Acts 8:26–39comment (0)
December 23, 2010
By Dennis Sansom
Related Scripture: Acts 8:26–39
Bible Studies for Life
Professor and Chair, Department of Philosophy, Samford University
Go and Tell
This story records the first full conversion of a Gentile to Christianity. Many Jews already had discovered Jesus as the Messiah of Israel, but now we see the good news of Christ spreading out of Israel into Africa. The key aspect in this account is the particular Old Testament text the Ethiopian eunuch was reading and how Philip the Evangelist interpreted it. There is some question whether this is Philip the apostle or Philip the “table-waiter” of Acts 6:1–6, who had been selected and ordained to “wait on the tables” (i.e., serve the congregation’s physical needs). It is more likely that this is Philip the “table-waiter,” because Chapter 8 mentions that after Saul’s persecution of the church in Jerusalem, everyone except the apostles scattered out of the city and Philip went to Samaria, which is north of Jerusalem. However, in verse 26, the angel told Philip to go “down from Jerusalem to Gaza,” which is south of Jerusalem. Thus, though it is not conclusive, Philip the “table-waiter” is probably the figure in this story.
The Ethiopian Eunuch
Though we do not know the Ethiopian eunuch’s name, we know two important things about him. He worked for the queen of Ethiopia, whose title, not name, was Candace. He served as the palace treasurer and special confidant to the queen. He knew the “ins and outs” of the kingdom’s power and cultural structures and was highly respected by the queen. He took back to Ethiopia a Christian witness, and probably because of his connections, it endured, and in the fourth century, the rulers turned Ethiopia into a Christian nation. He was considered a proselyte and thus could enter the temple area, but because he was a eunuch and thus was considered “unclean,” he could not enter deeper into the temple, into the Court of the Jews. Nonetheless the eunuch was part of the covenant of Abraham and, consequently, studied the Hebrew Scriptures. Moses’ teachings may have entered Ethiopia as early as the eighth century before Christ. Thus, the eunuch represents a long history of Ethiopians, schooled in the Scriptures, coming to Jerusalem to worship.
As the eunuch returned to Ethiopia, he studied one of the scrolls of the prophet Isaiah, which contained Chapter 53. While reading, he became confused about the meaning of verses 7–8. When we compare Acts 8:32–33 with Isaiah 53:7–8, we see two differences. First the wording is different. This is because Acts 8 comes from the Greek translation of the Old Testament (called the Septuagint), which the eunuch was reading. Though the overall meaning of the Hebrew and Greek texts is the same, some emphases are different. For instance, Isaiah 53:8 says, “Who could have imagined his future,” whereas Acts 8:33 says, “Who can describe his generation?” Second the last part of Isaiah 53:8 is not in Acts 8:33, which says “stricken for the transgression of my people.” The Acts quote leaves off the last part of the Septuagint verse 8, “because of the iniquities of my people he was led to death.” We do not know why it was omitted; however, in all likelihood, the eunuch read it as well. He did not know who could fulfill such a description and whose death atoned for humanity’s iniquities. If there were a such a person, then salvation would be possible for all, because only this One, who would be guiltless, would, in fact, be able to pay the debt for all, who are guilty. Philip knew who fulfilled this prophecy. He told the eunuch of the “good news [which means gospel] of Jesus,” that He was unjustly tried and convicted by the Sanhedrin and Pilate; beaten and crucified as a common thief; and after three days, raised from the dead, confirming to witnesses that He is the Messiah of Israel and Savior of the world. After Philip interpreted the passage this way, the eunuch saw the connection between the person of Isaiah 53 and Jesus. He then asked to be baptized. He was baptized to become a proselyte and now is baptized into the gospel to become a witness of it back in Ethiopia.