A Study of Acts 8
Introduction: I can’t imagine what it would be like to be an actor or to play a role in a movie; I’d be no good at it. I have no aspirations for stage and screen. I was a disaster in the one play I was in, during high school. I couldn’t keep a straight face. But there’s one thing that just boggles my mind about acting, and that’s how certain actors can play multiple roles in the same film. There is a whole genre of movies featuring actors who play multiple roles. I’ve never been a fan of Eddie Murphy, but I did see part of his movie, “The Nutty Professor II,” where he played eight different characters. He’s actually been in six different movies in which he plays multiple roles. That’s amazing to think about. How can you take on so many different personas in one film?
Well, of course, we do it all the time in real life. We all have multiple roles. We play one role at work, another at school, another at home, and another at church. Maybe you’re a mother, a schoolteacher, a homemaker, a wife, a daughter, a soloist, and so forth. We have different roles, and we move from one to the other throughout the day. But for the Christian all these roles are bound together with one consistent cord—the cord of zeal for the Lord Jesus Christ. When we follow Christ, it’s the role of a lifetime, and it links together all the other roles we play in life.
Philip (his name means “Lover of Horses”) is a good example of that. Philip is a great character to study in the Bible because there’s enough information about him to get to know him, but not so much as to overwhelm us. We essentially see him in four different roles.
1. Philip The Humanitarian (Acts 6:1-7)
The first time we see Philip he’s a Christian humanitarian, a food distributor. It’s in the book of Acts, chapter 6, which we studied a few weeks ago. As the church grew, some of the widows were being neglected in the daily distribution of food. The church elected seven men to be in charge of this work, and one of those men was Philip. It’s the first time he is mentioned in the Bible. But he faithfully distributed food to the widows and considered that his ministry. But by the time we get to chapter 8, things have suddenly changed. Stephen was murdered and a great persecution arose against the church and scattered the Christians. And the next thing we know, we see Philip as a mass evangelist, as a preacher.
2. Philip the Preacher (Acts 8:1-25)
Let’s begin our study with Acts 8:1-4:
Verse 1: On that day a great persecution broke out against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria.
This is referring to the day Stephen was stoned to death, becoming the church’s first martyr.
Verses 2-3: Godly men buried Stephen and mourned deeply for him. But Saul began to destroy the church. Going from house to house, he dragged off both men and women and put them in prison.
This is what’s happened in parts of the world today. The persecution became so intense that it literally drove the Christians out of Jerusalem. But that’s when Christianity went to seed, so to speak.
Verse 4: Those who had been scattered preached the word wherever they went.
The word “scattered” here is that famous Greek term “Diaspeiro,” which literally mean to scatter seed. And now we come to Philip, who is undoubtedly still a humanitarian and concerned about hungry widows, but now his role has changed. He’s suddenly a citywide crusader, a mass evangelist.
Verse 5: Philip went down to a city in Samaria and proclaimed the Messiah there.
Samaria is in the northern half of Israel, and it’s the land once possessed by the Ten Tribes. When they were exiled by the Assyrians, tribes of Gentiles moved into the area. Some intermingled with surviving Jews, and so they were considered bi-racial, which wasn’t looked upon favorably by those in Jerusalem and Judea. We don’t have time to trace the history of this, but it’s interesting to go through the Gospels and see how Jesus seeded this area of Samaria during His earthly ministry. He loved the Samarians, and there are several occasions in the Gospels when He interacted with them. Do you remember the Samaritan woman in John 4? Jesus broke up the soil. Jesus planted the seed. Now Philip had come to harvest the results. He preached Jesus as Messiah.
Verses 6-7: When the crowds heard Philip and saw the signs he performed, they all paid close attention to what he said. For with shrieks, impure spirits came out of many, and many who were paralyzed or lame were healed.
Philip has given the ability to work miracles and cast out demons, which was an apostolic gift. The result was a city that was inundated with joy.
Verse 8: So there was great joy in that city.
There was one character worthy of special mention in this story. His name was Simon.
Verses 9-11: Now for some time a man named Simon had practiced sorcery in the city and amazed all the people of Samaria. He boasted that he was someone great, and all the people, both high and low, gave him their attention and exclaimed, “This man is rightly called the Great Power of God.” They followed him because he had amazed them for a long time with his sorcery.
The Bible is full of warnings against sorcery and fortune telling and the occult. There is a devil and there are demons, and they engulf this world. As Christians we want to avoid every brush with these influences. Here was a man who claimed to represent the power of the devil, and he was very influential. But as the Gospels swept over the city, his work was discredited, and Simon himself came under the influence of the Gospel.
Verses 12-13: But when they believed Philip as he proclaimed the good news of the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptized, both men and women. Simon himself believed and was baptized. And he followed Philip everywhere, astonished by the great signs and miracles he saw.
This must have been a dramatic conversion. For Simon, who represented the power of Satan, to confess Christ and be baptized—it must have been electrifying.
Verses 14-17: When the apostles in Jerusalem heard that Samaria had accepted the word of God, they sent Peter and John to Samaria. When they arrived, they prayed for the new believers that they might receive the Holy Spirit, because the Holy Spirit had not yet come on any of them; they had simply been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. Then Peter and John placed their hands on them, and they received the Holy Spirit.
This has been called the Samaritan Pentecost. The original day of Pentecost had given birth to the church, but now the church was expanding beyond Jerusalem and beyond its Jewish roots. So could these non-Jewish or half-Jewish people—the Samaritans—be saved? Could they come directly to Christ? Yes. Peter and John went up to investigate and they prayed for them and they had a miniature Pentecostal experience. The miracle of Pentecost was reenacted in Samaria, indicating that the Samaritan Christians were just as incorporated into the church of Jesus Christ as the Jewish Christians. But this is where Simon got into trouble.
Verses 18-23: When Simon saw that the Spirit was given at the laying on of the apostles’ hands, he offered them money and said, “Give me also this ability so that everyone on whom I lay my hands may receive the Holy Spirit. Peter answered, “May your money perish with you, because you thought you could buy the gift of God with money!” You have no part or share in this ministry, because your heart is not right before God. Repent of this wickedness and pray to the Lord in the hope that he may forgive you for having such a thought in your heart. For I see that you are full of bitterness and captive to sin.”
This sounds a little severe, but it all depends on the tone of voice with which Peter spoke. I’ve got a feeling he understood that Simon was speaking out of ignorance, but what he was asking for was inappropriate and wrong. Incidentally, in medieval and Roman Catholic history, there are a lot of references to the sin of simony. I don’t know if you know that word, but simony referred to the buying of church offices with money. If I wanted to be priest, for example, I could make a very generous contribution and be ordained a priest. The buying of church offices was called simony, and the name comes from this man Simon in Acts 8, who wanted to purchase the power of the Holy Spirit. Peter rebuked him and Simon responded with humility.
Verse 24: Then Simon answered, “Pray to the Lord for me so that nothing you have said may happen to me.”
And so Philip preached the message in Samaria, and multitudes of people were saved, including, it seems, the notorious Simon of Samaria. The next verse gives us the wrap-up.
Verse 25: After they had further proclaimed the word of the Lord and testified about Jesus, Peter and John returned to Jerusalem, preaching the Gospel in many Samaritan villages.
The next thing that happens is a bit unusual. You would think that God would want to maintain Philip’s presence in Samaria and maybe to send him to some more cities in the Samaritan region. But instead the Lord rather abruptly sends Philip from a citywide revival to a desert area where there’s only one person for him to talk to. Look at the next verse.
3. Philip the Personal Evangelist (Acts 8:26-40)
Verse 26: Now an angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Go south to the road – the desert road – that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.”
This is the same Gaza City we read about in the news. Today this wouldn’t be a safe journey, but in those days there was no problem.
Verses 27-28: So he started out, and on his way he met an Ethiopian eunuch, an important official in charge of all the treasury of the Kandake (which means “queen of the Ethiopians”). This man had gone to Jerusalem to worship, and on his way home was sitting in his chariot reading the Book of Isaiah the prophet.”
This Ethiopian fellow is very interesting. He was a high government official who had a heart that sought after God. He had evidently converted to Judaism and had come to Jerusalem for one of the Jewish feasts, but his heart was still hungry. He had a copy of the Old Testament prophet, Isaiah, and was reading it while traveling. This story reinforces by belief that if anyone on earth responds to the light they have, God will send them more light.
Verse 29: The Spirit told Philip, “Go to that chariot and stay near it.”
Earlier it was an angel who directed Philip; now it’s the Holy Spirit. I love it when the Holy Spirit whispers this same message to our hearts. I confess I have a hard time witnessing for the Lord on airplanes. You’d think it would be the most natural thing in the world—here we are side-by-side with someone for a few hours. We have a captive audience. Very often I’m not very aggressive in presenting the Gospel, but sometimes the door seems to open so wide that it’s impossible to ignore. Sometimes it just seems like a God-planned event. I love it when that happens. Sometimes the Lord whispers to us and says, “Go to that chariot and stay near it. Go to that person and be available.”
Verse 30: Then Philip ran up to the chariot and heard the man reading Isaiah the prophet. “Do you understand what you are reading?” Philip asked.
Philip was instantly responsive to the Holy Spirit and he went running and this was his “hook” question. The man was reading aloud from Isaiah 53, and Philip asked him if he understood what he was reading.
Verse 31: “How can I,” he said, “unless someone explains it to me?” So he invited Philip to come up and sit with him.
I’ll venture to say Philip had never ridden in a chariot before. It must have been a very exciting moment for him.
Verse 32: This is the passage of Scripture the eunuch was reading: “He was led like a sheep to the slaughter, and as a lamb before its shearer is silent, so He did not open His mouth. In His humiliation He was deprived of justice. Who can speak of His descendants? For His life was taken from the earth.”
This is the greatest Messianic prophecy in the Bible—Isaiah 53, the Song of the Suffering Servant.
Verse 34: The eunuch asked Philip, “Tell me, please, who is the prophet talking about, himself or someone else?”
Oh, how we love it when an evangelistic prospect asks us a leading question like that! We should all do what Philip did in the next verse.
Verse 35: Then Philip began with that very passage of Scripture and told him the good news about Jesus.
He preached the Gospel from Isaiah, from writings that come down to us from 700 years before Jesus was even born; yet they are full of information about Him. We can begin with Genesis or Exodus or Psalms or Isaiah and preach Christ just as surely as we can start with Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John.
Verse 36: As they traveled along the road, they came to some water and the eunuch said, “Look, here is water. What can stand in the way of my being baptized?”
This man was wonderfully converted and he wanted to be baptized.
Verse 37: Philip said, “If you believe with all your heart, you may.” The eunuch answered, “I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.”
There is a little uncertainty about verse 37, as to whether it was in the original book of Acts or whether it was a later commentary that somehow got incorporated into the text of some of the manuscripts. In my NIV, verse 37 is, therefore, in the margin.
Verse 38: And he gave orders to stop the chariot. Then both Philip and the eunuch went down into the water and Philip baptized him.
You might say, “Isn’t this a private baptism? I thought baptism was a public event to give witness to others of the decision I’ve made.” But who do you think was driving the chariot? There was a chariot driver there and problem a number of others who made up this officials retinue. This man was baptized in the presence of his staff.
Verse 39: When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord suddenly took Philip away, and the eunuch did not see him again, but went on his way rejoicing.
I don’t know what this means, but it certainly sounds like Philip was whisked from the scene supernaturally. He suddenly disappeared, but the Ethiopian went on his way rejoicing. Notice that last word. In verse 8, Philip preached in the city of Samaria and there was great joy in the city. In verse 38, the Ethiopian went on his way rejoicing. Where the Gospel goes, joy follows in its wake.
Verse 40: Philip, however, appeared at Azotus and traveled about, preaching the gospel in all the towns until he reached Caesarea.
Azotus was up the coast from Gaza, and so Philip just preached his way up the coast until he came to the great Roman city of Caesarea, the harbor city for Israel. Now, what happened to Philip after that? He apparently settled down in Caesarea and used that city as his base for ministry. Twenty years passed, and then we see Philip one more time in the biblical story. It’s in Acts 21
4. Philip the Father (Acts 21:7-8)
In Acts 21, the apostle Paul is making his way to Jerusalem at the end of his third missionary tour. Luke chronicles the trip. Look at verse 7: We continued our voyage from Tyre and landed at Ptolemais, where we greeting the brothers and sisters and stayed with them for a day. Leaving the next day, we reached Caesarea and stayed at the house of Philip the evangelist, one of the Seven. He had four unmarried daughters who prophesied.
In other words, they were preachers. They had followed in their father’s footsteps and had devoted their lives to preaching and teaching the Gospel. What a great father Philip must have been! Here was a man who was a humanitarian, a preacher, a soul-winner, and a father. He fulfilled various roles, but in all of them He honored Christ.
Conclusion: Last Friday night I joined some friends for dinner at the lovely home of a well-to-do fellow in Dallas, who was an entrepreneur. He was a Christian and a very zealous Christian. After supper, he pulled out an old Bible and unzipped it and pulled out a letter that had mimeographed many years before. It was signed by a woman named Miss Nixon. He told the story. He said, “Miss Nixon was a woman who was single; she never married. She lived in a small one-room apartment and she cooked her meals on an electric burner. She didn’t even have a stove. But she evangelized children with Good News Clubs and Five-Day Clubs, and she led me to Christ when I was five. And then she sent me this letter. It was dated 1956.”
He said, “I keep a copy of this letter in my billfold. It’s the most important letter I’ve ever received.” It was a mimeographed form letter that congratulated the children who had become Christians and encouraged them to read their Bibles and continue to grow in Christ. The letter is so precious to him because it marks the time when he found Christ as his Savior as a five-year-old.
Here was a woman—Miss Nixon—who never married, lived humbly, and cooked her meals on a burner. But she knew how to win souls to Jesus. Whatever our roles in life—whether you’re a father, mother, employee, boss, church worker, community leader, whatever—let’s reflect Jesus in all we say and do. Let’s be like Philip, for Philip, in turn, was like Jesus. And that’s the role of a lifetime!