Acts 9:31, “Then had the churches rest throughout all Judaea and Galilee and Samaria, and were edified; and walking in the fear of the Lord, and in the comfort of the Holy Ghost, were multiplied”
Our text – Acts 8:4 – 9:31
Our study is about seemingly unreachable or unsavable people. We have the Samaritans, Simon the sorcerer, the Ethiopian of somewhat importance and Saul where he had made havoc of the church at Jerusalem. He had asked for letters from the high priest and of the Sanhedrin, to take to Damascus, to order the members of the synagogues there to seek out, arrest, bind and bring to Jerusalem all Christians. Our focus of this study concerns two men:
(1) Philip and his work in Samaria and salvation of the Ethiopian, which illustrates how the gospel of grace transcends geographical and ethnic boundaries.
(2) We have the conversion of Saul that shows how the power of the gospel does and will overcome misguided individuals and false religious boundaries.
The persecution was prosecuted more bitterly and was led by Saul. The homes of the Christians were not spared. A man’s home was not his castle then. Men and women were dragged from their homes and committed to prison. Thus, the result of this bitter persecution was to scatter the members of the church through the provinces of Judaea and Samaria. They had been driven from Jerusalem but nothing could drive them from Christ. They were carrying out the divine command to take the Gospel into all the world. As they had begun at Jerusalem so now they would make any point in Judaea or Samaria where they had taken refuge a new center of preaching the Gospel of Christ. Wherever they were, their great theme would be, Christ. The Lord made their preaching effective.
It’s important to notice that nothing could stop the growth of the church so long as her members and servants were filled with the Spirit. Opposition, persecution, hypocrites or dissention had not been able to halt the growth of the church before, nor was more bitter persecution able to check it now. When Philip went to Samaria and preached Christ unto them we are told at once that multitudes gave heed with one accord unto the things which were spoken by him, Acts 8:6 “When the crowds heard Philip and saw the signs he performed, they all paid close attention to what he said.”
However, the apostles remained at their post of duty in Jerusalem. Just as the captain feels so duty bound to be the last to leave the broken ship so they felt that they should be the last to desert Jerusalem on account of danger. This showed exceptional courage on their part. They would be persecuted most bitterly at Jerusalem but they would not flee. There were interests of the church which needed to be looked after. There would be Christians who still needed the encouragement of their ministrations. There would be financial interest of the church which had been committed to their care, which they would not leave to be lost or confiscated by their persecutors. The deacons, or at least some of them, had been scattered. Stephen had been killed and it was an exceedingly sad day when Stephen’s body was laid to rest by devout men. Men wept at the service because a good man had been taken from them by violent hands, and that the persecution which had broken out would most likely grow worse. Philip had been forced to flee to Samaria. All the responsibility of the church seems to have been thrown upon the apostles. They would not shirk that responsibility even if subjected to persecution and the Lord was still answering their prayer for boldness.
A. PHILIP’S MINISTRY IN SAMARIA (8:4-25)
(1) His ministry of power (8:4-8) and the earnestness of his preaching
Philip “preached Christ unto them” (v. 5). The word, “preached,” means to proclaim as a herald. It therefore means that he was an official herald telling men of Christ, and that he was speaking with a loud voice and earnestly. Philip not only tells of the glad tidings of the coming and the death of Christ for lost men, but he preached as one sent of Christ who was eager to tell his message and earnest in his appeal that men might accept it. It takes an earnest man to begin at once to preach the Gospel in a new community after he has been driven out from his home by persecution. Moreover, in Samaria the Jews had no dealings with the people. Philip believed that the Gospel was for others than Jews, and that a believing Samaritan was just as precious in the sight of God as a Hebrew of the Hebrews. The Samaritans were not exactly Gentiles, though they were not Hebrews. Philip went first to those who were between Jews and Gentiles and then to one who was a Gentile proselyte to the Jewish faith in the person of the Ethiopian. He was not prejudiced by race or color. He was so far in advance of his Jewish friends that he longed to win Samaritan or Ethiopian to faith in Christ.
(2) The fullness of his preaching
“But when they believed Philip preaching the things concerning the kingdom of God, and the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptized, both men and women” (8:12). The center of all Philip’s preaching was concerning Christ. We are told first that he proclaimed unto them Christ, and then we are told later that he preached unto them about the Kingdom of God. This is what Paul was preaching at the close of this book: “Preaching the kingdom of God, and teaching those things which concern the Lord Jesus Christ, with all confidence, no man forbidding him” (Acts 28:31). It means he was preaching the full Gospel and was telling the Samaritans the kingdom of God included them as well as the Hebrews.
It no doubt means that Philip, like Peter, told his hearers that Jesus who had been crucified had been made both Lord and Christ; that He had ascended on high and sits at the right hand of God where he will remain until He has made His enemies His footstool. Men and women everywhere, not only need to be taught that Jesus is their Saviour, but they need to be taught that the whole Gospel of Christ. Jesus does not desire superficiality in His ministers or in his missionaries. He desires not only that men shall know Him, but that they shall know His will and that they shall do it. The writer of the Hebrews warns against a superficial knowledge of Christ. He says that leaving the first principles we should press on unto perfection: “Therefore leaving the principles of the doctrine of Christ, let us go on unto perfection; not laying again the foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God” (Hebrews 6:1). It is worse than if we had not known Christ, if after we have known of Him, we go on in sin regardless of His offer and of His warning.
(3) The proof of the genuiness of his preaching
“For unclean spirits, crying with loud voice, came out of many that were possessed with them: and many taken with palsies, and that were lame, were healed” (8:7). The signs which Philip did convinced the people of Samaria that he was a messenger of God. He cast out unclean spirits; many that were palsied and that were lame were healed. They had seen men try to do wonderful things by the use of sorcery, but they had seen nothing like this. The sorcerer could not heal chronic cases of sickness, nor could he cast out unclean spirits. When sorcerers tried it later in the presence of Paul, they found, not only that they were powerless, but that they were made a laughing stock by reason of their inability to control evil spirits. Evil spirits were always subject to the power of God and were compelled to obey Him, but they would not consent to be subject to mere man.
(4) The result of his preaching (6-14)
The first result of Philip’s preaching was that many believed: “And the people with one accord gave heed unto those things which Philip spake, hearing and seeing the miracles which he did. For unclean spirits, crying with loud voice, came out of many that were possessed with them: and many taken with palsies, and that were lame, were healed” (8:6- 7). Here again is evidence of the power of the Gospel when it is spoken in faith. The Spirit of God can convince Samaritans as well as Jew. Jesus had told some of the Samaritans that the time would come when they would worship neither at Gerizim nor Jerusalem, but they who should worship God would worship in spirit and in truth. That prediction was being fulfilled. Prejudiced though the Samaritans naturally were against the messenger they believed his message. How wonderful is the power of the Spirit of God to break down all prejudice and change the hearts of hardened men!
(5) Great joy was produced
“And there was great joy in that city” (8:8). There was joy on account of the wonderful works of God and physical manifestations of God’s power. There was also joy, and this was the source of the deepest joy, because they had found Christ as their Saviour. There are many who think that in order to have joy they must continue to follow sinful amusements. They think that to accept the Gospel is to bring gloom and heaviness. But, as Philip showed the people of Samaria, the tidings of Jesus Christ are not sad tidings but glad tidings. There is nothing which brings more genuine joy to the human heart than the acceptance of Christ. Even in those days of persecution the Gospel brought joy. When the apostles were first persecuted they rejoiced that they were counted worthy to suffer for the name of Jesus. After Paul had suffered many persecutions and imprisonments he said that whether men ridiculed him or persecuted or mocked him, “What then? Notwithstanding, every way, whether in pretence, or in truth, Christ is preached; and I therein do rejoice, yea, and will rejoice” (Philippians 1:18). Again he said: “Yea, and if I be offered upon the sacrifice and service of your faith, I joy, and rejoice with you all. For the same cause also do ye joy, and rejoice with me” (Philippians 2:17- 18).
This spirit was not confined to the early church, but it always has been and is true of those who are lovers of Christ. The atheist, the skeptic and the infidel are not the people who are filled with joy. There may be signs of superficial joy among them, but often even when they appear to be happy they are heavy at heart and weary of life. It is among unbelievers that suicides abound. Dr. W.M. Taylor makes a comparison of Dr. Thomas Guthrie and John Stuart Mill as revealed in their autobiographies. Speaking of them in the order named he says: “The one was the sunniest, cheeriest, mirthfulness memoir I ever read; the other was the darkest, saddest, and most dismal work it has ever been my lot to peruse. To me they were typical instances. Let the one stand as an illustration of the fact that ‘true piety is as cheerful as the day’; let the other indicate how cold and dark the world of atheism must be.”
B. SIMON THE SORCERER
(1) His magic and trickery (8:9-25)
In Acts 8:9-13 Luke introduced a man named Simon, who practiced magic, or sorcery. He promoted himself and accepted the praise of men (v. 10). The reference to magic here applies not to simple tricks but to demonic-induced power. The Samaritans believed Philip’s message; then they were baptized (v. 12). The record reiterates that personal belief in Christ precedes baptism. Simon the Sorcerer also made a profession of faith (v. 13). Luke’s use of the pronoun “himself” to describe Simon and the inclusion about Simon’s preoccupation with the miracles and wonders tip the reader that Simon’s conversion to Christ was suspect.
After Peter and John arrived in Samaria, the Holy Spirit descended on the Samaritans (v. 14-15). Simon wanted to know how he might manipulate the Spirit to further his own greed (v. 18-19). Simon was a self-seeking individual (much like Judas and Ananias) who most likely had made a shallow profession to obtain additional status among the people. Peter severely reprimanded Simon (v. 20-23). There has been some debate about whether or not Simon was a true believer. Peter’s reprimand consisted of the words “perish,” “wickedness,” “gall of bitterness,” and “bond of iniquity,” all of which point to an unbeliever. His statement, “Thou hast neither part nor lot in this matter” is similar to Old Testament phraseology referring to membership, sharing in an inheritance, and the like (Deuteronomy 122; 14:27). Peter’s denial of this type of membership to Simon strongly suggests that Simon wasn’t a believer. Simon had only surface faith. Jesus Himself attached little value to superficial faith placed in miracles (John 2:23-24).
An unusual event is recorded for us in Acts 8:14-17. The Samaritan believers received the Holy Spirit as Peter and John prayed for them and “laid their hands on them.” Normally Spirit baptism occurs at conversion (1 Corinthians 6:11; 2 Corinthians 1:21`, 22; Ephesians 1:13, 1`4; Romans 8:9, 16). So why the difference here? Luke indicated in Acts 8:16 that the Samaritans’ reception of the Spirit was unusual. The words “yet” and “only” suggest that something out of the ordinary had occurred. God provided the Samaritans with their own Pentecost-type experience to demonstrate their spiritual equality with Jewish believers. God didn’t desire a Samaritan church to develop apart from the Jerusalem church.
C. THE ETHIOPIAN EUNUCH
(1) Philip’s ministry to the Ethiopian eunuch (8:26-40)
The account of his meeting with the Ethiopian eunuch and the result of this meeting is recorded in the remainder of this chapter (26-40). He was ready to obey the command of God: “And the angel of the Lord spake unto Philip, saying, Arise, and go toward the south unto the way that goeth down from Jerusalem unto Gaza, which is desert” (8:26). The son of a missionary couple in Kenya was playing outside in the back yard. Suddenly the voice of the boy’s father rang out from the porch, Timothy, obey me instantly and drop to your stomach!” The youngster immediately did as his father commanded. “Now crawl toward me as fast as you can!” The boy obeyed. “Stand up and run to me!” Timothy responded obediently and ran to his father’s arms. As the youngster turned to look at the tree where he had been playing, he saw a large deadly snake hanging from one of its branches! At the first command of his father, Timothy could have hesitated and asked, “Why do you want me to do that?” On the other hand, he could have casually replied, “In a minute.” However, his instant obedience without questioning his father saved his life!
Philip responded instantly and was willing to go where the Lord wanted him to go and do what the Lord wanted him to do. His obedience was like that of Abraham. He responded without apparently knowing what he was to do. It would be well if all of Christ’s disciples were willing to obey at once as did Philip. He was ready and well prepared to help one man find Christ as Savior. The man to whom Philip was sent was one of great authority under Candace, queen of the Ethiopians. He was her chief treasurer who had come to Jerusalem to worship and was returning homeward when he met Philip.
The soul of this man was not important merely because he was a great man in his country. God is ever ready to help any honest inquirer, and this man might be of larger value in the church because he was in a position where he could better make known the saving love of Christ to others of his countrymen. He was especially familiar with the fifty-third chapter of Isaiah. When the Spirit told Philip to join himself to the chariot in which the Ethiopian was riding he obeyed at once, and he found that he was reading from the prophecy of Isaiah. Philip asked him if he understood what he was reading. The man replied that he could not unless he had someone to guide him. God had directed the Ethiopian to that portion of Isaiah which spoke most clearly of Christ.
The passage which he read was this: “He was led as a sheep to the slaughter; and like a lamb dumb before his shearer, so opened he not his mouth: In his humiliation his judgment was taken away: and who shall declare his generation? For his life is taken from the earth.” The Ethiopian asked concerning whom the prophet spoke, of himself or of some other man. Philip, beginning at that place, told him of the glad tidings of the coming of Jesus and of His death upon the Cross. The Ethiopian believed the Gospel as Philip preached it to him. Philip must have told him of the command of Jesus that those who believed should be baptized and what baptism meant, for he asked to be baptized. They both went down to the water and Philip baptized him. The man, who cannot find Christ and His atonement as it is foretold in the Old Testament, is blinded like the Ethiopian was until his eyes were opened that he might understand.
He was blessed of God in pointing this inquirer to Christ. The Spirit of God who guided Philip guided the Ethiopian. The man believed the Word of God. His faith was confirmed by a miracle. “And when they were come up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord caught away Philip, that the eunuch saw him no more: and he went on his way rejoicing” (8:39). This was a different kind of a miracle than Philip had performed to confirm the faith of the people of Samaria. But it was no more difficult for the Lord to perform than any other miracle. The Spirit of God is not limited to the usual kind of miracles in order to prove the truthfulness of His message.
D. SAUL’S CONVERSION (Acts 9:1:31)
Luke next recorded Saul’s salvation experience. One cannot overestimate the significance of his conversion to Christianity. The comparison between the eunuch and Saul is interesting. As many commentators have observed, the eunuch was converted in a chariot, while Saul was converted on a dusty road.
(1) The Damascus Road conversion experience (9:1-9)
As he and his party neared Damascus, about noon when the Syrian sun was shining with intense brilliance, when all at once there shone round about him a light from Heaven which was brighter than the sun. Saul could not stand in the presence of this great light and fell to the earth. Then a voice said to him, “Saul, Saul, why persecutes thou me?” (9:4). Saul asked, “Who art thou, Lord?” (9:6). The Lord replied, “I am Jesus whom thou persecutes”. Saul was told to, “Arise, and go into the city, and it shall be told thee what thou must do” (9:7). Thus, Saul who came to arrest was being arrested; Saul who came to give orders was taking orders; Saul who came boldly and defiantly was guided blindly and humbly, and Saul who came to cast out the disciples found refuge and strength from the disciples.
All who were with him stood by speechless with astonishment? Saul arose from the earth but still he could see nothing. His companions led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus where he found shelter in the house of Judas on Straight Street, the main thoroughfare of the city. He was there three days fasting, without food or drink. Those who assert that Saul was overcome by an accusing conscience are endeavoring to give a natural, rather than a supernatural, explanation of the conversation of Saul. The record will permit of no such explanation. It was a sudden, supernatural power which arrested Saul and struck him to the ground. It was a supernatural light which wrought a supernatural change upon the heart of Saul. Thus, we are not left in doubt as to who caused the light and whose voice it was that spoke. It was Jesus who was continuing to work in the hearts of men. It was the brightness of the glory of Christ, so bright that human eyes couldn’t look upon Him without being blinded.
Jesus had stricken Saul to the ground but not in anger. He didn’t say, “I have come to settle with you about Stephen, I have come to punish you for your persecution of Peter and John.” What He did say to Saul was firm, yet tender. It was a most revealing statement. It revealed the fact that Jesus is vitally connected with His people and with their sufferings. It revealed the fact that what Jesus had said was absolutely true, “when they persecute you that persecute me.” It revealed the fact that Saul in his mad career was set, not merely against some of the professed followers of Christ who he had known or heard of in Jerusalem, but that he was fighting against Jesus Himself. Thus, what is done to the church is done to Christ; hatred of the church is hatred of Christ; persecution of the church is persecution of Christ; neglect of the church is the neglect of Christ; refusal to belong to the church is a refusal to belong to Christ.
Saul had been accustomed to fast as a Pharisee, but he had never engaged in a fast like that before while in Damascus. He was three days without sight and did neither eat nor drink. He was three days without food, but not three days without thought. The bright mind of Saul must have been very active during those three days. When Jonah disobeyed God and was three days within the whale we know that he prayed much and thought seriously. No doubt Saul did the same. From the prayer which Jonah uttered he evidently thought of many passages of Scripture, meditated upon them, and used parts of them in his prayer to God. Doubtless Saul did the same. We are told distinctly that he was engaged in prayer,” And the Lord said unto him, Arise, and go into the street which is called Straight, and inquire in the house of Judas for one Called Saul, of Tarsus, for, behold, he prayeth” (9:11).
Saul was probably thinking of the letters which he had received from the chief priest and wished he had never seen them. He would think of his cruelty to Stephen and others for he had found that they were right and he was wrong. He would think of the many passages which he had learned when a boy and under the teaching of Gamaliel concerning the Messiah and he would see a new meaning in them now. He would understand now how they spoke of Jesus. He would say to himself, “He lives, he is all powerful, he could smite me down to the ground. No doubt he did arise from the tomb as His disciples asserted, He must have ascended as they declared for He spoke to me from the throne.” He would not repeat the proud prayer of the Pharisee but would cry out as did the Publican, “Lord be merciful to me a sinner!”
When the Lord Jesus comes into our hearts by His Spirit He can change them, and change them suddenly. It was not merely a change of environment in the case of Saul, it was not merely more knowledge that he had received, it was not merely a different mental attitude, it was a fundamental transformation of heart that had taken place in Saul. Thus, he would soon be telling the world of it and telling them that he was a totally different man after Christ had appeared to him on that memorable day. That which would astonish the people of Damascus, Jerusalem and the Christians everywhere, more than any miracle which they had seen, was the change of heart that had taken place in their arch-enemy, Saul.
(2) His first contact with believers (9:10-19a)
In Damascus God used Ananias, a pious Jewish believer, to heal and baptize Paul. Notice that Acts 9:13 refers to believers as saints. “Saints” simply refers to set apart ones (Romans 1:1; Ephesians 1:1; Philippians 1:1). Additionally, Ananias immediately referred to Saul (whom he had feared) as “Brother Saul” (Acts 9:17). The disciples also immediately received Saul into their fellowship (v. 19). The terms “saints,” “brother,” and “disciples” reflect an early understanding of the position and the unity of believers. The believers accepted Saul into the fellowship as an equal brother. Jesus clearly articulated to Ananias that He had specially chosen Saul as an instrument to further the ministry of the church and that Saul would later become an apostle to the uncircumcised, or Gentiles (Romans 11:13; Galatians 2:2, 7, 8; Ephesians 3;8), and would preach the gospel before kings. Indeed Paul did appear before Felix (Acts 24:1-23), Festus (24:27-25:12), Herod, Agrippa II (25:13-26:32), and possibly even Nero (25:11)
(3) His early ministry (9:19b-22)
As Saul became part of the ministry at Damascus, he immediately began to proclaim Jesus in the synagogue (Acts 9:20). (In each place Saul went, he continued his ministry first in the local synagogue and then, after rejection by the Jews, into other arenas.) Specifically, Saul declared Jesus as the “Son of God” (9:20). This phrase appears only twice in the book of Acts (8:37; 9:20) through many times in Paul’s epistles (Romans 1:3, 4, 9; 5:10; 8:3, 29, 32; 1 Corinthians 1:9). The phrase indicates that Saul clearly understood the deity of Jesus. At this point, Luke may have left a gap in the story of Paul’s life. In Galatians Paul wrote that he had traveled to Arabia (southeast of Damascus). Many scholars believe this trip occurred between verses 21 and 22 or verses 22 and 23 of Acts 9.
(4) His escape from Damascus and reception in Jerusalem (9:23-31)
In Damascus, the Jewish leaders quickly tired of Saul and the gospel. They didn’t want to hear it. Unable to refute his logic, the exasperated Jews conspired to murder him (9:23). His disciples heard of the plot (v. 24) and lowered him through the window (v. 25), since the Jews were watching the city gates. Initially the Jerusalem disciples questioned the nature of Saul’s conversion. Their fear and doubt probably resulted from their lack of direct contact with Saul for over three years. According to Galatians 1:18, Saul returned to Jerusalem in the third year after his conversion to meet with the apostles. In Galatians Paul stressed that he minimized his contact with the Jerusalem apostles to stress that he himself was a true apostle.
In Jerusalem Barnabas took Saul to the apostles (Acts 9:27). Saul recounted that he had seen and spoken with the Lord and that he had immediately begun witnessing of the resurrected Christ. Luke recorded that Saul “was with them coming in and going out at Jerusalem” (Acts 9:28). The apostles may have accepted Saul into the apostle’s circle even though he had not yet started his full ministry to the Gentiles. No doubt in the church at Jerusalem, Saul fellowshipped with family members of those whom he had previously arrested or persecuted. Their reception of Saul again illustrated how oneness in Christ transcends and breaks down all barriers of past experiences. When they planned to kill Saul, the disciples escorted him to Caesarea (v. 29-30), and from there he traveled to Tarsus, his birthplace (v. 30). He later reflected in Acts 22:17-21 that he had left Jerusalem as a result of a vision from Jesus so that he could start his ministry to the Gentiles.
Remember are study deals with seemingly unreachable or unsavable people. Maybe you’ll reading this and you’re wondering if God will save some hard-to-reach loved one or friend? Don’t give up. The God who saved Saul can most assuredly save the one for whom you have been praying for. Nothing is too hard for God. It is our job to sow the seed of the Gospel to all people and let the LORD bring forth the increase. Lady Huntingdon and evangelist George Whitefield knew that was true and proved it by their faithful witness of the gospel to the rich, as well as to the poor.
Thus, their example should challenge each one of us who know Christ as Lord and Savior, to faithfully share the gospel with everyone, regardless of their position in life. In Jeremiah 33:3, the Lord says, “Call to Me, and I will answer you, and show you great and mighty things, which you do not know.” The words “great and mighty” may also be translated “inaccessible,” “fenced in,” or “difficult.” However, when we pray according to God’s will, He may choose to do that which the world with its limited perspective deems to be hedged in by the impossible. Many believers in Christ have proven that God is able “to do exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or think” (Ephesians 3:20).
Finding Christ is life’s greatest discovery, and our joy increases when we share it with others. As believers, our highest delight is both in finding and in telling, because the Good News of Christ is too good to keep to ourselves.