Persecution of the Whole Church
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.
Pioneering Ministry of Philip
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
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.
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.
Arrival of Peter and John
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.
Lust for Power
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 here a figurative term for poison2. 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, echoing the name "Simon."3 It denotes 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.4 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.
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
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."13 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.14 The Jews destroyed it in 96 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.15 The angel’s comment, "The same is desert," probably signified which road Philip should take.16 He should go south along the road that went through Bethlehem and Beth Govrin before turning westward, then winding through wilderness and desert before ultimately coming to the coastal road at a point near Gaza.17 Without delay, Philip went to the appointed place. There, probably at the intersection of the two roads—the main road from the north and the lesser road from the east—he waited.
The eunuch in his chariot probably followed a different course away from Jerusalem. It is likely that instead of going south, he used the main thoroughfare that ran northwest toward Caesarea and met the coastal road just beyond Lydda.18 At that juncture, 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.
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 manuscript and reading it aloud.
The reader of the scroll 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 worshiping at the Temple in Jerusalem. Despite living so far from Judea, he had somehow become a follower of the Jewish religion.
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 it. 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.
The Eunuch's Response of Faith
It is doubtful that while visiting Jerusalem, the eunuch heard no talk 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."
The road had brought them to a body of water.
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.
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.
- The word translated "caught away" refers to a sudden taking, a snatching away.38
- 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.
- 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 the city of Jerusalem so that he might watch God’s hand of judgment descending on the nation of Judah (Ezek. 8–11). He took Daniel probably from Babylon itself to Shushan in Persia so that he might observe 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).
Finding himself alone, the eunuch reflected on his new salvation in Christ and "went on his way rejoicing."
Philip was seen next in Azotus—originally, the Philistine city known as Ashdod—about twenty miles north of Gaza.41 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. After 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.
As we seek to fit Acts 8 into a reasonable scheme of chronology for the whole book, an important consideration is that the stream where Philip baptized the eunuch must have been carrying sufficient water. The rainiest season in Palestine is midwinter.42 As a result, the wadis and larger watercourses are fullest during the early months of the year. In Appendix 1, we have therefore placed the events in Acts 8 at the end of 33 and the beginning of 34.