The story of Philip continues. After ministering to the Samaritans and being the first to take the gospel to a non-Jewish people, Philip now becomes the first to spread the gospel beyond Palestine. The Spirit leads him away from the crowds and cities of Samaria to a lonely road and a single man. By doing so, God ensures that an entire continent begins to be exposed to His good news.
After Philip – along with Peter and John – goes through the various towns and cities of Samaria preaching the gospel and performing signs and healings, he hears from God that he is to go south to the road that descends from Jerusalem to Gaza. The road apparently goes by the deserted city of Gaza (there also is a new city of Gaza built approximately 80 years ago but the text seems to imply the road goes by the deserted one) and so is likely not heavily traveled. This command may seem odd to Philip as it instructs him to go from the multitudes of Samaria to a deserted road in south Israel. Nevertheless he obeys the Spirit’s leading and travels south.
When he reaches the road he sees an Ethiopian eunuch traveling in his chariot. The eunuch is a court official of Candace, queen of the Ethiopians (‘Candace’ is likely the official title of the queen or the queen mother who fulfills some functions for her son the king). He is in charge of all her treasure and is likely rich and powerful. The fact that he travels by chariot (or carriage) shows his affluence. He is likely attended by others and so does not travel alone.
That he is a eunuch either means he is emasculated or that he simply is an official in the court of the queen. The word is used interchangeably in ancient literature. If he is truly a eunuch he is not allowed in the inner courts of the temple in Jerusalem (Deut 23:1 – although how this is enforced is hard to tell).
The text says he is traveling back to Ethiopia after worshiping in Jerusalem. This could mean several things. He could be a Gentile who fears God generally but who is not converted to Judaism. He could also be a Jewish proselyte. Or he could be a Jew by birth (part of a family converted to Judaism in generations past as a result of the scattering of the ten tribes). That Luke gives such a detailed description of the conversion of Cornelius later in the book (10:1-11:18) implies that the eunuch is not a gentile. Thus Philip’s ministry to him is notable for its prospects of spreading the gospel to Africa but not because it is the first instance of leading a gentile to Christ.
A visitor from Ethiopia – considered the ends of the earth – is probably not common in Judea. This makes for an amazing opportunity for Philip. He can witness to a new continent without having to travel there. He will accelerate the spread of the gospel by ministering to the eunuch (a man powerful enough to wield influence in his country and perhaps introduce the gospel in a broader way than most could). It is no wonder the Spirit has led him here and that Luke takes the time to relate the story.
As the eunuch rides in his chariot he reads Isaiah. He may have purchased a scroll in Jerusalem and so reads the prophet for the first time. If he started at the beginning he has been reading a while as he is now in Isaiah 53 (which may mean he has not reached 56:3-4 which is a promise to foreigners and eunuchs giving them an inheritance among the people of God – and which may even supersede the ban of Deut 23). As is the custom of the times he reads aloud (silent reading as a skill is virtually unknown in antiquity).
The Spirit continues to lead Philip and tells him to go up and join this chariot. He runs to the chariot – which is presumably moving – and hears the eunuch reading. He recognizes the scripture and asks the eunuch if he understands what he reads (this seems like it might be somewhat comical – the eunuch is reading the scroll and out of nowhere a man asks if he understands what he reads – you would think his first reaction would be to tell the driver to speed up to get away from this weird man running beside the chariot). The eunuch replies that he cannot unless someone guides him. The exchange shows the work of the Spirit – Philip seems to know intuitively what to say to the eunuch and the eunuch is pleased by the intrusion rather than threatened or offended. The eunuch immediately invites Philip into the chariot.
The text the eunuch reads is the perfect open door to the gospel. It is certainly no coincidence that he reads it at this particular time. The text is Isaiah 53:7-8 and speaks very clearly about Jesus and His sacrificial death. The Spirit has served up to Philip a gospel softball that he can now swat out of the park.
The text as it is written here is from the Septuagint (the Greek version of the Old Testament):
He was led as a sheep to slaughter; and as a lamb before its shearers is silent, so He does not open His mouth. In humiliation His judgment was taken away; who shall relate His generation? For His life is removed from the earth.
The Hebrew text reads as follows:
Like a lamb that is led to slaughter, and like a sheep that is silent before its shearers, so He did not open His mouth. By oppression and judgment He was taken away; and as for His generation, who considered that He was cut off out of the land of the living?
The eunuch tells Philip that he does not understand who the text refers to. Does it refer to the prophet himself or to someone else? The eunuch is not only reading the perfect text to open an explanation of the gospel but is willing and eager to hear an explanation of it. The Spirit has prepared him to hear the gospel.
Philip answers the eunuch and explains that the prophet speaks of Jesus. He then goes on to show the eunuch how all the prophets point to Jesus (beginning from this scripture he preached Jesus to him – vs 35). He gives him the gospel using the scriptures the eunuch already believes.
The eunuch believes the good news. Luke does not record the conversation but Philip obviously tells him he must repent, believe and be baptized. At this point the chariot comes upon some water – yet another non-coincidence manufactured by the Spirit – and the eunuch exclaims, “Look! Water! What prevents me from being baptized?”
The chariot stops and the eunuch and Philip both enter the water. Philip baptizes him and the Spirit falls upon him (this is implied by the end of verse 39 – the eunuch went on his way rejoicing). At the same time the eunuch is filled with the Spirit, Philip is snatched away by Him (hard to know what this exactly means – it could be that the Spirit merely leads Philip to another place just like He did to bring him here, and the eunuch does not see him again because they both go their separate ways – the verbiage, however, seems to imply something supernatural and sudden about Philip’s disappearance; the eunuch does not see him because he is suddenly gone). The Spirit thus continues to make Himself known. He changes the eunuch and takes Philip to another place to continue the spread of the gospel.
Philip finds himself in Azotus (known as the Philistine city of Ashdod in the OT) which is roughly 22 miles north of where he met the eunuch. He preaches there and continues to preach in all the cities in the area until he reaches Caesarea which apparently becomes his home (21:8).
Possible Reasons for Why Luke Relates This Story
- The conversion of the Ethiopian eunuch is another step in taking the gospel to all people and to the remotest part of the earth. Philip opened up one frontier by preaching to the Samaritans and here opens up another by preaching to an African from the southernmost point of the known world. The time is coming closer when the gospel will go to all people everywhere regardless of whether they are Jews or gentiles.
- It gives an example of personal evangelism. To this point in Acts we have mostly seen the gospel given to large groups with public proclamations but in this story we see how it goes to just one man. Philip preached the gospel in Samaria but explains the gospel to the eunuch. The message is the same but the method is different. Most of us will not publicly preach but all are called to testify and explain. With this account Luke makes the story of Acts more relatable to all of us. God does not limit His power to large and mighty acts nor to large and impressive groups. He ultimately works one heart at a time and does so whether the audience is one or one thousand.
- It illustrates very clearly how the Spirit works in the conversion of any person. The Spirit leads Philip to the right place and the perfect time. The Spirit makes sure the eunuch reads the particular text in Isaiah that points to Christ right as Philip approaches him. The Spirit tells Philip when to approach the chariot. The Spirit prepares the heart of the eunuch such that he is hungry to learn more about what he reads and thankful for someone to guide him. The Spirit enables the eunuch to accept what Philip teaches him. The Spirit makes sure the chariot reaches water just as the eunuch believes. It is the responsibility of every believer to share his faith but it is the work of the Spirit that enables circumstances conducive to hearing it and hearts open to receiving it.
- It shows the Spirit’s work but also Philip’s obedience to His leading and prompting. If Philip does not obey the Spirit’s call to travel south – a request that may have seemed odd in light of what he was doing in Samaria – the eunuch does not hear the gospel and the first introduction of the good news to Africa is delayed. The Spirit prepares the circumstances and the eunuch’s heart, but Philip must still obey. As believers we must be willing and bold when the Spirit brings situations and people to us that are ripe for the gospel. The Spirit typically works on others through the obedience of His people.
- It reminds us of the importance of knowing God’s word when witnessing for Him. If Philip cannot answer the eunuch’s question the exchange between the two of them is short and ineffective. The reason he is able to lead the man to Jesus is because he can preach Jesus to him out of the Old Testament. Knowledge of the scriptures enables amplification of the gospel. We cannot explain what we do not know and we cannot fill in gaps that we have ourselves. The question, “do you understand what you are reading?” is the most fundamental question of biblical hermeneutics. A true understanding of Scripture that comprehends not only the meaning of words and phrases but the significance of its connection with God’s plan of salvation requires somebody who can explain. While skits, pantomimes, music, and video clips may help in communicating the gospel, the most basic process is explaining the meaning of the Bible. (Eckhard J. Schnabel, “Acts,” Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament, 432)