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Acts 8

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The Laying on of the Apostles’ Hands in Samaria its Influence on the Practice of the Christian Church.

‘The ancient custom of the Church was, after they had baptized, to add thereunto imposition of hands with effectual prayer for the illumination of God’s most Holy Spirit, to confirm and perfect that which the grace of the same Spirit had begun in baptism’ (Hooker, Eccl Polity, v. 66). This ordinance was derived from the practice of the apostles, as related in this passage, and also in Acts 19:6; see also Hebrews 6:2.

It was no new custom; it had ever been practised in the Church of the Old Testament. Thus Israel, when he blessed Ephraim and Manasses, laid his hands upon their heads and prayed (Genesis 48:14). Thus Moses ordained Joshua to be his successor (Numbers 27:18). How common the practice was on solemn occasions, we see from the fact of the women of Israel bringing young children to Christ to put His hands on them and pray. After the Lord’s ascension, prayer and the imposition of the apostles’ hands were the means whereby, after baptism, the first believers became partakers in greater or less degree of the gifts and graces of the Holy Ghost. Of these gifts and graces, the power of working miracles, which so excited the wonder and envy of Simon Magus, was not (except perhaps in very rare and peculiar cases) extended beyond a certain few of those disciples upon whom the apostles themselves laid their hands; but though these special miraculous gifts, which in some cases accompanied the imposition of the apostles’ hands, perhaps never very numerous, ceased when the apostles passed away, the rite of laying on of hands, possessing a deeper signification than the mere imparting a temporary miraculous power, was never discontinued, but remained a practice in all the churches.

In the first instance, we know that this sacred rite was performed by the apostles; nor does it appear that this solemn confirmation of the baptized was ever performed in the first years of Christianity by any except the apostles. We find a special mention of St. Paul laying his hands on certain newly-baptized converts. When Episcopal government first appeared in Gentile Christendom is uncertain; early in the second century the Episcopal office, we know, was firmly and widely established. Professor Lightfoot, adopting in great measure the view of Rothe, concludes that during the last thirty years of the first century, in the lifetime of St. John, the new constitution of the Church was organised, and many of the special duties and privileges of the apostles passed to the bishops, who succeeded them in all countries as governors of the churches. Among these special functions hitherto reserved for men of apostolic dignity was ‘confirmation.’ At the end of the second century Tertullian wrote; his testimony carries us back to the very verge of the times when men lived who must have heard and seen St. John. In his treatise De Baptismo, he writes as though ‘confirmation’ was the unvarying custom in North Africa. Cyprian, bishop of Carthage, writing about fifty years later, alludes to it as to an ordinary office of his Episcopal order. ‘They who are baptized,’ he says, ‘are brought to the chief pastors of the church, that, by our prayer (Cyprian was a bishop) and the laying on of hands, they may receive the Holy Ghost. Firmilian, bishop of Cæsarea in Cappadocia, who lived about the same time, alludes to bishops as the ordinary ministers of this office. The canons of the council of Eliberis, held not long after, speak of this confirmation of the baptized by the bishop as an universally practised rite. Jerome in the latter end of the fourth century tells us that it was the general practice of the Roman Church for bishops to go about the country villages and remoter places in their dioceses to give imposition of hands to such as were baptized by presbyters and deacons ( Adv. Lucifer, c. 4). Augustine about the same period, writing of the practice of the North African Church, says: ‘The apostles only laid hands on men, that the Holy Ghost by their prayers might descend on them, which custom the Church now observed and practised by her bishops or governors also’ ( De Trinitate, i. 15). Ambrose, bishop of Milan, a few years before had held similar language (see his treatise, De Sacram. l. 3).

We therefore confidently conclude that the Church of Christ from the very earliest times supplemented baptism by prayer and the imposition of hands, to the end that the Holy Ghost might be poured upon those already baptized, grounding the universal custom upon the example of Peter and John related in the eighth chapter of the ‘Acts.’ In the first days, it is clear that the apostles alone administered the holy rite. As the Church developed, the duty of administering confirmation passed, with many other of the exclusive privileges of the apostles, to the bishops, who, twenty or thirty years before the close of the first century, probably succeeded to the government of the various churches. Never, except in some special and extraordinary cases, does it seem that this solemn rite of imposition of hands was performed except by the bishop himself.

At the first, there is no doubt but that baptism was immediately followed by confirmation; but it is clear that very soon an interval longer or shorter severed the sacrament from the subsequent rite. And the reasons for this severance are obvious; for, as converts to Christianity multiplied, these in the first instance were more frequently baptized by a minister of an inferior degree, by presbyters or mere deacons, who might baptize but not confirm, as in the case instanced in our present passage when John and Peter confirmed those whom Philip had already baptized. Then, too, as the Church grew older, and Christian families multiplied rapidly in all the great centres of the civilized world, Christian parents began to bring their little ones early to the baptismal font to win for them the covenant blessing, thus laying for them the first foundations of the life of faith. These little ones, early admitted into the family of God, in good time became of an age when they could discharge the duties of Christian men and women; then and not till then did they receive the blessing invoked by the solemn laying on of the chief pastor’s hands. And so the rite became in the very earliest times separated from the sacrament the sacrament of baptism admitting them as children into the family of God, and the rite of confirmation coming in subsequently and arming those already baptized, against sin and the varied temptations of life, by means of, to use Tertullian’s weighty words again, ‘imposition of hands, with invocation and invitation of the Holy Ghost, which willingly cometh down from the Father to rest upon the purified and blessed bodies, as it were acknowledging the waters of baptism, a fit seat’ ( De Baptismo, c. 8).

Verse 1

General Persecution of the Church by Saul, 1-4.

Acts 8:1. And Saul was consenting unto his death. These words were no doubt often heard by Luke from the Paul of later days, for we find them repeated by the missionary apostle himself years after (Acts 22:20). They serve here to introduce the narrative of the persecution of the Christians which arose after the death of Stephen.

At that time. The literal translation of the Greek words is the best: ‘On that day,’ for it sets before us a clearer picture of what then took place. Returning from the scene of blood, Saul, armed with the authority of the jealous Sanhedrim, at once commenced his savage work, and in a very short time the little flourishing Church of Jerusalem was dispersed.

They were all scattered abroad. This expression should not be understood literally; but as many of the great body of Christians, amounting at this time to some thousands, obliged by the violence of the persecution to leave the city, betook themselves to a distance, we can well imagine that the various congregations for a time were dispersed, and also that the elaborate organization of charity alluded to in chap. Acts 2:44-45, Acts 2:34-35, and especially in Acts 6:1-3, was broken up. This partial dispersion of the new sect, this breaking up of their organization, is roughly designated by the words, ‘they were all scattered abroad.’

Except the apostles. But while many left the city, the apostles remained: it is not impossible that the veneration with which the people had now long regarded these teachers, who had worked so many and such beneficent works in their midst, preserved them from violence. But whether or no they were exposed to danger, they felt they had no right to quit the holy city, which they regarded as their post of duty. There is an old tradition contained in the apocryphal ‘Preaching of Peter,’ that our Lord once said to the apostles, ‘If any one of Israel wishes to repent, and through My name to believe in God, his sins shall be forgiven him. After twelve years, go ye forth into the world, lest any one say, We have not heard.’ See also Eusebius, H. E. v. 18.

Verse 2

Acts 8:2. And devout men. In spite of the terror caused by the execution of Stephen, and the persecution which immediately followed, some pious Jews for this is probably what is meant by the term ‘devout men ‘ were found reverently to bury the martyr’s disfigured body: these, though not professedly followers of Jesus, still as inquirers, had listened with admiration to the brave and eloquent deacon.

Made great lamentation over him. Chrysostom remarks that Stephen’s own dying words were his noblest funeral oration: ‘Lord, lay not this sin to their charge.’ There is a curious legend repeated by Baronius, that Gamaliel, as a secret Christian, gave the body of the martyred Stephen sepulture in his own villa garden, and that subsequently he was buried in the same tomb.

Verse 3

Acts 8:3. As for Saul, he made havock of the church. We gather some notion respecting the extreme severity of this first persecution, from casual expressions in the Acts, and from the epistles of him who, during these terrible days, acted as chief inquisitor: ‘Thinking that he ought to do many things contrary to the name of Jesus of Nazareth ... in Jerusalem ... he shut up many of the saints in prison’ (Acts 26:9-10). And not only did men thus suffer at his hands, but women also, a fact three times repeated as great aggravation of his cruelty (Acts 8:3; Acts 9:2; Acts 22:4). These persecuted people were scourged ‘often’ scourged in many synagogues (Acts 26:10). Nor was Stephen the only one who suffered death, as we may learn from the Apostle Paul’s own confession (Acts 22:4; Acts 26:10). Every possible effort he used to make them blaspheme that holy Name whereby they were called (Acts 26:11; Galatians 1:23). His fame as an inquisitor was notorious far and wide; even in Damascus, Ananias had heard how much evil he had done to the saints of Christ at Jerusalem. He was known there ‘as he that destroyed them which called on this name in Jerusalem’ (Acts 9:13-21. See, too, Galatians 1:13; Philippians 3:6; 1 Timothy 1:13; 1 Corinthians 15:9).

Verse 4

Acts 8:4. Therefore they that were scattered abroad went everywhere preaching the word. The immediate result of this bitter persecution was the fulfilment of the first part of the Saviour’s words: ‘Ye shall be witnesses unto Me both in Jerusalem and in all Judea and in Samaria.’ Tertullian’s famous saying, ‘The blood of the martyrs is the seed of Christians,’ is first exemplified in the conduct of these earliest missionaries, in the days that followed the death of Stephen. Persecution and trouble only served to make them more earnest in their Master’s cause. Wherever they went, they proclaimed the faith, and the joyful tidings concerning the Redeemer and His work. Some of the ‘dispersed ‘carried the message as far as Phenice, and Cyprus, and Antioch (Acts 11:19). Some probably travelled even to Rome and Italy, for Romans 16:7 makes mention of Andronicus and Junia, who were also in Christ before Paul’s own conversion.

As a specimen of the work done by these persecuted banished ones, the writer of the ‘Acts’ gives us in detail, an account of the proceedings of one of the more distinguished of them, Philip the deacon, known as the evangelist.

Verse 5

The Acts of Philip the Deacon. Philip preaches in Samaria, Acts 8:5-13.

Acts 8:5. Then Philip. This famous missionary is the second named in the list of the seven deacons (Acts 6:5), Stephen being the first. It may easily be assumed that the persecution would be especially directed against the distinguished colleagues of the martyred Stephen; and these seven seem, as we have noticed above, from the time of their official appointment, to have taken a very prominent position in the Church at Jerusalem. Philip is called the evangelist (Acts 21:8), where he is also mentioned as being married, and having four daughters virgins who prophesied. The title of evangelist, by which he is commonly known in ecclesiastical history, is owing partly to the fact that he was the first who, outside the holy city, proclaimed the Evangel, good news of Christ.

Went down to the city of Samaria. Philip appears at once to have gone down to this old city, once the capital of the kingdom. Built originally by King Omri, father of Ahab, it remained the chief city of Israel while that kingdom endured. In B.C. 719, Shalmaneser, king of Assyria, took it after a two years’ siege, and razed it to the ground.

It never regained anything of its old importance until the days of Herod the Great, who restored it to its ancient splendour, changing its name to Sebaste, the Greek equivalent of Augusta, in honour of Cæsar Augustus; the new city was, however, still often called by its old name Samaria (Josephus, Ant. xx. 6. 2).

Verse 6

Acts 8:6. And the people with one accord gave heed. The visit and the work of Christ in the neighbouring city of Sychar (St. John 4:0) help us to understand the warm welcome which Philip received among these Samaritans.

Verse 7

Acts 8:7. Crying with loud voice. Not with indignation, because they were forced to abandon their unhappy victims, but testifying to the Messiahship of Jesus, whose almighty Name they were compelled to obey. The expressions used in this account of the healing of demoniacs evidently supposes the reader to be acquainted with such cases in the history of Christ. St. Luke, the presumed writer, or at least reviser of the ‘Acts,’ in this book never employs the term δαι µ ο ' νια , demons, in speaking of the ‘possessed,’ although in his Gospel he employs it oftener than any of the evangelists; and from this Bengel infers that the power of possession was feebler after the death of Christ.

Verse 9

Acts 8:9. A certain man, called Simon, which beforetime in the same city need sorcery. We have here a description of the first collision between the unreality and imposture in the outside world, and the earnestness and single-heartedness of the little community who loved the name of Jesus. The person called Simon, commonly known as Simon Magus, or the magician, was not an uncommon figure in the history of this period. Such a one we meet with again in Elymas at the court of the Roman governor, Sergius Paulus (Acts 13:0). Such a one was the famous impostor Apollonius of Tyana, who flourished in the same century. An advanced knowledge of natural philosophy, especially of chemistry, gave these clever unscrupulous characters a strange power and influence over men’s minds, an influence they constantly used to further their own selfish ends. Simon seems to have been really impressed with the miracles performed by Philip, and at once perceived that these wonder-works were of a very different order from those which his superior knowledge of natural science enabled him to perform. He never seems to have comprehended the source whence proceeded Philip’s awful power. He attributed it simply to a deeper knowledge of the secrets of nature, and thought the key to the art was, of course, to be bought. His mistake and discomfiture are related in the following verses. Bitterly annoyed at the result of his collision with the followers of Jesus, it is probable that this unhappy man at once turned his great powers [for these undoubtedly he possessed in no mean degree] to oppose the growing influence of the little Church. His evil work was crowned with no small measure of success, for in the records of the early history of Christianity, among the many false teachers who sprang up, Simon Magus is invested with a mysterious importance, ‘as the great Heresiarch, the open enemy of the apostles, inspired, it would seem, by the spirit of evil, to countermine the work of the Saviour, and to found a school of error in opposition to the Church of God.’ In the treatise, Against Heresies, a work now generally ascribed to Hippolytus, bishop of Portus, near Rome, about A.D. 218-235, we find a general outline of the principles of Simon Magus and his school. Some account also is given in the same treatise of the Great Announcement ( ἀπόφασις μεγάγη ), a writing compiled from the oral teaching of Simon, by one of his immediate followers: in this compilation the revelation with which he declared he was entrusted is set forth, and the work and Person of Christ are disparaged and set aside. See Westcott, On the Canon, chap, 4, and Ewald, Acten Geschichte, pp. 120, 122. Simon is by many regarded as the father of Gnosticism.

Giving out that himself was some great one. According to Justin Martyr, Simon pretended that he was God, above all principality and power. Jerome relates that he said, ‘I am the Son of God,’ ‘the Paraclete,’ ‘the Almighty,’ etc. Such bold assertions as these related by Justin Martyr and Jerome were no doubt made subsequently to his collision with Peter and Philip. Exasperated by his repulse, and the exposure he had suffered at the hands of these believers in Christ, envious too of their powers and also of the consideration which they enjoyed with so many of the people, he endeavoured, by assuming the titles of the Master of Peter and Philip, to win something of the power they possessed, and which he coveted.

Verse 10

Acts 8:10. To whom they all gave heed. Men in that age were peculiarly liable to be deluded by the pretensions of false prophets, as Neander well observes: ‘At that time an indefinite longing after a new voice from heaven a strange, restless feeling in men’s minds, such as usually goes before mighty changes in the history of men, was spread abroad; this vague, anxious feeling bewildered and deceived many’ (from Neander’s Planting, vol. i.).

From the least to the greatest. That is to say, men and women of all ages, young as well as old, were ready to listen to him.

Verse 11

Acts 8:11. He had bewitched them with sorceries. Professor Westcott suggests ‘that it would be interesting to inquire how far the magical arts universally attributed to Simon and his followers admit of a physical explanation. In his school, if anywhere, we should look for an advanced knowledge of nature’ (Hist. of the Canon, chap. 4 sect. i. note, p. 301).

Verse 12

Acts 8:12. But when they believed Philip . . . they were baptized, both men and women. ‘Philip,’ as Bishop Lightfoot observes (Galatians, Dissertation iii.), ‘carried into practice the doctrine which Stephen preached and for which he died.’ ‘Stephen was the first to look stedfastly to the end of that which is abolished, to sound the death-knell of the Mosaic ordinances and the Temple worship, and to claim for the Gospel unfettered liberty and universal rights.’ Philip, by preaching to and then baptizing a number of Samaritans who believed, was the founder of the earliest Gentile congregation. The first stones of the Church of the Gentiles were laid by those men who were dispersed when the persecution ‘arose about Stephen.’

Verse 13

Acts 8:13. Then Simon himself believed also: and when he was baptized. It is not necessary to assume that the unhappy man was simply moved by the persuasion that Philip was a greater magician than himself, though no doubt this thought influenced him; but he seems to have accepted the fact that Philip’s Master was in some way or other the long-looked-for Messiah. Still he only admitted this belief as a matter of history; it had no effect, as we shall see presently, on his life, his heart all the while, though receiving the historic fact, remaining utterly unchanged and hardened.

Verse 14

The Sanction of the leaders of the Church is given to the Work of Philip among the Samaritans. The Samarian Mission of Peter and John, 14-25.

Acts 8:14. Now when the apostles which were at Jerusalem heard that Samaria had received the word of God. To formally sanction this work of Philip in Samaria, and the subsequent general admission of the Samarian people into the Church of the Master, was for the College of Apostles in Jerusalem no slight matter, for it signified a complete breaking down of the old barriers of prejudice, behind which the orthodox Jew had rigidly entrenched himself. We can hardly understand now what a painful struggle it must have been for pious Jews like James, the Lord’s brother, and John to concede that even the hated Samaritan had a right to the kingdom of heaven that the bitterly hated, the ‘accursed people,’ as they deemed them, might join the Church of Christ on the same terms as a Hebrew of the Hebrews. And yet this is what the College of Apostles conceded when they sent two of their most distinguished members to lay hands on the baptized of Samaria. ‘He who eats the bread of a Samaritan,’ says the Talmud, ‘is as one who eats swine’s flesh. This accursed people shall have no part in the resurrection of the dead.’ To be a Samaritan, in the eyes of an austere Jew, was to have a devil (John 8:48).

They sent unto them Peter and John. In accordance with the Master’s first mission, when He called the Twelve unto Him, and began to send them forth by two and two (Mark 6:7), so we find two together, Peter and John, in the Temple (Acts 3:1); so Paul and Barnabas (Acts 13:2) are associated to preach the Gospel to the Gentiles; so later we find together Paul and Silas (Acts 15:40) and Barnabas and Mark (Acts 15:39).

John is not mentioned after this in the Acts of the Apostles.

Verses 15-17

Acts 8:15-17. On the whole question of this laying on of the apostles’ hands in Samaria, see the Excursus at the end of this chapter.

Verse 16

Acts 8:16. For as yet he was fallen upon none of them. It has been often asked whether this was owing to any defect in the faith of the Samaritans. Nothing, however, in the history would lead us to suppose that this was the case. The opinion of Chrysostom, followed by many modern commentators, supplies the most probable answer: ‘Philip could not bestow the Holy Ghost, because he was not an apostle.’ The plain truth seems to be: none but the apostles were empowered to bestow this mighty gift. The early cessation of miraculous power in the Church is discussed briefly in the Excursus at the end of this chapter. The special duty of imposition of hands on the baptized, up to this time exclusively belonged to the apostles. It appears subsequently to have passed to the Episcopal order, which, before the close of the first century, undoubtedly arose in the Christian Church; but while the solemn right to lay hands on the baptized, and thus formally to invoke the blessed presence of the Holy Ghost, was inherited by the bishops from the apostles, it does not seem that the power of working miracles was ever communicated by the imposition of hands, by any save the apostles themselves.

Verse 18

Acts 8:18. And when Simon saw that through laying on of the apostles’ hands the Holy Ghost was given. The gifts of the Holy Ghost were in this case plainly visible. The laying on of the apostles’ hands conferred something more than the inward spiritual grace; outward miraculous gifts of some kind or other were plainly bestowed. The covetousness of Simon was excited by the sight of this strange power. He had watched Philip perform miracles, but never until he stood by John and Peter had he conceived it possible that this power was transferable.

He offered them money. His heart was utterly unmoved. His sordid, grasping nature remained unchanged, though he had heard the burning words of the missionaries of Jesus. He simply looked on John and Peter as magicians far superior to himself, as men more deeply versed in the secrets of the craft even than Philip, whose works he had been admiring and wondering at. He supposed the secret of these men, like everything else Simon knew of in this world, was to be purchased with gold and silver.

Verse 20

Acts 8:20. Thy money perish with thee. This is no curse or imprecation on the part of Peter, for in Acts 8:22 we find the apostle exhorting the would-be magician to repentance. It is merely an expression of the strong abhorrence which an honest, righteous man would feel at such a miserable misconception of God’s ways of working. Taken in conjunction with the reminder to repentance in Acts 8:22, it is an awful prediction of what would be the fate of the covetous man if his heart remain unchanged. Gold and silver would perish in the end. Equally valueless and perishable would be the Life of an unrighteous man. The corruptible nature of that gold and silver which man prizes so dearly seems to have been ever in St. Peter’s mind, and to have entered continually into his arguments. See 1 Peter 1:7; 1 Peter 1:18; and on the fatal covetousness of false teachers, perhaps the followers of this same unhappy man, see 2 Peter 2:3, and Acts 3:6.

The gift of God. ‘You thought the Holy Ghost was to be bought. Learn it is a free gift, bestowed when and where the Eternal chooses?

Verse 21

Acts 8:21. Thou hast neither part nor lot in this matter. More accurately rendered ‘in this word’ that is to say, one whose heart is given up, as is yours, to covetousness and greed of gain, has no share in the word or doctrine which we teach, the doctrine which teaches the way and manner of the inward and outward gifts of the Holy Spirit.

Thy heart is not right. Is not sincere, as God sees it.

Verse 22

Acts 8:22. If perhaps the thought of thine heart may be forgiven thee. The words ‘ if perhaps ‘ were uttered owing to the very grave character of the sin which St. Peter believed the impostor magician to have been guilty of. The apostle was ignorant whether the state of heart which prompted such a request as Simon’s was capable of true repentance, but he doubtless spoke these grave, solemn words to stir up any feelings of remorse which might still be lingering in that hard, covetous heart. Alford’s comment here is a weighty one: ‘This verse is important taken in connection with John 20:23, “Whose soever sins ye remit, they are remitted unto them,” etc., as showing how completely the apostles themselves referred the forgiveness of sins to, and left it in the sovereign power of God, and not to their own delegated power of absolution.’

Verse 23

Acts 8:23. For I perceive that thou art in the gall of bitterness, and in the bond of iniquity. St. Peter here gives the reason why he doubts the possibility of forgiveness. It was not that he conceived it possible that God would ever refuse pardon to any really penitent sinner, no matter now deeply such a one might have sinned, but that he feared Simon’s heart was full of bitter hate for his Master’s blessed Gospel, and that his life was bound by the chain of sin.

Verse 24

Acts 8:24. Pray ye to the Lord for me, that none of these things which ye have spoken come upon me. So Pharaoh entreated Moses to intercede for him with the Eternal (Exodus 8:29; Exodus 9:28; Exodus 10:17), and yet hardened his heart afterwards. Bengel observes here: ‘He confesses his fear of punishment, not horror of guilt.’ The history of the Acts never refers again to this episode; so, as far as the New Testament records are concerned, we are left in doubt whether or no St. Peter’s solemn words had any effect on the subsequent life and conduct of Simon. Ecclesiastical tradition, however, takes up the story of the unhappy life. This gifted but deeply erring man seems, after his meeting with the apostles, to have gone on from bad to worse. He persevered in his dark pursuits, and soon became notorious as one of the most bitter of the opponents of Christianity.

Verse 25

Acts 8:25. And they . . . returned to Jerusalem. They that is, John and Peter now left Philip to pursue his work alone, and returned to the capital city.

Ana preached the gospel in many villages of the Samaritans. On their way back to their own home, the two, deeply moved at the ready reception of the Word by this hitherto despised people, remembered how their Master, looking forward in His Divine foreknowledge to such an hour as this, had beheld these very fields of Samaria ‘white already to harvest,’ the harvest of the Lord (John 4:35). With these words of the Redeemer ringing in their ears, John and Peter continued in many a Samaritan village the good work of Philip, and as they journeyed on to Jerusalem kept on proclaiming the good news of God among the homes of the Samaritan people. ‘The same John,’ be it remembered, ‘who once wished for fire to come down from heaven to consume these very people, now preached to them the Gospel of peace. He had since that time learned much in the school of Christ. Then he knew not what spirit he was of, but now he was actuated by the Holy Spirit. It was a different kind of fire which he now prayed might descend from heaven upon these Samaritans the fire of the Holy Ghost’ (Gloag).

Verse 26

The Acts of Philip the Deacon, Episode of the Conversion and Baptism of the Ethiopian Eunuch, the Treasurer of the Queen of Ethiopia, 26-40.

Acts 8:26. And the angel of the Lord spake unto Philip. The more accurate rendering, ‘But an angel of the Lord,’ is more in harmony with the history of the early days of the Church. Among the strange and supernatural manifestations which accompanied the laying of the first stones of the Christian Church, the visible manifestation of angels is not the least remarkable. It was no special minister of the great King in this case, as we read of in the announcement to Zacharias the priest and Mary the virgin (Luke 1:19-26), but simply one of the army of Heaven. For other instances of this visible ministering on the part of angels in these first days, see Acts 1:10; Acts 5:19; Acts 10:3; Acts 12:7; Acts 28:23. There is no hint given here that this appearance took place in a dream or a vision. The writer of the ‘Acts’ here simply relates the actual appearance of an angelic being to Philip.

Unto the way that goeth down from Jerusalem unto Gaza, which is desert. Gaza was one of the oldest cities in the world. It is mentioned with Sodom and the cities of the plain before their destruction (Genesis 10:19). It was the chief city of the Philistines, and in later years was of great importance as a frontier fortress, and the key to Egypt on the south and to Syria on the north.

After many sieges and vicissitudes of fortune, we hear of it frequently during the Crusades. It still exists under the changed name of Ghuzzeh, and contains a population of about 15,000.

The exact application of the words, ‘which is desert,’ has given rise to much argument. Some suppose the words refer to the deserted state of Gaza, as though it were uninhabited. Another view prefers to understand the expression in a moral sense: ‘This is desert,’ being the angel’s reason for Philip being sent to evangelise this region, in which the light of truth seemed hopelessly dimmed; but the simple meaning of the words gives the best sense. There were several roads which led to Gaza, and the angel carefully pointed out one of them to Philip as the way by which he was to go, knowing that he would thus meet the Ethiopian; so the heavenly messenger directed him to choose that particular road which, after passing Hebron, led through a desolate, solitary country. In other words, he said, ‘Go to Gaza by the desert road.’

Verse 27

Acts 8:27. A man of Ethiopia. This man was not, as some have suggested, a Jew who lived in Ethiopia, but most probably was a heathen convert to Judaism, and now was returning home from a pilgrimage to the chief shrine of his adopted religion. We know that at this time there were many Jews in Ethiopia.

Under Candace queen of the Ethiopians. Candace was the ordinary name of the female rulers of Meroe, the north part of Ethiopia. Eusebius, H. E. ii. 1, writing some three hundred years later, tells us that even in his days the custom still prevailed in Ethiopia of the supreme power being held by a female ruler. The title Candace was the customary title of the sovereign, as Pharaoh had been in Egypt, and Cæsar continued to be in Rome.

Verse 28

Acts 8:28. Read Esaias the prophet. He was returning home, deeply impressed with the sanctuary, the wonders of which he had just been beholding, and whose strange, glorious history had so deeply interested him, and was reading the mystic words of one of the greatest of the Hebrew prophets. Probably the passage he was meditating on was one of those to which his attention had been just called in Jerusalem as referring to the sufferings of Messiah, concerning whom so many strange, mysterious sayings were then current in the holy city connected with that now famous persecuted sect which believed that the lately-crucified Jesus was the long-promised anointed Deliverer. The scriptures he was reading were the Greek version of the LXX., well known throughout Egypt and the adjacent countries. It was a maxim of the Rabbis, that one who was on a journey and without a companion, should busy himself in the study of the law.

Verses 30-31

Acts 8:30-31. Understandest thou what thou readest? The last division of the prophecy of Isaiah contains a description of the ‘servant of the Lord.’ A famous enemy of Christianity has complained that Jesus Christ brought on His own crucifixion by a series of preconcerted measures, merely to give the disciples who came after Him the triumph of an appeal to the old prophecies, and especially to the 53d chapter of Isaiah, which the eunuch was reading when Philip accosted him.

So clear, indeed, here is the correspondence between the prophecy and the history of the Passion, that in this 53d chapter we seem rather to be reading a history of the past than a prediction of something which was to take place in the far future. Jews in modern times have tried, but with a total want of success, to refer the ‘servant of the Lord,’ spoken of in the famous passage, now to Hezekiah, now to Jeremiah, now to Isaiah himself, sometimes to the people Israel collectively. But some of their best and most esteemed teachers, despairing of finding any other key to the prophecy, admit honestly that Messiah is here spoken of. This, for instance, is the interpretation of R. Solomon Jarchi in the twelfth century, and of R. Isaac Abarbanel in the fifteenth century, whose names stand among the very highest and most esteemed of Jewish divines and commentators.

Verse 32

Acts 8:32. The place of the scripture which he read was this. He was led as a sheep to the slaughter; and like a lamb dumb before his shearer, so opened he not his mouth. The whole passage (Acts 8:32-33) is taken almost verbatim from the LXX. version of Isaiah 53:7-8; the whole of the section is minutely descriptive of the circumstances of the Lord’s Passion. This, the first part of it, found its fulfilment in the history of Jesus before Pilate and his other judges, and especially in His reply of gentle dignity to the man who struck Him for answering the high priest, and generally in the brave patience of His bearing throughout the whole course of His Passion.

Verse 33

Acts 8:33. In his humiliation his judgment was taken away. The Greek version of the LXX., from which the Ethiopian eunuch was reading, translates the Hebrew in this passage with very great freedom. The literal rendering of the Hebrew would be: ‘By oppression and a judicial sentence he was dragged to punishment’ that is to say, by an oppressive, unrighteous, judicial proceeding he was dragged to punishment. The LXX. paraphrase this in the words: ‘In his humiliation, his judgment’ that is, the right to justice ‘and humanity were taken (or withheld) from him.’ Gloag thus enlarges it: ‘Jesus appeared in a form so humble, a man so poor and insignificant, that Pilate, though convinced of His innocence, thought it not worth while to hazard anything to preserve His life.’

His generation who shall declare? But though so lowly, so mean, so poor, was His semblance on earth, who shall declare His generation? It is ineffable! for He is the eternal Son of God, begotten from everlasting of the Father.

For his life is taken from the earth. Not simply taken away, as the life of an ordinary mortal might be, but lifted up from the earth referring to the ascension of Jesus Christ to the right hand of the Father, where He was before. And thus, though as far as man’s eye could see His life among us was poor and humble, its beginning and end were alike incomprehensible best described in His sacred words addressed to His own in that last evening: ‘I came forth from the Father, and am come into the world; again, I leave the world, and go unto the Father’ (John 16:28; and compare Goulburn, Acts of the Deacons, chap. vii.).

Verse 35

Acts 8:35. Then Philip opened his mouth. An oriental expression which occurs ordinarily before grave and weighty words (see Acts 10:34; Job 3:1; Job 32:20).

And began at the same scripture, and preached unto him Jesus. Philip showed the strange and marvellous correspondence between the many descriptions of the Messiah of the prophets and the now well-known life of Jesus of Nazareth, beginning his inspired teaching with an exposition of the passage of Isaiah which the Ethiopian was then reading.

Verse 36

Acts 8:36. A certain water. Eusebius and Jerome point out as the scene of this baptism a fountain near Beth-sur, now a village, Beth-coron, not far from Hebron, some twenty miles south of Jerusalem.

See, here is water; what doth hinder me to be baptized? A proof, says Wordsworth, ‘that Philip, in preaching Jesus, had preached the necessity of baptism’ (so Aug.). ‘By the expression, “Philip preached to him Jesus,” St. Luke implies that Philip preached not only what is to be believed concerning Christ, but what is to be done by those who are joined to the unity of the body of Christ, and so preached to him the main points of Christian faith and duty.’

Verse 37

Acts 8:37. This verse is one of the very few important doctrinal passages of the New Testament which the studies of late years on the subject of textual criticism have affected. The devout student of the word of God fearlessly accepts the con-elusions which result from a careful examination of the varied evidence upon which the genuineness of each passage of the New Testament rests. The result of such study has been, that scholars have agreed to reject as undoubtedly spurious, here and there, a famous doctrinal text, such as I St. John 5:7, to mark as at least doubtful such a passage as Acts 8:37. The words here are found in Irenæus, Acts 3:12 (second century); they are cited by this father without the least misgiving. The celebrated Codex E (Landianus) of the Acts (sixth century) contains them, but they appear in no other of the Uncial MSS. of the ‘Acts;’ they are found in the Philoxenian Syriac certainly, and in the Vulgate, etc. The Latin fathers, Cyprian, Jerome, and Augustine, were all acquainted with it. It was known and certainly well received in the Western or Latin Church, from the second century downwards, and afterwards made some way among the later Greek Codices and writers (see Scrivener, New Testament Criticism, pp. 387-443, 444). Meyer suggests that the words may have been taken, in the first instance, from some very early Baptismal Liturgy, and thence copied by some scribe into a manuscript of the Acts. Of recent commentators, Wordsworth declines to expunge them, and Bornemann includes them in brackets; but the majority exclude them altogether from the text.

Verse 38

Acts 8:38. And he baptized him. The comment of Gregory of Nazianzen, about A.D. 370-380, on this verse, quoted by Wordsworth, is curious and interesting: ‘Let me be a Philip, and be thou a minister of Candace. Say, Here is water, what hindereth me to be baptized? Seize the opportunity. Though an Ethiop in body, be thou pure in heart; and do not say: Let a bishop baptize me, and if a presbyter, let him be unmarried. Man looketh on the face, but God on the heart. Any minister can cleanse you by baptism if he is not alien from the Church. One minister may be of gold, another of iron, but they are both like rings which have the seal of Christ. Let them stamp on thee, who art the wax, the image of the great King; there may be a difference in the metal, there is none in the seal’ (St. Greg. Nazianzen, An Oration to those who delay their Baptism).

Verse 39

Acts 8:39 . The Spirit of the Lord caught away Philip. These words clearly relate a supernatural disappearance of Philip. We possess instances of a similar miraculous rapture, in the history of Elijah (1 Kings 18:12; 2 Kings 2:11), in the writings of Ezekiel, where we read on several occasions that the Spirit lifted him up and took him away (see Ezekiel 3:12). On one occasion ‘the Spirit’ put forth the form of a hand and took him by a lock of his head, and lifted him up between earth and heaven, and brought him in the visions of God to Jerusalem, to the door of the inner gate. The Greek word translated ‘caught away’ is the same as that employed by St. Paul, where he speaks of his ‘rapture’ into the third heaven and into Paradise ‘caught up to the third heaven,’ ‘caught up into Paradise,’ where he heard the unspeakable words (2 Corinthians 12:2; 2 Corinthians 12:4). The same remarkable word is used (1 Thessalonians 4:17) in the description of the Lord’s second Advent, after the resurrection of the dead in Christ: ‘We which are alive and remain shall be “caught up” together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air.’

He went on his way rejoicing. The sudden disappearance of Philip seemed to the Ethiopian eunuch a miraculous assurance that the message and instruction he had received was indeed from heaven, and thus strengthened, went on his way rejoicing. There is a tradition that this minister of Candace, whose name was Judich, preached the Gospel on his return to Ethiopia with great success, and that his royal mistress was among his converts; but we possess no certain records of the conversion of any number of the Ethiopians until the time of Frumentius in the reign of Constantine (fourth century).

Verse 40

Acts 8:40. But Philip was found at Azotus. Azotus, better known as Ashdod, one of the principal Philistine cities, near to the sea-coast. The site is now marked by a mound covered with broken pottery and a few pieces of marble (see 1 Samuel 5:3; Amos 1:8).

Till he came to Cæsarea. Cæsarea became Philip’s home. He probably made it for many years the centre of missionary enterprises. Here, after some twenty years, we find him still, when Saul, now breathing threatenings and slaughter against the disciples of the Lord, was welcomed, together with St. Luke, the reputed writer of these ‘Acts,’ by this same Philip the deacon and his four prophet daughters, as the great and honoured Christian missionary.

Cæsarea was distant about seventy miles from Jerusalem, and was situated on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea. Before the days of the great Herod, it was merely a station for vessels. Herod, however, designed to make it the commercial capital of Palestine; he adorned it with marble palaces, provided it with a magnificent harbour, larger than the Piraeus at Athens, and with a vast quay. In the midst of the new city rose, on an eminence, the Temple of Caesar, with statues of the Emperor and of Rome. With slavish adulation, King Herod named the city after his powerful patron Augustus, Caesarea, under whose mighty protection for the present and the far future he placed the new capital of the old Land of Promise. After Herod’s death, Cæsarea became the residence of the Roman governors of the country. Here the well-known Procurators Pontius Pilate, Felix, and Festus held their ‘courts.’ Here Paul was subsequently tried before that brilliant assembly, presided over by the Roman governor, and King Agrippa, and the infamous Princess Bernice.

At the commencement of the Jewish war, we read of 20,000 Jews resident at Cæsarea being massacred. Vespasian was saluted emperor first in this place. In grateful memory, probably, of this circumstance, he raised it to the dignity of a colony; but its prosperity seems gradually to have decayed. We hear of it now and again in the days of the Crusaders, but it has been for several centuries a mere heap of ruins. A few fishers’ huts now occupy the site of this once proud capital.

Bibliographical Information
Schaff, Philip. "Commentary on Acts 8". "Schaff's Popular Commentary on the New Testament". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/scn/acts-8.html. 1879-90.
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