God’s sovereignty is shown in the graphic contrasts between the lives of Stephen and Philip; both were saved at about the same time, and both served faithfully on the same ministry team, the ‘Seven’. As disciples of Jesus, they were equally powerful and effective. Yet the Lord chose to cut short Stephen’s life and ministry dramatically quickly, whilst allowing Philip to live to a ripe old age (see Acts 21:8-9). No reason is ever given in scripture, and rarely do we discover the answers to those big ‘Why’ questions in our own lives; we just have to trust in the God who is fully in control and who knows best.
Godly men buried Stephen and mourned deeply for him. It is completely OK to mourn for our lost ones, whilst knowing that they themselves are not lost, but eternally ‘found’! It is not a contradiction and it is not a sign of having lost ‘hope’ (see 1 Thessalonians 4:13). We are simply mourning for our own loss and separation from that person who has ‘fallen asleep in Christ’, knowing that we have to wait until That Morning, the great day of Christ’s return. Therefore, we mourn with hope!
If Chapter 7 was all about Stephen, then this chapter is about Philip. Stephen’s execution had galvanised Saul into hyperactivity: singlehandedly, he organised a national persecution against the church, dragging men and women believers into prison and punishment with the ferocity of a fighting dog. The church was scattered throughout Judea and Samaria. They had begun to fulfil the commission of Jesus (Acts 1:8) by accident, it appeared; driven by events, rather than by their own choice.
But an interesting thing happened: far from being cowed and discouraged, these new believers couldn’t keep their mouths shut about Jesus; they proclaimed the gospel day and night, far and wide. Stephen’s teammate, Philip, went to a Samaritan city and used his evangelistic gifting to the max. He also worked miracles, healed many sick people, and exorcised demons in large numbers. These miracles caused Philip’s message to be taken extremely seriously indeed, and many Samaritans believed in Jesus and were baptised.
Meanwhile, another curious thing had occurred by the sovereignty of God: the apostles had been allowed to remain undisturbed in Jerusalem, perhaps in order to form a central ‘hub’ for the scattered churches and perhaps to remain to encourage those believers in prison. Upon hearing that Philip had successfully evangelised the Samaritans, they realised that their presence was urgently required there. Why? Knowing how the Jews and the Samaritans hated one another, it was highly likely that this fledgling Samaritan church would quickly become isolated and rejected by the Jewish Christians, causing an immediate schism within the church overall.
Therefore, Peter and John hurried to where Philip was staying and discovered that the Lord had already made preparations for the rift to be healed: he had held back his Holy Spirit from the Samaritans and had not spiritually baptised them like he had the original group at Pentecost. Luke’s narrative seems to point out that this was unusual – and for a good reason. The Apostles, as representatives of the ‘mother’ Jerusalem church, then imparted the Holy Spirit to the Samaritan believers, who must have exhibited the usual supernatural signs of this blessing. Symbolically, then, God showed them all that this was the same Spirit, the same Church, and the same future Bride of Christ; what God has joined, mankind should not separate. Precisely the same evidence was later to convince Peter and the Council of Jerusalem to accept the Gentiles as brothers in Christ (see Acts 10:47; 11:16-17; 15:8).
Philip, by a series of supernatural revelations, loitered by the side of a First Century ‘motorway’ and hitched a lift with an important Ethiopian official, who just happened to be reading the scriptures – aloud, as everyone did in those days. He was reading the prophecy of the Suffering Servant in Isaiah 53:7-8, and Philip explained who that Servant really was. He began where his listener was and led him to where Jesus was – a great definition of evangelism!
Utterly convinced, the Ethiopian spotted a pool of water alongside the road and almost demanded to be baptised. Philip agreed and did the honours. This passage teaches us the essence of baptism: No waiting until crowds of people could be gathered so that they could hear the gospel, rather do it as soon as practically possible after confessing faith in Christ. (We don’t baptise in order to preach the gospel but we preach the gospel in order to baptise!). There are no further requirements for baptism other than repentance and faith in Christ.
The job done, Philip was airlifted supernaturally to a town about 40 miles away. Just another day in the life of this evangelist! The Ethiopian was full of joy and felt as though he was walking on air!