At several points in the narrative of Acts we detect the hand of the God of Israel at work. This narrative is strongly reminiscent of that of Elijah — directed by an angel into the desert, his running, his being snatched way by the Spirit of the Lord. Same God, same manner of working, but now a new situation some 1000 years later.
By the way, it is worth noting that in Acts the Spirit intervenes to direct an evangelist in a particular way when what God intends is not what would seem most reasonable. Why leave Samaria where the Spirit is working to go out into the desert where no people are to be found? But the Spirit had plans to fulfil in the desert. Ordinarily, in Acts, the decisions regarding where to invest evangelistic effort are made by men for simple and practical reasons.
Now, watch the gospel make its progress, as the Lord takes it one step further and in a different geographical direction. First Jerusalem and full-blooded Jews; then Samaria, followers of the law who were, at least, looking for the Messiah; and, now, an Ethiopian court official, no Jewish blood, but still a follower of Judaism.
(next, in Acts 10, the conversion of the first full-fledged physical and spiritual Gentile.)
Ethiopia in those days was the country we know as modern Sudan. Candace was not a personal name, it was the title of the queen mother who was always the effective ruler of the country because the king himself, regarded as divine, was too sacred to soil his hands with the affairs of state.
The term “eunuch,” which ordinarily refers to someone who has been castrated, can mean simply “court official.” But, it may have been that this man was a eunuch — if so, he would not have been allowed to worship in the temple — and we are to see here the fulfillment of the day of grace promised in Isa. 56:3-5:
“Let no foreigner who has bound himself to the Lord say, ‘The Lord will surely exclude me from his people.’ And let not any eunuch complain, ‘I am only a dry tree.’ For this is what the Lord says: ‘To the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths, who choose what pleases me and hold fast to my covenant — to them I will give within my temple and its walls a memorial with a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that will never be cut off.” (Cf. Ps. 68:31: “Envoys will come from Egypt; Cush will submit herself to God.”)
This eunuch was either a God-fearer or a full proselyte, a convert to Judaism who worshiped the God of Israel as best he could given the limitations imposed upon him by his situation. He had been to Jerusalem and now was on his way home, riding in a chariot as befitted his station, and whiling away the journey reading the prophecy of Isaiah.
In the ancient world, people generally read aloud, not silently as today. Philip recognized what he was hearing — either the eunuch reading to himself or a slave reading to him — (this “chariot” was probably an ox-drawn cart and would have moved slowly). Philip seized the opportunity. Obviously, the Lord had prepared this encounter. For what better passage in the world for an evangelist to be asked to explain! And that is even more the case given the eunuch’s precise question: who is this written about?
And there is need for interpretation. One could gain much from Isaiah 53 if one was steeped in the teaching of the law and prophets, but, still, it took the events of the incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus to provide the key that unlocks the splendor of the prophecy of Isa. 53.
Which indicates that Philip must have spoken to him at some length of salvation in Christ and how it is appropriated by sinners. But this all seems so abrupt and so an early scribe smoothed over the situation by adding what you see in your margin as v. 37 — notice there is no v. 37 in your NIV. In this way we have the eunuch clearly confessing his faith before he was baptized and the right order is safely preserved. No doubt Philip had evidence enough of this man’s true faith.
The prepositions used in these two verses (eis, in or into, and ek from or out of), that is into the water and out of the water (though it would be just as good Greek to say “to the water” and “from the water”), have been claimed by immersionists to teach immersion as the mode of baptism. One goes “into” the water and “out of” the water, that is, one was completely dipped under the water and came up out of the water. But this is admitted on almost all hands to press the Greek words beyond their limit and, in any case, if taken that way, proves to much. For in these sentences, whatever the eunuch did, Philip did too! (Our position on mode: immersion not taught in the NT as the mode — the three arguments all fail –; it is an acceptable mode; as are pouring or sprinkling; with perhaps sprinkling the best attested in Scripture — OT rites and the antitype, the blood of Christ sprinkled on our hearts. Note the general indifference to mode in regard to the other sacrament, when we are told how that sacrament was first observed!)
The eunuch went home rejoicing, but no mention of the sign gift of the Spirit, prophesying or speaking in tongues.
Irenaeus (Adv. Haer, III, 12, 8) says that the eunuch returned to his homeland preaching Christ as the Son of God, but whether he was concluding this from his reading of Acts 8 or had additional information we do not know.
Philip goes on up the coast to Caesarea where he is found 20 years later as the father of four prophesying daughters when Paul passes through at the end of his 3rd Journey.
What a magnificent picture of Christian evangelism this is! It has its limits, of course. We are certainly not free to conclude from this that we are obliged only to talk of Christ to those the Holy Spirit leads us to in some direct and remarkable way. That is a feature peculiar to such an event in such a time.
- But, see clearly the hand of God. We are just his instruments. Obviously, the Lord had all of this in mind and in hand, and brought Philip to the eunuch at precisely the most auspicious moment. I think of Augustine’s eye falling on Romans 13:14. What if it had fallen instead on 1 Chronicles 26:18? or William Cowper’s on the genealogies in Numbers or Chronicles.
And then, at just the right time, they come across water, not so likely in the desert. And so the work of grace may be sealed and the eunuch sent homeward with the full provision made for him as he leaves all other gospel influences behind.
- But, just as clearly, the instrumentality that God employs is the words and deeds of a man. Philip goes…runs (that is a great image!)…provokes the encounter with a question…explains when given the opportunity…confirms with baptism
All of this would have been for naught if God had not been orchestrating events and overruling an African’s heart, but God works through men and their obedient and interested investment of themselves in the salvation of others.
- It will not usually be the way, and was not, even in Acts, but take note too of the possibility of immediate fruit from a single conversation.
Lydia and the jailer in Philippi.
More often, even dramatic conversions are the culmination of a longer process: Augustine, Wesley, or Spurgeon.
But it is an error to deny the possibility of such an immediate and once for all effect of gospel witness and, if so, then an error on our part not to look for such opportunities and to seize them. The apt question always a good way: “Do you understand what you read?” or “Why are you crying?” or “What did you mean by that?” Or, a thousand other questions that open up the possibility of a fruitful witness if the Lord has prepared a heart.
We should pray often for such opportunities and the wit to seize them. We should practice hospitality and create opportunities for witness in our homes and at our tables and in our back yards. That is the equivalent of Philip’s running beside the chariot. And we can always speak of our faith in front of others. As the radio preacher I heard once put it: “Sometimes silence is golden; but often it’s just plain yellow.” Those who witness this way are always witnessing in the other way too — the long stretch to people they know! And we are all to be doing this work! Let there be no mistake about that! And what a joy to have a part in God’s work in an unsaved heart!