By Sam E. Stone
Someone has said the book known as “The Acts of the Apostles” could more accurately be titled, “Some of the Acts of Some of the Apostles.” Philip was not an apostle, yet he was a key figure in the early days of the church. He first appears in Acts as one of the “seven men” called to “wait on tables” in the Jerusalem church (Acts 6:1-6). When next seen, he is preaching powerfully in Samaria (8:4-8). Later Philip is called an evangelist (21:8), an apt description.
God gave direct and personal guidance to Philip. This depiction, “an angel of the Lord,” occurs four other times in Acts (5:19; 7:30-38; 12:7-10; 12:23). Philip had last been seen performing miraculous signs as he proclaimed Christ in Samaria. From this successful work, the Lord called him to reach just one individual some 50 miles away. “Go south to the road—the desert road—that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” Desert means the region was uninhabited, not a waterless stretch of sand dunes.
On his way he met an Ethiopian eunuch, an important official. This man had come all the way from Ethiopia, south of Egypt. He had traveled many days to attend a feast in Jerusalem. He was likely a God-fearing Gentile, though he could have been a Jew or a proselyte. While unable to enter the temple, such a person could worship in the Court of the Gentiles (Deuteronomy 23:1). The official was reading from the book of Isaiah. His devotion to God is shown as he studied a scroll containing the book of Isaiah in the Greek language. The Spirit told Philip, “Go to that chariot and stay near it.” God’s message came this time through the Spirit, rather than an angel (Acts 8:26).
Philip ran up to the chariot. Prompt obedience to God is always good! He heard the man reading from Isaiah the prophet. Philip recognized the words of Isaiah. “Do you understand what you are reading?” he inquired. He began the conversation tactfully, showing interest in the official, and determining where he was spiritually. Always a wise way to begin an evangelistic conversation!
“How can I . . . unless someone explains it to me?” The nobleman had a humble, teachable spirit. Inviting Philip to ride with him, he opened his heart to the truth of the gospel. The section quoted is from Isaiah 53, one of the clearest predictions of the Messiah in the Old Testament. It is sometimes called the “Suffering Servant” passage. Comparing the submissive spirit of Jesus to that of a lamb prepared to be slaughtered, Isaiah foretold that the Messiah would not seek to defend himself. The prophecy’s clear fulfillment is seen in Christ’s sacrificial death on Calvary.
The Ethiopian asked, “Who is the prophet talking about, himself or someone else?” His question is one that had puzzled Jewish scholars for years. The meaning did not become clear until the prediction was fulfilled in Christ. Philip began with that very passage of Scripture and told him the good news about Jesus. What a text! What wonderful news! No doubt he pointed the nobleman to Isaiah’s description of the Messiah, then showed how perfectly the prophecy was fulfilled by Jesus of Nazareth. He obviously outlined the plan of salvation, telling him the terms of forgiveness outlined in Scripture (Acts 2:38), since the man requested baptism.
“Look, here is water. What can stand in the way of my being baptized?” The eunuch obviously had learned that baptism was both his duty and his privilege. His question has been raised by untold thousands of repentant believers through the centuries. The obvious answer is, “You should do it!”
Some manuscripts include the eunuch’s confession of faith. Since these are later ones, however, most modern translations omit the verse. Most Bible scholars feel certain this verse was not in the original text. It likely was added later to describe the normal procedure when a new believer confessed Christ as lord prior to baptism.
The eunuch ordered the chariot to stop and he and Philip went down into the water together. There Philip baptized him. Clearly New Testament baptism is by immersion in water (Romans 6:3-5; Colossians 2:12). When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord suddenly took Philip away, and the eunuch did not see him again, but went on his way
Sam E. Stone is the former editor of Christian Standard. He continues his writing and speaking ministry from his home in Cincinnati, Ohio.