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By occasion of the persecution in Jerusalem, the church was planted in Samaria by Philip the deacon, who preached, did miracles, and baptized many, and among the rest Simon the sorcerer, a great seducer of the people. Peter and John, came to confirm and enlarge the church, where, by prayer and imposition of hands, they gave the Holy Ghost. Simon would have bought the like power of them; but, Peter having reproved his hypocrisy and covetousness, and exhorted him to repentance, and having preached the word of the Lord, together with John, returned to Jerusalem. But the angel sendeth Philip to teach and baptize the Ethiopian eunuch.
Anno Domini 34.
Acts 8:1. And Saul was consenting unto his death— Dr. Heylin renders this, And Saul was accessary to his death; and he joins it to the last verse of the foregoing chapter. The circumstances relative to St. Paul, recorded by his most intimate and familiar friend, not only shew the fidelity of the historian, but likewise illustrate the miracle of his conversion. It was possibly at this time, when the Christians were so dispersed, that Ananias went to Damascus, ch. Acts 9:10.; while others, after they had preached the gospel in the neighbouring parts, travelled on to Phoenicia, Cyprus, and Antioch. See ch. Acts 11:19.
Acts 8:2. And devout men— Yet devout men. Some learned writers have been of opinion that these were proselytes; of which, however, there does not appear to be any proof. See on ch. Acts 2:5. Such a token of respect, to one who had been publicly executed as a blasphemer, was an expression of zeal and piety which might justly entitle these men to the honourable character here given. Thus St. Luke calls Joseph of Arimathea, a good and just man, when he speaks of the generous and courageous regard that he shewed to the body of Jesus. See Luke 23:50.
Acts 8:3. He made havock of the church— He ravaged it, like some furious beast of prey. This is the proper signification of the word ελυμσινετο, which is often applied to the ravages of the desert.
Acts 8:4. Went every where preaching the word— As the apostles were natives of Judea, and had no notion of the conversion of the Gentiles, but would have confined theirministry within the narrow bounds of their own country; this dispersion was nicely ordered by Divine Providence, to render the design of Christ's coming among men fully effectual, which was both to be a light to lighten the Gentiles, and to be the glory of his people Israel.
Acts 8:5. Then Philip went down— We are sure that it was not Philip the apostle, both as he continued at Jerusalem, and as this Philip had not the power of communicating the miraculous gifts of the holy Spirit by laying on of hands. Comp. Acts 8:14; Acts 15:17. It must therefore have been the deacon; no other of that name, beside the apostle, having been mentioned in this history. Instead of to the city of Samaria, some would read to a city of Samaria, as it is not specified what city it was. The mode of expression, however, seems to point out the capital of Samaria, which was Sechem, or Sebaste, where Christ himself had preached in the beginning of his ministry. See John 5:40., &c. It is certain, that the Samaritans were better prepared to receive the gospel than most of the Gentile nations, as they worshipped the true God, and acknowledged the authority of the Pentateuch. Nay, indeed, in some respects they were better prepared than the body of the Jewish nation; as we do not find, that they had either such notions of the Messiah's temporal reign as the Jews, or had received the Sadducean principles, which were both very strong prejudices against the Christian religion.
Acts 8:9. Used sorcery, &c.— Had practised magical arts, and astonished the people. Heylin and Doddridge. Some think the word Μαγευων to be entirely of the same signification with the word Μαγος, and intended to inform us, that this Simon was one of the sect of the Magi. He might possibly profess himself of this sect; but the word Μαγευων imports much more, and amounts to the same with "one who used enchantments," pretending at least, in consequence of them, to exert some supernatural powers: whereas the word Μαγος, at least about Christ's time, signified much the same with our English word sage, and denoted a proficient in learning, and especially in astronomy and other branches of natural philosophy, to which the Persian magi addicted themselves, and so gave name to many who were far from holding the peculiarities of that sect. Irenaeus informs us, that Simon boasted he had appeared to the Samaritans as the Father, to the Jews as the Son, and to the Gentiles as the Holy Spirit; and Justin Martyr informs us, that he asserted, that all the names of God were to be ascribed to him, and that he was God, above all principality, power, and virtue. But if ever he made these pretences, it was probably after this time; for before it he seems to have been entirely a stranger to the first elements of the Christian doctrine, to which these blasphemies refer. Dr. Heylin renders the last clause of this verse, pretending that he was some extraordinary person.
Acts 8:10. This Man is the great power of God— "The long expected Messiah, and, if we may so speak, Omnipotence itself incarnate, or he could never do such wonderful things." Doddridge. If we believe Justin Martyr, almost all the Samaritans, and not a few other nations, adored him; acknowledged him to be as it were the supreme Deity. See the former note.
Acts 8:11. He had bewitched them— Had astonished them. Doddridge.
Acts 8:13. Then Simon himself believed also:— that this Jesus who enabled Philip to do these things, was some Power superior to any he conversed with. Perhaps as L'Enfant and Limborch conjecture, he might think Philip an abler magician than himself, and hoped, by pretending to be his disciple, that he might have an opportunity of learning his superior arts; or possibly he was afraid, lest Philip should draw away the people from him, if he stood out and opposed him. It seems, however, unquestionable,thathewasfrom the beginning hypocritical and insincere. But though the apostles and several of the primitive Christians had the gift of discerning the spirits and secret intentions of men in some cases; yet this was not one of the gifts which they could exercise at all times, but only upon certain occasions, according to the pleasure and direction of the Spirit; and the Divine Wisdom saw fit that Simon's insincerity should be concealed till he himself discovered it. It is with particular elegance and propriety, that the same word which had been used to express the manner in which the Samaritans were affected with Simon's enchantments, Acts 8:9; Act 8:11 is here used to describe the impression which Philip's miracles made on him. It seems therefore quite a mistake to translate the former bewitched, and the latter wondered, or was astonished.
Acts 8:14. They sent unto them Peter and John:— John was one of the two who were for calling down fire from heaven upon the Samaritans when they refused to entertain Christ. To sucha length did his zeal then carry him; but it was a zeal without knowledge. After the Spirit was poured out upon him, however, his mind was enlarged, and his zeal guided by knowledge and charity; then he makes no scruple of going to the Samaritans, imparting to them the gift of the Holy Spirit, and acknowledging them for Christian brethren, whom his Jewish zeal would have burnt up and destroyed. As the apostles sent Peter along with John, and he went accordingly at their appointment, it is plain that neither he nor they had any notion of the supremacy of that apostle.
Acts 8:15-44.8.17. Who, when they were come down,— Hence it appears very probable, that the Spirit, in some or other of his miraculous powers, had been conferred upon all the Christian converts hitherto; and it was highly proper that the Samaritans should have that divine gift, both as a confirmation of the truth of the Christian doctrine in general, and as an evidence to them in particular, that however they had been formerly hated by the Jews, yet, under the gospel, they might be equally acceptable to God with the Jews, and be as openly and fully entitled to all the privileges of the church, and of the people of God. From what follows it is plain, that the Holy Spirit was here conferred in his supernatural and miraculous influences; for Simon the magician saw some of the wondrous effects of that divine gift immediately, by the new converts speaking languages which they had never learned, or prophesying, or working miracles; and it was this which made him so earnestly covet that apostolic power. They who fancy that the apostles at this time conferred only those which have been commonly called the standing, or the sanctifying influences of the Spirit, surely cannot deny, that if their power had been so limited, their bestowing of the gift of the Holy Ghost would have been otherwise expressed; as the whole work of grace, from the first dawning of the divine light to the perfection of it, originates in the influences of the Holy Spirit. Nor would that magician, very probably, have given any thing, either for the sanctifying influences of the Spirit, or for the power to confer them upon others, supposing God would have bestowed such an extraordinary favour upon him.
The apostles, who alone had a power of imparting them, appear to have conferred some or other of the miraculous gifts upon all adult Christians wherever they came. Upon the apostles themselves, and the rest of the hundred and twenty, the Spirit was poured down immediately from heaven, and without the laying on of the hands of any man; but upon the other Jewish converts, the apostles laid their hands, and thereby conferred that divine gift. As the Samaritans were now Jews by religion, and many of them even descended from Jewish parents, and as our Lord himself had during his own personal ministry treated them as Jews, there was no occasion for the pouring down of the Holy Spirit, in any of his miraculous gifts, upon them before baptism, to prepare the way for their being received into the Christian church: as there manifestly was afterwards in the case of the first-fruits from among the Gentiles: and, on the other hand, supposing the Samaritans had not been favoured with any spiritual gifts and miraculous powers; that is, neither before baptism nor after it; they would have come behind other churches, and might thereupon have been ready to question, whether they who had been so peculiarly odious to the Jews, were now accepted of God equally, and to like privileges with the Jews, from among whom came the Saviour and salvation to mankind. The two apostles, therefore, went down, and conferred upon them the extraordinary gifts of the Holy Ghost. Thus, accordingto the wise and beauteous scheme of raising the new creation, the Jewish and Samaritan Christians were both treated alike; and how great soever their mutual aversion had been, the benign spirit of Christianity laid the foundation for abating their mutual prejudices, for healing their unhappy differences, and for making them lookupon one another as brethren in Christ Jesus, and equally acceptable to God; who is in the gospel most plainly declared to be the God and Father, in a peculiarly eminent sense, of all who believe in and obey Christ, whether Jews, Samaritans, or Gentiles.
Acts 8:18-44.8.19. And when Simon saw, &c.— "Now when Simon saw with astonishment, that the Holy spirit in his extraordinary operations was thus apparently given by the imposition of the apostles' hands,—as he imagined with himself, that if he could perform the like, it might turn considerably to his own honour and advantage, especially if by this means he could form persons to the knowledge of languages which they had never been at thetrouble of learning in a natural way,—he went to the apostles, and offered them a considerable sum of money, &c."
Acts 8:20. Thy money perish with thee, &c.— The fathers look upon the first clause of this verse as a prophetical prediction rather than an imprecation. And as for the sin of Simon, it not only consisted in his ambition and avarice, that he would be advanced to the higher dignity, and have those gifts, by the exercise of which he hoped to be the greater gainer; but there was something peculiarly enormous in his crime, as it struck at the very essence of the Christian religion, supposing that the apostles and other Christiansperformedtheirmiraclesinconfirmationofit, by some higher art of magick than that which he had learned; and so they, by the same art, could teach others to do the same works for any other end.
Acts 8:21. Thou hast neither part nor lot, &c.— "Assure yourself, that you have no claim to the least share or inheritance in the privileges and blessings of this dispensation of the Spirit, and in Christ and heavenly glory: for how specious soever your professions of faith may be, it hereby appears, with undeniable evidence, that your heart is hypocritical and perverse."
Acts 8:22. And pray God, if perhaps, &c.— The dubious manner in which St. Peter speaks of Simon's being forgiven, intimates, not that his sincere repentance, accompanied with evangelical faith, might possibly fail of acceptance, for that is contrary to the whole tenor of the gospel; but that, after the commission of a sin of so heinous a nature, there was little reason to hope he would ever be brought truly to repent.
Acts 8:23. In the gall of bitterness,— That is, the bitterest gall. The whole sentence expresses, in St. Peter's strong manner of speaking, how odious and wretched a creature Simon now appeared to him. How much more odious in the sight of a holy God must such a sinner be! De Dieu would render it, I see thee as the very gall of bitterness, and a bundle of iniquity. The gall of bitterness seems to have been an allusion to Deu 29:18 or Deu 32:32 and the bond of iniquity to Isaiah 58:0.
Acts 8:24. Pray ye to the Lord for me,— It is greatly to be feared, that this pretence of conviction and humiliation was only to prevent Peter and John from disgracing him among the body ofChristians; for it is reasonable to suppose this conversation passed in private between them; and perhaps Simon might have some hope that if the secret were kept, he might reduce the people, when the apostles were gone, to their former subjection to him, notwithstanding their conversion to Christianity. The words, these things which YE have spoken, being plural, seem naturally to refer to the aweful things which Simon had heard in the course of Christian preaching, concerning the terrible effects of the divine displeasure against impenitent sinners in the future world. Perhaps too he might have heard of the dreadful punishment inflicted upon Ananias and Sapphira, ch. 5:
Acts 8:25. When they had testified, &c.— When they had borne their testimony, &c. that is, to the truth of the gospel. See on Luke 24:48.
Acts 8:26. And the angel of the Lord spake unto Philip,— It gives us a very high idea of the gospel, to see the ministers of it receiving immediate direction from celestial spirits, in the particular discharge of their office. The construction of the Greek leaves it dubious whether the clause which is desart, refers to Gaza, or the way that led to it. Those who are of the former opinion observe, that the ancient city of thisname was demolished byAlexander the Great, and afterwards rebuilt with great magnificence, though at some distance from the spot on which the old city stood, which was left in ruins, and therefore called Gaza the deserted, or Desolate. But they who question the truth of this assertion think, that Philip was directed to take that road to Gaza, which lay through the wilderness, and which, though perhaps it might not be the shortest, was chosen by the eunuch as the more retired; and the Greek seems to favour this interpretation. The Ethiopic version renders it, into the way which leads through the desart from Jerusalem to Gaza.
Acts 8:27-44.8.28. A man of Ethiopia, an eunuch, &c.— A certain Ethiopian eunuch, a grandee of Candace, &c. See the note on Genesis 37:36. It appears that Candace was a name common to several of the queens who reigned in Meroe, a part of Ethiopia to the south of Egypt. Perhaps the eunuch had been lately brought over to the Jewish religion; to which it is plain he was a proselyte, and so was not much acquainted with the national expectation of a Messiah, and much less with their prophesies. See Acts 8:31. Probably the chariot in which he was sitting was something in the form of our chaises with four wheels; for though the eunuch did not guide it himself, there was room for another person to come and sit with him: the driver therefore seems to have sat on a seat by himself.
Acts 8:33. In his humiliation, &c.— This is the translation of the LXX. and, if it be admitted, seems to mean, that Jesus appeared in so humble a form, that though Pilate was convinced of his innocence, he seemed a person of so little importance, that it would not be worth while to hazard any thing to preserve him. To take away a person's judgment, is a known proverb for oppressing him. See Job 27:2. Dr. Heylin reads it, In his humiliation was his crisis; he was taken away, but who shall declare, &c.? Crisis, says he, is the word in the original, which I understand here, in its English signification, for "a decisive trial, in which he stood the test." The subject brings to mind that apt phrase of the chymists, experimentum crucis, "the experiment of the cross." Dr. Hammond expresses the clause, Who shall declare his generation? thus: "Who can describe the obstinate infidelity and barbarous injustice of that generation of men, among whom he appeared, and from whom he suffered such things?" But see the notes on Isaiah 53:8.
Acts 8:35. And preached unto him Jesus.— Limborch very largely shews, in his commentary on this passage, how shamefully the Jews pervert the whole 53rd of Isaiah, in expounding it of the afflictions of Israel, where, as we have shewn in our notes on that chapter, it can refer only to Christ.
Acts 8:36. They came unto a certain water:— Τι υδωρ, a certain water, seems to be of diminutive signification, and to intimate, that it was not water of any depth: and Jerome, Sandys, and other travellers, speak of it as a certain spring or fountain, that rises at the foot of a mountain in the tribe of Judah or Benjamin, whose waters are sucked in by the same ground that produces them; and they report that this was the place where the eunuch was baptized by Philip. See Hieron. de Locis Hebr. page 41 and Sandys' Travels, lib. 2: pag. 142.
Acts 8:37. I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.— This passage fully proves that Philip had opened to the eunuch the doctrine of Christ's Divinity; and indeed if he had not done it, he must have given him a very imperfect account of the gospel. See ch. Acts 13:33.
Acts 8:38. And they went down both into the water,— The prepositions εις and εκ, here, and in the next verse, rendered into and out of the water, frequently signify unto and from, as every one must allow who understands the Greek language; and thus they are often used in the stile of the New Testament, and particularly of St. Luke, as for example; εις signifies unto in Matthew 15:24.Luke 4:5; Luke 4:5; Luke 6:12; Luke 9:28. Act 14:21 and Colossians 1:20.; and εκ signifies from, in Luke 20:4.John 19:12; John 19:12.Acts 14:8; Acts 14:8; Acts 15:29; Acts 27:3; Act 27:31 and Acts 27:34. But supposing, says Mr. Henry, we here understand them to signify into and out of, Philip and the eunuch did not strip off their clothes, and go naked into the water; but going barefoot, according to the custom, they went, perhaps, up to the ancles, or mid-leg, into the water, and Philip sprinkled water upon him, according to the prophesy which this eunuch had probably but just now read; for it was but a few verses before those which Philip found him upon, and was very apposite to his case, Isaiah 52:15. So shall he sprinkle many nations; kings and great men shall shut their mouths at him, shall submit to him: for that which had not before been told them, shall they see; and that which they had not heard, shall they consider.
Acts 8:39. The Spirit of the Lord caught away Philip,— The Alexandrian manuscript, and several other ancient copies, read, The Holy Spirit fell upon the eunuch; but the angel of the Lord caught away Philip, &c. See Acts 8:26. This, I doubt not, was the case; and hence we learn, that as soon as they were come up from the water, the Holy Spirit descended upon the eunuch immediately from heaven, and without the imposition of Philip's hands. Probably the effusion was attended with a visible glory, like cloven tongues, or pointed flames of fire; for that external symbol seems always to have accompanied the pouring down of the Holy Spirit in his miraculous gifts. Though the eunuch thereby received some spiritual gifts, or miraculous powers, or both, yet this effusion of the Spirit was not in order to prepare the way for his reception into the Christian church, which was the case with Cornelius and his company, who were the first-fruits of the Gentiles; for then it ought to have been conferred on him before baptism; whereas the eunuch was a proselyte of righteousness, and therefore Philip made no scruple of baptizing him as soon as ever he professed the Christian faith, as knowing the rule in that case, Exo 12:49 namely, one law shall be unto him that is home-born, that is, a Jew by birth as well as religion, and to the stranger who sojourns among you; for so it plainly appears from the foregoing verse to be the circumcised proselyte, or proselyte of righteousness, and not of the gate. But as Philip was only an evangelist,—no apostleat hand,—the eunuch going directly into a distant country, and God, unwilling that he should go without the extraordinary attestation which was so commonly afforded to the Christians of that primitive age, and yet resolved not to break in upon the common method, which was to communicate the Holy Spirit by the hands of no other men than the apostles only:—for these reasons God seems to have poured the Holy Spirit upon him by an immediate effusion; and hereby this illustrious convert had the Spirit conferred in the most honourable manner, and in the way in which the highest and best gifts used to be bestowed. Presently after this signal evidence had been granted to the eunuch, an angel of the Lord caught away Philip; perhaps by a rapture through the air, in the sight of the eunuch and his attendants. See 1 Kings 18:12. 2 Kings 2:16. Ezekiel 3:14. And, after he was removed beyond their utmost ken, the eunuch saw him no more; nor did he search after, or follow the evangelist: he was satisfied that it was the will of God that they should be so separated, and therefore he pursued his journey to Ethiopia, greatly rejoicing at what had happened. For he was not only convinced of the truth of Christianity himself, but he had such gifts and powers as enabled him to instruct and convince others also; and accordingly he is said to have planted the gospel in Ethiopia, where there was a flourishing church, as most of the ancient histories of the country assure us: and as the apostles Bartholomew, Matthew, and Matthias preached the gospel there, it is not only an additional proof that he had paved the way for them; but as so many apostles were sent into those parts, it is a strong presumption in favour of the success of his ministry. See Euseb. Hist. Eccles. lib. 2: chap. 1:
Acts 8:40. But Philip was found at Azotus:— Or, Ashdod, a city that was more than thirty miles from Gaza, in the southern part of the country which had been formerly one of the five governments belonging tothe Philistines, 1 Samuel 6:17. Thence Philip passed through the towns nigh or upon the sea-coast, as Joppa, Lydda, Saron, &c. and planted the gospel all along, till he came to Cesarea, which wasdifferent from the Caesarea Philippi, mentioned Matthew 16:13. This Caesarea was not far distant from Caesarea Philippi, which was situated to the north, in the tribe of Naphtali, and near the sources of the Jordan. It was rebuilt by Herod the first, who greatly enlarged and beautified it with many fine edifices of polished marble; but the greatest and most beneficial of all his works here was the harbour, which he made equal in largeness to the Piraeus at Athens. The beauty of this Caesarea, which was anciently called Stratonice, or Stratton's Tower; and the conveniencies of its situation, were so extraordinary, that when the Romans reduced Judea into the form of a province, they made it the seat of their government, in preference even to Jerusalem itself. See Joseph. Antiq. b. 13: 100. 11 and the note on Matthew 16:13. Philip settled at Caesarea for some time, probably for life; for we find long after this, that St. Paul and his company lodged at his house at Caesarea, and that then he had four daughters, virgins, who were prophetesses. See ch. Acts 21:8-44.21.9. But though he settled at Caesarea, we may reasonably presume that Philip would continue to preach the Christian doctrine to the Jews, and make as many converts among them, through divine grace, as he could.
Inferences.—The last token of respect paid by those devout men (mentioned in the beginning of this chapter) to the remains of St. Stephen, reflects the highest honour on their memories; since by carrying him to his funeral with solemn pomp and lamentation, who had died like an infamous criminal, they themselves also bore a noble testimony to the Christian cause. The wrath of man shall praise thee, O Lord; and very singularly was it made to praise thee in this instance, by the consequent sending out of the gospel missionaries who, during the short repose of the church, had been qualified for their work, and by dispersing them through all the neighbouring countries.
Had the calm continued longer while the disciples were so happy in the love and friendship of each other, they might have been too much inclinable to build their tabernacles at Jerusalem, and to say, it is good for us to be here. Such delightful and mutual converse might have engaged them to prolong their abode there to future months, and perhaps years. In mercy to the churches therefore, and even to themselves, whose truest happiness was connected with their usefulness, were they, like so many clouds big with the rain of heaven, driven different ways by the wind of persecution, that so they might empty themselves in fruitful showers on the several tracts of land through which they went preaching the gospel.
And thus did the continued outrages and cruelties of Saul serve more and more to illustrate the wonders of divine grace, in that conversion which we are hereafter soon to survey and admire; and to give the view of a very delightful contrast between the warmth of those efforts which he made first to destroy, and then with proportionable zeal to save.
It is pleasing to observe how the gospel conquered the mutual and rooted prejudices between the Jews and the Samaritans, teaching the Jews to communicate, and the Samaritans to receive its blessed message with pleasure. It was a wonderful Providence which had permitted the enchantments of Simon to be so successful before; but at length Simon himself assents to the great truths of the gospel, and is baptized. In this, as in a thousand nearer instances, we see that there may be speculative faith in the gospel, where there is no true piety. And if such persons, on the profession of that faith, where nothing appears contrary to it, be admitted to those ordinances by which Christians are distinguished from the rest of mankind, it is an evil, in the present state of things, unavoidable; and the conduct of Christian ministers and societies in admitting such, will be less displeasing to God than a rigorous severity. May God give us wisdom to guide our way, and determine our resolutions, that so we may obtain the happy medium, between prostituting divine ordinances by a fond credulity, and defrauding the children of their bread, because they have not reached such a stature, or do not seek it in those forms and gestures which our mistaken caution may sometimes be ready to demand.
With what peculiar honour were the apostles distinguished, that the Holy Spirit should be given by the imposition of their hands! Thus did Christ bear his testimony to them as the authorised teachers of his church: and hence it evidently appears, that we may with great safety and pleasure submit ourselves to their instruction; for these extraordinary gifts were intended in some measure for our benefit, that by an entire resignation to their authority, thus attested, we might be partakers of those graces, in comparison of which, the tongues of men and of angels would be but as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal.
Who can read without honor the infamous proposal of Simon, to purchase the gift of God with money? With somewhat of the same horror must: we look on all those, by whom things sacred are either bought or sold. It is an infamous traffic, about which an upright man cannot deliberate a moment, but will reject it at once with an honest scorn and indignation, like that of St. Peter in the present instance. God grant that none of the ordinances of Christ may ever be prostituted to secular ends, which seems a crime almost equally enormous! In vain it is for men to "profess and call themselves Christians;" in vain to submit, like Simon, to baptism, or to adhere constantly to the ministers of the gospel, if their hearts be not right before God. A hypocritical conduct, like this, will proclaim it aloud, that they are in the gall of bitterness, and in the bond of iniquity.—Wash us, O holy God, from this odious and polluting gall, which naturally overspreads us! and do thou loosen these bonds of sin with which Satan sometimes binds even those who have a name and a place in thy church, and in which he conveys them to final and everlasting destruction.
Let us not, however, despair even of the worst of men, but direct them rather from their errors to that great universal remedy,—a deep and serious repentance of their sins, and an earnest address to God in prayer;—to him who alone can wash us from crimes or stains, and break in pieces fetters of iron. It is some token for good, when sinners seem to fall under reproof, and to desire the prayers of those who are more upright than themselves. But if men are not animated in such requests and submissions, by a more noble and generous principle than fear of destruction from God, there is great reason to suspect the sincerity of that repentance which they profess; and to apprehend that, like Simon, they will unsay all their fair confession, and perhaps like him, (if we may credit the most authentic uninspired histories of the church,) become open enemies to that gospel, which they pretended for a while to reverence and believe. See Euseb. Eccl. Hist. 50. 2: cap. 14. Theodoret. Haeret. Fab. 50. 1: 100. 1 and the note on Acts 8:9.
We have great reason to adore the gracious counsels of God, with respect to the Ethiopian eunuch before us. He was desirous to improve that weak light which he had; and God, we see, took effectual methods to impart to him more. Thus, as the prophet Hosea expresses it, shall we know, if we follow on to know the Lord, ch. Acts 6:3. An angel of the Lord shall be sent to give directions to an evangelist to meet him in the desart, and to instruct him there in what he had been unable to learn in his attendance at Jerusalem: Philip, in prompt obedience to the divine command, immediately retires from the more public service that he had been engaged in at Samaria, to execute whatever the Lord should please to call him to, though he should order him to go into a wilderness; for even there he could open a door of opportunity to make him useful: and while, like Philip, the ministers and disciples of Christ govern themselves by the intimations of supreme wisdom, they shall not run in vain, nor labour in vain. Philippians 2:16.
It was a prudent and exemplary care, especially in a person engaged in such a variety of public business as the eunuch was, to improve that vacant leisure which a journey allowed him, in reading what might edify and instruct him even as he sat in his chariot. This is truly to redeem the time. He chose the sacred oracles, which are able to make men wise unto salvation; and while perusing them, we see he was in an extraordinary manner taught of God their author. The question which Philip put to him, we should often put to ourselves; Understandest thou what thou readest? Let us choose those writings which may be worth our study, and then labour to digest them into knowledge: it is unworthy the character of rational creatures to rest in the empty amusements, which a few wandering, unconnected, undistinguished ideas may give us, while they pass through the mind, like images over a mirror, and leave no trace or impression at all behind them.
The scriptures especially will be worthy our study, that we may understand them; and we should earnestly pray that this study may be successful. For this purpose let us be willing, like the Ethiopian convert, to make use of proper guides; though it must be confessed, none that we are likely to meet with at present, can have a claim to that authority with which Philip taught. It is pleasant, nevertheless, with a becoming humility to offer what assistance we can to our fellow-travellers, on such an occasion as this: and indeed the practice is generally attended with a blessing, both to teacher and learner. God Almighty grant that we who attempt it, especially in that way which is most extensive and lasting, may neither be deceived in Scripture ourselves, nor deceive others by misrepresenting its sense!
If we enter into the true sense of the ancient prophesies, we must undoubtedly see Christ in them, and particularly in that excellent chapter of Isaiah, which the pious eunuch was now reading. Indeed we may safely rest the proof from prophesy, in support of Christianity, upon this single oracle. If it relates to the Messiah, and was accomplished in every part by Jesus, and by no other, as we know it was, he must be the Christ. He appealed to it himself,
(Luke 22:37.) The apostles often refer us to it; and Philip, under the conduct of the divine Spirit, converted the eunuch by it.
A more extraordinary instance of the power and efficacy of this oracle, in converting believers, cannot be given, than in the case of that prodigy of wit, frolic, and immorality, John Wilmot, earl of Rochester. They who are only unhappily acquainted with his detestable poems and dissolute life, will scarcely imagine, that he died a sincere penitent and a Christian; and that before he expired, he made no bad comment upon some parts of this prophesy. The following account, therefore, is given in bishop Burnet's own words, who attended him during his last illness, and published his case after his death. "He said (to the bishop) that Mr. Parsons, in order to his conviction, read to him, Isaiah 53:0 and compared that prophesy with the history of our Saviour's passion, that he might there see a prophesy concerning it, written many years before it was done; which the Jews that blasphemed Jesus Christ still kept in their hands, as a book divinely inspired. He said to me, that as he heard it read, he felt an inward force upon him, which did so enlighten his mind, and convince him, that he could resist it no longer; for the words had an authority, which did shoot like rays or beams into his mind; so that he was not only convinced by the reasonings he had about it, which satisfied his understanding; but by a power which did so effectually constrain him, that he did ever after as firmly believe in his Saviour, as if he had seen him in the clouds. He had made it be read so often to him, that he had got it by heart; and went through a great part of it in discourse with me, with a sort of heavenly pleasure, giving me his reflections upon it. Some few I remember: Who hath believed our report? Here, he said, was foretold the opposition the gospel was to meet with from such wretches as he was.—He hath no form or comeliness: and when we shall see him, there is no beauty, that we should desire him. On this he said, the meanness of his appearance and person has made vain and foolish people disparage him, because he came not in such a fool's coat as they delight in, &c. &c." It were to be wished, that this "short account" of that nobleman, by this learned prelate, was in the hands of all who have any doubts about religion, natural or revealed! and God grant that the prophesy in question may have the same effect upon the minds of all, to convert them to, or confirm them in the belief, that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God!
Let us often view our divine Master in that amiable and affecting light in which he is here represented. Let us view him, though the Son of God, by a generation which none can fully declare, yet brought as a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before his shearers: nor let us refuse patiently to suffer with him, if called to it, in humble hope of reigning with him too, even though, like his, our judgment also should be taken away, and we be cut off from the land of the living.
When once men are come to a point, thus solemnly to give themselves up to the Lord, and have done it in his appointed method, let them, as they have reason, go on their way rejoicing, though Providence should separate from them those spiritual guides, who have been the happy instruments of their conversion and edification.
To conclude: The servants of Christ are called to glorify him in every different scene and station of life: happy, if in at least one state and country or another, they may spread the favour of his name, and gather in converts to him, whether from among the Sons of Israel, or of Ethiopia!
REFLECTIONS.—1st, We are told,
1. The pleasure and satisfaction which Saul took in seeing the first martyr bleed. He not only consented to the deed, but, as the word signifies, feasted his eyes with the shocking spectacle, in hopes that such sharp methods would soon put a stop to the progress of that gospel which he abhorred.
2. The chief priests and rulers determined to pursue their blow, and, while the fury of the people lasted, severely persecuted the church at Jerusalem; so that the preachers, who were the great objects of enmity, were forced to withdraw, and disperse themselves through Judea and Samaria, except the apostles, who still continued at Jerusalem, and were preserved safe from the rage of their blood-thirsty enemies.
3. Stephen's friends, devout men, eminent for their piety, dared, notwithstanding the danger to which they were exposed, to gather up his broken remains, and carried him to his burial; and though they could not but rejoice in his triumphant death, they bewailed their own and the church's loss, deprived of so able an advocate for the cause of Christ. Note; (1.) The departure of the eminent servants of Jesus demands a tear; though it be their gain, it is our loss, and we should weep for ourselves. (2.) The corpse is honourable in which a heavenly spirit has dwelt, and should be decently laid in the dust, in sure and certain confidence of a glorious resurrection, when it shall awake in brighter array.
4. Saul, the envenomed foe to the Christian name, a fiery zealot, the fittest tool the priests could have chosen for their service, made havock of the church, persecuting them even unto death, as he owns, (Acts) Acts 22:4.) entering into every house; and, sparing neither age nor sex; haling men and women, committed them to prison. To such low and dirty work does enmity against the gospel lead a man of note, a gentleman, a scholar; as if every mark of contempt and cruelty to a Christian was meritorious and commendable.
2nd, The attempt to extinguish and suppress the rising flame of Christianity, served but the more to spread the sacred fire. They that were scattered abroad, went every where preaching the word; not hiding themselves in corners, or seeking concealment by their silence; but publishing throughout the country the glad tidings of salvation by Jesus Christ. Philip, the second of the deacons, and now the first, since Stephen had finished his glorious course, was among the chief of these dispersed evangelists.
1. He went down to the city of Samaria, to the metropolis of the country, where Jesus had been formerly, (John 4:5.) and preached Christ unto them. As a herald, he publicly proclaimed his Saviour, as exalted to the throne of glory; and invited all to come and share the blessings of his happy government: and this must be our constant theme, Christ crucified, glorified.
2. Great was the success that attended his labours. The people with one accord, in general, gave heed unto those things which Philip spake; shewing the most serious attention to his discourses, hearing and seeing the miracles which he did, in proof of his divine mission, and of the gospel of Jesus which he declared unto them—miracles of the most stupendous nature, such as dispossessing unclean spirits, who with the utmost rage exclaimed at the power they could not withstand; curing the paralytic, and restoring the use of their limbs to the lame, when all human help was despaired of. And there was great joy in that city; the people transported, beheld those amazing works of divine power and grace, and rejoiced in the glad news of pardon and salvation preached to them through the Redeemer. Note; (1.) So far as the gospel effectually reaches the heart, Satan's power is broken, and his kingdom of uncleanness within is destroyed. (2.) The grace of God cures the moral impotence of our fallen nature, and enables the lame man to leap like a hart, and the paralytic soul to arise and run the way of God's commandments. (3.) The great things which make for our everlasting peace deserve our most serious attention; and the more we attend unto them, the more shall we consult our own happiness. (4.) True religion will make none melancholy; but wherever the gospel is known and believed, there the soul will taste the sweetest and most substantial joy.
3. What made the success of the gospel in this place still more extraordinary, was the delusion under which the people had lain, through the feats of a certain sorcerer named Simon, who had bewitched the people of Samaria, astonishing them with his magic arts and diabolical illusions; giving out that himself was some great one, the great God himself, or, as others suppose, the expected Messiah: and such was the influence which his pretended miracles had on the minds of the people, that they all gave heed unto him, from the least to the greatest, high and low, young and old, saying, This man is the great power of God; as if he was endued with Almighty power, equal to the great God himself; so strangely had he for a considerable time bewitched them with his sorceries.
4. The kingdom of Satan fell before the gospel word. When they believed Philip, preaching the things concerning the kingdom of God, the blessings and privileges, the doctrines and ordinances of it, and the name of Jesus Christ, as the great Saviour of lost sinners, the head of his church, the author of all mercies here, and of all glorious hopes for hereafter, they gladly embraced his salvation, abandoned the impostor Simon, and by baptism made open profession of their faith in Jesus, both men and women. Note; (1.) They who are most bewitched by Satan's sorceries, and the power of sin, are not beyond the recovering influence of the Redeemer's grace. (2.) When we truly believe in Jesus, we shall openly and boldly profess him before men.
5. Even Simon the magician himself was so astonished at the real miracles and signs which Philip wrought, that he believed also; so far, at least, as to make outward profession of Christ as the true Messiah, and to desire and be admitted to baptism in his name. Note; (1.) They who have been most atrociously wicked, when they make profession of repentance and conversion to God with apparent sincerity, are to be received cordially into the church, notwithstanding all that is past. (2.) Though many hypocrites may and do join themselves with God's people, yet we must leave men's hearts to the searcher of hearts, and judge of others with all candour and charity, till they give evident proofs of their unfaithfulness.
3rdly, The glad tidings soon reached Jerusalem, of the happy progress of the gospel in Samaria; and the apostles, for the furtherance of the blessed work, dispatched two of their body, St. Peter and St. John, immediately, to confirm the disciples, and communicate unto them the extraordinary gifts of the spirit. We have,
1. The success of their journey. They prayed for them, that they might receive the Holy Ghost, in his miraculous gifts, and be set on a level with the Jewish converts; for as yet he was fallen upon none of them, though they had experienced in a measure his illuminating influences upon their souls, in consequence of which they had been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus; but they had not yet, by any visible appearance of the Holy Ghost, received the gift of tongues, or of prophesy, or the power to work miracles. But when the apostles had prayed, and were assured of an answer to their requests, then laid they their hands on them, and they received the Holy Ghost in some visible manner. Note; Though we may not expect miraculous powers, yet the same Holy Ghost, in all his gracious influences, is still given in answer to the prayer of faith.
2. Simon's hypocrisy on this occasion appeared. When he saw that through laying on of the apostles' hands the Holy Ghost was given, he was vastly ambitious of possessing the same apostolic power, and thought he could well reimburse himself any expence, could he but obtain it; therefore, supposing their views as mercenary as his own, he offered them money, saying, Give me also this power, that on whomsoever I lay hands, he may receive the Holy Ghost; thus discovering both his ambition and avarice, and shewing the rottenness of his heart, notwithstanding his pretended conversion.
3. St. Peter, with abhorrence, rejects the proposal, and denounces his doom. Thy money perish with thee, thou and it must perish together, if in this temper of mind thou abidest: as for us, we detest thy mercenary offer, because thou hast thought that the gift of God may be purchased with money: an imagination as absurdly foolish, as impiously wicked. Thou hast neither part nor lot in this matter, art neither a partaker of the gifts nor graces of the Spirit, and as yet an alien from the kingdom of grace, and destitute of the hope of glory: for thy heart is not right in the sight of God; but under the specious profession of Christianity, lurks the foulest hypocrisy. Repent therefore of this thy wickedness, so great and aggravated, and pray God, if perhaps the thought of thine heart may be forgiven thee, and there be a possibility of pardon. For I perceive by this proposal, that thou art in the gall of bitterness; in a state of unregeneracy, under the dominion of the most abhorred corruptions, and in the bond of iniquity; enslaved by Satan and sin; and, as a criminal going to execution, exposed to the severest vengeance of an offended God. Note; (1.) The fatal bait of money—how many souls has it plunged into perdition and destruction? (2.) Where the heart is not right with God, though a form of godliness may conceal the hypocrisy from men, there is one that seeth and judgeth. (3.) They who are now held in bonds of iniquity, may assuredly expect to be bound over to everlasting shame and punishment. (4.) The vilest of sinners must not be abandoned, but still invited to repentance and prayer; while there is life, there is hope.
4. Simon, terrified at this dire commination and reproof, entreats their prayers for him; not so much that his heart might be renewed, as that the threatened vengeance might be averted: and this is a sure sign of an unhumbled spirit, when it is more affected with the dread of suffering, than with the evil of sin.
5. The apostles, when they had testified and preached the word of the Lord, confirming and establishing the faith of the disciples in Samaria, returned to Jerusalem, to give an account to their brethren of their proceedings and success; and, in their way, they preached the gospel in many villages of the Samaritans, improving every stage of their journey, and taking every opportunity of publishing the great salvation of their master Jesus. Let all the ministers of the gospel, in their spheres of action, imitate such worthy examples, preaching the word in season, and as some may think out of season.
4thly, We have the conversion of the Ethiopian eunuch, by whom it is generally supposed Christianity was first planted in Ethiopia, and the scripture in part fulfilled, Psalms 68:31.
1. Philip, who continued still at Samaria, is directed by an angel to depart thence, and go toward the south, unto the way that goeth down from Jerusalem unto Gaza, which is desert. And immediately, obedient to the heavenly call, he arose and went. Note; Though we see not at first the reasons on which God's providential disposition of us is founded, yet, when we bow to his command, we shall have cause to acknowledge his wisdom and goodness.
2. He there met a person of singular distinction, a man of Ethiopia, an inhabitant of Africa, an eunuch; either really such, they being formerly often preferred to the first offices of state; or this may signify his station at the court, as the word is used of Potiphar, (Gen 39:1 in the original,) being a man of great authority under Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, who had the charge of all her treasure, a post of distinguished eminence, and had come to Jerusalem for to worship, being a proselyte to their religion.
3. Philip receives an intimation from the Holy Spirit to go near and join himself to his chariot, where he found him reading aloud the prophet Esaias, perhaps the portions which he had heard expounded at Jerusalem; where, though he must have heard of Christ and his apostles, yet he seems to have paid no regard to them, and was returning attached as much as ever to the Jewish religion. Note; (1.) The Lord, by strange providences, often brings about great events; even when we travel on the road, we know not what good may be done, though among strangers, if we have but the heart to speak a word for Christ. (2.) The scriptures should be much in our hands; they are the best companions on our journies, and will supply matter for the choicest meditations. (3.) It is no evil for men of station and affluence to ride in their chariots, if that, as well as every other gift, be sanctified by the word of God, and by prayer.
4. Philip, hearing him read the prophet Esaias, puts a question to him of great moment, and which we should often put to ourselves, when perusing the sacred oracles, Understandest thou what thou readest? His reply was singularly humble: far from taking the question ill, though from a stranger on foot, and meanly dressed, he answers with the most modest acknowledgment of his own poor attainment, How can I, except some man should guide me? and, willing to be instructed, and glad to embrace every opportunity of increasing his knowledge of these blessed prophesies, he desired Philip, who appeared to be intelligent in these matters, to come up into the chariot, and sit with him, well judging, that the honour he did the evangelist would be abundantly repaid by the instructions he should receive. Note; To shew a teachable spirit, is the surest way to become wise unto salvation.
5. This illustrious Ethiopian, having seated him in the chariot, inquires of Philip the meaning of the passage he had been reading, Isa 53:7-8 where, according to the Septuagint version, it was written, He was led as a sheep to the slaughter; and like a lamb dumb before his shearer, so opened he not his mouth: in his humiliation his judgment was taken away, and who shall declare his generation? for his life is taken from the earth; the Ethiopian therefore begs Philip to inform him, of whom the prophet in this passage speaks, of himself or of some other man? Hereupon, Philip opened his mouth, and, glad of so fair an opportunity, began at the same scripture, and preached unto him Jesus, the great subject of the prophesy. He was the sheep led to the slaughter, willingly offering himself a sacrifice for the sins of the world; silent before his shearers as a lamb, neither upbraiding nor threatening, but meek and patient under all the indignities shewn him; he humbled himself to the lowest state, to the life of a servant, and the death of a slave: his judgment was taken away; he was treated in the most unjust and cruel manner, hurried from one judgment-seat to another; and, though confessedly innocent, executed as the vilest of malefactors: and who shall declare his generation? (See the Annotations on Isaiah 53:8.) for his life is taken from the earth, by wicked hands he was crucified and slain, cut off as a criminal unworthy to live. Yet God raised him from the dead, exalted him to his right hand, in token of his fullest approbation; and, having accepted his sacrifice, has given power to his ministers to preach remission of sins to all nations, and to administer baptism as the initiatory ordinance into his church.
6. Convinced of the truth by Philip's discourse, he embraced the gospel of Jesus, which the evangelist preached; and as they went on their way, Philip opening the truth at large, and the eunuch attentively listening, they came unto a certain water; when, desirous to make open profession of his faith by baptism, he humbly proposes that he might be baptized, if Philip had no objection. Philip said, If thou believest with all thine heart the great truths on which I have been discoursing, trusting on Jesus alone for pardon, righteousness, and salvation, and willing to yield thyself to his government and service, thou mayest. He answered, I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, the divine, all-sufficient, and promised Saviour, the true Messiah, God incarnate. Satisfied with this confession of his faith, Philip consents to his proposal; and, the eunuch ordering his chariot to stop, they went down both into or unto the water, both Philip and the eunuch; and he baptized him. Note; (1.) Faith is not a mere speculative assent to gospel truths, but the embracing with the heart a salvation suited to the case of a lost sinner. (2.) No man can truly and experimentally say that Jesus is the Christ, but by the Spirit of God.
7. Philip and the eunuch are parted as miraculously as they were brought together. When they were come up out of or from the water, the Spirit of the Lord caught away Philip, that the eunuch saw him no more; and this miracle served to bear testimony to Philip's doctrine; and he went on his way rejoicing in Christ Jesus, with whose salvation he was now become acquainted, and happy in the hope of carrying the glad tidings to his countrymen. But Philip was found at Azotus, or Ashdod, upwards of thirty miles from Gaza; and passing through he preached, as he travelled, in all the cities, till he came to Caesarea, where afterwards, it seems, he chiefly took up his abode.
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Coke, Thomas. "Commentary on Acts 8". Coke's Commentary on the Holy Bible. https://www.studylight.org/
the Second Week after Epiphany