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Acts 8:1-40 | Werner Bible Commentary

Acts 8:1-40

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Saul approved the action of those who hurled stones at Stephen to kill him. “In that day,” or at that time, the community of believers in Jerusalem began to experience severe persecution. Whereas “all” the believers were scattered from Jerusalem throughout the region of Judea and Samaria, the apostles remained in the city. This suggests that the Hellenists, or the Greek-speaking Jewish believers, came to be the prime target, and the reference to “all” is evidently to be understood in a relative sense. (8:1; see the Notes section.)

Godly men, probably believers or men who were favorably disposed toward Stephen, carried his body away for burial and “made a loud lamentation over him.” (8:2) As for Saul who had approved of putting Stephen to death, he began to ravage the community of believers, forcing himself into their houses and dragging out both men and women. He would then hand them over to be imprisoned. (8:3)

The scattering of the believers contributed to the spreading of the message about Jesus Christ. Wherever the scattered disciples went, they declared the evangel or good news, making known that Jesus is indeed the promised Messiah or Christ and that, by faith in him, individuals could be forgiven of their sins and come into an approved relationship with God as his beloved children. (8:4; see the Notes section.)

Among the believers who had been scattered was Philip, one of the seven men whom the apostles had appointed to care for the “daily service” designed to aid needy widows. He headed north of Jerusalem to “the city of Samaria,” where he then began to proclaim Christ to the people. Since the Samaritans looked forward to the coming of a prophet like Moses, Philip likely proclaimed Jesus as this very prophet. Because Jerusalem lies at a high elevation, the account says that Philip “went down to the city of Samaria.” (8:5)

According to another manuscript reading, the word “city” is not preceded by the definite article and so could mean one of the cities or towns in the region of Samaria. If the reading “the city” is original, this could refer to Sebaste. According to Josephus (Antiquities, XV, viii, 5), Herod the Great determined to make “Samaria a fortress for himself,” and he called the reconstructed city Sebaste. Another possibility is that “the city of Samaria” designates Shechem. Josephus (Antiquities, XI, viii, 6) referred to the Samaritans as having “Shechem for their metropolis” in the time of Alexander the Great. Late in the second century BCE, John I Hyrcanus, during a military campaign in Samaria, took Shechem. After the war of 70 CE, the city was refounded and named Flavia Neapolis. (8:5)

A significant number of the Samaritans gave heed to what Philip said. His words were validated as being from God, for he performed numerous miracles. Therefore, “with one accord” or as with one mind, a multitude of Samaritans paid attention because of what they heard from Philip and what they saw him doing. (8:6)

With God’s spirit operating upon him, Philip brought relief to many who were perceived to be suffering from demon possession. It appears that as they were being freed from their distress, the people would cry out in an intense manner, and this is attributed to “unclean spirits.” These “spirits” are designated as “unclean,” impure, or evil on the basis of the observable hurtful effect on the afflicted. Also many paralyzed and lame Samaritans were cured. (8:7) On account of the marvelous cures that were taking place and the good news about Jesus Christ that Philip proclaimed, great joy came to prevail in the city where these things occurred. (8:8)

In the same city, a certain man named Simon had practiced sorcery and claimed to be someone “great.” He had amazed the Samaritans (literally, “the nation of Samaria”) with his magical arts. (8:9) All of the people, from the “least” or the most insignificant to the “great” or the prominent ones paid attention to him, referring to him as the “power of God that is called Great.” (8:10) For a long time, Simon had amazed them with his sorceries, prompting the Samaritans to pay attention to him. (8:11)

This changed when they believed Philip’s proclamation about the kingdom of God and “the name of Jesus Christ.” Philip doubtless revealed the nature of the “kingom of God,” that it was heavenly (not earthly). It is the realm where God is recognized as Sovereign and as having committed all authority in heaven and on earth to his Son. Believers enter this realm when they are forgiven of their sins and become reconciled to God. Philip’s speaking about the “name [or the person the name represented] of Jesus Christ” may have included identifying him as the prophet like Moses, the unique Son of God who had been raised from the dead and ascended to heaven, and the Messiah or Christ who would return in glory as king and judge. In response to the message Philip proclaimed, many became believers, both men and women, and were baptized. (8:12)

Even Simon became a believer. After his baptism, he joined himself to Philip. Simon continued to be astonished on seeing the “signs and powers” (or the amazing miracles) that occurred through the agency of Philip. (8:13)

News reached the apostles in Jerusalem that the Samaritans had accepted the “word of God,” that is, the message about his Son which he purposed to be made known. For this reason, they decided to “send Peter and John to them.” (8:14) The two apostles departed from the elevated city of Jerusalem and went down to the lower region of Samaria to the north. Upon arriving where Philip engaged in declaring the glad tidings about Christ, they prayed for the believing Samaritans to receive holy spirit. The spirit had not been imparted to any the new believers in Samaria, which may mean that none of them had received the tangible evidence of God’s spirit working through them to perform miracles. (8:15)

Apparently because the holy spirit had not fallen upon the believing Samaritans as would have become evident from their coming into possession of miraculous gifts, the account says that “they had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus” and not also in the name of the holy spirit. The expression “in the name of” can signify “in recognition of” or “by reason of being.” In the case of one acting in the name of someone else, it points to an existing relationship. Believers, upon being baptized, enter a new relationship. Those who were baptized in the name of Jesus Christ came to have him as their Lord who died for them and as their “brother” in the family of his Father’s beloved children. (8:16)

When Peter and John laid their hands on the believing Samaritans, they received the holy spirit. Whereas Philip did work miracles on account of his personally having God’s spirit, he could not impart this gift to others. This indicates that, at this time, only through the apostles, could the believing Samaritans have received the spirit, empowering them to perform miracles. The imparting of the spirit in this manner established that the Samaritans had the same standing before God as did their fellow Jewish believers. All Samaritans who thereafter would put faith in Jesus had the assurance that they also were God’s beloved children in the same congregation. At one with Jesus Christ as their head, believing Samaritans and believing Jews were members of his body. (8:17; see the Notes section.)

Upon observing that believing Samaritans received God’s spirit when Peter and John laid their hands on them, Simon offered the apostles money, asking them to give him the power likewise to impart holy spirit with the imposition of his hands. (8:18, 19; see the Notes section.) Peter responded with a severe rebuke, “May your silver be destroyed with you, for you imagined to gain God’s gift with money. You have no part or share in this matter [lògos], for your heart is not straight before God.” (8:20, 21)

Simon’s proposed purchase of God’s gift provided the basis for the later coining of the expression “simony,” the buying or selling of ecclesiastical offices or favors. Peter, in effect, told Simon, “To Gehenna with you and your money.” God’s gifts are generously granted without the payment of money or any other price, and what is freely obtained is also to be freely given. Simon’s reasoning was contrary to the example and teaching of the Lord Jesus Christ, being rooted in the thinking of those who are alienated from God and who endeavor to attain their selfish aims with money. (8:20)

The Greek term lógos commonly means “word.” A number of translations have retained the meaning “word” (Wort, Schlachter’s German translation), rendered the term as “ministry” (NIV, TNIV), “work” (NCV, NLB), or “holy work” (NIRV), or have interpretively rendered Peter’s words to mean no share in the word of God and so no part in the community of believers. “You no longer belong with us, for you there is no place in the congregation.” (Du gehörst nicht mehr zu uns, für dich ist kein Platz in der Gemeinde. [German Gute Nachricht Bibel]) It appears preferable, however, to translate lógos as “matter,” which is a meaning the Greek term can have, fits the context, and is less interpretive than other renderings. When it comes to what God gives, this is not a matter involving human initiative (as when one seeks to purchase an item). In view of his seeking to buy God’s gift with money, Simon revealed that his “heart,” or he in his inner self, was not straight or right with God. Though he believed the message Philip proclaimed and had been baptized, he did not as yet have the mind of Christ. (8:21)

Peter urged him to “repent of this badness” (trying with worldly means to obtain what is from God) and to “supplicate the Lord” that, if possible, the intent of his “heart” (either his mind or inner self) might be forgiven him. What Simon wanted and the means by which he sought to attain it were rooted in the sinful flesh. He had not freed himself from the desire to be recognized as “great” but sought to gain the power that would make him superior to those not possessing it. (8:22)

Simon needed to recognize his evil intent, to repent, and to supplicate the “Lord” for forgiveness.” In view of the previous reference to Simon’s heart not being “straight” or right “before God,” evidently the Father is the Lord to whom he needed to make his supplication. Only through repentance and sincere prayer would divine forgiveness be possible in his case. (8:22)

Peter recognized the seriousness of Simon’s condition, telling him, “I see you are in a gall of bitterness and a bond of unrighteousness.” In the Septuagint, the expression “a root springing up with gall and bitterness” is used regarding an Israelite who would become an idolater and so would become a pernicious influence among the people. (Deuteronomy 29:17[18]) In Isaiah 58:6 (LXX), “bond of unrighteousness” or injustice refers to unjust enslavement, captivity, or confinement. The reference to Simon’s being “in a gall of bitterness” could mean that he had been poisoned by a pernicious element. His being in a “bond of unrighteousness” could signify that he found himself as a bound captive of unrighteousness, iniquity, or godlessness. (8:23)

In response, Simon asked Peter and John to pray to the “Lord” (“God,” according to a number of other manuscripts) for him that none of the things he had been told would befall him. While the Acts account is silent about the course Simon thereafter pursued, later tradition represents him as the first heretic. It is generally acknowledged, however, that second-century writings about him are mainly legendary. Possibly in view of the strong rebuke, Simon did not feel worthy to approach God in prayer and, therefore, asked Peter and John to pray for him. The original text of fifth-century Codex Bezae adds that Simon did not cease to weep a great deal. (8:24)

After Peter and John had finished giving their testimony and speaking the “word of the Lord” in the Samaritan city, they returned to Jerusalem. Their testimony could have included teaching they had personally heard from Jesus, and the “word of the Lord” may have included how, through the Lord Jesus Christ, an approved standing with him and his Father would be possible. In being designated as “of the Lord,” the message could either have been about the Lord Jesus Christ or the message regarding him that his Father wanted the apostles to declare. On their way through Samaria, they proclaimed the evangel or good news about Jesus Christ in many Samaritan villages. (8:25)

Philip also did not continue to stay in the Samaritan city. An angel of the Lord (either a heavenly messenger in the service of the Lord Jesus Christ or one of his Father’s angels) spoke to Philip, either directly or in a vision. The angel told him to head southward to the road that led down from Jerusalem to Gaza, a city situated about 50 miles (c. 80 kilometers) southwest of Jerusalem and near the coast of the Mediterranean Sea. As no location in Samaria was mentioned, Philip may have returned to Jerusalem and there received the angel’s message. The words “this is desert” could apply to the old Gaza that had been abandoned. Another possibility is that the reference is to a less traveled route than the usual road from Jerusalem to Gaza. (8:26)

Philip did as he had been directed. At the time, an Ethiopian eunuch who had gone to Jerusalem to worship was on his return trip on the same road. If a proselyte, he would not have been a eunuch in a literal sense but a court official. In his capacity as an official, he was in charge of all the treasure of “Candace queen of the Ethiopians.” The designation “Candace” is not the queen’s name but a royal title. In his Natural History (VI, xxxv, 186), Pliny the Elder referred to Candace as a “name having been passed from queen to queen for many years.” The Greek term dynástes (literally, powerful one) is applied to the Ethiopian eunuch and indicates that he was an official in the royal court. (8:27)

While riding in his “chariot” on his return journey to Ethiopia, a land to the south of Egypt, the Ethiopian official read aloud from the prophecy of Isaiah. This may have been either from the Hebrew text or the widely used Greek translation. The “chariot” would not have been like the two-wheeled chariots used in warfare but a wagon suitable for long-distance travel. In view of his position in the royal court, the official may have been accompanied by servants and likely traveled as part of a company to and from Ethiopia. (8:28)

Through the operation of God’s spirit, Philip was directed to approach and join himself to the “chariot” where the official was seated. (8:29) As Philip ran alongside the chariot, he heard him reading aloud from Isaiah the prophet. He then asked the man, “Do you really understand what you are reading?” (8:30)

The official replied, “Really, how could I without someone guiding me?” He then invited Philip to sit alongside him. (8:31) The words from the prophecy of Isaiah he had been reading aloud at the time were, “Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter, and like a lamb before its shearer [is] silent, so he does not open his mouth. [Isaiah 53:7, LXX] In [‘his,’ according to numerous manuscripts] humiliation, his judgment was taken away. Who will relate his generation? For his life is taken away from the earth.” (Isaiah 53:8, LXX) These quoted words in the Acts account are the same as the corresponding words in the extant Septuagint text. (8:32, 33; see the Notes section.) The court official asked Philip, “About whom does the prophet say this? About himself or about someone else?” (8:34)

The things that befell Jesus matched the words the Ethiopian eunuch had read. Jesus did not resist arrest and, when before Pilate, remained silent before his accusers, proving himself to be like a sheep led to the slaughter and like a silent lamb before the one shearing it. He was humiliated, being mocked, spat upon, slapped, and scourged. Judgment was taken away from him, for he was denied justice when before the Sanhedrin, the Jewish high court. Both his trial and his execution were acts of flagrant injustice. From a human standpoint, he died childless and so there was nothing to relate regarding his generation or offspring. (8:32, 33; see the Notes section.)

The Ethiopian eunuch was puzzled about the identity of the one to whom the prophet Isaiah referred. Based on what he personally knew, the official had no way to determine whether the prophet spoke about himself or about someone else. He looked to Philip for an answer. (8:34)

Details about Philip’s explanation are not provided in the account. He did, however, use the read passage as the starting point for making known the evangel or good news regarding Jesus, the one who fulfilled the words of Isaiah’s prophetic words. (8:35)

On the way, the Ethiopian eunuch saw water, prompting him to say to Philip, “Look! Water. What prevents me from being baptized?” After directing the driver to halt the chariot, he and Philip “went down into the water,” where Philip then baptized him. The manner in which Philip did the baptizing is not described, but his having entered the water with the Ethiopian eunuch suggests that it involved immersion, not sprinkling. (8:36, 38; see the Notes section regarding verse 37.)

When Philip and the eunuch came up out of the water, the “spirit of the Lord snatched [form of harpázo] Philip away.” As for the eunuch, he did not see Philip anymore but continued on his way to Ethiopia, rejoicing (or being filled with joy because of having come to know about Jesus Christ and starting a new life as his devoted disciple). The Greek word harpázo means to “seize,” “plunder,” or “snatch away.” This suggests that Philip was miraculously taken away to continue proclaiming the good news about Jesus Christ elsewhere. According to a corrected reading in fifth-century Codex Alexandrinus and that of a number of other manuscripts, “holy spirit fell upon the eunuch, but an angel of the Lord snatched Philip away.” The reference to “holy spirit” would favor identifying the “spirit of the Lord” as being the “spirit of God” rather than the spirit of the Lord Jesus Christ. (8:39)

Philip was next “found in Azotus,” the ancient Philistine city of Ashdod that was situated near the Mediterranean coast at approximately the midway point between Gaza and Joppa. Whether Philip was miraculously empowered by the spirit to reach that location quickly, much like Elijah was able to keep ahead of Ahab’s chariot all the way from Mount Carmel to Jezreel (a comparable distance), cannot be determined from the account. (1 Kings 18:46) From Azotus, Philip headed northward, proclaiming the good news “in all the cities” along his route until he came to the seaport city of Caesarea, approximately 55 miles (c. 90 kilometers) from Azotus. Caesarea may have been Philip’s original home, for years later he lived there with his family, which included four daughters who prophesied. (8:40; 21:8, 9; see http://bibleplaces.com/caesarea.htm for pictures of and comments about Caesarea.

Notes:

In verse 1, the Greek text, after referring to the scattering of “all” believers, says “except the apostles.” A few manuscripts add the point that the apostles “remained in Jerusalem.” Besides mentioning “great persecution,” Codex Bezae (Cantabrigiensis) says, “and tribulation.”

In verse 4, the majority of manuscripts refer to “proclaiming the evangel of the word.” One sixth-century manuscript adds “of God” after “word.”

No mention is made in verse 17 about any miraculous manifestation of God’s spirit after the apostles laid their hands on the believing Samaritans. It appears, however, that there must have been some observable evidence for Simon to have wanted to purchase the authority to impart the spirit to others through the laying on of his hands.

In verse 18, a number of manuscripts say “spirit,” whereas many others read “holy spirit.”

Codex Bezae (Cantabrigiensis) intensifies the request of Simon (in verse 19) with the addition of the words parakalón kaí (“entreating and”) before légon (“saying”).

The Hebrew text of Isaiah 53:8 differs from the reading of the Septuagint and of Acts 8:33. A literal rendering of the Hebrew text of the quoted part in the book of Acts would be, “By restraint and judgment he was taken away. And as for his generation, who considered? For he was cut off from the land of the living.” His being taken away by restraint, oppression, or compulsion and judgment could refer to his being seized, having judgment pronounced against him, and then being led off for execution or being taken away from the land of the living by being put to death. The generation could refer to his contemporaries who gave no consideration to what had happened to him.

Translations vary in their interpretive renderings of Isaiah 53:8, with some regarding the generation as descendants or offspring. “By oppression and judgment he was taken away. And who can speak of his descendants? For he was cut off from the land of the living.” (NIV) “Men took him away roughly and unfairly. He died without children to continue his family.” (NCV) “Oppressed and condemned, he was taken away, and who would have thought any more of his destiny?” (NAB) “He was condemned to death without a fair trial. Who could have imagined what would happen to him?” (CEV) “By oppression and judgment he was taken away. Yet who of his generation protested?” (TNIV) “He was arrested and sentenced to death. Then he was taken away. He was cut off from this life. He was punished for the sin of my people. Who among those who were living at that time could have understood those things?” (NIRV) “He was arrested, sentenced to death and cruelly executed. No one believed that he would still have a future.” (Er wurde verhaftet, zum Tode verurteilt und grausam hingerichtet. Niemand glaubte, dass er noch eine Zukunft haben würde. [German, Hoffnung für alle]) “Forcibly, after sentence, he was taken. Which of his contemporaries was concerned at his having been cut off from the land of the living, at his having been struck dead for his people’s rebellion?” (NJB) “By oppressive judgment he was taken away. Who could describe his abode? For he was cut off from the land of the living.” (Tanakh [JPS, 1985 edition])

The words of verse 37 are missing in the oldest extant Greek manuscripts and are commonly omitted in modern translations. Their absence suggests that they were added later probably because of the belief that Philip would have required that the Ethiopian eunuch make an expression of faith prior to being baptized. According to the added words Philip stated the condition for baptism to be allowable, “If you believe from your whole heart.” The eunuch is then quoted as saying, “I believe Jesus Christ to be the Son of God.” There are, however, differences in the reading of manuscripts that include the words.