Studies in the Book of Acts

Acts 8:26-40

An angel directs Philip to Gaza (8:26)

Philip’s role in Samaria may be over, but he is about to play another important part in spreading of the gospel. An angelic messenger appears to Philip and instructs him: “Go south to the road — the desert road — that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza” (8:26). Commentators point out that when Luke wants to stress the presence and activity of God, he often uses an expression like “the angel of the Lord” (as he does in 8:26) rather than “the Spirit of the Lord.” [Some examples are in Luke 1:111326282:91322:43Acts 5:197:3035388:2610:372211:1312:7112327:23.] Used here, the expression is a vivid way of describing Philip’s divine guidance.

This is another opportunity for Luke to stress that the evangelistic work of the church is initiated by God, who sends his divine messenger to Philip. Whatever mission work Philip is about to do is not based on a program the church has thought out. After all, in this case, what would be the point of traveling to a “desert road” that leads to Gaza, and preach the gospel there?

But that’s what Philip is told to do — go down the road that leads to the edge of the desert. (The road from Jerusalem to Gaza is 50 miles long, and leads to the main coastal trade route going to Egypt.) Commentators point out that the word “desert” in Luke’s account can refer either to Gaza or to the road. Most likely the former is in view here. Apparently, the old town of Gaza is referred to as “Desert Gaza,” in distinction to a newer town named Gaza. This is the southernmost of the five main Philistine cites in southwestern Judea. It is also the last settlement before a traveler encounters the barren desert stretching to Egypt.

The Ethiopian official (8:27-28)

As Philip travels the road to “Desert Gaza,” he meets an Ethiopian eunuch. This man is what we might call the Secretary of the Treasury or the Chancellor Exchequer for Kandake, the Ethiopian queen (8:27). As a minister of finance, he is an important official in the queen’s “cabinet.” The Ethiopians are Nubians, living in Southern Egypt and the Sudan, between modern Aswan and Khartoum. (The modern nation of Ethiopia is further south.) Kandake is a dynastic title, such as Pharaoh, not a personal name. All Ethiopian queens have that name. According to ancient writers, the Nubian king is said to be too holy to become involved with profane matters of state, [Strabo, Geography 17.1.54; Pliny the Elder, Natural History 6.186.] so the mother of the king rules on behalf of her son.

Luke says of Kandake’s eunuch that he went “to Jerusalem to worship” (8:27). Therefore, though he is probably a Gentile, he is most likely a proselyte or “God-fearer.” This is indicated by the fact that the eunuch makes a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, and is now studying the book of Isaiah. (It would be difficult for a non-Jew to get a copy of the Isaiah scroll, but a minister of finance would no doubt have more ability than the average Gentile.)

Israel’s law excludes the sexually deformed from being able to “enter the assembly of the Lord” (Deuteronomy 23:1), and eunuchs were not allowed in the innermost court of the temple. Yet, Isaiah predicts a time when this ban will be removed (56:3-5). It’s not clear how first-century Judaism regards eunuchs, and whether they are allowed even in the outermost courts. Some commentators feel that Luke does not mean to say that the Ethiopian is truly a “eunuch.”

The word eunuch (eunochos) frequently appears in the LXX and in Greek vernacular writings “for high military and political officials; it does not have to imply emasculation”… Therefore, we are probably justified in taking “eunuch” to be a governmental title in an Oriental kingdom. [Longenecker, 363.]

Other commentators disagree. They point out that both the word “eunuch” and “official” describe the Ethiopian in the same verse (8:27). If “eunuch” simply means “official” here, then Luke would be redundant. Because Luke used both terms in the same sentence, it seems he intends us to understand that the Ethiopian is sexually mutilated, or a eunuch. In ancient times it was common for male servants of a queen to be eunuchs.

Eunuch baptized (8:29-38)

As Philip, at the behest of the Spirit, runs up to the Ethiopian eunuch’s chariot, he hears him reading from the book of Isaiah (8:32-33). It is hardly an accident that at the precise moment of Philip’s arrival the Ethiopian is reading a passage that makes him open to the good news about Jesus. The Ethiopian is reading from the Suffering Servant section in Isaiah 53. As Philip approaches the chariot, the eunuch asks him whether the prophet is talking about himself or someone else (8:34).

Philip immediately takes advantage of this God-given opportunity. “Philip began with that very passage of Scripture and told him the good news about Jesus” (8:35). Jesus quoted from Isaiah 53, saying it would be fulfilled in his death (Luke 22:37). Now, Philip is preaching the same message. Philip, like Peter, apparently tells the eunuch that anyone who accepts Jesus as Messiah should be baptized for the remission of sins, and will be filled with the Holy Spirit (2:38). Thus, when somewhere along the road the Ethiopian sees water (a rarity in this area, except for the Mediterranean Sea), he asks for baptism.

The eunuch halts his chariot, goes to the water and both of them go “down into the water and Philip baptized him” (8:38). The phrase “went down into” implies that the baptism was done by immersion. Jesus himself was baptized this way (Mark 1:9-10). The fact that the official goes “on his way rejoicing” indicates that he has received the Holy Spirit (8:39). Luke often sees joy as a response to God’s work in the world. [Luke 1:14282:106:238:1310:172013:1715:57103219:63724:4152.]

Africa has now been reached by the gospel in the person of the Ethiopian eunuch. In him, the prophecy of Psalm 68:31 is beginning to be fulfilled: “Ethiopia [Cush] will quickly stretch out her hands to God” (New King James Version).

The evangelization and baptism of a high-ranking Ethiopian represents another step in the advance of the gospel from its Jewish origins to a wider Gentile world. However, the church is still far from engaging in a full-bore missions effort directly to pagan Gentiles. “As with the Samaritans, the conversion of the Ethiopian does not yet represent a formal opening to the Gentiles, but rather to those who were marginalized within the people of God” [Johnson, page 160].Most modern translations omit verse 37 from the text and place it in a footnote, because the oldest manuscripts do not have this verse. The verse reads: “Philip said, ‘If you believe with all your heart, you may.’ The eunuch answered, ‘I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.’” The verse simply makes explicit something that the other verses imply; it seems that an early scribe thought it should be more explicit, added it to the text, and many copyists followed suit.

Angel takes Philip away (8:39)

Having fulfilled his role with the Ethiopian eunuch, Philip is suddenly snatched away by “the Spirit of the Lord” (8:39). The story of the eunuch’s conversion ends where it began, with God’s presence and direct intervention. Luke is again making the point that the gospel is being preached and people are being converted at God’s direction, not by human desire.

The presence of the gospel out here in the desert of Gaza with this Ethiopian of somewhat murky physical, religious, and ethnic status can only be attributed to the constant prodding of the Spirit. If the good news is being preached out there, it is the work of God, not of people. No triumphal, crusading enthusiasm has motivated the church up to this point, no mushy all embracing desire to be inclusive of everyone and everything. Rather, in being obedient to the Spirit, preachers like Philip find themselves in the oddest of situations with the most surprising sorts of people. [Willimon, Acts, page 72.]

Philip preaches along the coast (8:40)

Luke next recounts Philip’s sudden appearance at the coastal town of Azotus. Philip travels in the area, “preaching the gospel in all the towns until he reached Caesarea” (8:40). Azotus is the old Philistine city of Ashdod, about 20 miles north of Gaza. Philip works his way north along the coastal road that runs through the coastal plain. He apparently preaches the gospel in such coastal cities as Lydda, Joppa, Jamnia and Antipatris. He probably spends considerable time in each town. What we have in Luke’s brief notation is a missionary journey of substantial duration. Luke passes over in only one sentence the details of what may have been a months-long work.

Philip’s final destination is Caesarea, which is either where he lived or later settled. After arriving in Caesarea, he disappears from Luke’s account for 20 years. He reappears as Paul’s host in chapter 21. By this time he is the father of four daughters, all four of whom prophesy (21:8-9).

Philip may have been Luke’s source for much of the information in Acts 8. Luke is with Paul when they stay with Philip’s family in Caesarea before the final Jerusalem visit (21:8). He would have ample opportunity to discuss the events described in chapter 8. If Luke gathers his material at a later time, he could still interview one or more of Philip’s daughters about the early days of the church.

Author: Paul Kroll, 1995, 2012