Tue, Jul 17, 2012
74 - Philip and the Ethiopian [b]
Acts 8:26-35 by Robert Dean
The Holy Spirit is responsible for the expansion of the church, but His covert/indirect guidance is more common than His overt/direct guidance in Acts. Others, such as the angel in Acts 8:26 also give rare divine guidance. In this episode we learn of the spread of the gospel to Ethiopia through this one Ethiopian eunuch. Who was he? Where did he come from? What is the possible spiritual heritage of the Ethiopian and how is it that Philip hears him reading from Isaiah? From this episode we learn valuable insights on the spiritual life plus we learn something fascinating about Jews and Ethiopia.
Series: Acts (2010)

Philip and the Ethiopian. Acts 8: 26-40; Isaiah 53


This is the continued story of how God the Holy Spirit is expanding the earthly church. Acts 1:8 was the final marching order from the Lord Jesus Christ to the apostles: that they were to stay in Jerusalem until the Holy Spirit came and then they were to be witnesses of Jesus in Jerusalem, then in Judea and Samaria and then to the uttermost part of the earth. 

We have looked at two areas of expansion that have taken place as a result of the persecution. The first has to do with the movement into Samaria. What we need to think about as we go through this section of Acts is that we see how the Holy Spirit is working more overtly in these episodes, but there is no mention of the Holy Spirit guiding or directing Philip in vv. 4, 5. The message in Acts is that the Holy Spirit is always working behind the scenes but it is in a covert manner. It is not something that is known or seen until after the fact; we only know it from its results. In the early church in this transition period there were times when there was a more overt direction from God the Holy Spirit. But as we read through Acts and the epistles that is rare. The reason for pointing that out is because there are always some folks, especially in light of a lot of theological trends of the 20th century, who come along and talk as if the Holy Spirit is a very overt movement today, just as it was in the first century.

As we get into the episode in the latter part of this chapter and we see the Holy Spirit overtly, actively, consciously, in a manner that was known to Philip, moving him from one location to another. But what is interesting is that this kind of expression in the book of Acts pretty much disappears by the time we get towards the mid part of the book. By the time we reach chapter 12, 13 and 14 the Holy Spirit is not mentioned in this manner. So that was part of the transition that was taking place. The Holy Spirit is only mentioned as overtly moving the apostles in specific directions a few times, or God directing them through the appearance of an angel. Then in this episode of Philip going to the Ethiopian eunuch we have both overt direct direction, directive guidance from an angel of the Lord (v. 26) and then we have the Holy Spirit's guidance coming up just a few verses later in v. 29.

But for those who want to make this a standard operating procedure for the church the problem is that there are a few references to an overt ministry of God the Holy Spirit like this in the early part of Acts and then that is not mentioned anymore. And it is not that normative even in the first part of the book. What is meant by that is that it is not the expected, normal routine. What we really need to be asking is why the Holy Spirit isn't mentioned as having a more overt guidance pattern in the rest of the New Testament. It is just not there. When we look at it in light of some of the things we see in Acts 2, 4, 8, and in 10 with Cornelius what we see is that this sort of overt divine guidance is very rare in even the very early apostolic period. The normal mode of God's direction is more covert, more behind the scenes where the effect is felt more than any sort of sense of specific direction revelation from God. It is mostly from either circumstances or as they understood what the mission was they tried to just go forward and accomplish the mission as it seemed best to them.     

This is how we see Philip making the first decision. He moves up and goes to Samaria on his own initiative. There is no direct overt guidance from the Holy Spirit, he just moves up there in contrast to what takes place in the second half.  

After finishing the ministry in Samaria Peter and John are going to leave and go back to Jerusalem, and all that we are told at the end of that section in verse 25 is NASB "So, when they had solemnly testified and spoken the word of the Lord, they started back to Jerusalem, and were preaching the gospel to many villages of the Samaritans." But we are not told what happens to Philip. He is either travelling with them back to Jerusalem or he stays up in central Samaria and continues his ministry there. Or, we know later on that Caesarea by the Sea was his home later on and he may have already moved there, so he might have already moved there. We don't know exactly what happened to Philip once they finished this ministry in Samaria.

What we do know is that the curtain goes down at the end of verse 25 and then opens again with the scene in verse 26. So there is something of a time lapse here. The second event that is brought up is the direction that God gives to Philip now to move to the southern part of Judea. Acts 8:26   But an angel of the Lord spoke to Philip saying, 'Get up and go south to the road that descends from Jerusalem to Gaza.' (This is a desert {road.})" The guidance that is being given here to Philip comes from an angel of the Lord—specifically stated. This angel is not the same as the angel of the Lord that we have in the Old Testament. The Old Testament is very clear that the terminology has an article with it and it speaks of the pre-incarnate Lord Jesus Christ, whereas here it just speaks of an angel who is sent from God to give guidance to Philip. This would be overt guidance. He is going to speak from every normal usage of the term speak. This would be a verbal, audible direction given to Philip, and the angel would have appeared to him. That is the normative situation whenever there is an angel giving guidance, either in the Old Testament or the New Testament. It is not some sort of internal impression or subjective feeling. What happens is that because of the way some traditions and some people have read certain things they read that into the text. But all the text says is that an angel of the Lord spoke to Philip, "saying."

The way to look at this if we want to understand that is to see how these words and this phraseology of an angel speaking are used in other places in Scripture, and every other place where it is used there is an appearance of an angel and an external objective, audible statement by the angel. So this is not some sort of mystical, subjective divine guidance through feelings, it is overt special revelation via an angel.

Verse 26 doesn't mean Philip is in Jerusalem, it just tells us that this is the main road that went from Jerusalem to Gaza. The last little statement in the English says this was desert. What is interesting is that it is not very clear how that phrase relates to the rest of the sentence in the Greek. The word "desert" grammatically could relate to either Gaza or to "road." If it related to road what it would be speaking about is that it was the desert part of the road where it went through the desert. If it referred to Gaza then it would be referring to would be the ancient city of Gaza which was destroyed in 96 BC by one of the Hasmonean rulers, Alexander Jannaeus, and the new city of Gaza was not rebuilt until approximately 56 BC by the Romans, and it was a few miles south of the ancient city that had been the city of the Philistines.

Somewhere along this roadway Philip is going to meet up with the Ethiopian. Even at the time of the New Testament the excavation of part of the ancient site of Gaza it was often referred to in order to distinguish this site from the new city; and this site was referred to as "desert Gaza." So when the text reads "this is desert" it is probably talking about the road to desert Gaza, not the desert road to Gaza.             

Gaza is only mentioned this one time in the Scripture but, of course, we see it mentioned almost every day in the newspaper, usually in reference to the Gaza strip which has been given over to complete Palestinian Authority control with HAMAS, a derivative of the Muslim Brotherhood, running Gaza.

The angel gives him an order and Philip responds. This is how every believer should respond when we get a direction from the Word of God as to what we should do. We should recognise that this is a direction from God and this should be a normative pattern in our life. Acts 8:27 NASB "So he got up and went; and there was an Ethiopian eunuch, a court official of Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, who was in charge of all her treasure; and he had come to Jerusalem to worship." There is obviously behind the scenes divine guidance that there is going to be an intersection of the path of Philip and the path of this Ethiopian. But we don't read that he arose and went and the Holy Spirit guided him to this eunuch. We know that is going on behind the scenes but it is not overt. The text doesn't make a point of always saying those things. The reason for saying that is one of the things observed is that you can always tell when some people are brand new believers. They are full of enthusiasm, very excited about the Christian life, and it is always very refreshing. But it is often found that there are people who think they have to talk in certain "Christian" verbiage. The say "Praise the Lord" in every other sentence, say "Amen" and "isn't God wonderful," and every time something has happened they say, the Lord did this, the Lord did that. Scripture doesn't even do that. This shows the new believer's enthusiasm but hopefully they will kind of calm down after a little time and recognise that using verbiage like that has no spiritual value one way or the other. 

This verse is important for setting up and understanding the whole background and context in answering and addressing some of the issues here. We see sometimes in commentaries comments like, "We can see Philip's yieldedness to the Spirit's control and his obedience." We don't know how he can see it because there is no mention of yieldedness. There is mention of his obedience but not mention of the Holy Spirit—yet. It is a response to the angel. This is the subtle way in which people read things into the text. We have to be careful not to read things into the text. The Holy Spirit plays a key role in this as we see in verse 29, but don't confuse the Holy Spirit in verse 29 with the angel in verse 26. 

It is interesting to understand the background of the man from Ethiopia. We would think of this man as a Gentile, but the Scriptures are very clear when we get to Acts chapter ten that the first Gentiles to be saved and to become part of the church are the members of Cornelius's household. So this isn't a Gentile. We are still seeing the expansion of the church in a primarily Jewish context.

Ethiopia in Scripture doesn't refer specifically to the modern state of Ethiopia but what is mostly in the modern nation of Sudan. It is the area called Cush in the Old Testament and is also referred to as Nubea in Scripture. It extends south of the first cataract on the Nile, so it is more in the area of the nation of Khartoum. The Greek word for Ethiopia is aithiops [A)iqioy] which has as its basic meaning "burnt face." So it was a normal expectation of any reader at this time that if you were speaking of any of the Ethiopian people then you were speaking of a dark-skinned people who were from this area south of Egypt.

A question that we should ask because of the significance of what is going on in Scripture related to Jews and Gentiles is, just exactly what is the identity of this Ethiopian. The first option is that he is actually Jewish. We don't think that is the case but we do think that is a possibility. We have seen this in modern times. There is a huge number of Ethiopians who were air-lifted to Israel back in the eighties and nineties and are considered by the Jews to be Jewish. So we ought to ask the question: What is the basis for this claim to be Jewish and what exactly what is their identification?

There are two major operations that took place back late twentieth century. The first occurred in 1984 and 1985 and was a somewhat secret operation known as operation Moses. This involved a massive airlift of Ethiopian Jews to Israel over a period of several months and approximately 8,500 Jews were taken to Israel. But when information about this leaked out to the press, due to international pressure the Jewish community shut down the operation. Then about six years later in May of 1991, due to the persecution of these people, there was a massive airlift that took place known as Operation Solomon. Over a 24-hour period of time the Israeli's did a massive airlift of 35,000 Ethiopians into Israel and set all kinds of records in doing that.

There have been several suggestions as to who these people are. Some have suggested that they were members of the ten lost tribes (reference to the ten tribes that were in the northern kingdom of Israel which was conquered in 722 BC by the Assyrians) who were removed from their traditional homeland and resettled in different areas of the Assyrian empire. The Assyrian empire was the area that goes from Iraq, Syria, Iran, and so this is in the complete opposite direction from Ethiopia and from northern Africa. So they are probably not members of the ten lost tribes. A second option has to do with the legends that have been carried on down through the centuries by the Ethiopian people and the group that refer to themselves as the House of Israel where they trace their origins back to Solomon and the Queen of Sheba—that Solomon and the Queen of Sheba had a child, and when the Queen of Sheba was pregnant by Solomon she went back to Ethiopia where she had a son; and this was the beginning of this dynasty that extended all the way down to Haile Selassie who was the last emperor of Ethiopia. Nobody is really sure how much of that is true. There is another option and that is that this is the product of intermarriage between Jews who left Judea with Jeremiah for Egypt when Jerusalem was destroyed in 586 BC, and then when some of the Jews who went to Egypt later went further south into the area of Ethiopia. There is also the view that there were a number of converts in the huge entourage that would have accompanied the Queen of Sheba to the court of Solomon; that there was a large number of these people who converted to biblical Judaism, and that when they went back to Ethiopia they followed that, became a little bit segregated in their culture and continued down through the ages. There has been a lot of speculation as to who these Ethiopian Jews are but we don't know have enough information about them.  

One of the interesting things about this community is that it is very clear that they have a very ancient claim to being Jewish. They practice all of the Mosaic Law, all of the customs of Judaism, but it is not a second temple period Judaism, not a rabbinical form of Judaism. They have no understanding or awareness of any of the rabbinic practices that were common in the time of Christ or the period just prior to Christ. They have no knowledge of the rabbinic laws that were enacted after the Old Testament period ended. They only know of Old Testament Judaism. Another reason we can know that their origins are ancient is partially based on the account in Acts chapter eight, the story of Philip with the Ethiopian eunuch and his obvious Jewish awareness and knowledge of Judaism in Ethiopia, and an awareness to the degree that this Ethiopian eunuch who was a very highly place court official has made a pilgrimage to one of the annual feast days to Jerusalem in order to worship at the temple.

So there are basically four options in identifying this Ethiopian. The first is that he truly was a Jew. That is probably not likely. A second way in which a Gentile could become a Jew or be considered Jewish was to become a full proselyte to Judaism. In this case they would accept all of the Torah, all of the customs and all of the practices of the Jews, and this would be a complete part of their life and religion. This is probably not the case with the Ethiopian because most likely he was a eunuch—that is not just a title for somebody who was in a role of personal servitude to the royal family, though he most probably was—and if he was a eunuch then, according to Deuteronomy 23:1, he would not be allowed to enter into the inner courts of the temple to worship. He could have gone only as far as the courtyard of the Gentiles. So he could not be a full proselyte to Judaism if he was a eunuch. This would mean that the third option would be most likely and this was a reference to a proselyte of the gate, someone who was a Gentile but believed and worshipped the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and for the most part they accepted the customs and the practices of Judaism but they did not have to submit to the rite of circumcision.

When we come to Cornelius in Acts chapter ten we are told that Cornelius was a God-fearer. He is not considered a proselyte or a proselyte of the gate but a Gentile who worshipped the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob alone who lived as best they could according to the laws of the Torah but did not necessarily have to follow or accept all of the customs and practices of the Jews. This explains why he has his own personal copy of Isaiah. This would have been extremely rare in the ancient world. Usually only a person of some wealth or means would be able to own their own personal copy.                          

Acts 8:28 NASB "and he was returning and sitting in his chariot, and was reading the prophet Isaiah." The term that is used for reading there fits with the normal usage of the word at this time where he was reading it out loud. One of the reasons they read out loud was that this facilitated memory, and they would memorise the Scripture. There was the emphasis in the culture to learn by rote memory.

Today if you are in education and say anything about rote memory you are considered to be somewhat antediluvian, and yet most people who were educated and made most of the brilliant discoveries and inventions upon which everything modern is built came up through education systems built on rote memory. So this should not be looked down upon by modern schemes of education. It teaches how to learn and how to retain things. The more we memorise things the more we will remember things. The more we train our mind to remember things the easier it will become and the more we will remember. And who knows what kind of an impact that might have down through the years if we get Alzheimer's or some other form of dementia? As with Scripture the same applies with hymns. People should memorise hymns. So it is important to get this into the soul through Bible memory and learning hymns. 

As Philip comes running up he hears what the Ethiopian is reading in Isaiah chapter fifty-three. It is important to note here that he doesn't fully comprehend what he is reading. A point to bring up here is that everyone should be involved in some kind of a Bible reading program. We should be reading three chapters, four chapters, five chapters etc. every day; because this is the Word of God that washes through our brain. Of course there are going to be passages that we don't understand. But we are reading to be reminded of promises so that if we see verses that are promises we can underline the promises. We are being reminded of how God works in the lives of believers in the past. I am reading to be reminded of circumstances and situations and events that took place in the Scriptures, and we are reading to be reminded of certain key doctrines. We should be reading the Scriptures on a regular basis. Unfortunately, today that is a practice that has fallen upon very difficult times.

He is reading but he is not really understanding or comprehending. But because he is reading he has a frame of reference for a conversation. Today if we go into a public school, any sort of environment where there are children, and we try to talk about the Bible we are in serious trouble because they are biblically illiterate. Even among a lot of Christians in a lot of churches they are biblically illiterate. They don't know the events; they don't know the people; so we can't even have an informed conversation about the gospel, about God, about spiritual things because people don't have the vocabulary, the information, the knowledge. And even if you are reading and not understanding everything that is there you are still learning about people, places, events and things; and that then becomes a foundation in your thinking for conversation and learning later on. But when you don't have the basic vocabulary then nobody can have an intelligent conversation about the Bible or anything related to God.

What the Ethiopian is reading comes from Isaiah 53:7, 8. As he is reading this out aloud God the Holy Spirit gives further direction to Philip. Acts 8:29 NASB "Then the Spirit said to Philip, 'Go up and join this chariot.'" Note that this is the first time in this episode that God the Holy Spirit has been mentioned. Does that mean that the Holy Spirit was inactive in the rest of this? No, not at all. It is just not the background, the point of the story; this is not the normative pattern of divine guidance. But at this point the Spirit, not the angel of v. 26, audibly communicates to Philip—that is the normal sense of the word. The comment "he had an impression of what he should do" is not what the text says. The text says he was given direct and specific information.  

Acts 8:30 NASB "Philip ran up and heard him reading Isaiah the prophet, and said, 'Do you understand what you are reading?' [31] And he said, 'Well, how could I, unless someone guides me?' And he invited Philip to come up and sit with him." This shows that it is not enough to just read the Scripture. Reading the Scripture on your own is important, vital and critical, but it is not going to get you there. You have to have someone who can guide you in understanding the Scripture. That is the role of the pastor-teacher; that is why God has given the spiritual gift of pastor-teacher, and the pastor-teacher is a man who is gifted and trained (very important; just because you have a gift doesn't mean you know how to use it). There are too many churches and pastors who have forgotten that today and they would rather just have somebody who has the gift rather than somebody who has been trained. The man with the gift who has no training is a time bomb. He is trouble in the making because he doesn't know enough to stay out of trouble.

The eunuch is asking one question and it is important to pay attention to this. Acts 8:34 NASB "The eunuch answered Philip and said, 'Please {tell me,} of whom does the prophet say this? Of himself or of someone else?'" He is not asking any other theological or doctrinal questions that we might ask. He is just saying, "Who is he talking about?" That is what opens the door to this tremendous conversation, the opportunity to communicate the gospel and to clarify the gospel for the Ethiopian.