The Conversion
of the Ethiopian
(Acts 8)

Jerry King

“And he ordered the chariot to stop, and they both went down into the water, Philip as well as the eunuch; and he baptized him.” (Acts 8:38)

It must have been an odd sight to anyone who might have passed by - these two grown men down in the water practicing this strange ritual; one dunking the other, burying him completely under the water and then raising him up again; the one dunked coming up out of the water rejoicing like some kind of heavy burden had just been lifted from his shoulders, or like he had just been set free from a life of slavery, or prison. But then, maybe it was not such an odd sight after all. Maybe this kind of thing was going on all over Judea. We know that three thousand had gone through a similar experience in one day in Jerusalem not many weeks before this (Acts 2:41). And we know that a multitude of men and women in Samaria had done this exact same thing just days before. Perhaps by now the typical response of the passer-by would have been, “There goes another one!”

What was going on in that water along the road leading from Jerusalem to Gaza? A searching soul was being found by God. A sinful soul was having his sins washed away in the precious blood of Jesus Christ. A precious soul was being saved. An Ethiopian soul was becoming a citizen of the heavenly kingdom.

In Acts 8:26 Luke tells us that the gospel preacher Philip, fresh off a successful preaching trip in Samaria, was instructed by an angel to go south to the road that descends from Jerusalem to Gaza, a city to the southwest of Jerusalem, toward Africa. Luke goes on to tell us that Philip obeyed the call and came upon the chariot of the treasurer to the queen of Ethiopia, a man of the Jewish faith who was returning to Ethiopia after a trip to Jerusalem. (Perhaps he had been part of that host of Jews from all over the world who had converged on Jerusalem for the recent Pentecost celebration - Acts 2:5,9-10.)

We are told that the Ethiopian was a devout man (he had come to Jerusalem to worship), and that he was a studious man (he was reading from the prophet Isaiah). We are told that he was a confused man (he was unable to understand what he was reading), but that he was a wise man (he was willing to let someone who did understand the scripture guide him). Note two things right here: 1) It is good to be devout and studious, but devout and studious do not mean saved. The centurion Cornelius was a devout, God-fearing, praying, generous man (Acts 10:2), but he was not saved (Acts 11:14). Saul of Tarsus was a devout, fasting and praying man (Acts 9:9,11) but he was in sin (Acts 22:16). 2) It is not a shame to be ignorant, but it is a shame to be unwilling to do anything about it. I wonder how many other noblemen Philip met in his preaching career whose pride made them unwilling to listen to anything a “commoner” tried to teach them. I wonder how many devout and studious souls will be lost on the day of judgement because they are “blissfully ignorant.” I wonder how many souls will be lost by men and women who never got help because they were ashamed to admit that they needed it.

And so Philip accepted the Ethiopian’s invitation to ride along in his chariot and explain to him Isaiah’s prophecy, one of the great messianic prophecies of the Old Testament: “He was led as a sheep to the slaughter; and as a lamb before its shearer is silent, so He does not open His mouth. In humiliation His judgement was taken away; who shall relate His generation? For his life is removed from the earth.” (Isaiah 53:7-8) It is my understanding that during the first century the Jewish rabbis generally understood this passage to be referring to the coming Messiah, but in about 1200 AD it became common to think that Isaiah 53 was written about the nation of Israel. Philip leaves no doubt in the Ethiopian’s mind; when the Ethiopian asked him to whom the passage was referring, Philip began from that scripture and “preached Jesus to him” (verse 35).

What does it mean to “preach Jesus”? Well, obviously, preaching Jesus means preaching His life, and especially His death, burial and resurrection. In 1 Corinthians 15:3-4 Paul reminded the Corinthian Christians that, in preaching the gospel to them, he had delivered to them “as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to scriptures.” How could Philip have possibly explained Isaiah 53 without explaining the suffering and glorified Jesus?

And would not preaching Jesus also include the preaching of His lordship? Peter certainly thought so, for in preaching Jesus on the Day of Pentecost in Acts 2 he made clear to his listeners that Jesus had been “exalted to the right hand of God” (verse 33), where God had “made Him both Lord and Christ” (verse 36). Could Jesus ever be fully preached without a strong emphasis on His lordship as well as His messiahship?

And it is beyond denial that preaching Jesus would also include preaching His conditions for salvation. Here we have Philip preaching away, and all of a sudden the Ethiopian exclaims, “Look! Water! What prevents me from being baptized?” Notice what the Ethiopian understood about baptism: 1) that it was to involve water, 2) that it was a natural response to the preaching of the gospel message, and 3) that it needed to be done at the first opportunity. Now, how in the world did the Ethiopian know all that stuff about baptism, since Philip had only preached Jesus to him? Obviously, preaching Jesus included preaching baptism as a condition of salvation in Jesus!

So how can we know when someone has preached Jesus to the sinner as he ought? Here is an easy test: What is the convicted sinner’s response? If you have preached to the sinner, and he believes in Jesus, and his heart is convicted of his sin, and he wants to be a Christian, and yet he does not ask you to baptize him, then you have not fully preached Jesus. If you have brought your friend to church with you, and your friend is touched by the preaching about Jesus, and yet your friend walks away with no knowledge of her urgent need to be baptized in water for the forgiveness of her sins, then she has not heard the full preaching of Jesus.

There is some disagreement about whether Acts 8:37 should be included in the book of Acts, since many of the old manuscripts do not include it. Whether the verse is original or was included by an overzealous scribe, it would certainly agree with what the Bible says in other places about belief in and confession of Jesus as the Son of God as a prerequisite for baptism. (Note Mark 16:16 and Romans 10:10.) Surely the Ethiopian’s “great confession,” the same confession Peter made in Matthew 16:16, is the confession we all must be willing to make before we are candidates for the baptism that results in the forgiveness of sins.

And so the chariot was stopped, and Philip and the Ethiopian went down into the water. Why did both go down into the water? Because immersion is the proper mode of baptism - not sprinkling or pouring, which would have required neither man to go down into the water. In Romans 6:3-4 Paul says that baptism is a burial with and into Christ. When you bury someone, you “put them under,” you don’t lay them on the ground and sprinkle a little dirt on them. So it is with baptism. It is a putting under the water. If you have not been buried with Christ, then you have not been scripturally baptized.

After Philip baptized the Ethiopian, both men came up out of the water. Luke tells us that Philip’s job was done and that God had another mission for him, and so the Spirit snatched him away. And the Ethiopian? He went on his way rejoicing. Why rejoicing? Because a heavy weight had actually been lifted from his shoulders. He was no longer under the burden of his sins against God. In his obedience to the gospel he had cast His burden of sin on Jesus, and had found rest for his soul (Matthew 11:28-29). And because he was no longer a prisoner of sin and death. In his obedience to the law of the Spirit of life in Christ he had been set free from the law of sin and death, and he was no longer a condemned man (Romans 8:1-2).

Let us rejoice with him - at his salvation, and at our own, if indeed we have imitated his faith and obedience to the invitation of Jesus.

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