Saul Begins to Persecute the Church, 1b-3

Now on that day a great persecution began against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were forced to scatter throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria. 8:2 Some devout men buried Stephen and made loud lamentation over him. 8:3 But Saul was trying to destroy the church; entering one house after another, he dragged off both men and women and put them in prison.

It has been said that this verse represents an important principle of thermodynamics: ‘The greater the heat, the greater the expansion.’

See Esth 7:10n

Peter Maiden (Radical Gratitude, p95f) imagines these scattered believers receiving a letter from their pastor, James the apostle and leader of the Jerusalem church.  What sympathy and reassurance they would have been expecting!  But he begins with some less obviously encouraging:

1:1 From James, a slave of God and the Lord Jesus Christ, to the twelve tribes dispersed abroad. Greetings!

1:2 My brothers and sisters, consider it nothing but joy when you fall into all sorts of trials, 1:3 because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance. 1:4 And let endurance have its perfect effect, so that you will be perfect and complete, not deficient in anything.

Maiden comments: that these words are, in fact, deeply encouraging, because

‘the apostle was assuring the believers that the trials they were enduring were not random.  There was a divine and good purpose to them; if they responded well, then spiritual maturity would be the product.  If they were able to recognise this, then joy, not doubt and disillusionment, would result.’

Philip Preaches in Samaria, 4-25

8:4 Now those who had been forced to scatter went around proclaiming the good news of the word. 8:5 Philip went down to the main city of Samaria and began proclaiming the Christ to them. 8:6 The crowds were paying attention with one mind to what Philip said, as they heard and saw the miraculous signs he was performing. 8:7 For unclean spirits, crying with loud shrieks, were coming out of many who were possessed, and many paralyzed and lame people were healed. 8:8 So there was great joy in that city.

Those who had been forced to scatter went around proclaiming the good news of the word

All at it!

Glancing back at v3, Spurgeon remarked that this must have included women as well as men.  He adds:

‘There are many ways in which women can fittingly proclaim the word of the Lord, and in some of these they can proclaim it more efficiently than men. There are minds that will be attracted by the tender, plaintive, winning manner in which the sister in Christ expresses herself. A Christian mother! What a minister is she to her family! A Christian woman in single life — in the family circle, or even in domestic service— what may she not accomplish, if her heart be warm with love to her Saviour! We cannot say to the women, “Go home, there is nothing for you to do in the service of the Lord.” Far from it, we entreat Martha and Mary, Lydia and Dorcas, and all the elect sisterhood, young and old, rich and poor, to instruct others as God instructs them. Young men and maidens, old men and matrons, yes, and boys and girls who love the Lord, should speak well of Jesus, and make known his salvation from day to day.’

The main city of SamariaUndesigned coincidence.  If this city was Sychar, as a number of commentators think, then we have a likely explanation (in addition to his miraculous signs) for its having welcomed Philip and his message.  For, according to Jn 4, this city had been receptive to Jesus himself.  See here.

8:9 Now in that city was a man named Simon, who had been practicing magic and amazing the people of Samaria, claiming to be someone great. 8:10 All the people, from the least to the greatest, paid close attention to him, saying, “This man is the power of God that is called ‘Great.’ ” 8:11 And they paid close attention to him because he had amazed them for a long time with his magic. 8:12 But when they believed Philip as he was proclaiming the good news about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they began to be baptized, both men and women. 8:13 Even Simon himself believed, and after he was baptized, he stayed close to Philip constantly, and when he saw the signs and great miracles that were occurring, he was amazed.
8:14 Now when the apostles in Jerusalem heard that Samaria had accepted the word of God, they sent Peter and John to them. 8:15 These two went down and prayed for them so that they would receive the Holy Spirit. 8:16 (For the Spirit had not yet come upon any of them, but they had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus.) 8:17 Then Peter and John placed their hands on the Samaritans, and they received the Holy Spirit.

Stott agrees with Marshall that v16 is ‘perhaps the most extraordinary statement in Acts.’

‘Samaritans “believed Philip as he preached” (v. 12a) and are baptized (v. 12b); yet they do not receive the Holy Spirit until Peter and John come from Jerusalem to see what has happened (vv. 14-17). At least three interpretations are defensible and it is impossible to choose definitively among them. First, the belief of verse 12 may have been more intellectual than volitional and hence not salvific. The baptism then, though well-intentioned, would have been premature. Second, because of the unusual hostility between Jews and Samaritans, God may have chosen to act differently on this occasion at the beginning of the church’s mission outside Jewish boundaries. The Jewish apostles’ arrival then enables them to confirm the salvation of the Samaritans and to begin to dissipate the previous hatred that had divided them. Third, the Spirit may not have come in a consistently predictable fashion among the first believers; he has the sovereign freedom to act however he wants (John 3:8)! Whichever explanation is given, however, the passage remains an anomaly, even in Acts, and therefore cannot be made paradigmatic for subsequent Christian experience.’ (EDBT, emphasis added)

They had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus – The Orthodox Study Bible is possibly correct when it says that the name of the Lord Jesus is mentioned for emphasis, in order to make a contrast with the baptism of John.  However, it is going beyond the evidence for the publication to express confidence the name of the Trinity was mentioned at the time of baptism.

8:18 Now Simon, when he saw that the Spirit was given through the laying on of the apostles’ hands, offered them money, 8:19 saying, “Give me this power too, so that everyone I place my hands on may receive the Holy Spirit.” 8:20 But Peter said to him, “May your silver perish with you, because you thought you could acquire God’s gift with money! 8:21 You have no share or part in this matter because your heart is not right before God! 8:22 Therefore repent of this wickedness of yours, and pray to the Lord that he may perhaps forgive you for the intent of your heart. 8:23 For I see that you are bitterly envious and in bondage to sin.” 8:24 But Simon replied, “You pray to the Lord for me so that nothing of what you have said may happen to me.”
8:25 So after Peter and John had solemnly testified and spoken the word of the Lord, they started back to Jerusalem, proclaiming the good news to many Samaritan villages as they went.

Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch, 26-40

8:26 Then an angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Get up and go south on the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” (This is a desert road.) 8:27 So he got up and went. There he met an Ethiopian eunuch, a court official of Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, who was in charge of all her treasury. He had come to Jerusalem to worship, 8:28 and was returning home, sitting in his chariot, reading the prophet Isaiah. 8:29 Then the Spirit said to Philip, “Go over and join this chariot.”
Discussion Starters, Acts 8:26-40

(a) What had Philip been doing before this episode (see Acts 8:5-8)? Why might God have led him away from all of this, in order to evangelise this one man? Do you think that God sometimes takes us away from one thing (that seemed to be working very nicely, thankyou very much) and sends us to another (that doesn’t look so promising)?

(b) We sometimes talk about ‘beginning where people are’. The Ethiopian’s starting point was a passage of Scripture (Isaiah 53). What various starting-points do people have nowadays? How do we need to adapt our approach in evangelism to take account of these different starting-points?

(c) What can we learn from this account about (i) God’s concern for people of other nations; (ii) Christ as the fulfilment of Scripture; (iii) the role of the Holy Spirit in evangelism?

On preaching from Acts 8:26-40

Peter Mead remarks that preacher commonly say little about the encounter between Philip and the eunuch, but jump rather quickly to Isaiah 53, and focus on that.  In preparing to preach from the present passage, Mead says that he made a distinct effort to focus on the narrative itself.  In doing so, he says,

I was able to look at God’s sovereign initiative in preparing an individual for an encounter with God’s Word, and how that Word may not be immediately clear, but God is able to bring clarity to it, and when He does, that reader discovers that clarity in God’s Word is more about the Who? revealed than some sense of What-To-Do? that we might anticipate.  Furthermore, seeing Christ clearly is what leads to life transformation. This sense of God’s dealing with individuals and leading them into His Word to find Christ was a rich and unique subject to ponder.

Here is another story about the spread of the Gospel. However, whereas the previous one was concerned with a mass movement affecting Samaria, the present account tells of a single convert from the far south. In the first story, no special divine guidance is apparent; in this account, the Holy Spirit’s work is readily apparent at every stage. It is the story of the conversion of a Gentile (unless he was a Jew from the dispersion), but since he returned immediately to his own country, it raised no immediate problems for the church. Although the account must rely on the recollections of Philip himself, several of Luke’s characteristic themes come to the fore: the way God responds to those from every nation who fear him (cf. 10:34f); the fulfilment of prophecy in Christ (cf. 3:13); and the role of the Holy Spirit in evangelism. The story has something in common with that other story in which a Stranger joins two travellers and opens the Scriptures to them, took part in a sacramental act, and then disappeared from view (Lk 24:13-35). (Marshall)

An angel of the Lord – referred to as the Spirit in v29. As Marshall points out, the church did not stumble across the idea of evangelising the Gentiles: they were deliberately led to it by God himself.

“Go south” – or, ‘at noon’ (Marshall, who adds that this helps to make the command to Philip all the more unusual, since at noon the road would be deserted of travellers because of the heat).

“The road…that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza” – The road in question went south from Jerusalem to Hebron and then west towards the coast at Gaza.

“The desert road” – underlining the unusual nature of the command.

Ethiopian eunuch – ‘A high official (dynastes), royal treasurer in the court of Ethiopia’s Queen Candace…It was not unusual in antiquity for Eunuchs, who were customarily harem attendants, to rise to positions of influence. Barred from active participation in the Jewish rites by his race and his emasculation (Dt. 23:1), he was most probably a ‘God-fearer’. His acquaintance with Judaism and the OT (the quotation from Isa 53 seems to be from the LXX) is not completely unexpected in light of Jewish settlements in Upper Egypt and the considerable impact made by Jewish life and thought on the Ethiopians. His zeal in studying the Scriptures, his ready reception of the gospel and baptism mark him as one of the outstanding converts in Acts, even if his confession (Acts 8:37) is not supported in the better MSS. Ethiopian tradition claims him as his country’s first evangelist.’ (NBD)

Some scholars (e.g. Baltensweiler, NIDNTT), think that the term εὐνοῦχος (eunouchos) refers to an official title, rather than to a castrated male.

Most courtiers were eunuchs in those days.

‘Here was an individual who fit the profile of eunuchs in the first century—a high-ranking slave to the queen of the Ethiopians. It was probably his high status that allowed him the freedom and funds to make the pilgrimage from Ethiopia to Jerusalem, a trek of over two thousand miles. If he was wealthy enough to have a copy of the scroll of Isaiah and devout enough to be reading it, he would certainly have also been familiar with the exclusion of eunuchs from the assembly in Deuteronomy 23:1. As a gentile, he would also have recently experienced the limitation that his foreigner status placed on his proximity to the holy of holies—surrounded by the court of men, then the court of women, and finally the court of gentiles.’  (DeFranza, in Understanding Transgender Identities)

It has been claimed that this passage shows that ‘the early church welcomed a gay man’.  The argument is that eunuch not only had a lack of sexual interest in women (hence their usefulness as keepers of harems), but that they had a reputation for positive sexual interest in men.  This man was welcomed by the early church despite this reputation.  By way of response, it should be noted that minimal evidence is cited in support of the assertion that eunuchs were ‘commonly associated in ancient culture with sexual interest in men’ (there is a reference to the Kama Sutra, and to the Roman historian Quintus Curtius, but that is all).  All that we can say of the sexuality of the present eunuch is that he would have lacked interest in women, but we cannot say that he would have had been attracted to men, or even that he would have been associated by reputation with such an attraction.  In any case, the argument ignores any distinction between sexual attraction and sexual activity.  Have gay activists never heard of celibacy?

Steve Chalke links the passage, not so much with homosexuality, but rather with transgenderism.  In contrast to the prohibition of Deut 23:1, this episode is ‘an extraordinary example of the early Church’s understanding of the principle of radical inclusion as central to their mission and purpose.’  Philip himself undergoes a remarkable ‘conversion’:

Will he stick with the ‘orthodoxy’ of the text from Leviticus (and the prohibition it levies against eunuchs) or will he trust his instinct that through Jesus, whom he has dared to believe is the Messiah, the prophecy of the well-known text from Isaiah 56 (NRSV) (that of radical inclusion) is, at last, being fulfilled?

Chalke concludes:

So it is that the first fully Gentile convert to Christianity is not only a dark-skinned African but also from a sexual/gender minority. The call to 21st century Christians could not be clearer; it is a call to be radically inclusive and welcoming – and, in line with the bold decision of Philip, to find the confidence to act in this way before all the questions have been surfaced, let alone answered; before the i’s have been dotted and the t’s have been crossed.

(Chalke, Steve. The Gender Agenda: Towards a Biblical Theology on Gender Identity, Reassignment and Confirmation (p. 17). Kindle Edition.)

Justin Tanis writes:

‘Once again, we see an affirmation in Scripture that neither the gender of the eunuch nor his gender variance is pivotal to his inclusion or exclusion from the community of faith, but rather his desire to be baptized and included. Again, we see God’s focus on faithfulness rather than physical characteristics. The categories in which society placed the eunuch were not God’s categories and did not limit his access to the Divine. His willingness and his enthusiasm were the hallmarks of his conversation, not the external categories that surely controlled many of his other choices in life.’ (Cited by Martin Davie)

An important official in charge of all the treasury of Candace, queen of the Ethiopians – a significant convert, then.

The man came from Meroë – what we now know as Sudan, or the ‘upper Nile’ (rather than modern Ethiopia).  He would have been black-skinned.

‘This Ethiopian eunuch was as “totally other” to Philip as he could possibly be: dark-skinned, foreign-cultured, exotic-dressing, accent-speaking, religiously uncertain, and sexually ambiguous. Yet none of this mattered to Philip: he asks no questions about these things, but simply points him to Jesus through the Scriptures and baptizes him upon confession of his faith.’ (Michael Pahl)

On the significance of the evangelisation of such a foreigner, cf. Acts 1:8.

Candace, queen of the Ethiopians – ‘It appears that the king of this country was venerated as a child of the sun and regarded as too sacred a person to care for the duties of state; hence these duties were filled by the queen mother, who was regularly called “Candace,” as the Egyptian ruler was called “Pharaoh.”’ (ISBE)

Candace was a queen of Ethiopia, the one mentioned in Acts 8:27 in the story of Philip witnessing to an Ethiopian eunuch who was this queen’s treasurer. Tradition tells us that Queen Candace was converted to Christ through the eunuch’s testimony, and that her conversion caused her to use her office to promote Christianity in Ethiopia and the surrounding countries. She and her husband reigned c. 25-41 A.D.’

This man had gone to Jerusalem to worship – Probably for one of the pilgrim festivals; he was now on his way home.  He may have been a Jew or a Jewish proselyte (his admission to the Jewish nation being based, perhaps, on Isa 56:35).  More probably, he was a God-fearing Gentile (ISBE).

Luke may have seen this man as a fulfilment of Isa 56:3-8 and Psa 68:31.

His chariot – An ox-drawn wagon which would have moved at little more than walking pace.

An ordinary person would not normally accost a traveller of higher rank, and so Philip needed assurance to do this.

8:30 So Philip ran up to it and heard the man reading Isaiah the prophet. He asked him, “Do you understand what you’re reading?” 8:31 The man replied, “How in the world can I, unless someone guides me?” So he invited Philip to come up and sit with him. 8:32 Now the passage of scripture the man was reading was this:
“He was led like a sheep to slaughter,
and like a lamb before its shearer is silent,
so he did not open his mouth.
8:33 In humiliation justice was taken from him.
Who can describe his posterity?
For his life was taken away from the earth.”

Philip…heard the man reading Isaiah the prophet – It was usual practice, in ancient times, to read aloud rather than silently.  Although he would have had his own language, the is no problem in assuming that he was reading in Greek.

On Catechising Today

‘In Acts 8 we read how Philip instructed the Ethiopian eunuch; catechizing is just that process institutionalized.

Christianity is not instinctive to anyone, nor is it picked up casually without effort. It is a faith that has to be learned, and therefore taught, and so some sort of systematic instruction (catechumenate) is an essential part of a church’s life.

In the first Christian centuries there was a steady stream of adult converts and enquirers, and catechetical instruction took the form of lectures, given at their level. The Reformers’ strategy for revitalizing a Christendom that was ignorant of Christianity led them, however, to concentrate on systematic instruction for children. During a century and a half following Luther’s pioneer Little Catechism of 1529, literally hundreds of catechisms were produced, mostly though not exclusively for the young. Some of these were official church documents, others the private compositions of individual clergymen. The English Prayer Book catechism, the Heidelberg Catechism, and the Westminster Shorter Catechism are among the best known. Probably most Protestants today associate catechisms and catechizing exclusively with nurturing children, and would not think of presentations like C. S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity, or Billy Graham’s Peace with God, or John Stott’s Basic Christianity, or G. K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy, as catechetical, because they are written for adults. But inasmuch as they are intended to instruct outsiders and establish insiders in fundamentals of the faith, catechetical is their proper description.

One great need today is a renewal of systematic Christian instruction-catechetical teaching-for adults. It need not be called that, nor need it take the form of rigid drilling in preset formulae, which is how old-time Protestants taught their children; but somehow or other, opportunities must be given for folk in and just outside the churches to examine Christian essentials, because there are so many for whom this is a prime need. Preaching often does not help them, for preaching ordinarily assumes in both speaker and hearers confident certainty about the fundamentals of the faith, and where this is lacking, sermons are felt to be remote and even irritating because of what appear as their unexamined assumptions. But the proper place for examining, challenging, and testing the intellectual ABCs of Christianity is not the pulpit, but rather the systematic instruction given in catechetical teaching-at least, so Christian history suggests.

Modern educational theory sets great store by individual exploration, personal discovery, and group discussion, and there is no reason why today’s adult instruction should not take this form-indeed, it will be best if it does, provided we remember that Christianity has a given content and continuity, and is not an “x,” an undefined quantity, to be re-invented through discussion in each new generation! C. H. Spurgeon’s wicked story of the Irishman who, asked how he got on at the meeting of a small separatist church said, “Oh, it was lovely; none of us knew anything, and we all taught each other,” has a message for us here. One has known professedly Christian groups professedly studying Christian fundamentals on which this story would make a very apt comment. Guided study groups on Christian Basics, however, such as some churches known to me run year after year, constitute a genuine and much-needed renewal of the catechumenate-that is, the systematic teaching of Christian essentials-and I do not expect ever to find a church that would not benefit from their introduction.’

J.I. Packer, Growing in Christ.

“How can I,…unless someone explains it to me?” – ‘The general principle which he annunciates is significant. The Old Testament cannot be fully understood without interpretation. It needs a key to unlock the doors of its mysterious sayings. Jesus had provided such a key for the disciples, Lk 24:25-27, 44-47. Now Philip was being called upon to help the eunuch in the same way.’ (Marshall)

It is, says Marshall, much debated as to what first-century readers would have made of this passage from Isaiah. Perhaps the Eunuch’s uncertainty was typical.

The Orthodox Study Bible engages in unwarranted extrapolation when it asserts:

‘Because the Scriptures have a specific, God-given meaning (2 Pet 1:20, 21), it is impossible to truly understand them apart from the Church, for apostolic interpretation is held in the consciousness of the Church.’

The eunuch was reading this passage of Scripture – The hand of God is seen in so many ways in this story: Philip is led at precisely the right time to the right place and the right person, who happened to be reading from a passage which is an ideal starting-point for the Christian message.

‘Who can speak of his descendants?’ – This may have resonated deeply with eunuch. Philip may have pointed out, in his explanation, how Isa 53:10 can speak of the offspring of the Suffering Servant, even though he was ‘cut off out of the land of the living’ before he could have descendants of his own.

8:34 Then the eunuch said to Philip, “Please tell me, who is the prophet saying this about—himself or someone else?” 8:35 So Philip started speaking, and beginning with this scripture proclaimed the good news about Jesus to him. 8:36 Now as they were going along the road, they came to some water, and the eunuch said, “Look, there is water! What is to stop me from being baptized?” 8:38 So he ordered the chariot to stop, and both Philip and the eunuch went down into the water, and Philip baptized him. 8:39 Now when they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away, and the eunuch did not see him any more, but went on his way rejoicing. 8:40 Philip, however, found himself at Azotus, and as he passed through the area, he proclaimed the good news to all the towns until he came to Caesarea.

The Eunuch’s question is understandable, especially in the light of the fact the Jeremiah speaks of himself in similar language, Jer 11:18-20, and that in Isa 44:1f God addresses the people of Israel as his servant.

Lit. ‘Philip opened his mouth’ – a typical introduction to a weighty or significant utterance. Although there is no explicit mention in this passage of Jesus’ sin-bearing sacrifice, he may well have expounded a larger part of Isa 53 (which contains many references to vicarious atonement), as well as other OT passages. The fact that Philip ‘began’ with the passage from Isa 53, and continued by telling him ‘the good news about Jesus, together with the eunuch’s request for baptism, recorded in v36, strongly implies that much more was said than is recorded here.

There is no evidence that anyone in first-century Judaism was expecting a suffering servant as a Messiah. It was Jesus himself who applied Isa 53 to himself, (Mk 10:45; 14:24ff; Lk 22:37), to be followed by Philip and the other early Christians.

‘Chrysostom contrasts the conversion of the Ethiopian with that of Saul of Tarsus, recorded in Acts 9. “Verily,” he says, “one has reason to admire this eunuch.” For, unlike Saul, he had no supernatural vision of Christ. Yet he believed, “so great a thing is the careful reading of the Scriptures!”’ (Stott)

They came to some water – Supposed by many to be the Wadi Ḥesi, NE of Gaza.

Acts 8:37

‘There is a very interesting textual variant in the story of the baptism of the Ethiopian in Acts 8. The Received Text, which we have in the Authorised Version, says, ‘If thou believest with all thine heart…’ (verse 37). That language is not found in any of the ancient manuscripts. There is no such condition as, ‘If you believe with all your heart.’ It is something the scribe put in to protect the gospel from abuse. He did not want to make it too easy.

We have been putting in those fatal words, with all your heart, ever since, to torment the people of God. It is as ungodly men and women that we are justified; and as ungodly men and women we receive the gift of the Spirit of God. It is pure grace. It comes on exactly the same terms as justification and with the same safeguards. God builds in His own safeguards. It is a total absurdity to say that making the gift depend on grace alone encourages antinomianism and destroys the gospel. He is a Holy Spirit and no-one can live an unholy life after He comes in. Grace will not let people be antinomians. Grace will not let people live as they please. It will not allow folk to be carnal and unspiritual. Grace can look after itself. For far too long and far too often men have been trying to protect grace from itself. Grace only operates in union with Christ, through an indwelling Holy Spirit, and God makes total provision to guard against antinomianism by uniting us to Christ and by filling us with the Spirit of holiness. And that’s all that we need.’ (McLeod, A Faith to Live By)

‘This confession appears earliest in Irenaeus and then in the later Western texts. Most scholars believe that such confessions were the usual practice before baptism.’ (ISBE)

Into the water – This does not necessarily mean that immersion was used, for the preposition ‘eis’ can equally mean ‘in’. According to pictorial representations of baptism in the early centuries, those who were baptized by effusion often stood in the water. In any case, even if baptism took place by immersion here, this does not indicate that it did, or must, always take place so.