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Comments on the encounter of Philip with the Ethiopian Eunuch

(Acts 8:26 to 40)

This is an interesting incident as will be seen as we go through the chapter. Philip had been very successful in bringing the Gospel to the Samaritans (verses 4-8). However, we find in verse 26 that the angel of the Lord instructed him to go southward on the road from Jerusalem to Gaza, a desert area. Not an area that was likely to be a fruitful venue for Gospel preaching. However, as we sometimes sing “God moves in a mysterious way his wonders to perform”. It is wise not to question God’s instructions and Philip did not. Needless to say, God is wiser than us and knows what He is doing. One would note here that it was an angel that instructed Philip. An angel does not dwell in Christians, but may be used of God to instruct them externally regarding their movements on earth. What comes to light in these verses is that the wind (spirit) was going towards the South. In the next chapter we find that it turns about toward the North. Consider here Ecclesiastes 1:6. No doubt the Lord had in mind that the testimony should go Southward to Ethiopia and also Northward. The refreshing streams in Genesis 2:10-14 were disseminated widely as the Gospel has in the day in which we live.

            Remarkably the man who Philip was sent to evangelise was a man who had power under Candace Queen of the Ethiopians. He was a eunuch. Scripture speaks quite well of eunuchs. No doubt, Daniel and his friends were eunuchs as this would fulfil Isaiah’s prophecy as to those who would be eunuchs in the palace of the king of Babylon (Isaiah 39:7; Daniel 1:1-7). Consider also Isaiah 56:3-5. That Daniel and his friends were eunuchs is confirmed by the fact that Scripture says nothing about them having wives or children.

            It is noticeable that we are not told the eunuch’s name and we hear no more of him after his encounter with Philip. It is clear he was an important man in Ethiopia: what today would most likely be called a Chancellor of the Exchequer. Paul says not many “powerful” are called (1 Corinthians 1:26), but he does not say not any. The eunuch was powerful (verse 27).

            We next have the Spirit instructing Philip. The Spirit is in us and instructs us internally.

            Now as to the eunuch it is noticeable that he had taken the trouble to come all the way from Ethiopia to worship at Jerusalem and was now returning. We may say he had not got any divine light in Jerusalem, but was seeking it in the Scriptures as he was reading Esaias the prophet. Nothing is said about those who were travelling with him. However, there were doubtless those with him as in view of his position of power under Candace he would have hardly travelled alone and in any case it would probably have been dangerous for him to do so. However, the fact that he was reading when Philip found him shows that someone else must have been driving the chariot. Further, the fact that he was reading out loud indicates that he had in mind that those travelling with him should be able to hear the words of the prophet Isaiah. Maybe those travelling with him were illiterate and could not read the prophet themselves, at least not in the language in which the scroll was written. Lastly, one would mention that in verse 38 we find that the eunuch commanded the chariot to stop. He did not stop the chariot himself.

            What the eunuch was doing was commendable, just as what Cornelius was doing was in chapter 10:1/2. The persons to whom the Gospel was presented were persons who were rightly exercised. They were those who feared God as we have it in Acts 10:34/35; 13:16 & 26. Until it was presented to them they did not have the light of the Gospel and therefore did not have the joy of it, but I do not believe we should think of them as we would of idolaters or persons who were on the broad road to destruction (Matthew 7:13). These persons had some light and it is to persons who answer to the light they have that God gives more.

            The passage which the eunuch was reading was the verses that concerned Christ and his death (Isaiah 53:7/8). He was reading it in the Greek LXX version, presumably because that was the version used in Ethiopia as it was originally produced in Alexandria. It has sometimes been pointed out that the eunuch had passed verses 4-6. He had understood that he was a sinner, but he had not apprehended who had borne his sins and it was as regards this that Philip could enlighten him. The preacher was needed as Paul says: “How shall they hear without one who preaches? ... How shall they preach unless they have been sent?” (Romans 10:14/15). Philip was the preacher and he had been sent. Philip began speaking from the Scripture that the eunuch had been reading, but no doubt he added a good deal more for the eunuch had clearly taken in something as to baptism.

            As to baptism it is generally accepted that verse 37 is not genuine, that is, the manuscript authority for is it is not reliable. Apart from the lack of manuscript authority the confession “I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God” (AV), though orthodox lacks the freshness which one gets with Peter’s confession when he said: “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:16). Further, the word attributed to Philip: “If thou believest with all thine heart thou mayest” (AV) (that is, be baptised) has overtones of the law (Deuteronomy 6:5). Who would claim that they believed with all their heart? Scripture elsewhere speaks simply of believing (e.g. Acts 16:31). Some may argue that the existence of the verse shows that in the early days of the church’s history a confession was required. However, the fact that the eunuch says: “What hinders my being baptised” (verse 36) shows that he wanted to be identified as a Christian, which he would not have done, had he not believed on Jesus, unless he was a complete hypocrite. Further, the fact that he says: “What hinders” shows that baptism is not a matter of obedience, but of privilege. As to the baptism itself, it was something done by Philip (verse 38), converts never in Scripture baptised themselves. Naaman did plunge himself seven times in the Jordan (2 Kings 5:14), but properly speaking that was not the equivalent of New Testament baptism. Lastly one would say as to the eunuch’s baptism nothing is said about persons witnessing it as the eunuch’s fellow travellers may well have done. Scripture says nothing about baptism being a testimony to anyone on earth. When Christ received John’s baptism it was heaven that took account of it and that is why baptism is connected with “calling on his name” in Acts 22:16. Further, there was nothing special about the water in which the eunuch was baptised; it was just water that happened to be available.

            We find that when the baptism was complete Philip was caught away (verse 39). Philip had carried out his commission. Had he stayed with the eunuch and had gone down to Ethiopia he might well have been given a place there which would have not been good for him nor the testimony. It is good that missionaries should move on when they have obtained converts and that they should not stay and become a sort of little pope. After the episode with the eunuch we find that Philip moved on (verse 40), as also did such as Peter (Acts 9:32-43) and Paul, who although he stayed in places where he ministered for a time, he always eventually moved on. Christ himself did also (Mark 1:36-39).

            It may be asked whether the eunuch who was rejoicing had received the Holy Spirit. Scripture does not tell us that he had though we know that joy is a fruit of the Spirit (Romans 14:17; Galatians 5:22 and 1 Thessalonians 1:6). However, we are told that there was great joy in the city that Philip had evangelised (verse 8), though they had not then received the Spirit (verses 15/16). What Scripture does not tell us we should not dogmatise about.

October 2011