In Genesis 11:1-9, the descendants of Noah’s family settled in a plain of Shinar, which was likely a region in northeastern modern Syria. Here, instead of continuing to spread throughout the whole world as God had commanded to repopulate the earth after the global Flood (cf. Genesis 9:1), they chose to sink down roots and build a massive tower—likely, a ziggurat, or a tower designed by pagans in the Ancient Near East as a worship center that would unite heaven and earth. In order to circumvent this stealing of His glory, the Lord confused the common language of the people so they could no longer communicate. The people then coalesced into distinct groups and eventually migrated to different parts of the world (which is what the Table of Nations in Genesis 10 concerns). However, Moses writes several thousand years after Babel that God divided these nations “according to the number of the sons of God” (Deut. 32:8 ESV), while the nation of Israel would be His covenant possession (v. 9; cf. 4:19-20, 29:25-26, 32:17; Psa. 96:5 [“idols” = “demons” in LXX], 1 Cor. 10:19-21, Eph. 6:12). “The sons of God” are the “gods” of Psalm 82—high-ranking angelic beings responsible to administer God’s affairs over His world, but who rebelled and became demons, and led the nations in ignorance and darkness (Psa. 82:5). God judged the nations of the world for their rebellion at Babel. But He promised Abraham that through him One would come who would bless all the nations of the world (Gen. 12:3).
The beginning of this, of course, was the day of Pentecost, when Jewish representatives from many places in the same regions listed the Table of Nations heard the news of the resurrected, ruling Messiah and accepted His terms of pardon for their own rebellion. Now, the reigning Christ would have an Ethiopian leader as a member of His covenant community. Acts 8 is an excellent illustration of the lengths to which the Lord will go to have all the nations as fully His.
(For convenience’ sake, I will use the outline of this passage John MacArthur created for his sermon on this passage from 2015.)
A. Preparation (vv. 26-29)
The Bible clearly teaches God is sovereign over all things. As such, He orchestrates all things after the counsel of His will (Eph. 1:11)—the eternal decree which encompasses all that comes to pass. Thus, the Holy Spirit sent His angel, caused Philip’s heart to be submissive to the angel’s words, and made sure all of this happened at the exact time necessary to get to the Ethiopian eunuch (who himself was only traveling that way because of the decree of God). The road Philip was traveling was a hot, lengthy desert pathway that extended from Jerusalem to Gaza; there were two such roads, and Philip was using the less-traveled, more difficult one. However, Philip is obedient to the Lord and like Abraham immediately goes out, not knowing exactly where he is supposed to go but trusting he has heard from God.
We do not know how far along Philip got before he saw the chariot. We do know it probably would have been a sight. Given the man’s high-ranking position in the Ethiopian empire (he was essentially the CFO of the kingdom, in charge of all of the kingdom’s vast treasure and resources), he likely would have had an entourage, servants, guards, and the like. We also know that Ethiopia was the biblical era name for the entire region of North Africa, encompassing all the territory south of Egypt, and possibly stretching beyond Libya. So this was a very prominent, powerful man. Africa at this point would have been almost entirely pagan (expect, perhaps, for the Jewish communities in Alexandria and elsewhere). Dissatisfied with the darkness pf his homeland, he had possibly come into contact with godly Jews in Alexandria and had surrendered to the one true God. He was thus coming to Jerusalem to worship, even though as a eunuch he would be barred from the Temple (Deut. 23:1). He desired to know God and worship Him. In other words, his heart was being prepared by a sovereign God to receive the fullness of His truth.
He was in the employ of the queen mother, who was the mother of the king. Since the king of Ethiopia was considered an incarnation of the sun god, it was deemed inappropriate for him to work, so his mother handled all the administrative affairs of the kingdom—and this eunuch was a high-tanking official in her court. While going to Jerusalem, the man had a scroll of the book of Isaiah with him, and was reading it aloud (this is how everyone read back in those days—it made comprehension easier given the lack of punctuation in written texts). In God’s timing, Philip arrived at the chariot just as the man was getting to a crucial portion of Isaiah 53. It is at this point that Philip receives his next direction from the Lord: “Go up and join this chariot” (v. 29).
B. Presentation (vv. 30-35)
When he does, his first question is whether the man understands the passage he is reading. I love the eunuch’s response: “How could I, unless someone guides me?” (v. 31). Here is a man who knows his own limitations. He knows he does not have the knowledge or understanding to properly grasp the meaning of the passage, and he is willing to seek help. This demonstrates humility and meekness. Perhaps the man had been praying as he read, asking the God of Israel to somehow help him understand the passage. He must recognize that Philip is sent from God, so he invites him into the chariot to help him understand the Scripture.
The passage the man is reading is Isaiah 53:7-8. These verses speak of Christ’s innocence, His silence before His accusers, their unjust actions against Him, and His violent death to absorb the punishment due to sinners. But our Ethiopian friend does not know who the subject of these verses is. He does not know if Isaiah refers to himself, or another person or perhaps collective group (a common Jewish tradition argued that Israel was the suffering servant, though this becomes impossible when one considers verses 5 and 6, for example). Given the substitutionary death of Jesus for sinners as the heart of the gospel, the man could not be reading a better passage. So, beginning here, Philip explains to the man who Jesus is, what He has done, and what the proper response should be. God is holy, and requires punishment for sin, but His mercy enables Him to offer a substitute—moreover, the substitute is Himself in the Person of Jesus Christ. He becomes a man, to properly represent man to God (for man is a sinner and so man must atone for man), yet He remains fully God (for only God can offer an infinite sacrifice and be perfectly sinless in doing so). This Jesus lives a sinless life in the stead of all who will believe, so His perfect righteousness can be given to them as a gift. He proclaims the imminently coming kingdom, where heaven rules over earth—men are accountable to yielded to the advancing rule of heaven, first, in His person and ministry, then inaugurated in the church, then in its fullness in the millennial and eternal empires. And, He suffers and dies as a substitute for sinners so God’s wrath can be poured out on Him and the rescue from it applied at the moment of faith for all who believe. Rising bodily from the dead to prove the Father accepted His payment as perfectly sufficient, Jesus is installed in a new, exalted, authoritative position—that of Lord (Rom. 1:4, Phil. 2:9-11; cf. Matt. 28:18; Acts 2:30-36, 5:31, 13:32-33). This—Christ, who He is and what He has done—is the gospel. The proper response to the gospel is what we examine next.
C. Personal Response (vv. 36-40)
Given that they are in a desert, it likely took some time for them to find the water mentioned in verse 36. Of course, in this length of time Philip has had ample opportunity to answer questions, make connections, and stress the proper nature of repentance and faith. Somewhere between verses 35 and 36, the man believes on Christ as his sin-bearer. This is where verse 37 comes in. Though not part of the earliest manuscripts, it evidences the way baptism was understood in the early church—only administered upon confession of faith in the Lord Jesus Christ as who the apostles’ doctrine revealed Him to be. The man fully understands who Jesus is, what He has done, and what it means for him.
Interestingly, the narrative emphasizes baptism as part of a right response to the Lord Jesus. Baptism does not save, and the notion that baptism causes justification or regeneration is a damning lie. Yet, identifying with Christ in water baptism should be the first response of a (1) truly regenerate (2) properly instructed heart. It is the first and clearest step of obedience the newly saved person makes, and the tendency among evangelicals to delay immersion until months or even years after initial profession of faith cannot be supported scripturally. Of course, because professed converts cannot be publicly marked off as disciples until they have submitted to water baptism and are being taught to obey dominical and apostolic doctrine (Matt. 28:18-20), this is all the more reason to instruct new believers to be baptized shortly after making a credible profession of faith.
After being baptized, the Ethiopian and Philip came up out of the water (strongly, and necessarily, implying complete immersion)—and Philip is instantaneously snatched away by the Spirit to continue ministering among cities on the Syrian coast. He is instantaneously transferred many miles away to a Philistine city called Azotus; he continues to minster the gospel along the Syrian coast until he comes to Caesarea. And what of the eunuch? He is alone now, but not alone, for the Spirit of the living God indwells him and is already producing His new covenant fruit of joy (v. 39). Doubtless the man reached Jerusalem, met the believers and apostles there, and was trained in the things of God until he returned to his homeland, where church tradition says he became an effective evangelist.
God will have the nations as His. What started with an Ethiopian would continue with Romans, and the British, and into the Americas, and then into even more places. Soon there will be worshippers of the Lord Jesus from every tribe, tongue, people and nation. And God will be glorified by having millions of embodied worshippers of His Son, for whom all things exist (Col. 1:16)—and the Jesus of whom the eunuch read will see the travail of His soul, and be satisfied (Isa. 53:11).