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Faith Transcends Culture—Acts 8:26-40
Philip and the Ethiopian

  • This episode highlights two key themes of Acts: (1) the gospel breaks down all social, racial, and ethnic barriers, and (2) God sovereignly guides and empowers his servants.
  • An angel directs Philip to a desert road (v. 26); the Spirit instructs him to approach a chariot (v. 29); the man is reading just the right text of Scripture (v. 32); water is available for baptism (v. 36); the Spirit whisks away Philip for another mission (vv. 39-40).
  • All evidence of God’s guiding hand.

26 Now an angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Go south to the road—the desert road—that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.”
  • Any road to Gaza would lead south, although some take this Greek word to mean “midday” also one of its meanings), which would make this commission an urgent one (people rarely traveled at midday).
  • Desert road—Scholars debate whether “desert” belongs with road (as in the NIV) or with “Gaza” since old Gaza lay in deserted ruins near new Gaza.

 27 So he started out, and on his way he met an Ethiopian[1] eunuch, an important official in charge of all the treasury of the Kandake (which means “queen of the Ethiopians”). This man had gone to Jerusalem to worship,
  • Although the Septuagint sometimes used the term “eunuch” for officials who were not true eunuchs, the emphatic repetition suggests that this official is a true eunuch.
  • This makes sense because men who served queens in some parts of the world were often eunuchs.
  • As a royal treasurer, the man controlled great wealth (which is obvious also from his chariot and personal Isaiah scroll).
  • Nevertheless, Greeks often derided eunuchs as “half-men,” and they were barred from joining the people of Israel (Deuteronomy 23:1).
  • Thus, although he worshiped God, he was not a full convert to Judaism (in contrast to the “converts” mentioned in Acts 2:11; 6:5) and is thus the first Gentile Christian, the forerunner of other Gentile believers.
  • OT refers to Ethiopia as Cush, but this is not the right Ethiopia mentioned here.
  • In Greek, “Ethiopians” were black Africans, and “Ethiopia” referred to all of Africa south of Egypt.  Mention of “Kandake” makes clear which African empire is in view here.  Nubian empires had existed south of Egypt since about 3000 BC, with Nubians and Egyptians controlling one another in various periods.  The Nubian Empire implied here was the kingdom of Meroe, which had flourished since the eighth century BC.  Unable to conquer this kingdom, the Romans made a treaty with it instead.  It should not be confused with the kingdom of Axium in what is called Ethiopia more narrowly today, though Axium had one of the longest histories of Christianity in the world.  Axium was converted through Syrian Christian’s witness in the early fourth century and had maintained a vital Christian presence to this day.
  • A treasurer for this kingdom or its queen would control great wealth, since the kingdom was rich.  Most of Rome’s trade with Africa further south came through Meroe, and archaeologists have found some of its treasures.  The Kandake was a title of many queens of Meroe; Greeks thought it applied to Meroe’s ruling queen mother, but Africans probably employed the tile more broadly.  Luke does not specify whether the queen here was reigning or merely queen mother or the king’s wife, but one queen who did reign in this period was Queen Nawidemak.  In Meroe’s art, queens displayed their wealth with expensive jewels and corpulence.

 28 and on his way home was sitting in his chariot reading the Book of Isaiah the prophet.
  • Only a wealthy person would have had access to a four-wheeled, covered carriage such as is likely envisioned here; this official also has servants (v. 38).
  • Once reaching Alexandria, the official would probably leave the chariot and sail southward on the Nile.

 29 The Spirit told Philip, “Go to that chariot and stay near it.”
30 Then Philip ran up to the chariot and heard the man reading Isaiah the prophet. “Do you understand what you are reading?” Philip asked.
  • Some have compared Philip running up to the chariot, which was probably travelling at a leisurely pace, with 1 Kings 18:44-46.
  • Ancients praised youthful strength.
  • Reading was normally done aloud, so Philip heard the man, who is probably reading from a Greek translation of the Isaiah scroll.
  • Meroe had a distinct language and script, but the official undoubtedly knows more than one language.
  • Because of trade between Meroe and Egypt, including Alexandria, it is not surprising that the educated Nubian official knows Greek and understands Philip.

31 “How can I,” he said, “unless someone explains it to me?” So he invited Philip to come up and sit with him.
32 This is the passage of Scripture the eunuch was reading:
“He was led like a sheep to the slaughter,
    and as a lamb before its shearer is silent,
    so he did not open his mouth.
33 In his humiliation he was deprived of justice.
    Who can speak of his descendants?
    For his life was taken from the earth.”[2]
  • This passage uses the Septuagint of Isaiah 53:7-8.
  • Jewish teachers often took for granted that their Biblically literate primary hearers knew the context of the passages they cited.
  • A person of means could have easily acquitted Septuagint scrolls from Alexandria.

34 The eunuch asked Philip, “Tell me, please, who is the prophet talking about, himself or someone else?”
  • Apart from looking back through the passage’s fulfillment in Christ, many scholars even today continue to wonder who the servant is in Isaiah.  
  • Elsewhere in this section of Isaiah (41:8; 42:1-4; 44:1-2, 21; 45:4; 49:3), the “servant” is Israel; but because the servant fails in his mission (Isaiah 42:18-19), God raises up one within Israel to fulfill the mission and suffer on behalf of Israel (Isaiah 49:5-7; 52:13-53:12, especially 53:4-6, 9).
  • Later in the same context, God declares that he welcomes eunuchs and Gentiles (Isaiah 56:3-8).

 35 Then Philip began with that very passage of Scripture and told him the good news about Jesus.
  • When we share the Good News, we should start where the other person’s concerns are focused.  Then we can show how God’s Word applies to these concerns.
  • Some think that the OT is not relevant today, but Philip led this man to faith in Jesus Christ by using the OT.  Jesus Christ is found in the pages of the Old and New Testaments.  God’s entire Word is applicable to all people in all ages.  Don’t avoid or neglect to use the OT.  It, too, is the God’s Word.

36 As they traveled along the road, they came to some water and the eunuch said, “Look, here is water. What can stand in the way of my being baptized?”
  • As a eunuch the official would not be permitted to enter other forms of Judaism as a convert, hence he would not be allowed to be circumcised (Deuteronomy 23:1).
  • In addition to circumcision, most converts to Judaism were immersed to wash away their Gentile impurities.
  • Thus, the official here understands that, in contrast to his pervious inability to convert to other forms of Jewish faith, he is now being welcomed as a member of this new movement.

[37] Philip said, “If you believe with all your heart, you may.” The eunuch answered, “I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.” [3]
  • A later copyist evidently felt that the story was incomplete without a confession of faith and so added this traditional baptismal formula.

38 And he gave orders to stop the chariot. Then both Philip and the eunuch went down into the water and Philip baptized him. 39 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 rejoicing.
  • In the OT, prophets could be carried away in visions (Ezekiel 3:12, 14), and at least some people expected that prophets could be carried away physically (1 Kings 18:12).
  • Baptism was a sign of identification with Christ and with the Christian community.  Although Philip was the only witness, it was still important for the eunuch to take this step.

 40 Philip, however, appeared at Azotus and traveled about, preaching the gospel in all the towns until he reached Caesarea.
  • Azotus—On the site of OT Philistine Ashdod, Azotus was roughly midway between Gaza and Joppa, some 20-25 miles northeast of Gaza.
  • Caesarea—The Roman capital of Judea; it was roughly 50 miles north of Azotus.
  • Many Gentiles lived in Gaza, Azotus, and Caesarea.
  • Philip anticipates Peter’s ministry on the coast and in Caesarea, and Philip’s preaching as he traveled fits the pattern in vv. 4, 25.
  • God has been directing every aspect of the story, and the Spirit suddenly takes Philip away.
  • Why was Philip suddenly transported to a different city?  This miraculous sign showed the urgency of bringing the Gentiles to belief in Christ.  Philip probably lived in Caesarea for the next 20 years (21:8).

[1] Acts 8:27 That is, from the southern Nile region
[2] Acts 8:33 Isaiah 53:7,8 (see Septuagint)
[3] Acts 8:37 Some manuscripts include this verse.

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