The test of obeying the Holy Spirit’s prompting

Acts 8:26-40

Learning to depend on God for the unexpected opportunity

26  Now an angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Go south to the road – the desert road – that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.”

In Jewish thought, an angel of the Lord speaking, or the sense of the Holy Spirit speaking, were closely aligned, Acts 23:9. The point is that Philip received a clear leading, obeyed it and found a connection (v.27) that was clearly of God’s providence.

27-29  So he started out, and on his way he met an Ethiopian eunuch, an important official in charge of all the treasury of the Kandake (which means ‘queen of the Ethiopians’). This man had gone to Jerusalem to worship, and on his way home was sitting in his chariot reading the Book of Isaiah the prophet. The Spirit told Philip, “Go to that chariot and stay near it.”

This story is about an official of high standing from modern-day Sudan (rather than  Ethiopia), a minister of the exchequer in the service of the executive rule of the Queen Mother whose title “Eunuch” was probably more related to being a court appointee, than literal. He seems to have been a proselyte, or God-fearer learning the ways of Judaism, who was reading a scroll of the book of Isaiah.

“The Spirit told Philip” – Philip receives a further prompting from the Spirit – perhaps needed to approach someone of high social standing. The ‘chariot’ was probably an ox-drawn conveyance and quite slow – not too difficult to keep up.

30  Then Philip ran up to the chariot and heard the man reading Isaiah the prophet. “Do you understand what you are reading?” Philip asked.

“Heard the man reading” – In those days it was usual to read out loud – or to have a slave read out loud to you.

31  “How can I,” he said, “unless someone explains it to me?” So he invited Philip to come up and sit with him.

“Explains it to me” – The Old Testament in particular needs some interpretation by someone in tune with the Spirit. This is like the occasion on the road to Emmaus, where Jesus in person provided the key to unlock the two disciples’ understanding. Here the key is the Spirit of Jesus in Philip.

32  This is the passage of Scripture the eunuch was reading:

“He was led like a sheep to the slaughter, and as a lamb before its shearer is silent, so he did not open his mouth.

33  In his humiliation he was deprived of justice. Who can speak of his descendants? For his life was taken from the earth.”

34-35  The eunuch asked Philip, “Tell me, please, who is the prophet talking about, himself or someone else?”  Then Philip began with that very passage of Scripture and told him the good news about Jesus.

Isaiah 53:7 sits in the passage about God’s suffering servant, Isaiah 52:13-53:12, a part of the then-available Scriptures which an evangelist like Philip might have chosen for himself.

36  As they travelled along the road, they came to some water and the eunuch said, “Look, here is water. What can stand in the way of my being baptised?”

There is an addition made by later scribes that appears as a footnote in many versions:“If you believe with all your heart, you may.” And he replied, “I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.”

It was common practice for Gentile converts to Judaism to be baptised, so the idea was probably not unfamiliar. But it is also likely that Philip’s explanation of who Jesus is ended with a call for response similar to Peter’s on the Day of Pentecost, Acts 2:28. However the subject of baptism arose, God provided the opportunity also.

38-40 And he gave orders to stop the chariot. Then both Philip and the eunuch went down into the water and Philip baptised him. When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord suddenly took Philip away, and the eunuch did not see him again, but went on his way rejoicing. Philip, however, appeared at Azotus and travelled about, preaching the gospel in all the towns until he reached Caesarea.

“Out of the water, the Spirit…” – A longer form of the text reads: ‘And when they came up out of the water, the Holy Spirit fell upon the eunuch, but the angel of the Lord caught up Philip …’.
‘Down into the water’ and ‘came up out of the water’ reads like a description of baptism by immersion. The eunuch’s joy afterwards is good evidence of a spiritual impartation.

The Spirit transporting a person is found elsewhere in Scripture e.g. 1 Kings 18:12, 2 Kings 2:16, Ezekiel 3:14.


Philip received a prompting from an angel or from the Holy Spirit or both. The point of the story is that he acted on it promptly, and at some inconvenience to himself, heading down a desert road on foot without any clear idea of where he was heading or what it was about. It was a test of whether he would hear, and obey, with such an inadequate brief.

We live in an information age, and we want all the information up front. We Google the route and check the traffic and prefer to set up our own appointments. We don’t want to be disappointed and we like to control the outcome. We’d like to find someone we like the look of – someone like us – before witnessing to them.

But God doesn’t work like that – or at least, He is likely to test us by getting us uncomfortable, to see how well we will press into Him. This story also contains the test of God’s providence, the sense of Him seeing the need and providing as He did for Abraham on Mount Moriah. Older generations were better at this kind of reliance, but God requires it of us still.

For reflection and discussion

Can you think of a time when, perhaps with hindsight, you received a nudge from God’s Spirit. What did you learn from it?

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