8:1-4 Persecution results in the planting of new churches.
Having approved the lynching of Stephen, Saul put his mind to ravaging (8:3) the Greek speaking Christian congregation of Jerusalem in which Stephen had been an elder (see 6:1-6). But this only resulted in Greek speaking Christians moving away from the city, and proclaiming the good news in the Judean countryside and north into Samaria. Apparently the Hebrew speaking Christians in Jerusalem were not persecuted at this time, and the apostles were able to remain in the city (8:2).
8:1 Saul was the rabbi appointed to witness the stoning of Stephen (see note on 7:58). He was so enraged that he himself organized a vicious persecution (8:3) of the Greek speaking congregation (see 6:1-6) in Jerusalem.
8:2 Luke mentions the funeral of Stephen which must have touched large numbers in the city. The "loud lamentation" suggests that his powerful gracious leadership, and the horrendous manner of his death, was a devastating shock to this newly-formed Greek speaking congregation.
8:3 Luke also wants us to know that women were baptized as disciples, and were considered as dangerous as the men (5:14, 8:3, 12, 9:2). They were imprisoned, probably under the Captain of the temple guard (as in 4:1, 5:18, 22, 26).
8:4 Persecution did not stamp out the church, but merely caused it to take root in other places. Luke will refer to the beginning of churches in Judea such as Lydda and Joppa (9:32, 36), in Samaria (8:4, 12-17) up into Galilee, where there were probably churches in the provincial cities of Tiberias and Bethsaida (9:31). He also referred to the planting of the church in Damascus (9:20), in the Roman city of Caesarea (10:44-47), and in the huge Greek city of Antioch (11:19-21). This was exactly as the Messiah had foreseen (1:8). Later in the Book of Acts Luke will outline the planting of city churches in the Mediterranean through the work of Paul.
8:5-25 The founding of the church in Samaria
Samaria had been destroyed in 108 BC, but it was rebuilt as a gentile city by the Romans, and Herod the Great renamed it Sebaste (from the Greek sebastos meaning highly revered, in honor of the emperor, as in 25:21, 25). So Greek would have been the common language, and the city probably had very few Hebrew speaking Jews. That made it a natural place for the persecuted Greek speaking Christians to settle (see notes on 6:1-6, 8:1).
Philip, one of Stephen's fellow elders in the Greek speaking congregation, began preaching there, and when people expressed the desire to learn more he baptized them (8:12) as disciples of Jesus. But it seems a church could only be founded in the city when Peter and John came and prayed for the Holy Spirit to empower the disciples to function as the Lord's body in that place (as explained in 1 Corinthians 12:13).
Several years before, as a result of his conversation with the woman at the well. many Samaritans had become disciples of the Messiah in the town of Sychar (John 4:5-7, 39-41). Sychar was less than two hours' walk from the city of Samaria. And it seems probable that the apostles moved on into this and other villages (8:25) to organize the previously scattered disciples of Jesus into an Aramaic (a form of Hebrew) speaking congregation. If this is correct, we can picture the Church of Samaria including both Greek speaking Christians and the Aramaic speaking rural people around the city.
8:5-6 As just noted, Sebaste (Samaria) was a mainly Greek speaking city, probably with a Roman garrison. And they listened attentively to Philip's preaching..
8:7-8 Demons were cast out (see Matthew 10:8, Mark 1:26, 34, 3:11) and some who were paralyzed and lame were cured (3:1-8, 5:12, Luke 6:18-19, 7:22). Luke indicates that many in the city were very happy with the changes which had occurred.
8:9-11 The people in the city had been in awe of a magician named Simon (as with Elymas in Paphos, 13:8-11). This Simon had been a persuasive teacher, and they had listened eagerly to him..
8:12-13 But when people believed what Philip said about the Messiah (8:4) they were enrolled by baptism to become disciples (as in John 4:1-2). The signs which accompanied Philip's preaching had obviously impressed the magician. And seeing which way the wind was blowing Simon was also baptized and learned all he could from Philip.
8:14-16 After Philip had given some post-baptismal instruction to the new disciples, the apostles in Jerusalem sent Peter and John down to organize a church among them. They had been baptized with water, but they needed to be baptized in the Spirit to become a functioning body of the Messiah.
8:17 Paul describes exactly what happened when Peter and John laid hands on them. "In the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body - Jews or Greeks, slaves or free - and we were all made to drink of one Spirit (1 Corinthians 12:12-13, where the baptism of the Spirit clearly refers to becoming functioning members of the body, as in 1 Corinthians 12:4-11).
8:18-19 Simon, who had previously been prominent among the people as a magician, now wanted to pay money to receive the evidently far greater power of being able to impart the Spirit by prayer and the laying on of hands.
8:20-21 Peter used very strong language to rebuke Simon. As a result of these words, there have been no examples in church history of money being demanded for church membership or for spiritual healing and other blessings. It is true that Martin Luther had to condemn the practice of demanding money to obtain indulgences to free relatives from purgatory. At one time the rich were able to pay for their own pews in Anglican churches. And in our day evangelists have often used strong psychological pressure to obtain money from their disciples.
8:22-24 Having exposed the wrongness of Simon's motives, Peter did invite the magician to turn to the Lord (repentance) for forgiveness. It seems that the magician asked for prayer that he might be spared the wrath that was threatened (8:20), but we wonder if he ever became part of the new church of the Spirit in Samaria.
8:25 As suggested in the note to this section, it seems likely that the apostles established a church in the area of Sychar (see John 4:5, 39) and other villages that had been influenced by the disciples of Jesus there. As we have noted, Peter and John returned to Jerusalem, where the Jewish speaking Christians were not being persecuted. There they spent time in prayer and teaching (6:4) in preparation for their world-wide work, which began with missions along the coast within a distance of a hundred miles (see 9:32, and 10:1, 44-48).
8:26-40 Good News for Ethiopia
Luke has sketched out the rapid establishment of churches of the Spirit in Judea, Samaria, Galilee, and up north into Damascus and Antioch. But now he is quick to point out that the Holy Spirit is interested in taking the good news much further afield.
The eye-witness account of the baptism of the Ethiopian on the road to Gaza is obviously from Philip himself. While Paul was in prison in Caesarea (24:27, notice the "we" passage that ends this period in 27:1) Luke was sent to collect the information which he wrote up in his Gospel, and then in the Book of Acts. During that time Luke must have talked (Luke 1:3) to Mary the mother of Jesus (Luke 1:26-56, 2:41-52), eye-witnesses in Nazareth (Luke 4:16-30), all of the apostles, and many others including Philip and the other elders of the Greek speaking congregation in Jerusalem (see 6:1-6).
Ethiopia was the name given to the land south of Egypt (beyond modern Khartoum in the Sudan). But there was constant contact with this distant land by boats sailing up and down the river Nile (Isaiah 18:1-2). The psalm writer prayed "Let Ethiopia hasten to stretch out its hands to God" (Psalm 68:31). Highly intelligent individuals were often castrated for service in royal households. Ebed-melech (Hebrew for "servant of the king") for example is mentioned as an Ethopian eunuch who saved Jeremiah's life (Jeremiah 38:7-13).
When Philip met this eunuch he was on the way back from a pilgrimage to Jerusalem (8:27, as in the case of the Queen of Sheba, 1 Kings 10:1-5). But evidently he had not found what he was looking for. He was reading Isaiah 53:7-8 in the Greek Septuagint version (which had been translated in Alexandria, and he must have read it in the great library there). Luke therefore uses this incident to indicate that the Holy Spirit was sending the good news out among the huge number of Greek speaking people in Egypt.
8:26 Philip had been engaged in the establishment of the church in Samaria (8:4, 14). Having returned to his work as an elder of the Greek speaking congregation now scattered from Jerusalem he may have wondered what his next church planting task was to be. Now suddenly an angel appeared and told him to take the road south west towards Gaza which was on the border with Egypt. Angels do not keep appearing to us in the trivial details of our life. They come to guide and encourage us in directions which we could not have imagined by ordinary reason (as in Luke 1:11, 26, Acts 10:3, 7, 27:23). As he walked out on the deserted wilderness road he must have wondered what the angel had in mind.
8:27-28 Candace was the queen of a kingdom at least a thousand miles to the south. As was the custom, she had one or more eunuchs who could come safely into the royal harem. This particular eunuch was reading from the Greek Septuagint Old Testament (8:32-33) so we can assume he had studied in Alexandria. He was probably a Greek speaking Jew who had been chosen as a foreigner (and so less liable to local intrigue and corruption) to be her minister of finance.
8:29-31 We have noted the totally unexpected guidance by an angel (8:26). Guidance by the Spirit is a much more common experience of children of God (Romans 8:14). It does not mean being guided in every little detail of everyday life, but rather the assurance that the Spirit will clarify our mind when there is a choice between alternatives that face us (see Paul being guided by the Spirit in Acts 16:6-8). In this case Philip had to choose between hurrying on to Gaza or going up to talk to this very important man being carried by slaves in a palanquin. Philip was given the courage to run up and brashly ask if the man understood what he was reading. He must have been astonished to find that the official was eager to be shown what the passage of Scripture he was reading could mean, and even invited him up to sit next to him. Evidently the ascended Lord had seen the eunuch come to Jerusalem, and going back disappointed, and this was why he sent the angel messenger to Philip (8:26).
8:32-34 The Eunuch had the Isaiah scroll open at the greatest of all the messianic prophecies (Isaiah 53:7-8 LXX Greek version). And he wanted to know who was the person the prophet was referring to.
8:35 Beginning with that passage it was easy for Philip (speaking in Greek) to proclaim the good news of Jesus' life and crucifixion, his silence before the accusers, and the injustice of his trial (as prophesied in Isaiah 53).
8:36-38 When the eunuch wanted to know more, Philip told him how he could be baptized to become a disciple and he could receive the Holy Spirit to teach him (as in 8:15-17, Titus 3:5). When the palanquin came by a wadi with water in it the eunuch went down into the water with Philip and was baptized perhaps in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit (Matthew 28:19,20).
8:39-40 Normally this would be followed by teaching about each of the three Persons of the Trinity (as in the later Apostles' Creed), but in this case the Holy Spirit must have had others in mind to teach the eunuch. The word translated "snatched away" (arpazo) is better translated "taken away" (as in removing from a situation in 23:10). It could mean that when Philip wondered whether to go on with the Eunuch south into Egypt or continue with other work, he decided to go north and take the good news to the coastal towns all the way up to Caesarea (see the churches in Lydda, Joppa, and Caesarea in 9:32, 36, 10:47). Luke does not tell us what happened to the Eunuch, but he must have heard that from Christians who came visiting from Alexandria (see note on 2:10) that he "went on his way rejoicing." When the "sabbatical" which Queen Candace had given him came to an end, the eunuch would have sailed back up the river Nile to the palace located in what is now the Sudan or Ethiopia. There he would have explained the good news to the Queen in her own language. Or had she sent him to Jerusalem to learn the truth about God?
Note: Luke does not say Philip went on to plant a church in Gaza, and there was apparently no church founded there till the fourth century. There was a church in Ethopia which was visited and strengthened by Frumentius in 350 AD. The Scriptures were translated about that time into Ethiopic (called Geez, which is used in the Ethiopian Coptic church to this day).