The Story of Philip
Chapter 6 and 7 told the story of Stephen, one of the first deacons. Chapter 8 tells the story of Philip, another one of the deacons. But first there is a short update on Saul, who was introduced in 7:59.
Saul Persecutes the Church
After Stephen’s death, the Jews began a great persecution of the church in Jerusalem. Having seen that the Sanhedrin could not intimidate Peter and John, and that Stephen, though killed, had stood up to them and condemned them, they realized more drastic action would be necessary to stop the followers of Jesus. Saul approved in the persecution of the church and participated in it. It appears he was a major actor in it.
The persecution was so intense that many Christians left Jerusalem for other parts of Judea and for Samaria. Saul was literally going house to house, taking the Christians he found, and placing them in prison. (3) He realized the new faith was not compatible with Jewish traditions and sought to eliminate it.
The twelve apostles, however, stayed in Jerusalem. (1) Luke does not tell us why. But, the Lord used this persecution to move believers out of Jerusalem with the gospel. Jesus had commissioned them to make disciples of all nations. (Matthew 28:19) Now they were beginning to do it.
This movement also fulfilled the word of the Lord right before he ascended. He told them they would be his witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth. (Acts 1:8)
Philip In Samaria
Philip was one of the ones who left Jerusalem and went to Samaria. Once there, he began preaching. The people were receptive to his preaching, especially since it was accompanied by signs (miracles). Philip cast out unclean spirits and healed those who were crippled.
The apostles performed signs when they first brought the gospel to Jerusalem. Now Philip is able to perform signs when the gospel is first brought to Samaria. These miracles are signs that the disciples have to power of God.
These healings brought great joy to the city of Samaria. Much suffering ceased and people were restored to their families. This shows us a glimpse of eternity, when suffering shall cease and joy shall abound.
Simon And Others Are Saved
Simon was a successful magician, or sorcerer, in Samaria. He got lots of attention. He called himself great. The Samaritans believed his magic came from the power of God.
But when Philip preached, the Samaritans believed and were baptized. The Samaritans believed in a Messiah who would come to them as a prophet. We see this in Jesus’ encounter with the woman at the well in a Samaritan village. She expected a Messiah to come. (John 4:25)
They practiced a religion similar to the Jews, but with some of their own adaptations. The Jews considered them pagans. But, they were open to Philip’s preaching. Some had likely heard John the Baptist and Jesus preach when they ministered in the area.
Simon also believed and was baptized. He followed Philip around and was amazed at the miracles he performed.
The Holy Spirit Comes on the Samaritans
The apostles in Jerusalem sent Peter and John to Samaria to see what was going on in response to Philip’s preaching. Somehow, they ascertained that the Holy Spirit had not come to these believers. Therefore, Peter and John laid hands on them and they received the Holy Spirit.
Normally, the Holy Spirit comes upon a person when he or she believes and commits their life to follow Christ. Peter had preached for people to repent and be baptized, telling them they would receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. (2:38)
So, why did the Holy Spirit not come upon the Samaritan believers at the time of their conversion?
The passage does not say. But, it may have been that the Lord wanted the apostles to know the Samaritans were true believers and members of the church. Peter and John could testify that the Holy Spirit had come upon them. There could be no argument from the Jewish believers that Samaritans could not be saved.
It may also have been so that the Samaritans themselves would know and believe they were full members of the church. They had been despised by the Jews. But they were not despised by the Jewish Christians, who actually brought the Holy Spirit to them.
Simon was impressed that the Holy Spirit came upon believers as Peter and John laid hands on them. He wanted to have that power also. This seems to be a reversion to his need for attention, previously filled as he performed magic. He offered them money for the power. In his mind, it was the same as paying another magician to teach him a trick.
Peter was outraged at Simon’s request and spoke a sort of curse on him for thinking he could get the gift of God through money. Peter called on him to repent. In response, Simon asked them to pray for him. It is not clear if he repented or not. This raises a question as to whether his faith was real or not.
After this incident, Peter and John kept preaching, then returned to Jerusalem, preaching to Samaritan villages on the way. (25) The last time John had come this way, he asked the Lord to call down fire on the villages that did not receive Jesus. (Luke 9:54) His heart has been changed, though, and now he preached to them the message of salvation.
Philip and the Ethiopian
Luke’s narrative now returns to the story of Philip. As Philip ministered in Samaria, an angel appeared and told him to go to Gaza, a desert place. Philip immediately rose and went. (27)
On the way, Philip saw an Ethiopian sitting in a chariot. This man was a court official in Ethiopia, serving the queen, Candace. He was an important man in Ethiopia. He was a “God fearer”, a Gentile who worshipped God. He was returning from Jerusalem, where he had gone to worship.
When Philip came upon the man, he was reading a scroll of the prophet Isaiah. The angle told Philip to go and join the man at his chariot, so Philip ran up to him. He heard the man reading out loud. He asked him if he understood what he was reading.
The Ethiopian did not understand. He said he needed a guide. He invited Philip to come into the chariot and sit with him. He was reading Isaiah 53:7-8. Luke quoted it for us. The Ethiopian wanted to know who Isaiah was talking about. He recognized Isaiah as a prophet of God, but did not know who the person was in the scripture. So, Philip took the opportunity to explain it and to preach the gospel to him.
The Ethiopian believed the Gospel and wanted to be baptized. When they came upon some water, Philip baptized him.
This, I think, is worth mentioning. The Ethiopian wanted to be baptized immediately. Others who responded to the gospel did the same. There was no waiting. There was no trying to decide if they should. They believed and were baptized. And, like this Ethiopian, they rejoiced. We should follow their example.
So, the last part of Jesus’ words to the disciples began to be fulfilled. Ethiopia was, to the Jews, the ends of the earth.
After baptizing the Ethiopian, Philip was taken by the Holy Spirit to the city of Azotus. Azotus is the ancient, Old Testament city of Ashdod. It was one of the five principal cities of the Philistines, along with Gaza, Gath, Akron, and Ashkelon. The Ark of God was carried there by the Philistines after their victory at Ebenezer in 1050 BC. It is over on the coast.
When Philip found himself there, he preached the gospel there and the other towns he passed through on the way to Caesarea. He will not make another appearance in the Acts narrative for 20 years.
Philip assumed the Spirit of God put him there for a reason and the reason was the preach the gospel. It is a good lesson for us. We should share the gospel wherever the Holy Spirit places us.