“Understandest Thou What Thou Readest?”

This was Philip’s question to the Ethiopian Eunuch when he encountered him as he approached his chariot (Acts 8:30). Philip had been commanded by an angel of the Lord to go south on the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza. These are the only recorded words to Philip in the text and Philip arose and went. Such is the response of faith to God’s instructions.

As Philip approached the chariot, the Spirit commanded, “Go, join thyself unto this chariot” and so Philip did. The man riding in the chariot was a nobleman: the treasurer over all the treasure of the queen of Ethiopia. Yet his faith in God caused him to make a very long journey to Jerusalem to worship as the law commanded God’s people to do. He was returning home and he spent his travel time reading from the Holy Scriptures, which is never a waste of time. He was reading aloud from Isaiah 53. Philip, hearing him reading and recognizing where he was reading from, asked him, “Understandest thou what thou readest?”

Understanding what one reads is essential in order that one may act on the stated instructions. A wise man seeks understanding and “Good understanding giveth favor”. In his youth and early in his reign, Solomon felt the insecurity of being a youth although he was the head of a great nation. When God approached him and asked what he wished for God to give him, Solomon responded by asking for wisdom that he might govern the great nation over which he was king. God was pleased with his request and gave him wisdom and other things he had not asked for: riches and length of days (1 Kings 3:12). In the case of the eunuch, it was truly essential for him to understand what Isaiah was saying. The chapter he was reading from was “chock-full” of truths about the coming Messiah God had promised Israel. These truths included His humility, His speechlessness at His trial, His rejection by His own people, His unfair trial, and His death and resurrection. The eunuch was baffled by Isaiah’s predictions and wanted to understand what the prophet meant.

And so, the eunuch answered Philip’s question with a question: “How can I except some man should guide me?” I’m sure that by these words Philip immediately understood the purpose of his ministry. He was to be God’s instrument to give understanding to this man who didn’t understand. God does not tell men directly what they must do to please Him or to be saved. He has given that responsibility to His creature: man. When Paul wrote the Corinthians of the saving light that come through God’s Word, he said, “Seeing it is God that said, Light shall shine out of darkness, who shinned in our hearts, to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the greatness of the power may be of God and not from ourselves” (2 Corinthians 4:6-7). God could have told Saul what He wanted him to do when Saul asked, “Lord, what wilt thou have me to do?” but He didn’t (Acts 22:10). He told him, “Arise and go into Damascus and there it shall be told thee all things which art appointed for thou to do”. He sent His earthen vessel, Ananias, to give him that information. God could have told Cornelius what He wanted him to do, but He didn’t. He sent His earthen vessel, Peter, to give him the information. And God could have told the eunuch what to do to be saved, but He didn’t. He sent His earthen vessel, Philip, with that information.

Philip began preaching with the passage from which the eunuch was reading and “preached unto him Jesus”. That passage began, “He was led as a lamb to the slaughter, and as a lamb before his shearer is dumb, so he opened not his mouth …” (Acts 8:32; cp. Isaiah 53:7-8). As they went on their way they came to water and the eunuch said, “See, here is water. What doth hinder me to be baptized?” (Acts 8:36). The understanding the eunuch received was supplied in the way God intended: through His earthen vessel, Philip. He explained to the eunuch of whom and of what Isaiah had written, plus further information that “Smitten One” had revealed to His apostles through His Holy Spirit.

God’s children are His earthen vessels to carry the light to a darkened world. He commanded the twelve: “Go ye therefore and teach all nations …” (Matthew 28:18; cp. Mark 16:15; Acts 1:8). The apostles served their own generation and they and that generation are now dead, but a new generation lives and needs the same gospel the generation living in the apostles’ time needed.

God still tells sinful men how and what they must do to be saved through His earthen vessels, us. Let us heed His instructions: “Preach the word. Be urgent in season, out of season. Reprove, rebuke, exhort with all longsuffering and doctrine” (2 Timothy 4:2).

Jim McDonald