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?

Covenant promise: the miraculous conception

The Living Word for week up to Sunday, December 24, 2017: Part 3 of 5

Wednesday, Dec 20: Luke 1:26-38

Mary hears from the angel Gabriel that the Holy Spirit will cause her to conceive and bear a child who will be called the Son of God, and her older relative Elizabeth, who was thought barren, has also conceived.

26 In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a village in Galilee, 27 to a virgin named Mary. She was engaged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of King David. 28 Gabriel appeared to her and said, “Greetings, favoured woman! The Lord is with you!”

  • Gabriel seems to have appeared to Mary in her own home, but only a divine messenger would start a conversation with such an exalted greeting.

29 Confused and disturbed, Mary tried to think what the angel could mean. 30 “Don’t be afraid, Mary,” the angel told her, “for you have found favour with God!

  • She found favour (lit. “you did find favour”), a reminder that grace is found and received, never earned.

31 You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you will name him Jesus. 32 He will be very great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his ancestor David. 33 And he will reign over Israel forever; his Kingdom will never end!”

  • These verses recall the “kingdom that will endure for ever” and the well-remembered words “great” and “throne” and “Son” that were part of the language of the prophecy over David in 1 Samuel 7:8-16.

34  Mary asked the angel, “But how can this happen? I am a virgin.”

35 The angel replied, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the baby to be born will be holy, and He will be called the Son of God.

  • “The Holy Spirit will come upon you” recalls the words of Isaiah 32:15 which is a restoration promise.
  • The Second Person of the Trinity, by conception of the Holy Spirit, remained God but “became flesh or “became human”, NLT, John 1:14. – fully God and fully man.

36 What’s more, your relative Elizabeth has become pregnant in her old age! People used to say she was barren, but she has conceived a son and is now in her sixth month. 37 For the word of God will never fail.”

  • She could have been a cousin, or an aunt, or another relative. Cousin (King James) as popularly used in a loose sense, is not incorrect. Mary was of the house of David, and Elizabeth of the house of Aaron, but they might be related by their mothers. It was common for those of the families of David and Levi to intermarry.

38 Mary responded, “I am the Lord’s servant. May everything you have said about me come true.” And then the angel left her.

  • This passage doesn’t support a religious view that wants to deify Mary. She is clearly here “a vessel to receive, not a fountain to dispense” (Lenski).
  • Later we are told that Mary headed to the hill country of Judah, from Nazareth in Galilee where she lived – a north to south journey of some distance.


Why did Mary find such favour with God?

  • She was the right person in the right place at the right time. Sometimes we could be that right person, the only right person, in the right place for God to use. He is not a ‘respecter of persons’ like someone who looks for track record or the best CV.
  • She was the right person in terms of character. We embody a mixture of experience and passion and spirituality and gift, all vital to who we are. But none of this can be used by God unless we have the qualities of character that He seeks: submitted to Him, teachable by Him, loving and forebearing like Him. Mary, at her young age, had this kind of maturity of character. God looks to us to see if we are submitted and teachable, and whether we uphold His ways or are swayed by the ways of men.
  • She was the right person in terms of her worldview and beliefs. She had a foundation in the Scriptures, and if she was surprised by an angel manifesting as visible and speaking to her – who wouldn’t be – she was not surprised by the angel’s recollection of the promise of the Son of God linked to the Throne of David. We can’t avoid having a worldview that is from the world we live in, but do we also hold a heavenly worldview?

Discussion starter

  1. Is our heavenly or spiritual worldview separated from our everyday worldview and beliefs about how our world works, or are we able, at times, to connect them and see how God’s heavenly purpose seeks to influence our earthly lives? Quite a profound question to consider, but this is a season when we remember a profound miracle where heaven impacted the earthly order!