We need to be willing and able when God calls on us to serve.
Bible Study Ideas and Commentary for Acts 8
In short, Philip was available and ready when God put him in a position to share the gospel. This is a great lesson for us to talk about being “available” and to put together a resource we can use to share the gospel (or just start a spiritual conversation) with confidence.
So Philip proceeded to tell him the good news about Jesus, beginning from that Scripture. Acts 8:35
[Throughout the years, I have produced a newsletter for teachers to help with that week's Bible study. I'm going through the very slow process of online-ifying old lessons in order to easily reference past ideas and topics.]
Getting Started: Things to Think About
I read a very powerful book in seminary called Margin, written by a medical doctor. The premise is simple: when we don’t keep “margin” in our lives (meaning “space between our life and our limits,” e.g. slots on our calendar, money in our bank account, or energy in our bodies), we are unable to cope with unexpected strains, meet emergency needs, or serve others. Those things lead to unhealthy stress, which makes us drained, irritable, isolated, unfulfilled, and hopeless. The only solution is to carve out margin for ourselves and our families by eliminating unnecessary expenses, stop worrying about the “good life” advertisers are trying to sell us, and invest more heavily in our relationship with God, our family, and our church. In our passage today, Philip had this life-changing encounter only because he was available to do it. Talk about the things that prevent your class members from being more available to God. What can they do about it?
Emergency Roadside Kit
This was in the QuickSource guide, and I thought it was brilliant. We all drive by cars on the side of the road, but we don’t always stop. Why not? Some of it has to do with margin as above (we don’t think we have time). Sometimes we think things look under control. But sometimes we don’t think that we would know what to do or that we would be able to help. QuickSource asks, “If you had an emergency roadside kit in your car, would you be more likely to stop?” I love that question!! And the application to our spiritual lives is so direct. Do we not talk to people about Jesus because we don’t think we can answer their questions or say anything of value? Well, we don’t have to be able to answer every question—we just have to be able to share what God has done for us.
Tough Questions about Christianity
That said, it did make me think about this subject. We might be afraid to get into a discussion about Jesus because we’re afraid of the questions we might get asked (i.e. we don’t have an emergency roadside kit). Write down those tough questions (why do bad things happen to good people? why does God allow infants to die? how can Jesus be the only way to heaven? why should I listen to a Christian if you’re all hypocrites? why hasn’t God answered by prayer). I don’t think you’ll have time to answer them all in class, but encourage them to do research, even talk to David or Ben or I. Your “emergency roadside kit” would be a pocket Bible with an easy-to-follow plan of salvation you’re comfortable sharing and the answers to these questions that you don’t think you would remember. There’s nothing wrong with carrying around some help—nothing in the Bible says we’re going to have everything memorized! But if we have worked to find the answers and have quick access to them, we will be ready to go when needed.
This Week's Big Idea: Believers’ Baptism by Immersion
I know I bring this up regularly, but it’s important to what Baptists believe, and we have enough “church hopping” with the Methodist church and others that clearly we haven’t explained ourselves very well. A few weeks ago I focused on the difference between believers’ baptism (only those who have made a personal and credible profession of faith in Jesus should be baptized) and infant baptism. Today, it’s time to focus on the difference in the “modes” of baptism: baptism by sprinkling, by pouring, and by dunking (immersion). To make a long story short, baptism by sprinkling is a consequence of baptizing infants. The church isn’t going to dunk an infant! Similarly, baptism by pouring is a consequence of the early practice of death-bed baptism (back when people were afraid that baptism washed away their sins so it didn’t help them with an sin committed after baptism). The only way the word is used in the Bible is as dunking. The Greek word “baptizo” literally means “to immerse” and has no other purpose. (Incidentally, that’s why it has come into the English language as “baptize” - King James and the other early Bible commissioners, hated Baptists and nonconformists and demanded that the word not be translated as immerse. The value in that practice is we can have a rich meaning for the word “baptism” that is lost in the word “immerse” but at the risk of ignoring the obvious meaning.)
Romans 6:4 explains why we are supposed to baptize by immersion: “We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.” Immersion beautifully fits the symbolism of death and resurrection. Being immersed is death for a human; coming up out of the water is reflective of birth and revival. Neither sprinkling nor pouring offer this (although some in the charismatic tradition consider “pouring” as the best reflection of the pouring out of the Holy Spirit in salvation; that’s true, but not the purpose of baptism). The two ordinances of the church, baptism and the Lord’s Supper, were designed by Jesus to be a presentation of the gospel—a visual sermon, if you will. In baptism, we see that Christ died and was raised for the forgiveness of our sins. In the Lord’s Supper, we see that Christ sacrificed Himself for the forgiveness of our sins. Only baptism by immersion makes sense of this.
Does that mean that being baptized by any other means is “wrong”? Of course not. Baptism is a symbol, and symbols can be explained. I have heard of several situations where baptism by immersion was physically impossible. But to believe that baptism by immersion is inconsequential goes against what the Bible teaches, and that’s what groups that prefer baptism by sprinkling are saying. I think that’s a big deal—big enough that I personally couldn’t “hop over” to a church that defends any other mode of baptism as somehow biblical.
This comes up today because our passage is a classic defense of baptism by immersion. Philip and the Ethiopian “go down” into the water and “come up” out of the water. It certainly would have been easier for Philip just to sprinkle a little water on the Ethiopian (they were on a desert road—water is precious!), but that wasn’t ever a consideration.
The Context of Acts
I mentioned last week that these chapters in Acts represent a major transition. The church has weathered storms and grown. But Stephen’s mastery over the Sanhedrin sparked so much jealousy and anger that a major persecution broke out against the church. In the preceding verses, Stephen is stoned to death for his powerful accusation against the Jews and the believers are scattered. Of course, this was God’s plan all along! Jesus told the disciples to be His witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and the ends of the earth. They have been successful in Jerusalem and the nearby Judea but have shown no desire to go further. Now, they are forced to. And where is the first place specifically mentioned? Samaria, of course. Philip goes to Samaria, preaches the gospel, and is successful, much to the surprise of the apostles (see my sidebar to the right). Next (in our passage today), he encounters an Ethiopian—our circle is expanding!
Surprise Aside on Laying on Hands and the Holy Spirit
We skip 8:14-17 which says that the Samarian converts did not actually receive the Holy Spirit until the apostles came and laid hands on them. (This, of course, is where some Pentecostals get the idea of a “second baptism” or “greater salvation.”) That’s weird. What does it mean? Here’s the best I can do: the “normal” order of salvation is that a person repents and believes in Jesus, is saved and filled with the Spirit, and then baptized. Those first events are basically simultaneous. So what happens here? Basically, this is one of three unique situations in salvation history: when Jews are first saved, when Samaritans are first saved, and when Gentiles are first saved. Remember how the apostles had to wait for the Spirit to come at Pentecost? I believe they were “saved” but had not yet been filled with the Spirit. The same is true of these Samaritans (Luke says they “believed” 8:12). How can you be saved and not have the Spirit??? Luke doesn’t say that—he just says that the Holy Spirit had not “come upon” them. We all know times in our life that we have not felt Spirit-filled; these Samaritans did not receive that fullness until after the apostle’s arrival. Why? Because God wanted to make sure that the apostles realized that salvation was given to Samaritans. There was great hostility and mistrust between Jews and Samaritans, and it would take the testimony of someone with the stature of Peter and John to convince the Jewish Christians the Philip was telling the truth. Once that testimony was validated, Philip had the credibility to make these reports on his own. I do not believe this passage can be used to promote a 2-stage reception of the Holy Spirit.
Part 1: Compelled to Seek (Acts 8:26-29)
An angel of the Lord spoke to Philip: “Get up and go south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” (This is the desert road.) So he got up and went. There was an Ethiopian man, a eunuch and high official of Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, who was in charge of her entire treasury. He had come to worship in Jerusalem and was sitting in his chariot on his way home, reading the prophet Isaiah aloud. The Spirit told Philip, “Go and join that chariot.”
I regularly admit envy of Philip. Wouldn’t it be nice if God put up a giant sign saying, “Share the gospel with this person right now.” or “Go to work here.” or “Buy this house.” Well, let’s turn the tables on those of us who feel this way: maybe God does regularly point out those decisions to us, but we’re not listening. Or we’re too distracted with other input. Or we’re too worried about what we think we want for ourselves. Obviously, I’m trying this back into the icebreaker on margin. When we don’t have money or time or energy, we can’t respond to the needs around us (even if we do find out about them!). Philip was available when the Spirit called.
Philip was one of the Seven (he is not to be confused with an apostle of the same name; Luke later called him “Philip the evangelist” (Acts 21:8) to clarify), a Greek Jew of very high character. He was also the first “foreign missionary” by virtue of his trip to Samaria and then the road to Gaza; that makes him a really big deal! We’re talking about the first man called by God to fulfill a major part of the Great Commission! From his experience with Simon the sorcerer, we realize that he was powerful in the Spirit. Anyway, after that experience, God sends him to this specific Ethiopian to open a brand new area of ministry. I tell you more about Ethiopia in a sidebar, so let’s just focus on this guy. As a eunuch, he would have been castrated (kings did that so important officials in their court would not be a threat to produce an heir—especially by one of his harem), which means that he could not be a Jew. (Emasculated males were prohibited from the Temple; Deut 23:1.)
So why would an Ethiopian want to come to worship in Jerusalem (from below: 4-month round trip)? Well, it seems there were several large Jewish communities in Ethiopia, and he probably overheard about the Temple. My guess is he was a “God-fearer.” My other guess is he did not know about the restrictions on eunuchs! He made it to Jerusalem only to be turned away, and that’s why he’s going home, somewhat dejected, reading a scroll with no one to explain it to him. None of the Jews in Jerusalem gave him any time or attention. (The proof of his wealth is that few people could afford a chariot and fewer still a scroll.) But then here comes a stranger who cares about him and not his physical condition. What religion does he belong to? . . .
The simple point you want to make here is that Philip was available, willing, and not afraid. He cared about the Ethiopian. The Jews turned the Ethiopian away because they thought he was unworthy, and they also looked down on his race. Not so with Jesus, and so not so with us.
Aside: Ancient Trading Roads
An important element of the Pax Romana (the peace within the Roman Empire) was its amazing network of roads, allowing armies and communication to travel quickly from place to place. There were two main roads south out of Jerusalem; the Ethiopian was taking the safer road that would lead him along the coast toward home. It was a long journey—at least 4 months round-trip. As a wealthy man, he probably slept in his chariot, bypassing the dirty inns. Chariots were better than camel or donkey (or on foot!) because you could put a lot of cushions on one. But no suspension! And the roads, while good, weren’t concrete highways.
The main thoroughfares (“via” in Latin) were amazing, considering how many still exist today. The laborers created a flat layer of sand covered by crushed rock, gravel, cement, and then the pavestones you see in the picture. Absolutely stable. And they also dug out drainage ditches and installed “curbs” to keep chariots on the roads. They were incredible feats of engineering, but not exactly comfortable (trying imagining riding a bike on a cobblestone road). Eventually, the Ethiopian would have had to leave those roads for dirt ones. Four months. Yikes!
Part 2: Prepared to Share (Acts 8:30-35)
When Philip ran up to it, he heard him reading the prophet Isaiah, and said, “Do you understand what you’re reading?” “How can I,” he said, “unless someone guides me?” So he invited Philip to come up and sit with him. Now the Scripture passage he was reading was this . . . So Philip proceeded to tell him the good news about Jesus, beginning from that Scripture.
So, Philip has been walking on foot from Samaria—who knows how long—to come across this foreign caravan where he finds an Ethiopian reading the Greek Old Testament. Probably surreal, but good confirmation from God that he was in the right place. And he knew the Bible well enough to know the man was reading Isaiah, and so he started a gospel presentation from that point. Your leader guide makes some good points about the importance of starting a gospel presentation with your audience (and that the Bible gives us multiple illustrations) and also that we need to know the Bible if we are going to use it! And the only way we know the Bible is if we study it! That takes work and dedication! And it’s worth it!
If you didn’t do the “Emergency Roadside Kit” illustration, you would use it here. Go around your class: what are the things you’re most “afraid” to talk about when it comes to Jesus? What topics or questions are you the most uncertain about? (Then ask—which of those questions do you really think you’d be asked about by a normal person?) Appoint people in your group to find answers and email them out. If it makes you feel safer, print it out and put it in your wallet/purse. And, come up with a confident way to say, “That’s a great question, and I don’t know the answer. Would you give me your phone number so I can try to get an answer for you?”
It was a God thing that the Ethiopian was reading from Isaiah 53; it is cited at least 6 times in the New Testament. The old scrolls were difficult (the Hebrew scrolls were near impossible). We know from the passage cited that he was reading from the Greek Septuagint, which has no punctuation or spaces between words (!). How frustrating might that be! Philip hit him with a brilliant, rather open question, giving the Ethiopian a chance not only to answer but also to talk about his experience, leading to an invitation to share. Open ended questions are fantastic ways to get into a gospel conversation:
“Have you ever tried to make sense of the world?”
“Does technology seem to be getting too complex?”
“Do you feel like we’re losing touch with all the kids?”
“What’s your biggest hope for the future?”
Philip’s question was great because it directly tied to what the Ethiopian was doing, so there was a sure path to a conversation. The only answer to any question that really matters always comes back to Jesus, so any good open-ended question that sparks a meaningful conversation can come to Jesus.
And note the Ethiopian’s response: he knows he needs help. The truth is that everybody out there needs and wants help answering the toughest questions, but they also need assurance that they have found the right guide. Are you confident that you have found the answer? All Philip did was “share the good news” (which is the Greek word from which we get evangelize). Make sure your class can share the gospel! Make sure they know the basic elements of the gospel (creation, fall, Jesus, forgiveness, heaven; I put that on the back page). Practice sharing it out loud, as strange as that may sound. And remember, your job is not to force anyone to believe—only to share the truth.
Part 3: Focused on Salvation (Acts 8:38-39)
Then he ordered the chariot to stop, and both Philip and the eunuch went down into the water, and he baptized him. When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord carried Philip away, and the eunuch did not see him any longer. But he went on his way rejoicing.
Somewhere along the way, probably while they were still talking, they passed a body of water, and that prompted the Ethiopian to want to take the next step. Someone may ask about v. 37, which we “skip”; it’s not in some of the earliest manuscripts, which leads many scholars to believe that someone added it later to make Philip’s intent very clear. The meaning doesn’t change if that verse is or is not in the original. But this is what I would want you to emphasize: sometime during their discussion, Philip talked about the importance of baptism. Baptism is a visual identification with Jesus, and it is tied to the church. The Ethiopian didn’t have a church where he was going, so Philip took the unusual step of baptizing him without any witnesses (other than the entourage), but Philip thought it was so important that they did it anyway. The gospel/salvation isn’t just about getting out of hell free, it’s about starting a new life in Jesus, joining the family of God (the church), and growing in faith and Christlikeness. All of those things are represented in baptism, and baptism is connected with the church. Any time you share the gospel, steer that person to a local church.
There’s a weird end verse—Philip was immediately “carried away” which is used to mean a sudden removal. It does not have to be a supernatural thing (the Roman soldiers quickly “carried Paul away” from an angry mob in Acts 23:10), but this sure seems to be. God just moved Philip out, poof. I really don’t know why, and it was probably very odd. Philip then shows up in Ashdod and continues north, sharing the gospel. That probably won’t ever happen to us, but we can certainly follow Philip’s example of being ready and willing to share the gospel with people we meet as we go about our day!
Closing Thoughts: A Basic Gospel Presentation
I really like the “More Ideas” suggestion in your leader guide about an exotic recipe. If you can figure out a way to pull that off, it will illustrate the easiest kind of gospel presentation: your testimony. Things happen in our lives that we can’t understand, but sometimes we get to see the bigger picture (as in everything that happened in your life that put you in a position to hear and respond to the gospel). Your testimony cannot be refuted by anybody! But you want to make sure to include several key points: (1) God Created Us; (2) We Sinned; (3) Jesus Died for Us; (4) We Respond; (5) God Saves Us. You want to make sure that your testimony isn’t just a good story but actually helps someone learn the gospel.
Tell your friend how you learned those things, how you responded, and what God has done in your life since then. Practice saying it in three sentences or less!
Or use your Bible to walk someone through “The Romans Road”:
For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. (Romans 3:23)
For the wages of sin is death. (Romans 6:23)
But God proves His own love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us! (Romans 5:8)
If you confess with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved. (Romans 10:9)
Other resources: The ABCs of Salvation; The Four Spiritual Laws; Evangelism Explosion; The Two Ways to Live; The Way of the Master; and the presentation based on colors that we use at the Easter Egg Hunt. The idea is that you find a way of presenting the gospel that you’re comfortable with and feel confident about. As long as it covers the key points above, there are many ways!