"Yea, a commandment I give unto you, that ye search these things diligently; for great are the words of Isaiah.”
— 3 Nephi 10:27
In a recent sermon, I commented that in Mark 9:10 when Jesus explained that John the Baptist had to come to prepare “all things; and teacheth you of the prophets; how it is written of the Son of Man, that he must suffer many things, and be set at naught,” that Jesus was likely referring to the 53rd chapter of Isaiah which is commonly explained as a portrait of Jesus as the suffering servant.
To most, Isaiah 53 is one of the most poignant descriptions of Jesus in all of scripture, yet there is not unanimity among scholars that this is speaking of Jesus. Some say, for example, that Isaiah 53 is referring to the nation of Israel. We are fortunate that in the Book of Mormon, Abinadi quotes from Isaiah 53 and then provides an explanation that clearly identifies the suffering servant portrayed there as Jesus (Mosiah 8th chapter). But are there other places in scripture that also make this clear?
In chapter 8 of Acts, Stephen’s death (Acts 7:58-60) has sparked an intense persecution against the church in Jerusalem. Many of the believers must flee the city, but the apostles decide to stay. Saul is active in tracking down Christians and having them arrested and thrown in prison. (Acts 8:3) A terrible scene.
The attacks on the Christians in Jerusalem have an unintended consequence, however. As they flee the city and travel to other towns and villages, the believers start to spread the story of Jesus to the surrounding region, something they hadn’t done for the first several years after Pentecost. (Acts 8:4)
Luke then focuses on Philip. Not Philip the apostle (remember all the apostles stayed in Jerusalem) but his namesake who had been chosen as one of seven to ensure the Hellenist widows received care. (Acts 6:1-5) He became known as Philip the evangelist (Acts 21:8). As a Hellenist Christian himself, he was probably one of the first to leave Jerusalem as persecution intensified. He travels to a city in Samaria and there “preached Christ.” (Acts 8:5) It is unclear which city Philip visits first, although some suggests Sychar. Sychar was the religious center of Samaria, so it would make sense that Philip would go there first.
In Sychar, Philip casts out unclean spirits and many that were sick were healed, all of which cause the Samaritans to listen to what he has to say about Jesus. Luke reports that a significant number receive the message and that there is great joy in the city. (Acts 8:6-8)
In verses 14-17, Luke reports that Peter and John travel from Jerusalem to see for themselves what is happening in Samaria. When Peter and John arrive, they pray for the Samaritan converts and lay hands on them. Immediately, the Holy Spirit manifests himself in the new believers. We are not sure what occurs, but it is speculated that they were able to speak in foreign languages just as the disciples were able to do at Pentecost. In fact, some scholars refer to this event as the Samaritan Pentecost.
In verse 26, an angel instructs Philip to leave Samaria and go down south of Jerusalem onto the road that leads past Gaza. As Philip is walking on the road, an Ethiopian official, a man of “great authority,” is riding in a chariot and reading aloud from an Isaiah scroll. Luke records the exact verse he was reading which in our bibles is Isaiah 53:7; “The place of the scripture which he read was this, He was led as a sheep to the slaughter; and like a lamb dumb before his shearer, so opened he not his mouth;” (Acts 8:32)
Since the Ethiopian had come to Jerusalem to worship, he would have been called a God-fearer. God-fearers are people who worship the God of Israel, but who are not official converts to Judaism (proselytes). In this case, because the Ethiopian is a eunuch, Jewish law would not allow him to become a proselyte. (Deuteronomy 23:1)
The Holy Spirit directs Philip to engage with the eunuch, so Philip asks him if he understands what he is reading. The eunuch tells him no. The identity of the suffering servant in Isaiah 53 was an open question in the first century. Few would have identified the servant as the Messiah. Philip is invited into his chariot to explain the words (Isaiah 53:7-8) to him. Luke makes Philip’s view of Isaiah 53 clear; “Then Philip opened his mouth, and began at the same scripture, and preached unto him Jesus.” (Acts 8:35) Philip explains that the sheep led to slaughter in Isaiah 53 is none other than the Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth.
As the chariot passes by water, the eunuch asks Philip to baptize him because he has understood and believed what Philip has said about Jesus. Philip baptizes the eunuch and then disappears, taken by the Holy Spirit to a city just north called Azotus.
According to Irenaeus in his book, Against the Heresies, “(Simeon Bachos the Eunuch) was also sent into the regions of Ethiopia, to preach what he had himself believed, that there was one God preached by the prophets, but that the Son of this (God) had already made (His) appearance in human flesh, and had been led as a sheep to the slaughter; and all the other statements which the prophets made regarding Him." By the 4th century, Christianity was his country’s official religion.
“The testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy.” (Revelation 19:10) Truly, great are the words of Isaiah for they bear witness of Jesus.