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Isaiah 53:4-12 & Acts 8:34-40 by Robert Dean
The conversion of the Ethiopian Eunuch through Isaiah 53 is an evangelistic ministry of Philip. The Holy Spirit is in charge, but evangelism is not apart from human responsibility. The Ethiopian is as ready as one can be to believe. Compare that to Paul, the prime persecutor of the Christian faith. Who would think his hostility could be turned around? Is there someone in your periphery you have written off because of their strong defenses? Relax, persevere, befriend, pray and trust, but be ready to deliver the Truth that you know. This lesson focuses on substitution, a foreign concept in our culture, but the major theme found consistently throughout the Old Testament, occurring prior to Israel and developed throughout Israel’s history and worship. See how the person of Christ and God’s judgment of us through His substitutionary death is undeniably stated in this passage so that we can know that Israel’s Servant can be none other than Jesus Christ.
Series:Acts (2010)
Duration:1 hr 6 mins 56 secs

The Judgment of the Servant for the People. Isaiah 53:4-12; Acts 8:34-40


The thing that we should not lose track of in this study is that this is ultimately about an evangelistic ministry, that of Philip, and we see one important facet in the church age and that is the role of God the Holy Spirit. But even though God the Holy Spirit has a role and is the one who is guiding, directing and overseeing the process, it is not at the expense of or apart from human responsibility. Philip has a responsibility to follow the leadership of the Holy Spirit to go to the road from Jerusalem to Gaza and to talk with the Ethiopian eunuch and to help him understand what it is that he is reading.

We are about to start the study of Acts chapter nine and the conversion of Saul of Tarsus. We see a comparison and contrast here between the mindset of the Ethiopian eunuch and Saul of Tarsus. The Ethiopian is overtly positive to the Word of God. He is reading Isaiah and wants to know what it means. He has a well grounded frame of reference for understanding the Old Testament and the background in light of all the sacrifices and feasts, etc. in terms of that framework for understanding the basic message of the Old Testament. Even though it is not clear in his head he wants to know the truth. We are going to see Saul of Tarsus as the prime persecutor of Christianity.

If we were to spend time talking to the Ethiopian eunuch the day before he met Philip what kind of person would he have been in terms of his openness and interest in the Word of God? And what about the Saul of Tarsus as an unbeliever? He had arguably the most extensive understanding of the Old Testament at that time and he was probably the most rabbinical student of his generation. And yet he is extremely hostile to Christianity. The Ethiopian was not hostile. We need to think about this because so often we are talking to someone we know, if they put up their defenses as Saul of Tarsus would, we would too flippantly write them off as negative and are not going to turn around. How many of us would have thought thirty minutes before Jesus appeared to Saul of Tarsus on the road to Damascus that he would even lighten up on his hostility to Christians? Probably too often we run into people in our lives who are that way and we retreat too much and back off, and it is easy for us to be dismissive and say, well they're just negative and not really interested. How do we know that there will not be a point when they will change? With some of them it is going to take years. We may be one person is a stream of fifty, sixty or seventy who give that person the gospel. And it may be that you are the person who needs to have a relationship with that person, become their friend, get to know them, not just as a target for evangelism but understanding that it may take the rest of your life explaining the gospel to that person before they finally respond. We usually don't think of witnessing that way, and too often the evangelical community and too many Christians have adopted a sort of drive-by evangelism approach. Most of the time that is not really effective.

The idea of substitutionary payment of a legal penalty is really foreign to our culture today. To them it sounds unjust. If they say it is unfair that somebody could take the penalty for somebody else, what have they just done? They have imposed their view of justice upon God. And so as we explain the gospel to them we ought to figure out a way to expose that. As we think about that what we need to do is lay a foundation. Where would we start? Genesis 22 where God tells Abraham to take his son, his only son, to Mount Moriah and there to sacrifice him to God. God never intended for Abraham to actually kill Isaac. How do we know that? Very simply because God had told Abraham that it would be through Isaac that he would have descendants that would be more numerous than the stars in the sky and the sands of the sea. So obviously God intended to give Abraham an innumerable number of descendants through Isaac. But He wanted to test Abraham to see if Abraham had finally got to the point where he trusted God. When Abraham took out his knife to sacrifice Isaac what happened? There was a ram caught in the bushes that was to be offered instead of Isaac. That was the substitute. Then go from there to the whole principle of substitutionary sacrifice; then the principle of the Passover and the substitution of the lamb's blood on the door for the life of the firstborn, and from there to the day of atonement. Walk through this concept showing that the Bible from the very beginning affirms the principle of a substitutionary payment because the person that is guilty of ever fulfilling that kind of payment that would redeem them. They can only be condemned. Laying the principle out there sometimes just contradicts everything that the unbeliever has come to understand. But every circumstance is different.

In this circumstance we have this Ethiopian who is for all practical purposes Jewish in his thinking and acceptance of the Old Testament but he hasn't put everything together yet. He has been reading Isaiah 53 and has been confronted with this substitutionary terminology, talking about this servant of God: Isaiah 53:5 NASB "But He was pierced through for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities; The chastening for our well-being {fell} upon Him, And by His scourging we are healed."

The reason He needs to die for out transgressions: Isaiah 53:6 NASB "All of us like sheep have gone astray, Each of us has turned to his own way; But the LORD has caused the iniquity of us all To fall on Him." So we see that the penalty for sin is laid on Him; He is the one who pays that penalty.

His response to bearing that penalty: Isaiah 53:7 NASB "He was oppressed and He was afflicted …" The opening statement of oppression and judgment is probably a Hebrew idiom that is related to the idea of His arrest and His judgment. "… Yet He did not open His mouth; Like a lamb that is led to slaughter, And like a sheep that is silent before its shearers, So He did not open His mouth." This is the section that is quoted in Acts chapter eight. What does it mean that He was oppressed and afflicted? This is extremely difficult to translate from the Hebrew. There is a lot of debate over what some of these terms mean and how they are to be expressed. The LXX translation, which is what is quoted in Acts 8, is a little bit different and it is helpful to look at it to understand the gist of what is being said in the original Hebrew because the LXX version seems to kind of summarize the meaning of Isaiah 53:7 without giving a direct translation of it. The word used in the LXX for "lamb" is arnion [a)rnion] which is only used four times in the New Testament. It is an important word. Notice the passages where it is used.

When Jesus comes down to the Jordan where John the Baptist is baptising (John 1:19) we read NASB "The next day he saw Jesus coming to him and said, 'Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!'" The next day John says the same thing. John 1:36 NASB "and he looked at Jesus as He walked, and said, 'Behold, the Lamb of God!'" So two of the references are right there in John chapter one identifying Jesus as the Lamb of God. Acts 8:32 is the third use; 1 Peter 1:18, 19 is the fourth use, that "you were not redeemed with perishable things like silver or gold from your futile way of life inherited from your forefathers, but with precious blood, as of a lamb unblemished and spotless, {the blood} of Christ." This is a direct reference to the Passover lamb that had to be qualified to be used as a sacrifice. It has to be evaluated and watched to make sure that it was without spot or blemish. So Jesus is identified by this phraseology that uniquely identifies Him with the Old Testament sacrifice. 

And Jesus does not protest the unjustness of His condemnation. Not once.

Isaiah 53:8 NASB "By oppression and judgment He was taken away; And as for His generation …" This is also a difficult passage to translate from the Hebrew. The issue is how to punctuate the line, "who will declare His generation?" (NKJV). Is that in the sentence or should that be re-translated "who will declare to His generation?" Corrected translation: "Yet who of His generation considered that He was cut off out of the land of the living for the transgression of my people, to whom the stroke {was due?}" The blow/stroke was due to "my people." They are guilty; they are the ones who were to receive the penalty but instead it falls upon the servant.

Translation in the Tanakh: (The second line has a note in the margin which says: "This is extremely difficult, we are not sure what this means.") That is the difficult Hebrew phrase there. "Who can describe His dor." Does it use "generation"? There is a problem with understanding that Hebrew word dor. But notice how they translate the last two lines: "For he was cut off from the land of the living through [not for] the sin of my people…" The Hebrew preposition is the preposition of substitution; it is for, not through. "…who deserve the punishment." When they get to that last "who deserve the punishment," that gets the substitutionary idea that they try to avoid by using "through."

The main idea is in the ESV (English Standard Version): "By oppression and judgment he was taken away; and as for His generation (those who were guilty of rejecting Him), who considered that he was cut off out of the living, stricken for the transgression of my people." In other words, who among His contemporaries realised what was going on, that He was being cut off, and He was being executed "for the transgression of my people." This is the best translation seen so far.

Isaiah 53:9 NASB "His grave [euphemism for death] was assigned with wicked men [He dies between two criminals], Yet He was with a rich man in His death [where He was buried], Because He had done no violence, Nor was there any deceit in His mouth." He was not guilty of any sin or any crime whatsoever.

Going back to verse 8: "…For the transgression of my people, to whom the stroke {was due?}" It is very clear there that the servant is distinct from the people. The servant is the one who is struck and who pays the penalty "for the transgressions of my people." We don't see how it can be argued that the servant is just another term for the people in light of that verse and verse 10. Isaiah 53:10 NASB "But the LORD was pleased To crush Him, putting {Him} to grief; If He would render Himself {as} a guilt offering …" So it is the life of the servant that is made an offering for sin. "… He [God] will see {His} offspring, He will prolong {His} days, And the good pleasure of the LORD will prosper in His hand."

Isaiah 53:11 NASB "As a result of the anguish of His [the servant] soul, He [God the Father] will see {it and} be satisfied …" That is the doctrine of propitiation. The righteousness and the justice of God is satisfied by the sacrifice, the sin offering of the servant on the cross. "… By His knowledge …" By learning about the servant. "…the Righteous One, My Servant, will justify the many, As [for] He will bear their iniquities." He carries that penalty in His body—substitutionary.

Isaiah 53:12 NASB "Therefore, I will allot Him a portion with the great, And He will divide the booty with the strong …" indicating His ultimate victory over those who have unjustly condemned Him. "… Because He poured out Himself to death." This isn't just suffering. One of the views is that the suffering isn't fatal, this is just a picture of the suffering of the Jewish people of the time. But this just doesn't fly. "… And was numbered with the transgressors; Yet He Himself bore the sin of many, And interceded for the transgressors." The last phrase indicates His high-priestly role in place of or as a substitute for the transgressors.

The 1985 Tanakh: "Assuredly, I will give him the many as his portion, he shall receive the multitude as his spoil, for he exposed himself to death, and he was numbered among the sinners; whereas he bore the guilt of the many, and made intercession for sinners." Even in the Tanakh they cannot get away from the substitutionary aspect of what the servant would do for the sinners.

Back to Acts chapter eight: Many times when the New Testament quotes one or two verses from a passage it is really alluding to the entire passage, not just those one or two verses. That would be the case here. The Ethiopian is asking a specific question of whom this passage is peaking, but Philip would have explained the entire passage to him. In the first part of Isaiah 53:8, "He was taken from prison and from judgment," is handled in the LXX as a summary of His humiliation and not receiving justice. There is a perversion of justice that took place. It refers to His arrest and trial and it is summarised in the LXX as a humiliation because justice was perverted at that time. It does not translate it word for word but expresses the idea that is present in the Masoretic Text. Then, "And who will declare his generation, for his life is taken from the earth." In the original is says "he was cut off from the land of the living," so the LXX interprets that as His physical death.

Acts 8:34 NASB "The eunuch answered Philip and said, 'Please {tell me,} of whom does the prophet say this? Of himself or of someone else?'" As we have seen through this study of Isaiah 53 it cannot refer to any other person in history.

Acts 8:35 NASB "Then Philip opened his mouth, and beginning from this Scripture he preached Jesus to him." It doesn't say this was the only Scripture he talked about—"beginning from this Scripture." He "preached," which means he is giving the gospel, proclaiming Jesus to him.

Then we see a result. Acts 8:36 NASB "As they went along the road they came to some water; and the eunuch said, 'Look! Water! What prevents me from being baptized?'" There's no indication here of what the Ethiopian said. We see the result of his response. We don't know how he learned about baptism. Did he see Christians being baptized in Jerusalem or has Philip explained this to him? There is a lot left out of the summary of Philip's conversation but we understand it because we see the results of it.

There are some who have tried to communicate that baptism is not for today. The largest group that has done this are known as ultra-dispensationalists. Dispensationalists are those who believe that God administers history in different ways in different periods of time. Charles Ryrie pointed out that what makes one a dispensationalist were three things: A literal interpretation of Scripture; a distinction between God's plan for Israel and God's plan for the church; everything in God's plan is ultimately related to the glorification of God.

Early dispensationalists in the 19th century tried to put the beginning of the church age in Acts 10. Others put it later on when Paul first began to go out in Acts 13 to take the gospel to the Gentiles; others came along and said the church age really didn't begin until either the close of Acts or AD 70. But what makes the difference between under the law in the legal dispensation and the grace dispensation is the baptism by means of the Holy Spirit. That is Acts chapter two. Even though it is in a transition period you can't come along and say there were some features this way and some features that way and so the church really doesn't begin until sometime later in Acts. That was the argument of the hyper-dispensationalists and the ultra-dispensationalists, and they came to the conclusion that baptism really only had significance in relationship to the Jews. If that was true then why is Paul baptising Corinthians? The reason Paul said he wasn't baptising was because the Corinthians were abusing it. He didn't say he didn't baptize anybody because baptism is out. At the same time he wrote that he was in Ephesus, and in Acts chapter nineteen all of a sudden there are these disciples of John the Baptism who had been baptized by John the Baptist and understood his message of repentance (Old Testament salvation). Now they are asked by Paul: "Were you baptized in the name of Jesus?" He explains the gospel to them and then he baptizes them in the name of Jesus—that is the issue. It is that identification of Jesus that is a picture of identification with Christ in the baptism by means of the Holy Spirit.

The next verse is probably not in the original: Acts 8:37 NASB "[And Philip said, "If you believe with all your heart, you may." And he answered and said, "I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God."] We don't find that language anywhere else (If you believe with all your heart). That implies that if you don't believe with all your heart you really weren't saved, and you can have a half-hearted belief. That just doesn't fit with anything else in Scripture, and it is only in a very few MSS that are traced to one geographical area. Neither the Critical Text nor the Majority Text includes this verse. It is universally recognised by scholars that this verse was inserted late in the manuscript tradition and is not part of the original text just on the basis of its textual history.

Acts 8:39 NASB "When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away; and the eunuch no longer saw him, but went on his way rejoicing." Does this mean that the Holy Spirit told Philip it was time to leave, or is there a supernatural transportation that takes place here? We tend to think it was a supernatural transportation because of the suddenness of the vocabulary and the narrative here. The verb is harpazo [a(rpazw] which doesn't necessarily mean a supernatural snatching away, but it is used that way. It has a primary meaning of making off with someone else's property by attacking or seizing it. But it is also used to remove something, gain control of something, to snatch something and take it away. This is the word that is used for the Rapture in 1 Thessalonians 4:17. It is used 13 times in the New Testament. When Jerome translated the New Testament into Latin he chose the word rapio as the verb, which is where we get our word "rapture."

There are seven "raptures" in the Scripture: the rapture of Enoch, the rapture of Elijah, Isaiah (Is. 6), Jesus goes to be with the Father in heaven, Philip gets harpazo'd from the road to Gaza to Ashdod, Paul (2 Corinthians 12), the church at the end of the church age.

Acts 8:40 NASB "But Philip found himself at Azotus [modern Ashdod], and as he passed through he kept preaching the gospel to all the cities until he came to Caesarea."

So here we see the inclusion of a black Gentile, but he is not considered a full Gentile because the text treats Cornelius in Acts 10 as the first Gentile convert to the church. The Ethiopian was a proselyte to Judaism.