Author: Ron Graham
Who is the Prophet Speaking About?
—The Ethiopian’s question
An Ethiopian, travelling by chariot on a lonely road, was reading Isaiah 53. He wondered who the prophet was speaking about. God answered his question.
¶“26But an angel of the Lord spoke to Philip. The angel said, 'Arise, and go southward along the road that goes from Jerusalem down to Gaza.' This area is deserted. 27So Philip arose and went.” (Acts 8:26).
¶“And behold, there was a man of Ethiopia, a eunuch of great authority under Candace, queen of the Ethiopians. He was responsible for all her treasure. He'd been to Jerusalem to worship. 28Now he was returning; seated in his chariot; reading the prophet Isaiah.” (Acts 8:27-28).
¶“29The Spirit told Philip, 'Go closer, and meet this chariot.' 30So Philip ran to the man, and heard him reading Isaiah the prophet. Philip said, 'Do you understand what you are reading?' 31The man replied, 'How can I, unless someone explains it to me?' He implored Philip to come up and sit with him.“ (Acts 8:29-31).
¶“32Now this is the passage of Scripture the man was reading: 'He was led as a sheep to the slaughter. As a lamb before his shearer is silent, so he opened not his mouth. 33In his humiliation his judgment was taken away. Who will declare His generation? His life is taken from the earth.' ”(Acts 8:32-33, Isaiah 53:7-8).
¶“34The eunuch further replied to Philip by asking, 'Who is the prophet talking about —is it himself or someone else?' 35Philip opened his mouth, and beginning from this Scripture, preached to him about Jesus.” (Acts 8:34-35).
¶“36As they went along the way, they came to some water. The eunuch said, 'Look! Here is water. What prevents me from being baptized?'” (Acts 8:36).
¶“37Philip replied, 'If you believe with your whole heart you may be baptized.' The man said, 'I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.' 38Having said that, he commanded the chariot to halt. Both he and Philip went down together into the water, and there Philip immersed the eunuch.” (Acts 8:37-38).
¶“39When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord caught Philip away, and the eunuch saw him no more. The eunuch went on his way rejoicing. 40As for Philip, he was found at Azotus. From there he passed through all the cities preaching the gospel as far as Caesarea.” (Acts 8:39-40).
1 The Six Questions
In this passage we find six questions, and all of them are very important.
- First, Philip asks, “Do you understand what you are reading?”
- Then the Ethiopian asks, “How can I, unless someone guides me?”
- He also asks, “Please, will you come up and sit with me in my chariot, and help me understand?”
- When Philip is seated, the Ethiopian asks the key question, “Who is the prophet speaking about —is it himself or someone else?”
- After a while, the Ethiopian asks his fourth question, “Look! Here is water. What prevents me from being baptized?”
- Philip replies by asking the Ethiopian, “Do you believe with all your heart? If you do, you may be baptized.”
Questions that Really Mattered
There could have been other questions. Philip could have asked why he should go south to a deserted place instead of north where there are towns full of people. The Ethiopian could have asked how Philip happened to be on that road at the very time and place he was needed.
But the questions Philip and the Ethiopian asked were the questions that mattered. No “beating around the bush” That's what happens when someone really wants to know and someone else really wants to tell.
2 The Question About Jesus
The most important question of the six is, “Who is the prophet speaking about —is it himself or someone else?”
The Ethiopian had "gone to Jerusalem to worship" (Acts 8:27). He was reading the scriptures in the spirit of that worship in Jerusalem. He was a man in charge of a kingdom’s treasure. But this was a spiritual journey.
However, someone was missing in his spiritual world, and this passage in Isaiah was about that person. Hence the question, “Who is the prophet talking about?”
The Message of the Cross
Philip answered this question as follows: "Philip opened his mouth, and beginning from this scripture, preached to him about Jesus." (Acts 8:35).
Isaiah chapter 53 makes sense only when you know that it is talking about Jesus Christ the Son of God. And life makes sense only when you know that God’s Son suffered and died for you.
It is impossible for the blood of animals to take away sins (Hebrews 10:4). Not all the slaughter and sacrifice at the temple in Jerusalem, but only the Lamb of God, could be the sufficient sacrifice. “Nothing can for sin atone, nothing but the blood of Jesus.”
An Exemplary Response
As Philip explained this, the worshipper from Jerusalem would appreciate the message. He was a listener of a rare kind. We should have the deepest respect for the question he asked, and for the example he sets by his response.
"For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are saved it is the power of God" (1Corinthians 1:18). "I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes..." (Romans 1:16).
When Philip preached the message of the cross, the gospel of Christ, the Ethiopian believed what Philip had taught him. He was ready and eager to respond to the message.
3 The Question About Baptism
This is not the end of the story however. There was more to the Ethiopian’s response than belief. He requested baptism without delay, and went into that baptism with a confession of Jesus Christ on his lips.
Philip must have included baptism in what he taught the Ethiopian. So when water came in sight, the Ethiopian wished to be baptized. Hence the question, "Look! Here is water. What prevents me from being baptized?" (Acts 8:36).
Philip told the Ethiopian that baptism would be right for him provided that he believed the whole message that Philip had preached to him, and believed it with his whole heart and no reservations.
Right But Not Essential?
Many interpret Philip’s response as making baptism optional. They will object that Philip did not say, “You must,” but rather, “You may.” In other words baptism is right and lawful, but it is not essential to grace which they say is not based on law.
Clearly Philip was not making the baptism optional but rather he was making it conditional. He was making faith a prerequisite of a proper baptism. Baptism without faith would be wrong.
The Ethiopian met the condition of genuine faith by making a genuine confession of Christ. The baptism that followed was therefore a genuine baptism. That's what Philip was talking about.
The most important question is “Who is the Prophet Speaking About?” The answer to that question is the message about Jesus Christ and his death on the cross —which includes this: "as many of us as were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death" (Romans 6:3-4).