Acts 8 is one of those chapters that “widens the hourglass” of the scope of the events. Remember the hourglass “shape” to Luke-Acts—starting rather wide in scope, then narrowing to Jerusalem and the death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus, and then widening out again as Jesus continues to do His work through the early Church. Here we have accounts of how God used the Church to spread His Gospel salvation, even when that spread was the complete opposite of strategic or planned.
8:1a is a reference back to 7:58, as Saul was there at Stephen’s execution, and here we have the explicit statement that Saul approved. We’ll dive much more deeply into Saul/Paul’s story—and we’ll hear more in later chapters from his own mouth about where he started, but in Acts it begins here.
8:1b-3 describes how the murder of Stephen wasn’t simply a one-time event. It emboldened those who wanted to persecute the Christians, Saul chief among them, and began a “great persecution” which resulted in the scattering of the Church. The Apostles were able to remain, though we’re not told how or why they were exempt from this diaspora (which means “scattering”).
8:4 This is one of the most understated sentences in all of Acts, maybe in the whole New Testament. In the midst of persecution which was leading people to be killed, they still “went about preaching the word”.
8:5-8 Philip, one of the seven chosen in Acts 6, went to Samaria. Remember the tensions between Jews and Samaritans? It doesn’t seem to be the same now with Christianity in the picture. There was “much joy” in the city of Samaria! (The region was also called that too).
8:9-24 narrows for a moment the action within Samaria, centred upon this man Simon. This magician, who had once proclaimed himself to be someone with something approaching divine status, hears the Gospel, believes it, and is baptized along with so many others. This is a true conversion; it also seems that he’s fascinated by those signs and wonders that are accompanying Philip during this time. It makes sense, given his background.
But we see that he doesn’t completely lose his former way of thinking, even after conversion. He wants to buy the ability to give the Holy Spirit! He’s properly rebuked by Peter, and then repents.
This is an illustration of the Christian life: genuine conversion through the preaching of the Word, and continuing sin, repentance, and forgiveness.
8:14-17 can be a difficult passage, since it suggests that the baptism into the name of Jesus somehow wasn’t “complete”, that the Apostles needed to come and complete it somehow, and that there seems to be even a contradiction to 2:38 which connected baptism and the giving of the Holy Spirit.
Indeed, some have taken this one descriptive passage in Acts and “normalized” it, suggesting that this is the regular ongoing case for all Christians for all time, that baptism needs to be confirmed by a “higher” authority than just the local person who preached and baptized. But we need to remember this is a one-time event in Samaria, similar to the Day of Pentecost in Jerusalem. After this, there is no other mention of the temporal separation of Christian Baptism and the giving of the Spirit. Therefore our “normalized” practice in our churches is simply to baptize in the name of the Triune God and trust His Word that all of God’s grace is given as well as the Spirit in this beautiful means of grace.
8:25 Peter and John, having been sent from Jerusalem by the whole group of Apostles there (8:14), return. It’s notable that they stop as they journey, preaching the Gospel along the way in the villages of the region of Samaria. The Gospel is for everyone!
8:26-40 We get an instance of that last statement, as Philip is called by God to go and minister in this specific place where he meets this Ethiopian eunuch. This is highly significant, as this man—who has been to Jerusalem to worship, and so is likely a Jewish proselyte (convert)—is the first Gentile—the first person of non-Jewish heritage—in the Bible who is converted to Christianity and baptized! It’s likely, though we’re not told specifically here, that the Gospel travelled to Ethiopia and further throughout Africa through this unnamed court official. God’s Word continues to go out in surprising ways!
8:28-35 The primary way that the Gospel was proclaimed among people connected to Judaism (whether by birth or by being proselytized) was to start in what we know as the Old Testament, and to lead them to Jesus as the One who was promised. That’s exactly what Philip does here, starting where this man was at—reading Isaiah and not sure about what it all meant—and taking him from there to Jesus (8:35). This indeed is the Good News (which is what the word “Gospel” means), that Jesus is in fact the Promised One of God!
8:36-38 It’s implied from this man’s response that Philip didn’t simply tell the story about Jesus and then end there, but spoke also about the response of a person of faith, about Baptism. In that it’s an echo of the end of Acts 2, where the people asked “what then shall we do?” and Peter replied, repent and be baptized.
The “road” to baptism became much longer and more formal even in the first few centuries of the Church after this, but here it is a simple thing: the man hears the Gospel, believes it, and desires baptism. Notice that he’s not presumptuous, but asks if it can happen, and Philip answers positively, and ministers to him by baptizing him. What a wonderful picture of Gospel ministry!
8:39-40 Philip is miraculously carried away, but the man doesn’t seem fazed by that; he simply carries on his journey with joy. Perhaps there was opportunity for some explanation by Philip before it happened, but the main point is that God was doing His work: the man was baptized, rejoiced in God’s grace, and continued on his way, and God has more Gospel work for Philip to do in other places.
Remember that the whole reason that Philip was away from Jerusalem to begin with was that great persecution. And so, God again uses evil for good, that through the sinful things that were happening, the Gospel continued to spread! We see similar things happening throughout the ages and even today: the Gospel spreads in times of persecution and difficulty. What a comfort that God continues to bring good out of evil.