A Commentary by John Stott
Acts 8:26-40. 3). Philip the evangelist and an Ethiopian leader.
Soon after the departure of Peter and John from the Samaritan city, Philip was given another evangelistic commission. He was told to ‘Go south.’ The person who gave him this instruction is called *an angel of the Lord*, although in later stages of the story. it is ‘the Spirit’ who directed him to the Ethiopian (29) and the ‘Spirit of the Lord’ who then took him away again (39). Philip was sent to (and along) *the desert road that goes down* about sixty miles *from Jerusalem to Gaza*, which was the most southerly of the five Philistine cities, and near the Mediterranean coast. Whether the Gaza in question was ‘old Gaza’ which had been destroyed in 93 BC. or ‘new Gaza’ which had been built further south some thirty-five years later, we are not told. In either case, the road was well used, for it continued past Gaza to Egypt and so to the African continent. a). Philip meets the Ethiopian (8:27-29)
The ‘Ethiopia’ of those days corresponded to what we call ‘the Upper Nile’, reaching approximately from Aswan to Khartoum. The man from that region to whom Luke introduces us was not only a *eunuch* (as were most courtiers of that period) but *an important official in charge of all the treasure of Candace, queen of the Ethiopians* (27). ‘Candace’ is known to have been not a personal name but a dynastic title for the Queen Mother who performed certain functions on behalf of the king. The Ethiopian official to whom Philip was sent was her treasurer or chancellor of the exchequer, presumably a black African. But he *had gone to Jerusalem to worship*, a pilgrim at one of the annual festivals, and now *on his way home was sitting in his chariot reading* the scroll of *Isaiah the prophet* (28). This may mean that he was actually Jewish, either by birth or by conversion, for the Jewish dispersion had penetrated at least into Egypt and probably beyond, and perhaps by now the promise to eunuchs of Isaiah 56:3-4 had superseded the ban of Deuteronomy 23:1. It seems unlikely that he was a Gentile, since Luke does not present him as the first Gentile convert; that distinction he reserves for Cornelius. He regards the Ethiopian’s conversion rather as another example of the loosening of bonds with Jerusalem (foreseen by Stephen in his speech) and of the liberation of the word of God to be the gospel for the world. It is especially significant that this African, who *had gone to Jerusalem* to worship, was now leaving it and would not return there. The story ends with Luke’s statement that ‘he went on his way rejoicing’ (39), distanced from Jerusalem although accompanied by Christ. b). Philip shares the good news with the Ethiopian (8:30-35).
Told to ‘*go to that chariot and stay near it*’ (29), *Philip ran* alongside it, close enough to hear *the man reading Isaiah the prophet* (because everybody read aloud in those days), and close enough to shout to him the question, ‘*Do you understand what you are reading?*’ (30). Replying that he could not understand *unless someone explains it* to him, *he invited Philip to come up and sit with him* in his carriage (31).
Calvin contrasts the Ethiopian’s modesty, in that he ‘acknowledges his ignorance freely and frankly’, with a person who is swollen-headed with confidence in his own abilities’. He goes on: ‘That is also why the reading of Scripture bears fruit with such a few people today, because scarcely one in a hundred is to be found who gladly submits himself to teaching.’ The fact is that God has given us two gifts, first the Scriptures and secondly teachers to open up, explain, expound and apply the Scriptures. It is wonderful to note God’s providence in the Ethiopian’s life, first enabling him to obtain a copy of the Isaiah scroll and then sending Philip to teach him out of it. As Professor Howard Marshall writes, ‘The way in which the story is told bears some structural resemblance to another story in which a Stranger joined two travellers and opened up the Scriptures to them, took part in a sacramental act, and then disappeared from view (Lk.24:13-35).’
So we are to picture the Ethiopian with the scroll of Isaiah 53 spread out on his lap, and with Philip now sitting beside him, as the carriage jolted its way further south. The verses Luke quotes (Is.53:7-8) speak of a human sufferer who is *led like a sheep to the slaughter* and like *a lamb before the shearer* is silent. He experiences deep *humiliation*, is *deprived of justice*, and is killed (32-33). The Ethiopian asks who *the prophet is talking about, himself or someone else*? (34). In reply, beginning *with that very passage of Scripture*, Philip *told him the good news about Jesus* (35). Now there is no evidence that anyone in first-century Judaism was expecting a sufferer rather than a triumphant Messiah. No, it was Jesus who applied Isaiah 53 to himself, and understood his death in the light of it. (eg. Mk. 10:45; 14:24ff; Lk. 22:37). It was, therefore, from him that the early Christians learned to read Isaiah 53 in this way. So well prepared by the Holy Spirit was the Ethiopian’s heart that it seems he believe immediately, and went on to ask for baptism.
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!’
Tomorrow: Acts 8:36-39a. c). Philip baptizes the Ethiopian.
The John Stott Bible Study is taken from The Message of Acts. The Bible Speaks Today John Stott. Used by permission of Inter-Varsity Press UK, Nottingham. All rights reserved.