God sometimes has to act through disagreeable circumstances in order to compel His saints to work in accordance with His plan for them. We have seen, in studying this book of Acts, that at the very beginning the Lord Jesus Christ laid out a program for the evangelization of the entire world. He said, “Ye shall receive power, after that the Holy Ghost is come upon you: and ye shall be witnesses unto me both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea, and in Samaria, and unto the uttermost part of the earth.” Up to the present then we have found the gospel going out in the city of Jerusalem and throughout Judea, but the disciples were very, very slow in fulfilling the rest of the program. God, however, waited in wondrous grace for them to fulfill His mandate. He desired that any in Israel who were prepared to bow their hearts in repentance should receive the message first and then it was to go out into the rest of the world. So He permitted what we call the transitional period, before the work was carried to the nations generally.
I remind you that when I use the words transitional period I am referring to a period that must be understood as in the mind of man— not in the mind of God. The moment the work of the cross was finished and the Holy Spirit came to empower believers to preach the gospel to the uttermost parts of the earth, God’s mind was toward all men everywhere, but it took His servants some time to understand His viewpoint. He was very patient with them.
Persecution Increases (Acts 8:1-4)
The apostles had been preaching for a number of years in Jerusalem and Judea, and many Jews had been brought to a saving knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ. But so far no one had carried the message beyond the confines of Israel.
Following the death of Stephen, God allowed greater persecution to break out in Jerusalem and Judea in order that His Word might be scattered abroad, that His purpose might be fulfilled. “There was a great persecution against the church which was at Jerusalem; and they were all scattered abroad throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria.” Thus Christians went out into the whole land of Palestine—“except the apostles”—the very ones who had been commissioned to preach to every creature. For some reason they remained behind in Jerusalem while the rest of the disciples (those who had been converted under them) fled from the persecution and carried the gospel wherever they went, but at first only to the Jews.
We note that Stephen was buried by godly Jews, perhaps not actually by the disciples themselves, for the term may refer to pious Jews who repudiated the act of stoning Stephen.
But now Saul, the bitter persecutor, “made havock of the church, entering into every house, and haling men and women committed them to prison. Therefore they that were scattered abroad went everywhere preaching the word.” Thus many were hearing the gospel who might otherwise have been left in ignorance of it.
Philip in Samaria (Acts 8:5-25)
The Philip referred to in these verses was not Philip the apostle, but one of the seven deacons who had been appointed to help in distributing bread among the Christian converts. He was another man who used the office of a deacon well! He was set apart to minister in the temporal affairs of the church but he had been so faithful, true, and conscientious in carrying out his responsibilities that the Spirit of God committed to him a greater ministry (see 1 Timothy 3:13). We saw that the same was true of Stephen also. The Spirit sent Philip out to preach Christ to the people of Samaria. I call your attention to his message. He did not go to them with what some people call “the social gospel,” and he did not go to talk to them on political subjects. Philip had one message and one Person to present to the people: the message of redemption and the Person of Christ who accomplished that redemption. The message of God’s servants today should be the same as his, for “the preaching of the cross is to them that perish foolishness; but unto us which are saved it is the power of God” (1 Corinthians 1:18).
These poor, despised Samaritans, hated by the Jews because of their religious differences, “with one accord gave heed unto those things which Philip spake, hearing and seeing the miracles which he did.” God granted mighty signs to accompany him as he ministered the Word, “For unclean spirits, crying with loud voice, came out of many that were possessed with them: and many taken with palsies, and that were lame, were healed. And there was great joy in that city.”
It was a wonderful awakening. Undoubtedly the city of Samaria was largely prepared for it because our Lord when on earth passed through Samaria on various occasions and ministered to the people. Many indeed had already been brought to accept Him as Messiah. Therefore, when these Jewish missionaries came to them and told them that the same Christ who had died for them was living to save them, they gave heed. Moreover, they saw how the mighty God was working in healing the sick and demoniacs; and many who believed were baptized.
But we are told, “There was a certain man, called Simon, which beforetime in the same city used sorcery.” This Simon Magus was what we would call a magician, a charlatan, who had “bewitched the people of Samaria, giving out that himself was some great one.” Such men as he were very common in the Orient not only before and during the days when our Lord was here on earth, but afterwards, when the gospel was first being carried to the different nations of the world outside of Palestine. This sorcerer was operating inside the land of promise; not exactly among the Israelites, but among these people whom the Jews considered a mongrel nation. Probably Simon was himself a renegade Jew and had heard of the great works of Jesus. At any rate, he claimed to be a miracle worker and by his trickery and so-called magic had deceived the people: “To whom all gave heed, from the least to the greatest, saying, This man is the great power of God.”
“But when they believed Philip preaching the things concerning the kingdom of God, and the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptized, both men and women.” Philip’s message naturally turned them away from Simon. Now that they had heard the truth, they turned away from the false. Simon therefore decided he had best join this new movement. So we read, “Then Simon himself believed also: and when he was baptized, he continued with Philip, and wondered, beholding the miracles and signs which were done.” It is important for us to remember there is a belief that results in salvation, but on the other hand, there is a belief that may not result in salvation. In other words, it is possible to accept many facts concerning Jesus Christ from a merely historical standpoint. One can believe a great deal about Him and yet not be saved. But you cannot believe in Jesus as your personal Savior without being numbered among the redeemed. These Samaritans heard Philip and trusted the Savior he proclaimed, Even Simon listened and believed many things Philip said, and came forward to be baptized. Philip baptized him because it was God’s appointed way of separating His people outwardly from the unsaved. In the beginning it was God’s way of separating the remnant of Israel from the nation that was under His judgment. In Samaria it was God’s way of separating believers from the prevalent religious system.
Because Simon was baptized does not necessarily mean that he was born of God. I know there are people who believe baptism and salvation are one and the same thing. Simon was a man who seemed just like the others, but there was no real faith in his soul, no true repentance toward God. I am afraid there are a great many people in Christendom today who have been baptized and have given intellectual assent to the truths of God’s Word but have never faced their sins before God. They have never committed themselves to Him and trusted Christ as their own Savior. If you are resting on the fact that you have joined a church, or been baptized, or partaken from time to time in the communion of the Lord’s supper, face your condition honestly before God! Ask yourself: Have I as a repentant sinner, turned to God in faith? Have I trusted Christ as my Savior? Is He the Lord of my life? If these things are not true, if you cannot answer these questions in the affirmative, then the fact that you have been baptized and are outwardly linked with the people of God does not make you a Christian. You are not yet saved, nor born again.
We see in Simon a baptized man, a religious professor, who had not been regenerated. He simply wanted a place in the Christian company. He despaired of winning these people back unless he could come in among them and pose as a Christian leader. Then he hoped to gain them to himself. So “when he was baptized, he continued with Philip, and wondered, beholding the miracles and signs which were done.”
Notice that up to this time matters in Samaria had been moving along just as in Jerusalem at the beginning. But these Samaritan believers had not yet received the Pentecostal blessing, the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. We read,
When the apostles which were at Jerusalem heard that Samaria had received the word of God, they sent unto them Peter and John [two of their outstanding leaders]: Who, when they were come down, prayed for them [the Samaritan believers], that they might receive the Holy Ghost: (For as yet he was fallen upon none of them: only they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus.) (Acts 8:14-16)
The expression “in the name of” always implies “by His authority.” It does not mean they were not baptized in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, for that is what Jesus told His disciples to do (Matthew 28:19). They were baptized in the name of, or by the authority of, the Lord Jesus. But they had not yet received the Holy Spirit; they had not been baptized into the body of Christ.
When these disciples came down, they laid their hands on them, thus identifying this new church in Samaria with the work in Jerusalem. So when they laid their hands on them, they received the Holy Spirit, and doubtless there were many outward signs.
Why did not these Samaritans receive the Spirit of God the moment they professed faith in the Lord Jesus Christ? Later in Acts, when we read of Peter going to the house of Cornelius, we are told that the moment Peter spoke the words, the Holy Ghost fell on all them that heard the Word. But here we have an interval between the time the Samaritans accepted the message preached by Philip and the time they received the Holy Spirit. The reason, I think, is perfectly clear. For something like five hundred years the temple at Jerusalem and the temple at Mt. Gerizim had been rival sanctuaries. The Jews in the south and the Samaritans north of Jerusalem had each claimed to be God’s chosen people, and there was intense rivalry between them. One can understand that if the Spirit had immediately fallen on these Samaritan believers, when they received the Word, then the strife between the Jews and Samaritans might have been perpetuated. There might have been down through the centuries two different groups of Christians, each claiming to be the true church. But when the apostles came from Jerusalem and identified themselves with the believing Samaritans, and God gave the Holy Ghost to them in answer to the prayers of the apostles, the work was recognized definitely and openly as one. There was only one body, whether Jew’s in Judea or Samaritans in Samaria. All were joined into one body of which the risen Christ was the Head. There was not the same danger of rivalry between two groups when the gospel was brought to the Gentiles whose pagan religion was very different from Judaism.
And now Simon was looking on, and when he saw’ what was taking place he offered the apostles money, saying, “Give me also this power, that on whomsoever I lay hands, he may receive the Holy Ghost.” This shows how little Simon had entered into the truth of the gospel. If he had understood, he would have known God gives freely, without money and without price. No spiritual blessing can ever be purchased. I think Christendom today has largely forgotten that. I have heard of people on their deathbeds calling in preachers or priests and offering to turn over properties if their sins might be forgiven and a place assured them in Heaven. It is a delusion! “The wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.” And the Holy Spirit coming to indwell believers is as truly a gift of God as the blessed Son He gave to die on the cross was His gift for the redemption of guilty man.
So when Simon offered the apostles money for the power of the Holy Spirit, Peter looked at him with indignation and said, “Thy money perish with thee, because thou hast thought that the gift of God may be purchased with money.” Notice the strength of that! If the gift of God could be purchased with money, it would not be a gift! God is saving men without money on the basis of the finished work of His beloved Son. And because Jesus has been glorified, He has sent forth the Holy Spirit to empower believers to proclaim the gospel.
Peter continued, “Thou hast neither part nor lot in this matter: for thy heart is not right in the sight of God.” Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, was able to see through all the pretense and camouflage, through all the outward profession of this man Simon Magus. Philip, the deacon, was deceived by him. He did not have the gift of discerning of spirits, but Peter saw into the very depths of the man’s being and declared, “Thy heart is not right in the sight of God.” Many of us do not have that ability of discerning, but we can at least see that if anyone thinks he can purchase the gift of God, that heart is not right in the sight of God. Such an one may not be as great a hypocrite as this man Simon, but he has not yet faced things honestly in the sight of God.
Peter called on Simon to repent. “Repent therefore of this thy wickedness.” We have pointed out that this word repent means to “change the mind,” that is to change the attitude. Peter was saying in effect, “You need not go on like this. Change your attitude. Face things honestly before God. Repent of your wickedness, and pray to the Lord (the best versions read, the Lord Jesus Christ) if perhaps the thought of your heart may be forgiven.”
Peter continued, “For I perceive that thou art in the gall of bitterness, and in the bond of iniquity.” There is something exceedingly solemn here: a man outwardly in fellowship with the church of God, but whose heart is not right with God. There are many like this; many who need the same admonition that Peter gave to Simon: “Repent of this thy wickedness!” Simon did not seem to be very much affected. Instead of turning to the Lord himself, he said, “Pray ye to the Lord for me, that none of these things which ye have spoken come upon me.” And that is the last we hear of him in the pages of Holy Scripture. We hear about him a great deal in early church writings—that he became the first antichrist, and went from place to place opposing the gospel. But he turned here to Peter and said, “I want you to pray for me.” Did you ever hear of people doing that? He said, “Peter, I put my case in your hands.” A lot of people are doing that today. If you do not go directly to Christ, Peter cannot do anything for you, nor can any of the saints; not even the virgin Mary, the mother of our blessed Lord. Remember, there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus. Why not go directly to Him and put your case in His hands!
This incident closes with verse 25 in which we are told that, when they had testified and preached the Word of the Lord, the apostles returned to Jerusalem. On their way there, they preached the gospel in many villages of the Samaritans. Thus we see them reaching out to the second group of which our Lord had spoken (Acts 1:8). As we pursue our study of Acts, we will see the river of grace ever widening until it reaches the uttermost part of the earth.
The Conversion of the Ethiopian (Acts 8:26-40)
God’s ways are not our ways. He often interrupts our plans and our service in very remarkable ways that we find perhaps difficult to understand. I think we have such a case here. Just when things seemed to be at their best, when revival was spreading through the Samaritan villages, the Lord laid His hand on Philip and spoke to him through supernatural methods (“the angel of the Lord”), saying, “Arise, and go toward the south unto the way that goeth down from Jerusalem unto Gaza, which is desert.” One would not have been surprised if the record stated that Philip sought to reason with the angel and that he might have said, “See the wonderful work going on here! I do not think that my work is finished by any means. Should I leave these fruitful fields and go to a desert—a desert actually and spiritually, too?”
But there was no objection; he went immediately at the command of the angel and was led to a man in a chariot. Now you must not think of this as if Philip had just met a single individual driving a chariot across the desert. Undoubtedly what Philip saw was a great caravan—soldiers, merchants, retinue—and in the midst a chariot (which would stand out over everything else), the chariot of the treasurer of Candace queen of Ethiopia. The man in that chariot had gone to Jerusalem on a spiritual quest. He was an Ethiopian Gentile, not a Jew; but he had it in his heart, apparently, to know the God of Israel and had come all the way from Ethiopia to Jerusalem to worship the true God. He was probably a proselyte to Judaism. He had accepted the revelation God gave Israel so far as he understood it. But you can imagine his heartsickness when he came to Jerusalem and found there nothing but cold formality. If he had been asking in his heart, “How may I, a poor sinner, come into fellowship with God?” there was no answer. He was returning to his home a disappointed—and doubtless disillusioned—man. Yet he had obtained in Jerusalem one thing that was of great importance—a portion of God’s holy Word.
He had acquired the book of the prophet Isaiah. The Ethiopian was so interested in it, so anxious to find out what it had to say to his own heart and conscience that, as the horses jogged along dragging the chariot across the desert, he read from that book. How wonderfully God times things! The man had read to a part that filled his mind with questions and stirred his heart, and at that very moment he saw a stranger coming across the sands to the side of his chariot. For the Spirit had said to Philip, “Go near, and join thyself to this chariot.” The man was reading aloud the words we find in Isaiah 53.
Philip, leaning over the side of the chariot, said, “Do you understand what you are reading?” The Ethiopian looked at him, doubtless in amazement, saying in effect, “How can I? I am a poor ignorant man from Ethiopia. Oh that I had someone to explain the words to me!” He invited Philip to come and sit with him and then pointed to the passage: “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 form in which these words come to us shows that the manuscript the Ethiopian held was not the original Hebrew. He probably could not read the Hebrew of the Jews: he was reading Greek, for this is from the Greek translation of the Old Testament—the Septuagint. The Greek idiom had become almost universal for business transactions.
As the eunuch pondered the words he wondered who the one could be who silently stood like a lamb dumb before his shearer. Who was this man whose judgment was taken away and evidently died a sacrificial death for others? He turned to Philip and asked earnestly, “I pray thee, of whom speaketh the prophet this? of himself, or of some other man?” No, the words did not refer to the prophet himself, even though Isaiah had been a great sufferer for the testimony of the Messiah. We are told in Jewish history that he was sawn asunder for his faithfulness. Jewish scholars tried to apply this passage to the prophet Jeremiah, saying he was the one despised and rejected of man. But on the other hand, the greatest of Jewish doctors down through the centuries have declared these words refer not merely to some prophet or ordinary servant of God, but to His supreme Servant, the Messiah, who was to come in due time for Israel’s deliverance.
Philip understood this Scripture and knew the truth of God. So he “opened his mouth, and began at the same scripture, and preached unto him Jesus.” What a wonderful message to give to a poor seeking soul! And oh, how many thousands through the centuries since have been brought face to face with the Savior through Isaiah 53.
I think this Ethiopian accepted Jesus the first time he ever heard of Him. There is no evidence that he had heard previously. Doubtless many questions were asked and answered. Philip probably told the whole story—how Jesus came to earth, was born of a virgin, lived His holy life, was anointed by God, went about healing the sick, raising the dead, and preaching the kingdom of God. Finally He fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah and died on Calvary’s tree, bearing the weight of our iniquities. Then, Philip would have gone on to say how Christ was buried with the rich—in Joseph’s tomb—and how He came out of the grave and commissioned His disciples to carry the gospel message, baptizing those who believe in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. I imagine that it was at that climax of the message that the Ethiopian stopped him and said, “Wait! Look! Here is water; what doth hinder me to be baptized?” It was his way of saying, “I believe! I acknowledge Christ as the Savior; I want to confess Him publicly as my Savior.”
Scholars generally agree that Acts 8:37 is not recognized as part of reliable Scripture. But inasmuch as it was found in many manuscripts dating back to the early Christian era, it tells us the attitude of the early church concerning this question. “Philip said, If thou believest with all thine heart, thou mayest. And he answered and said, I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.” This is the confession that God calls on every sinner to make. “If thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and shalt believe in thine heart that God hath raised him from the dead, thou shalt be saved. For with the heart man believeth unto righteousness; and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation” (Romans 10:9-10).
And so we are told that the eunuch commanded the chariot to stand still, and a most informal and lovely service took place. One can imagine the people in that caravan gathering around, looking on in wonderment and surprise as Philip and the Ethiopian descended from the chariot, laid aside their outer garments and “went down both into the water.. .and he baptized him.”
Philip’s work is now done. We read in the next verse that “When they were come up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord caught away Philip, that the eunuch saw him no more.” The Ethiopian did not need the servant any more—he knew the Master. He did not need the evangelist, for he knew the One of whom the evangelist preached—Jesus Christ, the Savior of sinners. So “he went on his way rejoicing.”
You see, it takes so little to save a sinner! It may seem like a long process, but the moment the poor lost sinner looks into the face of Jesus and trusts Him as Savior, he is a new creature. If the Ethiopian had possessed one of our hymnbooks he would have doubtless gone on his way singing:
Oh happy day that fixed my choice
On Thee, my Savior and my God!
Well may this glowing heart rejoice
And tell its raptures all abroad.
‘Tis done; the great transaction’s done—
I am my Lord’s and He is mine;
He drew me, and I followed on,
Charmed to confess the voice divine.
Many hundred of years were to roll by before such a hymn as that was to be written. But I am sure it expresses the joy in the heart of this dear man who had gone to Jerusalem only to find an empty temple, yet on his way back found the Lord of the temple through the prophet Isaiah and Philip the evangelist.
In the meantime, Philip, who had accomplished his work, “was found at Azotus: and passing through he preached in all the cities, till he came to Caesarea.” And thus the message was going out farther and farther as the stream of grace broadened and deepened and thousands more were brought into a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ.