jerusalem was no small effort), and that he also had a strong sense of messianic expectation. Would he not have asked about Jesus? Would he not wish to look into this matter of Messiah personally, to see for himself what the Old Testament prophets had written? Did the eunuch purchase his copy of the Isaiah scroll (an expensive gesture) so that he could read the prophecies about Messiah? And who told the eunuch about baptism? We all assume that Philip did, but we do not know this to be so. The apostles had preached that Israelites must repent and be baptized, calling upon the name of the Lord to be saved. Is this why the eunuch was so eager to be baptized, when he saw the water? There may have been a great deal of groundwork already accomplished in the eunuch’s life, so that he was ready to receive the message which Philip would disclose to him, from the Scriptures.
What a thrill it must have been for Philip to hear the eunuch reading aloud from the prophecy of Isaiah. What an evidence of God’s leading. Indeed, this was the right man. When Philip run alongside the eunuch’s chariot and asked if he understood what he was reading, the Ethiopian quickly accepted his help. He needed, as he said, someone to guide him. The Old Testament only went so far as to prophecy concerning things to come. The gospel was the record of these prophecies having been fulfilled. Philip was about to tell this man that the prophecies of Isaiah concerning Messiah were fulfilled in the person of Jesus. Thus, he began with this text, proclaiming Jesus to him.
The prophecy which the eunuch was reading included these words, words which greatly perplexed him:
“HE WAS LED AS A SHEEP TO SLAUGHTER; AND AS A LAMB BEFORE ITS SHEARER IS SILENT, SO HE DOES NOT OPEN HIS MOUTH. IN HUMILIATION HIS JUDGMENT WAS TAKEN AWAY; WHO SHALL RELATE HIS GENERATION? FOR HIS LIFE IS REMOVED FROM THE EARTH.”
These words come from Isaiah 53:7-8. I would understand that these words were especially perplexing to the eunuch, and thus the focus of his attention and of his question. But I would also assume that the eunuch had read the entire text, and thus was well aware of the overall passage and of its context.
The problem which the eunuch had with this passage was wrapped up in the identity of the one referred to in the text:
“Please tell me of whom does the prophet say this? Of himself, or of someone else?” (Isaiah 53:34).
If the prophet was referring to himself, his suffering (and death) would not come as a surprise. After all, the prophets were rejected, despised, and persecuted (cf. Stephen’s words in 7:52). But how could Isaiah be speaking of himself? The immediately preceding verses spoke of the death of this mysterious figure, but a substitutionary death—a death for the benefit of others:
Surely our griefs He Himself bore, And our sorrows He carried; Yet we ourselves esteemed Him stricken, Smitten of God, and afflicted. But He was pierced through for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities; The chastening for our well-being fell upon Him, And by His scourging we are healed. All of us like sheep have gone astray, Each of us has turned to his own way; But the LORD has caused the iniquity of us all To fall on Him (Isaiah 53:4-6).
If Isaiah could not be referring to himself, and he was referring to another, than was this person not Messiah? But if this was the Messiah, He was not the kind of Messiah that Israel was looking for. They looked for a hero, to rid Israel of her oppressors. In fact, this description perfectly portrayed the coming of Jesus, and His rejection by Israel. Jesus’ message, was rejected by Israel, just like the rest of the prophets (Isaiah 53:1). Jesus was not outwardly attractive, and indeed, He was rejected by men, who viewed His suffering and death as deservedly from God. He was, however, from God’s point of view, sinless. His suffering and death were for the sins of others, rather than His own. If these words of Isaiah were a description of Messiah, then Jesus was the Messiah. No wonder the identity of this One was so important to the eunuch.
Philip’s answer was to proclaim Jesus as the Messiah, beginning with this text, and then from the rest of the Old Testament (Acts 8:35). The eunuch joyfully accepted Philip’s words. When he saw water (a rare thing in this desert place) he wished to make the best use of it. He wanted to be baptized.123 Who told him of the need for baptism is not stated, but he was right in seeing it as an important responsibility for a true believer. When the chariot stopped, both got out, and Philip baptized him.124
Even more quickly than he appeared on the scene, Philip disappeared. Some may doubt the fact of a miraculous disappearance and transporting of Philip, but the words strongly imply such. Philip was “snatched away”125 by the Holy Spirit, in a way that is similar to the transporting of Old Testament saints like Elijah, end even of New Testament personalities.126 Philip found himself at Azotus, some twenty or so miles distant,127 from which place he passed on to other cities, preaching the gospel as he went on his way to Caesarea (Acts 9:40).
The Ethiopian, on the other hand, proceeded in a more normal way, back to his native land. We are told no more of this man in the New Testament, although some ancients viewed this man as the father of evangelism in Ethiopia.128 What we are told is that this man went his way rejoicing (8:39). When the gospel comes and is received, there is great joy. Such was the case in the city of Samaria (8:8). It is always the case (cf. 1 Thessalonians 1:6). This is, I believe, the “joy of our salvation” (cf. Psalm 51:12). Sin may rob of this joy for a season, but repentance will restore it to us, and us to God. It is difficult to believe that salvation has come when there is no joy.
There are a number of important lessons to be learned from this brief account of the conversion of the Ethiopian eunuch. First, let us look at this event in the light of the argument of the Book of Acts. It is a significant event in the transition from Jerusalem to Rome (cf. Acts 1:8) and from the preaching of the gospel to the Jews (only, at first) to the Gentiles. We have been prepared for the evangelization of the Gentiles throughout the Gospel of Luke and in Acts (thus far) as well. In Luke chapter 2, Simeon spoke of the Lord Jesus as a “light to the Gentiles” (Luke 2:32; a citation from Isaiah 42:6). In Luke chapter 4, when Jesus was welcomed by His own people at the synagogue in Nazareth, Jesus made it clear that the salvation He had come to bring was for Gentiles as well, a disclosure which reversed the attitude of the people, so that they now tried to kill Him (cf. Luke 4:16-30). The account of the good Samaritan (Luke 10), the prodigal son (Luke 15), and the Pharisee and the tax collector (Luke 18) all put the self-righteous Jew in his place, while it elevated the despised “sinner” and gave him hope of God’s salvation, due to his repentance. In Acts chapter 2, speaking in tongues was a sign, a sign of “things to come” in the salvation of those from every nation, just as our Lord had given instructions in the great commission to make disciples of every nation (Matthew 28:18-20).
The conversion of the Ethiopian eunuch was a very significant event, recorded in the midst of the great Samaritan revival. The Samaritans were regarded as “half-brothers,” so to speak, but were at least received by the church as saints. This Ethiopian was a kind of “first fruits” of the Gentiles. His race, along with his physical deformity (if, indeed, he was a true eunuch), would have kept him from approaching God, but God approached him, seeking him out in the desert, making it clear that he was a true saint, and the first of many more to come. Later on, Peter would be sent to the house of another Gentile proselyte, a God-fearer, but the Ethiopian was first brought near to God by his faith in Jesus as the Christ. And this man was not saved through the ministry of an apostle (Peter and John were on their way home), but rather through Philip. The sovereignty of God is once more emphasized.
This text is vitally important for it would seem that it is here, for the first time, that Isaiah 53 is clearly indicated as a messianic prophecy. It would not have been received (or welcomed) as such by those within Judaism who wanted a different kind of Messiah. Philip’s identification of the One of whom Isaiah wrote as the Messiah, Jesus, was that which opened the door to much further study, meditation, and apostolic preaching. But here this text is seen in what appears to be a new light.
This text is a key, I believe, to Jewish evangelism. It not only helps us understand why unbelieving Jews would reject Jesus (as Saul did), but also what an unbelieving Jew must do in order to be saved. This passage would require a Jew to repent (to change their mind about Jesus, and about Messiah), so as to acknowledge Jesus as the Messiah (something Saul is going to do in chapter 9). They must recognize that their conception of Messiah was wrong, as was their rejection of Jesus as the Messiah. They must see that Jesus was the innocent, suffering Savior, who came to be rejected and to die, not for His own sins, but the for sins of the world, so that men could be saved. They must see that it was their perception of Him that was wrong, and that in their sins they had rejected the One whom God had appointed. They must admit that God was utterly right, and that they were wrong in this matter of Messiah (as with all else). Jesus is the bone of contention, and rightly so. It is not that Jesus does not fulfill prophecy perfectly, but that Israel no more accepted Messiah than they did the prophets. To be saved required repentance—the admission that they were wrong—and trust in Jesus as the Messiah of God. Jewish evangelism should lean hard on this passage, for it says all that is needed to be said, and it point to Jesus as the Messiah, the only One who has perfectly fit this divine description and prophecy of the Savior.
I should also add that this text is they key to Gentile evangelism. The fact is that God’s Messiah was a Jewish Messiah. The salvation which we must accept for eternal life is, in a sense, a Jewish salvation. We are saved by trusting in a Jewish Savior, who perfectly fulfilled the Old Testament (Jewish) scriptures. We are not saved (as the Judaizers would insist) by becoming Jewish proselytes, for the Ethiopian was a proselyte. But while he was a religious Jew, he was not saved. People thus are saved by recognizing their sins, just as the Jews must, and by trusting in Jesus as God’s Messiah, just like the Jews. Gentiles must be saved as Jews are (so here), and Jews must be saved as the Gentiles are (so Galatians 2:15-21).
The salvation of the Ethiopian eunuch is an interesting commentary on the charges which were leveled against Stephen. He was charged with speaking against the law of Moses and against the “Holy place.” The Jews had an undue attraction and devotion to the “holy city” and to the temple. They attributed an excessive value to these places, not knowing (or refusing to accept the fact that) God was about to destroy them. It was a new “holy city” that would be the headquarters of the kingdom, not this city, which was to be done away with. The “holy place” did little for the eunuch. Instead, he was brought to faith in a remote “desert place,” although he had just been to the temple and to the holy city. Just as Jesus had told the woman at the well in John chapter 4, worship was not a matter of the “right place,” but of the “right person” and of the “right spirit.” We see this evidenced by the conversion of the Ethiopian.
Finally, the process by which God saved the Ethiopian eunuch provides us with an important lesson in divine guidance. Here, Philip is specifically directed to the Ethiopian eunuch, in a remote place, so that God’s election and salvation might become evident, in an undeniable way. And so it was necessary for the “angel of the Lord” and the “Holy Spirit” to direct Philip to the eunuch. But in the salvation of the Samaritans in the “city of Samaria” above (8:4-25), no statement is made that Philip was divinely guided to this place. It is clear that God “led” Philip, in an indirect way, but from all outward appearances, Philip went there out of pure necessity and on the basis of his own judgment.
My point is this: God guides. God guides supernaturally, at times. He specifically and undeniably guides men to do that which they would not have ordinarily have done. Thus, God guided Philip to set aside his Samaritan ministry for a time and to go to this remote place so as to bring about the conversion of an African. This guidance was necessary because Philip would have never chosen to do this on his own, and rightly so. But in many (I would say most) cases, God guides and uses men and women, who act on their own judgment, just as God used Philip to reach this Samaritan city, and many of the others who fled from Jerusalem to avoid the persecution of Saul and perhaps others. It may not seem like a very kind of pious guidance—this flight from persecution—but God succeeded in putting men and women where He wanted them. Why is it that we want the God’s particular direction, but we turn up our nose at His providential guidance? It think it is because we deem direct guidance to be more spiritual than indirect guidance. And this, in my opinion, is why we so often try to sanction our own decisions with the phrase “God led me to…” when, in all truth, this guidance is the indirect kind, and not that of a specific set of instructions given by an angel of the Lord. Let us be assured that God does guide, but that He is under no obligation to guide us as we might prefer, or as we might deem more spiritual. A God who is sovereign, who is completely in control, does not have to tell every Christian every step they are to take. And this is why we must walk by faith, and not by sight. Faith acts, based upon biblical principles, trusting that God is guiding. Faith does not presume to demand that God must give us verbal instructions from an angel or His Spirit, so that we can be sure He is with us. Much that is done in the name of faith is really its opposite—unbelief. Faith trusts God when we have not seen (an angel or a vision), and when we do not need to. Let us be men and women of faith.
One final word—about discipleship. I believe that discipleship is a divinely given duty, as stated, for example, in the Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20). Having said this, I must also point out that God sometimes provides for the discipling of men apart from the normal means. Saul, for example, was discipled by God in the wilderness, and not by the apostles, and for a good purpose (as we shall later see). So, too, this Ethiopian is not discipled by Philip or by any other saints, so far as I can tell. In these exceptional cases, God will meet the need. This Ethiopian had the Word of God and the Spirit of God. That was enough. And for those of us who become overly dependent on others (“accountability” is a word that makes me a little nervous—it is not thoroughly biblical), let me remind you that our primary dependence should be upon the Word of God and the Spirit of God as well, rather than upon men, even godly men.
The Ethiopian met God in a deserted place, when he came to realize that his religion was not enough, and that Jesus was the Savior, who died for his sins. Have you met the Savior yet? I pray that if you have not, today might be the day.
119 For a study of the “angel of the Lord” consult these texts: Gen 16:7,9,11; 22:11, 15; Exo 3:2; Num 22:22-27, 31-32, 34-35; Jud 2:1,3; 5:23; 6:11-12, 21-22; 13:3,13, 15-17, 20-21; 2Sa 24:16; 1Ki 19:7; 2Ki 1:3,15; 19:35; 1Ch 21:12,15-16,18,30; Psa 34:7; 35:5-6; Isa 37:36; Zec 1:11-12; 3:1, 5-6; 12:8; Mat 1:20,24; 2:13, 19; 28:2; Luk 1:11, 2:9; Act 5:19; 8:26; 12:7,23.
120 Cf. Deuteronomy 23:1; Isaiah 56:3-5; 66:18-21.
121 The title “eunuch” can be used of a government official who is literally a eunuch, but also for an official who is not. Thus, we cannot know for certain whether or not this man was literally a eunuch. If he was, indeed, a eunuch, he would have been forbidden to enter the “assembly of the Lord” (Deuteronomy 23:1).
122 Unromantic as it may be, this could also have been a mere ox cart.
123 Verse 37 is omitted in some texts. I am inclined to accept it as genuine. It may not add a great deal to the passage, nor would its absence do great damage to it. It may be that the words of verse 37, which stress the importance of the eunuch “believing with all his heart that Jesus is the Christ” are, to some degree, a result of Philip’s disappointing experience with Simon the magician, whose sincerity seemed a bit doubtful under close apostolic scrutiny.
124 I am an immersionist, by conviction, but the fact that both men are said to go down into the water does not necessarily prove that this man was immersed. They could have “gone down” into a creek or (more likely) an oasis, which was but a few inches deep. The “going down” need not refer to the depth of the water, but to the elevation of the water, with respect to the two men. And even though the water were deep enough to immerse the Ethiopian, this does not, in and of itself, prove that he was immersed. That is an inference derived from a number of lines of evidence. This text does not add much to these lines of evidence. After all, a man could have been sprinkled in a pool six feet deep.
125 Paul employs this same term for being his being “caught up” into the third heaven in 2 Corinthians 2:2, 4, and for the rapture of the living saints in 1 Thessalonians 4:17 (cf. also Revelation 12:5).
126 We see something similar happening elsewhere in the Bible. Notice the marginal notes in the NASB here, referring to 1 Kings 18:12; 2 Kings 2:16; Ezekiel 3:12, 14; 8:3; 11:1, 24; 43:5; 2 Corinthians 12:2.
127 Cf. Charles W. Carter and Ralph Earle, The Acts of the Apostles (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1973), p. 122.
128 “. . . tradition has assigned to this man the early evangelization of Ethiopia.” Carter and Earle, p. 122.