American Journal of Biblical Theology
Copyright ę 2007, J.W. Carter Scripture quotes from KJV
The early church started with about 120 members who were dynamically empowered by the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost following Jesus commission to the apostles to spread the gospel, and His ascension into heaven. The church experienced a wonderful time of fellowship and worship that attracted those around them. Through Peters preaching, and through the ministry of the church to their neighbors, the church grew to about 5000 members before any significant resistance was mounted up against them.
The first instance of resistance came from the Jerusalem Jewish leadership when they arrested Peter and John following the healing of the lame man at the entrance to the temple (Chapter 4). Peter and John were held over night and instructed not to preach about the risen Jesus. They both stated that they would not obey this demand, yet they were released because of their support by the people.
The church continued to thrive in the power of the Holy Spirit, and some organization was needed in order to distribute the gifts brought to the church. The congregation selected seven Hellenistic (Greek) Jewish men to help in this administration, particularly to the Hellenists who were being neglected. (Chapter 6). One of these, Stephen, became a dynamic witness for the gospel, moving outside of the congregation, preaching and teaching in the Hellenistic synagogues, much to the dislike of the orthodox Jews who considered the Greeks as foreigners. The orthodox religious leaders could not make any public attack on Steven directly, so they devised lies against him (vs. 11-18) in order to entrap him. In his own defense, Stephen presented a speech, the longest in the book of Acts, in which he recounts Jewish history, and presents the gospel to the leaders. When he exposed their history of persecuting Gods prophets, they formed a "lynch mob" and took Stephen out of the city, and stoned him to death (Chapter 7). Had this not happened, Stephen would have most likely been one of the most fruitful witnesses for the gospel, comparing favorably with the ministry of Paul.
And Saul was consenting unto his death. And at that time there was a great persecution against the church which was at Jerusalem; and they were all scattered abroad throughout the regions of Judaea and Samaria, except the apostles. 2And devout men carried Stephen to his burial, and made great lamentation over him. 3As for Saul, he made havock of the church, entering into every house, dragging off men and women, and committing them to prison. 4Therefore they that were scattered abroad went every where preaching the word. (Acts 8:1-4)
Despite the persecution that the early church received, it was successful in identifying those who were seeking spiritual truth and channeling them into a local house church. Many continued to hear of the gospel and were able to respond to God's offer of grace and forgiveness.
The stoning of Stephen ended the period of unity and peace that was experienced by the early church in Jerusalem. The violence of the persecution caused the people to scatter. Many of these people came to Jerusalem for the Pentecost feast, and were remaining with the church because of their love for one another, a love given by the power of the Holy Spirit. This persecution broke up the congregation, and many returned to their own lands, taking with them the gospel that would continue to spread. Like throwing water on a gas fire, all the Jewish leadership succeeded in doing through their persecution was to spread the gospel to a far wider geographical area.
Those Jews who lived in Jerusalem were left in their house-churches that were formed to meet the needs of their local communities. Saul, a zealous Pharisee, was given authority by the Sanhedrin to imprison any remaining followers of this Jesus cult in an effort to finally put down this challenge to the orthodox authority. He went from house to house in an attempt to locate the house pastors and take them to prison.
In the last several years the modern Church has been placing a greater focus on identifying "seekers." What is a seeker? This is an individual who has not made a decision for Christ, but is seeking for some spiritual direction in their lives. There are a lot of religions and religious leaders who are motivated to locate seekers and recruit them into their fold. The New-Age philosophical movement has made the greatest strides in this arena because of the propagation of these philosophies in the media through celebrity testimonies and its liberal world view. Islam, Buddhism and Hinduism have also been resting places for seekers for the same reason. The occult uses the proselytizing of seekers as its primary source of recruiting. The Mormons and Jehovah's Witnesses have been successful in drawing in seekers because of their intense efforts at proselytizing.
Often we will find seekers in our morning worship services. They might even be church members, but more likely they are acquaintances, family or friends of church members who have been invited or drawn to come. Identifying and drawing seekers is one of the most fruitful tasks of evangelism. It is much easier to witness to those who are seeking answers to their questions, and the evangelist is far more likely to plant seeds or bear fruit when the person is open to listen.
Philip was one of the seven Greek men who was chosen to serve the church prior to the persecution. Upon its dispersal, Philip went into Samaria where he continued to preach the gospel and was used by God to reach many people in a people group that the Jewish Christians were less likely to reach. Though they were learning of the unconditional love of Christ and attempting to share this love with one another, the Jewish Christians like many Christians today still battled with the sin of prejudice towards others who were different than themselves. The Jerusalem church was not effective in reaching non-Jews because of its continued bigotry against Gentiles. This gave individuals like Philip, who was a Greek Christian, an opportunity to reach the Gentiles.
Be mature in your faith.
Philip was a deacon in the early church, not an elder or pastor. As a deacon, Philip assumed a servant ministry as he demonstrated his love for God through his life. Philip served the needs of those around him as he also preached and taught the truth of God's grace. There is no scriptural evidence that deacons were ever administrators. Organizational leadership was the arena of the elders, or bishops, or pastors, with each of these titles representing a similar position. The deacons ministered to the needs of the members of the church and were always very active in a ministry of apostleship. Both men and women served as deacons in the early church and had a reputation of uncompromised faithfulness to the church and to the Lord. They were well-grounded in their faith and doctrine, and were an example of Christian maturity with their lives and families in order. There were few guidelines as to the character and ministry of the deacon, though they were not to have multiple spouses as was common for their pagan neighbors.
Philip was one such person. The call of Philip as a deacon is recorded in Acts 6:5, and it is not clear whether or not that this Philip is the same as the Apostle, Philip, but some believe that it is. The scripture text refers to the 11 apostles telling the disciples to call out seven among themselves to help with the distribution of gifts, so if the English text is taken literally, Philip the deacon would not be Philip the apostle. Also while Philip went into Samaria, the apostles remained in Jerusalem, again identifying this man as another. Apostle or not, at this time, Philip is very busily engaged in exercising his gift of apostleship. Take a look at:
Then Philip went down to the city of Samaria, and preached Christ unto them. 6And the people with one accord gave heed unto those things which Philip spake, hearing and seeing the miracles which he did. 7For unclean spirits, crying with loud voice, came out of many that were possessed with them: and many taken with palsies, and that were lame, were healed. 8And there was great joy in that city. (Acts 8:5-8).
This must have been a very exciting experience for Philip, as it would be for those of us who would like to be part of such a fruitful evangelical ministry. Jesus' commission to the disciples was to take the gospel to Jerusalem, Samaria, Judea, and the uttermost parts of the earth. Philip was literally taking the gospel to Samaria, an area outside of the comfort zone of most of the Christians of his day. The equivalent in today's culture would be to take the gospel to a people group who is within the access area of our community, but we do not tend to fellowship with them. This would be a people group who is subjected to prejudice and bigotry by many of those in our own community. The Jewish community felt this way concerning the Samaritans, and the early church was comprised predominantly of Jews. The Samaritans were considered by the Jews as "half-Jews" who had intermarried with the Gentiles during the period of exile, and utilized only the writings of Moses as their canon. They did not give much authority to the Prophets, but were looking for the coming Messiah. They were far more open to the gospel than the Jews, and there were many seekers among them.) Philip's crusade there was very successful as he brought the gospel to many people.
We might think that God would keep Philip there among the many people who were open to the Gospel. However, God's plan places the importance of an individual as high as the importance of a group. Also God can work through an individual to reach an entire nation. We never know the impact that a single touch can have on the life of an individual and how that individual may continue to serve God. Consequently, it is important to be responsive to God's call, even if that call seems unlikely or trivial.
And the angel of the Lord spake unto Philip, saying, Arise, and go toward the south unto the way that goeth down from Jerusalem unto Gaza, which is desert.
Philip has been busy sharing the gospel among the Samaritans with great power and fruitfulness. Yet, Philip was given a call by the LORD to leave this ministry and travel south, through Judea to the desert area of Gaza. Note that God did not communicate to Philip the purpose of this call, nor the nature of the ministry that Philip would find there. This would be a very long trip from Samaria. Also, he was told by God's messenger to simply go to a specific road that was out in the middle of what we might call "No man's land." How would we respond to such a call? Again, Philip is engaged in a dynamic and successful ministry, yet God is calling him to the desert with no indication of purpose. Many of us would probably ignore such a call. Surely, we would think, our current successful ministry cannot be abandoned. Who will take our place? How can these folks get along without us? We see no indication of such doubt in Philip's response. The scripture reveals that Philip's response was immediate.
And he arose and went: and, behold, a man of Ethiopia, an eunuch of great authority under Candace queen of the Ethiopians, who had the charge of all her treasure, and had come to Jerusalem for to worship,
Philip was traveling south on the road from Jerusalem to Gaza when he met the Ethiopian eunuch. We might be interested to be better introduced to this man. He was the treasurer for the queen of a large independent tribal country in northern Africa. This region was probably what is now Nubia, an area in the south of Egypt and northern Sudan on the Nile River. In ancient times this was an independent nation that was ruled at the time of this encounter by a female pharaoh.. This makes it very likely that this man was a large, very intelligent, and very black man. Also, the label of eunuch may be misleading and is worth investigating. The identification of this man is particularly confused by the fact that men who took care of royal women were often castrated, and such were referred to as eunuchs. However, the Greek word for eunuch is eunouchos which is also the identical Greek word for a treasurer or bookkeeper. It is a bit of an irony that the Greek word for bookkeeper is the same as that for a castrated slave. (Tell that to your CPA.) When taken in the context used here, eunouchos dunaste˘s, it is very likely that this man is not a castrated slave, but is as the scripture continues to describe, he is a highly skilled official in the service of the queen. The name Candace, Kandake˘s, is not a personal name, but is a title of the position like "Pharaoh" or "Caesar."
As unusual and unique as this man was, his purpose for coming to Jerusalem is also quite interesting: he came to Jerusalem to worship God. As a foreigner, the Eunuch could not enter the temple to worship, but he could enter the court of the Gentiles, the court where Jesus chased out the money changers. If the money changers were gone, he would have the opportunity to listen to rabbis and teachers as they would present their understanding of the word of God.
The Eunuch was a seeker. Having heard some of the teachings of the Jewish rabbis, and even perhaps some of the testimonies of the Christians, his curiosity was far more than piqued.
Was returning, and sitting in his chariot read Esaias the prophet.
If it were the first century and you wanted to read the writings of Isaiah the prophet, where would you go to get a copy? They could not simply go down to the Bible store and pick up a copy for the price of a burger and fries. In order to read the scriptures, one would have to purchase an extremely expensive hand-written scroll. Furthermore, the Ethiopian would speak Greek, not Hebrew, so he would need a Greek translation, an even more expensive and rare commodity. Consequently, it appears that the Candace may have actually been the first seeker here. She may have sent her treasurer to Jerusalem to purchase the very expensive Greek Old Testament. His belief might have been initiated by that of the Candace as we find that he was worshiping the one true God, but lacked a real understanding of much of that faith.
God had a plan for this Ethiopian treasurer, one that would ultimately affect an entire country, one that was quite foreign to the middle-east and was not a part of a significant missionary effort, at least as recorded in scripture. God would use Philip to reach Ethiopia in a way he could never have imagined.
- Seize opportunities in wisdom and love.
Then the Spirit said unto Philip, Go near, and join thyself to this chariot. 30And Philip ran thither to him, and heard him read the prophet Isaiah, and said, Understandest thou what thou readest?
There is a good possibility that, up to this moment, Philip might have been a little discouraged. He found himself walking on a desert road, having no earthly idea of why he is here when he could be up in Samaria reaching people. He might have thought that this was not a very good use of his gifts. He may have been wondering about God's purposes as he remembered, and possibly prayed for, his friends in Samaria. His attention was then drawn to a south-bound wagon and rider and the Holy Spirit impressed upon him to simply walk along side. Note he was not led to do anything else, not to introduce himself, to get on the wagon, etc. God did not strike Philip with a lightning bolt theophany that described this man's need and Philip's appropriate response. Christians have already been given the command to share the news of God's grace, so no such instruction is needed. All that is needed is to pay attention to surrounding situations and be available to share when opportunities present themselves.
While walking near the wagon Philip must have been astonished to hear what he was hearing: this Ethiopian foreigner was reading aloud from a Greek translation of the Hebrew writings of Isaiah. Perhaps he was reading to others who were traveling with him. This must have been doubly intriguing to Philip if the man were a black African, as it appears. Philip could not walk idly by while listening to the Ethiopian's reading. He did not need a command from God. He simply asked a logical question that was basically, "Do you understand what it is that you are reading?" We will see that the Eunuch was reading from a passage of the Hebrew Bible that the Hebrews have the most problem with. Even today Jewish leaders strongly discourage the study of Isaiah and Daniel. In my limited experience in sharing the Gospel with Jews, I have yet to find one who is familiar with these scriptures.
How would this Eunuch understand the passage if even the Jewish rabbis could not explain it? This opened a door for Philip, who knew the meaning of the scripture passage and saw the explanation as an opportunity to share God's grace with someone who was genuinely curious. Inquiry is one of the best ways to open an opportunity to share the gospel. By asking the Eunuch a question, his response gives Philip permission to open the spiritual discussion.
- Test the spiritual soil.
And he said, How can I, except some man should guide me? And he desired Philip that he would come up and sit with him.
Philip now fully recognized that this Ethiopian was a seeker. His question to the Ethiopian opened an opportunity to teach. However, a teacher needs a student, and if this man was unwilling to be taught, the gospel could not be shared. To plant seeds, the soil needs to be fertile. We can waste a lot of time, and even damage the purpose of the gospel when we insist on planting seed among the rocks, thorns, and trampled roadways.
A few years ago I met a first-cousin and her family for the first time in my life. She and her family are not only lost, but she is not even looking for any spiritual context to her life. When I led her family in prayer before lunch she and her family were very uncomfortable. I mentioned my background and the faith that defines who I am, and they could not understand. As much as I wanted to give them a presentation of the gospel, the Spirit gave me a clear message that this was as far as I could go. My testimony was all they could easily grasp at this time. To have gone farther would have grieved the Spirit and possibly alienated me from them and destroyed any future opportunity to take the testimony to the next step. I would liked to given her the "hard sell," but this was not the time or place for it. Some discernment is always needed to determine the spiritual soil in which we plant.
It was obvious here that through the interest of the Ethiopian, and through the presentation of His Word, this Ethiopian was ready to listen to instruction, so he invited Philip to sit with him while he rode, probably much to the relief of Philip's tired feet. Philip now knew why God had called him to this isolated road. The spiritual soil for this man was fertile. It was time to start planting spiritual seeds.
We can learn from Philip's experience that Christians should never brush off the call of the Spirit. When you are certain that God is calling you, you can go without hesitation. What would have happened if Philip had decided to wait a few more hours before leaving? He could have missed the Ethiopian, and the ministry opportunity would have passed him by. He would have been frustrated by a seemingly useless trip to the desert and the spiritual fruit of this meeting with the Ethiopian would not have been realized. Most likely the Ethiopian would have returned home unchanged.
The place of the scripture which he read was this, He was led as a sheep to the slaughter; and like a lamb dumb before his shearer, so opened he not his mouth: 33In his humiliation his judgment was taken away: and who shall declare his generation? for his life is taken from the earth.
This passage is Isaiah 53:7-8. If you turn to the book of Isaiah and read it, you will find the wording to a little different, particularly if your translation is true enough to the original text. Why does the New Testament often seem to misquote the Old? The Ethiopian was reading, not from the Hebrew texts from which our Old Testament is translated, but from the Septuagint (LXX) a Greek translation of the Old Testament, named for the council of seventy Hebrew scholars who composed it. Unfortunately, the LXX is a colloquial paraphrase written in first-century common (koine) Greek, and was intended for easy reading. It was also heavily editorialized by the committee, much like the Living Bible, the Message, or the New Living Translation that we use today. Consequently, we must be careful when we use the LXX as a resource for study. The LXX is useful for scholars to see how the Greek language was used to explain spiritual truths, but due to the presuppositions of the committee who rejected the messianic prophesies, the LXX is not very useful for scholarly study, particularly in applications of prophesies of the coming Messiah.
For those who spoke only Greek, the LXX was the only written text that was available. Most of us today experience a similar difficulty since we are dependent upon English translations that have any number of variances from the original text that are introduced by thousands of years of changes in cultural and language dynamics. However, reliable copies of the original Hebrew and Greek manuscripts are readily available, and are used by many who are knowledgeable of the languages to improve modern biblical translation and understanding.
- Plant the complete spiritual truth.
And the eunuch answered Philip, and said, I pray thee, of whom speaketh the prophet this? of himself, or of some other man? 35Then Philip opened his mouth, and began at the same scripture, and preached unto him Jesus.
Again, one of the most powerful teaching tools is that of inquiry. Philip asked a question of the Ethiopian that caused the Ethiopian to respond with another question. Teaching through lecture is not nearly as effective as teaching through inquiry. When we find ourselves in a ministry opportunity, it is always advantageous to get the seeker to ask questions. By the asking, the seeker is giving you the permission and authority to answer. Philip was able to use the question posed by the Ethiopian to voice a complete presentation of the gospel message.
We can share the gospel from within almost any context of inquiry. I once shared the gospel with someone through a discussion of the physics behind the placement of the stars and galaxies. I recently had the opportunity to share the gospel through the experience of Abraham and Isaac on Mount Moriah, a seed that may have played a critical part in the salvation of the one who inquired. When in Belarus I was given two opportunities to share the gospel when asked to tell the "story of Christmas." A key to presenting spiritual truth is to respond to inquiry with the complete gospel message, a message that clearly explains our need for God's grace, God's provision of forgiveness through Jesus Christ, and a clear opportunity to bring the listener to a commitment. It is evident that Philip did this.
And as they went on their way, they came unto a certain water: and the eunuch said, See, here is water; what doth hinder me to be baptized? 37And 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.
the Ethiopian knew about the ordinance of Baptism. He probably learned this from Philip as the complete gospel was presented without compromise. Philip probably described how those who accepted Christ were usually baptized by immersion in water as a testimony of their new commitment to Jesus Christ. The Ethiopian's logical response was to desire baptism.
- Clarify understanding.
In response to their discussion Philip did two things that are necessary to bring the individual to salvation. The first was to ask the Ethiopian if he understood what Philip was teaching, asking if he fully believed in his heart the gospel message. Before bringing the Ethiopian an assurance of his salvation, Philip sought clarification. Getting the seeker to repeat back the basics of their understanding of the gospel is very important so that the individual is not misled.
- Provide assurance.
And he commanded the chariot to stand still: and they went down both into the water, both Philip and the eunuch; and he baptized him.
The second thing that Philip did was to provide assurance to the Ethiopian. Philip did not tell the Ethiopian to find a pastor in his home country to baptize him. Any believer can be given the privilege of baptizing a new convert. By baptizing the Ethiopian, Philip validated his own support and agreement with the veracity of the Ethiopian's confession of faith.
And when they were come up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord caught away Philip, that the eunuch saw him no more: and he went on his way rejoicing. 40But Philip was found at Azotus: and passing through he preached in all the cities, till he came to Caesarea.
Our goal in ministry to the seeker is to provide an opportunity to accept Christ. We see a successful model in the experience with Philip and the Ethiopian. God had prepared the heart of the Ethiopian to receive the gospel. God had sent Philip to the Ethiopian to explain the gospel to him. Philip was obedient to God's call and made himself available for sharing the gospel, and finally, the Ethiopian was willing to receive the message. This is a very important model for the sharing of the gospel that we should all be aware of. The first step requires God alone. The remainder require the obedience of the caring and faithful Christian. We must always be open to listen to God's call, willing to respond to it immediately, and then follow through by doing what the Spirit leads us to do.
One small issue worth mentioning before we leave this passage. Some have understood Acts 8:39-40 to describe some sort of miraculous transport of Philip from the water beside the Gaza road to Azotus, a coastal city about 10 miles north of Gaza, on the way to Caesarea. Here the scripture describes Philip as preaching in the towns from there to Cesarea. This would have included at least Azatus, Joppa and Lydda. The key to this "beam me up, Scotty" theology centers around the word, "Suddenly." We modern users of English expect "Suddenly" to mean "Instantly, in the twinkling of an eye." The word used there is harpazo, which means to carry off. Philip was "carried off" by the Spirit to Azotus. There was no longer any reason for Philip to remain with the Ethiopian, so as soon as they were finished with the Baptism, the Ethiopian continued south toward home, and Philip turned back north to Caesarea, preaching along the way. If they were close to Gaza, they were on the coastal highway, explaining the presence of water in the rivers. This road goes between Gaza and Caesarea. If this were some sort of miraculous transport, it would seem that somewhere in scripture this would have been described as a miracle. The miracle theory is the result of a conjecture as to the application of the English word, "suddenly" and supported by the Greek word, harpazo.
Historical passages from sources outside of the Bible describe the spread of Christianity in the region of southern Egypt and northern Sudan when the faith was promoted by its tribal leaders early in the first century. The likelihood that the spread of Christianity in this region of Africa came from the encounter between Philip and the Eunuch is considerable. Philip may have thought that he shared the gospel with one man as a result of this long trip south. However, the likelihood is that God used Philip and this African man to bring the message of grace to this region. One never knows how God will bless even one small act of obedience.
All Christians are called to be accountable for their faith to a lost world. Though not all are called as "soul winners," all are called as witnesses. All are called as ministers of the gospel. We are to seek the Lordship of Christ in every area of our lives, and as Jesus reaches into our heart of compassion, we will be led to share the message of the grace of Christ with those who do not know Him. Like Philip, let us not delay in responding in obedience to Gods call. We have no idea of what God can do when we turn ourselves entirely over to Him. Look what happened to Philip.