We are fascinated by missionary tales of "chance" encounters. Along a lonely road in the African bush, a man suddenly appears and asks a missionary traveler, "Can you tell me who Jesus is?" Luke's account of Philip's divinely guided encounter with the Ethiopian would have been just as fascinating to first-century Romans or Greeks, for in their view Ethiopians lived literally at the southern edge of the earth (Homer Odyssey 1.23--eschatoi andron; see Acts 1:8).
God is actively fulfilling his purposes for the scope of the church's mission (Lk 24:47; Acts 1:8). If it reaches an Ethiopian so soon after its beginning, Theophilus can know for sure that the gospel that is to be preached among all the nations is true. It is for him, and for us too.
This scene is a fitting climax to the Grecian Jewish Christians' mission thrust, for here they complete the geographical aspects of the Acts 1:8 commission: Jerusalem (6:8-8:3), Judea and Samaria (8:4-25) and the ends of the earth (8:26-40). Further, it is a harbinger of the full-fledged Gentile mission to come (Acts 13--28).
Through his angel, God takes the initiative and directs Philip to take the road from Jerusalem to Gaza. The phrase translated south (kata mesembrian) may also be taken temporally, "at noon" (so regularly in the LXX). This would make the command all the more unusual, for few travelers would be on the road in the harsh midday sun. Desert road might be better translated "wilderness road." This fits the topography of the northern route from Jerusalem to Gaza, which was paved (suitable for a carriage), was more direct and had abundant water at Ein Yael (Rapuano 1990:47; contrast Williams 1985:146).
In immediate obedience, with little information but complete trust in the God who guides, Philip sets out. For God to summon Philip from a thriving ministry in Samaria to the wilderness of the Judean hills is not an irrational move. God's goal is not only "quantity" but also "quality," in the sense of an ethnically diverse body of Christ (Rev 5:9). In a day when four of six billion have yet to hear the gospel within their own language and culture, we should not be surprised to see God calling our most effective evangelists to go to remote places. And like Philip, they should obey immediately and unquestioningly.
Philip encounters an Ethiopian eunuch and his retinue. He is at once exotic, powerful and pious. Greeks and Romans were particularly fascinated with dark-skinned Africans (Martin 1989:111; Diodorus Siculus Library of History 3.8.2-3; Strabo Geography 17.2.1-3). Although Ethiopian was used generally for anyone with these physical characteristics, here it refers to an inhabitant of the ancient kingdom of Meroe, which covered what is now northern Sudan south of Aswan to Khartoum (see NIV marginal note; compare Youngblood 1982:193; Crocker 1986). This man is powerful, the chief treasurer of a kingdom wealthy from its iron smelting, gold mining and trading position. It was a conduit for goods from the rest of the continent. Candace, queen of the Ethiopians (better "Queen Mother, ruling monarch of the Ethiopians," since candace is a title, not a proper name), cared for the duties of state. The king was regarded as a god, "child of the sun," too sacred to engage in administration. The candace in this instance was Amanitare (A.D. 25-41; Wead 1982:197; Crocker 1986:67).
Luke does not identify the eunuch as either a proselyte, a Gentile convert to Judaism, or a God-fearer, a Gentile adherent to the Jewish monotheism, ethic and piety (compare Acts 2:11; 6:5; 10:2; 13:26, 43; Levinskaya 1990). He presents him only as pious according to the Jewish faith. The eunuch is returning to Meroe after a pilgrimage to Jerusalem for one of the feasts, and he is sitting in his chariot reading Scripture. The chariot is probably a four-wheeled covered vehicle, like an oxcart, large enough to accommodate the eunuch, his driver, Philip and possibly another servant (who would be reading the manuscript aloud if the official is not doing so himself). The carriage is moving slowly enough to allow for reading and for Philip to approach it on foot. Reading aloud was the common practice in ancient times, and was especially necessary when words were strung together on a manuscript without spacing or punctuation (Bruce 1990:226).
Under the guidance of the Spirit (compare 10:19; 11:12; 13:2, 4; 16:6-7), Philip obediently overcomes any social reticence, approaches the wagon, walks briskly alongside and engages the eunuch in conversation about his reading. Luke consistently tells us that reading and understanding Scripture are not the same thing, especially for those who do not have the hermeneutical key (13:27; compare Lk 6:3; 10:26). Correct spiritual understanding is a gift (8:10; 10:22). The eunuch admits his need. His humble, teachable stance is the essential first step to achieving knowledge of salvation (compare Acts 17:11).
God in his mercy has provided not only the text but also the interpreter, a Spirit-filled teacher. The eunuch urgently, but politely, asks guidance (13:42; 16:9; contrast Lk 6:39). And today these two gifts are still present. Where are those of teachable spirit?
Luke reports that the eunuch was reading the Septuagint of Isaiah 53:7-8 (Acts 8:32-33). Though the wording reflects "a gravely deviant translation" (Archer and Chirichigno 1983:123) at this point, the basic intention of Isaiah is not completely lost (Williams 1985:147). Luke is very interested in the content of this quote, introducing it with a phrase meaning the "content or wording of the passage" (compare v. 35; not passage of Scripture as the NIV). In it we have a description of the innocent, righteous sufferer, the objective basis for vicarious atonement. Luke has already portrayed Jesus in his passion in these terms: silent before authorities (Lk 23:9), deprived of justice, an innocent man condemned (Lk 23:4, 15, 22; 23:47; compare Acts 2:22-23; 3:14), his life taken (Lk 23:18; 22:2; 23:32; compare Acts 2:23; 10:39; 13:28).
The eunuch wants to know whether the prophet is talking about himself or someone else. For the Jew in the first century "someone else" was either the humiliated but vindicated "righteous sufferer" of the apocalyptic and wisdom traditions (Is 53:11; 1 Enoch 46, 62, 63; Wisdom of Solomon 2:12-5:23; Sirach 11:13/Is 52:15; Decock 1981:114). Or, as the targum has it, wicked Gentile nations suffer at the hands of the victorious Messiah, who vindicates his people (Targum of Isaiah 53:7-8; note Israel suffers in Targum of Isaiah 52:14; 53:2, 4, 10, and the wicked Gentile nations in 53:3, 7-9, 11). The messianic interpretation is original with Jesus (Lk 22:37/Is 53:12; Longenecker 1981:364; Bruce 1988:176).
Philip "opened his mouth" (NIV omits this phrase; compare 10:34) and beginning from this passage (compare Lk 24:27) tells the eunuch the good news about Jesus. Christ is the salvific key to the Old Testament. Does Philip simply expound Isaiah 53 and then show the fulfillment in Jesus' life, vicarious death and victorious resurrection/exaltation (see E. F. Harrison 1986:152)? Does he continue a connected exposition through succeeding chapters of Isaiah, dealing with baptism at Isaiah 54:9-10 (compare 1 Pet 3:21) and the new day of salvation at 55:1, to 56:4-8, where a eunuch participates without hindrance in the people of God (Porter 1988)? Does he proceed from Isaiah 53 via early Christian testimonia on the suffering servant and righteous sufferer to show the Ethiopian how Christ and his salvation are preached in all the Scriptures (Is 42:1-44:5; 49:1-13; 50:4-11; Ps 22, 34, 69, 118; Longenecker 1981:365)?
Whatever the method, Philip both answers the eunuch's question and points to Jesus' saving significance. Just as a messenger fresh from the field of battle would "evangelize" the citizens with news of their army's triumph (2 Sam 18:19-20, 26, 31), Philip evangelizes the Ethiopian that Jesus, the righteous sufferer, crucified and risen again, has won the victory over sin and death, and now repentance and forgiveness of sins are available in his name (compare Lk 4:18/Is 61:1; Acts 13:38-39).
Do you want to understand the Old Testament? Stand in the empty tomb, under the shadow of an empty cross, within earshot of the teaching of Jesus and the preaching of the apostles, and read!
When the carriage arrives at some water, the eunuch exclaims, "Behold water! What is hindering me from being baptized?" (NIV Why shouldn't I be baptized?). One of Luke's great concerns is that obstacles of age (Lk 18:16), religious tradition, old or new (Lk 9:49-50; 11:52), race or ethnic origin (Acts 10:47; 11:17), or physical condition (8:36, if the eunuch were one physically) must not keep people from hearing and applying to themselves the gospel of salvation. His ideal is found in the closing phrase, indeed the closing word, of Acts: "Boldly and without hindrance he preached the kingdom of God and taught about the Lord Jesus Christ" (28:31).
The eunuch is baptized as Philip stands with him in the water. Is it by immersion (Williams 1985:148) or pouring (Stott 1990:162)? The account will accommodate both understandings. The act's theological significance is cleansing for sin and incorporation into the fellowship of those who have experienced Christ's salvation blessings (Lk 24:47/Acts 2:38-39; 10:47-48; 16:31-33).
Though Philip is taken away suddenly, the eunuch goes on his way rejoicing. For Luke and us, joy is a manifestation of a person's salvation (8:8; Lk 6:23; 10:20), particularly of reception of the Holy Spirit (Acts 13:52).
The episode ends as it began, with divinely guided and empowered outreach. Miraculously transported over thirty miles to the seacoast town of Azotus (Old Testament Ashdod), Philip continues his witness on non-Jewish soil until he comes to Caesarea (compare 21:8).
The conversion of the Ethiopian eunuch graphically demonstrates the inclusiveness of the gospel. No apparent obstacle--whether physical defect, race or geographical remoteness--can place a person beyond the saving call of the good news. Athanasius, in his comments on Psalm 68:31, marvels that "by `Kushites' God indicates the end of the earth. . . . For how Kush ran to the preaching is possible to see from the believing Ethiopian. God shows that all the other nations also believe in Christ with their kings" (quoted in Martin 1989:116). For persons of black African lineage, the eunuch's conversion means the "inclusion of black Africans among the charter members of the faith . . . all of which symbolizes from the beginning the African involvement in the new faith that spread throughout the world" (C. E. Lincoln 1984:24).
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