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Coffman Commentaries on the Old and New Testament

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Acts 8


 
Verse 1
And Saul was consenting unto his death. And there arose on that day a great persecution against the church which was in Jerusalem; and they were all scattered abroad throughout the regions of Judaea and Samaria, except the apostles.

This sentence actually belongs to the narrative in the preceding chapter. One is almost shocked at the casual way in which so important a person as Saul of Tarsus is here introduced; but the placement of this announcement in close connection with the martyrdom of Stephen almost demands that the relation between that martyrdom and the conversion of Saul should be observed. As J.S. Howson said:

We cannot dissociate the martyrdom of Stephen from the conversion of Paul. The spectacle of so much constancy, so much faith, so much love, could not be lost. It is hardly too much to say with Augustine that "the church owes Paul to the prayer of Stephen." F1

The same writer also called attention to the gloom which surrounded the infant church at that time, and to the "brightness which invests the scene of the martyr's last moments."

The first apostle who died was a traitor; and the first Christians whose deaths are recorded were liars and hypocrites. The kingdom of the Son of man was founded in darkness and gloom; but a heavenly light reappeared with the martyrdom of Stephen. F2

On that day a great persecution ...
does not mean that all of the persecutions occurred on that day, but that upon that day was initiated a policy of extermination directed against the new faith. God, in this, was overruling the evil which men perpetrated, in order to accomplish the extension of the gospel beyond the boundaries of Jerusalem. The first murderous persecution against the church was launched by the Sanhedrin, both the Sadducees and the Pharisees supporting the campaign to drown the infant church in blood.

Except the apostles ...
Barnes observed that:

For them to have fled would have exposed them, as leaders and founders of the new religion, to the charge of timidity and weakness. They remained; and a merciful Providence watched over them and defended them from harm. F3

In time, of course, the apostles would also leave Jerusalem; but for the moment they considered it their duty to remain.


 
Verse 2
And devout men buried Stephen, and made great lamentation over him.

Devout men buried Stephen ...
Johnson expressed the view that these men were "not disciples, but pious Jews, deeply impressed by the gospel, but not yet brought to conversion"; but, despite the fact that many commentators have taken the same position, we simply cannot concur in such a view. The allegation that true Christians would not have made the lamentations mentioned in the next verse, or that Luke would have called the men who buried Stephen "brethren" if they had been Christians, is not sustained by the record. Why would Luke not have called the noble Christians who braved the wrath of the Sanhedrin to bury the first martyr, "devout"? The very word means "earnestly religious"; and there is nothing to forbid the word's application to Christians. Furthermore, the loud lamentation that accompanied the burial may not be construed as sorrowing "without hope." Strong agreement is felt with Orin Root who said, "The brethren honored their first martyr, although in so doing they made themselves targets of the continuing persecution." F4

It is true, of course, that the term "devout" is used only four times in the New Testament; F5 and this, more than anything else, has supported the opinion that these were not "brethren." However, the Jewish law required that:

One who had been stoned for blasphemy would have had no funeral honors, and would have been buried with the burial of an ass (Jeremiah 22:19). F6

No lamentation or other sign of mourning was permitted on behalf of one who suffered execution, the Jewish rule on this being derived from God's command that Aaron should not mourn for Nadab and Abihu (Leviticus 10:6). Thus, the understanding of the devout men who buried Stephen as friendly Jews, not Christians, imposes a burden upon our credulity, not only in the matter of such Jews being willing to contradict the Sanhedrin's views on such matters, but also in the supposition that the Christians, through fear, or from whatever motives, would not have been active in burying their champion and their brother. We confess, as Boles said, that "We do not know whether or not they were Christians"; F7 but the guess preferred here is that they were!


 
Verse 3
But Saul laid waste the church, entering into every house, and dragging men and women committed them to prison.

The New Testament record of Saul's persecution of the church leaves no doubt of the savagery and brutality with which it was carried forward. There was no consideration of age, sex, or other circumstances. The youth, ability, and energetic zeal of the leading persecutor, revealed here as Saul, testify to the bitterness and fury with which the Sanhedrin sought to exterminate Christianity. God be praised that they were not merely defeated in this; but, writing long afterward, the beloved Paul said, "Their loss is the riches of the Gentiles?" (Romans 11:12), the word "loss" in that passage actually carrying the meaning of "their defeat."

Satan has his own "providences," no less than the righteous, and the evil one certainly took advantage of a circumstance that arose in the Roman government at the time of this persecution. About the year A.D. 37, there was no Roman governor in Jerusalem for a time; and, as Boles said:

The Jewish factions reigned supreme ... the opponents of Christianity thrust men and women into vile prisons, and brought them before elders in the synagogues, who tried to force them to deny Jesus; upon their refusal, some of them were put to death, others beaten; and all suffered many outrages (Acts 22:14; 26:10,11, etc.). F8


 
Verse 4
They therefore that were scattered abroad went about preaching the word.

As Joseph Benson noted:

The great majority of the dispersed Christians held no office in the church; yet they preached wherever they came, and this spread of the gospel without the Holy City, this planting the church in the regions beyond, was effected not by the apostles but by an entirely voluntary and unofficial agency. F9

II. THE CHURCH IN JUDEA AND SAMARIA (Acts 8:5-11:18)

With Acts 8:5, a new era in the church began. The tide of evangelism burst forth from the Jewish capital, bringing the good news of salvation in Christ to Judaea and Samaria. Samaria was especially stressed by Luke, as he was a Gentile; and the Samaritans were particularly despised by the Jews. Therefore, by this, he would show how the gospel was intended for all peoples, even the Samaritans. The evangelist who successfully preached Christ in Samaria was one of the Seven, called Philip the evangelist. It is with his exploits that this chapter is principally concerned.


 
Verse 5
And Philip went down to the city of Samaria and proclaimed unto them the Christ.

The city of Samaria ...
was long considered by scholars as ambiguous, some declaring that it had reference to Sychar, as in John 4:5, and others thinking it referred to the city of Samaria, that is, the capital of the province. McGarvey said:

The definite article is now admitted to be a part of the Greek text, and this settles the question (as proved by the Sinaitic manuscript which has the definite article). It was the old capital ... enlarged and embellished by Herod the Great. F10

Concerning what it means to preach Christ, see under Acts 8:12.

The people of Samaria were regarded by the Jews with contempt, their mixed racial and religious characteristics being the cause of this. (See my Commentary on John, p. 113.) In fact, the Jew looked upon all Gentiles in the same way; but, as Howson noted, "His hostility to the Samaritan was probably the greater, in proportion as he was the nearer." F11 It was in keeping with this same greater reaction to what is near, as compared to what is distant, that Sir Walter Scott wrote: "A wildcat in a chamber is more to be dreaded than a lion in a distant desert!" F12


 
Verse 6
And the multitudes gave heed with one accord unto the things that were spoken by Philip, when they heard, and saw the signs which he did.

The great Samaritan capital was overwhelmed with the message, certified to them as authentic by the miracles wrought by Philip. Thus, another of the Seven is revealed to have had the power of miracles, confirming the deduction already made that the laying on of the apostles' hands had conferred this gift at the time of their appointment.

SAMARIA

This city was built by Omri as a new capital of the ten northern tribes of Israel on a hill 300 feet high seven miles northwest of Shechem, commanding the trade routes through the Esdraelon plain. F13 This impressive butte afforded strong protection against assault, having steep sides and a permanent water supply within the fortifications.

This city figured prominently in certain dramatic incidents in the Old Testament. It was here that the lepers reported the flight of the Assyrian army (2 Kings 7); Ahab was buried in Samaria, as were a number of other Israelite kings. The city fell to Sargon II whose massive deportation of the inhabitants terminated the northern kingdom of Israel (722 B.C.).

Extensive excavations of the site were made in 1908-1910 by Harvard University archaeologists, and also in 1931-1935 by Harvard, Hebrew and British scientists. These findings revealed the city as one of great wealth, fragments of Ahab's ivory-paneled house and many other signs of extravagance being uncovered (1 Kings 22:39).

Alexander the Great conquered Samaria in 331 B.C.; Pompey and others began to rebuild it about 110 B.C.; but it was Herod the Great who restored, rebuilt, decorated, fortified and embellished the city, naming it Sebaste (Augusta) in honor of his emperor, an event still perpetuated in its modern name of Sebastiyeh. There are many references to Samaria in the Old Testament, the prophets of which considered it a center of idolatry (Isaiah 8:4; 9:9; Jeremiah 23:13; Ezekiel 23:4; Hosea 7:1; and Micah 1:6).


 
Verses 7, 8
For from many of those that had unclean spirits, they came out, crying with a loud voice: and many that were palsied, and that were lame, were healed. And there was much joy in that city.

Luke, a distinguished physician and scientist, here made a separation between physical maladies like palsy and lameness, and the conditions attributed to unclean spirits, the same being proof enough that the wisest men of that age recognized the phenomenon of demon possession. This subject was reviewed repeatedly in the four gospels, and it would be profitless to repeat them here. For those interested in pursuing the subject further, reference is made to my Commentary on Matthew, Matt. 8:16,29 and my Commentary on Mark, Mark 1:24; Mark 5:2.

Much joy in that city ...
During the ministry of Christ the Lord commanded that his representatives should not go into any city of the Samaritans (Matthew 10:5,6); and, although Jesus himself had given a strong indication of his ultimate purpose of including Samaritans in the gospel by his two days' residence in Sychar (John 4:40), it was the event recorded here that signaled the full fruition of that holy purpose. It was appropriate that "much joy" should have marked the occasion. What a blessed reunion of peoples long estranged was this; and it was a reunion that could have been accomplished in no other way except by the gospel of Christ. It is also true, as Walker observed, that:

It is the only thing that can reconcile hostile groups now; all other treaties, compromises and "gentlemen's agreements" will last only until it is advantageous for one of the parties to break the compact. F14

In this event was a frontal assault upon the "middle wall of partition" (Ephesians 2:14) between Jews and Gentiles. One of the Seven entered Samaria with the power of miracles and the message of redemption in Christ.


 
Verse 9
But there was a certain man, Simon by name, who beforetime in the city used sorcery, and amazed the people of Samaria, giving out that himself was some great one.

Josephus mentions no less than twenty different Simons in his history, F15 making this one of the commonest names of antiquity, and imposing an intolerable burden upon any who would identify this Simon with any of those. It is logical to reject all fanciful traditions about the man mentioned here and to view the information given by Luke as the total of all that is really known concerning him. A full understanding of the triumph of the gospel in Samaria would be impossible without a knowledge of the people's widespread following of such a deceiver as Simon, hence Luke's mention of this condition. Also, it may have been Luke's intent to show the gospel's triumph over one who even practiced the black arts.


 
Verse 10
To whom they all gave heed, from the least to the greatest, saying, This man is that power of God which is called Great.

Nothing is any more pitiful than the delusions which blind whole cities and populations of mankind. Simon was an unqualified fraud; but, until the coming of the gospel, his evil influence dominated the whole city, "from the least to the greatest." Nor does modern man have any right to despise the Samaritans for their gullibility, because there are many examples in our own times and cities of charlatans and deceivers receiving the adulation of their duped followers. It is only the word of God that "makes wise the simple," "opens the eyes of the blind," and provides a "lamp unto our feet." In direct proportion, therefore, as men are ignorant of the word of God, they become the prey of deceivers.


 
Verse 11
And they gave heed to him, because that of a long time he had amazed them with his sorceries.

The influence of Simon was fortified and entrenched by years of successful operation; and his acceptance of the gospel, related a moment later, was all the more phenomenal in view of this; and with such a well established base of influence, it would appear incredible on the face of it that he would have given it up without a struggle unless his motives had been good. Certainly Elymas (Acts 13:8) opposed the gospel; and it seems mandatory to believe that Simon would have done the same thing unless he had truly believed.


 
Verse 12
But when they believed Philip preaching good tidings concerning the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptized, both men and women.

Preaching the good tidings concerning the kingdom and the name of Jesus Christ ...
Acts 8:5 related that Philip preached "the Christ" unto them; and the message of the kingdom and the name of Christ, mentioned here, was the same as preaching Christ, mentioned there. That this message of Christ and his kingdom included the commandment that men should believe, repent and be baptized is implicit in the fact of the Samaritans having done exactly that when they believed Philip's preaching. Moreover, such a thing as baptism (which is the ordinance gateway into the church Jesus established), as mentioned in the good news of "the kingdom," has the utility of identifying the church of Jesus Christ and the kingdom of God as one and the same institution. This is a fact so clearly taught in the New Testament that one can only be astounded at its denial by some scholars. For example, Ladd said:

The church is not the kingdom ... It is impossible to substitute "church" for "kingdom" in Acts 8:12, etc ... None of the sayings in the gospels equates Jesus' disciples with the kingdom ... etc. F16

Amazingly, Ladd proceeded, immediately following the last sentence cited above, to mention a number of references which do exactly what he denied, namely; equate the Lord's disciples with the kingdom and his church with the kingdom. We shall notice some examples of this.

MATTHEW 16:18,19. Jesus said, "I will build my church ... and I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven." Here our Lord used "church" and "kingdom" interchangeably, that is synonymously. Both conservative and radical scholars alike have throughout ages viewed this as proof that the church and kingdom of God are one institution. As Vos declared, "It is plainly excluded that the house should mean one thing in the first sentence and another in the second," F17 thus declaring the church and the kingdom the same. Even Gilmour said, "The church has been the kingdom of God within the historical process." F18 Ladd circumvented the true meaning of this analogy by the simple assertion that "metaphorical language possesses such fluidity" (as to allow diverse meanings of "church" and "kingdom") F19 in this passage, to which it is replied that no such "fluidity" appears in this passage. To agree with Ladd would be to suppose that Jesus built one institution upon the rock and gave the apostles "the keys" of another institution. That would really be some fluidity!

MATTHEW 13:41-43. The parable of the tares was explained by Jesus in such a manner as to make it clear that the church and the kingdom are one; for it is there declared that "the angels shall gather out of his kingdom ... them that do iniquity." Trench flatly declared that:

It must be evident to everyone not warped by a previous dogmatic interest, that the parable is, as the Lord announces, concerning the kingdom of heaven, or the church. F20

In an effort to escape the power of this, Ladd stated that "The gathering of evil out of the kingdom looks forward, not backward"; F21 but clearly, the question of "when" the Lord will purge the evil out of his church has no bearing on the fact that the kingdom and the church are fully equated in the marvelous parables of the kingdom in Matthew 13, which parables are also, unequivocably, the parables of the church as well.

In a number of other passages cited by Ladd, their obvious meaning is set aside by a mere arbitrary denial of their obvious meaning, as in the instance above. We have devoted a little more than usual consideration to his arguments, because his is one of the latest scholarly efforts to come to our attention in which a serious effort is made to set aside the view of the kingdom and the church of Jesus Christ being identical. For a dissertation on this subject, please see my Commentery on Hebrews, Heb. 12:29.

The field is the world ...
as used in Matthew 13:18 was cited by Ladd as a basis for setting aside the church-kingdom identity; but the meaning of "world" there is "the world-wide church." There is no way the parable can be explained adequately without taking this into account. See my Commentary on Matthew, Matt. 13:37.

Preaching Christ and his church is identical with preaching Christ and his kingdom. Note the following:

WHAT IT MEANS TO PREACH CHRIST

  1. To preach Christ means to preach the Old Testament, because the Old Testament is a testimony of Christ, the Messianic hope of the Hebrews. Of the Old Testament Scriptures, Jesus said, "These ... bear witness of me" (John 5:29). The 333 prophecies of the Old Testament are all fulfilled in Christ (Luke 24:44); its glorious history was "written for our admonition" (1 Corinthians 10:11); and when the noted Bible commentator, Dr. Adam Clarke, chose a topic sentence for his life's work, it was a New Testament text focused on the Old Testament (Romans 15:4). The apostolic preachers, notably Paul, customarily taught from the Old Testament (Acts 17:34).

  2. To preach Christ means to preach the New Testament. The good news of salvation for mankind is found only in the word of Christ "through the apostles" (1 Peter 3:2); and, since the word of the apostles is available only in the New Testament, one cannot preach Christ without preaching the New Testament. To preach Christ is to preach the New Testament which is the word of the apostles who "heard him"! This, of course, eliminates the doctrines of men. If one wishes to receive the doctrines of men, he may do so from their books; but the true doctrine of Christ through the apostles is found in their book the New Testament.

  3. To preach Christ is to preach all of the great facts, promises and commandments of the gospel.
    1. A bare catalogue of the facts of the gospel is overwhelming: God entered our earth-life as a man, in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, fulfilling the great prophecies of the Old Testament; he wrought the greatest wonders ever seen on earth, even raising the dead again and again; he was despised and rejected; he died on the cross according to the Scriptures in order to procure eternal life for men; he rose the third day, ascended to the right hand of God, established his church, sent the Holy Spirit, is reigning until all enemies are destroyed; and finally, he will raise to life again all who ever lived on earth, preside over the final judgment and appoint all men their destiny.

    2. The great promises of the gospel are the richest treasure belonging to men. Jesus will forgive men's sins if they will believe in him and obey the gospel, bless them providentially in this life, make all things work together for their good, give his Holy Spirit to them that obey him, raise them up from the grave at the last day, and provide for them an eternal inheritance among the saints in light, giving them an abundant entrance into the everlasting kingdom. He will succor them in temptation, comfort them in sorrow, illuminate them in darkness, strengthen them in tribulation, love them always, and save their souls forever! How glorious are the promises of the gospel. To preach Christ is to preach those promises.

    3. To preach Christ is to preach the commandments of the gospel; and, in this area, men have often misunderstood. Commands of Christ are sometimes written off as "mere legalisms"; and the grace and love of Christ are made the excuse for diminishing the force of his commandments; but this is an incredible folly (Hebrews 2:2,3). "Whosoever shall break one of the least of these commandments" (Matt. 5;19) shall be called least in God's kingdom. Not even faith can void the law of God (Romans 3:31).

  4. To preach Christ is to preach his church and kingdom. This blessed institution is called the bride of Christ, the vineyard of the Lord, the pillar and ground of the truth, the general assembly and church of the Firstborn, the family of God, the body of Christ, the kingdom of heaven, the kingdom of God, the kingdom of the Son of his love, and the church of Jesus Christ.

  5. To preach Christ is to preach the plan of salvation, that is, faith, repentance and baptism for alien sinners, and the reception of the Holy Spirit and the continuation in the apostles' doctrine, in the breaking of bread and of prayers, on the part of the baptized. Two instances of this preaching are evident in the chapter before us (Acts 8:5-12; 8:35,36).

  6. Preaching Christ means preaching the obligations imposed by the holy faith in him. It is impossible to preach Christ without preaching the Christian virtues, church membership, church attendance, generosity, self-denial, and that community of love and interest which binds men together in Christ Jesus. Shame be upon those popular evangelists who preach Christ without spelling out the obligations imposed upon them who believe. Morality, integrity, faithfulness in every area of life, identity of the believer with God's church on earth, and the wholehearted, unselfish support of all that the Lord taught - such things are not optional, but mandatory. No matter what men may "say," it is evil for one to be like the persons condemned by Paul as professors of holy religion who "by their works" deny the Lord (Titus 1:16).

The brief resume of what Philip taught the Samaritans by no means implies that he omitted to teach "all" and "whatsoever" Jesus commanded.

Baptized, both men and women ...
Again, in this, the New Testament bears witness of the fact that only accountable persons were received into the body of Christ, such a passage as this forbidding any notion that infants became Christians.


 
Verse 13
And Simon also himself believed; and being baptized, he continued with Philip; and beholding signs and great miracles wrought, he was amazed.

There is absolutely nothing in this passage to suggest that Simon's "believing" was any different from that of others who became Christians, or that his "baptism" came about from impure motives. On the contrary, we have already seen that his conduct was utterly unlike that of Elymas (Acts 13:8), thus making it clear that he proved his sincerity by accepting Philip's preaching, an act that repudiated his sorceries, destroyed his long sustained influence over the city, and identified him absolutely with forces clearly opposed to all he had been and done in the past. This was no small thing that Simon did. The thesis that Simon merely joined a movement with a design of procuring the powers manifested by Philip is refuted by the fact that such an intention would have been defeated by what he did. Those who allege such a proposition make a fool out of Simon; and, whatever he was, he was no fool. On this basis, therefore, we reject such notions as the following:

(Simon) believed in the genuineness of Philip's miracles, but did not believe in God with a spiritual and saving faith. F22
Simon himself also believed, but it was not a sincere belief in Jesus Christ. F23
It would be true to say that he had the fides informis, faith not preceded by repentance and not perfected by love. F24

Such views, of course, are merely human opinion. It should be remembered that this narrative was written, not from the standpoint of Philip, but from that of Luke; and it is simply incredible that if Simon's faith and baptism had not been fully sufficient, Luke would have said so here. Luke was inspired; and, when it is considered that inspiration says that Simon "believed and was baptized," there is no way to set aside his conversion as inadequate or hypocritical. Inspiration also says that "He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved" (Mark 16:16); and the statement here proves that Simon was truly saved. The theological device of postulating different kinds of faith, such as true faith, and fides informis, etc., has no scriptural basis. As DeWelt said:

There is as much reason to discount the conversion of the rest of the Samaritans as that of Simon, for their acceptance is described in the same words as that of Simon. Indeed, Simon is said to have "continued with Philip." F25


 
Verse 14
Now when the apostles that were at Jerusalem heard that Samaria had received the word of God, they sent unto them Peter and John.

The purpose of this apostolic mission to Samaria was evidently to qualify certain men for leadership through the laying on of the apostles' hands and the accompanying endowment of them with miraculous powers.

Significantly, Peter does not appear in this passage as any kind of pope or authority sending others to do his bidding, but as himself "sent" by others.


 
Verses 15, 16, 17
Who when they were come down, prayed for them, that they might receive the Holy Spirit: for as yet he was fallen upon none of them: only they had been baptized into the name of the Lord Jesus. Then laid they their hands upon them, and they received the Holy Spirit.

That they might receive the Holy Spirit ...
has reference to receiving the Holy Spirit in miraculous measure, because, having been baptized, they had already received the gift ordinary of the Holy Spirit as Peter promised on Pentecost (Acts 2:38).

Fallen upon none of them ...
means that none of them had received such miraculous powers as had been conferred upon the Twelve on Pentecost. As Don DeWelt noted, "Luke used the term `fallen upon' to describe the reception of the special powers." F26

Then laid they their hands upon them ...
The special power of the Holy Spirit in view in this passage was conveyed only through the laying on of the hands of the apostles. Plumptre was correct in seeing the gift here as:

Distinct from the new birth of water and the Spirit (John 3:5) which was given through baptism. The apostles looked on the Samaritans as qualified for the higher gift as well for admission into the kingdom; and it was given to them, and not to Philip ... to be the channels of communicating it. F27

Significantly, although Philip himself possessed this higher gift of ability to perform mighty signs, the whole narrative at this place makes it clear that Philip did not have the ability to communicate this gift to others. Therefore, this was a plenary, not a self-perpetuating ability. Only the apostles could convey it; and when the last man died upon whom the apostles had laid hands, the age of miracles expired by limitation. This commentator has no patience with the rejection of conclusions of this kind because "they are merely deductions." As a matter of fact all faith and holy religion are matters of "deduction," the great deduction being that the apostles delivered the truth to mankind. It is simply unbelievable that if Philip could have conveyed such a gift, Simon would not have tried to buy it of him, rather than of the apostles.

Benson was evidently correct in his deduction that not all of the Samaritans received miraculous powers. He said:

Not that all who had been baptized in Samaria might receive miraculous gifts; for it was never so in any church, not even in Jerusalem; but that some might receive ... for the confirmation of the gospel, and especially such as were designed for office in the church, or to be eminently active members of it. F28

As Bruce noted, "The context leaves us in no doubt that their reception of the Holy Spirit was attended by external manifestations." F29 If this had not been the case, Simon would not have been able to "see" that through the laying on of the apostles' hands the gift was given, as declared in Acts 8:18. Bruce also distinguished this special gift from that which all Christians have, saying, "It seems to be assumed in the New Testament that those who believe and are baptized have also the Spirit of God." F30 Since there is no way for any person to "see" that this gift ordinary is received, the distinction between the two gifts is a certainty. Moreover, as McGarvey observed: "If Philip could have conferred this gift, the mission (of the apostles) would have been useless so far as its chief purpose was concerned." F31


 
Verses 18, 19
Now when Simon saw that through the laying on of the apostles' hands the Holy Spirit was given, he offered them money, saying, Give me also this power, that on whomsoever I lay my hands, he may receive the Holy Spirit.

See under preceding verse.

Through the laying on of the apostles' hands ...
In focus here is one of the fundamental doctrines of Christianity (Hebrews 6:2). It has nothing to do with ordaining church leaders, nor any reference to such a ceremony as confirmation; but it is basic to the understanding of such facts as: (1) the cessation of apostolic miracles, (2) the termination of inspiration among evangelists and teachers, (3) the impossibility of any such thing as an apostolic sucession, and (4) the necessity of concluding the canon of the New Testament. For a full discussion of all this, see under "Laying on of Hands" in my Commentery on Hebrews, Heb. 6:2.

Regarding Simon's sinful proposal here, Harrison said that "It appears that Simon was really converted, but that the habits of the old life had not been broken." F32

And when he saw ...
The time indicated by this clause was not prior to or concurrent with Simon's conversion, but afterward. The supposition that Simon became a Christian hypocritically with the intent of adding to his own powers such abilities as Philip had demonstrated is refuted by this text. It was at some indefinite, and perhaps even considerable, time after his conversion that Simon was tempted and fell into the sin mentioned here.


 
Verses 20, 21
But Peter said unto him, Thy silver perish with thee, because thou hast thought to obtain the gift of God with money. Thou hast neither part nor lot in this matter: for thy heart is not right before God.

Thy heart is not right ...
The difference between what Peter said in this passage and what men affirm he meant is astounding. Benson, for example, interpreted Peter's meaning here thus:

His offering money for a spiritual gift is incontestable evidence that he was yet under the power of a worldly and carnal spirit and that he was yet a mere natural man, who received not the things of the Spirit of God. F33

There is, of course, an ocean of difference between saying that a man's heart is not right (present tense), and the declaration that it had never been right. That is precisely the difference between what the word of God says of Simon, and what men say concerning him. Beware of believing men rather than believing the Lord.


 
Verses 22, 23, 24
Repent therefore of this thy wickedness, and pray the Lord, if perhaps the thought of thy heart shall be forgiven thee. For I see that thou art in the gall of bitterness and in the bond of iniquity. And Simon answered and said, Pray ye for me to the Lord, that none of the things which you have spoken come upon me.

Repent ... and pray ...
In this instance, the apostle Peter, using the keys of the kingdom of God promised him by the Saviour (Matthew 16:19), opened the way for a backslider to return to God. If Simon had not been a backslider from the faith, but had been an alien hypocrite pretending a faith and submitting to a baptism which were worthless, Peter would never have commanded him to repent and pray, these very commandments standing here as an apostolic confirmation of the fact that Simon was in possession of a covenant relationship with God through Jesus Christ, despite the fact of his sin. The door here opened for Simon's return is the same that must be entered by all Christians who, when overtaken by some sin, seek to return to the Lord.

This thy wickedness ...
The sin for which Simon required forgiveness was not that of impure motivation of his baptism, nor of any insufficiency of faith in his conversion, but the specific wrong of thinking to buy the gift of God with money. Therefore, the apostle did not command Simon to repent of his sins (plural), but to repent of the specific sin in evidence, "this thy wickedness." If this had not been the case, Peter's command to Simon would have been different.

Thou art in the gall of bitterness ... bond of iniquity ...
This is the sentence which many commentators abuse with reckless abandon, thus:

Simon at this time was an unconverted sinner. F34 He was STILL attached to the bitter "gall-root" of superstition and magic; he was STILL held fast in the bond of iniquity. F35
He showed that he never had his heart truly humbled. F36 He remained STILL "in the gall of bitterness and the bond of iniquity." F37

First of all, these opinions cited above violate every known law of exegesis by their attribution of Simon's present condition (expressed in the present tense in English Revised Version) to the whole of the period of his association with the Christians. Secondly, they ignore the fact that Peter's words regarding "the gall of bitterness and bond of iniquity" are not even applicable to Simon's condition at that moment. As a glance at the English Revised Version margin will reveal, what Peter really said was that "Thou WILT BECOME a gall-root of bitterness and a bond of iniquity," thus expressing not a present condition at all, but a danger of future reprobacy. Thus, not even the present tense is in this warning of Peter; and it is absolutely unscholarly and unconscionable to make Peter's warning of a future condition that would result from Simon's sin, if unrepented of, to be the basis of the outrageous claims that Simon had never known the Lord.

We might inquire, why is it that learned men have so frequently betrayed their sacred trust by thus handling deceitfully God's word? Two reasons appear as the logical explanation of this blindness, which is not necessarily the result of dishonesty or insincerity, but which, as to a certain extent is true of all men, derives from their prior acceptance of unscriptural and anti-scriptural doctrines. The warped and irresponsible handling of this passage derives from two prior misconceptions by religious scholars, as follows:

  1. There is the erroneous belief that the way for an alien sinner to be saved is to "repent and pray," whereas the true way is for those who believe to "repent and be baptized." Thus the false theological notion that the plan of salvation for alien sinners is repentance and prayer leads to the erroneous conclusion here that Peter's command of Simon to repent and pray means that Simon was still an alien sinner.

  2. There is the bias of Calvinism to the effect that no true Christian can apostatize from the faith. Since it is so clearly a fact that this Christian, Simon, actually did apostatize, the Calvinists are extended to prove that Simon had never been a Christian. Many who are not Calvinists, of course, have fallen into the error of accepting Calvinistic explanations of this episode.

However, understandable as the reasons for perverting the word of God may be, it is nevertheless a definite perversion to read "thou wilt become" as "thou hast always been." There can be no justification for such a thing.

Pray ye for me to the Lord, etc ....
Some read this as Simon's failure to pray himself; but this is not necessary. One who sincerely prays for forgiveness naturally desires that others also should join in his supplications. Nothing in the text denies that this is what is indicated here.

We conclude the examination of this episode with the words of McGarvey:

Peter does not say to him as an alarmed man of the world, "Repent and be baptized"; but as to a sinning disciple, "Repent and pray God, if perhaps the thought of thine heart shall be forgiven thee." F38


 
Verse 25
They therefore, when they had testified and spoken the word of the Lord, returned to Jerusalem, and preached the gospel to many villages of the Samaritans.

Testified ...
refers to the witness of the apostles to the effect that Jesus Christ was risen from the dead, and including all of the things which Christ commanded that men should do, together with the warnings and promises of the gospel. Although there is a sense in which Christians may be said to "testify," their testimony must ever be a reiteration of the original apostolic testimony. No Christian's "experience" with God has any value as testimony, except in a very limited frame of reference.


 
Verses 26, 27
But an angel of the Lord spake unto Philip, saying, Arise, and go toward the south unto the way that goeth down from Jerusalem unto Gaza: the same is desert. And he arose and went: and behold a man of Ethiopia, a eunuch of great authority under Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, who was over all her treasure, who had come to Jerusalem to worship.

THE CONVERSION OF THE ETHIOPIAN

An angel of the Lord ...
One of the seven services performed by angels of heaven for the benefit of them that shall inherit eternal life is that of aiding providentially in bringing sinners under the influence of the gospel. For discussion of all these, see my Commentery on Hebrews, Heb. 1:14.

Go toward the south, etc. ...
The angel's message to Philip set the evangelist on the road several hours in anticipation of the eunuch's departure from Jerusalem, being so timed that contact with him would be made. Of course, the eunuch knew nothing of this providence; and, similarly, it may be that many a man's contact with the gospel today is the result of providences unknown to himself.

Which is desert ...
As used here, this has no reference to a waterless desert, but to a region without population. For more on this, see my Commentary on Matthew, Matt. 14:13. The area traversed by the road Philip and the eunuch traveled "has never been anything but a fertile plain called the plain of Philistia," F39 having many pools and a number of streams of water.

A eunuch of great authority ...
Eunuchs were forbidden the enjoyment of full religious privileges by the Jews; and one evident reason for Luke's inclusion of this episode is to show that the opposite was true in Christianity. (See Deuteronomy 23:1.)

Candace ...
This was the dynastic name of the queens of Ethiopia, just as Pharaoh was the dynastic name, or title, of the kings of Egypt. The kingdom was that of Meroe. The fact of the eunuch's traveling some fifteen hundred miles to worship indicates that he was a devout worshiper of God. As he came along in his chariot, reading from a roll of the prophecy of Isaiah, someone has said that he was like a man at sunrise, tilting his manuscript in such a manner as to catch the first rays of the rising sun of Christianity.


 
Verse 28
And he was returning and sitting in his chariot, and was reading the prophet Isaiah.

The focus of the word of God upon this incident is an amazing commentary on what is important and what is not. For example, we cannot say what kind of chariot this was, or what kind of animals drew it, nor what part of the road marked the encounter described here; we cannot tell the color of this Ethiopian's skin, nor his age, nor the circumstance of his having been made a eunuch, and not even the name of the queen whom he served! None of these things was important; but we do know the exact lines from Isaiah's prophecy which challenged his thoughtful examination. These are given in Acts 8:32.


 
Verses 29, 30, 31
And the Spirit said unto Philip, Go near, and join thyself to this chariot. And Philip ran to him, and heard him reading Isaiah the prophet, and said, Understandest thou what thou readest? And he said, How can I, except some one shall guide me? And he besought Philip to come up and sit with him.

And the Spirit said ...
How did the Spirit speak to Philip? It might have been through the angel who had previously appeared to him, or it could have been that one of God's prophets gave him the message. However it was, there is no evidence that this was merely an impression, a feeling, or any other kind of merely subjective thing. Intelligible words were spoken, a definite message communicated to Philip, and received and acted upon by him without delay. Before Acts was completed, Luke would relate circumstances which shed a great deal of light upon this question. See under Acts 20:23; 21:10. As it was there, so it must have been here.

Heard him reading ...
The eunuch was reading aloud from the roll of the prophecy.

Every man has a certain responsibility for his own salvation; but the man who fully exercises that responsibility does not in so doing receive that salvation by his own efforts alone. The providence of God, the ministry of others, and above and beyond all, the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ are all in it. Nevertheless, if a man should refuse or neglect to meet his own responsibilities in the matter, it is not likely that he shall be saved. Notice the part played by this Ethiopian officer in the circumstances leading to his salvation:

He was a devout and faithful worshiper of God, living up to all the light he had.
He made a journey of fifteen hundred miles to worship in the city where God had commanded men to worship.
He either took with him on the journey, or procured at Jerusalem, a copy of the prophecy of Isaiah.
He was reading aloud from the word of God at the time of his encounter with Philip.
He confessed to a stranger that he could not understand what he was reading and that he needed guidance in his study.
He invited a preacher of the gospel to sit with him in his chariot.
He asked a question concerning a passage of God's word that he could not understand. (See under Acts 8:39 for more on this.)

There are countless men today who have never done any of the things mentioned above; and, when it is considered that this Ethiopian did everything mentioned here, there can be no wonder that God acted providentially to bring him to a knowledge of his full duty and to open for him the door of eternal life. The bare facts of this episode shout the message to every lost soul on earth that one should be mightily exercised in pursuing a saving knowledge of the truth.


 
Verses 32, 33
Now the passage of the scripture which he was reading was this, He was led as a sheep to the slaughter; And as a lamb before his shearer is dumb, So he openeth not his mouth: In his humiliation his judgment was taken away: His generation who shall declare? For his life is taken from the earth.

As a sheep ... as a lamb ...
This passage, of course, is Isaiah 53:7f, one of the great Suffering Servant passages of Isaiah. Christ was the "lamb slain from the foundation of the world," "the lamb of God that taketh away the sin of the world." Jesus meekly submitted to the outrages perpetrated against himself, offering no more resistance than a lamb, either sheared or slaughtered. The appropriateness of this simile is seen in the contrast between goats and sheep. A goat, for example, slaughtered in the traditional manner, responds with blood-chilling cries that may be heard a mile away; but a sheep submits to the butcher's knife without a whimper.

In his humiliation ... judgment taken away ...
The verdict of Jesus' Roman judges was one of innocence; but the Saviour's meekness and humiliation had no effect against the mob demanding his crucifixion; therefore, Pilate took away his judgment of innocence and ordered his crucifixion.

His generation who shall declare ...?
Bruce translated this line as "Who can describe his generation?" F40 Who indeed could describe that wicked generation which slew the Son of God? What a crescendo of shame was reached by that evil company who resisted every word of the Saviour, who mocked him, hated him, denied the signs he performed before their very eyes, suborned witness to swear lies at his trials, rejected the verdict of innocence announced by the governor, and through political blackmail, mob violence, and personal intimidation of the governor demanded and received his crucifixion? Who could describe the moral idiocy of a generation that taunted the helpless victim even while on the cross, that gloated in his death, and that, when he was risen from the dead, bribed the witnesses of it with gold to deny that it had indeed occurred? Who indeed CAN declare that generation?

Jesus himself proclaimed his identification with the Suffering Servant of Isaiah, "A Servant ... who would give his life a ransom for many" (Mark 10:45). John the Baptist extolled him as "the lamb of God," conspicuously identified with the Servant in Isaiah. As Bruce said:

There is no evidence that between the time of Isaiah and the time of Christ anyone had identified the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53 with the Davidic Messiah of Isaiah 11, or with the "one like unto the Son of man (Daniel 7:15); but Jesus identified them and fulfills them. F41

"How is it written of the Son of man, that he should suffer many things and be set at naught?" (Mark 9:12). "How indeed, unless the Son of man be also the Servant of the Lord?" F42

Before leaving this, it should be noted that another understanding of "His generation who shall declare?" is represented in the words of Plumptre:

Who shall declare the number of those who share his life, and are, as it were sprung from him? - i.e., Who can count his faithful disciples? F43

Neither of these views is denied by the text; and it may well be that both are in it.


 
Verses 34, 35
And the eunuch answered Philip; and said, I pray thee, of whom speaketh the prophet this? of himself, or of some other? And Philip opened his mouth, and beginning from this scripture, preached unto him Jesus.

The apostolic preachers all laid heavy emphasis upon the Old Testament prophecies concerning Jesus Christ; and no better place for a beginning could be imagined than the famous 53rd chapter of Isaiah, so rich with prefigurations of the life of our Lord. Wherever the sermons of those apostolic preachers began, the message was always the same, namely, that men should believe on the Lord Jesus with all their heart, repent of their transgressions, and be baptized into Christ. That this is exactly what Philip preached here, as he did also to the Samaritans, will be evident in the next verses.


 
Verses 36, 37
And as they went on their way, they came to a certain water; and the eunuch saith, Behold, here is water; what doth hinder me to be baptized? And Philip said, If thou believest with all thy heart, thou mayest. And he answered and said, I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.

The request for baptism on the part of the eunuch was the immediate and direct result of Philip's preaching unto him Jesus; and in this is manifest the fact that preaching Jesus means preaching baptism for the remission of sins. There are some in our generation who fancy that they are preaching Jesus, but whose hearers never request baptism; and in that is manifest the fact that such preachers are not preaching Jesus at all. See "What It Means To Preach Christ" under Acts 8:12.

The last two sentences in this passage are Acts 8:37 in the KJV; but, despite the fact of this verse having been left out of the English Revised Version upon what appears to be sufficient textual grounds, it has been included here because it is true, being valuable as commentary, whether or not it belongs in the sacred text. It was the custom from the very earliest Christian times for converts to confess their faith upon the occasion of their baptism, a fact referred to by Paul in Ephesians 5:26 (Goodspeed translation). This writer has never read of any commentator who denied the truth expressed in Acts 8:37.


 
Verses 38, 39
And he commanded the chariot to stand still: and they both went down into the water, both Philip and the eunuch; and he baptized him. And when they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord caught away Philip; and the eunuch saw him no more, for he went on his way rejoicing.

Under Acts 8:31, it was noted that the eunuch did no less than seven things in the discharge of his duty to be concerned about his own salvation; and here it is clear that he did three additional things. He requested baptism, commanded the chariot to stand still, and submitted to baptism. There are many today who need to command their own chariot to stand still while they submit to the ordinance of God.

Down into the water ... up out of the water ...
No man could frame a sentence in any language that would show any more conclusively than does this one that the baptism here administered was by immersion. The type of comment that can deny immersion here is fraudulent.

Went on his way rejoicing ...
Throughout the book of Acts, Luke brings into view the "joy" and the "rejoicing" of those who obeyed the gospel. Significantly, the rejoicing came after the baptism here, as it does elsewhere. One grand purpose of this book is to reveal how men become Christians; and, taken collectively, the various conversions in Acts reveal one plan of salvation and one alone. Invariably, those who were saved:

They heard the word of God.
They believed what was preached.
They believed on the Lord Jesus Christ.
They repented of their sins.
They confessed the Saviour.
They were immersed, that is, baptized into Christ.
They received forgiveness of their sins.
They received the gift ordinary of the Holy Spirit.
They rejoiced in salvation.

There is no other way for any man to be saved.


 
Verse 40
But Philip was found at Azotus: and passing through he preached the gospel to all the cities until he came to Caesarea.

Azotus ...
was the ancient Philistine city of Ashdod; and Philip preached there and in all the cities of the Mediterranean coast until he came to Caesarea Palestina where he established a residence. We shall meet with Philip again in Acts 21:8.


Footnotes for Acts 8
1: J. S. Howson, Life and Epistles of St. Paul (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans, Publishers, 1966), p. 62.
2: Ibid., p. 63.
3: Albert Barnes, Notes on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1953), Vol. Acts, p. 137.
4: Orin Root, Acts (Cincinnati, Ohio: Standard Publishing Company, 1966), p. 55.
5: H. Leo Boles, Commentary on the Acts (Nashville: Gospel Advocate Company, 1953), p. 122.
6: E. H. Plumptre, Elliott's Commentary on the Bible (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House, 1959), p. 47.
7: H. Leo Boles, op. cit., p. 122.
8: Ibid., p. 123.
9: Joseph Benson, One Volume New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1972), in loco.
10: J. W. McGarvey, New Commentary on Acts (Cincinnati, Ohio: Standard Publishing Company, 1892), p. 138.
11: J. S. Howson, op. cit., p. 65.
12: Sir Walter Scott, The Talisman (New York: American Book Company, 1899), p. 299.
13: New Bible Dictionary (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans, Publishers, 1962), p. 1130.
14: W. R. Walker, Studies in Acts (Joplin, Missouri: College Press), p. 58.
15: Josephus, Flavius, Antiquities and Wars of the Jews (translated by William Whiston (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston), p. 1052.
16: George Eldon Ladd, Jesus and the Kingdom (Waco, Texas: Word Books, Publisher, 1964), p. 259.
17: Geerhardus Vos, The Teaching of Jesus Concerning the Kingdom of God and the Church (New York: American Tract Society, 1903), p. 150.
18: S. McLean Gilmour, The Interpreter's Bible (New York: Abingdon Press, 1951), Vol. viii, p. 33.
19: Gordon Eldon Ladd, op. cit., p. 260.
20: Richard C. Trench, Notes on the Parables of Our Lord (Old Tappan, New Jersey: Fleming H. Revell, 1953), p. 93.
21: George Eldon Ladd, op. cit., p. 259.
22: J. R. Dummelow, Commentary on the Holy Bible (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1937), p. 829.
23: John William Russell, Compact Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1964), p. 301.
24: E. H. Plumptre, op. cit., p. 49.
25: Don DeWelt, Acts Made Actual (Joplin, Missouri: College Press, 1958), p. 108.
26: Ibid., p. 109.
27: E. H. Plumptre, op. cit., p. 50.
28: Joseph Benson, One Volume Commentary (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1972), in loco.
29: F. F. Bruce, The Book of Acts (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, Publishers, 1950) p. 181.
30: Ibid, p. 182.
31: J. W. McGarvey, op. cit., p. 142.
32: Everett F. Harrison, Wycliffe Bible Commentary (Chicago: Moody Press, 1971), p. 412.
33: Joseph Benson, op. cit., in loco.
34: Albert Barnes, op. cit., p. 142.
35: F. F. Bruce, op. cit., p. 184.
36: Thomas Scott, The Henry-Scott Commentary (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1960), p. 461.
37: E. H. Plumptre, op. cit., p. 49.
38: J. W. McGarvey, op. cit., p. 148.
39: Don DeWelt, op. cit., p. 112.
40: F. F. Bruce, op. cit., p. 188.
41: Ibid.
42: Ibid.
43: E. H. Plumptre, op. cit., p. 53.
44: A. C. Hervey, op. cit., p. 162.
45: John Peter Lange, op. cit., p. 101.
46: J. R. Dummelow, op. cit., p. 825.
47: John William Russell, op. cit. p. 295.
48: Alexander Campbell, op. cit., p. 18.
49: As quoted by Campbell, ibid.
50: E. H. Plumptre, The Acts of Apostles (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House, 1959), p. 15.

Copyright Statement
James Burton Coffman Commentaries reproduced by permission of Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. All other rights reserved.

Bibliography Information
Coffman, James Burton. "Commentary on Acts 8". "Coffman Commentaries on the Old and New Testament". <http://classic.studylight.org/com/bcc/view.cgi?book=ac&chapter=008>. Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. 1983-1999.  

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