The Ancient Faith

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J.W. McGarvey

      I will read three verses in the eighth chapter of Acts, from the thirty-sixth to the thirty-ninth:

      And as they went on the way, they came unto a certain water: and the eunuch saith, Behold, here is water; what doth hinder me to be baptized? And he commanded the chariot to stand still; and they both went down into the water, both Philip and the eunuch; and he baptized him.

      A very large element, and an effective one, in modern revival preaching, consists in the recital of cases of conversion; and these are recited to the people for a double purpose: first, to show sinners by example, the way into the kingdom; and second, by the force of stirring and well selected examples, to stimulate sinners to the imitation of them. They have been found so effective that they make up a very large portion of the matter in the sermons of popular revivalists. Now, the Lord knew, before men discovered it, the power there is in examples to make a matter plain, and also to stimulate men to action; and consequently he devoted one book in the New Testament to such recitals. The book of Acts is made up chiefly of accounts of the conversion of a great variety of persons in many different places. If you should take out of it everything that is closely connected with accounts of conversion, and of attempts at conversion where there was a failure, you would have very little left in that book. We have then, in these days, two classes of examples of conversion, between which we may choose those that shall guide us. We have this class written down in the book of Acts; and we have this other class which transpire in our midst, before our eyes. In the present day the great majority of the people are guided chiefly by the latter, as they are so abundantly described by the preachers. For my own part I prefer to be guided by those that are written in the book of Acts; and for this choice I have two reasons. In the first place, all the conversions that took place in those early days occurred under the direction of inspired preachers; and consequently those early converts were not misled in anything that they did. Secondly, after a vast multitude—thousands upon thousands—of such conversions had taken place, the Holy Spirit guided Luke to select a few of them for a permanent place in the Bible; so we may say that these cases of conversion have passed twice under the inspection of the Spirit of God.

      It follows from these considerations that if I, in coming to the Lord Jesus Christ, imitate to perfection any one conversion that is recorded in the book of Acts, my conversion is genuine, and without any defect about it. On the other hand, if, in comparing my supposed conversion with these, I find any material difference between my experience and that of any one of these persons, then mine is, to that extent, defective and wrong. A man who supposes himself a convert to Christ, can test the matter by comparing the particulars of his conversion with the particulars of these; and a man who has not found out the way to Christ, can find out the way by examining these. They serve as infallible guides to those who have not yet started in the way of life.

      After these preliminary remarks, intended to show you the importance of the inquiry I am about to institute, I propose to look carefully at the details of the conversion of which I have read to you—that of the Ethiopian nobleman who was baptized by Philip. These recitals of which I have spoken, so common in the present day, consist in telling the condition of the man before he was converted; then telling what he read, what he thought, what he felt, what was said to him, what was said by him and what he did, until the moment that he finds himself rejoicing in the forgiveness of his sins. Then the recital ends. These accounts in Acts furnish you the same material, and out of the one before us we will gather together and arrange these items according to the plan I have just laid out.

      Let us enquire first, then, who this man was before his conversion. We are told in the text that he was the treasurer of Queen Candace. He appears certainly to have been a Jew, or a proselyte to the Jewish religion—most likely the former—a Jew who, like Daniel, or like Nehemiah, had attained to a very high position in a foreign land. This man had, by his integrity, industry and fidelity, raised himself from the position of a foreigner belonging to a despised race, to be the chief treasurer of the kingdom of Ethiopia. When he is introduced to us, he had just been up to Jerusalem to worship God. He had made a journey of more than a thousand miles on land in a chariot, travelling at the rate of three or four miles an hour, to go up to the city of the living God, to worship God there; and now he was returning home. As he rode along he was reading. I see a great many persons reading on the railroad trains. If I am going to or from Louisville, they are reading the Courier-Journal; if I am going to or from Cincinnati, they are reading the Enquirer or the Commercial-Gazette. I very seldom see them reading anything else, except that now and then I see a lady with a paper-covered book in her hand. This man was travelling, riding along in his chariot over a rough road, and he held in his hand the book of Isaiah—reading that. The text not only tells us this, but it tells the very passage he was reading, and what he was thinking about. He had fallen upon the fifty-third chapter of Isaiah, as now marked in our Bibles, and was reading that wonderful passage which begins, “He was led as a sheep to the slaughter;” and he was reading it aloud. I suppose he had discovered what many others have, that if you read aloud you can keep your attention fixed on the subject better than by reading silently. He was aiming to learn all he could, and when he came to this passage he was puzzled about the meaning of it—”He was led as a sheep to the slaughter”—all monosyllables, nearly, the most familiar words in the language, but the puzzle on his mind was, “Of whom does the prophet write? of himself? or of some other man?” It is impossible for any man who has never heard the story of the Lord Jesus Christ as written in the four gospels, to read that passage thoughtfully and not have the same question arise in his mind. Now the fact that he did not know and could not decide about whom the prophet was writing, shows that he was not yet acquainted with the story of our suffering Saviour. This, then, was the man’s condition before his conversion.

      I think, my brethren, when the Heavenly Father looks down on a man engaged as this one was, He is delighted to see the sight. You go anywhere, and as you pass along keep your mind engaged in the study of God’s word, He loves to see you; you are very near to God’s hand stretched out to lay a blessing on you; and this man was. Notice, he had been up to Jerusalem, where the apostles had been preaching some years, and in the midst of the land where churches had been established, but he was yet in darkness. He is going down into the darkness of heathenism, in his distant home, and if something is not done for him before he goes away, he may die without hearing the name of Jesus. When God saw him thus, he went deliberately to work to make a Christian of him; and we are able, by inspired guidance, to trace all the steps of the divine procedure which brought about his salvation. At the beginning of the narrative, we find that God’s first act was to dispatch an angel from heaven to earth. We are not surprised at this, for we read that all the angels of God are ministering spirits for them who shall be heirs of salvation. But this angel did not, as you might have supposed, visit the man who was reading the Bible—did not appear to him or speak to him—though he was sent from heaven to bring about that man’s conversion. The angel landed in Samaria, and stood in the presence of Philip, an inspired deacon, and said to him: “Philip, arise and go south into the road that leads from Jerusalem to Gaza.” Then the angel disappeared and I suppose he went away to work for the salvation of some other sinner. Philip, then, in obedience to the command, arose and went; I have often wondered how the angel of the Lord adjusted the time for the movements of Philip and those of the chariot. Philip had a journey of two or three days, to get into that road; the chariot, only a run of two or three hours; so, in reality, Philip started before the chariot did; but when he came into the road, there was the chariot right before him. The angel had made no mistake in his calculation. In this, we see the first thing that the Lord did for the eunuch.

      Observe, now, that all that the angel told Philip to do, was to get into that road; and when he got into the road, there he would have stopped, I presume, and waited for some other command from the Lord; but just as he might have stopped, the Holy Spirit interposes and begins his part of the work of the man’s conversion. He does not begin to work in the heart of the eunuch; He does not say anything to the eunuch; but, following up the action of the angel, the Holy Spirit speaks to Philip. He says: “Philip, go and join thyself to that chariot;” and, receiving this command, Philip ran, so as to overtake the chariot quickly. Now, we have an angel working at the command of God for the salvation of that man; we have the Holy Spirit; but the effect of all that the angel and the Spirit did was only to bring the preacher side by side with the man that is to be converted; so, if the angel’s action, or the Spirit’s, is to have any effect on him, it will be through the words which the preacher will speak when he gets there. Paul says, Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God.

      When Philip got up to the chariot, the man was just then engaged in reading aloud the passage which is quoted in the text; for we are told that Philip heard him; and Philip introduced himself in rather an abrupt and singular way, by asking him, “Dost thou understand what thou readest?” If a man were to come up to you when you are reading and ask you that question, you might be offended. Why then did Philip introduce himself, or rather, the conversation, in that way? For a very good reason. He knew that if the man was a believer in the Lord Jesus Christ, he could not fail to know what that passage meant; but if not a believer, he could not understand it. Not an unbelieving Jew on earth today can explain that passage. Philip put that question in order that he might know what kind of a man the Lord had sent him to; if a believer, he would proceed to preach to him in one way; if an unbeliever, he would preach to him in another and very different way. The man’s answer revealed his position as that of an unbeliever: “How can I understand except some one shall guide me?” He speaks as if he had become impatient in his vain struggle with the passage. I do not know why he asked Philip to get up into the chariot with him, unless he thought, from the way Philip looked, or the tone of his voice, or both, that he understood it; and so, anxious and willing to learn, he invites him to a seat, and with the book open before them both, they move slowly on their way. The eunuch inquires, “Of whom speaketh the prophet this? of himself? or of some other man?” The text tells us that Philip began at that same scripture, and preached to him Jesus, and this was the answer to his question. It was not written about Isaiah himself, or any other man, but about Jesus, the Son of God. It could not have required a very great effort in argument or exegesis to enable that man to see that Philip was right. All required was to tell him the story of the birth, the life and the death of the Son of God. It has been related that Voltaire, the great French infidel, said if he could be convinced that the fifty-third chapter of Isaiah is genuine, then he would concede that a least one prediction of the prophets was fulfilled. Philip had an easy task; the eunuch could not fail to see of whom the prophet wrote.

      A great many of the conversions in apostolic times were the conversions of single individuals, as in the present case. Philip went on with his conversational sermon until the chariot drove up to a stream, or to some pool of water, when the eunuch said, “Here is water; what doth hinder me to be baptized?” Did you ever stop and ask yourself how he happened to ask that question? We are told that Philip preached Jesus to the man; but while he was preaching Jesus, the man found out that he had to be baptized, and asked the question, What hinders me? He did not wait for the preacher to urge him to this duty, but he first put the matter before the preacher as the desire of his heart. How did that come about? I have heard people to say, “Bro. McGarvey, I would like your preaching better if you would just preach Christ crucified, and not speak of baptism so often.” Well, I like to gratify my friends, but I can’t get along that way. When Philip was preaching Christ to the man, it seems that baptism was a part of the sermon. Indeed, it is impossible to preach Christ fully to a sinner and leave baptism out of the sermon. You have to mention baptism early in the story of Jesus; for he was baptized by John; and at the end of the story; for then he commanded the disciples to go and baptize men of every nation. You have to leave out both these chapters in the history of Christ if you leave out baptism. It is a mutilated gospel that leaves baptism out of the sermons addressed to sinners. So then the eunuch had heard all this while he was listening to Philip, and he intensely desires to be baptized—so intensely, that before Philip said a word of exhortation on the subject, “Here is water; what doth hinder me to be baptized?” We are not told what Philip’s answer was. It is true that in the King James version it is interpolated, “If thou believest with all thine heart thou mayest.” But the true text simply said that he commanded his chariot to stand still, and they both went down into the water, both Philip and the eunuch. The writer really left out the answer, because he presumed his readers would know what it was, by knowing the answer always given to the question. The answer interpolated is no doubt the one really given. While they were down in the water, Philip baptized him; then they came out, and the same Spirit that made Philip come and join the chariot, caught him away, and the eunuch went on his way rejoicing. Thus the brief story ends. The man has been brought to the forgiveness of his sins, and he rejoices in the Lord.

      I wish now to look at this case from another point of view. Suppose we meet the eunuch down the road—we are old acquaintances of his—and we say, Why, my friend, what has come over you—your face is radiant with joy? He answers, I have a right to rejoice. I have learned of the Redeemer, of the Messiah that was to come; and through Him who is the Redeemer of men I have obtained the forgiveness of my sins; this is what makes me so happy. Well, do tell us your experience. Certainly. Will he begin by telling about the angel that came down from heaven? No; for of this he knew nothing. Will he begin by telling what the Holy Spirit did, in directing Philip to come to the chariot? No; for he knew nothing of this. Well, where will he begin? He must begin by telling of his own reading of God’s word—of coming to a passage which he could not understand, not knowing about whom it was written; and he may say, A man on foot came up to my chariot, while I was reading aloud, and asked if I understood what I was reading. He struck the nail on the head. It seems like a special providence that he came at the nick of time. He looked as if he knew, and I asked him how could I understand except some man should guide me. I invited him to take a seat, and he explained the passage. As he did so, in that passage so dark, as dark as Egypt, I began to see a great light. I soon saw that the prophet spoke of a glorious Redeemer dying for the sins of men. He went on to tell me what that Redeemer had said that men like myself should do. While the man was still speaking I said, What hinders me from being baptized? There was nothing in the way, so I was at once baptized, and I arose from that water with my sins forgiven, according to the promise of the Lord. For this reason I am happy today.

      Now let me ask you who are servants of the Lord, does this experience agree with yours? I thank God that in all its essential points it agrees with mine. I am not sure that any divine power was exerted as in this case, to bring me and the preacher together; but I see no reason why there should not have been. Are there not some persons in this audience who had no thoughts a few days ago of being here this morning to hear me preach? How often you have been brought unexpectedly into meetings where you were deeply impressed! Every impression made on such occasions was anticipated by God, and how do you know but that angels were dispatched to earth to bring you and the preacher of those occasions together? If the eunuch had been told what that angel did, it would have surprised him. If there were today some inspired writer giving an account of your life and mine, you would not know how many angels he would have to speak of in the story. In God’s providence he brings you face to face with the preacher of the gospel, and He does it for the purpose of your salvation.

      One more question in regard to this interesting man. Why didn’t he say: Philip this is a new thing to me; I will be back here at the Passover next year, and if some of your kind will be in Jerusalem then, perhaps I will be able to decide about this new doctrine which you have brought to me. That, is not the way a God-approved man acts. A God-approved man, when he sees a duty, hesitates not, but does it at once. This man went right down into the water. He did not wait for Philip to urge him to go. This is the kind of prompt and decisive obedience which God likes. If you want to please your God and bless your own soul, remember that the very hour in which you learn what your duty is, is the hour in which to act it out. “Today, if ye will hear His voice, harden not your hearts?” Is there a sinner here who wants to have an experience like this man’s? who wants to have this man as his model? Obey the Lord as promptly as he did, and you may go on your way rejoicing.

      It is written of Barton Stone, that in his early days he was travelling through Ohio preaching, and having preached in the forenoon, he mounted his horse to go to another appointment, when, as he rode along, a stranger fell in with him, and said: “Mr. Stone, I heard you preach this morning; here is a stream of water; I want to be baptized. What hinders me?” Stone had never understood this passage of scripture before this; but he was reminded of it, and he instantly resolved to follow it; so he said: “If you believe on the Lord Jesus Christ with all your heart you may.” He answered, “I do believe on him with all my heart.” “Dismount, then,” said Stone, “and let us go down into the water.” They did so, and when they came out of the stream they parted—never saw each other again. Did Stone do right? Did that man do right? If they did not, Philip and the eunuch did wrong. If you do the same, will you do right? You must, if you have the right Bible to guide you. Will you do it at once, and rejoice in the forgiveness of sins? or will you refuse and go on your way sad at heart from a guilty conscience? Come, I pray you, and come now. 


[This was taken from J.W. McGarvey’s Sermons Delivered in Louisville, Kentucky (1894). Subtitles were added for reading ease].            

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The Ancient Faith website is a thematic collection of scholarly yet simple Bible essays and sermons, many of which were composed by Restoration preachers such as J.W. McGarvey, Moses Lard, Benjamin Franklin, and Alexander Campbell. These courageous men of faith through hours of Bible investigation studied themselves out of denominationalism, asking for “the old paths” (Jer. 6:16) and seeking to return to “the faith once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3). We hope you will join with these men in their fervent plea to restore “the ancient order,” “the ancient gospel” or, as it was sometimes called, “the ancient faith.”