Pastor David B. Curtis


An Ethiopian Eunuch's Salvation

Acts 8:25-40

Delivered 1/18/2009

If you remember our study in Acts 7, we saw that Stephen's preaching resulted in his own death and also in the persecution of the whole church in Jerusalem. A Jew named Saul was the prominent and driving force behind this persecution. This brought about the exodus of the church, except for the apostles (Acts 8:1-3). Philip had fled from Jerusalem and had gone to Samaria, where he performed many amazing signs (Acts 8:4-7). As a result of his ministry, many Samaritans were saved, including Simon the magician (8:9-13). When the apostles in Jerusalem learned of the revival which was taking place in Samaria, they sent Peter and John to check it out. These apostles laid their hands on the Samaritan believers and prayed that they might receive the Holy Spirit (8:14-15). When they had finished their task, they departed for Jerusalem, preaching the Gospel in the Samaritan villages as they journeyed home:

And 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. (Acts 8:25 NASB)

The "they" here may refer to Peter, John and Philip. Philip could be accompanying Peter and John on the way back to Jerusalem. Or the subjects of this verse could just be Peter and John. The fact that while they were returning to Jerusalem the apostles preached the Gospel in other Samaritan towns shows that they fully accepted the Samaritans as fellow believers.

As we said in our last study, the Samaritan's salvation was a fulfilment of prophecy. We see here the redemption of Israel. God had promised that He would bring back the 10 tribes of Israel, and that he would reunite the 12 tribes. Isaiah 11:1-12 predicts the coming of Messiah's rule and the reuniting of the 12 tribes. The apostles are laying their hands on the Samaritans, and they are becoming one with them in the Body of Christ. Jews from Jerusalem and Samaritans from Samaria were seen as having fellowship as one. God's promises to Israel were being fulfilled.

But an angel of the Lord spoke to Philip saying, "Arise and go south to the road that descends from Jerusalem to Gaza." (This is a desert road.) (Acts 8:26 NASB)

Here we see an angel suddenly appears to Philip and gives him direction. I've never had an angel appear to me and tell me to do anything. I have never seen an angel­except for the one I married. I don't know of anyone who has seen an angel. But in Acts, in this transitional book, we see angels appear over and over. Why don't we see angels? Why don't we get directions from angels? I think the simple answer is because we have Bibles, we have God's Word which gives us direction and instruction.

Notice what the writer of Hebrews says about angels:

Are they not all ministering spirits, sent out to render service for the sake of those who will inherit salvation? (Hebrews 1:14 NASB)

A literal Greek rendering of this verse would read: "Are they not all ministering spirits being sent forth for service because of the ones being about (mello) to inherit salvation?" The words "who will" are from the Greek word mellontas, a common idiom of mello. The Greek verb mello means in the infinitive: "to be about to"­see Thayer, Arndt & Gingrich, New Englishman's Greek Concordance. The angels were sent out to serve "those who were about to inherit salvation," which would be the saints living in the transition period.

Notice that Luke calls this angel "an angel of the Lord." In the First Testament we see mentioned "angel of the Lord" from Genesis to Zechariah, as representing God Himself in a kind of extended self. The description often indicates the actual appearance of Him in discernible form, but is regularly used of God making a communication with a specific person.

Gaza was a town about two and a half miles from the sea-side; it was the last town which a traveler passed through when he went from Phoenicia to Egypt and was at the entrance into a wilderness.

The phrase translated south (kata mesembrian) may also be translated: "at noon" (it is regularly translated this way in the LXX). This would make the command all the more unusual, for few travelers would be on the road in the harsh midday sun.

Philip was told by God to travel to a desert road that led south from Jerusalem to Gaza and to do so at noon, the hottest part of the day, when for sure nobody is going to be out there. Philip didn't know this, but God arranged a meeting there between Philip and one man, an Ethiopian eunuch, who was traveling home after worshiping in Jerusalem.

That Philip was to meet this man in the desert pictured the thirst that possessed this man's soul. The picture is that the man's soul was needing water, and that his salvation would come not from the temple, but from the wilderness.

So here God is telling Philip through this angel to drop everything and head for the desert. This seems absurd. Philip is involved in a revival. The Samaritans are coming to Christ in large numbers. It is exciting and wonderful, and now God says, "Arise and go south to the road that descends from Jerusalem to Gaza." Notice Philips response:

And he arose and went; and behold, 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. (Acts 8:27 NASB)

"He arose and went"­no arguing, no questing, no murmuring; he just obeyed. And there in the place described he found a large and richly laden caravan traveling along the road, and included within it a splendid chariot or covered ox wagon carrying someone who was clearly of great importance. He was to learn that the man came from Ethiopia where he had overall control of the Ethiopian treasury on behalf of the queen. He was her Minister of Finance. The queen mother ruled in the secular functions of the kingdom. She ruled on behalf of her son who, as the child of the sun god, was considered too "holy" to be involved in mundane affairs. And her title was Candace, that is not her name, that is a title like Pharaoh is a title.

Two things are important to our understanding of this text: 1) This man was from Ethiopia, and 2) he was a eunuch. The region called Ethiopia in this text is effectively the modern country of Sudan, just south of Egypt. Ethiopia or Cush in that day was all of Africa south of Egypt. It a was a massive kingdom. It was everywhere from the Red Sea to the great desert to the west of Africa and from Egypt clear to the south as far as one could go, and was under the control of Ethiopia. The Romans and the Jews both considered Ethiopia, or Cush, the rim of the Earth, the farthest-away place (hang on to that thought).

This man was coming back from worshiping God in Jerusalem. He has come from Ethiopia all the way along the Nile up through Egypt, along the Mediterranean, through Gaza and through the hills of Jerusalem. This could have been a trip over 1,000 miles long. In the Roman world the average distance that people would travel in one day on land was about 20 miles.

The Bible also says that he was a eunuch. Now a eunuch is a designation of a man who has been castrated or emasculated, he has had his male organs removed. The reasons to castrate men entering certain positions were rather obvious: For the eunuchs working in the harems, there was a need for men who could not make the women pregnant. Another reason was that many thought that the eunuch's personality was more favorable for important positions. And also the fact that eunuchs never could have any children made them less threatening for rulers and important people; the eunuchs had no sons who could challenge their own sons' future positions. In ancient Egypt, a court officer was called eunuch whether or not he had castration. Most were castrated, hence the use of the term.

To get God's view of this particular pagan practice look at:

"No one who is emasculated, or has his male organ cut off, shall enter the assembly of the LORD. (Deuteronomy 23:1 NASB)

God was against this practice, and He threatened Israel that if they did it, they would be cut off from certain fellowship with Him. Eunuchs were not allowed to be Jews in the full sense, but only proselytes of the gate.

This Ethiopian eunuch had been to Jerusalem to worship God. He was probably a God­fearer. A God-fearer was a non-Jew who respected the Jewish Law and sought to worship the God of Israel. They worshiped in the local synagogue along with the Jews. If he was a God-fearer this would be the first known overt example of a Gentile coming to Christ, an indication by God of what was to come.

Being a eunuch could only make this man feel inferior in his relationship to the God of Judaism, because eunuchs were seen as restricted in their approach to God:

And he was returning and sitting in his chariot, and was reading the prophet Isaiah. (Acts 8:28 NASB)

As the Ethiopian high official traveled, he was reading the book of Isaiah. To possess such a document demonstrated both how devout and how wealthy and influential he was.

And the Spirit said to Philip, "Go up and join this chariot." 30 And when Philip had run up, he heard him reading Isaiah the prophet, and said, "Do you understand what you are reading?" (Acts 8:29-30 NASB)

Notice who is giving Philip direction now­"the Spirit said." Back in verse 26 it was"an angel of the Lord," but now it is the Spirit. The "angel of the Lord" is perhaps God's primary means of specifically guiding individuals under the Old Covenant, while the Holy Spirit is the instrument of guidance in the New Covenant. Used together, the guidance of Philip and the salvation of the Ethiopian is shown to be the fulfillment of First Testament prophecies and promises pertaining to the salvation of Gentiles, as well as a New Testament phenomenon brought about by means of the Holy Spirit. Thus the First and Second Testaments are demonstrated to be in harmony in this matter of the eunuch's salvation.

So Philip runs up to the chariot and hears the man reading Isaiah. In the ancient world it was common to read aloud. The Hebrews still read the Scriptures aloud. Philip recognized the text he was reading. If you came upon this chariot, would you have known what text he was reading from? Philip asks him whether he understood what he was reading.

It was normal for solitary travelers to join themselves up with a traveling caravan for safety reasons, and so Philip's approach would neither be resented nor suspected. Others would be walking with the caravan:

And he said, "Well, how could I, unless someone guides me?" And he invited Philip to come up and sit with him. (Acts 8:31 NASB)

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

This Ethiopian eunuch obviously didn't find salvation in Jerusalem at the temple, but here he is in the wilderness, the middle of nowhere, reading Isaiah 53, which is the whole presentation of the death of Messiah and salvation through His sacrificial atonement. It's right there. Philip is there. Everything comes together. That's no accident. That's the Spirit of God superintending everything:


Isaiah 53 was written almost 800 years before the cross. Yet it reads like an eyewitness account of the crucifixion.

No doubt a man of his rank had a large retinue with him, including a driver, so that he was free to read as they traveled. Presuming that he had started at the beginning,

he was almost through the entire book. He was reading Isaiah 53:7-8 when Philip came alongside his chariot. Once it was explained to him, God used these prophetic words about Jesus to bring this man to salvation.

And the eunuch answered Philip and said, "Please tell me, of whom does the prophet say this? Of himself, or of someone else?" (Acts 8:34 NASB)

His question was not about the interpretation of the words, although they are a bit difficult to interpret. The text is speaking about a man who was treated unjustly. Rather, his question was, "Of whom does the prophet say this? of himself? or of someone

else?" Contemporary Jewish interpretation was divided about this matter. Some said that it referred to the nation, some that Isaiah was speaking of himself, and some that he referred to the Messiah. But Philip had no doubts:

And Philip opened his mouth, and beginning from this Scripture he preached Jesus to him. (Acts 8:35 NASB)

Philip starts at Isaiah 53, which he knew by heart, and preached Jesus. In context the picture expressed here in Isaiah 53 is of One spoken of as being led like a sacrificial lamb to His death, having been wrongly judged, but silent like a sheep before His shearers in the face of His humiliation, with the result that His life was taken from the earth. And in the context this refers back to His sufferings on behalf of "us":

Surely our griefs He Himself bore, And our sorrows He carried; Yet we ourselves esteemed Him stricken, Smitten of God, and afflicted. 5 But He was pierced through for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities; The chastening for our well-being fell upon Him, And by His scourging we are healed. (Isaiah 53:4-5 NASB)

And it also refers to His having laid on Him the iniquity of us all:

All of us like sheep have gone astray, Each of us has turned to his own way; But the LORD has caused the iniquity of us all To fall on Him. (Isaiah 53:6 NASB)

And in the context this refers forward to His being made a guilt offering for sin:

But the LORD was pleased To crush Him, putting Him to grief; If He would render Himself as a guilt offering, He will see His offspring, He will prolong His days, And the good pleasure of the LORD will prosper in His hand. (Isaiah 53:10 NASB)

Scholars and the Ethiopian official may have had difficulty with these verses, but we doubt whether either Philip or Luke had:

"For I tell you, that this which is written must be fulfilled in Me, 'AND HE WAS NUMBERED WITH TRANSGRESSORS'; for that which refers to Me has its fulfillment." (Luke 22:37 NASB)

Jesus is the fulfillment of Isaiah 53. Philip thus would have explained that we all have sinned. Because of our sin, none of us can merit eternal life by our own efforts or good deeds. Thus the Lord, to satisfy His holy justice, out of love for us, provided a substitute who bore the penalty we deserve. Jesus Christ bore God's wrath for our sin on the cross. Perhaps Philip went to other Scriptures as well. But whatever Scriptures he used, Philip told the man about Jesus Christ, crucified, risen, and ascended as the only Savior from God's righteous judgment. He also explained that we must put our trust in Jesus personally as our own sin bearer. The eunuch, prepared by God, responded in faith.

Could you do what Philip did here? Can you start with any Scripture or spiritual topic and present Christ to a lost soul?

And Philip opened his mouth, and beginning from this Scripture he preached Jesus to him. (Acts 8:35 NASB)

In the conversion of this Ethiopian we see an initial launching of stage three of Jesus' marching orders to the Church: to be witnesses even to the remotest parts of the earth. Here we see the Gospel preached to a Gentile. Here they complete the geographical aspects of the Acts 1:8 commission:

but you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be My witnesses both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and even to the remotest part of the earth." (Acts 1:8 NASB)

We saw them witness in Jerusalem (2:14-8:3), we saw them witness in Judea and Samaria (8:4-25), and now we see Philip witness to the ends of the earth (8:26-40). In the view of the first-century Romans or Greeks, the Ethiopians lived literally at the southern edge of the earth (Homer Odyssey 1:23).

We don't know how long Philip's conversation with this Ethiopian was. He had plenty of time in which to tell him of the birth, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus; and to draw attention to how it fulfilled the Scriptures, and to mention some of the teaching of Jesus contained in the tradition of the Church, including such words as:

"For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many." (Mark 10:45 NASB)

He applied it all to Isaiah 53 and other First Testament Scriptures. The man was on a long journey, and Philip, having been sent here by God, had all the time in the world.

And as they went along the road they came to some water; and the eunuch said, "Look! Water! What prevents me from being baptized?" (Acts 8:36 NASB)

"What prevents me from being baptized?"­the question assumes the negative. A eunuch would never have been permitted in the temple, and certainly someone from the farthest ends of the earth would always be regarded as suspect. All his life he has encountered barriers in his search for God, and so he's asking almost poignantly, "Am I prevented from being baptized?" And Philip invites him into the water. He makes public proclamation of his faith and goes away singing God's praises:

And Philip said, "If you believe with all your heart, you may." And he answered and said, "I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God." (Acts 8:37 NASB)

If you have the NIV, NLT, ERV, ISV or GW translation you will notice that verse 37 is missing. The NASV has the verse italicized. Adam Clark writes, "This whole verse is omitted by ABCG, several others of the first authority, Erpen's edit. of the Arabic, the Syriac, the Coptic, Sahidic, AEthiopic, and some of the Slavonic: almost all the critics declare against it as spurious. Griesbach has left it out of the text; and Professor White in his Crisews says, 'Hic versus certissime delendus,' this verse, most assuredly, should be blotted out. It is found in E, several others of minor importance, and in the Vulgate and Arabic. In those MSS. where it is extant it exists in a variety of forms, though the sense is the same."

And he ordered the chariot to stop; and they both went down into the water, Philip as well as the eunuch; and he baptized him. (Acts 8:38 NASB)

This text tells us nothing about the mode of baptism. These phrases translated,"they both went down into the water" and "they came up out of the water," can equally well be translated, "they went down to the water" and "came up from the water." So we cannot say that this teaches that the eunuch was immersed.

The Ethiopian's spiritual condition when Philip met him was as arid as the desert. However, when the two men parted, the eunuch had experienced the refreshing effects

of having been washed by the Water of Life. Here was a man who had just been to Jerusalem to worship the God of Israel there, and yet he was not saved in Jerusalem, but in the desert.

And when they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away; and the eunuch saw him no more, but went on his way rejoicing. (Acts 8:39 NASB)

This doesn't necessarily mean that on the instant of leaving the water, but certainly soon afterwards. The Greek verb used here for "snatched" is harpazo. It is used in the New Testament to signify: "take by force", "snatch away", sometimes "take up." It certainly indicates that Philip's work was complete. Many see this as a miraculous removal. But it could be referring to a forcible impression of the Spirit that made him go on his way immediately.

It could be a miracle­a similar thing happened when the disciples' boat came immediately to its destination (John 6:15-21). But with the limited information that we have, it's hard to say for sure.

But Philip found himself at Azotus; and as he passed through he kept preaching the gospel to all the cities, until he came to Caesarea. (Acts 8:40 NASB)

Philip proceeded up the coast north, probably along the international highway, to Azotus (Ashdod) and farther on to Caesarea. He preached the Gospel in all the intermediate cities. On arrival at Caesarea, he probably made his base there, for that was where he was later found as an evangelist (21:8). Caesarea was of mixed Jewish and Gentile population and the seat of Roman government and presented great opportunities for evangelism.

Now this is an awesome story of God's salvific love for one individual. But how does it fit in the theme of the book? Remember the theme of the book of Acts is the "Redemption of Israel." And in this story of the Ethiopian eunuch, we see God's promises to Israel being fulfilled. God had foretold the Gentile salvation, and in our text we see it being fulfilled.

In Luke chapter 2:32, Simeon spoke of the Lord Jesus as a "light to the Gentiles," which was a citation from Isaiah 42:6. In Luke chapter 4, when Jesus was welcomed by His own people at the synagogue in Nazareth, Jesus made it clear that the salvation He had come to bring was for Gentiles as well, a disclosure which reversed the attitude of the people, so that they now tried to kill Him (Luke 4:16-30).

This Ethiopian was a kind of "first fruits" of the Gentiles. His race would have kept him from approaching God, but God approached him, seeking him out in the desert, making it clear that salvation was going to the Gentiles. The conversion of the Ethiopian was a sign that the time for the blessing of the Gentiles was at hand. This story foreshadows the Gentile mission of Paul.

The "holy place," Jerusalem, did little for the eunuch. Instead, he was brought to faith in a remote "desert place," although he had just been to the temple and to the holy city. Just as Jesus had told the woman at the well in John, chapter 4, worship was not a matter of the "right place," but of the "right person" and of the "right spirit." We see this evidenced by the conversion of the Ethiopian.

The conversion of the Ethiopian eunuch graphically demonstrates the inclusiveness of the Gospel. The Lord is having mercy on a man whose nationality and sexual impotence might have made him think the God of Israel would never care about him. And not only that, the Lord is orchestrating the evangelization of Ethiopia. We can't know for sure, but Irenaeus wrote in the second century that this Ethiopian became a missionary among his people (Against Heresies iii.12.8; cf. Psalm 68:31; 87:4).

Verse 39 of our text says, "and the eunuch saw him no more, but went on his way rejoicing." I would assume that the Ethiopian continued to read Isaiah, and I bet he was really rejoicing when he got to chapter 56.

In chapter 56 Isaiah foretold of the days of the New Covenant. In the glorious New Covenant, God promises to exalt the eunuchs who were formerly kept far off from God!

Thus says the LORD, "Preserve justice, and do righteousness, For My salvation is about to come And My righteousness to be revealed. 2 "How blessed is the man who does this, And the son of man who takes hold of it; Who keeps from profaning the sabbath, And keeps his hand from doing any evil." 3 Let not the foreigner who has joined himself to the LORD say, "The LORD will surely separate me from His people." Neither let the eunuch say, "Behold, I am a dry tree." 4 For thus says the LORD, "To the eunuchs who keep My sabbaths, And choose what pleases Me, And hold fast My covenant, 5 To them I will give in My house and within My walls a memorial, And a name better than that of sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name which will not be cut off. (Isaiah 56:1-5 NASB)

The eunuchs will be exalted as better than the physical descendants of Israel! In the New Covenant the eunuch is fully accepted as a child of God. In our text we see the fulfillment of this prophecy of Isaiah.

I don't have time to go into it in detail, but there are some strong similarities between our text in Acts 8 and Luke 24:13-32. In Luke Jesus encounters men on the road; in Acts Phillip is sent to meet the eunuch on the road.

In Luke they were hoping that Jesus was the "One who was going to redeem Israel"; in Acts the Eunuch is enquiring who is the One who would redeem Israel.

In Luke the men on the road saw the wickedness of their own chief priests and rulers; In Acts the passage in Isaiah wonders at the wickedness of those who led the Messiah to death and took His justice from Him.

In Luke, beginning with Moses and with all the prophets, Jesus explained to them the things concerning Himself according to the Scriptures; In Acts Phillip did the same thing!

Then in Luke Jesus vanished from their site; In Acts Phillip was whisked away by the Spirit. The similarities between the two passages are unquestionable! What does it mean though? I believe it means this: the New Covenant is extending beyond the men of Israel, just as the prophets foretold. The message of Jesus is continuing through the work of the Holy Spirit through believers.

There is another Ethiopian eunuch mentioned in Scripture. Do you know where?

When the prophet Jeremiah was imprisoned, one of the king's officials, whose name in the text is given simply as Ebed-Melech (Hebrew for 'king's servant', it may be a title rather than his name), sticks up for Jeremiah and persuades the king to allow him to rescue the prophet (Jeremiah 38:7-13). Ebed-Melech is designated as "the Ethiopian, a eunuch". In Jeremiah 39:18 God says that Ebed-Melekh is one who has "put his trust in Me."

One of the big questions facing Christianity in our day is whether or not God is actually sovereign. There has been a strong movement among some theologians, who claim to be evangelical, to deny the omniscience of God and the exercise of His sovereignty. Essentially, these theologians give a little sovereignty to God and the rest to man. God is viewed as knowing only what He has decided, not what man will decide in the future. They claim that God knows most everything, but there remains some "details" unknown to God until they actually happen (The Coming Evangelical Crisis, ed. John Armstrong, 142-14).

Try telling this to Philip! He saw the sovereignty of God at work in the salvation of the Ethiopian eunuch. The salvation of this Ethiopian eunuch was clearly a matter of divine election and calling, as was the choice of the human instrument [Philip] a part of God's sovereign will.

God's sovereignty in the salvation of this Ethiopian man is a dominant theme. Philip was walking along the desert road, the road he had been commanded to take, and there was nothing in sight. Then he sees a chariot come into view. He is told by the Spirit to join the chariot. As he does, the man in the chariot happens to be reading aloud, and it just happens to be the fifty-third chapter of Isaiah, the great passage that predicts the coming of the Messiah, the suffering Savior. What incredible timing! Was it all a coincidence?

Today, too many preachers focus on what we must do for God, but the Gospel begins with what God has done for us in Jesus Christ. Salvation is God's work, it is not man's work. The initiative is in the grace of God, it is in God's will. Nobody deserves salvation. Nobody earns it. Nobody of his own accord finds it or discovers it. God dispenses it according to His grace and sovereign will in the framework of grace. God is not sitting up in heaven saying: I hope those folks come to salvation, I hope they get saved. God is doing it.

None of us are naturally inclined toward the Gospel. Sinners do not seek after God.

Thus salvation is all of God and His grace, and not from any good inclination in our hearts to seek God. Therefore, no one can boast (Eph. 2:8-9). This means that whenever we see a man like the Ethiopian eunuch, who was seeking God by traveling to Jerusalem and by reading God's Word, God is already at work in his heart, drawing him to Jesus:

"No one can come to Me, unless the Father who sent Me draws him; and I will raise him up on the last day. (John 6:44 NASB)

In closing let me bring up one other point. We see in this text the necessity of the human agency in the spreading of the Gospel. God sends an angel; but his mission is to start a man in the direction of the chariot. When the man gets within sight of the chariot, the Holy Spirit begins to work; but he works by first bringing the man to the side of the chariot, and next, through his lips speaking to the man in the chariot. Thus we see, that, though an angel from heaven has appeared, and the Holy Spirit has operated miraculously for the conversion of the sinner, there is still an insuperable necessity for the co-operation of a man:

How then shall they call upon Him in whom they have not believed? And how shall they believe in Him whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher? (Romans 10:14 NASB)

You, believer, are to be that preacher!

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