Go and Tell

| Acts 8:26-39

Lesson Focus:  This lesson is about obeying God’s call to tell others about Jesus Christ.

Seize Each Opportunity: Acts 8:26-29.

[26]  Now an angel of the Lord said to Philip, "Rise and go toward the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza." This is a desert place. [27]  And he rose and went. And there was an Ethiopian, a eunuch, a court official of Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, who was in charge of all her treasure. He had come to Jerusalem to worship [28]  and was returning, seated in his chariot, and he was reading the prophet Isaiah. [29]  And the Spirit said to Philip, "Go over and join this chariot."  [ESV]

The second incident in the Philip cycle sends us south of Jerusalem toward Gaza. A eunuch and servant of the queen of Ethiopia, a treasurer, is reading Isaiah. Philip is guided by the Spirit to him and leads him to understand how the text describes Jesus. The Ethiopian believes and is baptized. Philip departs and passes through Azotas on the way to Caesarea. This unit distinguishes itself from what we have seen up to this point in Acts. Whereas up to now mass conversion has been in view, our next three scenes contain individual conversions (the eunuch, Saul, Cornelius). This is the more personal side of evangelism. How is the Ethiopian to be understood ethnically? Is he a Gentile? This has long been suggested and is held today. It is, however, unlikely that the Ethiopian is a pure Gentile, given the emphasis that the conversion of Cornelius receives as a breakthrough to Gentiles and the fact that Paul’s mission to the nations is set up by his conversion in Acts 9. More likely the Ethiopian is a Diaspora Jew or a Gentile who is already tied to Judaism, as his coming to Jerusalem and reading Isaiah suggest. This would put him somewhere between one who has been merely exposed to Israel’s God and may have respect for this deity and one who is fully circumcised. In sum, we cannot be sure of his exact status, but it is quite likely that he has been significantly touched by Judaism, since he is reading Isaiah and coming from Jerusalem. As such, he would not be seen as a pure Gentile. In form, the account is another narrative story of conversion, showing the word slowly but inexorably moving out into the world, a movement directed by God’s Spirit. It shows some parallelism to Luke 24 and the Emmaus road. It takes place on the way out of Jerusalem. As in Luke 24, a question initiates the encounter, and Scripture is central. Jesus becomes the key topic, and realization of who Jesus is leads to disappearance of the messenger. The account also sets up the next phase of outreach to the Gentiles, acting as a bridge to the larger world and showing Philip as a type of forerunner to Peter in going to the Gentile world, even if the figure in question is tied also to Judaism.

[26-29]  An angel of the Lord instructs Philip to head south for Gaza on a road that is located in a desolate area. That a revelation is occurring is obvious from the angelic guidance as God directs the expansion of the Gospel through one of His agents. The angel of the Lord is prominent in Acts. In verse 29, the Spirit speaks to Philip. Luke often has angels working in concert with the Spirit. Gaza was the last water stop in southwestern Israel before entering the desert on the way to Egypt and was 2,400 feet lower than Jerusalem. This is the only place Gaza is mentioned in the New Testament. Travelling on the road is a eunuch who is treasurer to the queen of Ethiopia, called Candace, a term used as a hereditary dynastic title. Ethiopia is to the south of Egypt and is known as Cush in the earlier books of the Old Testament. It is in what today is known as the Sudan. As an Ethiopian, the eunuch probably is black, and so the gospel is expanding to a new ethnic group. He went to Jerusalem in order to worship and is now returning home. Eunuchs were castrated men who often served as keepers of harems. They often served as treasurers. His condition would not allow him full participation in Jewish worship [see Deut. 23:1]. In the eschaton, eunuchs will be restored to full worship [Isaiah 56:3-5]. He is an important person, a powerful man from a faraway place who hears the gospel. Since he is reading Isaiah from the Old Testament, he is most likely an adherent of Judaism, probably a Diaspora God-fearer (a non-Jew who worships the Jewish God). He would be limited to the Court of the Gentiles at the temple or perhaps just to a synagogue. The eunuch is reading Isaiah, probably aloud as was ancient custom to help the memory. He is wealthy enough to have his own copy of Isaiah. This would likely be a scroll (about 8 inches X 12 inches and anywhere from 16.5 to 145 feet long), written in square Assyrian Hebrew script or in Greek. The chariot he rides in is not a military carriage but simply a traveling vehicle that could hold at least three people. This is little more than a flatboard on wheels and not the most luxurious kind of vehicle. It is hard to know how luxurious the chariot was for a trip that took five months each way.

Explain the Scripture:  Acts 8:30-35.

[30]  So Philip ran to him and heard him reading Isaiah the prophet and asked, "Do you understand what you are reading?" [31]  And he said, "How can I, unless someone guides me?" And he invited Philip to come up and sit with him. [32]  Now the passage of the Scripture that he was reading was this: "Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter and like a lamb before its shearer is silent, so he opens not his mouth. [33]  In his humiliation justice was denied him. Who can describe his generation? For his life is taken away from the earth." [34]  And the eunuch said to Philip, "About whom, I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?" [35]  Then Philip opened his mouth, and beginning with this Scripture he told him the good news about Jesus.  [ESV]

[30-31]  The Spirit, not the angel of verse 26, now directs Philip to go and join the man in the chariot. The Spirit frequently directs in Acts. Running to the man, Philip hears the eunuch reading Isaiah. Philip asks the man if he comprehends what he is reading thus indicating the difference between knowing and understanding. The eunuch humbly asks to be led in a discussion about understanding what Isaiah is saying. When the Ethiopian says that he needs a guide, it becomes clear why Philip is here, especially when the man invites him into the chariot. Philip the evangelist is ready to explain the text to his inquirer and even hurries to do so. Philip serves as an interpretive guide to God’s wisdom, both to Scripture and to God’s plan in Jesus. He fulfills the mission to which God has called this member of the church. Jesus is the key to unlock the meaning of the Old Testament and passages such as the one being read by the Ethiopian cannot be satisfactorily understood apart from their fulfillment in Him. Luke continues to show how God was sovereign in this situation, providing Philip with Isaiah 53:7-8 as a basis for proclaiming Christ. Given Jesus’ application of this prophecy to His impending suffering in Luke 22:37, it is not surprising to read that Philip used it to proclaim the gospel to the Ethiopian.

[32-35]  The passage being read is Isaiah 53:7b-8a. Isaiah 53:7 looks at the innocent, silent suffering of the servant and compares the figure to a sacrificial lamb, unjustly slain as verse 33 makes clear (justice was denied him). The quotation takes us to the whole so-called Servant Song [Isaiah 52:13-53:12] and is to be understood in that literary and theological context. Often in the New Testament verses from the Old Testament are quoted as a way of referring to the whole context from which they are taken. Elsewhere in the New Testament, we find verses from this passage quoted at Luke 22:37; John 12:38; Romans 10:16; and 1 Peter 2:21-25. However, the Song appears to have had greater influence on early Christian thinking about the death of Christ than even these quotations would suggest. Philip compares this silent and slain lamb to Jesus. The death is described as being taken up from the earth. It also is called humbling. In its context, the passage from Isaiah refers to both submission and the idea of injustice. The text asks what kind of generation can take a life like this. The implied suggestion is that only a wicked generation can do so. Here justice is removed as the unjust death of an innocent takes place. This was the major element of Jesus’ death in Luke 23 and Isaiah 53:12 is used also in Luke 22:37,where Jesus is reckoned with the criminals. This issue of injustice fits with the Lukan portrait of Jesus’ death. He died unjustly because He was who He claimed to be, the promised one of Israel. But there is irony here: in the generation’s act of taking Jesus’ life from earth, there is also, for Jesus, God’s vindication of that death. This, in effect, nullified the judgment of Jesus on earth. If there is a positive viewpoint in the reading, it is one of irony involving the vindication that the servant eventually experienced. This combination of the innocent person suffering and being taken from the earth is probably what Philip eventually explains about Jesus, with and elucidation of what this death now means in light of God’s vindication. This tragic, unjust death, which looked as if it had resulted in all being lost, in fact resulted in everything being gained. The Acts text, however, develops only one issue: Who is the text describing? This is the focus of the eunuch’s question. The eunuch asks if the passage is about Isaiah or another. At the time, Jews may well have considered three candidates for the subject of the text: (1) the prophet, (2) Israel, and (3) another individual, such as an Elijah revived or a Messiah, but not one who suffered. In asking the question this way, the eunuch may think that the passage is about Isaiah. Philip will explain that the passage is about Jesus, who is that servant who suffered unjustly. The query from the eunuch leads Philip to preach the gospel from the Scripture. The expression opened his mouth is in Acts 10:34 and 18:14 and often means lecturing on Scripture in Judaism. Philip begins from this Scripture in Isaiah and moves on. No other details of the conversation appear.

Invite a Response:  Acts 8:36-39.

[36]  And as they were going along the road they came to some water, and the eunuch said, "See, here is water! What prevents me from being baptized?" [37]  [And Philip said, "If you believe with all your heart, you may." And he replied, "I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God."] [38]  And he commanded the chariot to stop, and they both went down into the water, Philip and the eunuch, and he baptized him. [39]  And when they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord carried Philip away, and the eunuch saw him no more, and went on his way rejoicing.  [ESV]

The discussion takes place as they travel. As they come to some water, the eunuch asks what might prevent him from being baptized. The verb prevents appears six times in Acts. How the eunuch knows about baptism is not made clear. Has Philip explained it to him, or has he heard about it in Jerusalem? His willingness to receive baptism means that he is responsive to the gospel. All the barriers are down, and so an eunuch, a black, God-fearing Gentile, is baptized. A confession appears in verse 37, but this verse is not original to Acts. It appears to have been added in some early manuscripts because there is no mention of a confession of faith by the eunuch in the original text. It is probably a second-century addition that reflects practice at that time. In verse 38 the eunuch commands the chariot to stop. Philip baptizes the eunuch after they enter the water. The verse suggests some type of immersion, since the baptism follows going into the water, although pouring is also possible. That baptism was undertaken immediately in the early days also follows from the call of Acts 2:38, as well as the scene with Cornelius in 10:47-48. The verb baptize is frequent in Acts, appearing twenty-one times, almost always of water baptism. In the early church immersion seems to have been the preferred but not the exclusive mode for baptism. Here is a baptism performed by a non-apostle. With the baptism complete, so is Philip’s mission. The Spirit takes Philip away. His instant removal makes clearer still that God is at work. The eunuch moves on, rejoicing at his newfound relationship to God.

Questions for Discussion:

1.         How do you see God at work in the conversion of the Ethiopian? What does this tell you about your dependence upon God in your witnessing?

2.         Describe Philip’s method of evangelism with the Ethiopian. What does Philip use? What does he focus on? What can you learn from Philip concerning the most effective way to witness to others?

3.         Take the time to read the entire Servant Song found in Isaiah 52:13-53:12 that the Ethiopian was reading. Imagine you are Philip. How would you have explained the meaning of this passage to the Ethiopian?


The Message of Acts, John Stott, Inter-Varsity.

Acts, Darrell Bock, ECNT, Baker Academic.

The Acts of the Apostles, David Peterson, Eerdmans.