To the Uttermost (Acts 8:26-40)

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If I were to ask everyone reading this what is the primary assignment of the church on earth, I would no doubt receive several different answers.

Some might suggest, in accordance with the Westminster Shorter Catechism, that the primary purpose of the church is to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever. Others might suggest that the primary purpose of the church is to worship God through the Lord Jesus Christ by the power of the Spirit. Still others might suggest that the church exists primarily to make disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ.

Each of these answers is good and correct in many ways. I would suggest, however, that the third reply best encapsulates the biblical answer to the question posed. The third reply is perhaps the key to the first two.

As we make disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ and teach them to obey Him (see Matthew 28:18-20), the more they will be conformed to the image of Christ; and the more a disciple is conformed to the image of Christ the more he glorifies God. After all, nobody glorifies God like Christ, and so the more we are like Him the better we glorify God.

Further, the term “worship” literally means “to bow to.” It carries the idea of obedience. Worshippers obey the one whom they worship, and if we worship God it means that we must obey Him. The Great Commission is a command, and so to the degree that we obey the Great Commission, to such a degree do we worship the Commissioner. If, therefore, we are not involved in making disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ, we cannot claim to be worshipping Him.

The purpose of the local church, then, is summarised in the Great Commission. As local churches, we must be involved in making disciples—both locally and globally. It is clear from Acts 1:8 that the Great Commission is both a local and a global command: “But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be witnesses to Me in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” And the implication is not that we must first complete the task locally before we go global; instead, we are to be making disciples locally and globally at the same time. We should be thinking globally as we act locally, which will eventually result in us going global.

So far in our study of Acts, we have seen Jerusalem and, to a degree, Judea evangelised. In our previous study we saw the gospel (finally) going to Samaria. In the text before us, we now see the gospel going, in accordance with Acts 1:8, “to the end of the earth.” Global missions is rooted in a rather inauspicious start—one believer personally evangelising another individual—but we know from history that the Ethiopian eunuch took the gospel back with him to his own country, and that it had a great impact throughout Africa thereafter. Some of the greatest early church fathers were Africans. The gospel reached Africa before it ever made inroads into Europe and the rest of the Western world.

Philip had been used of God in a great way to get the gospel to Samaria, and then he was called away from his large evangelistic crusade to evangelise one lone man on a desert road. But it was that single encounter that would be used of God to begin global conquest. From this point in Acts, Luke focuses on worldwide missions. In chapter 9 we will see the conversion of Saul, who became the apostle to the Gentiles. In chapter 10 we read of Peter’s ministry to Cornelius, and the gospel being opened in a greater way to the Gentiles.

As we will see, God graciously opens global doors to the gospel when we are faithful at home with the Great Commission. As we evangelise locally, we can be assured that, in some way, our local efforts will contribute to us eventually evangelising globally.

The Prompting of the Spirit

The main character in the story before us is not Philip, but the sovereign Lord. If He is taken out of the equation, there is no story left to be told. It all began with the divine prompting of the Spirit.

Now an angel of the Lord spoke to Philip, saying, “Arise and go toward the south along the road which goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” This is desert. So he arose and went. And behold, a man of Ethiopia, a eunuch of great authority under Candace the queen of the Ethiopians, who had charge of all her treasury, and had come to Jerusalem to worship, was returning. And sitting in his chariot, he was reading Isaiah the prophet. Then the Spirit said to Philip, “Go near and overtake this chariot.”

(Acts 8:26-29)

We are told here of an “angel of the Lord.” The term is used some 68 times in Scripture, 12 of which are found in the New Testament (see, for example, Matthew 1:20; 2:13, 19; Luke 1:11; Acts 5:19; 7:30; 12:7). When the angel of the Lord appears in the New Testament he normally does so in order to certify something unusual.

So, for example, he appeared to Joseph in Matthew 1:20 to confirm that he should go ahead and marry Mary because she was indeed a virgin despite her pregnancy. Likewise, he appeared again to Joseph in Matthew 2:13 to confirm that Joseph should indeed take Mary and Jesus into Egypt to flee from the wrath of Herod. The other appearances of this angel in the New Testament are in a similar context of confirming the unusual.

Certainly the assignment given here to Philip was an unusual one. The location of this desert highway was, technically, Philistine territory. It certainly seems unusual for Philip, who had just experienced great gospel fruit in Samaria, and who could no doubt be used by God in a great way to edify the newly-planted church there, to be sent to a lone man on a desert road (albeit an important highway).

No doubt Philip would have found this to be an unusual task, and so the angel appeared to him to confirm that it was indeed God’s intention for him to go to this place and minister to this man. But a great work was about to be accomplished through this instruction. As Stott notes, Luke

regards the Ethiopian’s conversion rather as another example of the loosening of bonds with Jerusalem (foreseen by Stephen in his speech) and of the liberation of the word of God to be the gospel for the world.1

Philip was evidently a perceptive servant, for “he arose and went.” The servant of the Lord obeyed the Word of God. As he did so, “behold.” The word “behold” in the New Testament always describes an “aha” moment. Philip may have been wondering why he had been sent to this desert place, but then—aha!—“a man of Ethiopia, a eunuch of great authority under Candace the queen of the Ethiopians.” This was clearly the man to whom the angel of the Lord had sent him.

When we read of Ethiopia we should not think of the relatively small country with which we are familiar today. Ethiopia in the Bible was a designation for pretty much all of Africa south of Egypt. It included modern-day Sudan, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Somalia, etc. The Queen of Sheba, who visited Solomon in the Old Testament, was from this region.

“Candace” was an official title, not a name. In ancient times, the sons of the kings of Ethiopia were considered gods, and so they would never be involved in secular affairs. This explains why the eunuch, who was effectively the national Minister of Finance, is said to have been “under Candace the queen” rather than under the king of Ethiopia.

The eunuch “had come to Jerusalem to worship.” Luke’s reference to this man as a eunuch is significant. According to Deuteronomy 23:1, “he who is emasculated by crushing or mutilation shall not enter the assembly of the LORD.” As a eunuch, the Ethiopian fell under this law. He was cut off from the temple. Yet he came to worship at Jerusalem.

There were two categories of Gentiles in the Old Testament who would have come to Jerusalem to worship. “If they accepted Judaism and were circumcised and took the Law upon themselves they were called proselytes; if they did not go that length but continued to attend the Jewish synagogues and to read the Jewish scriptures they were called God-fearers.2 Since this man was a eunuch, he was presumably a God-fearer.

To some degree, this man had embraced the God of the Jews. Perhaps he could trace his spiritual heritage back to the Queen of Sheba. Regardless, he came to Jerusalem to worship the true God. One cannot help but think that this man, because of the apostate state of the Jewish nation, actually left as empty as he had come.3

Though he left spiritually empty, he did not leave emptyhanded. At some point during his stay in Jerusalem he had acquired a scroll containing the book of Isaiah. And as he sat in his chariot on his way home, he was reading this scroll.

The Spirit, who had first prompted Philip to go to the desert, now “said to Philip, ‘Go near and overtake this chariot.’” The KJV reads, “Join thyself to this chariot,” which is probably a more accurate translation of the Greek phrase, which literally means “to glue.” The Spirit’s aim was to stick these two men together. Philip was soon to evangelise a man whose heart had been prepared by the Spirit to receive the gospel.

The Prepared Sinner

Philip quickly realised that the Spirit had prompted him to go to the desert in order to witness to a man who had been prepared to receive the gospel.

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

And he said, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” And he asked Philip to come up and sit with him. The place in the Scripture which he read was this:

“He was led as a sheep to the slaughter;
And as a lamb before its shearer is silent,
So He opened not His mouth.
In His humiliation His justice was taken away,
And who will declare His generation?
For His life is taken from the earth.”

So the eunuch answered Philip and said, “I ask you, of whom does the prophet say this, of himself or of some other man?”

(Acts 8:30-34)

Voddie Baucham said in a sermon once that “providence” is not the Reformed Christian word for “luck.” Instead, it is a term that refers to the fact that God is in control of every event. If you are running late to the airport and arrive to find that the plane has been delayed, you are correct in thinking that the delay was providential. However, even if the plane is not delayed and you miss the flight, God’s providence is still in play. Everything in life is directed by the providence of God.

As Philip was ministering in Samaria he had no idea what God was doing in the heart of the Ethiopian eunuch. That serves as a great encouragement in our own evangelism. The simple fact is that we have no idea what God is doing to prepare people to receive the gospel. We should take every opportunity we have to evangelise others, for who knows whether God has prepared hearts before us into which we will be used to sow the seed of the gospel?

It is God’s task to prepare hearts. Ours is to join ourselves to the chariots He brings across our paths. I recently spent a few days with one of our missionaries, and on the return flight, at 2:00 AM, I prayed that God would give me a seat in an empty row so I could get some sleep. When I boarded the plane I found that it was filled to capacity. I sat down next a man, his wife and their three-year-old child.

As I spoke to this man I learned that he was a Muslim. He and his wife were both Indian, though both born and raised in different parts of Africa. Having meditated on this passage the entire week prior to the flight, I quickly realised that God had arranged my seat in such a way that I would have opportunity to speak to this man.

We spent some time talking about Islam and Christianity, and in that time I was able to share the gospel with him. I would love to say that he cried to God for mercy and was saved, but that didn’t happen. Who knows, however, if God will use someone else to water the seed that has been planted so that eventually gospel fruit will be produced? We should always remain alert to opportunities to speak the gospel into the lives of others. This is the situation in which Philip found himself.

Having been instructed by the Spirit to join the Ethiopian in his chariot, Philip “ran to him.” He was enthusiastically obedient.

We should not imagine that the chariot was standing still on the desert road. It was bumping along the road en route to Ethiopia when Philip was instructed to join it. And so he ran up to the chariot and jumped aboard.

It is obvious from the encounter that follows that the eunuch had been prepared by the Spirit. How would you feel if someone ran up alongside your moving car, opened the passenger door and jumped in? That wouldn’t go down too well in South Africa! But rather than calling for his guards, the Ethiopian engaged Philip in conversation.

As Philip jumped on the chariot’s running board, he “heard” the Ethiopian reading the scroll. It was customary in those days to read aloud—and it probably helped with comprehension—which explains why Philip “heard” the man.

Hearing the man read from Isaiah, Philip asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?” This was a very pertinent question. I think that we would do well to ask similar questions. I suspect that there are a great many Christianised individuals, who are exposed to Scripture but simply do not understand what they read and know. Like the eunuch, they would say, “How can I [understand], unless someone guides me?”

As you go to work every week, realise that there are probably a great number of people working with you who were in a place of worship on Sunday who simply do not understand what they have heard. How will you seek to minister to them? How will you “guide” them? Do you perhaps have an opportunity to invite them to a Bible study, or to somehow talk through the things they are hearing? Let me encourage you to take full advantage of such opportunities.

God has left us in this world in order to guide people. One of our missionaries works in a country in which there are vast numbers of nominal Christians, and his greatest ministry opportunities are simply opportunities to guide those who are nominally Christian. I suspect that most of us come into contact daily with nominal Christianity. Do we see this as an opportunity for evangelism?

Luke now gives us some insight into precisely what it was that the eunuch was reading. Quoting from the Septuagint, Luke writes,

And he said, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” And he asked Philip to come up and sit with him. The place in the Scripture which he read was this:

“He was led as a sheep to the slaughter;
And as a lamb before its shearer is silent,
So He opened not His mouth.
In His humiliation His justice was taken away,
And who will declare His generation?
For His life is taken from the earth.”

Can you imagine a more suitable place for the eunuch to be reading? We cannot say for certain why this man was reading Isaiah 53. Perhaps (and this is simply a guess) he had read Isaiah 56 (which prophesies a time when eunuchs will experience fellowship with God) and had begun scanning the surrounding chapters to find how that would happen.

Whether this is the case or not, God had certainly led him to read precisely the right passage at precisely the right time. Inviting Philip into the chariot, the eunuch asked, “I ask you, of whom does the prophet say this, of himself or of some other man?”

I have to wonder whether the eunuch had asked the same question in Jerusalem, but had received no satisfactory answer. If so, he was now asking the right man. You see, Judaism had little place for a suffering Messiah, despite Jesus’ teaching (see Mark 10:45; 14:24-28; Luke 22:37). They had a concept of Messiah, but no real idea of who He was. And therefore they could not help the Ethiopian.

There are lots of people in our world today who are confused about Jesus and who need to be set straight. My friend on the plane was very much in that category. He was a Muslim, but an unusual one. Unlike most Muslims, he claimed to respect other religions. He viewed Jesus as a great prophet, but nothing more than that. He was terribly confused. And he is not alone. Are we willing to help those who are confused about Christ and the final judgement to understand the Scriptures and to see the beauty of Christ? If you are willing, you will no doubt find that God will begin to bring across your path those whom the Spirit has prepared.

The Power of the Sovereign

Luke tells us that God powerfully used the Scriptures as the means of this man’s salvation. Christ-centred proclamation is God’s usual way of saving souls, and we see that here.

Then Philip opened his mouth, and beginning at this Scripture, preached Jesus to him. Now as they went down the road, they came to some water. And the eunuch said, “See, here is water. What hinders me from being baptised?”

Then 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.”

So he commanded the chariot to stand still. And both Philip and the eunuch went down into the water, and he baptised him. Now when they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord caught Philip away, so that the eunuch saw him no more; and he went on his way rejoicing.

(Acts 8:35-39)

Philip used the opportunity to boldly proclaim Christ—from the Old Testament! Robertson notes, “There are scholars who do not find Jesus in the Old Testament at all, but Jesus himself did (Luke 24:27) as Philip does here. Scientific study of the Old Testament (historical research) misses its mark if it fails to find Christ the Center of all history.”4

In recent months I have had the wonderful privilege of meeting regularly with several pastors from other churches and leading them through some workshops on preaching Christ in the Old Testament. At our most recent workshop we focused on the story in Genesis 32 of Jacob wrestling with the angel. As we worked our way through the passage, one man eventually broke into a smile and said, “Do you know what the point of this passage is? Just as the angel was seemingly defeated by Jacob in order to save him, so Jesus was seemingly defeated on the cross in order to ultimately save us!” I could not help but smile as he said that. What a thrill it was to once again see Christ in the Old Testament!

Philip was so well-immersed in the Old Testament that he was able to show Christ from it. No doubt he spent time in other passages, but he began right where the Ethiopian had been reading. If the eunuch himself had not yet read Isaiah 56 and the prophecy of gospel blessing for eunuchs, perhaps Philip took him to that passage as a means of encouragement. Regardless, Philip clearly showed him Christ. No longer did the eunuch have to travel to Jerusalem to worship; he could not come directly to the true Temple, the Lord Jesus Christ.

Following the Christ-centred proclamation we find a Christ-centred confession. Immediately following his conversion, the Ethiopian requested baptism (cf. Acts 2:36-38). As Harrison notes, “The eunuch’s request for baptism rested on his understanding that in this act he would be confessing his faith as well as repenting for his sins (cf. 2:38; 8:12).” 5

Baptism is not a negotiable or a minor issue of the Christian walk. It is one of the very fruits of repentance. The Ethiopian was a God-fearer, and understood that for a Gentile to proselytise to Judaism required the rite of baptism as a sign of the cutting of the old life and an embracing of the new life. Evidently he saw a correlation between that and the need for Christian baptism, and so he asked to be baptised as a token of his newfound allegiance to Jesus Christ.6

According to the NKJV, Philip answered the Ethiopian’s request about the requirements for baptism in this way: “If you believe with all your heart, you may.” To which the eunuch replied, “I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.” Many modern translations of the Bible exclude this verse (or at least have a footnote bringing it into question), based on the fact that certain Greek texts exclude it. I am not a textual critic, and since it is here in my translation I will deal with it.

Philip told the eunuch that heartfelt belief was the only prerequisite for baptism. Whether or not this verse ought to be in our text, this truth is clearly taught in Scripture. Baptism is not a requirement for regeneration but a public evidence of regeneration. Those who have been converted by the gospel respond by submitting to baptism.

Having believed and confessed Jesus Christ as Lord—having finally understood Isaiah 53—the eunuch was baptised. Incidentally, the fact that “both Philip and the eunuch went down into the water” and “came up out of the water” clearly seems to favour immersion as the mode of baptism here.

At some point in the conversation, God used the Word to save this man. God’s Word is powerful to save sinners. We must do all we can to get the Word to the lost and to explain the gospel to them as contained in the Word. God will use those efforts to save souls!

Two Proclaiming Servants

The eunuch having been baptised, “the Spirit of the Lord caught Philip away, so that the eunuch saw him no more; and he went on his way rejoicing. But Philip was found at Azotus. And passing through, he preached in all the cities till he came to Caesarea” (vv. 39-40).

The phrase “caught . . . away” refers to a very quick removal. It does not necessarily indicate an instantaneous vanishing, but Philip was certainly very quickly removed from that place. Very quickly, the same Spirit who had led him there now led him away. The eunuch was left alone, but soon the one evangelised would become the evangelist.

The early church Irenaeus suggests that the eunuch returned to Ethiopia and started a church there. Of course, Scripture does not tell us this, but we can certainly assume from his “rejoicing” that he would have told others about Christ. We know that the gospel very quickly got a foothold in Africa, and it is quite possible that the ministry of the eunuch had a large part to play in that. “We can at least be sure that he who went on his way rejoicing would not be able to keep his newfound joy to himself.”7

I have been to Ethiopia on several occasions, and when you are there you can hardly avoid books and other trinkets dedicated to the Ark of the Covenant. There is a widely held belief that the old covenant Ark is housed in a well-guarded compound in Ethiopia. I highly doubt that that is the case, but even if it is, let us be sure that this eunuch took a treasure to Ethiopia far more valuable than the Ark of the Covenant. He took the very gospel of Jesus Christ, and there is still a heritage of that in Ethiopia today.

I find it significant that we don’t read again of Philip until Acts 21:8, where he is seen at home with his daughters, housing missionaries. Even from his home, he impacted the world for the gospel by showing hospitality to those who were going to the uttermost.8 “He may be evangelizing the world quite as truly by the aid he gives to religious workers, and by exerting the abiding influence of a Christian home.”9

The gospel in Jerusalem started with the conversion of 3,000 souls. In Samaria, a city-wide crusade saw the advance of the gospel. But the gospel to the uttermost started with a single individual on a quiet desert road. And yet that one person was used by God to impact his entire continent with the gospel. Philip acted locally, but impacted the world globally.

The desert can make a difference. One man reached in a desert place can be used by God to impact the globe. We don’t have to be Hudson Taylor, Adoniram Judson or William Carey to have an impact. Sometimes God uses Philips and Ethiopian eunuchs at home to impact the world for his glory. It’s great if God raises Taylors or Careys from our midst, but if we are simply faithful with the gospel at home we can be sure that God will use us to reach other nations with the gospel.

When I came to Brackenhurst Baptist Church many years ago there was a young man of 19 years who was a member. He was a zealous young man, who was frustrated by his perceived lack of ministry opportunity. He even considered leaving the church for another church that would use him (in his perception) more effectively for the cause of the gospel. I encouraged him to stay and learn, assuring him that God would open doors in His good timing. Today, he serves as a cross-cultural missionary sent by our church. His faithfulness at home opened doors for him to impact another culture with the gospel.

We don’t always know what God is doing, but we can be sure, based on Scripture, that He is at work, orchestrating the events of history in order to impact the world with His gospel.

We never want to lose our world vision, but that vision must start at home. Faithfulness is required of stewards of the gospel, and who knows how that faithfulness will be used to reach others.

In late 2011 I received an email via our church website from a young woman in Australia. She writes,

Dear Pastor Doug,

Today we met with some new South African friends who have recently moved here to Australia. We got on Google Maps and showed the children where Durban was (our new friends came from there), and then we told them I had stayed in South Africa for a time before getting married.

We showed them where Brackenhurst is and found the photo of the church. From there we found the church website, and I thought it would be lovely to write to you and let you know what a profound impact your church had on me as a person.

I was in South Africa in 1994, and stayed with the Cables and Steve and RoAnn Miller. I think you would say I was a bit of a roughneck at the time, and had a great deal to learn about living a life pleasing to the Lord. Everyone at Brackenhurst Baptist showed me a great deal of love and acceptance just as I was.

I learned to have a great love for God’s Word and the inerrancy of Scripture (which stood me in good stead upon arriving home). I saw for the first time, that I am aware of, a community of God’s people recognizing that God has standards, and we are to worship Him by living within those. The community within the church was very noticeable to a person looking in from the outside.

Obviously, much time has passed, but being a part of your church for the time of my stay is one of my dearest life memories and most treasured church families. I have often described things I learned there to my own children (I have five).

Well, I thought you might like the feedback and know that the changes God brought in me through your church family has changed the direction of my life, and I am grateful to those who were there at the time.

If you still see the Cables, please could you pass this on? I lost contact a long time ago.

Many blessings to you all.

When I read that email I wept to think of the fact that God used our church to impact a young woman who is now having an impact back in her own country.

Let’s be faithful Philips making a difference in whichever desert God puts us.

Show 9 footnotes

  1. John R. W. Stott, The Message of Acts: The Bible Speaks Today (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 1990), 160.
  2. William Barclay, The Acts of the Apostles: The Daily Study Bible Series (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1955), 70.
  3. John F. MacArthur, Jr., Acts: The MacArthur New Testament Commentary, 2 vols. (Moody Press: Chicago, 1994), 1:225.
  4. A. T. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament, 6 vols. (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1930), 111.
  5. Everett F. Harrison, Interpreting Acts: The Expanding Church (Grand Rapids: Academie Books, 1986), 152.
  6. It is also possible, of course, that Philip, like the apostles in Acts 2:36-38, had told him of the need to be baptised.
  7. Barclay, The Acts of the Apostles, 71.
  8. This is not to suggest that Philip did not proclaim the gospel in his home town. I would find it hard to believe that he didn’t, but the Bible focuses instead on his hospitality, which was, in many ways, as important as his own direct gospel ministry.
  9. Charles R. Erdman, The Acts: An Exposition (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1966), 87.