Updated: Jul 15, 2020
by Samantha Shrauner
My mother, a teacher through and through, was a master of pithy and memorable lines when my sister and I were growing up. There was the acronym LFOTH (pronounced el-foth) that she would say as she dropped us off to stay with friends to remind us to “look for opportunities to help.” There was the single most dreaded line we could hear, the point of no return when we had gotten ourselves into terrible trouble: I’m sorry you made that choice. But perhaps the most common phrase, and the one that has taken the longest to appreciate, was the encouragement to do what she asked with a ‘happy heart.’ My mother didn’t want obedience with grumbling, she wanted us to do our work or follow her instructions with joy.
Obedience is never easy, and our culture makes obedience into something bad. It is a loss of autonomy and a sign of weakness when we submit to something outside of ourselves. Obedience means we have lost control. Far better that we follow our own instincts and do what we feel is right, than to risk being taken advantage of under the control of someone else. In this climate, the idea of obeying God and following him with a willing heart can feel like a dangerous loss of freedom. When the world around us makes obedience into something sinister, how can we learn what it means to obey God with a happy heart? Where can we go to see what it means to trust God and obey his commands?
In Acts 8, the church faces a dangerous and difficult future. Stephen’s death ignites persecution and believers are scattered out from Jerusalem. Saul has risen as an avowed enemy, dragging Christians from their homes and putting them in prison. Against this backdrop, we might expect the church to go quiet and fade from view. Instead, we see obedient believers carry the gospel of salvation to new places and new people. In Acts 8:26-40, a Christian named Philip follows where God leads and shares the gospel with a royal official from Ethiopia. In this passage, we can see what it looks like to be obedient to God, how God uses our obedience to provide opportunities for the gospel, and how our obedience can impact the people around us. Philip effectively shows us what it looks like to glorify God with willing obedience.
An Obedient Response
26 Now an angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Rise and go towards the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” This is a desert place. 27 And he rose and went. And there was an Ethiopian, a eunuch, a court official of Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, who was in charge of all her treasure. He had come to Jerusalem to worship 28 and was returning, seated in his chariot, and he was reading the prophet Isaiah. 29 And the Spirit said to Philip, “Go over and join this chariot.” 30 So Philip ran to him… Acts 8:26-30a
In Acts 1:8, Jesus promised the apostles that they would receive power from the Holy Spirit, and that they would be witnesses from Jerusalem all the way to the ends of the earth. When we come to the beginning of Acts 8, we see how God can use persecution to bring about his plan. Apart from the apostles, believers “were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria” (Acts 8:1b). This is precisely where God had said they would go. Instead of being silent for fear of punishment, the scattered believers shared their faith wherever they went.
One of these faithful Christians was Philip. An angel appears to Philip with an unexpected request: go to the desert. It is easy for us to imagine God at work in bustling cities full of people, but ministry in out-of-the-way places can feel like a letdown. Paul Mumo Kisau argues that “Luke wants to show that all parts of Judea were reached, no matter how remote. It was easy for the newly scattered disciples to enter Jewish homes and villages, but they were less likely to have gone to the desert road…”(1) When God calls Philip to go somewhere unexpected, his response is immediate: he rose and went (Acts 8:27a). Philip’s obedience demonstrates his trust in God and his belief that God’s commands were of primary importance in his life. Philip honoured God by doing what God told him to do.
Not only did God bring Philip to an unexpected place, but he brought him to an unexpected person: a eunuch from the court of the queen of Ethiopia. This man demonstrates his commitment to the God of Israel by travelling to Jerusalem to worship and by his willingness to invest time and a considerable amount of money into a scroll of the prophet Isaiah. Although it is possible that he was a Jewish man living in Ethiopia, it is more likely that her was a Gentile African known as a ‘God-fearer’ (someone who worshipped the God of Israel without fully converting to Judaism). Whatever his lineage, eunuchs were forbidden from fully participating in Jewish temple worship.(2) When God directs Philip to meet this man, Philip must overcome cultural and religious barriers to obey God’s command. His willingness to follow God’s command is evident by Philip’s response: in Acts 8:30 we read that Philip ran to the man.
Throughout our Christian lives, we may experience times when God calls us to do his work in places or among people that we do not expect. Like Philip, we can honour God by going where he leads us. When we trust God enough to follow him in unexpected places, we show the world that God is trustworthy. It is important to be discerning and to do what we can to understand what God is calling us to do. When God’s commands are not clear we do well to share with other Christians and pray with them for discernment. When God’s will becomes clear, we can follow Philip’s example and obey with enthusiasm and without hesitation. If you are tempted to ignore where God is leading you, turn back to God and pray that God would change your heart. When a decision point comes, glorify God with willing obedience.
Opportunity from Obedience
29 And the Spirit said to Philip, “Go over and join this chariot.” 30 So Philip ran to him and heard him reading Isaiah the prophet and asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?” 31 And he said, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” And he invited Philip to come up and sit with him. 32 Now the passage of the Scripture that he was reading was this:
“Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter
and like a lamb before its shearer is silent,
so he opens not his mouth.
33 In his humiliation justice was denied him.
Who can describe his generation?
For his life is taken away from the earth.”
34 And the eunuch said to Philip, “About whom, I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?” 35 Then Philip opened his mouth, and beginning with this Scripture he told him the good news about Jesus. Acts 8:29-35
In an unexpected place with an unexpected person, God has thrown open the door for an opportunity to share the gospel. When Philip runs to the Ethiopian’s chariot, the man is reading from Isaiah 53, but he does not understand what he is reading. Philip offers help and the Ethiopian accepts. In answering the man’s question about Isaiah, Philip is able to share the message that Jesus is God’s promised Messiah. Philip followed where God led, and as a result he was able to share the gospel with someone who was eager to learn about God’s word.
We do not have details about Philip’s education, but it is clear from this passage that Philip is well versed in Scripture and the teachings of the apostles. By diligent study of the Bible, Philip was prepared to share his faith when God called him to meet the Ethiopian official on the road. His previous study and learning enabled him to glorify God with his obedience. We can also prepare to follow God’s lead in evangelism through the faithful study of God’s Word. We must be prepared through personal study so that we can teach others about God. If we want to be people who share the Bible, we first need to be people who know the Bible. This is not a quick study or something that can be completed like a school qualification. Studying the Bible is a lifelong process that enables us to be effective witnesses to God the Father and his Son Jesus Christ. This passage about Philip gives two examples of how we can study the Bible in order to be effective witnesses.
First, we can learn about the passage that Philip and the Ethiopian discuss. Isaiah 53 can provide incredible opportunities for us to make Jesus known. This chapter of Scripture is especially helpful in sharing the gospel with people from a Jewish background because it is a clear picture of Jesus in the Old Testament. One Messianic Jewish believer writes, “Isaiah 53 provided the key that unlocked my understanding of what God sent Yeshua to do for us.” (3) As we seek to bring the gospel to those around us, this chapter can help us bridge the gap with Jewish friends and neighbours. Isaiah 53 is also a significant chapter to discuss with people of other religious or secular backgrounds because it helps demonstrate God’s sovereignty over history and strengthens Jesus’ claim to be the Messiah. Christians who desire to obey God in evangelism do well to study and learn this passage.
Second, we can follow Philip’s example of connecting Scripture with Jesus. The Ethiopian asked about Isaiah 53, and in his answer Philip told him how this passage points forward to Jesus. There may be times when you are talking with someone about an obscure passage of Scripture. Wherever you start in the Bible, learn how to end with Jesus. This requires an understanding of the Bible as a whole, and how the individual parts fit together into one coherent story of God’s work in the world. Christians affirm that God’s work culminates in the finished work of Jesus for the salvation of sin, and that everything in the Bible points to him. As we study the Bible, we can use the time both to grow closer to God and to prepare for the opportunities that God will provide for us to share what we learn with others who do not yet know him.
In an unexpected place, with an unexpected person, God provided an incredible opportunity for Philip to share the gospel. Philip obeyed God and followed where he led, and Philip was prepared for the encounter. In anticipation of obeying where God’s lead, we also can prepare by learning Scripture. In this way we demonstrate a desire to serve God and reach others with the gospel. Do what you can to be ready for the opportunities that God provides, and glorify God with willing obedience.
The Result of Obedience
36 And as they were going along the road they came to some water, and the eunuch said, “See, here is water! What prevents me from being baptised?”(4) 38 And he commanded the chariot to stop, and they both went down into the water, Philip and the eunuch, and he baptised him. 39 And when they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord carried Philip away, and the eunuch saw him no more, and went on his way rejoicing. 40 But Philip found himself at Azotus, and as he passed through he preached the gospel to all the towns until he came to Caesarea. Acts 8:36, 38-40
The Ethiopian’s response to Philip’s gospel presentation is immediate: at the first opportunity he desires to be baptised. His confusion is replaced by joy as he discovers the Saviour presented in the prophet Isaiah. The encounter is short; almost immediately God removes Philip and carries him to another place. However, the brevity of the meeting does not negate its impact. The Ethiopian continues his travels rejoicing in what he has found, and Philip faithfully continues to share the gospel as he travels between Azotus and Caesarea.
Faithful obedience glorifies God, but faithful obedience also allows us to bring God’s joy to a world in need. As a result of Philip’s faithfulness, God used him to have an eternal impact on this Ethiopian man’s life. Furthermore, we see that Philip’s obedience was not a one-time act but a pattern of faithful evangelism. He obeyed God’s specific command, and then he went on his way and carried on in the same work. His service and obedience to God was a way of life. It is unlikely that Philip shared the gospel with the same result every time. Many people who hear about salvation do not respond with joy as the Ethiopian did. But the God who calls us to obedience is able to use the effort of his people for his glory and for the good of the world that he dearly loves.
God in his mercy can use our obedience to bring others joy in the same way he did with Philip and the Ethiopian. When you set your sights on obeying what God commands, remember that God desires for his creation to resound with joy, not suffering. Obedience to God may bring suffering, but the end is joy for us and for others. We can follow the example and pattern of Jesus, “who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross” (Hebrews 12:2b). Our world cries out in pain, but we have news that brings great joy. Set your mind on what Jesus has done and follow his model of obedience to God the Father. When obedience feels too costly, remember the joy of those who receive Christ and glorify God with willing obedience.
Philip’s thoughts are not recorded in Acts 8, but we see by his actions that he served God with a happy heart. Philip’s obedience demonstrates his trust in God and his love for the world that God has made. When God sends him to an unexpected place to meet an unexpected person, Philip does not hesitate. When the opportunity to discuss Scripture appears, Philip is prepared. God uses Philip’s faithful obedience to bring a man to Jesus the Saviour, and the result is great joy. Let us set our hearts on obedience to God with happy hearts. Let us be people who go where God sends, who prepare with diligence, and who see the joy that comes from walking closely with the God who delights to save. Set your heart and your hands to obeying God with a happy heart, and glorify God with willing obedience.
Paul Mumo Kisau, “Acts” in Africa Bible Commentary, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2006), 1340.
Darrell Bock, Acts, (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007), 341.
Jeff Kran, quoted in Mitch Glaser, Isaiah 53 Explained, (New York: Chosen People Productions, 2010), 136.
Acts 8:37 “is not original to Acts” and is not found in the earliest manuscripts of the book (Bock, 345, 348).