In Acts 1:8 Jesus prepared his apostles to spread the gospel geographically: You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth. The Samaritan mission under Philip marks the first step in spreading the word beyond the bounds of traditional Judaism.
Philip’s work among the Samarians had been received with Joy. Philip went down to the city of Samaria and proclaimed the Messiah to them. The crowds with one accord listened eagerly to what was said by Philip, hearing and seeing the signs that he did, for unclean spirits, crying with loud shrieks, came out of many who were possessed; and many others who were paralyzed or lame were cured. So there was great joy in that city (Acts 8:5-8).
As this morning’s first reading opens, (Acts 8:26-40)…an angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Get up and go toward the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” (This is a wilderness road.) So he got up and went.
Now there was an Ethiopian eunuch, a court official of the Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, in charge of her entire treasury. He had come to Jerusalem to worship and was returning home; seated in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah. The Ethiopian could read, at a time when most could not and he held a position of power as indicated by the description in charge of her entire treasury. He also enjoyed enough personal wealth and freedom that he could ride in a chariot.
Luke refers to the person four times as a eunuch in this passage, never naming him or identifying him in any other way.This may have been to highlight the openness of the Kingdom of God since Deuteronomy 23:1 forbids eunuchs from entering the assembly of the Lord. Beyond that, he was from Africa: a non-Jew.
He had come to Jerusalem to worship suggests that he was at least intrigued but perhaps he had even turned towards the God of the Jews in his heart.
Then the Spirit said to Philip, “Go over to this chariot and join it.” So Philip ran up to it and heard him reading the prophet Isaiah. He asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?” He replied, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” And he invited Philip to get in and sit beside him. Despite the prohibitions in Deuteronomy, the Spirit instructed Philip to engage him.
The passage he was reading was Isaiah 53:7, one of the “suffering servant songs” of Isaiah often interpreted by Christians as referring to Jesus.
“Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter,
and like a lamb silent before its shearer,
so he does not open his mouth.
In his humiliation justice was denied him.
Who can describe his generation?
For his life is taken away from the earth.”
The eunuch asked Philip, “About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?” Then Philip began to speak, and starting with this scripture, he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus. As they were going along the road, they came to some water; and the eunuch said, “Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?”
And Philip said, “If you believe with all your heart, you may.” And he replied, “I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.” He commanded the chariot to stop, and both of them, Philip and the eunuch, went down into the water, and Philip baptized him. Despite the prohibition in Deuteronomy, the Kingdom of God was open to the eunuch.
The first reading concludes like a good serialized novel: When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away; the eunuch saw him no more, and went on his way rejoicing. But Philip found himself at Azotus, and as he was passing through the region, he proclaimed the good news to all the towns until he came to Caesarea. The immediate task was done and there was much to do. There wasn’t time to waste in travelling, so the Spirit seems to have ‘transported’ from the Gaza road, about 25 kilometres north to Azotus. It suggests that there is more excitment to follow.
The early part of Acts 8 tells the story of mass conversions, healings and driving out Spirits. This passage, by contrast, tells the story of the welcome of one person, a non-Jew and a eunuch, barred from entering the temple assembly, into the life of Christ. It reminds us of Matthew 18:12 What do you think? If a shepherd has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray? In God’s economy, God sometimes determines that it is more important to address the needs of one person than a crowd…then returning to the crowds in all the towns until he came to Caesarea.
- This passage presents the Ethiopian Eunuch as a person of education, authority and wealth. Despite these advantages, we also know that he was barred, by scripture, from the temple assembly. Beyond that he must have suffered physically and socially in being made a eunuch. Do you know of situations in which God invited in people who seemed to be outside the normal call of the Christian life?
- Philip seems to be a passive actor in this story, doing what the angel or the Spirit directed him to do, including engaging this outsider. How do you imagine that he felt at the directions he was given? Did he ever say, “But I thought you wanted me to go here!” Was there a time when he said, “I was just getting into a rhythm with the Samarian’s”? What meaning do we attach to Philip’s willingness to accept these instructions?
- How do you imagine the eunuch responded to his baptism? Did he turn around and go back to Jerusalem to try to find a Christian community? Did he return to Ethiopia and send for other apostles to come and spread the word there? Was his conversion as significant as Paul’s?