THE preceding part of the chapter contains an account of the labours of Philip in Samaria, where he triumphed over the arts of magic, and prevailed upon the infatuated followers of a specious impostor to become the disciples of Jesus Christ. The passage now read presents him in a different scene, which, although much more contracted than the former, is not less worthy of attention, from the extraordinary means by which he was conducted to it, the distinguished rank of the person whose conversion was the result, and the remarkable display of the power of divine grace in that event.
It is evident, from the history of the Acts, that the Apostles were not left to the conduct of their own zeal and prudence in the choice of places for preaching the gospel. We are certain, that they were, at all times, under the special guidance of Providence and several instances are recorded of immediate interpositions of heaven for their direction. The spirit hindered them from going to some places, which they were purposing to visit, and pointed out others, which were not comprehended in their plan. In the case before us, "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." The wisdom only of the Author of the gospel was competent to determine what spots were the most favourable for first sowing the seeds of divine truth; and to him the book of the decrees of heaven was unfolded, in which are written the names of those who are predestinated to eternal life, and the order in which each is to be called to the enjoyment of it.
The person, for whose sake the Evangelist was sent on the mission, is thus described. "Behold, a man of Ethiopia, an eunuch of great authority under Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, who had the charge of all her treasure, and had come to Jerusalem for to worship, was returning, and, sitting in his chariot, read Esaias the Prophet." In ancient times, there were two countries known by the name of Ethiopia; the one lying south-east from Jerusalem, and the other situated in Africa, beyond Egypt and Nubia. That it was the latter of which this devout eunuch was a native, is manifest, both from constant tradition, and from the name of his mistress; for the queens of the African Ethiopia, now called Abyssinia, were distinguished by the name of Candace, as the kings of Egypt, during a long succession, were denominated Pharaoh. This man was a proselyte to the Jewish religion. It is evident that he was not considered as one of the Gentiles, because, notwithstanding his conversion, they are not said to have been called, till Peter afterwards preached the gospel to Cornelius.
It may excite your surprise, that a person, born and residing in a country so distant from Judea as Ethiopia was, should have enjoyed opportunities of gaining such an acquaintance with the law of Moses, and the proofs of its divine authority, as had prevailed upon him to submit to it. But, at that time, the Jews were dispersed among all nations; and many thousands of them resided in Egypt, to which they had been attracted by the privileges conferred upon them by Alexander the Great, and his successors, to whose government it was subject. From Egypt some of them might have passed into Ethiopia, and communicated their religion to the inhabitants. According to the account of the Abyssinians themselves, the queen of Sheba, who came to see the glory of Solomon, reigned in their country. Having embraced the religion of that illustrious monarch, she introduced it into her own dominions; and it continued to be professed, till the nation was converted to Christianity. The prevalence of Jewish customs among that people at present, gives some countenance to this relation; and certainly proves, that from whatever cause, the religion of Moses was once generally adopted by them.
The Ethiopian eunuch was a person of distinguished zeal and devotion. Notwithstanding the multiplicity of business attached to his office, and the high rank which he held as a treasurer of the queen, circumstances which generally divert the minds of the great from religion, and make them regard its institutions with indifference or contempt, he had travelled many hundred miles through sandy deserts, to worship God in the temple of Jerusalem. At the passover, pentecost, and the feast of tabernacles, all the males in Israel were commanded to appear before the Lord, in the place which he had chosen. Obedience to this command was not practicable, except within the limits of a small country such as Judea. Yet, some of the Jews and proselytes, in distant regions, who were zealous for the law, and were permitted by their circumstances, occasionally visited the holy city at those stated times, to join with their brethren in the celebration of the festivals, and to offer sacrifices of atonement and thanksgiving. In the gospel of John, we read of Greeks who had come to worship at the feast; on the day of Pentecost, there were assembled devout men "out of every nation under heaven;" and it was with the same design that this man had come from the kingdom of Ethiopia.
The manner in which he was employed in his return is a farther proof of his piety. "Sitting in his chariot he read the Prophet Esaias." It is not commonly by this expedient that men of rank relieve the tediousness of their journies. They amuse themselves with the shifting scene before their eyes, or with meditating schemes of ambition and pleasure, or with perusing some flimsy production, the offspring of a superficial understanding and corrupt imagination, which mingles poison with the entertainment, and while it stimulates the passions, silently undermines the fortresses of virtue. The Bible is proscribed, as too grave and too precise, to be the companion of those who wish to enjoy life as it passes away. Yet it is the best enlivener of solitude, the most faithful guide in perplexity, the fortifier of every good principle, a never-failing auxiliary in temptation, the monitor of youth, the comforter of old age, the light of life, and the only surviving hope in death. The sentiments which it inspires ennoble the mind, give dignity to the character, and conduct to true happiness in this world and the next. The fulness of Scripture presents a pleasing variety; and the events which it records are better fitted to awaken the great and tender emotions of the soul, than the transactions of human society, or even the contemplation of the scenery of nature. To a mind capable of perceiving and relishing its excellence, the word of God will be a subject of meditation night and day. In the intervals of business, it will recur to this favourite study with eagerness; and imbibing its instructions and consolations, will forget the cares and troubles of the world.
While the eunuch was reading Esaias the Prophet, "the Spirit said unto Philip, Go near, and join thyself to this chariot. And Philip ran thither to him, and heard him read the prophet Esaias, and said, Understandest thou what thou readest?" In our age, when the pride of rank exacts from inferiors distant respect, and repels every attempt to approach nearer as an insult, such a question would be considered as rude and impertinent, and would be answered with a frown, or contemptuously disregarded. But, in ancient times, there was a more familiar intercourse among the different classes of men; and the great were addressed in a style of freedom very remote from modern manners. The passions of mankind are at all times the same; but the artificial forms of society are perpetually changing. It was owing to the simplicity of manners, which still prevails among eastern nations, that this blunt question, proposed to a courtier riding in his chariot, by a stranger walking on foot, and probably appearing by his dress to be a common man, was heard without surprise, and was answered with mildness. "How can I," said the eunuch, "except some man should guide me?"
There is something very amiable in this answer. It indicates a mind humble and docile. By a proud man the question would have been resented as an impeachment of his understanding; for the great must be treated by others as their superiors in wisdom, as well as in rank and authority. The Ethiopian eunuch frankly acknowledged his ignorance; and instead of endeavoring to palliate it by the pretext that he had not considered the passage, confessed his inability to discover its meaning without assistance. A mind thus conscious of its infirmity was not disposed, like the self-conceited Pharisees and Scribes, to cavil at the doctrines of the gospel, but would receive instruction, as the thirsty earth drinks in the rain. The same unassuming temper must be formed in us all, before we will receive the law from the mouth of Jesus as obedient disciples. "Verily I say unto you, Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven."
It is not uncommon to meet with persons, who aim at gratifying their pride by an appearance of humility, and make a show of ignorance, that the rapidity with which they seem to learn, may excite admiration. That the ignorance of the Ethiopian eunuch was not affected, is evident from his question in the thirty-fourth verse. "I pray thee, of whom speaketh the Prophet this? of himself, or of some other man?" With a view to evade the argument from this prophecy for the sufferings of the Messiah, the Jews have laboured to wrest its meaning; and have applied it sometimes to one person, and sometimes to another. I am ignorant, whether any comments of this nature were then current among them, and will not therefore affirm, that the eunuch had learned from them to speak in this doubtful manner of the prophecy. There is no reason to suspect, that he was influenced by prejudice against Christ Perhaps, he was unacquainted with his history and his name. In the companies which a man of his station may be supposed to have frequented in Jerusalem, the subject would not be often introduced, especially as Christianity was not now a new thing. But from whatever cause his ignorance proceeded, it must excite the surprise of every reader. It seems strange and unaccountable, that a passage, which describes with such minuteness the humiliation and sorrows of our Saviour, should have been so unintelligible to a devout professor of the Jewish religion, that he could form no conjecture respecting the person to whom the writer referred. We should reflect, that prophecies, which are perfectly plain after they are fulfilled, may have been attended with a considerable degree of obscurity prior to their accomplishment. While the event has not taken place, we see the prediction only by its own light, which exhibits the object, but so indistinctly, as not to show its exact shape and features. Besides, it should be considered, that the Jews, resting too much upon the figurative language of the Prophets, had conceived erroneous ideas of the Messiah as a temporal prince, and of his kingdom as a worldly state. They never dreamed of his sufferings, and the passages which foretold them they could not understand. When our Lord informed his disciples, that he should be delivered into the hands of men, "they understood not that saying, and it was hid from them that they perceived it not." And when, on another occasion, they discovered his meaning, they were offended. "Then Peter took him, and began to rebuke him, saying, Be it far from thee, Lord; this shall not be unto thee." It is no wonder that this proselyte could not perceive the sense of the prediction, since the disciples were equally ignorant of the general subject, till they were instructed by their Master, and by the event.
The passage which he was reading when Philip joined him, was the most proper which could have been found in the Old Testament, for explaining to him the character and the religion of Christ. It is impossible to believe that he lighted upon it by accident; he was secretly directed to it by that invisible hand, which was stretched out for his salvation. He might have opened the sacred volume at another place; and perhaps he was not conscious of any motive for choosing this prophecy in particular. But what men call accidents, are firm links in the chain of providence. There is no such thing as contingence in the world; chance is only a name for our ignorance of the process by which effects are produced. The series of events proceeds according to the plan settled in the counsels of heaven. The lot tossed in the lap, and drawn at a venture, assigns to us that portion which God has appointed; an arrow shot at random pierces the bosom which le has destined to death; the sparrow killed by the thoughtless cruelty of children, does not fall to the ground unnoticed by his eye; nor can a hair of our heads perish. without his permission. If his interference extends to matters so minute, can we think it had no concern in the selection of the portion of Scripture which the eunuch was reading? Certainly it was God who pointed out the text, as it was he who provided a preacher to explain it.
The place of the Scripture 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." There is some difference between the quotation and the original passage in Isaiah, owing, it is probable, to the former being taken from the Greek version of the Old Testament. The design of this Lecture does not require a particular explanation of it. It may suffice to observe, that it describes the sufferings of the Messiah, which he endured with meekness and resignation, like a sheep quietly following the person who leads it to death, or a lamb submitting in silence to be robbed of its fleece; and declares, that he was condemned through the injustice of men, and by violence was deprived of his life.
Such was the passage which the eunuch was reading; and the chapter in which it is contained, is one of the clearest and most affecting prophecies of the sorrows and death of our Redeemer. An occasion so favourable, and so evidently provided by heaven itself, the Evangelist could not permit to pass unimproved. "Then Philip," who at the desire of the eunuch had ascended his chariot "opened his mouth and began at the same Scripture, and preached unto him Jesus." The sermon was worthy of the text, fraught with heavenly wisdom, and recommended by simple, but pathetic eloquence. It was dictated by a mind enlightened, and a heart animated, by the Spirit of truth and love. It was the effusion of a soul descanting upon its favourite theme, and desirous to excite in another the same sentiments of affection to the Saviour, which were so strongly felt by itself. He showed, that the Prophet speaks neither of himself nor of another man but of the Messiah; that although his reign was described in splendid imagery, he was to suffer before he entered into his glory; and that the prophecies were fulfilled in Jesus of Nazareth, who having died upon the cross for the salvation of men, rose from the grave, and was now exalted "as a Prince and a Saviour, to give repentance to Israel, and forgiveness of sins." These we may conceive to have been the principal topics of discourse; and the preacher was not more interested in them than the hearer. With what earnestness did he listen to these new and surprising truths How did he wonder at his former ignorance, and rejoice in the light which now shone into his mind! We read of no doubts, of no objections, of no unseasonable a questions; but with silent acquiescence he hears and believes. The splrit of God was working in his heart. The courtier receives, with devout humility, the instructions of the Evangelist. He hears his voice as the voice of an angel, and blesses the day which had brought them together.
The effect produced by the discourse of Philip, is evident from the words of the eunuch. "And as they went on their way, they came to a certain water; and the eunuch said, See, here is water; what doth hinder me to be baptized?" The Evangelist had given a full detail of the religion of Christ, comprehending its institutions as well as its doctrines. Hence the new convert was acquainted with baptism. The preacher was wise, the hearer was prompt to learn, and the Holy Spirit, by illuminating his mind, and affecting his heart, enabled him to make rapid advances in knowledge. To every person in similar circumstances, baptism will recommend d iself on sever accounts. It is the rite by which we publicly recognise Jesus Christ as our Saviour, and dedicate ourselves to his service. It is the sign of our admission into the society of his disciples, in consequence of which we visibly become "fellow-citizens with the saints, and members of the household of God." It is a seal of the covenant of grace, a confirmation of its promises, by which those who receive it in faith are assured of the remission of their sins, and of their right to all the blessings which it signifies. The man, therefore, who has experienced the power of the truth, will set a high value upon this ordinance, from a regard to the authority which enjoins it, and to the important purposes which it is intended to serve. He will come forward with alacrity to profess that faith, which is the source of his peace and comfort, and to devote himself to the Saviour, who redeemed him with his blood. He will esteem it a high honour to be numbered with the children of God, and to be admitted to communion with the excellent ones of the earth. He will thankfully accept of this token of divine love, this support of his faith, of which he may afterwards experience the benefit, amidst the temptations of Satan, and the misgivings of his own mind. By such considerations was the Ethiopian eunuch influenced, when he said to Philip, "See, here is water: what doth hinder me to be baptized?" There is a becoming modesty in his manner of soliciting baptism. He does not demand it as his right; but while the question is expressive of earnest desire, he leaves the Evangelist to determine, whether he was worthy of so high a privilege.
"Philip said, If thou believest with all thine heart, thou mayest." Faith is the qualification for baptism prescribed by our Saviour. "He that believeth, and is baptized, shall be saved." To adult persons, this ordinance should not be administered till they are instructed in the principles of the Christian religion: and solemnly profess that they believe them. It is only faith unfeigned which gives any man a right to the ordinance in the sight of God. It is incumbent, therefore, upon those to whom the administration of it is committed, to act with much caution, lest they should be imposed upon by the arts of hypocrisy, to compare the profession o faith with the practice, the only criterion by which we can judge of its nature, and never to proceed without satisfactory evidence of the sincerity of the candidate. Of the prudence which ought to be exercised to preserve the fellowship of the Church in purity, and to guard the institutions of the gospel against profanation, we have an example in the conduct of Philip. "If thou believest with all thine heart, thou mayest." This was an appeal to his conscience, as there was not leisure to ascertain the genuineness of his faith in any other way.
The eunuch replied, "I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God." This confession of faith is short, but comprehensive. It may be resolved into two propositions; that Jesus is the Messiah, and that he is the Son of God. The first is implied in his calling our Saviour Christ, which is of the same import with Messiah; for although that word has been since used as a proper name, it was then always employed as a title of office. The ancient Church believed in the Messiah, expecting salvation through a person whom God would send in his own time, to redeem them from sin and death. This general faith was no longer sufficient. The promised Redeemer had come into the world; and a particular acknowledgment of him, to the exclusion of every other, was required from all to whom the gospel was published. The second proposition is delivered in express terms, "Jesus Christ is the Son of God." The divinity of the Messiah is a fundamental doctrine in the religion of Christians, and was an article of faith under the former dispensation. The blood of a man could not have washed away the sins of the world; the wisdom of a man could not have enlightened the Church; the power of a man could not have rescued us from the yoke of our enemies, and defended us against their assaults. This truth, so important in itself, and so intimately connected with the other truths of the gospel, is now denied and blasphemed by the Jews and there is evidence in the New Testament, that, so early as the time of our Saviour, they were beginning to abandon it. Manhood and divinity seemed to them to be incompatible. The faith of this new convert, with respect to the person of the Messiah, was sound. He believed the Son of Mary to be the Son of God, a partaker of the divine nature, as well as of the human; and assented to the creed, of the ancient Church, expressed in the following terms of joy and triumph. "Lo! this is our God, we have waited for him, and he will save us: this is the Lord, we have waited for him, we will be glad, and rejoice in his salvation."
The confession of faith made by the Ethiopian eunuch is remarkable for its simplicity. The articles are few, and are expressed without circumlocution, or variety of phrase. It would have been well for the Church, if her creed could have remained equally plain and unembarrassed. But the introduction of heresies has rendered it necessary to state the opposite truths with precision; and the dishonest arts of heretics have compelled their antagonists to counteract their attempts to corrupt and disturb the Church, by a full and guarded exposition of the faith. They who are loudest in exclaiming against creeds and confessions, as encumbered with unnecessary articles, and as a restraint upon freedom of inquiry, are the very persons who have caused the evil of which they complain. We must lengthen our line as that of the enemy is extended, that we may encounter him on equal terms, and wrest the victory out of his hands.
The confession now made being satisfactory, "they went down both into the water, both Philip and the eunuch; and he baptized him." Those who understand the original language need not to be told, that the phrase, translated "to go down into the water," does not import that they waded into it, for the purpose of baptizing the eunuch by immersion. It necessarily implies no more than that they went close to it. With whatever confidence some affirm, that immersion was the primitive mode of baptizing, there is no evidence in the New Testament in favour of that practice. Cases are mentioned, in which it seems incredible that the body was dipped in water, as when thousands were baptized in the midst of a city, and families were baptized in their own houses at midnight. This, however, is not the only instance in which some men readily believe that things might have been done long ago, which they would not hesitate to pronounce impracticable in the present times. The water in baptism is intended to be a sign of the Spirit. Now, among all the passages which describe, in metaphorical terms, the communication of the Spirit, there is not one which alludes to immersion. The language of the Scripture uniformly refers to that mode of applying water which is practised in our Churches. The Holy Ghost is said "to fall upon men," "to be poured out upon them," "to be shed upon them," "to be sprinkled upon them." These expressions God has selected as the most proper to signify the communication of his influences. Is it not then strange to imagine, that a religious rite, and the language of Scripture, although both intended to give information upon the same subject, bear no resemblance to each other, and convey quite different ideas? According to the practice of sprinkling, Scripture and the symbolical action, harmonize; according to the practice of immersion, Scripture suggests one idea, and the action, another perfectly opposite. Such discordance should not be hastily imputed to him; who is "wonderful in counsel, and excellent in working." With relation to the present case, tradition and modern travellers inform us, that the water, to which Philip and the eunuch went down, was a spring or well, at which baptism could be administered only by sprinkling.
It would have been natural for so young a disciple, to wish that his spiritual teacher should remain with him, to instruct him more fully in the doctrines of the gospel, and to fortify his mind against temptations to abandon the faith. A person just initiated, seemed too inexperienced to be trusted alone. But the wisdom of Jesus Christ had otherwise determined. He was able, without the ministry of Philip, to carry on and to perfect the good work which he had begun. The eunuch was now possessed of that faith, which, terminating upon the Saviour himself, maintains an intercourse with him, by which the life of the soul is preserved and cherished. "When they were come up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord caught away Philip, that the eunuch saw him no more." We are not able, perhaps, to assign the reason of this sudden separation; but the event served to establish the faith of the Ethiopian, to which, at the first view, it seems not to have been favourable. As a miracle, it added the. sanction of heaven to the doctrine of Philip, and exhibited ocular demonstration of the truth of all that he had said relative to the miracles of Christ, and the extraordinary powers conferred upon the Apostles and Evangelists.
Accordingly, the faith of the new convert was not shaken, nor was his mind in any degree disquieted, by the unexpected loss of the company of Philip. We are informed, that "he went on his way rejoicing." And surely no man ever had better reason to be happy. He had found the Messiah, the desire of all nations; he had been admitted to partake of the blessings of salvation; his soul was full of the consolations of God, and of the hope of immortality. No doubts now perplexed his mind. The Scriptures were unveiled; cnd the wonders of redemption, which were unfolded to his view, transported him with admiration and gratitude. His lips, we may believe, gave utterance to the feelings of his heart; and the desert, through which he passed, was enlivened with the songs of salvation. In this happy frame, "he went on his way," hastening back to his own country, to impart the joyful tidings to his friends, and to recommend his new faith by the practice of every virtue. Had be returned to Jerusalem, he would have enjoyed the society of the Apostles and disciples; but Ethiopia was the theatre on which Providence had appointed him to act; and no man can so effectually prove the sincerity of his conversion, and so successfully promote the cause of religion, as by acquitting himself, in his proper station, with the spirit and temper of a Christian. "Let every iman abide in the same calling wherein he is called. Brethren, let every man wherein he is called, therein abide with God."
I conclude with the following observations.
First, The Lord knows ''them that are his," and will in due time call them to the enjoyment of salvation. Whatever obstacles are opposed to their salvation, and however far they have wandered from God, his grace will overtake them, and accomplish its designs. This observation is illustrated by the history before us. It does not appear, that in Jerusalem the Ethiopian eunuch had heard any thing about Christ. He had now left that city, and had advanced so far in his journey, that he was entering into countries where the good news of salvation had not been published. He was passing the boundary which separated light from darkness, and returning without the knowledge of the Saviour, to his own land, where he could not have obtained it by ordinary means. At this critical moment, a minister of Jesus was sent, by the special direction of the Spirit, to speak words by which his soul should be saved. "The election shall obtain, although the rest be blinded." God will either cause the gospel to be preached in the places where his elect reside, or he will bring them into a new situation, in which they shall enjoy the dispensation of it.
The second observation suggested by this passage, relates to the irresistible efficacy with which the word of God, accompanied with the influences of the Spirit, operates upon the soul. "It is quick and powerful." It may be compared to the lightning, which, in the twinkling of an eye, flies from the one end of heaven to the other. Sudden conversions, indeed, should be carefully examined, lest they be only deceitful appearances; but they should not be considered as impossible. In every case, the transition from death to life is instantaneous, although in some there may be a long preparatory process. This moment, the man of Ethiopia is so ignorant, that he cannot determine whether Isaiah, in one of the clearest passages of his writings, speaks of himself or of some other person. The next, he perceives the prophecy to be a description of the Messiah fulfilled in the sorrows and death of Jesus of Nazareth, whom he therefore acknowledges, with faith and joy, as his Saviour. The works of God do not, like those of man, require time to bring them to perfection. His almighty word creates, or makes something start out of nothing. "He speaketh, and it is done; he commandeth, and it standeth fast."
In the last place, the saving knowledge of Jesus Christ will dispose those who are possessed of it to submit to his authority. No sooner was the Ethiopian eunuch enlightened, than he professed a desire to dedicate himself in baptism to the service of his Redeemer. You believe that Jesus is the Christ. You therefore believe, that he is not only a Priest to die for your sins, but a Prophet to teach you the way of God, and a Lord to govern you. In all these offices you will acknowledge him, if your faith is sincere. But if there is any of them with which you are dissatisfied; if you would disjoin one from another, seeking, for example, to be saved from wrath by his blood, while you have no desire to be delivered from the dominion of sin by his power, know that Christ is not divided, and that the impious attempt betrays ignorance or hatred of his character. He who comes to Jesus, must resolve "to take his yoke upon him;" and if any of you say in your hearts, or in your conduct, "We will not have this man to reign over us," beware of the vengeance with which he will vindicate his insulted authority. "Those mine enemies, which would not that I should reign over them, bring hither, and slay them before me."