Exploring the Book of Acts Chapter 8
The Church Expands Into Judea, Galilee and Samaria (Acts 8)
A young man named Saul (8:1)
Luke next introduces the man who will soon become the main character of Acts. He is Saul, later called by his Latin name Paul. (We will call him “Paul” from here on out.) Paul was born in Tarsus, a city in eastern Asia Minor (21:39). He was the son of an orthodox Jewish father — a “Hebrew of Hebrews” [Some commentators suggest that “Hebrew of the Hebrews” means that Paul grew up in Judea, speaking Aramaic like a native.] (Philippians 3:5) and was “a Pharisee, descended from Pharisees” (Acts 23:6).
Paul was trained in a Jerusalem rabbinic school under the respected teacher Gamaliel “in the law of our ancestors” — that is, the ancestral Jewish faith (22:3). He was a brilliant and dedicated student. He would later say of these early years of learning: “I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people and was extremely zealous for the traditions of my fathers” (Galatians 1:14).
Technically, Paul is a Hellenistic or Grecian Jew, like Stephen. He knows Greek culture, and is as comfortable in the Hellenistic world as he is in strict Judaism. But he is also part of the Jewish world in Jerusalem, speaking Aramaic like a native. He may have been in the Hellenistic Jewish “Synagogue of Freedmen,” where he heard Stephen speak. Like many Freedmen, Paul was more fanatically Jewish than many Jews native to Jerusalem. Paul may be a member of the Sanhedrin, or perhaps a younger assistant, and if so, he heard Stephen speak before it.
What effect do Stephen’s accusations have on Paul? Paul is suddenly confronted with an incisive attack on the traditions he venerates. He realizes Stephen is no ignorant Galilean. Here is a member of the Nazarean sect who is challenging the very basis of Judaism. There is only one thing to do, and that is to eliminate the threat. Along with the rest of the Sanhedrin, Paul can only cover his ears (7:57) and attack the messenger, Stephen. The Sanhedrin drags Stephen outside the city walls. As they are about to stone Stephen, they take off their outer garments and place them “at the feet” of Paul (7:58), who gives his approval to Stephen’s death (7:60). (It’s intriguing to think that Paul himself may be Luke’s source for the summary of Stephen’s speech, as well as the story of his stoning.)
Luke’s phrase “at his feet” may signify that Paul is a leader of the opposition to Stephen. Perhaps he is instrumental in rushing Stephen and dragging him outside of the city to a place of stoning. Luke uses the expression “at the feet” three times in the story of church members selling their property and bringing the money to the apostles (4:35, 37 and 5:2). There it is clear that the expression is meant to convey the apostles’ leadership.
Luke says Paul “approved of their killing him” (8:1). How we see Paul’s role depends to some degree on how we understand this phrase. Is he merely agreeing with the stoning, or is he in some sense sanctioning, or even motivating it? If Luke uses the expression “at his feet” in the same way here as earlier, it makes Paul more than an uninvolved onlooker. That is, people placing their clothes at Paul’s feet would be offering a gesture to him — recognizing his authority. Paul, then, may be one of the instigators of Stephen’s murder. That he had a leadership role in the Jewish community seems to be corroborated by the fact that he becomes the point man in the persecution of Christians immediately following Stephen’s death (8:3; 9:1-2; 22:4-5).
Whatever Paul’s role, there is no mistaking that he becomes a driving force in persecuting the church in Jerusalem, and in other cities such as Damascus. The havoc he inflicts on the church would disturb him greatly for the rest of his life (Acts 22:20; 1 Timothy 1:13). Paul is here called a “young man” (7:58), but the expression doesn’t help us fix his age very narrowly. It could refer to someone between his mid-20s and 40. Josephus applies the term to Herod Agrippa when he was about 40. [Antiquities 18:197.]
Persecutes the church (8:1-4)
On the very day of Stephen’s death and burial, “A great persecution broke out against the church in Jerusalem” (8:1). This is Luke’s first use of the word “persecution,” and for the first time, rank-and-file believers are affected. Stephen’s death is not an isolated act of violence. A storm of persecution breaks out against the church in Jerusalem and increases in its fury. The prime agent in this campaign of persecution is Paul. Luke says, “Saul began to destroy the church. Going from house to house, he dragged off both men and women and put them in prison” (8:3). This is a vicious pogrom of intimidation against the Jerusalem church, and Luke tells us Paul “began to destroy the church” (8:3). Williams says:
The word used of Paul’s activities…can describe the devastation caused by an army or a wild beast tearing its meat. It conjures up a terrible picture of the persecutor as he went from house to house — perhaps every known Christian home and at least every known place of Christian assembly…. The relentlessness of the pogrom is underlined by the reference to women being dragged off as well as men. [David J. Williams, Acts, New International Bible Commentary (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1990), 152.]
Paul was a zealot for Judaism, as he later admits. The proof of his zeal is that he violently persecutes the church (Philippians 3:6; Galatians 1:13, 22). He probably believes that the new faith is a dangerous distortion of the ancestral traditions he believes in — a distortion that endangers the nation’s favor with God. In later years, Paul refers to his devastation of the church as a shameful period in his life (1 Corinthians 15:9; 1 Timothy 1:13). But that understanding comes later, after he is confronted by the risen Christ on the road to Damascus.
Though Luke doesn’t say, it is possible that the persecution is directed specifically against Hellenistic Jewish Christians, and those who share Stephen’s views, those who downplay the importance of the temple. At least, the Hellenistic believers are the ones whose work Luke now begins to describe (8:4; 11:19). Williams says,
We need not understand by the word all that every member of the church left the city; verse 3 shows that they did not. Luke is prone to use “all” in the sense of “many” (see discussion on 9:35). But even of those who left, many may soon have returned. [Ibid., 151.]
This point is indicated by the fact that the apostles, who seem supportive of Jewish institutions such as the temple, are not forced to flee Jerusalem (8:1). Also, we find disciples in Jerusalem a short time later (9:26). This round of persecution apparently doesn’t last long. Luke soon notes that the church throughout Judea, Samaria, and Galilee is living in peace (9:31). Later we will see that the church in Jerusalem is flourishing under the leadership of James. He is called James the Just, and is known for his piety and respect for Jewish institutions. (But even he will be martyred under the urging of the high priest in A.D. 62.) Richard Longenecker points out:
With the martyrdom of Stephen, the Christians of Jerusalem learned the bitter lesson that to espouse a changed relationship to the land, the law, and the temple was (1) to give up the peace of the church and (2) to abandon the Christian mission to Israel. [Richard N. Longenecker, “Acts,” The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, vol. 9 (ed. Frank E. Gaebelein; Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1981), page 353.]
Church scatters (8:1, 4)
For the present, those of the Jerusalem church who are successfully hunted down are persecuted, beaten and imprisoned — and possibly killed. Others see what is coming and flee throughout the province of Judea and Samaria (8:1). This flight of church members actually causes the gospel to spread more widely. “Those who had been scattered preached the word wherever they went” (8:4). Later in Acts, we learn that people are traveling as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus and Antioch, “spreading the word only among Jews” (11:19). The law of unintended results begins to operate against Saul and the Jewish leaders of Jerusalem. William Willimon writes:
Earlier, it had been predicted that the gospel would be taken by witnesses into “all Judea and Samaria” (1:8). Little did the followers know then that the impetus for this far-flung evangelism would be persecution! These refugees, scattered like seed, take root elsewhere and bear fruit. God is able to use even persecution of his own people to work his purposes. [William Willimon, Acts (Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Preaching and Teaching; Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 1988), 65]
Philip preaches the gospel (8:5)
The first seven chapters of Acts deal with mission work among Jews in Jerusalem. Luke is now finished with this part of the story, and he begins to describe gospel outreach activities further afield. He mentions that the scattered members of the Jerusalem church flee to other parts of the province of Judea, preaching the gospel as they go (8:1, 4). However, Luke gives no further details about the evangelization of Judea, nor does he mention anything about the churches in other cities of this province. (He is also silent about the work and church in Galilee.)
Rather, Luke turns his attention to Samaria, where scattered members of the Jerusalem church also evangelize. They apparently know that Jesus’ earlier ban on the disciples entering any city of the Samaritans (Matthew 10:5) has been lifted. Samaria was once the capital of the northern ten-tribed House of Israel, which separated from Judah after Solomon died. In the eighth century B.C., the northern kingdom was invaded by Assyrians. Samaria was destroyed and many of the people were deported to other parts of the Assyrian empire (2 Kings 17:17:5-6). The area of Samaria was resettled by peoples from other parts of the empire. The story of this resettlement is told in 2 Kings 17, beginning with verse 24. And in the intervening 700 years, many other peoples moved in and out of the area.
The antagonism between Samaritans and Jews is centuries old, and in some ways it dates back to the Assyrian resettlement. It was intensified when the Samaritans opposed the rebuilding of the Jerusalem temple in the fifth century B.C. [Ezra 4:1-16; Nehemiah 2:10; 4:1-8; 6:1-14; 13:4-8.] This caused an unhealed and bitter hatred between Jews and Samaritans that grew more intense through the passage of time. The Samaritans built a temple on their own sacred hill, Gerizim. [Josephus, Antiquities 11:310, 322-24, 246.] The Jews under the Hasmonean ruler John Hyrcanus I (134-104 B.C.) destroyed this temple when they conquered Samaria in the second century B.C. and added this territory to their realm.
But in 63 B.C. the Romans conquered the Jewish kingdom. The Samaritans were liberated from Judean domination, but the unfriendly relations between the two peoples continued.
The intensity of Samaritan feelings against Jerusalem is shown by the Samaritans’ refusal of Herod’s offer of 25 B.C. to rebuild their temple on Mount Gerizim when it was known that he also proposed to rebuild the Jerusalem temple….The Judean antagonism to Samaria is evident as early as Ecclesiasticus 50:25-26, which lumps the Samaritans with the Idumeans and the Philistines as Israel’s three detested nations and then goes on to disparage them further by the epithets “no nation” and “that foolish people that dwell in Shechem.” [Longenecker, 357.]
For Jews to enter Samaria to evangelize the people and bring them into fellowship with Jewish Christians is a bold step indeed. Yet, to Samaria they go!
Mission to Samaria (8:5)
While Luke wants his readers to understand that a number of believers from Jerusalem evangelize Samaria, he describes only the work of Philip. He begins with a simple summary of his activities: “Philip went down to a city in Samaria and proclaimed the Messiah there” (8:5).
There is some disagreement as to which city Luke has in mind. Some commentators think it is the capital city of the province. In Old Testament times it was called Samaria, but Herod the Great had rebuilt it, naming it Sebaste. Others believe that Luke has Shechem in mind, because it is the leading Samaritan city. [Josephus, Antiquities 11:340.] Some think the Samaritan city of Gitta is the one Philip goes to. According to Justin Martyr, Gitta was the home town of Simon Magus. [Apology 1.26.] Another candidate for the site of Philip’s original evangelization of Samaria is Sychar, a twin city of Shechem. It is near Shechem and is the site of Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman, and many people there believed that Jesus is the Messiah (John 4:5).
Proclaims Christ (8:5-8)
At first glance, we might assume the mission to Samaria is the first step in the evangelization of Gentiles. However, Jews consider the Samaritans more as schismatics than as Gentiles. (Samaritans kept the laws that distinguished Jews from Gentiles. We will later see that Peter had no problem in going to the Samaritans, but he needs a mind-changing vision before he visits a Gentile.) To put it another way, the Samaritans are viewed as “half-breeds,” both religiously and racially, by the Jews. But they were thought of more as heretics from the faith rather than outright pagans.
The Samaritans themselves claimed to belong to the true stock of Israel and to be worshippers of Yahweh; they observed the Sabbath, and practiced circumcision. But they had their own temple on Mount Gerizim, and recognized only the Pentateuch as holy Scripture. They were therefore regarded by the Jews as heretics and schismatics rather than as heathens. [E. William Neil, The Acts of the Apostles, The New Century Bible Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1973), page 120.]
The Samaritans, like the Jews, expect a deliverer to come, a hope based on Deuteronomy 18:15. Jews call him the Messiah; Samaritans call him the Taheb, or restorer. John alludes to this Samaritan belief in the story of Jesus’ encounter with a woman of Samaria (John 4:25).
It’s surprising that any Jew is willing to go to Samaria to preach the gospel. Jews have no dealings with Samaritans (John 4:9). The hostility between the two groups is highlighted in the Gospel of John. When Jesus’ Jewish critics curse him, they can think of no more vile epithet than to call him a Samaritan (John 8:48). Samaritans are hostile to Jews, as well. Luke records an incident that shows their hostility. The Samaritans of a small village refuse to welcome Jesus and his disciples simply because they are traveling to Jerusalem (Luke 9:52-56).
Yet, the two peoples do have much in common. The Jerusalem missionaries such as Philip can build on the common hope of a coming Messianic restorer. Since the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Old Testament) are holy to the Samaritans, Stephen can speak of the Messiah as the second Moses. That is precisely what he does. In his preaching, Philip builds on the common hope for a coming Savior when he proclaims Christ (8:5).
Philip, a Hellenistic Jew, also finds himself on common ground with the Samaritans because he, too, is an outcast from Jerusalem. News about the persecution suffered by the Christian Hellenistic Jews has probably reached Samaria, making the Samaritans more disposed to receive the missionaries. If the apostles went to Samaria, associated as they are with Jerusalem and Judaism, their attempts to evangelize might be snubbed. But now, Jews who are also rejected by Judaism (as the Samaritans are) are coming to Samaria. Thus, they share a status out of which a common bond can be forged. God works in mysterious ways!
Historically, the movement of the gospel into Samaria following directly on the heels of the persecution of Hellenistic Jewish Christians in Jerusalem makes a great deal of sense. Doubtless a feeling of kinship was established between the formerly dispossessed Samaritans and the recently dispossessed Christian Hellenists because of Stephen’s opposition to the mentality of mainstream Judaism and its veneration of the Jerusalem temple — an opposition that would have facilitated a favorable response to Philip and his message in Samaria. [Longenecker, 355.]
But we do not want to ascribe the success of the mission to Samaria solely to sociological factors. In the final analysis, Philip’s message finds fertile ground because of the work of the Holy Spirit. Luke writes that when the Samaritans see the miracles, “they all paid close attention to what he said” (8:6). As at Pentecost, it is God’s power that gets the attention of people so that some might become receptive to the gospel message. Luke is telling his readers that Philip’s work is to be seen in continuity with that of Jesus. Like Philip, Jesus performed miraculous works, expelling demons and healing the sick. [Luke 4:33, 36; 6:18; 7:21; 8:2, 29; 9:42; 11:24.]
The work of the Hellenistic Jews (such as Philip) constitutes a new advance of the gospel and the church. But it occurs in Samaria, a quasi-Jewish environment. A dispossessed group, but within the boundaries of ancient Israel, is experiencing the outreach of Christ through the church. However, a mission to pagan Gentiles is yet to occur. Philip’s evangelization of the Samaritans “continues the work of Jesus in reaching out to the marginal and outcast among the people and inviting them to a full participation in the restored people of God forming around the Prophet whom God raised up.” [Luke Timothy Johnson, The Acts of the Apostles, Sacra Pagina series, volume 5 (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical, 1992), page 151.]
Simon the great power (8:9-13)
Luke intertwines his story of the Samaritan mission with that of a famous local religious personality named Simon, generally called Simon Magus or Simon the Sorcerer (Magician). He looms large in the writings of second-century Christians as the first heretic, troubler of the church, and founder of Gnostic Christianity. The early Christian theologian Irenaeus (A.D. 120-202), bishop of Lyons, France, calls Simon the originator of a number of heresies. [Against Heresies 1:23.] Justin Martyr, a native of Samaria who died around A.D. 165, says that his countrymen revered Simon as “the first god” or God above all. [Apology 1:26.] Luke notes a similar belief about Simon, saying he is known as “the Great Power” (8:10). According to Justin, Simon goes to Rome during the reign of emperor Claudius (A.D. 41-54), where his feats of magic bring him great honor.
Exactly how the Simon of Acts 8 is related to Simon Magus of later legend is not clear. So much myth has gathered around his name that it is difficult to assess his real importance. If the Simon of Acts 8 is Simon Magus, and he is anywhere near as prominent as later writers say he is, then Luke may have good reason to include him in his account. By the time Luke writes, Simon and/or his followers may be well-known opponents of the church. Simon may even be claiming to be part of the church, teaching in its name. After all, “Simon himself believed and was baptized” (8:13). Luke may want to make clear to his readers that Simon has no relationship with the Christian community, nor does he have the approval of the apostles and Holy Spirit — despite the fact that he (or his followers) claim Christian roots.
Peter and John go to Samaria (8:14)
The overwhelming success of the mission to Samaria soon reaches the ears of the apostles in Jerusalem. Peter and John are sent to Samaria as emissaries of the Jerusalem church (8:14). There are several reasons why the apostles go to Samaria. For one, it is a mission of goodwill — to show that the church is one body. By sending the apostles to Samaria, the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem are demonstrating their brotherly bond with the Samaritan disciples. The Jerusalem church also needs to satisfy itself of the genuineness of the Samaritan conversions. Once they do so, there will be no question of the mother church accepting these new converts.
By going to Samaria, Peter and John are also confirming the validity of the Hellenistic Christians’ ministry of evangelization. During the early years of the church, the apostles seem to exercise a general supervision over the progress of the gospel in general (11:22). But we should also note the collegial method of decision-making at Jerusalem. It is the church that sends the apostles to Samaria (8:14).
Samaritans receive the Spirit (8:15-17)
When the Samaritans are baptized in Jesus’ name (8:12, 16), there is no visible evidence that they receive the Holy Spirit. Only after the apostles pray for the Samaritan disciples and lay hands on them, does God give visible evidence of the Spirit (8:17).
Why this delay? Luke does not hint at any deficiency in the Samaritan believers’ faith. Philip does not perceive any, and neither do the apostles. Nor do the apostles need to enlighten the Samaritans any further about the faith. (On the other hand, it must be pointed out that Simon’s sin is not evident right away, either — it becomes known when he tries to buy the power to give the Holy Spirit.)
An important point may be behind the delay in the evidence of the Holy Spirit for the Samaritan believers. Luke may be implying that the Samaritans need to be brought into the church as a whole, not just into its Hellenistic branch. This does not mean that converts can receive the Holy Spirit only through the apostles. Ananias, with no known ministerial function (and certainly not an apostle), is the human instrument through which the Holy Spirit is given to Paul (9:17). Luke may be trying to show that God wants a link established between Jerusalem and the new venture in Samaria. So God seems to delay the Spirit until the Jerusalem apostles validate the Samaritans’ conversion so they might become fully incorporated into the community of believers.
If the Spirit came on the Samaritans immediately upon their baptism, perhaps they would remain under suspicion by the mother church in Jerusalem. But when two apostles of high standing in the church validate the Samaritans’ conversion, and show that God fully accepts this despised ethnic group, they will also be fully accepted by believers in Jerusalem. Since the apostles are the instruments through whom the Holy Spirit comes, something of a Samaritan “Pentecost” occurs (8:15-17), giving further proof that God is working among the Samaritans. The conclusion is inescapable: God loves Samaritans in the same way that he does Jews.
How do people know that the Samaritans receive the Spirit? Luke’s story assumes it can be known, but he doesn’t say how. Some speculate that the original Pentecost charismatic gifts occur again, such as speaking in other languages. For example, Simon “sees” something when the Spirit is given, and we might wonder what visible manifestation Simon reacts to (8:18). But Luke gives no indication that charismatic gifts are manifested every time converts receive the Spirit. Luke makes no mention of any such gifts in this account. Perhaps the Samaritan converts outwardly exhibit a sense of spiritual joy, which is a gift of the Holy Spirit (Galatians 5:22). Luke and Paul both indicate in their writings that in some cases the evidence of joy can signal the presence of the Spirit (13:52; 16:34; 1 Thessalonians 1:6).
In this case, the Holy Spirit is given only after the laying on of hands. However, we should not assume that this is a requirement in all cases. For example, Luke does not say that the believers converted on Pentecost had hands laid on them (by the apostles or anyone else) before receiving the Spirit (2:38-42). The laying on of hands is also not mentioned in Luke’s account of the household of Cornelius receiving the Spirit (10:44-48). The point is that believing in Christ and being baptized is the fundamental path to “receiving” the Spirit, not laying on of hands. F.F. Bruce writes, “In general, it seems to be assumed throughout the New Testament that those who believe and are baptized have also the Spirit of God.” [F.F. Bruce, The Book of Acts, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Rev. ed., Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1988), page 169.]
The laying on of hands, however, is an important outward symbol of acceptance. The person doing the action represents the community, which extends its acceptance of the people who are putting their faith in Christ. The ceremony is also a symbol of the transfer of God’s power, through the church, to an individual. The laying on of hands is used in various situations in the early church, and so it is today. The apostles pray and lay hands on the Seven, ordaining them to a particular task (6:6). Paul lays his hands on the father of Publius and heals him (28:8). And it is done here so the Samaritans will receive the Spirit.
The elapsed time between the Samaritan’s baptism and receiving of the Spirit has given rise to two widely held beliefs in the Christian world. One is the doctrine of “confirmation” and the other is “the baptism of the Spirit” as a second work of grace after conversion. In some Christian circles a person is baptized, perhaps during infancy, and later in life is “confirmed” in the church by a profession of faith. In a few other denominations, a person may be regarded as converted but later be “confirmed” by exhibiting a special outward manifestation of charismatic gifts.
Nothing of either idea is suggested in Acts 8. The delay in God’s granting the Holy Spirit is simply due to a special situation, as discussed above. It is important that the Samaritan believers be accepted as full converts in the church community, and this requires the involvement of the apostles. Also, the Samaritans are baptized as adults, and they receive the Spirit within days or weeks. Luke does not mention any accompanying charismatic gifts, such as glossolalia, as occurring here. Thus, no doctrinal innovations are intimated in Luke 8, and none should be drawn out of the account.
Simon tries to buy the Spirit (8:18-24)
Luke next takes up the story of Peter’s encounter with Simon, who tries to buy the power to distribute the Holy Spirit. “Give me also this ability,” he asks, “so that everyone on whom I lay my hands may receive the Holy Spirit” (8:19). Simon had no appreciation for the inward operation of the Spirit. He thinks the apostles are using a magic technique worth purchasing, one that will bring him more prestige and power.
Peter flatly rejects Simon’s offer. He says that Simon has “no part or share in this ministry, because your heart is not right before God” (8:21). Peter gives Simon a scathing rebuke about his spiritual blindness. The Phillips translation catches the sense of his dire reprimand: “To hell with you and your money!” (8:20). While this is a strong curse, Peter also urges Simon to repent and seek forgiveness because he is “full of bitterness and captive to sin” (8:23).
But Simon doesn’t understand, and has his mind only on physical consequences. “Pray to the Lord for me so that nothing you have said may happen to me,” he answers (8:24), and that’s the last we hear of him in Acts, or anywhere else in the New Testament. Luke concludes the story of the church’s mission to Samaria with a single-sentence summary that hints at a much larger mission in the territory. Peter and John preach the gospel “in many Samaritan villages,” and then return to Jerusalem (8:25).
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 1:11, 13, 26, 28; 2:9, 13; 22:43; Acts 5:19; 7:30, 35, 38; 8:26; 10:3, 7, 22; 11:13; 12:7, 11, 23; 27:23.] 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 1:14, 28; 2:10; 6:23; 8:13; 10:17, 20; 13:17; 15:5, 7, 10, 32; 19:6, 37; 24:41, 52.]
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).
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.
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].
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.
Perhaps you know of someone who'd like to hear about this article. If so, go to the bottom of the page and click on "Email this page." Fill out the form, and share the good news! There's also a way to share the page on Facebook, Twitter, and other websites.
All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV®. Copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved worldwide. www.zondervan.com
Other popular articles
This article was written by Paul Kroll in 1995 and updated in 2012. Copyright Grace Communion International. All rights reserved.
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.