Acts 8:26-40 Biblical Commentary:
In the beginning of the book of Acts, Jesus promised the apostles, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you. You will be witnesses to me in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the uttermost parts of the earth” (1:8).
Note two things:
• First, the emphasis on the Holy Spirit, which is key throughout the book of Acts and especially so in the story of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch.
• Second, the movement from Jerusalem (the city)—to Judea (the province in which Jerusalem is located)—to Samaria (the adjoining province, and one not well thought of by Judeans)—to “the uttermost parts of the earth.” I like to think of this as a series of concentric circles moving outward from the center. It speaks of a movement of the Gospel outward from the Holy City—to the more ordinary province of Judea—to the adjoining province of Samaria that is considered quite unholy—to“the uttermost parts of the earth,” a place where dragons and heathens lurk.
Then, in his Pentecost sermon, Peter says, “For the promise is to you, and to your children, and to all who are far off, even as many as the Lord our God will call to himself” (2:39). While Peter failed, at that moment, to understand that his words foreshadowed the embrace of the Gospel by Gentiles and other marginal people, he understood it later, after experiencing a Godly vision (10:9-16)—a vision that prompted him to welcome Cornelius, a Roman centurion and a Gentile, into the faith—an incident where the Holy Spirit fell on Gentiles (10:44-48).
The fulfillment of this four-part movement (Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and the world) had its beginning in Jerusalem on the Day of Pentecost with Peter’s sermon (chapter 2). That sermon resulted in the baptism of three thousand people, many from places far beyond Jerusalem, places to which they would subsequently witness.
The fulfillment of Jesus’ promise that the Gospel would reach to Samaria and to the ends of the earth began with Philip’s mission to the Samaritans (8:4-25)—the story that immediately precedes the story of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch. Samaritans were marginal people—separated by history and theology from the Jewish community. But Philip went to Samaria and proclaimed the Gospel there—and the Samaritans welcomed him and responded to his message with great enthusiasm. The apostles in Jerusalem heard of this, and sent Peter and John to Samaria. These apostles laid their hands on the Samaritans, who received the Holy Spirit. Peter and John then returned to Jerusalem, preaching the Gospel in Samaritan towns along the way.
This context is foundational to understanding the story of Philip and the eunuch—an early fulfillment of Jesus’ promise that the apostles will witness to him “the uttermost parts of the earth.” People in that time and place thought of Ethiopia as “the uttermost parts of the earth,”and they also thought of people like the Ethiopian eunuch as unacceptable from the standpoint of nationality, race, and blemish (castration).
ACTS 8:26-31. AN ANGEL OF THE LORD SPOKE TO PHILIP
26But an angel of the Lord spoke to Philip, saying, “Arise, and go toward the south (Greek: kata mesembrian) to the way that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza. This is a desert.” (This is a wilderness road.) 27He arose and went; and behold, there was a man of Ethiopia, a eunuch of great authority under Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, who was over all her treasure, who had come to Jerusalem to worship. 28He was returning and sitting in his chariot, and was reading the prophet Isaiah. 29The Spirit said to Philip, “Go near, and join yourself to this chariot.” 30Philip ran to him, and heard him reading Isaiah the prophet, and said, “Do you understand (Greek: ginoskeis) what you are reading?” (Greek: anaginoskeis) 31He said, “How can I, unless someone explains it to me?” He begged Philip to come up and sit with him.
“But an angel of the Lord spoke to Philip“ (v. 26a). Is this Philip the apostle (Matthew 10:2-4; Mark 3:16-19; Luke 6:14; Acts 1:13) or the Philip who was among the seven chosen to wait tables (6:1-6)? Later, Luke will identify the Philip whom Paul encounters in Caesarea as “Philip the evangelist, who was one of the seven” (21:8). It seems likely that the Philip who encountered the eunuch and then went to Caesarea in chapter 8 is the same Philip whom Paul finds in Caesarea many years later in chapter 21. So this is Philip the Evangelist rather than Philip the Apostle.
Philip has just concluded his mission to Samaria. Now God sends an angel to give Philip his next marching orders.
The angel is a messenger of God. This is the last we will hear of the angel in this story. The Spirit will take over the task of directing Philip—first telling Philip to join himself to the eunuch’s chariot (v. 29) and then snatching him away at the conclusion of Philip’s witness to the eunuch (v. 39).
“Arise, and go toward the south (kata mesembrian) to the way that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza“ (v. 26b). Kata mesembrian can be translated “toward the south” or “at noon.” The story line remains unaffected regardless of our choice.
Gaza is located 50 miles (80 km) southwest of Jerusalem, about 3 miles (5 km) east of the Mediterranean Sea. It is located near the border between the arable land of Israel to the north and the desert to the south.
Jerusalem is located on a mountain and Gaza is nearly at sea level, so Jerusalem is about 2,400 feet (730 meters) higher than Gaza. The road that Philip is to take is literally “down from Jerusalem.”
“This is a desert” (v. 26c). We aren’t sure why Luke calls this a desert. The Sinai Desert is south of Gaza, so Philip’s journey between Jerusalem and Gaza will be mostly through mountains or arable land. Perhaps this reference to a wilderness road refers to the road where Philip will encounter the eunuch—quite possibly in desert-like surroundings.
“He arose and went“ (v. 27a). Philip obeys his marching orders. What would have happened if he had resisted, as Jonah did many years earlier? Would God have forced him to comply, as he did Jonah—or would God have found someone else to carry out the mission—or would the mission have failed? We have no way of knowing, but we do know that God has chosen to accomplish his work through faithful disciples—and that our faithfulness is important to God’s plan. Philip is faithful, and that sets the stage for the spread of the Gospel.
“and behold, there was a man of Ethiopia, a eunuch of great authority under Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, who was over all her treasure“ (v. 27b). The Ethiopia of New Testament times was different from modern-day Ethiopia. It was on the Nile River, in the Nubian region of modern-day Sudan. Its principal city was Meroe. Today there is a village named Meroe about 120 miles (200 km) northeast of modern-day Khartoum and northwest of modern-day Ethiopia. Some commentaries refer to the eunuch’s country as Meroe. In Old Testament times, the region was known as Cush.
Ethiopians considered it beneath their king to involve himself in day-to-day administration, so the queen became the de facto ruler. Candace was not a proper name, but was a title, much like the title Pharaoh.
The people of Ethiopia were black, which made them an object of curiosity—even fascination—by Greeks and Romans.
A eunuch, of course, is a castrated male. We should note that there is some scholarly debate whether “eunuch” necessarily meant castrated. But the context is Philip’s ministry to Samaritans and this foreign eunuch—both examples of marginal people. Also, it would be in keeping with customary practice for a castrated eunuch to serve as a treasurer. I conclude that this eunuch was almost surely a castrated male.
In that time and place, males were sometimes castrated to prepare them for service in the king’s harem or his treasury. A eunuch would not be tempted by the king’s wives. The ancients apparently assumed that a eunuch would also be less tempted by money than an ordinary man. Therefore, they often reserved certain important jobs for eunuchs. This eunuch was in charge of the queen’s royal treasury, a position of trust and power.
Eunuchs were not honored in Israel, where they were denied admission “into the assembly of Yahweh” (Deuteronomy 23:1). Levitical law denied the right to give offerings to God to anyone who has a blemish—eunuchs being among those specified (Leviticus 21:17-21).
“who had come to Jerusalem to worship“ (v. 27c). Some scholars assume that, because this man came to Jerusalem to worship, he must be a proselyte—a convert to the Jewish faith. Jewish law makes provision for aliens who convert to the Jewish faith and submit to circumcision. It authorizes such people to “keep the Passover to Yahweh” and to “be as one who is born in the land” (Exodus 12:48).
However, as noted above, Jewish law specifically denies these rights to eunuchs, so this man is not likely to be a proselyte. He is probably a “God-fearer”—one of those who fear the Lord (10:2, 22; 13:16, 26, 43)—not a proselyte—not circumcised—not one who enjoys full membership in the Jewish community—but one who nevertheless worships the Jewish God. God-fearers would be granted access to the Court of the Gentiles, but would be denied access to the rest of the temple.
“He was returning and sitting in his chariot, and was reading the prophet Isaiah“ (v. 28). This chariot is large enough to accommodate at least two men (the eunuch and Philip), and it seems likely that the eunuch would have a driver as well. The distance from Jerusalem to Meroe is about 1,600 miles (2,600 km), assuming that the eunuch follows the Nile River once he enters Egypt. The trip would require months of travel (three months each way at 20 miles per day or six months at 10 miles per day, assuming time off for sabbaths). The area from Gaza to Egypt is desert, so the eunuch would need to carry water and provisions. A roof on his chariot would seem essential. It seems likely, then, that this is a substantial vehicle—more like a covered wagon than a war-chariot (Williams, 161).
Both chariots and scrolls are expensive (prior to printing presses, all documents had to be handwritten by scribes), so the fact that this man is riding in a chariot and has possession of an Isaiah scroll suggests that he is a man of means.
“The Spirit said to Philip, “Go near, and join yourself to this chariot‘” (v. 29). An angel prompted Philip to go to this road, but now the Spirit takes over the leadership—directing Philip’s actions as needed.
“Philip ran to him, and heard him reading Isaiah the prophet“ (v. 30a).The fact that Philip heard him reading suggests that the eunuch was reading aloud. This was customary when reading a language other than one’s native tongue. Pronouncing words aloud made them easier to understand.
When Luke records the passage from Isaiah in verses 32-33, it is clear that these verses are taken from the Septuagint (LXX)—the Greek translation of the Old Testament—not the Hebrew. While Greek would be more familiar to an Ethiopian than Hebrew, neither would be this eunuch’s native tongue.
“Do you understand (ginoskeis) what you are reading?” (anaginoskeis) (v. 30b). Note the wordplay in the original Greek.
The fact that this eunuch is reading from the book of Isaiah gives Philip a wonderful opening—an opportunity fashioned by the work of the Spirit. But Philip doesn’t barge in and impose himself on the eunuch. He asks a question that gives the eunuch a chance to ask for help if he needs it.
It takes patience and faith to use a respectful and subtle approach, but the Spirit has guided Philip this far. Surely the Spirit will not allow the door to slam shut now. Those who hope to bear Christian witness to our culture should take note.
“How can I, unless someone explains it to me?” (v. 31a). Luke has pointed to other situations where guidance was needed to understand scripture. Jesus explained the scriptures to his disciples (Luke 24:45), and Peter explained the scriptures to the crowd in his sermon on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2).
Isaiah is not an easy book to understand, and this eunuch was raised far from the Jewish homeland. It is no wonder that he needs help to understand it. Even today, reading Isaiah without the benefit of a teacher or good commentaries is quite difficult. We still need guides.
“He begged Philip to come up and sit with him“ (v. 31b). By asking a question that prompted this invitation (v. 30b), Philip made himself an invited guest rather than an unwelcome intruder.
ACTS 8:32-33. NOW THE PASSAGE WHICH HE WAS READING WAS THIS
32Now the passage of the Scripture which he was reading was this,
“He was led as a sheep to the slaughter.
As a lamb before his shearer is silent,
so he doesn’t open his mouth.
33In his humiliation, his judgment was taken away.
Who will declare His generation? (Greek: genean—descendants)
For his life is taken from the earth.”
This is the Septuagint version (Greek version) of Isaiah 53:7-8—a part of Isaiah’s fourth servant song. The servant songs are Isaiah 42:1-4; 49:1-6; 50:4-9; 52:13 – 53:12.
Steeped in two thousand years of Christian tradition, we immediately recognize these verses as referring to Jesus—his death on the cross—his humiliation—his silence before his judges and tormentors. But this eunuch doesn’t have the benefit of two thousand years of Christian tradition, so this passage is a puzzle to him.
When this passage speaks of “His genean“—”His generation”—that would surely strike some sort of response in this eunuch, who has been denied the privilege of procreation. He can have no physical descendants.
While our story doesn’t mention it, Isaiah has good news for eunuchs and foreigners who “keep my (God’s) Sabbaths, and choose the things that please me (God), and hold fast my (God’s) covenant” To such people, God promised, “I will give in my house and within my walls a memorial and a name better than of sons and of daughters; I will give them an everlasting name, that shall not be cut off” (Isaiah 56:4-5; see verses 3-8).
ACTS 8:34-40. WHO IS THIS PROPHET TALKING ABOUT?
34The eunuch answered Philip, “Who is the prophet talking about? About himself, or about someone else?” 35Philip opened his mouth, and beginning from this Scripture, preached to him Jesus. 36As they went on the way, they came to some water, and the eunuch said, “Behold, here is water. What is keeping me from being baptized?” 37 38He commanded the chariot to stand still, and they both went down into the water, both Philip and the eunuch, and he baptized (Greek: ebaptisen—from baptizo) him. 39When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord caught Philip away, and the eunuch didn’t see him any more, for he went on his way rejoicing. 40But Philip was found at Azotus. Passing through, he preached the Good News to all the cities, until he came to Caesarea.
“The eunuch answered Philip, ‘Who is the prophet talking about? About himself, or about someone else?'” (v. 34). This is the first question that would occur to most people. Is this prophet talking about himself—or Israel—or one of the prophets—or an unfortunate scapegoat—or the messiah? The rabbis debated such questions, and could reach no agreement regarding this text. It is no wonder that this eunuch is stymied.
“Philip opened his mouth, and beginning from this Scripture, preached to him Jesus” (v. 35). Philip could probably have proclaimed the Gospel to this eunuch from nearly any text in the Hebrew Scriptures, but these verses provide an especially good opening—the work of the Spirit, no doubt.
“As they went on the way, they came to some water” (v. 36a). Some commentaries say that this was running water, but the Greek says only hudor—water.
“and the eunuch said, ‘Behold, here is water. What is keeping me from being baptized?'” (v. 36b). The eunuch has being prevented from participation in sacred rituals (including proselyte baptism) because of his physical defect (castration), so his question might reflect not only a desire to be baptized but also a concern that he might once again be denied the opportunity to participate.
Luke doesn’t tell us what Philip said to the eunuch, but we can infer from the eunuch’s response that Philip told him about Christian baptism—its significance and the eunuch’s need for baptism.
This would be an arid area (although not necessarily desert), so it is probably not coincidence that they come to a body of water at just the right time. The Spirit is surely involved here as well.
ACTS 8:37: NOT FOUND IN OLDER TRANSLATIONS
Most modern translations omit verse 37, because it is not found in the older and more reliable manuscripts. Apparently a later scribe was troubled by the omission of a confession of faith by the eunuch, so he added one. As found in the King James Version, verse 37 reads, ” And Philip said, If thou believest with all thine heart, thou mayest. And he answered and said, I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.”
“He commanded the chariot to stand still” (v. 38a). It is the eunuch who commands the chariot to stop. It is he who has been speaking, and it his chariot to command.
“and they both went down into the water, both Philip and the eunuch, and he baptized (baptizo) him” (v. 38b). The word baptizo has the connotation of overwhelm or immerse. That and the fact that the two men both went down in the water point to immersion baptism.
“When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord caught Philip away” (v. 39a). Philip’s work is done here, so the Spirit takes him to his next assignment.
This scene is reminiscent of Elijah, who “went up by a whirlwind into heaven” (2 Kings 2:11).
“and the eunuch didn’t see him any more, for he went on his way rejoicing” (v. 39b). For a man so long denied full membership in his faith community, his baptism would indeed be cause for great joy.
The New Testament doesn’t tell us anything more about this eunuch. Irenaeus and Eusebius reported that the eunuch became a missionary to Ethiopia—and it certainly makes sense that he would provide an active witness to there. However, we have no way of confirming the eunuch’s activities after Philip leaves him.
“But Philip was found at Azotus” (v. 40a). The Spirit took Philip to Azotus—another name for Old Testament Ashdod. Azotus is located near the Mediterranean 22 miles (35 km) north of Gaza.
“Passing through, he preached the Good News to all the cities, until he came to Caesarea” (v. 40b). Philip’s destination is Caesarea, located on the Mediterranean coast 65 miles (105 km) north of Azotus. Luke doesn’t tell us whether he traveled slowly or rapidly up the coast, but he does tell us that Philip proclaimed the Gospel in all the towns along the way.
Luke will report one more incident in the life of Philip. Twenty years later, Paul will travel through Caesarea, and will stay with Philip and his family. Luke tells us that Philip’s four unmarried daughters have the gift of prophecy. Afterwards, Paul will travel to Jerusalem, accompanied by some of the disciples from Caesarea. Luke doesn’t tell us whether Philip is among those disciples (21:7-16).
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
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Copyright 2015, Richard Niell Donovan