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The Spreading Flame - Series 2: Episode 5

Philip & the Ethiopian

| Martin Charlesworth
Acts 8:26-40

Philip is directed by an angel to speak with an Ethiopian eunuch who was reading one of the Servant of the Lord passages in Isaiah and needed an explanation of its meaning. The Ethiopian believes and is baptized en route to Gaza. Philip continues to be an evangelist in other places.

Philip is directed by an angel to speak with an Ethiopian eunuch who was reading one of the Servant of the Lord passages in Isaiah and needed an explanation of its meaning. The Ethiopian believes and is baptized en route to Gaza. Philip continues to be an evangelist in other places.


Hello, and welcome to this episode in Series 2 of the book of Acts, as we look at the story of the Early Church as they move beyond Jerusalem to the surrounding districts, known as Judea and Samaria.

Background and Introduction

We saw that the dramatic martyrdom of Stephen was the event that triggered a process of persecution and scattering. We have been following the story in the last couple of episodes, as the Christian believers travel north to the district of Samaria, and we noticed that Philip, one of the early leaders in the church, went with them and, as a gifted evangelist, preached amongst the Samaritans. Then we saw that they received the Holy Spirit when Peter and John, the Apostles, came from Jerusalem to confirm Phillip’s message and to consolidate the Church.

In the last episode, we saw the challenge presented by an occultist, a practitioner of witchcraft by the name of Simon the magician, who came into the Church but wasn’t a true believer. His motives were exposed by Peter and John, as the Church moved forward in Samaria. We are now going to follow the story as it takes a different turn. This is brought about through Philip, as an individual. We’ve already noticed that he is a gifted communicator. Acts 21: 8, describes him as an evangelist- somebody whose primary gift is communicating the faith to other people. He’s been very successful in Samaria, but now, in a remarkable way, God directs him to reach out with the Gospel in a completely different context, for very strategic reasons. It’s a remarkable story. It concerns an Ethiopian man who is a representative of a member of the royal family of the country of Ethiopia. We will follow this famous story stage by stage, as we read through this extraordinarily dramatic account, and this remarkable miracle of conversion. Acts 8: 26 - 29:

An Angel Gives Guidance

26 ‘Now an angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Go south to the road—the desert road—that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” 27 So he started out, and on his way he met an Ethiopian eunuch, an important official in charge of all the treasury of the Kandake (which means “the queen of the Ethiopians”). This man had gone to Jerusalem to worship, 28 and on his way home was sitting in his chariot reading the Book of Isaiah the prophet. 29 The Spirit told Philip, “Go to that chariot and stay near it.”’

Acts 8:26-29, NIV

This remarkable account starts with the presence of an angel. Angels appear from time to time in the book of Acts, as they do elsewhere in the New Testament in the Gospels. Here is another occasion where an angel comes to intervene to help the advance of the Church. I noted in a previous episode that the four main reasons for the intervention of angels seen in the book of Acts are first of all, sometimes to rescue the followers of Jesus, for example from prison; secondly, to bring a revelation or an insight; thirdly, for guidance, which is the case here; and fourthly, to act as agents of God’s judgement against the enemies of the Church, as for example in the story of King Herod Agrippa, recorded later on in the book of Acts. Here an angel comes as a guide. The angel gave Philip the message that he should travel in a completely different direction, to a different place. Philip had started in Jerusalem and he’d gone north. Samaria is north of Jerusalem. But Gaza is south of Jerusalem by about 60 km and it’s by the sea; it’s in the opposite direction.

The angel encourages Philip to move in the opposite direction, and to head down a main road from Jerusalem to Gaza, into the city of Gaza. As I travelled along this road myself in modern times, I was thinking about this incident, and also, the fact that this was a major trade route. Much trade and many goods pass through the land of Israel from the north to the south, from the south to the north. To the north were prosperous countries like Phoenicia, and other countries. To the south was the very wealthy country of Egypt. Israel was the only way through. There was a major trade route down, going through Gaza, which headed directly along the desert path into northern Egypt and the River Nile. Many people were travelling on this road; this would have been the road that anybody coming from Ethiopia would have headed up to Jerusalem. Ethiopia is south of Egypt, in Africa. This road is the place that the angel is directing Philip to go down. I wonder what Philip thought - just go down this road for 60 km and see what happens. I mean, it’s a strange thing, isn’t it? But he was obedient. He knew it was an angel speaking to him, and he knew that something significant would happen.

The Ethiopian Eunuch

Then the Ethiopian is introduced to us. This man is a eunuch, in other words, he’s been castrated, which happened, not in Jewish society, but in other cultures of the day, sometimes as an act of punishment but often in order to prepare people for service as civil servants, or royal officials. This was so that they would present no sexual threat to the women in authority, or the women in royal households, or their husbands. This Ethiopian is a senior official for the Queen Mother of the Ethiopian Royal family. She had an official role with executive power, and obviously had significant financial resources. So, this is an important man. He is not Jewish, so he’s a Gentile, but for some reason he’s gone up to Jerusalem to worship at the Temple. Why is that? In Egypt, where he would travel through regularly, and probably in northern Ethiopia, there were Jewish communities at this time. There were large Jewish communities in Egypt. In some way, this Ethiopian had connected to the Jewish faith - probably in Egypt. He would have come across the version of the Hebrew Scriptures, or the Old Testament, used by the Egyptian Jews, which was known as the Septuagint. It was written in the Greek language, rather than the Jewish, Hebrew language - the original language of the Scriptures. This man probably read Greek, and so he was able to access the Old Testament. He was an educated man, presumably working in the court, and so he was able to read the Jewish Scriptures, and clearly became very interested in the Jewish faith, the Jewish God and all the promises of the prophets. This is probably why he’s on a visit to Jerusalem. Everybody knew if you were interested in the Jewish faith, you needed to go to the capital city, where you would find the Temple, and there you could watch the sacrifices, or worship, or just observe what was going on. So, this man is a seeker. He knows a certain amount. He’s been looking, but he hasn’t yet found the truth.

Servant of the Lord Prophecies

In an extraordinary turn of events, as he’s travelling along, he’s reading the Old Testament at a very significant point. Acts 8: 30 to 35:

30 ‘Then Philip ran up to the chariot and heard the man reading Isaiah the prophet. “Do you understand what you are reading?” Philip asked. 31 “How can I,” he said, “unless someone explains it to me?” So he invited Philip to come up and sit with him. 32 This is the passage of Scripture the eunuch was reading: “He was led like a sheep to the slaughter, and as a lamb before its shearer is silent, so he did not open his mouth. 33 In his humiliation he was deprived of justice. Who can speak of his descendants? For his life was taken from the earth.” 34 The eunuch asked Philip, “Tell me, please, who is the prophet talking about, himself or someone else?” 35 Then Philip began with that very passage of Scripture and told him the good news about Jesus.’

Acts 8:30-35, NIV

What an extraordinary event this is. This Ethiopian, who’s obviously studying the Jewish Scriptures in the Greek language, is pondering the truths of those Scriptures at the very moment that Philip comes. This is really divine providence, isn’t it - that such an event should be happening at exactly that moment? Not only was he reading the Scriptures, but he was reading a very important prophet, who prophesied significantly about Jesus - Isaiah. Not only was he reading Isaiah, he was reading the most important passage in the book of Isaiah, in terms of predicting the details of Jesus’ ministry. That’s absolutely remarkable. All this came about because Philip obeyed the voice of the angel and went down the road, probably on his own, going away from Jerusalem - away from his work, away from his friends, away from his family, not knowing what he was going to find. He didn’t know whether he had to go to Gaza and go down to Egypt. He’d no idea what was going to happen next. But this event happened on the journey between Jerusalem and Gaza.

In order to understand what Philip said to the Ethiopian, we are going to turn to Isaiah 53 in the Old Testament and look at this passage in context. In the book of Isaiah, there are a series of prophecies that occur in the middle, and towards the end of the book, that are known as the ‘Servant of the Lord’ prophecies, where Isaiah uses a particular expression, ‘The Servant of the Lord’, to describe an individual person, who was going to come into the life of Israel, and have an unique transforming function in the nation of Israel, and for the nations of the world. He is known, in these passages, as the ‘Servant of the Lord’. The first one is in Isaiah 42:1 - 9; the second, Isaiah 49: 1 - 7; the third, Isaiah 50: 4 - 9. But it’s the fourth one that concerns us, because that’s the one we’re going to talk about now. This is a very long passage. It starts in Isaiah 52: 12 and continues to Isaiah 53: 12. It’s one of the most astonishing prophecies in the whole of the Old Testament; not only does it predict that there would be a human individual, a representative of God, who was going to come and have a transformative effect on Israel and the nations, but it predicts, remarkably and surprisingly, that when this person comes, he will experience a tragic, terrible, suffering death. This is not the image of a deliverer that you would imagine. This Servant of the Lord is going to be a suffering servant, somebody who comes to suffer, and also who will rise again from the dead. All these things are in this passage. Let’s read a few verses. Isaiah 53:4 - 9

4 ‘Surely he took up our pain and bore our suffering, yet we considered him punished by God, stricken by him, and afflicted. 5 But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed. 6 We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to our own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all. 7 He was oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; he was led like a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before its shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth. 8 By oppression and judgment he was taken away. Yet who of his generation protested? He was cut off from the land of the living; for the transgression of my people he was punished. 9 He was assigned a grave with the wicked, and with the rich in his death, though he had done no violence, nor was any deceit found in his mouth.’

Isaiah 53:4-9, NIV

Hundreds of years before Jesus came, Isaiah wrote these words which so accurately describe Jesus dying. The verses tell us that he died for us in a substitutionary way. verse 5.

‘He was pierced for our transgressions, and was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed’.

This is the doctrine of substitution and the doctrine of atonement. His death was in our place, and he took upon himself the sin, transgression, iniquity, and the wrongdoing of all of us. This is the message that Isaiah is communicating, hundreds of years before Jesus, in a remarkable way that the Jews found very difficult to understand: ‘the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.’ This gave Philip plenty to talk to the Ethiopian about, explaining who Jesus was, what his death meant. Isaiah 53:10 - 11 tells us something else really important.

10 ‘Yet it was the Lord’s will to crush him and to cause him to suffer, and though the Lord makes his life an offering for sin, he will see his offspring and prolong his days, and the will of the Lord will prosper in his hand. 11 After he has suffered, he will see the light of life and be satisfied; by his knowledge my righteous servant will justify many, and he will bear their iniquities.’

Isaiah 53:10-11, NIV

Verse 11, ‘he will see the light of life and be satisfied’, is a reference to the fact that this suffering servant who died, would also come back to life. We have the truth of the resurrection also written into this prophetic text, in the book of Isaiah, in a remarkable way that is astonishing to consider. Philip could explain to the Ethiopian that he was on the right track to be seeking the Jewish God; he was on the right track to read the Old Testament but he could also explain to him that the Old Testament pointed to Jesus Christ. This is the way that the Early Church consistently approached people who knew the Old Testament by saying it points to Jesus Christ in so many ways. We’ve seen that in the book of Acts in a number of other episodes, as for example in Peter’s preaching on the Day of Pentecost, where three major prophecies are quoted by Peter. Philip is evangelising this man as they’re trundling along in their chariots, gradually getting closer to Gaza.

Belief and Baptism

The Ethiopian is deeply moved. He can hardly believe what’s happening to him. He’s been looking and now he’s finding. He’s been waiting and now the time has come. He’s been hoping that he’d find this God, and now this God has found him, through this amazing man who appeared from nowhere on the road and came running up to his chariot and jumped on board. Not something that anybody would do - he must have had courage to do that. The Ethiopian’s heart is warmed, his mind is open; he really is amazed to hear that this prophecy has been fulfilled. He’s been in Jerusalem and he would have heard about the Christian Church in the city of Jerusalem, because the news was everywhere. He would have heard about Jesus but it would have been confusing to him. He needed an interpreter. He needed someone to explain things to him, and Philip came and fulfilled that function in a magnificent way. So, he believed. Acts 8:36 - 38:

36 ‘As they travelled along the road, they came to some water and the eunuch said, “Look, here is water. What can stand in the way of me being baptized?” 38 And he gave orders to stop the chariot. Then both Philip and the eunuch went down into the water and Philip baptized him.’

Acts 8:36-38, NIV

There aren’t many watering holes on the road from Jerusalem to Gaza because you’re heading into the desert; it’s very arid conditions. There are watering holes where camels and the animals and humans can stop, and be refreshed and drink. The Ethiopian, having heard the message and he’d heard about baptism as the entry point, decided that he couldn’t wait because how long was Philip going to be with him? And what happens when he gets back to Ethiopia? There’s no one there to baptise him; there are no believers there yet. He thought this all through in those few moments in the chariot, as they were going along, and thought, ‘Now is the time’. So, they got down and the act of baptism took place. I’ve no idea what the people who were there travelling along the road thought on seeing this religious act of immersion, going on in the pool. Those acts were normally reserved for sacred pools in temples, such as in Jerusalem and elsewhere. Here on the side of the dusty road, in the hustle and bustle of a major trade route, with hundreds of people going backwards and forwards, and camels jostling for space by the watering hole, a miraculous action took place. Philip baptised the Ethiopian in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. A very moving account.

Philip Moved On

The Ethiopian travelled on. But what of Philip? Was he heading to Ethiopia? No, he wasn’t. Acts 8: 39 - 40:

39 ‘When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord suddenly took Philip away, and the eunuch did not see him again, but went on his way rejoicing. 40 Philip, however, appeared at Azotus and travelled about, preaching the gospel in all the towns until he reached Caesarea.’

Acts 8:39-40, NIV

The Ethiopian was happy, even though he would have been sad that Philip had gone. He knew that this was a miraculous moment in his life. He knew that God had revealed himself in a remarkable way. That may be your experience - that it’s through supernatural events that you have come to believe in Christ. The Ethiopian is someone you can identify with, knowing that for him, he’d never have become a Christian unless God had intervened in this remarkable way.

Philip goes down to the coastal Jewish area, slightly north of Gaza, and travels up north along the coast of the country, until he ends up in the northern seaport, and the Roman capital city, of Caesarea, where he stops and he stays. Later on, in the book of Acts, we find he’s living there with his family, and Paul meets his family in another context but that is a story for another day.


What kind of reflections can we make from this remarkable passage? Philip has been described as an evangelist in the book of Acts, and he’s appeared in four different contexts as an evangelist: in Samaria, on the road to Gaza, on the towns of the west coast and then up in Caesarea. A gifted man. I wonder if you’re gifted with that ability to communicate the Christian faith easily and simply to people, and they respond. Let me encourage you, model your life on Philip and some of the ways he operated - some of his flexibility and his commitment to reach people in different contexts.

My second reflection is about having the Bible in our own language. It was tremendously important to the Ethiopian to have that translation of the Jewish Hebrew Scriptures in Greek. That was the point of meeting between him and Philip; that was where they could read and study together because the text was in a language that he could understand. Very few non-Jews read or understood Hebrew in the ancient world. They needed translations. Bible translations remain incredibly important in our modern world. We’ve made tremendous progress with them in the last century but there are still some languages where the translation of the Bible is taking place. It’s a key to modern missions.

My third observation is about the Ethiopian church. Tradition suggests that it is the Ethiopian eunuch who is, in effect, the founder of the Ethiopian church. The Ethiopian church is one of the oldest churches in Christianity and amongst the oldest churches in Africa, along with the Egyptian Coptic church. They have both survived 2000 years and are still significant churches today. From an African point of view, the Ethiopian eunuch is important. Christianity came to Africa, not by Europeans initially, but through the Early Church spreading into North Africa and then further south. The European missionaries came many centuries later.

Philip also teaches us something about different ways of preaching the Gospel. In Samaria, one of the key things had been miraculous signs but here, it was a careful explanation of Scripture, coming alongside an individual, one-to-one. We need to remember that spreading the faith is not always about big meetings, big personalities and gifted evangelists and people who can pray for the sick. Those things are very important but many people come to faith, in exactly the way the Ethiopian did, by somebody coming literally alongside them - a friend, someone they meet - with the Bible text in front of them, with the Christian story in their hearts, and sharing the faith of Jesus.

My final point today, is to emphasise the fact that the book of Acts, all the way through, emphasises the importance of believer’s baptism - the act of immersion in water for those who have chosen to believe. It occurs time and time again. It is the pattern of the Early Church and is a hugely important symbol and marker of active Christian faith. If you’ve been converted to Christianity, you’ve come to faith, but you haven’t yet been baptised as a believer, let me ask you to think about that, as an important consideration, and to read the book of Acts, with that thought in mind. As soon as people had believed in Samaria, and in this case the eunuch on the road to Gaza, they were baptised, after their true faith had been verified. Baptism remains an important marker of the Christian faith, not to be neglected.

Thanks for listening to this exciting episode and I hope you’ll join us again in the next one where an equally dramatic action is recorded, when Saul, the great persecutor of the Church, encounters Jesus Christ on another major trade route, the road from Jerusalem to Damascus; he experiences the Damascus road conversion. I hope you’ll join us then.

Study Questions

The following questions have been provided to facilitate discussion or further reflection. Please feel free to answer any, or all the questions. Each question has been assigned a category to help guide you.

  • Exploring Faith
    Exploring Faith
    1. How important is it to have the Bible in your own language? Do you take this for granted?
  • Discipleship
    1. Philip is an evangelist. What are your gifts and abilities?
  • Further Study
    Further Study
    1. What does this story teach about how to share the good news?
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