Persecution of the Whole Church

Acts 8:1-4

The murder of Stephen by a mob of Jewish leaders was a great blow to the church. The church must have felt that it could not afford to lose a man of Stephen's caliber. As a leader, he exemplified being filled with the Spirit. As an evangelist, he possessed a boldness and eloquence that few could match. Therefore, after his death, "devout men carried Stephen to his burial, and made great lamentation over him."

The loss of Stephen was bad enough. But it was only the beginning of trouble. The leaders who stoned Stephen turned their wrath against the whole church in Jerusalem. The one spearheading the persecution was Saul, the same young man who held the cloaks of Stephen's slayers. Saul conducted a house-to-house search for believers, throwing those he found into jail. Fear of imprisonment and death drove many out of the city. Although the apostles themselves remained in Jerusalem, refugees from the persecution spread throughout the region.

Pondering a Question

Why did God allow evil men to trouble His beloved church?

While the persecution was underway, the church probably felt that the cause of Christ was suffering a setback. They probably pleaded with God to bind their enemies so that the work of the gospel might go forward. But in fact, the persecution assisted the work of the gospel. Before all the trouble, the church was almost entirely confined to one place. Afterward, believers were scattered throughout Palestine. Wherever they went, they preached "the word." They won people to Christ who never would have heard the gospel if the church had remained shut up in one city. As a result, assemblies of believers appeared throughout Judea and Samaria, the first two places that Jesus commanded the church to reach after evangelizing Jerusalem. He said, "Ye shall be witnesses unto me both in Jerusalem, and in all Judaea, and in Samaria, and unto the uttermost part of the earth" (Acts 1:8). Thus, although the persecution made it seem that the forces of evil were triumphing, the real victor was the church. The persecution was God's tool for scattering believers and pushing the gospel to new places.

Getting Practical

The nature of evil

Here is an illustration of the principle that God always brings good from evil. Evil is really evil. There is no way to whitewash it as good. We would be foolish to deny that it is evil when believers go to jail or die because of their faith. But evil is not final. It is just the prelude to something good that God will accomplish through it. The church has always become stronger as a result of persecution. There is an old saying: "The blood of martyrs is the seed of the church."

Pioneering Ministry of Philip

Acts 8:5-8

Right after Stephen died, the church must have felt that he was irreplaceable. Who else had his boldness in confronting the lost with the claims of Christ? But God immediately raised up a successor. He was Philip—not Philip the disciple, but Philip the deacon. When the church selected seven men to supervise its practical affairs, such as distributing aid to poor widows, naturally the first they chose was Stephen, yet the second was Philip. No doubt he was, like Stephen, "a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit" (Acts 6:5).

Within a short time, Philip brought the light of the gospel to three new regions. He was the first to preach to the Samaritans. Then he witnessed to an Ethiopian traveling home from Jerusalem. The man believed and carried the Christian faith to Africa. Afterward, Philip spread the gospel to cities along the Mediterranean coast.

Everywhere he went, he had the special blessing of God. In the city of Samaria, he preached with great power and performed astounding miracles. The lame and palsied (that is, paralyzed) were healed. The possessed were delivered from demonic control. When the Samaritans heard Philip and saw the miracles, all believed with joy. In obedience to the Great Commission, all who believed were baptized.

Simon the Sorcerer

Acts 8:9-13

Among those listening to Philip was an unlikely prospect for conversion. He was Simon, a well-known sorcerer. In days past he claimed to be a great person, and all the people of Samaria believed in him, describing him as the "great power of God." He won their respect by bewitching them "with sorceries." The Bible does not describe these sorceries, because it does not wish to encourage an interest in the occult. It is clear, though, that they were very convincing. The people of Samaria did not doubt that the man had supernatural powers.

Pondering a Question

Did Simon really have supernatural powers, or was he merely deceiving them with tricks?

We need not view the Samaritans as the gullible followers of a mere trickster. Simon won the confidence of the whole nation, from least to greatest, and held it for a long time. It is therefore likely that he did have some supernatural powers derived from Satan. Satan can give his servants a limited ability to work so-called magic. In our day, God has imposed rigid boundaries on what magicians can do, but during the Tribulation, He will allow the false prophet—a puppet of Satan—to promote worship of the Antichrist by performing great wonders in his name (Rev. 13:11–15).

Whatever powers Simon had, they paled next to Philip's. As Philip demonstrated the power available through the Holy Spirit, Simon stood by and watched, his eyes full of wonder. He knew that the miracles performed by Philip were far beyond the reach of sorcery. He realized that to retain prestige among the Samaritans, he had no alternative except to become Philip’s follower by expressing belief in Philip’s message. But as we learn later in Luke’s account, his belief proved to be no more than an admission that the apostles of Jesus were vehicles of divine power. It was not a belief accompanied by desire for deliverance from sin.

Getting Practical

Sorcery vs. prayer

Through the influence of the Harry Potter books and other forces in our society, sorcery is making a comeback. But what a sorcerer can do is pretty unimpressive compared with what any humble believer can do through the power of prayer.

Arrival of Peter and John

Acts 8:14-17

When news of Philip's success reached Jerusalem, the apostles decided to aid his mission to Samaria by enlarging the ministry team. They sent Peter and John, whose purpose was to give the new converts further instruction in the Word of God and to conduct evangelism in more cities. We may assume that Philip remained by their side during the effort.

Upon arriving, Peter and John found that none of the Samaritan believers had received the Holy Spirit. No doubt they were truly saved, because the apostles did not seek to rebaptize them in water. Yet the Holy Spirit had not come to indwell them. God's way of dealing with the Samaritans was most unusual. Ever since Pentecost, there has normally been no delay between being saved and receiving the Spirit.

For example, when Peter went to the household of Cornelius the centurion and the first gentiles believed in Christ, they received the Holy Spirit immediately. His coming had dramatic effects, leaving no doubt of His presence. Peter and his companions "heard them speak with tongues, and magnify God" (Acts 10:46). Later, Peter testified that "the Holy Ghost fell on them, as on us at the beginning" (Acts 11:15). But no signs of the Spirit's coming followed conversion of the Samaritans. To remedy their lack of His indwelling presence, Peter and John laid their hands on them, and with no further waiting "they received the Holy Ghost."

God’s choice to withhold the Spirit from new believers in Samaria was, as we said, most unusual, but it was not a solitary case. Later in the Book of Acts we learn that He also withheld the Spirit from some Ephesian converts who had been disciples of John the Baptist (Acts 19:1–7). In our discussion of their spiritual journey, we will show why God treated them like the Samaritans.

Pondering a Question

How is it possible to be saved and yet lack the indwelling Holy Spirit?

At the Last Supper, the coming of the Holy Spirit was an event still future for Jesus’ loyal disciples (John 14:16–17). Indeed, throughout the long ages before Pentecost, God did not send the Spirit to indwell any believers, even though they were all fully justified by faith (Rom. 4:1–9). It suited the Lord's wise purposes to treat the Samaritan converts in the same fashion, withholding the Holy Spirit until the right moment arrived.

Delving Deeper

Reason for the delay

Why the Samaritans did not receive the Holy Spirit until the apostles laid their hands on them has long perplexed students of Scripture. The best answer takes account of who the Samaritans were. They were a nation with roots going back to when Israel was divided into two kingdoms, a northern and a southern. The northern, known as the Kingdom of Israel, comprised ten of the original twelve tribes. The southern, known as the Kingdom of Judah, comprised the tribes of Benjamin and Judah. In about 720 BC, the mighty Assyrians conquered the northern kingdom and carried many of its people into captivity. Soon they also took people from other places and resettled them in the emptied land to prevent it from becoming desolate. Over time, the newcomers intermarried with the remaining Israelites, the result being a mixed race known as the Samaritans. These Samaritans revered the God of Jacob, but developed their own religion, distinct from the religion of the Jews. They rejected much of the Old Testament, appointed their own priests, and worshiped at their own temple in Samaria rather than in Jerusalem.

When Jesus witnessed to the woman in Samaria, she objected, "Our fathers worshipped in this mountain; and ye say, that in Jerusalem is the place where men ought to worship" (John 4:20). Jesus replied, "Ye worship ye know not what: we know what we worship: for salvation is of the Jews" (John 4:20-22). Jesus was warning her that if she wished to follow Him, she could not cling to the false religion of Samaria.

The religious background of the Samaritan converts made it necessary for God to withhold the Holy Spirit until they met the apostles. For centuries their ancestors had been hostile to Jewish religion. Thus, there was a danger that after believing in Christ they might continue to separate themselves from the Jews—that, instead of accepting the leadership of the apostles and fellowshipping with Jewish believers, they might set up a new sect. To prevent this from happening, God gave the Samaritans a dramatic sign that they were subject to the apostles' authority. He denied them the Spirit until the apostles laid their hands on them.

Lust for Power

Acts 8:18-24

When Simon saw the supernatural change in those who received the Spirit, his reaction showed that he still had the heart of a sorcerer rather than the heart of a believer. A sorcerer's driving motive is lust for power. In days past, Simon had wanted to control supernatural forces and through them to control people as well. Now, after his supposed conversion, he envied the apostles' ability to communicate the Spirit through the laying on of hands. He wanted the same power for himself. Power was still the god he worshiped.

Without the least shame for his arrogance and blasphemy, Simon approached Peter and John as if they were fellow sorcerers. He said, "Give me also this power, that on whomsoever I lay hands, he may receive the Holy Ghost." Simon proposed to cut a deal with them. If they would tell him the secret of giving the Spirit, he would pay handsomely for it. He no doubt reasoned that they, like himself, wanted money. Does not every sorcerer want money?

Peter was appalled. His response shows that the filling of the Spirit did not altogether change his basic personality. Like the Peter we see in the four Gospels, he was still quick and blunt in speaking his mind. He understood exactly what Simon's problem was. He was not saved. Therefore, unless he repented, he would perish just as his money would perish. The obstacle keeping him from Christ was sin. "Gall," referring to liver bile, is often a figurative term for poison. Peter said that Simon's heart was not right because it was poisoned by bitterness and bound by iniquity. He was bitter because the church had displaced him from his former power and influence among the Samaritans.

To impress on him the great wickedness of his proposal, Peter reproved him for thinking that "the gift of God may be purchased with money." This incident is the basis for a word in our language, simony. Simony is the attempt to purchase a religious office or position as if it were an item in the marketplace.

Some months earlier, before Peter healed the lame beggar in the Temple, he declared, "Silver and gold have I none; but such as I have give I thee: In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth rise up and walk" (Acts 3:6). Peter's public boast of poverty must have come to the devil's attention and suggested a way of tempting Peter. Perhaps he thought, "If Peter is poor, perhaps he would like some money." The devil provoked an old sorcerer to sidle up to Peter and suggest that it was perfectly natural to buy and sell spiritual power. Peter saw what the devil was doing and angrily cast the temptation aside.

Peter charged Simon to repent of his wickedness. Then, with a curious choice of words, he added that if Simon prayed for forgiveness, God would "perhaps" forgive him. His actual words in Greek convey the same sense. They clearly show doubt in Peter's mind that Simon was capable of sincere repentance. After long years of gleeful corruption, the sorcerer was bound fast to an evil heart and a lying tongue.

Simon answered Peter's rebuke by saying that he wanted the apostles to pray for him, lest he suffer damnation.

Pondering a Question

Did Simon truly repent of his sin?

Simon's response shows that he was without guilt or remorse. Instead of admitting that he had done wrong, he said only that he wanted to escape the consequences. But to escape them, he refused to do what Peter commanded. Rather than praying on his own behalf, he asked the apostles to pray for him. No doubt he was reluctant to pray for himself, because he did not wish to humble himself before God and confess his sin. Asking the apostles to pray for him was just a convenient way to end the conversation. Truly, he was still a lost man.

Delving Deeper

Later history of Simon

Church history confirms that Simon was not saved. His name in church history is Simon Magus—that is, Simon the magician. According to early Christian writers, Simon continued to practice magic after his supposed conversion and founded a sect combining Christian and pagan elements. Irenaeus (AD 120–202), a prominent church leader barely a century later, calls him "the father of all heretics," his conceit being so unbounded that he claimed to be God Himself. He taught that he had "appeared among the Jews as the Son, but descended in Samaria as the Father while he came to other nations in the character of the Holy Spirit."

Justin Martyr (AD 110–165), another famous church father in the second century, reports that Simon went to Rome during the reign of Claudius Caesar (41–54 AD) and so impressed the Romans that the people and the senate erected a statue in his honor on the river Tiber, with the inscription, "To Simon, the holy God." As a citizen of Rome himself for many years before his martyrdom, Justin should be a reliable source, but the position of many scholars today is that either Justin or his informants misread the inscription on a statue to a deity worshiped by an ancient Italic tribe. In any case, other ancient writers agree that Simon went to Rome and won many followers to his cult. Hippolytus (died AD 236), who served for some time as bishop of Rome, gives an exhaustive survey of Simon's teachings, a bizarre mix of paganism and Christianity. He reports that at the end of his career, Simon instructed his disciples to dig a trench and bury him alive, promising that he would rise on the third day. There, Hippolytus assures us, "he remained." The story may be apocryphal, but if true, it shows that a demonically controlled man who starts out as a plausible deceiver may end up as a raving lunatic.

Going Home

Acts 8:25

Upon completion of their ministry to new converts in Samaria, Peter and John did not rush back to Jerusalem, but made a tour of many Samaritan villages still unreached by the gospel. Clearly, they viewed outreach to Samaria not as a minor work on the sidelines, but as a priority in God’s program. After all, they well remembered Christ’s instruction that Samaria should be their next objective after evangelizing Jerusalem and Judea (Acts 1:8).

The pronoun "they" in verse 25 probably should be understood as including Philip. We infer that he accompanied Peter and John when they traveled through Samaria and finally returned to Jerusalem.

Mission to a Desert Place

Acts 8:26-35

We may suppose that after his triumphant soul-winning campaign in Samaria, Philip sought God’s direction as to where he should go next. An angel told him that he should, in a literal translation, "go south on the road leading down from Jerusalem to Gaza: the same is desert." Jerusalem is likely where Philip received this command. Gaza, the last city along the coastal road to Egypt, had from the distant past played a major role in regional history. In Old Testament times, it was one of the five principal cities in the Philistine nation. The Jews destroyed it in 93 BC, but in 57 BC it was rebuilt by the Romans, although not exactly at the original site. They relocated it a few miles away, nearer the Mediterranean. Because the ruins of the old city lay in arid surroundings, they became known as Desert Gaza. It is generally believed that this Gaza, not the new city, was the destination intended by the angel.

The angel’s instruction to go south probably meant that Philip should take the road that went through Bethlehem and Hebron before turning westward, ultimately joining the coastal road at Gaza. Without delay, Philip went to the appointed place. There, probably at the intersection of the two roads, he waited. The eunuch in his chariot may have followed a different course away from Jerusalem. Instead of going south, he may have used the main thoroughfare that ran northwest toward Caesarea and met the coastal road at Lydda. There, he would have turned south and moved toward Gaza. This route would have been preferable because it offered two roads that, compared with the one Philip took, were doubtless better constructed, as well as more heavily traveled and therefore safer.

Pondering a Question

Would it not have been simpler to intercept the eunuch before he left Jerusalem?

It would appear, although we are obviously stooping to speculation, that God wanted Philip to be the eunuch’s last Jewish contact before he returned home. If Philip had met him sooner, Satan may have been able to send another Jew alongside him afterward to attack his newfound faith with arguments he was unprepared to answer. God in His wisdom never permits more temptation than we can handle (1 Cor. 10:13).

Perhaps soon after Philip arrived at his stopping place, he saw a chariot coming south, heading toward Egypt. The man sitting inside was holding a scroll and reading it aloud.

Delving Deeper

A fuller picture

The word translated "chariot" has a much broader meaning, extending so far that it can refer any kind of beast-drawn vehicle. Sometimes it clearly intends a war chariot (Rev. 9:9), sometimes an ordinary road carriage pulled by a horse. F. F. Bruce suggests that the eunuch was riding in an ox-wagon.

That the eunuch was reading aloud may strike a modern reader as strange. Was he sharing the prophet’s words with fellow travelers? Luke’s report probably carries no such implication. In the ancient world, reading a manuscript was so difficult that sounding out the words audibly was ordinary procedure. The words were set down in a continuous string of letters, without intervals or punctuation. The script was often hard to decipher. Speaking each word when discovered helped to retain its sense until completion of the whole statement.

What sort of manuscript was the eunuch reading? It seems outside the realm of possibility that a man of his background could read a manuscript written in Hebrew. Luke’s quotation of Isaiah 53 (Acts 8:32–33) is, except for minor additions, identical to the same passage in the Septuagint. We infer that this provided the eunuch’s version of Isaiah. His copy was probably written on a scroll. Whether he obtained it in Jerusalem or possessed it previously, perhaps since he began investigating the religion of Israel, we do not know.

Did the eunuch have a retinue with him? It is extremely doubtful that he was alone. A man who was a leader of his nation would surely have traveled with attendants to serve his personal needs. Someone must have been driving the chariot as he held and read the scroll of Isaiah. Since his purpose in going to Jerusalem was to worship the God of Israel, it is likely that on his way there he carried a valuable offering. Thus, we surmise that his retinue included well-armed guards.

Luke declines to mention the men accompanying the eunuch because his purpose is to retell the amazing progress of the gospel, quickly bringing converts of many diverse backgrounds into the Kingdom. The one converted near Gaza was the eunuch. Probably his attendants did not join him either in professing faith in Christ or in being baptized. Therefore, in a story of victory after victory, Luke says nothing about them. Besides, to say that they were not saved as a result of Philip’s witness would have been misleading if at a later time, perhaps after returning home, they did come to Christ.

Later, Philip learned that this was a man of considerable importance. He was a high official in the government of Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, who had committed all of her treasure into his care. To earn such trust, he must have been a man of great integrity. He was on the road through Gaza because he was returning home after visiting Jerusalem for the purpose of worshiping at the Temple. Despite living so far from Judea, he had somehow become a follower of the Jewish religion.

Pondering a Question

Who was this eunuch?

He was an Ethiopian, but ancient Ethiopia did not lie in the same region as the modern nation by the same name. It was located to the northwest. If its territory were outlined on a modern map, it would include southern Egypt and northern Sudan, with a northern boundary near Aswan (by the Aswan dam on the Nile River) and a southern near Khartoum, capital of Sudan. The surrounding region has traditionally been known as Nubia. Some authorities believe that the Ethiopian kingdom actually extended beyond Nubia, incorporating Abyssinia (essentially the same as modern Ethiopia) and perhaps regions beyond.

The question that occurs to many readers is whether the eunuch was a black man. Undoubtedly he was. One of Luke’s purposes in the story of his conversion is to demonstrate that the gospel is for all the descendants of Noah, however the millennia have altered their appearance and shifted their dwelling place.

What exactly was the eunuch’s standing in Jewish religion? Earlier in Acts, Luke refers to Nicolas "a proselyte of Antioch" (Acts 6:5). Proselytes were gentiles who had taken all the steps necessary to be considered full-fledged Jews. The specific requirements were baptism, the offering of a sacrifice at the Temple, and, for a man, circumcision. Another class of gentiles who followed the religion of Israel were known as God-fearers, often mentioned in the Book of Acts (Acts 10:2, 22; 13:16, 26; 16:14; 17:4, 17; 18:7). Later in our discussion, we will show that to earn their status, God-fearers also had to satisfy certain requirements (see commentary on Acts 10:2). The eunuch is called neither a proselyte nor a God-fearer probably for the simple reason that he was neither one. No body of Jews had recognized him as meriting either name.

Remember that the eunuch was a high official in a distant land. We do not know how he met the God of Israel. Perhaps through conducting business as the queen’s treasurer, he had encountered Jews in Egypt, where they were numerous, or perhaps even in Nubia, where they might also have penetrated. But no synagogues may have existed in his homeland, and even if they had, it would have been difficult for him to escape the queen’s sequestered world and associate with the Jews. In relation to the Jewish community, He was far too marginal to assume the identity of either proselyte or God-fearer.

Pondering a Question

Was the Ethiopian official in fact a eunuch?

If he was, he was considered ineligible to enter the Temple. We said earlier that in Israel, the law excluded eunuchs from public worship (Deut. 23:1). One likely purpose in denying them a basic right of all Israelites was to discourage the nation from inflicting an incapacity for fatherhood and normal family life upon any of its sons. Yet the doubtless effect of this restriction would have been to discourage any eunuch in a far country from traveling all the way to Jerusalem to join in celebration of Jewish holy days.

Why then did the Ethiopian so trouble himself as to devote many weeks to a long journey ending in his exclusion from worship? There are two possible explanations.

  1. He was not actually a eunuch. There is evidence that in New Testament times, the practice of denying manhood to male servants of a king still existed. Yet there is also evidence that the word "eunuch" was commonly used for non-eunuchs serving as court officials in certain kingdoms. How did Luke know that the Ethiopian official was a eunuch? Some years later, Luke had an opportunity to discuss the incident with Philip (Acts 21:7–15). In all probability, he is repeating what Philip heard the man say of himself. If indeed the man introduced himself as a "eunuch" in the service of Candace, the term entered conversation as a title, not as a reference to the man’s physical condition. Yet we may not dismiss the possibility that he was an actual eunuch.
  2. He was a eunuch, but he was not well enough tutored in Jewish religion to know what would happen when he came to Jerusalem. He did not foresee that when he met devout Jews and introduced himself as a eunuch, they would warn him that he could not visit the Temple without violating God’s law. He was now coming home with a heart discouraged by his inferior status among God’s people. Yet some in Jerusalem may have taken pity on him and pointed out that although he was barred from the Temple, he was not barred from the love of God. They may have shown him Isaiah’s comforting message to eunuchs: "neither let the eunuch say, Behold, I am a dry tree. For thus saith the Lord unto the eunuchs that keep my sabbaths, and choose the things that please me, and take hold of my covenant; Even unto them will I give in mine house and within my walls a place and a name better than of sons and of daughters: I will give them an everlasting name, that shall not be cut off" (Isa. 56:3b–5). Notice that these words are located close to Isaiah 53, the passage that the noble Ethiopian was reading when Philip found him. Perhaps after looking at the recommended portion of the prophet’s book, the eunuch then explored adjoining portions, soon finding the intriguing but mysterious prophecy of a suffering servant.

Delving Deeper

The government of Ethiopia

Many ancient sources testify that Ethiopia was ruled by the king's mother, who bore the title Candace. The king himself was primarily a religious figure, considered a child of the sun. Luke's correct picture of Ethiopian government is another testimony to his accuracy.

An incidental fact attested by these sources is that the queen reigned from Meroe (or Merowe), a city centrally located in Nubia. It still exists as an important city today.

At the prompting of the Spirit, Philip ran to the chariot with the intent of starting a conversation. This was easy to do after Philip heard what the eunuch was reading. The text was Isaiah 53:7-8, the wonderful prophecy telling that Christ would die in our place to pay the penalty for our sins. Philip asked the eunuch whether he understood. The eunuch, replying that he needed a teacher, invited Philip to sit with him. The request for Philip's instruction is a clue that the eunuch was a recent convert to Judaism, for he implied that he had never heard anyone else teach Isaiah.

In attempting to understand the prophecy, the eunuch had come to the accurate conclusion that the writer might be portraying someone other than himself. Philip explained that the suffering lamb was not Isaiah, but Christ, and that Christ had recently come in the person of Jesus. He went on to show the eunuch that Jesus also fulfilled many other prophecies in the Old Testament.

Delving Still Deeper

The suffering servant

See our full discussion elsewhere.

The Eunuch's Response of Faith

Acts 8:36-40

It is doubtful that the eunuch could have visited Jerusalem without hearing about Jesus. The whole country was debating whether Jesus rose from the dead and taking sides either for or against the apostles. Everyone was watching the phenomenal growth of the church with great interest. For whatever reasons, the eunuch was ready to believe the gospel. As soon as Philip was done teaching him, he announced that he wanted to be baptized. "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."

Getting Practical

Who is eligible for baptism

In the Great Commission, Jesus instructed His disciples, "Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost" (Matt. 28:19). He intended baptism to be the first step of obedience after receiving the gospel. Thus, as Philip told the eunuch, the only requirement for baptism is whole-hearted belief. Yet he also made it clear that it would be wrong to baptize anyone who is not a believer.

His words give no support to infant baptism, a practice of many churches down through the centuries. An infant is ineligible for baptism because he is incapable of declaring as the eunuch did, "I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God."

Also, his words forbid baptism for any pragmatic reason. It should testify of newfound faith in Christ. But many unbelievers have undergone it only because it was a prerequisite for church membership. Perhaps they lived under a state church, which forced them to be baptized and become part of a local church if they wished to avoid penalties. In such cases, blame for the spurious baptism fell on the state, not on the compliant individual. Or perhaps they wanted to look like a Christian for some self-seeking purpose, such as to marry a church member. In such cases, blame fell on the pretender.

Delving Deeper

Common omission of verse 37

Verse 37 is missing from virtually all modern translations. The reason is that the text at the basis of most modern translations is not the same as the text underlying the KJV. The text now preferred by most translators is known as the critical text or eclectic text (CT), which modern scholars have developed using the principles of textual criticism laid down by the nineteenth-century scholars B. F. Westcott and F. J. A. Hort. The text at the basis of the KJV is known as the Received Text or Textus Receptus (TR), which the great Renaissance scholar Erasmus assembled from the small number of Greek manuscripts available to him. Acts 8:37 does not appear in CT, but appears in TR.

CT omits the verse because it is missing from most Greek manuscripts. Why then did Erasmus put it in TR? He knew that it is attested not only by some Greek manuscripts, but also by several early church fathers, among them Irenaeus (AD 120–202), Tertullian (AD 160?–230), Cyprian (died AD 258), Ambrosiaster (fourth century AD), Ambrose (AD 340?-397), and Augustine (AD 354-430). Its wide familiarity at an early period led Erasmus to presume that it was original. Indeed, it is hard to imagine how all these writers at different times and places could have taken for granted that it was Scripture if it was not. But its virtual disappearance from writings later in church history is a puzzle that demands solution before we in our day can also accept it as Scripture.

The solution may be very simple, however. Nearly all Greek manuscripts at the basis of CT originated after the third century AD. Christianity won official recognition and perhaps a degree of official favor in AD 313, then rose to the place of state religion in AD 380. Ever afterward, all citizens were expected to associate themselves with a local church. In accordance with longstanding Christian practice, the rite performed when anyone joined a church was still baptism. Under these new circumstances, Acts 9:37 became an obstacle to government policy. It teaches that a prerequisite for baptism is full-hearted belief in Christ. But a state church expects people to undergo baptism whether or not they are sincere Christians. The verse therefore had to be expunged from the Bible, lest it discourage universal membership in the church. Church leaders instructed scribes to skip over it in new manuscripts, and they ceased quoting it in public.

But it is original. If we delete it, Luke uncharacteristically fails to tell us outright that when the eunuch heard the gospel, he responded by believing in Christ (compare with Acts 8:5–6; 13:6–12; 16:30–34; etc.). Also, the eunuch’s question in verse 36 is left hanging without an answer.

The answer is so important that the Holy Spirit who inspired Luke surely wanted us to have it. In fact, nothing hindered the eunuch from being baptized if he simply believed in Christ with his whole heart. He was not disqualified by any circumstance of origin or experience. The gospel was God’s message even to an Ethiopian eunuch.

The road had brought them to a body of water.

Pondering a Question

Where in a desert area could they have found a place for baptism?

An old tradition of uncertain origin imagines that the baptism took place at Wadi el-Hesi, which runs into the sea about seven miles north-northeast of Gaza. A wadi is a channel that may not carry water year round. A likelier candidate for site of the baptism is the Nahal Besor (called "the brook Besor" in 1 Samuel 30:10), a small river that arises at Mount Boker (Boqér) in the Negev Desert to the south-southeast and runs about five miles south of Gaza before emptying into the Mediterranean. It is a substantial enough watercourse to permit immersion, and if in fact Philip waited for the eunuch at the intersection of the coastal road and the road from Hebron, Besor’s more southerly location better fits the story. The conversation after Philip climbed into the chariot might easily fill the time required for the chariot to move about five miles.

Of course, we cannot with finality identify where the eunuch was baptized, but the mere existence of streams near Gaza allays any suspicion that no water was available for the purpose.

The account says that both men went "down . . . into" the water, leaving no doubt that they waded in at least far enough to submerge their legs.

Delving Deeper

Evidence of immersion

To go so far into the water was hardly necessary if Philip baptized the eunuch by sprinkling or pouring—modes used by some historic churches either always or only under special circumstances. Indeed, to baptize by sprinkling or pouring did not even require them to find a body of water. They might have used a little of the drinking water that the eunuch doubtless had with him as he traveled through the desert.

Much evidence establishes that immersion was the universal mode of baptism in the early church. The earliest Christian writing outside the New Testament is a work called the Didache, a brief manual of church doctrine and practice, which many scholars date about AD 60. Its description of baptism leaves no doubt that it is referring to immersion.

After baptizing the eunuch, Philip was "caught away" by the Spirit. Several clues in the wording strongly lead us to conclude that the Spirit swept him away supernaturally to another place.

  1. The word translated "caught away" refers to a sudden taking.
  2. After the taking, the eunuch saw him "no more," or "no longer." Such information would be insulting to the reader if Philip merely walked into the distance. In that case, no one would have to be told that eventually the eunuch could not see him. The information serves a purpose if it means that while Philip was standing by the eunuch, he instantly disappeared.
  3. Then "Philip was found at Azotus." The word "found" is a strange choice if he had not previously been lost: that is, absent from anyone’s sight. The meaning is that he was not seen after he disappeared until he reappeared in a town miles away. In the meantime, no one saw him. If he had merely walked north along the coast, he would have been visible to a multitude of fellow travelers.

By conveyance of the Spirit, Philip either flew through the air to a new location or changed locations instantly. For the eunuch, the miracle of Philip’s disappearance was a sign confirming the truth of the gospel. It was God’s reward for his faith.

Philip was not the first that the Spirit transported miraculously to a place far away. In a vision granted by the Spirit, some Old Testament prophets journeyed to a distant land to see future events. The Spirit took Ezekiel from the region of Babylon to Jerusalem so that he might see how God’s hand would soon work in that city (Ezek. 8–11). He took Daniel probably from Babylon itself to Shushan in Persia so that he might see the future course of empires (Dan. 8). It was Elijah’s reputation that the Spirit sometimes lifted him bodily and moved him to another place quite apart from any vision (1 Kings 18:12; 2 Kings 2:16).

Delving Deeper

Philip’s trip to Azotus

Many older commentators agree that Philip was supernaturally lifted from the eunuch’s presence and dropped many miles to the north. Among them are Matthew Henry, Rudolf Stier, and David Brown. Yet many modern commentators are loath to admit that Philip’s departure from the eunuch was anything so extraordinary. The liberals among them accuse Luke of spinning a fairy tale. The conservatives among them accuse older commentators of adding something fanciful to the original story. Perhaps the latter group fears that readers, especially in the academic world, will judge them credulous if they stick to the interpretation that was once generally accepted. But consider this. No one questions that the Gospels speak of Satan taking Jesus in a moment of time to a high mountain (Matt. 4:8; Luke 4:5). If the most evil of all spirits could perform such a feat, could not the Holy Spirit, Satan’s creator, take Philip in a moment of time to a destination just a few miles down the road?

Finding himself alone, the eunuch reflected on his new salvation in Christ and "went on his way rejoicing." An ancient tradition says he became an aggressive soul-winner in his home country.

Delving Deeper

Later history of the eunuch

The church father Irenaeus (AD 120–202) records that the eunuch became an evangelist for Christ in his homeland. The Abyssinian church, an ancient branch of Christendom similar to the Egyptian Coptic church, counts him as its founder. Neither tradition can be authenticated, of course, but God’s special intervention to entrust this man with the gospel surely had a larger purpose. He must have wanted the eunuch to share the gospel with his countrymen. It seems unlikely that the Holy Spirit would have inspired Luke to give the man’s conversion a prominent place in the history of the early church if God’s purpose was never fulfilled.

Philip was seen next in Azotus, about twenty miles north of Gaza. He then began an evangelistic tour of the coastal cities that took him all the way to Caesarea. Shortly afterward, Peter found believers in Lydda (Acts 9:32) and Joppa (Acts 9:36), both near the coast. Perhaps they were the fruit of Philip’s ministry.

Philip was greatly used of God because he never wasted his opportunities. He went to the Samaritans as soon as God prodded him to go. Others may have hung back because of Jewish prejudice against the Samaritans. When the Spirit instructed him to travel many miles to an uninhabited desert for an undisclosed reason, he went right away, no questions asked, and he witnessed to the first person the Spirit pointed out. When the Spirit took him to Azotus, he probably started preaching the gospel as soon as his feet hit the ground. Wherever he was, he was impatient to get on with the work of God. Because of his outstanding readiness to win souls, he reaped a large harvest for Christ.

Getting Practical

Many of us do not win souls for Christ because our self-centeredness leaves us unavailable for God's use. As we go through our day, we stick to our own agenda, forgetting God's agenda. We view people in terms of how they affect us, not in terms of how we might help them. Instead of seeing them as needy souls, we see them strictly in their role as check-out clerk, insurance agent, or nurse. So blinded, we miss chances to witness. Thus, God brings few people across our path with a heart prepared to believe. If He gave us more opportunities, we would flub them. If we want more, we must, like Philip, be diligent in taking the opportunities we have now.