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15 October 2023  // Acts 8

Acts 8
Kyle Childress

For Life Group Discussion after October 15. Read Acts 8  & watch Oct 15 sermon.

  • What did the message teach me about God/Jesus/Holy Spirit?
  • What did the message teach me about the human condition?
  • Is there anything I need to confess, repent, or be grateful for, because of this passage?
  • How do I need help in believing and applying this scripture to my life?
  • How can I encourage others with this passage?
A Gravestone in Olney
Born in 1725, John Newton was the son of a merchant sea captain. Enduring a difficult childhood and turbulent youth, he ran away from a forced tour of duty in the Royal Navy and became the slave of a white slave trader’s black wife. During a storm at sea in 1747, he turned to God but continued in the slave trading business. Finally, in 1764 he became curate of the Olney Parish in Buckinghamshire and served there for fifteen years as an Anglican clergyman and hymn writer. We remember Newton well for songs like “Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken,” “How Sweet the Name of Jesus Sounds,” and especially, “Amazing Grace.”

When God took his servant home in 1807, friends wrote an epitaph for the gravestone in Olney. It reads, “John Newton; once an infidel and libertine, a servant of slaves in Africa, was by the rich mercy of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ preserved, restored, pardoned, and appointed to preach the faith he had long labored to destroy.”

Few modern Christians will have a testimony anything like that of John Newton, but the African connection between the eunuch of our text and this historic version of a slave trader reminds us again of the magnificent grace of God in their lives—and in ours.

What did these early believers do? They testified and proclaimed the gospel of Jesus wherever they went. Like Newton they had been touched “by the rich mercy of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ,” and like Newton they determined to share it with others.

Unlike Newton, however, and unlike the Ethiopian eunuch as well, it is hardly necessary to have some dramatic conversion story to serve Christ effectively. We can imagine the eunuch returning to Ethiopia enthralling his family and friends at court with the story of this amazing man he met in the desert whose message had changed his life. We know Newton repeatedly drew on illustrations of his past to demonstrate God’s “Amazing Grace” in bringing people to himself.

Those of us who heard the gospel as children or committed our lives to Christ in Sunday school or perhaps at summer camp have no less right, no less authority, to proclaim God’s message than did Philip, the eunuch, or John Newton. So many things in this chapter clamor for our attention today. Repeatedly I have emphasized Philip’s readiness and availability to God. Yet that precise beginning of ministry so often eludes us in the busyness of modern life.

We surely see as well Philip’s acute understanding of the basics of Christianity, his grasp of the centrality of Jesus Christ in the only Scripture he had, the Old Testament. Philip began at Isaiah 53, for the eunuch was reading there; but verse 35 seems to imply that he also introduced other texts to explain fully the message of Jesus. So many modern Christians own Bibles and carry them to church, but struggle to use them effectively in family worship, personal spiritual growth, and certainly in evangelism.
Finally, we can be as repetitious as Luke in emphasizing the role of the Holy Spirit in all this. What a combination—a willing servant, available Scripture, and the empowering Spirit. That combination is no less available today! There is no earthly or heavenly reason why Christians at the beginning of the twenty-first century cannot function in the same kind of vital witness we encounter in this magnificent record of Philip here in Acts 8.[1]
A.  The Samaritans (v. 5)
This interesting race of people lived on the northern border of Judea. The break between Jews and Samaritans dated back to 1000 b.c. when the ten tribes separated from Judea and Benjamin after Solomon’s death. Their capital, Samaria, was destroyed by Sargon of the Assyrians in 722 b.c. At that time the mixed-blood population began because of the Assyrian practice of populating conquered areas with people of other conquered areas so that no unified racial group could rise up against them.
The final blow apparently occurred in 127 b.c. when John Hyrcanus led Jews in the destruction of the Gerizim temple and again, the city of Samaria. Herod offered to rebuild the temple in 25 b.c., but the Samaritans turned him down since he also intended to rebuild the temple at Jerusalem (which, of course, he did). Since the Samaritans never gave up their commitment to the Pentateuch and also their hope for Messiah, Philip had a connecting point to proclaim his message of a new covenant.
B.  Simon (vv. 9–13)
What might Simon have meant by calling himself the Great Power? Possibly he claimed to be God himself, but more likely some great emissary from God who served as his primary spokesman and miracle worker in Samaria. Luke depicts him as a tinhorn charlatan with a bag of tricks, but extrabiblical sources suggest that his influence extended far further than that of a local magician. In the second century, Justin Martyr, himself a Samaritan, claimed that his countrymen revered Simon as a high god. Other second-century sources describe a Simon Magus whose heresy reached as far as Rome and whose teachings Peter was often required to refute. In the late second century, Tertullian talked about Simon, honored with a statue in Rome carrying the inscription “To Simon the holy god,” though some scholars believe that was merely the misreading of another well-known statue to an ancient Sabine deity.
All of this is speculation of course, though the parallel between Luke’s account in Acts 8 and traditional stories gathered one or two hundred years later cannot be ignored. Certainly we dare not conclude that because Simon refused grace and repentance in this chapter, he no longer posed any kind of threat or obstacle for the gospel in the years beyond.
C.  Holy Spirit (vv. 15–17)
Christians have struggled with this time separation between accepting Christ and receiving the Spirit. Earlier we talked about this as an event, something not representative of common practice in the New Testament. Yet some Catholics argue this text is a basis for the separation between baptism and confirmation. Some modern charismatics see the baptism of the Holy Spirit as a second work of grace subsequent to salvation emanating from this passage.
Longenecker suggests that God may have designed this unique arrangement precisely because of the Samaritan context. He asks,
What if the Spirit had come upon them at their baptism when administrated by Philip? Undoubtedly what feelings there were against Philip and the Hellenists would have carried over to them, and they would have been doubly under suspicion. But God in his providence withheld the gift of the Holy Spirit until Peter and John laid their hands on the Samaritans—Peter and John, two leading apostles who were highly thought of in the mother church at Jerusalem and who would have been accepted at that time as brothers in Christ by the new converts in Samaria. In effect, therefore, in this first advance of the gospel outside the confines of Jerusalem, God worked in ways that were conducive not only to the reception of the good news in Samaria but also to the acceptance of these new converts by believers at Jerusalem (Longenecker, 359).
D.  Baptism (v. 37)
Bible students familiar with the King James text will pause at the niv marginal reading for verse 36: “Some MSS add 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.’ ” Scholars generally argue that it appears in the King James Version because Erasmus, a sixteenth-century scholar who produced his own translation of the Bible, included it. Generally speaking, however, the better manuscripts omit the verse, and consequently the niv does not include it.
Polhill offers this suggestion as to why it appears in some manuscripts.
Evidently a scribe felt this was lacking and so provided the missing confession of faith. He did not need to do so. Luke had summarized Philip’s sharing the gospel with the eunuch in v. 35 and one can assume it included an appeal for the eunuch to respond. The eunuch’s desire for baptism would indicate a favorable response to Philip’s appeal. The added verse, however, has considerable value. It seems to embody a very early Christian baptismal confession where the one baptizing asked the candidate if he believed in Christ with all his heart, to which the candidate would respond by confessing Jesus Christ as the Son of God. This old confession has a real significance to the history of early Christian confessions and would be appropriate to the baptismal ceremony today. To that extent we can be grateful to the pious scribe who ascribed to the eunuch the baptismal confession of his own day (Polhill, 226).[2]
      1.   Is your church prone to concentrate on what is happening in the church rather than finding ways to scatter its members into God’s harvest field? What can you do to encourage your church to be more evangelistic?
      2.   Does your church bring joy to your city? Why? Why not? What can you and your church do to help your city know the joy of the gospel?
      3.   How is money a source of temptation for you and your church? What do you and your church do to make sure that money is a holy resource and not a temptation?

[1] Kenneth O. Gangel, Acts, vol. 5, Holman New Testament Commentary (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1998), 129–130.
[2] Kenneth O. Gangel, Acts, vol. 5, Holman New Testament Commentary (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1998), 131–133.