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.Acts 8:39
When reading the Bible, the most “obvious” conclusion is not necessarily the correct one. For one, what is obvious to us may not have been the “obvious” or the “face value” way of reading the passage two thousand years ago in a totally different era, region, and language. So, when we ask “why did the Eunuch go away rejoicing,” it is important to still take the time to evaluate the immediate and remote context of this passage. By immediate context, I mean the book of Acts. By remote context, I mean the rest of the Bible.
What Acts is All About
When I read Acts growing up, I typically read it to learn the history of the church or to examine the various conversion accounts, and while the book of Acts can be used to scratch those itches, that is not it's primary purpose. The book of Acts is the sequel to the gospel according to Luke. So determining the purpose of Acts is dependent upon how one reads Luke.
So, if we answer the question “What is Luke All About?” then we can have a better understanding of Acts.
Luke is all about answering the question Israel had been asking for ages: when will the Messiah come to restore the nation? Below are a list of references from Luke, and it is by no means comprehensive. The life of John the Baptist alone would yield paragraphs more of material, not to mention the actual teachings of Jesus Himself. All of the passages below either directly address the subject of the restoration of Israel or quote from an Old Testament text which does.
For he will be great in the sight of the Lord; and he will drink no wine or liquor, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit while yet in his mother's womb. And he will turn many of the sons of Israel back to the Lord their God. It is he who will go as a forerunner before Him in the spirit and power of Elijah, TO TURN THE HEARTS OF THE FATHERS BACK TO THE CHILDREN, and the disobedient to the attitude of the righteous, so as to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.Luke 1:15–17
The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary; for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall name Him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High; and the Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David; and He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and His kingdom will have no end.”Luke 1:30–33
He has given help to Israel His servant, In remembrance of His mercy, As He spoke to our fathers, To Abraham and his descendants forever.Luke 1:54–55
Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, For He has visited us and accomplished redemption for His people, And has raised up a horn of salvation for us In the house of David His servant— As He spoke by the mouth of His holy prophets from of old— Salvation FROM OUR ENEMIES, And FROM THE HAND OF ALL WHO HATE US; To show mercy toward our fathers, And to remember His holy covenant, The oath which He swore to Abraham our father, To grant us that we, being rescued from the hand of our enemies, Might serve Him without fear, In holiness and righteousness before Him all our days.Luke 1:68–75
And there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; and this man was righteous and devout, looking for the consolation of Israel; and the Holy Spirit was upon him. And it had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord's Christ.Luke 2:25–26
Now Lord, You are releasing Your bond-servant to depart in peace, According to Your word; For my eyes have seen Your salvation, Which You have prepared in the presence of all peoples, A LIGHT OF REVELATION TO THE GENTILES, And the glory of Your people Israel.Luke 2:29–32
And Simeon blessed them and said to Mary His mother, “Behold, this Child is appointed for the fall and rise of many in Israel, and for a sign to be opposed— and a sword will pierce even your own soul—to the end that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed.”Luke 2:34–35
At that very moment she came up and began giving thanks to God, and continued to speak of Him to all those who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.Luke 2:38
And the book of the prophet Isaiah was handed to Him. And He opened the book and found the place where it was written, “THE SPIRIT OF THE LORD IS UPON ME, BECAUSE HE ANOINTED ME TO PREACH THE GOSPEL TO THE POOR. HE HAS SENT ME TO PROCLAIM RELEASE TO THE CAPTIVES, AND RECOVERY OF SIGHT TO THE BLIND, TO SET FREE THOSE WHO ARE OPPRESSED, TO PROCLAIM THE FAVORABLE YEAR OF THE LORD.” And He closed the book, gave it back to the attendant and sat down; and the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on Him. And He began to say to them, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”Luke 4:17–21
But we were hoping that it was He who was going to redeem Israel. Indeed, besides all this, it is the third day since these things happened.Luke 24:21
This message is carried over to the book of Acts. Immediately in Acts, Jesus talks to His disciples about the kingdom and the pouring out of the Spirit. The pouring out of the Spirit has its roots in passages like Joel 2:28ff and Ezekiel 37. So when Jesus promises the baptism of the Spirit, the disciples correctly apply it to the restoration of Israel:
Gathering them together, He commanded them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait for what the Father had promised, “Which,” He said, “you heard of from Me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.” So when they had come together, they were asking Him, saying, “Lord, is it at this time You are restoring the kingdom to Israel?”Acts 1:4–6
Their question was not out of ignorance but out of their in-depth knowledge of the prophets which had become even more clear through learning about the kingdom directly from Jesus over a 40 day period (Acts 1:3). The book of Acts, then, is not just the story of various conversions; it is about the restoration of Israel!
For example, in Acts 15, James cites Amos 9 to talk about what God was doing in his day through the Gentiles. In the prophets, Israel's restoration didn't just mean blessings for her! In restoring Israel, God would fulfill the promise made to Abraham that through his seed all nations of the earth would be blessed.
As one other example, Paul clearly teaches that his doctrine of the resurrection is tied up in the promises made to Old Covenant Israel. Echoing Ezekiel 37, Paul says,
And now I am standing trial for the hope of the promise made by God to our fathers; the promise to which our twelve tribes hope to attain, as they earnestly serve God night and day. And for this hope, O King, I am being accused by Jews. Why is it considered incredible among you people if God does raise the dead?Acts 26:6–8
For Paul the resurrection and the fulfillment of the promises made to Israel is inseparable.
Now, what does this view of Acts have to do with the Eunuch's joy after being immersed in water?
Understandest Thou What Thou Readest?
When Phillip approached the Eunuch's chariot, he famously asked, “Understandest Thou What Thou Readest?” (King James English, of course). The Eunuch was reading from the prophet Isaiah. Specifically, he was reading from Isaiah 53. From this passage, Phillip began to preach. We don't have the content of his message except for one short note: he preached Jesus to him (Acts 8:35).
What in Isaiah 53 and the chapters surrounding it may cause the Eunuch much joy?
Let not the foreigner who has joined himself to the LORD say, “The LORD will surely separate me from His people.” Nor let the eunuch say, “Behold, I am a dry tree.” For thus says the LORD, “To the eunuchs who keep My sabbaths, And choose what pleases Me, And hold fast My covenant, To them I will give in My house and within My walls a memorial, And a name better than that of sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name which will not be cut off. “Isaiah 56:3–5
The Eunuch was unable to have children. For one living under the Old Covenant, this was devastating. The book of Ruth is a wonderful example of why producing children was so important. Ruth's husband, his brother, and her father-in-law all died before Ruth or her sister-in-law were able to have any kids. This meant that Naomi's husband, Elimelech, would have no one to whom he could leave his inheritance. To use Isaiah's words, he was a dry tree.
This is why the Law had a system in place called levirate marriage to protect against this very thing. If the eldest brother died without having any children, then the brother who is next in line would his elder brother's widow as a wife. This was all done to preserve the deceased brother's name (Deuteronomy 25:5-10).
In being born a eunuch, volunteering for the position, or through being made a eunuch by force, the Eunuch in Acts 8 would be unable to produce children, so his name would be blotted out of Israel. However, the Eunuch would have been aware of Isaiah 56. He would have known that one day eunuchs would be given a name better than sons and daughters. So for Phillip to say that these prophecies had been fulfilled in Jesus is to give the Eunuch a reason for living!
No longer is he a dry tree! No longer does he have to worry that his name will be cut off! Because of Jesus, he is able to be a productive member of the covenant community and bring forth sons and daughters through the gospel.
And so he went on his way rejoicing!
Tomorrow we will look at how understanding this short statement sheds light on a strange question the Sadducees asked Jesus.