Commentary on Acts 8:39-40; 9:1-7
By Bob Myhan
39Now when they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord caught Philip away, so that the eunuch saw him no more; and he went on his way rejoicing. 40But Philip was found at Azotus. And passing through, he preached in all the cities till he came to Caesarea.
There is no reason to believe that “the Spirit of the Lord caught Philip away” any differently than the “angel of the Lord” caught Philip away from Samaria. In the former case the angel said “Arise and go” and Philip arose and went. Likewise, when the Spirit said “Go near” Philip went near. The Spirit must have directed Philip to Azotus (which was west of Gaza) for that is where Philip was next found.
After Philip left, the eunuch “went on his way rejoicing” for he had heard and obeyed the good news of salvation through Jesus Christ. Philip’s further ministry apparently centers at Caesarea for he will still be there many years later. (21:8-9)
1Then Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest 2and asked letters from him to the synagogues of Damascus, so that if he found any who were of the Way, whether men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem.
Having been introduced in chapter 7 and mentioned again in chapter 8, Saul now becomes the primary focus of the second treatise of Luke. Remember that the closest thing to a thesis sentence in Acts is Luke’s account of the promise of Jesus to His apostles.
4And being assembled together with them, He commanded them not to depart from Jerusalem, but to wait for the Promise of the Father, "which," He said, "you have heard from Me; 5for John truly baptized with water, but you shall be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now." 6Therefore, when they had come together, they asked Him, saying, "Lord, will You at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?" 7And He said to them, "It is not for you to know times or seasons which the Father has put in His own authority. 8But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be witnesses to Me in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth." (1:4-8)
Luke has treated the preaching of the gospel in Jerusalem and its spread throughout Judea and Samaria. He is now ready to treat its spread “to the end of the earth,” which was accomplished in the first century without any organizational framework above the local level (Col. 1:6,23). For the first part of he followed the exploits of Peter; for the second part He focused on Barnabas; and now he follows Paul with both pen and feet (the latter beginning in chapter 16).
Concurrent with the preaching of Philip in Samaria, Saul has continued to persecute the church (8:1-3). Not content with persecuting those in Jerusalem, he is now going to Damascus, Syria (the oldest constantly inhabited city in the world). How the gospel first came to be preached in Syria inspiration does not tell us but there was a community of the saved there and they are all converted Jews and proselytes for the gospel has not been preached to uncircumcised Gentiles at this time. To understand why Saul would traverse such a great distance to persecute Christians consider the following autobiographical accounts of his background.
1Finally, my brethren, rejoice in the Lord. For me to write the same things to you is not tedious, but for you it is safe. 2Beware of dogs, beware of evil workers, beware of the mutilation! 3For we are the circumcision, who worship God in the Spirit, rejoice in Christ Jesus, and have no confidence in the flesh, 4though I also might have confidence in the flesh. If anyone else thinks he may have confidence in the flesh, I more so: 5circumcised the eighth day, of the stock of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of the Hebrews; concerning the law, a Pharisee; 6concerning zeal, persecuting the church; concerning the righteousness which is in the law, blameless. (Phil. 3:1-6
13For you have heard of my former conduct in Judaism, how I persecuted the church of God beyond measure and tried to destroy it. 14And I advanced in Judaism beyond many of my contemporaries in my own nation, being more exceedingly zealous for the traditions of my fathers. (Gal. 1:13-14)
9Indeed, I myself thought I must do many things contrary to the name of Jesus of Nazareth. (Acts 26:9)
Saul mistakenly thought that he had all of the authority he needed to bring the ones who followed Christ back to Jerusalem to stand trial for blasphemy and be punished. Punishment, of course, was death by stoning. Luke is about to describe how Saul learned differently.
3As he journeyed he came near Damascus, and suddenly a light shone around him from heaven. 4Then he fell to the ground, and heard a voice saying to him, "Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?" 5And he said, "Who are You, Lord?" Then the Lord said, "I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. It is hard for you to kick against the goads." 6So he, trembling and astonished, said, "Lord, what do You want me to do?" Then the Lord said to him, "Arise and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do."
Saul’s vision of a resurrected and glorified Jesus Christ is suggestive of the transfiguration recorded by Matthew, Mark and Luke.
1Now after six days Jesus took Peter, James, and John his brother, led them up on a high mountain by themselves; 2and He was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and His clothes became as white as the light. (Matt. 17:1-2)
2Now after six days Jesus took Peter, James, and John, and led them up on a high mountain apart by themselves; and He was transfigured before them. 3His clothes became shining, exceedingly white, like snow, such as no launderer on earth can whiten them. (Mark 9:2-3)
28Now it came to pass, about eight days after these sayings, that He took Peter, John, and James and went up on the mountain to pray. 29As He prayed, the appearance of His face was altered, and His robe became white and glistening. (Luke 9:28-29)
Peter mentioned the transfiguration in his second epistle.
13Yes, I think it is right, as long as I am in this tent, to stir you up by reminding you, 14 knowing that shortly I must put off my tent, just as our Lord Jesus Christ showed me. 15Moreover I will be careful to ensure that you always have a reminder of these things after my decease. 16For we did not follow cunningly devised fables when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but were eyewitnesses of His majesty. 17For He received from God the Father honor and glory when such a voice came to Him from the Excellent Glory: "This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased." 18And we heard this voice which came from heaven when we were with Him on the holy mountain. (1:13-18)
This was a brief glimpse of the glory of the Son God. While all the apostles were witnesses to the resurrection, only three were present at the transfiguration. But Saul sees the effulgent glory of the Son of God, as well, on the road to Damascus. An examination of the purpose of this vision is reserved for later. However, there are a few things which need to be said at this point in our comments.
Struck by the brightness of the vision, Saul falls to the ground, probably in an attempt to shield his eyes. The voice he hears from within the light speaks with authority, though there is no self-identification at this point except to say he is being persecuted by Saul. The voice is obviously that of a superior person so Saul addresses Him as “Lord” which is equivalent to “Sir.” The voice identifies Himself saying, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. How hard it is for you to kick against the goads.” Literally, goads are long pointed poles use to keep oxen moving as the fields are being plowed. Spiritually, they would be the workings of providence prodding one into a particular direction in life.
We can easily imagine a gloom of despair overcoming Saul as he trembles. Suddenly, he realizes he has no real authority at all to persecute Jesus by persecuting His followers. Just as suddenly, He realizes Jesus has all authority in heaven and on earth. Suddenly, he realizes all the tenets of the gospel are indeed facts. As suddenly, and for the first time in a long while, his conscience tells him that he must reverse his life’s course. He cannot fulfill his intended mission to Damascus. But, like those on Pentecost who heard the gospel first, he knows not what to do. Therefore he asks, “Lord, what do You want me to do?” The Lord does not give him specifics but directs him into the city, for there are saints in Damascus who can give him the information he needs to hear—that which he “must do.” By way of the Great Commission the Lord has already placed the preaching of the gospel into the hands of faithful men; the treasure has been placed in “earthen vessels.”
3 But even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing, 4whose minds the god of this age has blinded, who do not believe, lest the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God, should shine on them. 5For we do not preach ourselves, but Christ Jesus the Lord, and ourselves your bondservants for Jesus' sake. 6For it is the God who commanded light to shine out of darkness, who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. 7But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellence of the power may be of God and not of us. (2 Cor. 4:3-7)
7 And the men who journeyed with him stood speechless, hearing a voice but seeing no one.
The men heard a voice but did not comprehend what was being said. (22:9 ESV) How often has it occurred that you heard someone speaking but did not understand the words?
(To be continued)