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Bible Commentaries

Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible
Acts 8

 

 

Verse 1

‘And there arose on that day a great persecution against the church which was in Jerusalem, and they were all scattered abroad (‘sowed as seed’) throughout the regions of Judaea and Samaria, except for the apostles.’

The consequence of Stephen’s martyrdom was a clear recognition that these followers of their Messiah had become a menace and were enemies of Judaism. What might have been tolerated elsewhere could not be tolerated in Jerusalem, especially in such numbers. The result was that action was instigated in order to arrest all who followed Stephen’s pernicious ideas, and the Christians soon recognised that if they did not seek refuge outside Jerusalem they would all be put in prison. Thus they scattered throughout Judaea and Samaria. The persecution was not organised on a large enough scale to reach out as far as that. It was limited to religious minded Jerusalem. And as they went, they went everywhere preaching the word.

‘Except for the Apostles.’ The Apostles remained in Jerusalem. It was certainly brave of them, but they had probably decided that for the sake of those in the infant church in Jerusalem who could not flee they must be there to give them support. And there were also those in prison who had to be attended to. Jesus Himself had taught them the importance of visiting those in prison (Matthew 25:36; Matthew 25:39-40). The flourishing church had needed them. The sorely wounded church needed them more.

However, it may well be that as recognised figures who had themselves for years caused no trouble as they went about Jerusalem, they were not in quite the same danger as the Hellenistic Christians. They had after all not drawn down on themselves the wrath of the Hellenistic Jewish synagogues. Yet unquestionably some of the backlash would fall on them, for they could hardly avoid some of the blame resulting from the behaviour of men whom they had appointed to responsible positions in the church. On the other hand the authorities would probably think twice before they actually attacked these twelve men who were so popular among the people because they continually healed and cast out evil spirits. Indeed it is significant that no attempt seems to have been made at this stage to arrest the Apostles themselves.


Verses 1-25

The Expansion of The Church As A Result of Persecution (8:1-12:25).

How thrilled the Apostles must have been at this stage at the progress of the church. Through the first few years of the infant church they had suffered a few minor discomforts, but they had come through those triumphantly, and the church had continued to grow and grow. Jerusalem was ‘filled with their teaching’ and the work of caring for all the true people of God was now being successfully administered.

And then came the shock waves. It was like a spiritual earthquake. It seemed that Satan was not asleep or held fully in check after all. Suddenly there was devastation among the people of God. Many were being dragged off to prison, others recognised that they had no alternative but to flee for their lives and the lives of their families, and the carefully erected administration had collapsed. The Apostles now bravely remained in Jerusalem so as to care for the few who were left, and to visit in prison those who were being held in captivity. And as they looked around at the people that they now had to cater for, and the numbers crowded in the prisons, it must have appeared as though all their dreams were in tatters. It must have seemed as though they had to begin all over again.

But in truth the situation was the very opposite, for it was now that the expansion of the church began apace. As a result of the martyrdom of Stephen the Christians, who were now established and taught in the faith, were driven out of Jerusalem in all directions in accordance with Isaiah 2:3. When Jesus had originally sent out His disciples He had told them that if they were not received in one town, they had to go on to the next. For there was so much work to be done that it would never be finished before the Son of Man returned (Matthew 10:23). And now, in this situation, that was precisely what God was making them do. Within a few short months the Good News, which up to this point had been almost limited to a Jerusalem which must surely have been becoming Gospel saturated, would spread to all the neighbouring countries round about, and would establish a platform for reaching out to the rest of the world. And all as a result of this heart numbing catastrophe combined with the power of the Holy Spirit and the sovereign activity of God. It was the signal that Jerusalem had had its opportunity. Now it was time for the ends of the earth to know.

The sections that follow deal with the initial spread of the word, which divides neatly up into the following pattern:

a Scattered Christians preach in all directions, including Judaea and Galilee (Acts 8:4).

b Philip goes to the Samaritans, followed up by Peter and John - a distinctive outreach (Acts 8:5-25).

b Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch (Acts 8:26-39).

b Philip is found at Azotus (formerly Ashdod), where passing along the coastline he preaches the Good News to all the cities, until he comes to Caesarea (Acts 8:40). These cities would include Jamnia, Joppa, and Apollonia. And when he comes to Caesarea he settles down (Acts 21:8). It was of mixed Jewish and Gentile population and the seat of Roman government, and presented great opportunities for evangelism.

c Saul is converted in Damascus and proclaims the Good News there (Acts 9:1-26).

c Saul returns to Jerusalem and proclaims the Good News in the Hellenist synagogues at Jerusalem (Acts 9:27-30).

b Peter’s ministry is successful in Lydda where he heals the lame (Acts 9:32-35).

b Peter’s ministry is successful in Joppa where he raises the dead (Acts 9:36-43).

b Peter goes to the Gentiles and converts Cornelius and his household, and those in Jerusalem rejoice because God is reaching out to the Gentiles - a distinctive outreach (Acts 10:1 to Acts 11:18).

a Scattered Christians preach successfully in Phoenicia and Cyprus to Jews only, but then in Syrian Antioch, first to Jews and then to Gentiles. The work in Antioch is confirmed by Barnabas who calls in Saul (Acts 11:19-26).

Note the carefully worked out pattern, which could be even more particularised. It consists of a general description followed by three ministries of Philip, commencing with the ministry to the Samaritans (a new distinctive outreach), then central is Paul’s conversion and new ministry, then come three ministries of Peter, possibly following up on Philip’s ministry in Acts 8:40, finalising in Peter’s ministry to Gentiles (a new distinctive outreach), and then another general description.

This is all then followed by a description of events in and around Jerusalem, while the word of God grew and multiplied (Acts 11:27 to Acts 12:25).

The complexity of the construction of Acts, and the warning lest we too glibly divide it up into our patterns comes out in that the above analysis overlaps into what might be seen as two sections ending in their summaries (see introduction to chapter 1). Luke has a number of strands going at the same time. We do him an injustice not to recognise the fact.

A further interesting part of the pattern is found in the descriptions of the conversion of three vital figures, the Ethiopian eunuch, Saul of Tarsus, and Cornelius the Centurion. Note the huge contrast, the powerful minister of state, the devoted Pharisee and student of Gamaliel, and the officer in the army of occupation, and yet all in their own way men who were earnestly seeking righteousness and truth. In each case Christian men are directed to go to them. In each case those to be converted are chosen men. In each case a vision or equivalent is involved. In each case they are led to Christ by God’s chosen instrument. In each case they are baptised. And yet the differences are many too. They are not just reproductions. But they do bring out that God is at work not only on multitudes, but on individuals, as he expands the Kingly Rule of God.

The Consequences of the Death of Stephen.

The result of the death of Stephen was that Christians had to flee from Jerusalem, and this certainly included Philip, one of the Hellenists appointed along with Stephen. Indeed the six who remained of the original seven were probably targeted as known associates of Stephen. It must be seen as quite probable that the Hellenistic Christian Jews were the most prominent target of the persecution, a persecution probably largely pursued by their antagonists in the Hellenistic synagogues (compare Acts 9:29), as well as especially by Saul, who was himself one of the Hellenists, although a very Hebrew one. They wanted to demonstrate to their Hebrew brethren that they too were true Jews (the Hellenists who had come to live in Jerusalem, and who had not already been converted, would tend to be those most fanatically gripped by Jewishness).

But behind the flight of the people of God was God Himself. Without that flight the impetus to spread the Good News widely would have been absent. They had felt it necessary to concentrate mainly on Jerusalem, but it was now His purpose that the word might spread far beyond the walls of Jerusalem. He was fulfilling the prophecy of Isaiah 2:3, ‘Out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem’.

This was taking place some years after the crucifixion during which time the church had become well established in Jerusalem. This is evident from the fact that the events of the previous chapters of Acts require such a length of time for their fulfilment. How far the Apostles were involved in the persecution we do not know, although we do know that they remained in Jerusalem (Acts 8:1). Perhaps they were seen as still under the protection of the Sanhedrin’s edict that they be left alone. And perhaps their known loyalty to the Temple, (for they met there regularly), marked them off as giving full respect to the Temple and as not following the heresy of Stephen. It might have been argued that, while they were known Messianists, they had never been heard to speak against the Temple and the Law. They may have been seen as dutiful in following their religious responsibilities so that the Pharisees had nothing against them, for there were many priests and Christian Pharisees among their number who would maintain their Jewishness. Thus they may have been left alone. With their reputations it is certainly difficult to see how the Apostles could have remained hidden. They were still no doubt performing signs and wonders, and people would still be seeking them out. But there was still a strong sense of Jewishness among the early Judaistic church and that probably helped them. (Consider how the Apostles are later called to task by Hebrew Christians when they are thought to have erred from a Judaistic emphasis - Acts 11:2).

But having said all that danger had to lurk for them. While the persecution may have majored on the Hellenistic Christians, the Hebrew Christians would be drawn in by association. They certainly had no certainty that they would be spared. And the impression given is that Saul was determined to hunt down any Christians that he could find. Thus it took a great deal of courage to remain in Jerusalem. But now full of the Holy Spirit that was not something that any of the twelve Apostles lacked.

However, while devastating at the time the persecution accomplished what the passage of time had failed to accomplish, not only the spreading of the Good News, but also the gentle separating of the Jewish church from its extreme Jewishness. Christian Jews were being faced up with a choice of adherence, whether to the Jewish authorities, or to the wider church. And the persecution would help them to make up their minds. The grip of Judaism was being slowly relaxed.


Verse 2

‘And devout men buried Stephen, and made great lamentation over him.’

Meanwhile some very brave and devout men obtained the body of Stephen for burial. For ‘devout men’ compare Acts 2:5. They may have been supporters of Stephen, or of those pious Jews who like Joseph of Arimathea sought to disassociate themselves from the acts of their fellow Jews on such occasions (compare Luke 23:50-53), on a similar basis to that of the Jewish women who saw it as their duty to provide wine to executed criminals (Mark 15:23). To make great lamentation over a recognised heretic who had been stoned for blasphemy required great bravery. Public mourning for such was probably even at this time forbidden (as it certainly was later). Thus in ‘coming together to bury’ him they were taking both their reputations and their lives in their hands. But Luke wants us to recognise that Stephen was honoured in his death, and was deeply mourned. For these mourners, whether they knew it or not, were acting on behalf of the whole church. His body was not tossed onto the burning rubbish heap outside Jerusalem in the valley of Hinnom. It was given decent burial. And the man it represented was deeply mourned.


Verse 3

‘But Saul laid waste the church, entering into every house, and, dragging men and women, committed them to prison.’

There is a deliberate contrast here. While ‘devout men’ were burying the fiery Stephen, Saul, the equally fiery disciple of Gamaliel, was determined to bury the whole church. Not one to wait around he had followed up his actions at the stoning by seeking authority from the High Priest to act against the new church (Acts 26:10; compare Acts 9:2 which confirms that he also later obtained the sanction of the High Priest to go to Damascus). Then taking with him a band of men, possibly temple police, he began to enter the houses of the new people of God and drag men and women to prison. He also arranged for many of them to be examined and beaten in synagogues (Acts 22:19) and sought to get them to blaspheme, possibly by cleverly making the simpler Christians say things which they did not understand, but which were seen as blasphemy, or possibly by making them renounce Christ (Acts 26:11). It appears that at this stage a number were put to death for blasphemy (Acts 26:10). He was a man driven by an awareness that,, with all that he was, it was not good enough for God. He had not done enough to deserve His favour. He must do more.

‘Laid waste, treated shamefully.’ A strong word used of savaging by wild beasts. He was behaving like a wild beast himself. Here was religious zeal in its most twisted form. And yet it was the same zeal that would shortly make him the church’s champion. His behaviour may well have denoted the wrestlings of his own conscience. Men often fight their own doubts by trying violently to prove to themselves that they are right.


Verse 4

‘They therefore who were scattered abroad, went about preaching the word.’

The violence and inexorability of the persecution resulted in the scattering abroad of the church. But what seemed to be a setback became an opportunity. God had decided that it was now time for the church to expand. All over Judaea appeared men proclaiming the Kingly Rule of God (Acts 8:12) and the new Messiah (Acts 8:5) and His teaching.

‘Preaching the word.’ Literally ‘proclaiming the good news of the word’.

The Ministry of Philip in Samaria.

One such was Philip who now proclaimed Christ in Samaria where he was well received. As a refugee from persecution in Jerusalem he would be especially welcomed. At this time the Samaritans looked fairly equably on Jews as long as they were not connected with Jerusalem.

The Samaritans were as a whole despised by the Jews as ‘half breed’ Jews, but they too believed in the Law of Moses, having their own version of the Pentateuch, and in general observed the laws of cleanliness. They also awaited a ‘Coming One’, the Taheb, the deliverer, an idea based on Deuteronomy 18:15. Thus they were seen as a kind of half-Jew. While the Pharisees and Sadducees would not want to have dealings with them, they were not seen as total outcasts like the Gentiles, and feelings between Jews and Samaritans rose and fell like a barometer. The impression we have is that at the time of Jesus’ ministry there was a level of tolerance, at least from the Samaritan point of view, as long as the Jew was not involved with Jerusalem (Luke 9:52-53; Luke 10:33; Luke 17:11; Luke 17:16; John 4). Thus a man who was fleeing from persecution in Jerusalem would be doubly welcome.

They were centred around Shechem, and ‘the city of Samaria’ may be Shechem itself. The chief city of the area was Sebaste, but that was mainly of foreign population. While it is not certain where the Samaritans came from they may well have been made up of a population which resulted partly from the Israelites left in the north after the northern exile, who separated themselves off in order to keep their religion pure, although possibly intermingling with foreigners by marriage, although their exact source is not known. They had at one stage erected their own Temple on Mount Gerizim, but that was destroyed by John Hyrcanus in 2nd century BC, something for which they never forgave Jerusalem. Their feelings about this were indeed so intense that when Herod offered to rebuild their Temple they refused as soon as they learned that he would also be rebuilding the Jerusalem Temple. This brings out their intense hatred of Jerusalem. We learn from the Gospels that once they had learned that Jesus was bound for Jerusalem they had refused to receive Him (Luke 9:52-53), while at a time when He was leaving Jerusalem they welcomed Him gladly (John 4).

However, unknown to Philip these Samaritans held in awe one Simon, who proclaimed himself the Great One, who had continually impressed them with his magic and sorceries. And he held them in his thrall. But now a greater than Simon was to be introduced to them.


Verse 5

‘And Philip went down to the city of Samaria, and proclaimed to them the Christ.’

‘He proclaimed to them the Christ.’ The spread of the Good News went further than Judaea, it reached into Samaria. Such an action would have Jesus’ seal of approval on it as all knew (John 4). While Jews might avoid the Samaritans, Jesus had made quite clear that they should be welcomed under the Kingly Rule of God. So Philip boldly went among them proclaiming that the Messiah had come, and calling on them to respond to Him, thus fulfilling the command in Acts 1:8.

‘The city of Samaria.’ It is not quite certain what city this involves. It was almost certainly not Sebaste, the very Romanised capital city of the region filled with foreigners. It might have been Sychar which Jesus had evangelised (John 4) with the article pointing to the city known from Christian tradition, or it may have been Shechem, where the Samaritans were centred, or it may be just be a vague description indicating that he preached in Samaritan cities.


Verse 6-7

‘And the multitudes gave heed with one accord to the things which were spoken by Philip, when they heard, and saw the signs which he did. For from many of those who had unclean spirits, they came out, crying with a loud voice, and many who were palsied, and who were lame, were healed.’

His message was supported with signs and wonders beyond anything that they had seen before. Unclean spirits were cast out, and paralysed and lame people were healed. This went beyond anything that Simon could do. Thus they took notice also of Philip’s message, and responded to it.


Verse 8

‘And there was much joy in that city.’

Joy was one of the fruits of the new message (Acts 2:28; Acts 13:52; Acts 15:3; Acts 20:24 compare Galatians 5:22). The Holy Spirit was already at work.


Verses 9-11

‘But there was a certain man, Simon by name, who before that time in the city used sorcery, and amazed the people of Samaria, giving out that he himself was some great one, to whom they all gave heed, from the least to the greatest, saying, “This man is that power of God which is called Great.” And they gave heed to him, because that of long time he had amazed them with his sorceries.’

Living among them was a man named Simon who had wooed them with sorcery, and had claimed to be a god-like figure. His powers were such that he had mesmerised the people into following him and calling him ‘the Great One, the Power of God’. In Judaism God was sometimes called ‘the Great One’. But he had clearly been unable to do anything like Philip did. Note that it is repeated twice that he ‘amazed’ the people and that they ‘gave heed’ to him. His grip was strong. But it was not sufficient to prevent them from turning to the Messiah Whom Philip proclaimed. For here they recognised was a greater power.

‘That power of God which is called Great.’ The description may suggest that Luke is quoting his source without fully comprehending what the religious significance of the title was.

Later church history would speak a great deal about a Simon Magus who was a great heretic and was supposed to have founded a Gnostic sect, but there is no certainty that it was this Simon. Simon Magus’ name first occurs in the writings of Justin Martyr, who was himself a Samaritan. But Justin does not make any identification with Acts. His name then occurs in Irenaeus, Hippolytus, the Acts of Peter with Simon, and other fictional works. He may well have been a totally different Simon whose life history became intermingled with this ones, for the Simon here in Acts does seem to be portrayed as becoming a genuine, if somewhat mixed up, believer.


Verse 12

‘But when they believed Philip preaching good tidings concerning the kingly rule of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptised, both men and women.’

Philip proclaimed the Kingly Rule of God and the name of Jesus Messiah, and the Samaritans, both men and women, heard and believed, with the result that they were baptised, declaring by this the desire to participate in the new age of the Spirit. But significantly they are portrayed as not ‘receiving the Spirit’. They are in a similar position to those whom John baptised (compare Acts 19:1-6). God is deliberately ensuring that these Samaritans recognise that they are to be seen as one with the ‘Apostolic church’, and, until they are, withholds the new power of the Holy Spirit. They experience the same activity of the Holy Spirit as the disciples of John did (Matthew 21:31-32), but not the full experience of Pentecost. Had this not been the case they might well have seen no need for Apostles from the hated Jerusalem, even if they too were semi-refugees.


Verse 13

‘And Simon also himself believed, and being baptised, he continued with Philip, and beholding signs and great miracles wrought, he was amazed.’

‘Also himself believed.’ Simon also believed and was baptised. If there had been any hint when Luke wrote this that his conversion was not genuine, Luke would surely have worded it differently. We must not find ourselves too persuaded by myths and legends just because they are ‘interesting’.

And just as the lame man in the Temple ‘laid hold’ of the Apostles, so Simon ‘continued with’ Philip. And he beheld the signs and great miracles that Philip wrought, and he was amazed. There is a deliberate comparison here with Acts 8:9-11, which stresses how superior Philip was to Simon. The amazer was amazed.


Verses 14-17

‘Now when the apostles who were at Jerusalem heard that Samaria had received the word of God, they sent to them Peter and John, who, when they were come down, prayed for them, that they might receive the Holy Spirit, for as yet he was fallen on none of them, only they had been baptised into the name of the Lord Jesus. Then they laid their hands on them, and they received the Holy Spirit.’

News of the great work which was taking place in Samaria reached Jerusalem and the Apostles immediately despatched Peter and John in order to confirm the work. It was clear that the Apostles kept closely in touch with all that was happening among the scattered Christians, and sought to oversee it by sending different pairs of Apostles to any place where a work began to gain momentum. They were rightly concerned that the church remain as a unity. But the purpose in their going was to act as a strengthener to Philip, and to confirm the oneness of the people of God, not to replace him. They found Philip a little perplexed. There could be no doubt that these people had believed with all their hearts, but in spite of the fact that they had also been baptised, the signs of the presence of the Holy Spirit were lacking.

When the Apostles heard this they prayed that the believing Samaritans might receive the Holy Spirit. Then they laid their hands on them and the result was that they did receive the Holy Spirit. The laying on of hands is always for the purpose of identification. Here the two Apostles were identifying these people with themselves in the church of God, and with the Jerusalem church, and simultaneously acknowledging Philip’s ministry. This laying on of hands was uniquely important here for it established the oneness between the new Samaritan church and the church in Jerusalem. Compare Acts 13:3 where the laying on of hands was in order to identify Barnabas and Paul as representatives of the church.

Here the result of the laying on of hands was identification, and as prepared vessels, once the identification had take place, the Holy Spirit was received. But we should not see the Holy Spirit as communicated by the laying on of hands (that was Simon’s error). While the Holy Spirit came because of their identification with the church at Jerusalem He did not come from the Apostles, he came from the Baptiser in the Holy Spirit. As we learn of Timothy, his gift came ‘by prophesy and the laying on of the hands of the elders’ (1 Timothy 4:14). It was not just a case of the elders deciding to lay their hands on him. And shortly Cornelius and his colleagues will receive the Spirit without laying on of hands, as the disciples had at Pentecost.

‘Baptised into the Name of the LORD Jesus.’ This is Luke’s equivalent of Matthew 28:19-20. We have to remember in both cases that ‘the Name’ in the Old Testament was YHWH, which in the Greek Old Testament was translated as ‘the LORD’. Thus the Name into which believers are to be baptised in both Matthew and Luke is that of ‘the LORD’, which is why in both cases the baptism is ‘into (eis) the Name’. And although that Name is here defined as ‘the LORD, that is Jesus’, while in Matthew 28:19 it is ‘the Name (i.e. ‘the LORD’ - YHWH) which is the Name of Father, Son and Holy Spirit’, it is in both cases the same name (the LORD - YHWH).

Here, however, because Luke wants us to recognise that ‘the LORD’ can be equated with Jesus, he only connects Jesus with the Name (just as in Philippians 2:9-11 Paul tells us that Jesus has the Name which is above every name, the Name of ‘the LORD’, of ‘Yahweh’). Matthew stresses the equation of the Name (LORD -YHWH) with Father, Son and Holy Spirit. But we should take note that this is not just baptism into the name of Jesus, it is baptism into the NAME.

Note on Baptism into the Name.

We should perhaps here list each of the references to baptism as they relate to ‘the Name’.

· In Acts 28:19 converts are to be baptised ‘into (eis) the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit’.

· In Acts 8:16; Acts 19:5 people were baptised ‘into the Name of the LORD Jesus.’

· In Acts 2:38 people are to be baptised ‘on (epi) the Name of Jesus Messiah unto forgiveness of our sins.’

· In Acts 10:48 they are to be baptised ‘in (en) the Name of Jesus Messiah’.

· In Acts 22:16 Paul is told, ‘arising be baptised and wash away your sins, calling on the Name of the LORD.’

It will be noted that there is a certain consistency here. When eis is used baptism is either into the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit (which must mean the NAME of YHWH, ‘the LORD’) or is into ‘the Name of the LORD Jesus’. Thus in all three cases emphasis is on ‘the LORD (YHWH)’.

When baptism is related to the Name of Jesus Messiah it is either ‘on’ or ‘in’, and in the case of the former the baptism is ‘into the remission of sins’. But we should here note that the Name of Jesus is said in Philippians 2:9-11 to be the name above every name, the name of LORD (YHWH). So even in these cases baptism is ‘in the LORD’.

End of Note.

At this point something happened which Simon ‘saw’. But there are only very minimal grounds for saying that this was the speaking in tongues. That had occurred only once, and then on an unusual occasion (Acts 2:5-11). There was no mention of tongues when the Apostles received the Holy Spirit in John 20:22. Nor has there been mention of tongues since Pentecost. Nor were any of the Samaritans likely to have needed the evidence of ‘other tongues’. They all spoke Aramaic. Thus what Simon saw may have been a new abounding joy (Acts 13:52), expressions of tumultuous praise, and spiritual prophesying (Acts 19:6). What Simon saw was the burgeoning of their new faith which found expression in exalted praise and worship beyond the norm, gifts which would ensure the maintenance of the church once Philip had left them.

Note.

This interesting passage destroys all attempts to tie God’s activity in with man’s ordinances. The Holy Spirit came neither on their being baptised, nor on their first believing. Nor is He said to have been manifested in tongues. What then does it reveal? It reveals that God gives the Holy Spirit as He wills. This is not referring to being born of the Spirit, which comes as a result of believing, but seemingly rather refers to the special indwelling of the Holy Spirit by which we become part of His body, and of His Temple, the new special gift at Pentecost. At Pentecost it had come on those already born of the Spirit, and even on those who had ‘received the Holy Spirit’ in the Upper Room. And this, like that, was an unusual circumstance. It was at a time when the unity of the church as one had to be maintained. God did not want a fellowship of Samaritan believers which was not in fellowship with the fellowship of Jerusalem believers. (As we have seen the Samaritans hated Jerusalem. But now that they had learned that the church in Jerusalem were almost as hated in Jerusalem as they were, it was a different matter). Thus he ensured that the Samaritans recognised that their blessing only came once they were in fellowship with the church in Jerusalem.

End of note.


Verse 18-19

‘Now when Simon saw that through the laying on of the apostles’ hands the Holy Spirit was given, he offered them money, saying, “Give me also this power, that on whoever I lay my hands, he may receive the Holy Spirit.” ’

Simon had possibly gained great wealth by training up disciples and enabling them to practise what he practised, and he had probably himself also bought information on how to perform sorcery from other practitioners. (Many wonder workers travelled around the Roman world practising their arts, amazing people by their tricks, and in some cases genuinely believing that they had some supernatural power, and it was no doubt standard practise to charge for expertise). Thus when he saw that the Apostles were able to give the Holy Spirit simply by the laying on of hands, a gift which manifested itself in the exalting of men’s hearts to God, he naturally assumed that their ability could be bought and paid for. Here were wonder workers on a large scale. He therefore probably offered them a great deal of money. To his mind this was something worth having. He would not think that he was acting against God. Did he not want the gift so that he could serve God? But where he failed was in not recognising that God came under no man’s control. He had to be delivered from his mind set. He had to learn that what God gave was free for all who would rightly believe, and not within man’s control.

In the idolatrous world priesthoods could be bought and sold, along with the supposed influences that they exerted on the gods. And it is salutary to think that had he approached a much later church they would gladly have given him what they thought was this gift in return for money and submission to them. Like Simon the later church would try to control God’s activity and make it subject to their will. But in what happened to Simon here all future ‘sacerdotal priesthood’ is condemned. That had failed miserably in the Old Testament era. Now God gave freely and with no strings attached, in cooperation with those who were truly devoted to Him, because of the sacrifice offered once for all in Jesus Christ.


Verse 20-21

‘But Peter said to him, “Your silver perish with you, because you have thought to obtain the gift of God with money. You have neither part nor lot in this matter, for your heart is not right before God.”

Peter replied in his usual forthright manner. The man who had had to declare, ‘silver and gold have I none’ (Acts 3:6) now revealed it for what it was. What Simon had done put him in danger of perishing, and his silver along with him. He was revealing himself as being totally earthly minded with no understanding of the things of the Spirit, and as thinking that he could barter and control the things of God. This revealed a heart that was not right in God’s eyes.

‘Your silver perish with you.’ Literally ‘may your silver be for destruction along with you.’ Similar curse formulae have been found among pagan magical papyri. It was clearly a recognised form of curse. However, Peter does not intend it as a definite curse but as a warning, and a reminder that the imperishable cannot be purchased with the perishable. If he does not repent the curse will stand.

‘You have neither part nor lot in this matter, for your heart is not right before God.’ (For the phraseology compare Deuteronomy 12:12). Peter is stressing that no one can have any part or lot in spiritual things unless their hearts are right in the sight of God. Without that all attempts to convey spiritual gifts or enjoy spiritual gifts would be in vain. The spiritual is only available to spiritual men (compare 1 Corinthians 2:9-16).


Verse 22-23

“Repent therefore of this your wickedness, and pray the Lord, if perhaps the thought of your heart shall be forgiven you. For I see that you are in the gall of bitterness and in the bond of iniquity.”

He therefore calls on him to have a full and genuine change of heart and mind on the matter, and to pray to God for forgiveness for the thought of his heart. But forgiveness would only be his if he truly had a change of heart, sufficient to satisfy God. No glib repentance would be acceptable.

‘I see that you are in the gall of bitterness and in the bond of iniquity.’ ‘The gall of bitterness.’ This has in mind Deuteronomy 29:18 where the man who in reality has a root in himself which bears gall and bitter wormwood, blesses himself in his heart because he thinks that he can have peace even though he walks in the imagination of his own heart. He deceives himself into thinking that God will overlook his rebelliousness. This was precisely what Simon was doing. ‘The bond of iniquity.’ Compare ‘loose the bonds of wickedness ‘ in Isaiah 58:6. Simon too must loose the bond of wickedness by genuine repentance.

(We note here that Peter does not suggest that he has the power to forgive sins, but rather the opposite. If he is to be forgiven God must forgive him).


Verse 24

‘And Simon answered and said, “You pray for me to the Lord, that none of the things which you have spoken come on me.” ’

Simon then pleads with Peter to pray that none of these things come on him. He probably did not know the context of Peter’s quotations but recognised that they spelt awful calamity. Nothing is further said about the incident. This leaving an incident in mid-air is typical of the Bible elsewhere. When Scripture leaves something in the air like this it usually signifies that what was spoken of followed. Thus we have the right here to assume that Peter did pray for him, and that he was forgiven. He was after all new in the faith and had needed his thinking sorting out, and deliverance from what had previously gripped him. And his request for their assistance in prayer was understandable in the light of Peter’ strong language. He wanted Peter to remove the ‘curse’ he had put on him. And we may assume that as Luke remains silent on the matter he intends us to see that that is what happened.

Looking back at the New Testament we forget that many new converts had no background in the things of God. While the ministry was to Jews or even to Samaritans they had the background of the Law to call on, but Gentiles and men like Simon had no background in the word of God. Their thinking was fashioned by the pagan world around them. Thus when they were converted their first faltering steps would often reveal them to be at fault. Simon was no exception. The point therefore here is that he learned a valuable lesson which would hopefully completely alter his way of thinking, and was also a salutary lesson for all who would read Luke’s words.


Verse 25

‘They therefore, when they had testified and spoken the word of the Lord, returned to Jerusalem, and preached the gospel to many villages of the Samaritans.’

Then once Peter and John, impressed by the work among Samaritans, had further ministered to them and to Samaritans in other villages, they returned to Jerusalem, being satisfied that all was being done rightly. Meanwhile they also themselves took the opportunity to proclaim the Good News to many Samaritan villages. They approved of Philip’s ministry and desired to extend it. In view of the fact that they had been with Jesus at Sychar (John 4) they could hardly do any other.

And thus was healed by the message of Christ the first great division known to the Apostles, the division between Jew and Samaritan. Here was an outward declaration of the success of the ministry of reconciliation. Jews from Jerusalem and Samaritans from Samaria were seen as having fellowship as one. It could never have happened without Christ. But there is a subsidiary question. Could it ever have happened unless there had been persecution in Jerusalem? God knew precisely what He was doing.


Verse 26

‘But an angel of the Lord spoke to Philip, saying, “Arise, and go toward the south to the way which goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza. The same is desert.’

The ‘angel of the Lord’ tells Philip that he must rise and go south towards ancient Gaza, a city slightly inland which, in contrast with new port of Gaza, was mainly in ruins. It was on the road from Jerusalem to Egypt. And on the way which led there, in a place where the land tended to be deserted, he would learn what he must do. The description ‘the bit which is desert’ probably indicated a well know place on that road at the time. That the man was to be found there indicated pictorially the thirst that possessed his soul. Or it may mean that the old Gaza was like a desert, ‘Gaza the deserted’ (in contrast with ‘maritime Gaza’). Either way there is the hint that the man’s soul was needing ‘water’ and that his salvation would come from the wilderness, as had the living oracles and Tabernacle of old (Acts 7:38; Acts 7:44-49).

‘An angel of the Lord.’ In the Old Testament ‘the angel of the Lord’ appears throughout, from Genesis to Zechariah, as representing God Himself in a kind of extended self. The description often indicates the actual appearance of Him in discernible form, but is regularly used of God making a communication with a specific person. Here it may simply be indicating that Philip was so conscious of a presence with him that he thought in such terms, something which went beyond his usual experience of the Holy Spirit.


Verses 26-39

The Ministry of Philip To The Ethiopian Eunuch (8:26-39).

Meanwhile God was now satisfied that the Samaritan church was sufficiently equipped to carry on and He calls Philip elsewhere to where there is a lonely searching soul. It was to a man, and a very important one, who had been visiting Jerusalem but was still unsatisfied. He held a high position under the queen of ‘Ethiopia’ (Nubia), and was at the minimum a God-fearer, a man who respected the Jewish Law and, without being ready to be circumcised (possibly prevented in his case by the fact that he was a eunuch), worshipped in the local synagogue along with the Jews. He may even have been a proselyte or a true-born Nubian Jew. If he was a God-fearer this would be the first known overt example of a Gentile coming to Christ, an indication by God of what was to come.

This is not just to be seen as an interesting account of an unusual conversion. It is an integral part of the depiction of the spreading of the Good News as a result of the persecution. It is made clear that, through Philip, God, having worked through him to the north of Jerusalem among Samaritans, now purposed through him to wing the Good News to North Africa, to the south of Jerusalem (‘to Samaria and to the uttermost part of the earth’ - Acts 1:8).

As the Ethiopian high official travelled he was reading the book of Isaiah. To possess such a document demonstrated both how devout, and how wealthy and influential he was. And his heart was taken up with the description of the Servant of God that he found described there (Isaiah 53), a description which he found very puzzling, so that he looked to God for help. But there was no one who could explain it to him. Until from the desert a man came, almost like an angel from Heaven. Luke undoubtedly wishes us to see here that the Temple and all the glory of Jerusalem had been able to accomplish nothing, while light and truth came to him from the wilderness, just as Stephen had said (Acts 7:38; Acts 7:44-49). And as he went back to Nubia his thoughts were now not on the Temple at Jerusalem, but on the Messiah to Whom he had been introduced in the wilderness.


Verse 27-28

‘And he arose and went, and behold, a man of Ethiopia, a high official (or ‘eunuch’) of great authority under Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, who was over all her treasure, who had come to Jerusalem to worship, was returning and sitting in his chariot, and was reading the prophet Isaiah.’

Obediently Philip arose and went. And there in the place described he found a large and richly laden caravan travelling along the road, with, included within it, a splendid chariot or covered ox wagon, carrying someone who was clearly of great importance. He was to learn that the man came from Nubia, where he had overall control of the ‘Ethiopian’ treasury on behalf of the queen. He was her Minister of Finance. And he had visited Jerusalem in order to worship there.

Many such God-fearers sought at some time to make the trip to Jerusalem where they could be at the very heart of the religion that they respected and adhered to. To many it would be the trip of a lifetime, and they would remember their first glorious view of the Temple, the richly garbed High Priest, and the high emotional and religious atmosphere for ever. But it had probably not fulfilled all his expectations. Being the influential person he was he would probably have had personal contact with the hierarchy and may well have been shocked by their worldliness and political ambitions, having dreamed of meeting men of deep spirituality. He had had such hopes. He might well have been disillusioned. Thus as he left there he had in his heart a yearning for something more, and hungry of soul he was reading the Scriptures. Little did he realise that soon there would approach him a refugee fleeing from the High Priest, but who was the representative of the Angel of the Lord, and he would get to the root of his dilemma.

‘A high official/eunuch of great authority.’ Many men of high position were eunuchs, for it made them safe to be among the women of the court, and not a threat to the throne by producing children. And this man was of high position indeed. But if he was a eunuch it could only make him feel inferior in his relationship to the God of Judaism, for eunuchs were seen as restricted in their approach to God (Deuteronomy 23:1 as interpreted in 1st century AD). It may, however, be that the term here simply means ‘high court official’, as it often does.

‘Candace, queen of the Ethiopians.’ Or more probably of those in the region of Upper Nubia. ‘Candace’ would be her throne name. Nubian women rulers bearing this title during the Hellenistic period are well attested in ancient literature. She ruled on behalf of her son who as the child of the sun god was considered too ‘holy’ to be involved in mundane affairs. Her real name may have been Amanitare


Verse 29

‘And the Spirit said to Philip, “Go near, and join yourself to this chariot.” ’

It was quite normal for solitary travellers to join themselves up with a travelling caravan for safety reasons, and so Philip’s approach would neither be resented nor suspected. Others would be walking with the caravan. But Philip knew that God had sent him here for a purpose, and sensing the prompting of the Spirit, he recognised that he had to approach The Man himself. Thus he attached himself to his conveyance and ran alongside.


Verse 30

‘And Philip ran to him, and heard him reading Isaiah the prophet, and said, “Do you understand what you are reading?” ’

The man was following the usual practise of reading aloud. And when Philip gathered that he was reading a well known passage in the prophet Isaiah he asked him whether he understood what he was reading. This was clearly intended to give the impression that he could help. Such a high personage would not expect some stranger to come up just for a chat.


Verse 31

‘And he said, “How can I, except some one will guide me?” And he begged Philip to come up and sit with him.’

When the man saw that he was a Jew, and assumed from what he had said that he was also a teacher in the Scriptures who was offering assistance, he expressed his own helplessness and his need for a guide. And he begged Philip to join him in his chariot and explain it to him.


Verse 32-33

‘Now the passage of the Scripture which he was reading was this, “He was led as a sheep to the slaughter; And as a lamb before his shearer is dumb, So he opens not his mouth. In his humiliation his judgment was taken away. His generation who shall declare? For his life is taken from the earth.” ’

The passage he was reading came from Isaiah 53 LXX, the main chapter about the Suffering Servant. To seek, as some have done, to rid this quotation of its sacrificial significance is frankly incredible. A lamb led to the slaughter in the context of Isaiah 53 would for any Christian be a sacrificial lamb (compare John 1:29; 1 Corinthians 5:7). And all lambs led to the slaughter within the vicinity of Jerusalem had to be offered on the altar. Besides these were simply the verses that Philip heard him reading. Prior to Philip’s approach he would have read the previous verses. It is so extremely unlikely as to be impossible that in the context Philip would only expound on the verses he had heard him read, and avoid mentioning the verses he had previously read.

In context the picture expressed here is of One spoken of as being led like a sacrificial lamb to His death, having been wrongly judged, but silent like a sheep before his shearers in the face of his humiliation, with the result that His life was taken from the earth. And in the context this both refers back to His sufferings on behalf of ‘us’ (Isaiah 53:4-5) and His having laid on Him the iniquity of us all (Isaiah 53:6), and forward to His being made a guilt offering for sin (Isaiah 53:10). Scholars and the Ethiopian official may have had difficulty with these verses but we doubt whether either Philip or Luke had (see Luke 22:37).


Verse 34

‘And the eunuch answered Philip, and said, “I pray you, of whom is the prophet saying this? Of himself, or of some other?” ’

The eunuch was neither the first nor the last to be puzzled by these verses. But he was astute enough to recognise that the words were about some individual. But who? That was what he wanted to know. Was it the prophet himself, or was it speaking of someone else?


Verse 35

‘And Philip opened his mouth, and beginning from this Scripture, preached to him Jesus.’

Then Philip took the chapter he had been reading and applied it to Jesus, and his explanation on this chapter is stated to have been only the ‘beginning’. We do not know how long his explanation went on for, but he had plenty of time in which to tell him of the birth, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus, and to draw attention to how it fulfilled the Scriptures, and to mention some of the teaching of Jesus contained in the tradition of the church, including such words as Mark 10:45, ‘the Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many’ (compare Acts 20:28), applying it all to Isaiah 53 and other Old Testament Scriptures. The man was on a long and wearisome journey and Philip, having been sent here by God, had all the time in the world.

Much has been made by some of a suggestion that Luke fails in general to draw attention to the atoning significance of the cross. But this is in fact not a strictly accurate assessment of his writings, for there are certainly a number of occasions when he demonstrates that the atonement underwrites what he says. Some of these are as follows:

1) Coming to the end of his Gospel he cites, ‘This is my body which is given for you’ and speaks about ‘the new covenant in His blood’ (Luke 22:19-20), the latter a reference with clear sacrificial and atoning significance (see Exodus 24:8; Zechariah 9:11). He would know that any ancient Israelite sacrifice, even a covenant sacrifice, included an atoning element. So Jesus had clearly there offering Himself as an atonement.

2) In Luke 22:37 he specifically cites the words of Isaiah 53:12, ‘he was reckoned among the transgressors’ as referred by Jesus to Himself, and the atoning significance of this idea in the context of Isaiah could hardly be overlooked. Jesus was not just saying that He would be hung between two thieves, He was indicating the depths of what He was to face on behalf of others.

3) In Luke 24:46-47 he informs us that Jesus pointed out that ‘the Messiah should suffer, and rise again from the dead the third day, and that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in His name to all the nations’ (Luke 24:46-47). Here the ideas of His death and resurrection are connected with the possibility of forgiveness being available.

So his whole Gospel is given atoning significance by these references (we would not really expect the body of the Gospel to contain much in the way of atoning references because it was only during and after the death of Jesus that such a significance was fully understandable).

4) In Luke 23-24 he describes in full detail the events leading up to Jesus’ death and burial, an emphasis which can only confirm that he sees Jesus death as very significant, and when seen in the light of 1) to 3) above, atoning.

5) In Acts itself he writes in Acts 20:28 of the church of God as having been ‘purchased with His own blood’. Here he goes right to the heart of redemption, paralleling Mark 10:45.

6) While he might not have seen the presentation of the doctrine of the atonement as his main purpose, except generally in his emphasis on the cross to which he devotes two chapters in Luke, in Acts he certainly proclaims that it is through the death and resurrection of Jesus that men find life (Acts 2:23-24; Acts 2:33; Acts 2:38)

7) In Acts 13:29-30 with 37-39 he declares that the death and resurrection of Christ are the means of men’s justification apart from the Law, and this in preaching which offered eternal life (Acts 13:46).

8) In Acts 15:10-11 he emphasises that salvation is by the grace of God and not through circumcision and legalism (Acts 15:10-11).

Furthermore in many other places the connection with atonement is simply assumed. Thus we can confidently say that while Luke does not put a great stress on the atonement, for that was not his purpose, he does make clear that it lies behind all he says. He tends to let his sources speak for him, but indicates that he is not shy of the atonement put in its baldest terms (Acts 20:28).

Luke thus undoubtedly would recognise that Philip not only proclaimed Jesus as the Messiah, but did so in the context of atonement. That is the reason for mentioning Isaiah 53 at all. He was introducing Jesus as the Man of Sorrows and Saviour of the world.


Verse 36

‘And as they went on the way, they came to a certain water, and the eunuch says, “Look, here is water. What hinders me from being baptised?’

The eunuch accepts Philip’s explanation, given by the power of the Spirit, as convincing and seeing an abundant spring of water with its surrounding pond he asks why, in that case, he might not baptised. Philip’s explanation would have included reference to baptism.

A later copier, seized with the idea of the need at baptism for a confession of faith, or possibly finding a marginal note to that effect which he felt must be a part of the text, adds here, ‘and Philip said, “If you believe with all your heart you may”, and he answered and said, “I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God”.’ (Compare Acts 9:20; 1 John 4:15; 1 John 5:5). The words are undoubtedly an addition but the intent is right. Philip would hardly have baptised the eunuch without being convinced of the genuineness of his faith.


Verse 37-38

‘And he commanded the chariot to stand still. And they both went down into the water, both Philip and the eunuch, and he baptised him.’

Knowing that God had specifically sent him here, and seeing and hearing the man’s response, Philip could see no objection. So the conveyance was brought to a halt, and climbing down they went into the water and Philip baptised the eunuch. Here it is made quite clear that baptism has to be performed by a baptiser. This is never so in Jewish ritual cleansings, demonstrating that this is not a ritual cleansing but a portrayal of the pouring out like rain of the Holy Spirit in rivers bringing life and fruitfulness (see note on Acts 22:16).


Verse 39

‘And when they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord caught away Philip, and the eunuch saw him no more, for he went on his way rejoicing.’

The baptism completed it is made clear here that Philip was seen as having fully accomplished his mission. He was ‘snatched away’ by the Spirit. This need not mean on the instant of leaving the water, but certainly soon afterwards. The verb is used in the New Testament to signify ‘take by force’, ‘snatch away’, sometimes ‘take up’ (into heaven) It certainly forcibly indicates that Philip’s work was complete. He was no longer needed. The eunuch must now be left in God’s hands. Many therefore read it as a miraculous removal. But it need not necessarily signify a miracle, and thus others see it as signifying a forcible impression of the Spirit that made him go on his way immediately. But either way a life had been transformed and the eunuch went on his way rejoicing. Note again the connection of the work of the Spirit with rejoicing. Here was the evidence of the genuineness of his experience.

‘When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord caught away Philip.’ This may well be intended deliberately to imply that the Spirit was first present with them in the water. The suggestion may be that the Spirit had come on them both in the water, and that once they reached dry land the Spirit then constrained Philip to be immediately on his way, his task completed, (or it may even possibly mean ‘snatched him away’ as He had once with Ezekiel), while He sent the eunuch on his way rejoicing. That the snatching away follows the pattern of Ezekiel might be seen as supported by the unusual phrase ‘Spirit of the Lord’ with its Old Testament connotations, rather than ‘Holy Spirit’. (One ancient manuscript, A, reads, ‘the Holy Spirit fell on the eunuch, but the angel of the Lord caught away Philip’, but that is probably rather an interpretation. It does, however, demonstrate how the passage was early interpreted).

‘Went on his way rejoicing.’ Rejoicing is constantly an evidence of the work of the Spirit and this was intended to demonstrate that the Ethiopian Minister of Finance was truly converted and full of the Spirit. He had, of course, a solid background of knowing God’s Law, he had his copy of Isaiah, and may well also have had more Old Testament scrolls, and he had been given a thorough grounding in how those applied to Jesus the Messiah. And equally importantly he had the Holy Spirit with him, and would almost certainly find in Nubia other believers who had been converted on trips to Jerusalem. We are undoubtedly intended to gather that he would go back to his synagogue and his people with the new message, and the word would spread in Nubia.


Verse 40

‘But Philip was found at Azotus, and passing through he preached the gospel to all the cities, till he came to Caesarea.’

Philip now moved on to the third phase of his ministry. He had established the work of God among the Samaritans, he had converted a man who would evangelise Nubia, now he moved back into Judaea and evangelised among the Jews, preaching the Gospel ‘to all the cities’ from Azotus (formerly Ashdod) along the coast to Caesarea. These cities would include Jamnia, Joppa, and Apollonia. On arrival at Caesarea he probably made his base there, for that was where he was later found as an evangelist (Acts 21:8). It was of mixed Jewish and Gentile population and the seat of Roman government, and presented great opportunities for evangelism.

 


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Bibliography Information
Pett, Peter. "Commentary on Acts 8:4". "Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible ". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/pet/acts-8.html. 2013.

Lectionary Calendar
Monday, November 18th, 2019
the Week of Proper 28 / Ordinary 33
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