The enemies of the disciples had now tried and exhausted all the ordinary methods of opposing the truth. Under the leadership of the Sadducees they had tried, first threatening, then imprisonment, and then stripes. They were about to follow this with the death of the twelve, when the milder counsels of the yet unexasperated Pharisees had prevailed, and resort was had to discussion. But the cause which had prospered under the imprisonment and scourging of its chief advocates bounded forward with astonishing rapidity when the strength of its plea was brought before the people in open discussion. Its learned opponents were completely discomfited. Foiled in their efforts, the Pharisees were now ready to unite with the Sadducees in a common persecution. They selected Stephen as the first victim, because he had been their most formidable opponent in the discussion. They had determined to proceed in their bloody purpose with the forms of law; but, in a moment of frenzy, they had broken loose from all restraint, and dispatched their victim with the violence of a mob. Once embarked in this mad career, nothing less than the utter extermination of the Church could satisfy them. Hence the historian proceeds to inform us that, (1) "On that day there arose a great persecution against the Church in Jerusalem, and they were all scattered abroad through the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles. (2) Yet devout men carried Stephen to burial, and made great lamentation over him. (3) But Saul wasted the Church; entering into the houses, and dragging forth both men and women, he committed them to prison. (4) Nevertheless, they who were scattered abroad went everywhere preaching the word."
The grief of a community at the loss of a good man is more intense when he falls in the performance of some part characteristic of his life. But it is most intense when death, at such a moment, is precipitated by injustice and violence. It is not surprising, therefore, that the burial of Stephen should have been attended with "great lamentation." The perilous condition of the congregation--some of whom were being hourly cast into prison, and most of whom were contemplating flight--could but deepen their grief. The funeral services were soon followed by a general dispersion of the disciples. With much bitterness of heart, they left behind them their native city and their individual homes, to seek refuge among strangers. But the bitterness of their temporal loss must have been slight, to the truly devoted among them, compared with the disappointment of their brightening hopes concerning the speedy triumph of the gospel. How bitter, too, must have been the disappointment of the twelve, at suddenly finding themselves left alone in the great city, the congregation of many thousand disciples whom they had collected--all scattered and gone! While the thought of the brethren and sisters fleeing for life, and of the many already languishing in prison, they could have but regarded their own lives as in imminent danger. But, supposing that the time for which Jesus had limited their stay in Jerusalem had not yet expired, they courageously stood at their post, regardless of consequences.
The present distress and flight of the disciples had resulted, not from the mere fact that they believed in Jesus, but more especially from the zeal and persistency with which they pushed his claims upon the attention of others. Seeing that they had now lost everything, by this course, a worldly prudence would have taught them to be, thenceforward, more quiet and unobtrusive in the propagation of their faith. Even the interests of the cause itself, which had been jeopardized by the boldness with which Stephen had attacked the prevailing iniquity, might have been urged in favor of a change of policy. But this time-serving expediency was reserved for the disgrace of a later age. It never took large possession of the heroic hearts of the early disciples. On the contrary, the scattered disciples "went everywhere preaching the word." The result was the rapid spread of the gospel into the cities of Judea, and even into Samaria. Thus, the apparent ruin of the single Church in Jerusalem resulted in the springing up of many Churches throughout the province--proving, for the thousandth time in the world's history, how impotent is the hand of man when fighting against God. As the blows of the blacksmith's hammer upon the heated iron scatter the scintillations in every direction, so the effort of wicked Jews to crush the Church of Christ only scattered its light more widely abroad.
Among the many who now went everywhere preaching the word, the historian chooses to relate here the labors of only one. (5) "Then Philip went down into the city of Samaria and preached Christ to them." This Philip was one of the seven, and his name stands in the list next to that of Stephen. [Acts 6:5.] The reason why Luke selects his labors for this place in the history, is because he was the first to preach the gospel in Samaria. Jesus had commanded them to testify first in Jerusalem; then in Judea; then in Samaria; and then to the uttermost part of the earth. Luke follows them in the regular prosecution of this programme.
When Philip first entered the city of Samaria, the public mind was in a condition most unfavorable to the reception of the gospel. The practice of magical arts was quite common among the Jews and Samaritans of that age; and the masses of the people of all nations were very superstitious in reference to them. At the time now referred to, the people of Samaria were so completely under the influence of a magician, that one less bold than Philip would have had no hope of success in preaching the gospel to them. But he had confidence in the power of the gospel, and commenced his labors with a firm purpose. His success was far beyond what could have been anticipated. (6) "And the multitudes, with one accord, attended to the things spoken by Philip, in hearing and seeing the miracles which he wrought. (7) For unclean spirits, crying with a loud voice, came out of many who had them, and many, paralyzed and lame, were healed. (8) And there was great joy in that city. (9) But a certain man named Simon was in that city before, practicing magic and astonishing the people of Samaria, saying that he himself was some great one: (10) to whom they all gave attention, from the least to the greatest, saying, This man is the great power of God. (11) And they gave attention to him because he had astonished them with magic arts for a long time."
We are here introduced to another case of conversion, with a very brief account of the means and influences by which it was effected. These demand careful consideration. It is in order that the perfect adaptation of the gospel means employed by Philip may the more strikingly appear, that Luke is particular to state the previous mental condition of the people. They had been so much astonished by the magic arts of Simon, that the prevailing conviction was, "This man is the great power of God." The dreamy genius of Neander has caught up some vague tradition of the fathers concerning a supposed theosophy involved in this expression; and, by a common sympathy in mysticism, rather than by the force of his reasoning, has transmitted it to many recent commentators. But the sober judgment, content with more natural conclusions, finds in it only the impression which such arts as Simon practiced usually make upon a superstitious multitude. The tricks of his legerdemain they supposed to be exhibitions of divine power. The first work for Philip to do was to prostrate the influence of Simon by undeceiving the people.
To accomplish this object, he has recourse to the power of the Holy Spirit. This power, addressed to the eye in the healing of lameness and paralysis, and the casting out of demons; and to the ear, in preaching Christ to them, soon arrested the attention of the multitude. There was a prompt and universal decision in the public mind in favor of the miracles wrought by Philip, and against the pretensions of Simon. What the distinction between these miracles and Simon's astonishing tricks, which led to so prompt a decision, we are not able to say, because we know not what these tricks were. Suffice it to say, that this single incident should put to silence forever that species of skepticism which resolves all the miracles of Christ and the apostles into occult art and optical illusions; for here are these arts, in their most delusive form, brought into direct conflict with apostolic miracles; and so palpable is the distinction, that it is at once discovered and acknowledged by the whole multitude.
The unmistakable reality of the miracles wrought by Philip convinced the people that he was attended by the power of God; and that was enough to make them acknowledge the authority of God in what he communicated to them. In order that men may believe the Gospel, it is only necessary that they believe it to be, in reality, the word of God. But the Holy Spirit convinced them that what they heard was the word of God, by attending it with a sensible demonstration of the power of God. That they believed was but the natural result of what they saw and heard. (12) "But when they believed Philip preaching the things concerning the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were immersed, both men and women." Being convinced that they heard the word of God, they believed it because it was the word; and, for the same reason, they yielded to its authority. Their obedience was not the result of any inherent power in the word, apart from its authorship; for if it were believed to be the word of man, it would have no authority and no power. All the authority and power which are in it, therefore, result from the belief that God is its author. This belief was effected, in the present instance, by the Holy Spirit, through miraculous attestations; hence, the whole change wrought in the parties may be styled the work of the Holy Spirit. The simple facts of the kingdom over which Christ was reigning, thus attested, were set forth before the people, and, upon belief of these, attended by a willingness to comply with their requirements, they were immersed without delay. This was but a faithful execution of the commission, which says, "He that believeth and is immersed shall be saved."
The most signal triumph achieved on this occasion was that over Simon himself. Luke gives it the prominence of a separate statement, in these words: (13) "And Simon himself also believed, and when he was immersed he continued with Philip, and beholding the signs and great miracles which were done, he was astonished." The commentators nearly all agree that Simon's faith was not real, but feigned; and that the statement that he believed is made according to the appearance, and not according to the reality. They urge that subsequent developments prove the insincerity of his professions, and compel us to adopt this conclusion. It must be confessed, that at the time Philip might have been deceived by him; but this could not be said of Luke, who wrote subsequent to all the developments in the case. If his object was to describe the events as it appeared to Philip, he might retain, in the first instance, the mistake of Philip; but we would expect, on this supposition, a subsequent correction. No such correction, however, is given; neither is there any evidence that Luke intended to represent the case as it appeared to Philip. On the contrary, he speaks from his own stand-point, and had all the facts before him which we have before us. His statement, therefore, should control our judgment, and he says, not that Simon feigned belief, but that he believed. We conclude, then, that he did, in the true and proper sense of the word, believe.
Some commentators, disposed to admit the statement that Simon believed, still deny the sufficiency of his faith, and urge that it was deficient in its object. [See Barnes, in loco.] But the historian makes no distinction between what Simon believed, and what was believed by the Samaritans. They "believed Philip preaching the things concerning the kingdom of God, and the name of Jesus Christ;" and Luke adds, without qualification, that "Simon himself also believed." He believed, then, what Philip preached; be believed the gospel. This conclusion is based upon statements too positive and unambiguous to be set aside because of any difficulty in reconciling them with facts subsequently developed.
Before recording the sequel of Simon's case, Luke introduces an incident, which, on account of its singularity in New Testament history, demands very careful consideration. (14) "Now when the apostles, who were in Jerusalem, heard that Samaria had received the word of God, they sent to them Peter and John; (15) who, when they were come down, prayed for them, that they might receive the Holy Spirit. (16) For as yet he had fallen upon none of them, only they were immersed into the name of the Lord Jesus. (17) Then they laid hands on them, and they received the Holy Spirit."
It would be useless to incumber these pages with the many unsatisfactory explanations of this procedure with which commentaries abound. We will be content with a simple effort to learn what it teaches, by a careful consideration of the facts. We notice, then, first, That the Samaritans had believed the gospel, and been immersed. They were, then, according to the commission, and according to Peter's answer on Pentecost, pardoned, and in possession of that "gift of the Holy Spirit," which was promised on condition of repentance and immersion. [2:38.] Second, After they had been in possession of this gift, for a period sufficient for the news to reach Jerusalem, the whole body of the apostles united in sending to them Peter and John. Third, Previous to the arrival of Peter and John, none of them had received the miraculous gift of the Spirit. Fourth, Upon the imposition of hands by the two apostles, accompanied with prayers, the Holy Spirit fell upon them, conferring miraculous gifts. From these facts we may draw several conclusions. 1st. Whatever other objects may have been contemplated in the mission of the two apostles, such as confirming the faith of the disciples, and assisting Philip in his labors, it is quite certain that the chief object was the impartation of the Holy Spirit. What they did when they arrived in Samaria was certainly the object for which they went. But the chief thing which they did was to confer the Holy Spirit; hence, this was the chief object of their visit. If, however, Philip could have conferred this gift, the mission, so far as the chief object of it is concerned, would have been useless. This affords strong evidence that the miraculous gift of the Spirit was bestowed by no human hands except those of the apostles. That such was the conclusion of Simon, who was an interested witness of this proceeding, is evident from the proposition he made to Peter, to purchase from him this power. If all who had the Spirit could impart it to others, he need only to have sought the gift himself, knowing that this would include the power to impart it. But his offer to buy this power, and that from an apostle, shows that the apostles alone possessed the power of imparting the Spirit. This conclusion is confirmed by the fact that in the only other instance of the kind recorded in Acts, that of the twelve disciples in Ephesus, the same gift was bestowed by the hands of an apostle. [19:6.]
The case of Timothy is no exception, as has been supposed, to this conclusion; for, although Paul states that the gift which was in him was given him through prophesy and "the laying on of the hands of the eldership;" [1 Timothy 4:14.] yet he exhorts him, in the second epistle, "Stir up the gift of God, which is in thee, by the putting on of my hands." [2 Timothy 1:6.] These two statements can be reconciled either by supposing that Paul refers to the gift of office in the former, and the gift of the Spirit in the latter; or, that the eldership united with Paul in laying on hands, while it was the apostolic part of the service which imparted the Spirit, the eldership participating, because at the same time he was ordained to the work of an evangelist.
2d. From the fact that these disciples enjoyed pardon and membership in the Church before receiving the miraculous gift, it is evident that this gift was not necessary to the enjoyment of either of these blessings. Yet, strange to say, the mystic power of an ultra spiritualism has thrown these plain facts into the utmost confusion in the minds of some great men. Witness the following from Neander, in reference to the condition of the Samaritans previous to the visit of Peter and John. "They had not yet attained the consciousness of a vital communion with the Christ whom Philip preached, nor yet to the consciousness of a personal divine life. The indwelling of the Spirit was as yet something foreign to them, known only by the wonderful operation which they saw taking place around them." [Planting and Training.] This assertion is evidently in direct conflict with the commission, and with the promise of Peter, that those who would repent and be immersed should receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. Paul also teaches that the indwelling of the Spirit is characteristic of all who are Christ's; [Romans 8:9.] and certainly all are Christ's who have been immersed into the name of Christ, [Galatians 3:26-29.] as had been these Samaritans.
3d. The statement that "as yet he had fallen on none of them, only they were immersed into the name of the Lord Jesus," thrown in parenthetically in explanation of the mission of Peter and John, necessarily implies that there was no such connection between immersion into Christ and the miraculous gift of the Spirit, as that the latter might be inferred from the former. This gift, then, was not common to the disciples, but was enjoyed only by those to whom it was specifically imparted.
Seeing that this extraordinary gift of the Spirit was not necessary to the conversion and pardon of these parties, nor to the indwelling of the Spirit, it is proper to inquire for what purpose it was bestowed. We have already observed, in commenting on Acts i: 8, that the design of bestowing it upon the apostles was to endow them, intellectually, with power to establish the kingdom, and to furnish miraculous attestation of their mission. In general, miracles were designed to indicate the divine sanction of the procedure with which they were connected; but when the miracle assumed a mental form, it was designed to qualify the party for some mental labor. The young Church in Samaria had hitherto been guided by the infallible teaching of Philip, and more recently, by that of Peter and John. But these brethren must, in executing their high commission, soon depart to other fields of labor. If, in doing so, they should leave the Church in the condition in which Peter and John found it, there would be no means left them of increasing their knowledge of the new institution, and none but their uncertain memories of retaining with accuracy what they had already learned. To supply this defect, chiefly, and secondarily, to leave among them the means of convincing unbelievers, the gift of inspiration was bestowed--not upon all the disciples, for this is not necessarily implied in the text, but upon a sufficient number of chosen individuals. For further information upon the design of such gifts, I refer the reader to the and fourteenth chapters of First Corinthians. A complete discussion of the subject would belong to a commentary on that epistle, rather than to one on Acts. Suffice it here to add, that these gifts, served as a temporary provision, until the facts, doctrine, commandments, and promises of the new covenant were committed to writing by inspired men, when the prophesies, tongues, and miraculous knowledge of individual teachers gave place to the written record. [See1 Corinthians 13:8.]
In the above remarks upon the incident before us, we have assumed that the gift imparted was miraculous. This assumption is justified by the fact that it was a matter of observation by those who were not recipients of it, as is evident from the next statement of the text. (18) "And when Simon saw, that through the laying on of the apostles' hands the Holy Spirit was given, he offered them money, (19) saying, Give me also this authority, that on whomsoever I lay hands he may receive the Holy Spirit." The form of this proposition shows that the Holy Spirit did not come upon these persons directly from heaven, as upon the apostles on the day of Pentecost, but that it was imparted through imposition of hands. This marks the difference between the immersion in the Holy Spirit, to which the event on Pentecost belongs, and the impartation of the Holy Spirit, to which we refer the present case. The latter was effected through human agency; the former without it.
In order to account for the impious proposition of Simon, we must remember his former mode of life, and consider the mental habits which must have been cultivated. Having been accustomed to the performance of astonishing tricks as a means of making money, and to the increase of his stock in trade by purchasing the secret of every new trick which he met with among his brother magicians, he had acquired the habit of looking upon every thing of an astonishing character with reference to the money which might be in it. When, now he saw that by imposition of the apostles' hands the miraculous power of the Spirit was imparted, and remembered that there were many even among the disciples, who had not yet received the coveted gift, he at once perceived that the power to impart it could be made a source of great profit. His overruling avarice, mingled with intense fondness for popular influence, prompted him to seek this power. The blinding influence of these passions prevented him from seeing the impropriety either of offering to buy it, or of intending to sell it; for certainly, if he had realized the light in which his proposition should be regarded, he would not have ventured to make it.
Nothing could be more abhorrent to the feelings of an apostle than such a proposition. It was well calculated to arouse the impulsive spirit of Peter, and his response is marked by his characteristic vehemence. (20) "But Peter said to him, Your silver go with you to perdition, because you have thought to purchase the gift of God with money. (21) You have no part nor lot in this matter, for your heart is not right in the sight of God. (22) Repent, therefore, of this your wickedness, and pray God, if, perhaps, the purpose of your heart may be forgiven you. (23) For I perceive that you are in the gall of bitterness, and the bond of iniquity." This description of Simon's spiritual condition shows clearly that he was not, at that time, in a state of mind acceptable to God. "The gall of bitterness" is a forcible expression of the wretchedness of his condition; and "the bond of iniquity," of the dominion which sin exercised over him. His heart was not right in the sight of God, and he was in the way to perdition. The declaration that he had "no part nor lot in this matter" depends, for its interpretation, upon the meaning of the expression "this matter." Whether it refers to the gospel, or to the impartation of the Spirit, is not altogether certain. In either case, the declaration is true; for it is certain that he had no part in the impartation of the Spirit; and equally certain that he was then under the condemnation of God.
Whether we are to suppose that Simon's destitute and miserable condition was the result of having forfeited the favor of God by falling into sin after his immersion, or that his confession and immersion had been insincere, so that he had never been pardoned, is not to be determined, as many suppose, by the grossness of his present conception concerning the Holy Spirit. The question resolves itself into this: whether the discovery that a man is under the control of some wicked passion soon after his immersion is proof that he had not been a proper subject for immersion. If conversion involves so complete a renovation, that old mental habits are entirely eradicated, never to exert their influence again, then Simon was not a genuine convert. But if, as both Scripture and experience teach, the turning of a sinner to God is simply the triumph of conscience and the better feelings over the passions, while the latter still exist in a latent state, ready to spring into activity on the approach of temptation, we must admit that Simon may have been a penitent believer at the time of his immersion. That he was a believer is asserted by Luke; but whether he was to such a degree penitent as to receive pardon when he was immersed, is not certainly determined by the text. For aught that is affirmed of him, he may either have been influence by sinister motives in confessing his faith, or have been truly penitent at the time, and afterward, under the spur of temptation which the splendid gifts bestowed by Peter were the occasion of, have yielded to the sudden impulse of his ruling passion.
Whichever of these hypotheses we adopt, the case affords no objection to the immediate immersion of all who confess faith in Christ, and indicate a desire to obey him, no evidence of their insincerity being apparent. The inspired example of Philip is an authoritative guide for us, and if it appear that he occasionally immersed an unprepared subject, modern evangelists can not be censured for following his example, though they should occasionally meet with the same misfortune.
The supposition that Philip and Peter both, by the power of discerning spirits, knew from the beginning that Simon's heart was not right, but, for wise reasons, withheld the announcement until his wickedness was developed before the people is entirely gratuitous. The gift of "discerning spirit," mentioned in 1 Corinthians 12:10, was the power of testing the claims of those who professed to be inspired. There is no evidence that it was ever used by the apostles or others to detect the concealed thoughts and emotions of the soul. The detection of Ananias and Sapphira is not a case in point, for it was effected not by discerning their thoughts, but by a direct revelation to Peter that the story which they told was a lie.
The conclusion of the conversation between Peter and Simon leaves us in doubt as to the final fate of the latter. Peter had exhorted him to repent, and pray to God for pardon. (24) "Then Simon answered and said, Pray ye to the Lord for me, that none of these things which ye have spoken come upon me." This response indicates very clearly that the scathing speech of Peter had a good effect. It doubtless awoke Simon to a clearer perception of his own character, filled him with more becoming awe of the Holy Spirit, and aroused some fear of the terrible consequences of his sin. As the curtain of history here falls upon him, he disappears in a more promising state of feeling, but without leaving us fully assured that he recovered from the dominion of his unholy passions. Many things are said of his subsequent career, in ancient and modern commentaries, but nothing that is sufficiently authenticated to deserve our serious attention.
In connection with the prime object of their visit to Samaria, Peter and John also furthered the efforts of Philip in preaching and teaching. This we learn from an incidental remark in connection with the statement of their departure for Jerusalem. (25) "Now they, having testified and spoken the word of the Lord, returned into Jerusalem and preached the gospel in many villages of the Samaritans." This labor in the Samaritan villages was performed on their journey toward Jerusalem, which may have been somewhat circuitous, according to the situation of the villages which they desired to visit. Thus these primitive preachers of the gospel made all the stations of their journeys through the country successive points for disseminating the truth.
When the congregation in Samaria had been supplied with spiritual gifts, and sufficiently instructed to justify leaving them to their own resources for edification, Philip was called away to other fields of labor.
We are now introduced to another of those minutely detailed cases of conversion which are recorded for the purpose of instruction in reference to the means of turning men to God, and inducing them into the kingdom. The purpose of bringing him to a knowledge of salvation was formed in the divine mind, and specific means of accomplishing it put into operation, ere the man himself was aware of it. The narrative traces the steps by which this purpose of God was accomplished, and enables us to know, when God determines upon the conversion of an individual, how he proceeds to effect it.
The first step taken in the case was to send an angel from heaven. But where does the angel make his appearance? To the man for whose benefit he came? So it must be, if he is to hold any direct communication with him. But, strange to say, while the man was south of Jerusalem, traveling toward Gaza, the angel descends into Samaria, to the north of Jerusalem, and appears to Philip. (26) "And an angel of the Lord spoke to Philip, saying, Arise and go toward the south, into the road which goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza. This is a desert." This is all that the angel has to say; and now his part of the work, which was simply to start the evangelist in the direction of the person to be converted, is accomplished. He retires from the scene.
The statement "this is a desert" is correctly supposed, by the best commentators, to be no part of the angel's speech to Philip, but to have been added by Luke to note the singularity of a preacher being thus peremptorily sent away from a populous country into a desert. The term desert is not here to be understood in its stricter sense of a barren waste, but in its more general acceptation, of a place thinly inhabited. Such an interpretation is required by the geography of the country, and by the fact that water was found for the immersion of the eunuch. The only road from Jerusalem to Gaza, which passed through a level district suitable for wheeled vehicles, was that by Bethlehem to Hebron, and thence across a plain to Gaza. According to Dr. Hackett, this is "the desert" of Luke 1:80, in which John the Immerser grew up. Dr. S. T. Barclay, who traversed this entire route in May, 1853, says that he traveled, after leaving "the immediate vicinity of Hebron, over one of the very best roads (with slight exceptions) and one of the most fertile countries that I ever beheld." [City of the Great King, p. 576.]
Philip promptly obeyed the command of the angel, and was soon in close proximity to the intended convert, though, as yet, he knew nothing of him. (27) "He arose and went; and behold a man of Ethiopia, an eunuch of great authority under Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, who had charge of all her treasure, and had come to Jerusalem to worship, (28) was returning, and sitting in his chariot, was reading the Prophet Isaiah."
Just as Philip entered the road to which he had been directed by the angel, and saw the chariot before him, the Holy Spirit began to work for the conversion of the treasurer. And where does he begin his work? In the heart of the sinner, by direct communication? No. Like the angel, he begins with the preacher. (29) "Then the Spirit said to Philip, Go near, and join yourself to this chariot." This was a miraculous communication from the Spirit, such as frequently directed the labors of inspired men. The object of it was the same as that of the angel's visit, to bring the preacher and the subject for conversion face to face.
The purpose of the angel's visit and the Spirit's miraculous communication was now accomplished. (30) "Then Philip ran to him, and heard him reading the Prophet Isaiah, and said, Do you understand what you are reading?" Considering the relative position of the parties, one an humble footman, and the other a chief officer of a powerful kingdom, sitting in his chariot, this question appears rather an abrupt and inappropriate introduction to the conversation. But it was, in reality, the most natural and appropriate question that Philip could ask. Hearing the man reading aloud, in what we call the fifty-third chapter of Isaiah, that touching description of the sufferings of Christ, he knew that it was unintelligible to him if he was not acquainted with the gospel; whereas, if he had learned the story of the cross, he could not fail to understand it. The question, "Do you understand what you are reading?" was, then, the very question to determine where he stood, and how to approach him.
The man's response was definite and satisfactory. (31) "And he said, How can I, except some man should guide me? And he invited Philip to come up and sit with him. (32) Now the place of the Scripture which he was reading was this: He was led as a sheep to slaughter, and as a lamb silent before his shearer, so he opens not his mouth. (33) In his humiliation, his condemnation was extorted, and who shall fully describe his generation? For his life is violently taken from the earth. (34) And the eunuch answered Philip, and said, I pray you, of whom does the prophet speak this? Of himself, or of some other man? (35) Then Philip opened his mouth, and beginning at the same Scripture, preached to him Jesus."
We have now before us all the influences and agencies employed in this man's conversion, and may restate them, as follows: He was reading a remarkable prophesy concerning Christ, and had paused upon it, with the inquiry, Of whom is this written? He could recollect nothing in the history of the prophet himself, or of any other man, to which it would apply. He was, therefore, unable to understand it; and if he learned to pray as David did, the prompt impulse of his heart was, "Open thou mine eyes, that I may behold wondrous things out of thy law." In this frame of mind he was best prepared for the influences which God, who knows the secrets of all hearts, was preparing for him. If his eyes can be made to penetrate the darkness of that prophesy, and his heart to feel the power of the truth which lies there hid from his gaze, all will be well. But there is no human being being present to teach him, nor does any friend of Jesus know even of his existence. What, then, will be done? God employs his Spirit to open the eyes and touch the hearts of men; will he not, then, immediately distill a heavenly influence upon man's soul, to enlighten him and save him? He does not do it. And if not in this case, where no human agent is at hand, who shall say that he does in any other? The word of God is silent in reference to any such abstract influence, and he who assumes its existence gets behind the curtain of revelation.
But God employs angels in ministering to those who shall be heirs of salvation. In the absence of human agency, will not some angel be dispatched to the aid of this waiting subject for salvation? An angel is truly sent; but his mission is, to start a man in the direction of the chariot. When the man gets within sight of the chariot, the Holy Spirit begins to work; but he works by first bringing the man to the side of the chariot, and next, through his lips, speaking to the man in the chariot. Thus we see, that, though an angel from heaven has appeared, and the Holy Spirit has operated miraculously for the conversion of the sinner, there is still an insuperable necessity for the co-operation of a man, Unless that man does his part of the work, all that has been done by both the angel and the Spirit will prove unavailing. Not the slightest influence from either of the heavenly messengers reaches the sinner's mind or heart, until the preacher begins to speak, and then it reaches him through the words which are spoken.
The further process is easily traced. As Philip opens up item after item of the prophesy, and shows its fulfillment in Jesus, the eyes of the eunuch begin to penetrate the Scripture, until, at last, he sees a flood of heavenly light where all was darkness before. His eyes are opened, and he sees the wondrous glory of the suffering Savior beaming from the inspired page which lies before him. This is effected, not by an abstract influence of the Spirit, enabling him to understand what was before obscure, but by the aid of a fellow-man providentially sent to him for the purpose.
The treasurer may have heard of Jesus, in Jerusalem; but, if so, he heard of him through those with whom he had been up to worship, the bitter enemies of the cross; and knew him only as an impostor who had been deservedly crucified, though now worshiped by a few deluded Jews as their Messiah. But now, with a prophesy before him which he had tried in vain to find fulfilled in the history of any other man, but which finds its complement in the life and death of Jesus; and informed, by a man whose astonishing knowledge of the word of God is a guarantee of his honesty, that Jesus is risen from the dead, his honest heart interposes no wicked obstacles to his faith, and he believes. The demonstration strikes him with the greater force, because it is so unexpected. The Jews could not explain that prophesy, for they could not find its facts in the life of any of their great heroes; and though the reference to the Messiah was so palpable as to at once suggest itself to every reader, they would not apply it to him, because their conception of his earthly glory conflicted with the humiliation and suffering described by the prophet. Until now, this very difficulty had been puzzling the mind of the treasurer. But he now sees the prophesy fulfilled; and while the demonstration compels him to believe, the true conception of a bleeding Messiah touches his heart. And this is effected by the Holy Spirit in Philip, through the words which Philip spoke.
"And as they went along the road, they came to certain water. And the eunuch said, What hinders me to be immersed?" The appearance of the water to which they had come suggested this question, but it could not have been done so unless the eunuch had been taught something concerning immersion as a religious ordinance. But he had enjoyed no opportunity for instruction on this subject, except through the teaching of Philip. Had Philip, then, preached him a sermon on immersion? No. Luke says Philip "preached to him Jesus." How, then, had he, while hearing Jesus preached, obtained instruction in reference to immersion? There is only one answer to this question. It is, that to preach Jesus, after the apostolic method, involves full instruction upon the subject of immersion. The prejudice, therefore, which exists at the present day against frequent introduction of this subject in discourses addressed to sinners, is altogether unscriptural; and those only preach Jesus correctly who give to it the same prominence which belongs to it in apostolic discourses. It was a part of Peter's sermon on Pentecost, of Philip's preaching to the Samaritans, and of his present discourse to the Ethiopian; and we will yet see, in the course of this commentary, that it always occupied a place in the preaching of inspired men on such occasions. Indeed, it would be impossible to preach Jesus fully without it. For the beginning of the gospel, historically, according to Mark, [Mark 1:1.] is the immersion of John, to which Jesus submitted, and near the conclusion of it is the commission given in the last words of Jesus on earth, commanding every believer to be immersed. [16:15,16.] Thus he who preaches Jesus has immersion in the beginning and in the end of his sermon.
By almost universal consent of recent critics, the whole of this verse is excluded from the original text, and should be from all versions. For the reasons on which this decision is based, we refer the reader to "Bloomfield's Commentary" on the passage, "Tregelles' History of the Printed Text," and other critical works.
This verse has been used chiefly for the purpose of determining the confession which was made originally by candidates for immersion. The fact that this is an interpolation must modify the argument on this subject, but does not invalidate it. The fact that such a confession as is here put in the mouth of the eunuch was uniformly required by the apostles, is evident from other passages of Scripture. It is quite certain that it was confessed by Timothy. Paul says to him: "Fight the good fight of faith; lay hold on eternal life, into which you were called, and did confess the good confession before many witnesses." [1 Timothy 6:12.The terms omologeo, and omologia, should beuniformly rendered confess and confession.] This confession was made at the beginning of his religious career; for it is connected with his call to eternal life. It is the same confession which is attributed to the eunuch; for Paul immediately adds: "I charge thee before God, who gives life to all things, and Jesus Christ, who bore testimony under Pontius Pilate, to the good confession," etc. Now, what is here called "the good confession" is certainly the confession that he was the Christ, made before the Sanhedrim, under Pontius Pilate. But this is identified, by the terms employed, with the confession which Timothy had made, which is also "the good confession." Timothy, then, made the confession that Jesus is the Christ, the same attributed to the eunuch. Moreover, this confession was so conspicuous, at the time of Paul's writing, that it was known as the confession, and so highly esteemed as to be styled the good confession.
That Timothy was not alone in making this confession is evident from the following statement of Paul: "The word is nigh thee, in thy mouth and in thy heart; that is, the word of faith which we preach, That if thou wilt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and believe in thy heart that God has raised him from the dead, thou shalt be saved." [Romans 10:8,9.] From this it appears that one item in "the word of faith" which the apostles preached, was the confession of the Lord Jesus with the mouth. Paul assumes that this word was in the mouths and hearts of the brethren in Rome, whom he had never seen, and with whose conversion he had nothing, personally, to do. This assumption can be justified only on the ground that it belonged to "the word of faith" everywhere preached. He argued, from the universal practice of the apostles, to a particular conclusion in reference to their converts in Rome. We have, therefore, both his premises and his conclusion, to sustain us in deciding that this confession was universal in the primitive Church, as a part of the apostolic ritual.
We here have use for the interpolated verse now under consideration. The fact that it is interpolated does not prove that the eunuch did not make the confession. On the contrary, when rightly considered, it establishes the presumption that the passage, as it now reads, is a faithful account of the event. The interpolation is easily accounted for. The text read: "The eunuch said, See, here is water; what hinders me to be immersed? And he commanded the chariot to stand still, and they went down both into the water." Now, the object of the interpolator was to fill up what appeared to be a historic blank, so that Philip should not appear to have led the man into the water too abruptly. In doing so, he, of course, inserted what he supposed to be the apostolic custom; and the fact that he inserted this confession shows that he believed that the apostles required candidates for immersion to make the confession. Furthermore, the interpolator would naturally be guided by the prevailing custom of his own day, so that his amendment might be received by his cotemporaries. In whatever age, therefore, the interpolation was made, it indicates both the custom of that age and the opinion then prevalent as to the apostolic custom. Whether these considerations have any force or not, depends upon the proximity of the age in question to the apostolic period. But this interpolation was known to Irenæus, A. D. 170, [Hackett, in loco.] and this proves that the confession which the Scriptures show to have been universal in the days of the apostles was perpetuated into the latter part of the second century.
Both the custom of confessing Christ, and the formula employed, originated in the most natural way, and without any positive precept. Jesus appeared in Galilee and Judea, proclaiming himself the Christ and the Son of God. As men became convinced of his claims, they would say, "I believe that he is the Christ." Others would say, "I believe that he is a prophet, but I deny that he is the Christ." Thus the confession or denial of this proposition was the first mark of distinction between believers and unbelievers. The Pharisees, therefore, "agreed that if any man did confess that he was the Christ, he should be put out of the synagogue." [John 9:22.] The confession was, then, all that was necessary to identify one as a disciple of Jesus. Hence, with special reference to this state of things, Jesus said, "He that confesses me before men, him will I confess before my Father in heaven; but he that denies me before men, him will I deny before my Father in heaven." After the commission was given, enjoining the immersion of all believers, the confession was still perpetuated, and immersion naturally took position immediately after it.
A confession thus necessarily originating from the grand issue that Jesus presented to the world, and involving the earliest distinction between his friends and his foes, could not fail to have an important position in the formation of those friends into a great organization. The Church of Christ, like every other useful organization, is created and sustained by the obligations of some truth. This truth may be properly styled the foundation of the organization, because it is that from which it springs, and without which it could not exist. The truth declared in the confession, that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, is beyond controversy, the foundation of the Church of Christ, and is so declared by Jesus himself. [Matthew 16:16-18.] Without it no Church of Christ could possibly exist. It had to exist as a truth, and be demonstrated to men as such, before the Church would begin to be. The truth itself, however, and the confession of it, are two things entirely distinct. The former is the foundation; the latter, a means of building on it. There is no way to build an organization of men and women on a truth, except by a mutual confession of it, and an agreement to live together according to its obligations. When individuals, believing that Jesus is the Christ, mutually confess it, and agree to unite in the observance of its obligations, the immediate and necessary result is a Church. In this way the confession became an organic element in the ecclesiastical constitution.
Inasmuch as some have conceived that Jesus in person is the foundation of the Church, it may be well to observe here that there is no way in which an organization can be built on a person, except by believing something in reference to him. It is not the fact that there is such a person as Jesus, but that that person is the Christ which gave existence to the Church.
Inasmuch as members of the Church are built upon the true foundation, in part, by a mutual confession of its truth, the confession, formally made, is both an acknowledgment of the obligations which the truth imposes, and a pledge to all the duties of a member in the Church. It is true, that the confession, like immersion, and eating bread and wine, may occur amid the careless scenes of a wicked life, without any religious import. But this is only to say that the specific acts which God calls upon us to perform in religious ordinances may be performed by wicked men without religious intent. And this, again, is only to say, that, in adapting his institutions to us, instead of inventing new and unheard-of performances, he has lifted up certain actions and words already familiar, into association with religious truth and obligation. This arrangement is a proof of his wisdom; for by it the mind is averted from the mere physical act, which might otherwise have usurped too much consideration, and is compelled to associate the value of the deed with the thoughts which surround it. Such is pre-eminently the case with the confession, which, though a very simple declaration of faith, is a formal assumption of all the obligations of a Christian life.
The kingdom of Christ is not limited to earth, but was designed to bind together, in one harmonious whole, God, angels, and men. God himself was the first to present himself for this great union. Over the bank of the Jordan he made the same confession which is required of us, and thereby not only bore testimony to the fact that Jesus was his Son, but, also, voluntarily placed himself before the universe in the attitude which the incipient mediatorship required him to occupy. By this formal confession he pledged himself to accept the mediation of Christ, just as we, by the same confession, pledge ourselves to accept the blessings which that mediation procures for us. If God had never confessed Jesus, in this or some equivalent manner, we would have no direct assurance from him that he was in Christ reconciling the world to himself.
Like men on earth, the angels in heaven passed into the privileges of the kingdom of God, by making this same confession. When Jesus ascended up on high, the Father said to him, "Sit on my right hand, till I make thine enemies thy footstool." [Hebrews 1:13.] Then he "sat down at the right hand of the throne of God," [12:2.] and God said, "Let all the angels of God worship him." [1:6.] Then were fulfilled the words of Paul, "God hath highly exalted him, and given him a name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things on earth, and things under the earth, and that every tongue should confess that Jesus is Lord, to the glory of God the Father." The angels all confessed the good confession, receiving Jesus as their Lord, and rendering thus their first act of worship to the Son of Mary. The one identical confession, therefore, has brought together, in one harmonious whole, God, angels, and men; the latter being pledged by it to eternal worship, and the former pledged forever to accept their grateful homage through Christ.
That this confession was the only one required of candidates for immersion by the apostles, is universally admitted by those who are competent to judge. It is likewise admitted that they regarded it as a sufficient confession. This fact alone should teach men to be satisfied with it now. He, indeed, who is guided by the Bible alone, can not require of men any other confession than such as he finds authorized by Bible precedents. Neither is it possible that he who implicitly follows the apostolic precedent can be misled, unless the apostles, the Holy Spirit, the New Testament, can mislead them. Fidelity to the word of God, therefore, binds us to this confession alone, and, in clinging to it, we have every assurance which inspiration can give that we are right.
Departure from apostolic precedent is never justifiable, except when the precedent itself was the result of circumstances peculiar to the apostolic age. The primitive practice of washing the feet of brethren who came into the house from the highway, was an accidental, and not a necessary result of the law of hospitality. Growing out of the peculiar habit of wearing sandals, it ceased to be a matter of duty as soon as the circumstances which gave rise to it disappeared. If a similar change of circumstances has taken place in reference to the confession, rendering it insufficient for our times, then we are no longer bound by the precedent. That such is the case is affirmed by many of our cotemporaries, and we must extend these remarks sufficiently to consider the reasons offered in support of this opinion.
It is often argued that, in the days of the apostles, the moment men became convinced that Jesus was the Christ they were ready to submit to his service; but now, every Church is surrounded with men and women who are convinced of this fact, but still persist in wickedness; hence some more effectual test should now be applied. This argument is based upon a false assumption in reference to results of primitive preaching; for we read of many rulers of synagogues who believed in Jesus, but would not confess him for hear of the Pharisees; [John 12:42.] of Joseph of Arimathea, who, though a disciples kept it secret; [19:38.] of Felix, who trembled under the preaching of Paul, but said, Go thy way for the present; and of Agrippa, who was almost, though not altogether, persuaded to be a Christian. If these men in high stations were deterred by fear, or by worldly lusts, from making the confession, how much more the common people, who had much more to fear! Witness the parents of the blind man who had been healed by Jesus, who gave evasive answers in the synagogue for this very reason. [9:22.] There is no evidence that men were more prompt to yield to their convictions then than they are now.
Sometimes it is argued, quite inconsistently with the above, that the danger of being known as a Christian in those days rendered the simple confession a sufficient test of a man's devotion; but now, when Christianity is popular, it is entirely insufficient. It must be granted, that sometimes it was dangerous to property and life to become a Christian, yet it was true then, as it is now, that many insincere persons found their way into the Churches. Jude complains that "ungodly men, turning the favor of God into lasciviousness, and denying the only Lord God, and our Lord Jesus Christ," had "crept in unawares." [Jude 1:4.] Paul echoes the same sentiment in reference to "false brethren, unawares brought in, who came in privily to spy out our liberty which we have in Christ Jesus, that they might bring us into bondage." [Galatians 2:4.] There are those "who went out from us because they were not of us," and there was Demas, who forsook Paul in the hour of danger, "having loved this present world." And what more shall I say? For time would fail me to tell of Simon the sorcerer, of Alexander the coppersmith, of Phygellus and Hermogenes, of Hymeneus and Alexander whom Paul delivered over to Satan that they might learn not to blaspheme, and of many others who proved insincere in their confession, or false to its obligations. Surely, if a test of sincerity which could let into the fold such wolves as these was sufficient for the inspired apostles, we may be content with the same, unless we affect a wisdom and a zeal superior to theirs.
But the most popular argument against the present sufficiency of the good confession is this: that the immense multiplicity of doctrinal errors now prevalent requires a severer test of soundness in the faith than was used by the apostles before these errors had an existence. Unfortunately, however, its historic assumption is as baseless as that of the two we have just considered. For not only were the Churches surrounded with most pernicious errors in doctrine, but were sickened by the poison of those errors within their own bosoms. Pharisees in Jerusalem crept in to spy out the liberty of the new covenant, and bring the brethren back into bondage to the law; [2:4.] and there were Sadducees in the Church at Corinth who denied the resurrection. [1 Corinthians 15:12.] There were philosophers, such as "Hymeneus and Philetus, who concerning the faith have erred, saying that the resurrection is already past, and overthrow the faith of some," [2 Timothy 2:17,18.] and there were transcendentalists, who denied that "Jesus Christ had come in the flesh," [1 John 4:1-3.] having speculated his bodily existence into the essence of moonshine, or something equally unreal. James had to warn some against being deceived into worship of the heavenly bodies, by assuring them that "every good gift comes down from the Father of lights," and not from the lights themselves; while Paul fights many a hard battle against brethren who were disposed to openly countenance fornication, incest, and the sacrificial banquets of heathen worship. Under the pressure of all this influx of falsehood and iniquity, why did not these inspired men see their mistake, and, discarding the simple confession, draw up a masterly catechism, which would shut out every error, and guard the purity of the Church? How sad the reflection, that men so ingenious in other respects, were so stupid in this! And how fortunate for us, that the wiser heads of Rome, Geneva, Augsburg, and Westminster have supplied this deficiency in the work of the apostles!
We have thus far argued upon the broadest assumption in reference to the inefficiency of the good confession in guarding the purity of the Church. We might retort upon the advocates of creeds and catechisms, by showing that these devices can not be, and have not been, any more efficient; but we prefer to show the real exclusiveness of the good confession. It is certainly exclusive enough to keep out the pagan, the Jew, the Mohammedan, the atheist, and the infidel; for none of these can honestly make the confession. It will exclude the Unitarian and the Universalist; for while they are willing to confess that Jesus is the Christ, in the next breath they deny him, by contradicting some of his most emphatic declarations. It will also exclude the wicked and impenitent; for it is offered only to penitent believers. If this is not considered sufficient, we may advance still further, and say that it will exclude the Roman Catholic, who persists in having other intercessors in heaven, besides "the high priest of our confession." [Hebrews 3:1.] It will exclude the devotee of the mourning bench, who waits for an operation of the Spirit before he comes to Christ. It will exclude the pedobaptist, who is satisfied with his sprinkling; for it requires an immediate immersion. None of these characters can scripturally make the good confession without some specific change in views or in character. Lest the tune of the objector should now be changed, and he should cry, "Your confession is too exclusive," we add, that it receives all whom the apostles would receive, and excludes all whom they would exclude.
When Philip ascertained that the eunuch believed in the Lord Jesus, and desired to obey him, there was no delay, but his desire to be immersed was immediately gratified. (38) "And he commanded the chariot to stand still, and they went down into the water, both Philip and the eunuch, and he immersed him. (39) And when they were come up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord caught away Philip; and the eunuch saw him no more, for he went on his way rejoicing."
This is one of the passages which the conflict of contending parties has rendered familiar to every reader of the New Testament. The questions in controversy are: First, Whether Philip and the eunuch went into the water, or only to it; Second, Whether the facts in the case afford any evidence that the eunuch was immersed.
The determination of the first question depends upon the exact force of the antithetical expression, katebesan eis to udor, and anebesan ek tou udatos. If the latter means, "they went up out of the water," then the former necessarily means, "they went down into the water;" and vice versâ. There are two methods of inquiry, therefore, by which to determine whether they went into the water: First, The direct method, which depends upon the meaning of the words supposed to declare this fact; Second, The indirect method, which determines whether they went into the water, by determining whether they went out of it.
In dealing with this question, Dr. Moses Stuart, one of the most learned and candid of the disputants on the pedobaptist side, does great injustice to his own reputation. He says: "That eis, with the verb katabaino, often means going down to a place, is quite certain; e. g., 'Jesus went down to Capernaum;' 'Jacob went down to Egypt;' 'They went down to Attalia;' 'They went down to Troas;' 'He went down to Antioch;' 'Going down to Cæsarea.'" [Stuart on Baptism, Nashville, 1856, p. 95.] How strange it is that the learned author did not perceive that in every one of these examples the meaning is necessarily into! If he had paused to ask himself whether Jesus went into Capernaum, and Jacob into Egypt, and so of the others, or merely went to the boundary line of those places, he would have spared his reputation by erasing this paragraph. He would also have saved himself the utterance of another unfortunate sentence on the same page: "I find but one passage in the New Testament where it seems to mean into when used with katabaino. This is in Romans 10:7, Who shall go down, eis abusson, into the abyss?" Besides the examples mentioned above, he must have searched with very little industry not to have discovered the following: "Let him that is on the housetop not go down into, katabato eis, the house." [Mark 13:15.] "Now that he ascended, what is it but that he also first descended into, katebe eis, the lower parts of the earth?" [Ephesians 4:9.] "This man went down into, katebe eis, his house, justified rather than the other." [Luke 18:14.] "A certain man was going down, katabainen, from Jerusalem into, eis, Jericho." [10:30.] "The road that goes down, katabainousan, from Jerusalem into, eis, Gaza." [Acts 8:26.]
These are all the instances in the New Testament in which these two words occur together; and the reader can but see, that in every single instance the controverted expression means to go down into. By our first method of inquiry, therefore, it is settled that Philip and the eunuch went down into the water.
It is not logically necessary to pursue this discussion any further; but, let it might be imagined that the conclusion we have already reached should be modified by the force of the other member of the antithesis, we must give some attention to the meaning of anebesan ek tou udatos. And here I must take exception to another sweeping declaration of Dr. Stuart's. He says: "anabaino is never employed in the sense of emerging from a liquid substance. The preposition ek, here, would agree with this idea--although it, by no means, of necessity implies it; but anabaino forbids us to thus construe it." Why is this apparently broad assertion so cautiously limited to the single case of "emerging from a liquid substance?" Is it possible that Dr. Stuart knew that the expression meant to go up out of, but, thinking that it did not occur in any other passage in connection with a liquid, framed his proposition to suit such an accident? It is humiliating in the extreme to see so great a mind descend to such special pleading on so grave a subject. If anabaiein ek means to go up out of, nothing but the most determined obduracy can preclude the admission that it means the same when referring to liquids as to other substances. Now, it is a fact, and it must have been known to Dr. Stuart, if he examined into the ground of his own statements, that, in every single occurrence of these two words in connection, in the New Testament, they men to go up out of. [SeeJohn 11:55; Luke 2:4; Revelation 8:4; 9:2; 11:7; 13:1,11; 17:8.] Moreover, in one of these occurrences they are "employed in the sense of emerging from a liquid substance. In Revelation 13:1, John says: "I stood upon the sand of the sea, and saw a beast, ek tes thalasses anabainon, rising up out of the sea." Notwithstanding this broad assertion of Dr. Stuart's, therefore, the expression in question does, without a single exception, invariably mean to go up out of. Philip and the eunuch, then, went up out of the water; hence, they must first have gone down into it. By both methods of inquiry, the conclusion is established.
The most astonishing display of partisan blindness on this passage is yet to be noticed. It is an argument employed by Moses Stuart, in which he is followed by Dr. Alexander. He says: "If katebesan eis to udor is meant to designate the action of plunging, or being immersed into the water, as a part of the rite of baptism, then was Philip baptized as well as the eunuch: for the sacred writer says they both went into the water. Here, then, must have been a rebaptism of Philip; and, what is at least singular, he must have baptized himself as well as the eunuch." This argument proceeds upon the assumption that immersionists regard the act of going down into water as the act of immersion, than which there could not be a grosser perversion of their meaning. When a strong mind descends to arguments so weak and childish as this, we have the clearest evidence that the cause in which it is employed is felt to be weak and untenable.
We must now address ourselves to the inquiry, whether this passage affords any evidence in favor of immersion. This much-controverted question may be discussed either as a philological question, or as a question of fact. In the former method, the controversy turns upon the meaning of the Greek word baptizo. In the latter, upon the action performed by the apostles when they baptized men. Questions of fact are much more tangible than those in philology, especially when the philological inquiry runs into a foreign language. We prefer, therefore, to discuss this question as a simple matter of fact; and this method is the more appropriate in this work, which treats of acts performed by apostles. It can be most easily determined what act was performed when men were baptized, without any discussion as to the meaning of the word baptizo.
If the passage before us contains any evidence that the eunuch was immersed, outside of the meaning of the word, it must be circumstantial evidence, and not direct testimony. In ordinary jurisprudence, the former is often more conclusive than the latter; for living witnesses may be bribed, or voluntarily bear false testimony; but facts, however grossly they may be misinterpreted, can never give real utterance to falsehood. Circumstantial evidence is that derived from facts which transpired in such connection with the main fact assumed as to indicate its existence or character. There are two conditions necessary to its conclusiveness: First, That the facts which constitute the circumstances be fully authenticated; Second, That they shall be such as can not be accounted for without the admission of the main fact at issue. The first condition is always satisfied in scriptural inquiries, because the facts are asserted by infallible witnesses. Every thing depends, therefore, upon compliance with the second condition. This compliance may be so various in degree, as to admit of every possible degree of conclusiveness, from the slightest presumption up to absolute certainty. When the circumstances are as easily accounted for without the fact assumed as with it, they afford no evidence at all. When they can be better accounted for with the fact than without it, the evidence is probable. When they can not possibly be accounted for without the fact, and are fully accounted for by the fact, the evidence is irresistible.
When the facts constituting the circumstances are actions performed by men, this introduces an additional element into the argument. In this case, if the agent is a rational man, he must be supposed to act for a reason, and his actions, as circumstances, may be regarded with reference to the reasons for which they were performed. We further observe, that the question, What act was performed by the apostles under the name of baptism? has not reference to an indefinite number of actions, but is confined, by the nature of the controversy, to two. It was either immersion or affusion; the latter term embracing both the specific acts of sprinkling and pouring. This is admitted by all parties; for, although some contend that either act will serve the purpose of a valid baptism, no one, at the present day, contends that the apostles practiced both. Those who contend for affusion deny that the apostles or John the harbinger practiced immersion; while those who contend for immersion deny that they practiced affusion. It is as if A and B were brought into court for trial in reference to the murder of C. It is admitted by both the parties, and known to the counsel, the jurors, the judge, the sheriff, and the spectators, that the murder was committed by one of these two parties. Now, whatever evidence might be presented to exculpate A, would have precisely the same tendency to the conviction of B. And if the demonstration of A's innocence were complete, the jury would render a verdict against B, though not a witness had testified directly to his guilt. Just so in the present case. Whatever evidence can be fund against the affusion of the eunuch and others, is good to the same extent in favor of their immersion, and vice versâ.
The circumstances by which this question is to be decided are divided into two distinct classes, which we may style, respectively, circumstances of fact, and circumstances of allusion. We will consider them in the order in which they are here named.
There are some circumstances of fact which afford no evidence upon this question whatever. For instance, three thousand persons were baptized in Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost, in one afternoon. Now, if it were impossible for the agents employed to immerse so many in so short a time, or if sufficient water for that purpose could not have been found in Jerusalem, the two circumstances of place and time would furnish evidence against immersion. But as the facts on which this evidence would depend did not exist, [See Com.ii: 41.] no such evidence is here found. All the circumstances involved in the transaction can be accounted for by the supposition of either affusion or immersion; hence they furnish no evidence in favor of either as against the other. In like manner, the command of Ananias to Saul, to "Arise and be baptized," though it supplies the fact that previous to being baptized he must arise from his prostrate or recumbent position, furnishes no evidence bearing upon our question, because it is consistent with either immersion or affusion. If it were proved that C was murdered with a club, this in itself would be no evidence again A, or in favor of B, seeing that either of them could have used a club.
But there are other circumstances of fact which afford unmistakable evidence upon this question. The agent about to perform the act in dispute selected for the purpose a river, as the Jordan, [Mark 1:5.] or a place where there was "much water," as in "Ænon near to Salim." [John 3:23.] When the parties about to perform the act were in an ordinary dwelling, they went out of doors for the purpose, though it were the hour of midnight, as in the case of the Philippian jailer. [Com. xvi: 33.] When they came down to the water selected, both the administrator and the subject went down into it, as in the case of the eunuch, and the baptism was performed while they were in it. These are all unquestionable facts, for they are declared in unambiguous terms by infallible witnesses. They are also actions performed by rational men, and, therefore, each of them must have been performed for some reason. Moreover, the reason for each was furnished by the nature of the main act, for the purpose of accomplishing which each of these subordinate actions was performed. But the supposition of affusion furnishes no conceivable reason for any one of these actions. It can not, therefore, be the main act in question.
Again: If the main act could have been as well and as conveniently performed without these subordinate actions as with them, then all these agents acted without a reason. But certain affusion, even of the multitudes baptized by John, could have been performed as conveniently to himself and the people, at some well or fountain centrally located, as at the Jordan, or in Ænon. Paul could have sprinkled the jailer as conveniently in the house at midnight, as out of doors; and Philip could have sprinkled or poured water on the eunuch as well at the brink of the water, as by going down into it. Each of these subordinate actions, therefore, was an irrational one, if affusion was the main act performed.
But, still further, there are good and valid reasons against such a line of action as we are considering, such as have sufficed, in every age and country, and among all ranks of society, to cause those who perform affusion to pursue a course the reverse of this in every particular. To save time and labor, and to avoid personal discomfort, instead of going to rivers and places of much water, they administer the rite at home or at church. Instead of going out of doors at night, if they happen to be out of doors at night, they prefer to go into the house. And, instead of going down into the water, they dip into it merely the tips of their fingers, or, avoiding all contact with the water themselves, they pour it from a vessel upon the subject. To suppose, in the face of all these reasons, which are controlling with rational men, that the apostles performed the various actions which we know they did, for the purpose of affusion, is to suppose them to act not only irrationally, but contrary to all the reasons which govern rational men. But they were rational men; therefore, he who reasons thus concerning them is convicted, beyond question, of drawing an irrational conclusion.
So far as the circumstances of fact are concerned, we might logically rest the case here; for, having sustained the negative proposition that affusion was not the act in question, we have no alternative but to conclude that it was immersion. But the same circumstantial evidence which brings us to so solid a conclusion by this indirect method, serves the purpose equally well when applied to the direct proof of immersion. The supposition of immersion furnishes the desired reason for each one of the subordinate actions we have been considering. It accounts for the selection of a river or a place of much water; for leaving the house at midnight, and for going down into the water. It is the only supposition which can account for them; and, therefore, their existence demands the existence of immersion. We must either deny these facts, which would be infidelity; deny that the apostles acted rationally, which would be the height of folly and impiety; or admit that immersion, and not affusion, was the apostolic practice.
The circumstances of allusion are equally conclusive with those already considered. Their force may be stated thus: When parties who are certainly acquainted with the facts in dispute let drop incidental remarks indicative of the nature of the facts, such remarks afford evidence, by indicating the knowledge possessed by the speaker. If, in the case of trial for murder above supposed, it were known that D was cognizant of all the facts, any incidental statement of his, inconsistent with the supposition that he knew A to be the murderer, would afford circumstantial evidence in favor of A, and against B. Now, Jesus and the apostles were cognizant of all the facts in reference to baptism, and they have made certain allusions to it, which, so far as the nature of the act is concerned, are incidental, but which indicate what they knew the act to be. If, upon a collation of these allusions, we find them inconsistent with the knowledge, on their part, that baptism was affusion, but just such as imply the knowledge that it was immersion, the evidence from this source will be conclusive.
Of the many allusions at hand, we will select, for our present purpose, only a few, the bearing of which appears least liable to dispute. First, in the words of our Savior, "Except a man be born of water and the Spirit, he can not enter into the kingdom of God." That the expression, "born of water," is an allusion to baptism, is admitted by all standard commentators and critics known to the writer, and is disputed by none but those who are incapable of being candid upon this subject. The term is used metaphorically, and, therefore, indicates some connection with water, which is analogous to a birth. But there is no conceivable analogy between a birth and an application of water by affusion; hence it is impossible that Jesus could have known the act alluded to to be affusion. The expression forces the mind to something like a birth, which can be found only in the act of drawing the body out of water, which takes place in immersion. This, alone, could have suggested the metaphor to the mind of Jesus, and to this our minds intuitively run when we hear the words pronounced. It is intuitively certain, therefore, that Jesus alluded to immersion, and not to sprinkling.
The next allusion to which we invite attention is that in which Jesus calls the unspeakable sufferings which were to terminate his life, "The baptism with which I am to be baptized." [Matthew 20:22.] Here the term baptism is used metaphorically for his sufferings, which could not be unless there is, in literal baptism, something analogous to the overwhelming agonies of Gethsemane and Calvary. The soul revolts at the supposition that a mere sprinkling, or pouring of water on the face, could have supplied this analogy, and intuitively demands something like the sweep of water over the sinking body, which is witnessed in immersion. Immersion supplies the analogy, and it must be the meaning of the term baptism, if there is any meaning in the Savior's mournful words.
One allusion from the Apostle Paul, and one from Peter, will suffice for our present purpose. Paul exhorts the brethren to draw near to God, "having our hearts sprinkled from an evil conscience, and our bodies washed with pure water." [Hebrews 10:22.] Here is an allusion to the sprinkled blood of Christ, as cleansing the heart from an evil conscience, and to baptism as a washing of the body. But this language is inconsistent with the idea of sprinkling or pouring a little water on the face, which could, by no propriety of speech, be styled a washing of the body. Nothing but immersion will meet the demands of the expression, for the words describe what takes in immersion, and in no other ordinance of the New Testament. Peter's allusion is quite similar to this. He says: "Baptism doth also now save us, not the putting away of the filth of the flesh, but the seeking of a good conscience toward God." Now Peter could not have supplied the words, "Not the putting away of the filth of the flesh," unless there was something in baptism which might possibly be mistaken for this. But it would be impossible for any one to so mistake sprinkling, while immersion might be readily mistaken for a cleansing of the flesh. Peter, then, knew that immersion, and not affusion, was baptism, and so indicates by this language.
We now have before us, from Jesus and Paul and Peter, who certainly knew what baptism was, unmistakable allusions to it, which could not have been made if they knew it to be affusion, and which force us to the conclusion that they knew it to be immersion. It is difficult to conceive how circumstantial evidence could be more conclusive.
We might add to our list of circumstances of allusion the statement of Paul in Romans 6:4, and Colossians 2:12, that in baptism we are buried and raised again. But I regard this as direct testimony to what is done in baptism, and not a mere allusion to it. If any man were to try to frame a statement of what takes place in the act of immersion, he could not do so in more unambiguous terms than to say, "We are buried and raised again." If he were to say, "We are immersed," it would not be so specific a description of the act, nor so little liable to dispute as to its real meaning.
The last clause of the passage under consideration demands some notice ere we introduce another section of the text. It is said that "when they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord caught Philip away; and the eunuch saw him no more, for he went on his way rejoicing." No doubt the influence of the Spirit by which Philip was caught away was the same as that which had at first joined him to the chariot. It was that monition of the Spirit by which the movements of inspired men were frequently directed. We will notice frequent instances of the kind in the course of this work.
When Philip was caught away to other labors, the eunuch "went on his way rejoicing." So universally does joy pervade the hearts of those whose sins are forgiven, that many sectaries of modern times have mistaken it for the evidence of pardon. The fallacy which they commit is to assume, without authority, that a real pardon from God is the only cause which can induce this feeling. Now, we know that joy must spring up in the heart, under the belief that pardon has been dispensed, however mistaken that belief may be. The convict awaiting execution would be just as happy if deceived by a counterfeit pardon, as if it were genuine. So with the penitent sinner. When his soul has been racked, for hours and days together, by the torture of an awakened conscience, it is likely, by the reaction of its own powers, or through exhaustion of the nervous system, to become calm. Now, if he has been taught that the supervening of this calm is an indication of pardon, immediately upon the consciousness of its presence there will spring up that joy which he alone feels who believes his sins are pardoned. Such individuals, however, generally have serious doubts, at times, whether they did not mistake the natural for the supernatural, and they seldom obtain more than a hope that their sins were forgiven. The rejoicing of the eunuch was based upon far different and more solid ground. Taught by Philip, according to the commission, and according to the preaching of Peter, who had been Philip's own teacher, that the penitent believer was to be immersed for the remission of sins; realizing in his own consciousness, that he was a penitent believer; and having been immersed, his conviction that his sins were pardoned was as solid as his confidence in the word of God and in his own consciousness. In neither of these could he well be mistaken, and, therefore, his joy was not alloyed by any harassing doubts.
We now part company with this noble man, whose ready faith and prompt obedience give evidence of such a character that we would love to travel with him further; but here the curtain of authentic history drops upon him, and we see him no longer. Happily, the echoes that come back to us, as he passes on, are notes of joy, and we may hope to meet him at the point where all our journeys meet, and rejoice with him forever.
The historian brings the present section of his narrative to a close by a brief notice of the subsequent labors of Philip. (40) "But Philip was found at Azotus; and, passing along, he preached the gospel in all the cities till he came to Cæsarea." The town of Azotus, the Ashdod of the Old Testament, was westward of the route the eunuch was pursuing, on the shore of the Mediterranean. Philip's further tour extended northward, along the sea-shore, to Cæsarea. We are not yet prepared to bid him a final adieu; but will meet him again, after the shifting scenes of many years, to say farewell amid many tears. [See Acts 21:8.]
These files are public domain and are a derivative of an electronic edition that is available on the Christian Classics Ethereal Library Website.
First published online at The Restoration Movement Pages.
McGarvey, J. W. "Commentary on Acts 8". "J. W. McGarvey's Original Commentary on Acts". https://www.studylight.org/
the Second Week after Epiphany