Saturday, August 18, 2018

Acts 8 Explanatory Notes

Here are explanatory notes on Acts 8. You can also follow my daily podcast commentary on Patreon, as well as YouTube videos on the Greek (see the bottom for links).

Acts 1
Acts 2
Acts 3
Acts 4
Acts 5
Acts 6
Acts 7

III. Samaria and Judea (Acts 8:4-12:25)
A. Persecution and Peace (Acts 8:4-9:31)
1. The Ministry of Philip (8:4-40)
a. Ministry in Samaria (8:4-25)
  • 8:4-8. Here we have a general statement about Philip's ministry in Samaria, followed by a particular story.
  • 8:4. As we saw in 8:1, it was not the apostles but likely primarily the Hellenistic believers who were scattered after the death of Stephen, and they now move out into the surrounding regions of Jerusalem with the gospel.
  • This is the second part of Acts in keeping with Acts 1:8. Acts 8-12 tells us about the witness of the resurrection in Judea and Samaria.
  • Samaria was viewed with condescension and disregard by Judeans and those in Galilee who followed the Judean sense of Israel's history. The Samaritans had their own version of the Pentateuch. They rejected the Jerusalem temple as the true temple of Israel. They were more "pluralistic" in the sense of correlating the God of Israel with the gods of other nations. They were arguably less distinctly Israelite in race.
  • 8:5. Philip was one of the seven commissioned along with Stephen to provide ministry to the Greek-speaking church. He is never called a deacon but rather Philip "the evangelist" (21:8).
  • He is proclaiming "the Christ," that is, the Messiah, the anointed one.
  • There is a manuscript choice as to whether it is "a" city of Samaria or "the" city of Samaria, with "the" having perhaps a slight edge. It is not entirely clear which city is in view. Sebaste was the most prominent city in Samaria but also thoroughly secular. So it is not entirely clear where this event took place.
  • 8:6-8. Here we see a pattern that is repeated several times in this section. The miracles performed by the evangelists and apostles result in people believing on the good news.
  • 8:7. Here for the first time in Acts we see a continuation of Jesus' exorcist ministry in addition to his healing ministry.
  • 8:8. The good news brings joy.
  • 8:9-24. This is the story of Simon the sorcerer. The later church would come to regard him as the father of all heresy. However, in Acts itself we do not learn the eventual fate of this man.
  • 8:9-11. A number of magical papyri have survived from this period, and they make it clear that magic was the poor person's religion of the ancient world. If you had a problem, someone who knew magic was available to help, much as the role a witch doctor plays in some cultures today.
  • 8:9-10. Simon thought he was important, and no doubt a lot of people in Samaria thought he was too. 
  • "The power of God who is called Great." Simon apparently was thought to manifest the power of the highest God. Perhaps this is an example of Samaritan syncretism, where God was equated with other kings of the gods like Zeus.
  • 8:12. Meanwhile, Philip was preaching the good news of the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ. The people believed in what Philip was proclaiming, that the rule of God was coming with Jesus as king.
  • Both men and women were baptized in the name of Jesus, another example of Luke's attention to women as well as men.
  •  8:13. Simon believed as well and was baptized, but we are surely about to find out that these elements to the equation are not enough. He believes with his head but not his heart. He has gone through the ritual motions, but his full allegiance is not with Christ. Perhaps he sees Jesus as just another power to add to the other powers he channels, not as the exclusive name by which all are saved.
  • The miracles once again serve as an evangelistic tool.
  • 8:14. One concern of Acts seems to be to legitimate the charismatic activities of people like Philip and Paul by subordinating them to the ministry of Peter as the central authority. So the central authorities, Peter and John go to Samaria, thus endorsing Philip's charismatic activity.
  • 8:15-17. It is when Peter and John lay hands on the Samaritans that they receive the Holy Spirit. For Acts, as Paul, it is receiving the Holy Spirit that indicates a person is truly included into the people of God. 
  • In that sense, it is a problem that none of them had yet received the Holy Spirit, even though they had faith and had been baptized. But they were not yet truly in. Baptism and faith are thus associated with becoming part of the new covenant people of God, but they are not the actual moment of entrance.
  • 8:18-19. Simon apparently does not receive the Holy Spirit. He is still on the outside and, according to Christian tradition, would remain on the outside. He sees the power of the Holy Spirit as simply another tool to put in his toolbox. 
  • He offers money to get the power. Like Ananias and Sapphira, he is trying to use money to advance in spiritual things but in the process reveals that his heart is not right with God (cf. Luke 16:13). 
  • 8:20-23. Peter sternly rebukes him. Without realizing it, Simon has revealed a complete lack of understanding of what is happening. He has revealed a heart of bitterness and bondage to sin. His heart is not right with God. Peter implies he faces judgment if he does not repent for thinking it was in his power to control the power of God. 
  • 8:24. Simon himself does not pray but asks instead for Peter to pray to God to avert his destruction. He seems to realize that he has no part in the God of Peter and Philip.
  • 8:25. This summary statement indicates that at least part of the second phase of the mission in Acts has been accomplished. Peter and John have been witnesses to Christ in Samaria. 
b. Ministry in Judea (8:26-40)
  • 8:26-40. The rest of the chapter relates Philip's ministry along the coast of Judea, thus fulling the rest of Acts 1:8, that the good news would be proclaimed in Judea and Samaria. 
  • 8:26-27. An angel of the Lord instructs Philip to head toward Gaza, formerly a Philistine city. Here he meets the Ethiopian eunuch. 
  • Given Luke's penchant in these chapters to point out the crossing of social boundaries, we probably should conclude that this man is truly a eunuch, thus someone who would be unclean according to Leviticus and not allowed in the holy camp of Israel in the wilderness (e.g., Lev. 21:20). Such a state would give a reason for Luke to include this story. 
  • As a eunuch, he would not be allowed in the temple proper itself, yet Luke probably wants us to think of Isaiah 56:3-5. The implication is that the welcoming of a eunuch into the people of God is a signal of the end of times. We should probably assume he was a Jew, for the gospel has not yet crossed that barrier at this point in the story.
  • "Eunuch" could of course merely be a title for a prominent position in service to Candace, the queen. He is clearly a person of great stature, even though he is a servant of the queen. Ethiopian Christianity today traces its origins to this individual.
  • 8:28-29. He is reading from Isaiah 53.
  • 8:30-31. Philip asks if he understands the passage. The angel has presumably brought Philip to this man to help him understand, an indication that God brings light to those who are seeking it.
  • The eunuch is puzzled about the identity of the one to whom the chapter refers. This is understandable since the chapters leading up to 53 identify the servant with Israel. Yet in Isaiah 53, the servant suffers on behalf of Israel. 
  • Originally, the text may have had in mind past Israel suffering for the Israel that is about to return from captivity. However, in a fuller sense, read with spiritual eyes, the passage can be read in light of Jesus' sufferings too.
  • 8:32-33. The verses in question are Isaiah 53:7-8. Justice was denied Jesus and his life was taken away.
  • 8:34-36. Philip opens the eunuch's eyes to a fuller sense to the passage and relates it spiritually to the sufferings of Jesus. Philip's message presumably culminates in something like Acts 2:38, for he immediately wants to be baptized. 
  • 8:37. This verse is not in the oldest manuscripts of Acts. Indeed, it is not even in the majority of manuscripts of Acts. It likely entered into the manuscript tradition as a marginal note, expressing the assumption that the eunuch would have made a profession of faith before baptism. The numbering of the verses took place in 1550 and, when it was discovered that the verse was not likely original, it would have been too confusing to renumber them. Accordingly, the verse is missing from almost all modern versions of the New Testament.
  • 8:38-39. So the eunuch is baptized, and we should assume that he receives the Holy Spirit. 
  • The Spirit of the Lord strangely whisks Philip away after baptizing the eunuch, whose name we never learn in the text.
  • 8:40. Philip continues to preach along the coastline of Judea, going as far north as Caesarea.
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