The Ethiopian Eunuch

Now we come to one of the most interesting passages in Acts.  This short glimpse into Philip’s ministry is a wonderful example of how God, through the scattered members of the Jerusalem church, continued to offer Israel’s King and Kindom under the authority of the Great Commission.  Here is proof positive that the Gentile nations would be blessed through Israel according to her prophetic promises.  Let’s dive in!

In the last post we read that Peter and John started back to Jerusalem after their visit to Samaria.  In my study Bible (The Hebrew-Greek Key Study Bible, NASB, with Spiros Zodhiates commentary) Dr. Zodhiates inserted a subtitle between v24 and v25 of Chapter 8, “An Ethiopian Receives Christ.”  By so doing, he dissociates v25 from the previous subject (Simon the Magician), and associates it with the next subject.  With all due respect to Dr. Zodhiates, I propose that this artificial division belongs between v25 and v26.  Why?

  • In the NASB, whenever a verse number is in bold type it means that verse begins a new “paragraph” in the original language.  Both v25 and v26 have bold numbers, so the subheading could be placed before either verse.
  • In the United Bible Society’s Greek New Testament, the subheading (also added by the human editors) is between v25 and v26.
  • v25 begins with the word “and”, while v26 begins with the word “but.”  “And” implies more information about what has gone before, while “but” implies contrast with what has gone before.

Why is this important?  It determines who they” are in v25.  If v25 belongs to the previous story of Peter and John, “they” are Peter and John.  If v25 belongs with the following story of Philip and the Ethiopian, “they” are Peter, John and Philip.  The grammar of the passage seems more naturally to support the word “but” as the pivotal contrast between the two stories.  There is no great theological revelation in this, but it illustrates how careful observation of even little words like “and” and “but” can lead to more accurate interpretation.  Do we believe that the Holy Spirit inspired Luke to use little words like “and” and “but” in the right places, and that it means something when he does?  You bet!

Acts 8:27 is a verse that is loaded with interesting information, if we will only observe carefully!  Read the verse carefully and fill in the blanks below:

  • “and behold” suggests that their encounter seemed to be une_________________
  • The man Philip encountered was from E_____________
  • He was a e__________
  • He was an o____________ from Queen C___________’s court
  • He was the guard and keeper of her t________________
  • He had come to J________________ to w___________

Let’s think about what each of these observations indicates about this man.  First, he was an Ethiopian.  He was probably black-skinned (as was Candace) and certainly was a Gentile.  Second, he was a eunuch.  There are many different uses of this title, ranging from simply an official title for a male servant who works within the personal household of his master, to a servant who has been surgically rendered impotent (possibly by castration) so that he poses no threat of polluting the royal line or robbing the king of the virginity of his harem.  If this Ethiopian servant was the latter, he would have been considered by Jews to be ”damaged goods” and an affront to God.  Every male Jew hoped that the Messiah would come through his family line.  That’s why the dispersion of the Northern Kingdom and the intermingling with foreigners was so tragic, and why it was so important for the Southern Kingdom to be able to preserve their geneology during the Babylonian Captivity.  So to be unable to procreate was great shame.  God would surely reject such a man in the same way He would reject a blemished sacrificial lamb, especially since a father’s first-born belonged to God.  Third, he was on his way back to Ethiopia after coming to Jerusalem to worship

We find out soon that he can read Hebrew and has been reading the prophet Isaiah.  This man fits the classic definition of a proselyte, a Gentile who has chosen to adopt the God of Israel as his own God, and who is doing his best to gain His favor!  He is so serious about it that he is spending his annual vacation on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem!  But he is a very unlikely candidate to succeed in pleasing God.  He has three marks against him in the eyes of the teachers of the Law — he’s a gentile, he’s black, and he’s mutilated.  And yet he pursues the God of the Hebrews against all odds.  He is about to be rewarded.

Verse 28 tells us that this Ethiopian was on his way home from Jerusalem, apparently having parked in a first-century rest stop for a break.  Interestingly, he’s reading the prophet Isaiah.  He didn’t have a paperback copy, or a hardbound copy.  He most likely had an actual scroll, something that would usually only have been found in a synagogue.  The story of how it came into his possession would certainly be interesting if we knew it, but we don’t.  It would have been hand copied by a Hebrew scribe, following all of the special rules of hand-washing, character counting, and so on.  It would have been quite valuable, and may have been quite old.  It may have even been an incomplete copy.  It’s reasonable to assume, however, that it was a complete text and that the Eunuch might have read it all before, or had randomly selected passages to read.

Verses 29-31 record how the Holy Spirit directed Philip to approach him and ask if he understood what he was reading.  The Ethiopian expressed his frustration, inviting Philip to sit with him in the chariot where they both could see the scroll, in the hope that Philip could enlighten him.  (Boy, could Philip enlighten him!)  It has always interested me that this Ethiopian was returning from many days in Jerusalem still not having his questions answered.  He was no doubt surrounded by able teachers of the Law and the Prophets.  Was he denied access to them or rejected by them because of his skin, race and sexual deficiency?  (He was no doubt known to all as a eunuch by title.)  I have a sense that this man was leaving Jerusalem with his thirst for knowledge about God unsatisfied.

Verses 32-33 reveal the passage in Isaiah that the Ethiopian was trying to understand.  By Divine appointment, it was the very passage that spoke of the Messiah being like a lamb led to the slaughter, Isaiah 53:7-8.  Before we consider Philip’s explanation, we need to take a small detour.  Turn to Isaiah 56:1-7 in your study Bible and try to read it through this Ethiopian eunuch’s eyes.  I believe it was this very passage that germinated in his heart and eventually drove him on this pilgrimage to Jerusalem.  How sad that he very well may have met with less than the true righteousness and justice proclaimed by God in v1!  Surely this man’s heart was absolutely electrified when he read this passage.  So he diligently pursued a relationship with the God of Israel as a proselyte, clinging to the promises of Isaiah 56.

Verses 34-38 record the Ethiopian’s question about who Isaiah was writing about, and filled in the blank — Jesus.  At this point in the story they were apparently traveling down the road in the chariot, for they “came to some water.”  How odd, as v27 describes the road to Gaza as a desert road!  Was the presence of this pool of water, deep enough to baptize a grown man in, miraculous?  (There is some disagreement among translators on the meaning of this description at the end of v27.  Some translate it as “this city is deserted,” referring to Gaza.  But Gaza was not deserted in Philip’s day.  I have not researched the geography and climate of the route this road might have taken.  It’s a toss-up.  You’ll have to figure it out if it’s important to you.)

Pay attention to the order of events described in vv36-38.  (Note that the items with a * are in a verse that is not included in many manuscripts.)

  • Philip preached Jesus to him based on the passage in Isaiah
  • He asked if he could be baptized
  • Philip replied with a condition — he had to believe with all his heart *
  • He expressed belief  (he “confessed with his mouth”) *
  • Philip baptized him

There is no mention of the Holy Spirit falling on him or of Philip conferring the Holy Spirit on him by laying his hands on him.  Luke may have just omitted this information, but it is unlike him (and unlike the Holy Spirit who inspired him).  My belief is that at this time in Luke’s narrative only the apostles had the ability to confer the Holy Spirit on believers.  Scan back through the chapter and you will find that Philip’s ministry in the city of Samaria, although it produced many believers, did not result in the transferrence of the Holy Spirit.  If it had, there would have been no need for Peter and John to come to Samaria!  Philip, not having the authority to confer the Holy Spirit, simply continued the same way with this Ethiopian man.  Unlike believers today, the receiving of the Holy Spirit was a separate process from believing and being baptized.  There are many Pentecostal denominations that teach that it is a separate process for believers today — at least they are consistent in their error.  Those who say that the Holy Spirit operates in the same way throughout the entire New Testament are at a loss to explain why we never see the Holy Spirit “falling upon” believers as an event that comes after receiving Christ as Savior.  They reject the excesses of Pentecostalism, and they reject the Holy Spirit’s entering believers as a separate event, but they insist that there is no difference between the ministry of the Twelve to Israel and the ministry committed to Paul by the risen, glorified Lord Jesus Christ.  This just results in confusion among believers, sending a mixed message.

What happened next (vv39-40) was absolutely astounding.  Luke says the the Spirit “snatched Philip away.”  This is obviously a miracle, and I believe the Ethiopian knew it was too.  Miracles, as wel learned a couple of posts ago, certified the power of God in the speaker.  I think the Ethiopian understood that, and as a result “went on his way rejoicing.”  Philip, on the other hand, “found himself” at Azotus, from which he travelled northward along the Mediterranean coast until he came to Caesarea near the northwestern tip of David’s original kingdom.  The Greek word for “‘snatch” is harpadzo, which means to grasp and remove something violently, what a purse-snatcher does.  It is also used in II Corinthians 12:2,4 and in I Thessalonians 4:17, translated as “caught up” in both places.  The event described in both passages is commonly referred to as the “Rapture.”  True to the differences in dispensation, Philip was “raptured” to an earthly destination in keeping with God’s promises to Israel of a kingdom on earth, while we will be “raptured” to our eternal home in heaven — a mystery hidden in other ages.

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