Acts 8:26-40 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
26 Then 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.) 27 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 28 and was returning home; seated in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah. 29 Then the Spirit said to Philip, “Go over to this chariot and join it.” 30 So Philip ran up to it and heard him reading the prophet Isaiah. He asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?” 31 He replied, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” And he invited Philip to get in and sit beside him. 32 Now the passage of the scripture that he was reading was this:
“Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter,
and like a lamb silent before its shearer,
so he does not open his mouth.
33 In his humiliation justice was denied him.
Who can describe his generation?
For his life is taken away from the earth.”
34 The eunuch asked Philip, “About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?” 35 Then Philip began to speak, and starting with this scripture, he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus. 36 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?” 38 He commanded the chariot to stop, and both of them, Philip and the eunuch, went down into the water, and Philip baptized him. 39 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. 40 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.
Here lies one of the most unique passages in scripture. It involves two primary characters—Philip, one of the Seven called by the church to serve tables (Acts 6) and the Ethiopian Eunuch, who is traveling home from Jerusalem by way of the road leading from Jerusalem to Gaza (most likely to pick up a ship that would transport him toward home). There is also an angel of God, who sets up a meeting between these two men. Standing behind this encounter is the church’s mission statement found in Acts 1:8. In that verse Jesus tells his followers that when the Spirit comes, they will bear witness to him beginning in Jerusalem, and from there to Judea and Samaria, and then to the ends of the earth. Philip has already participated in that expansion by preaching in Samaria, in what was the first outreach of the early church beyond the original core Jewish audience. Now, with this encounter, it appears that the expansion continues, with Ethiopia being opened up to the message of the gospel. But not only that, but there is a word of inclusion of one who had been excluded or at least marginalized.
It would appear that Philip was still in Samaria when the angel appeared to him and directed him to go down to the road leading from Jerusalem to Gaza. The angel doesn’t tell him what to do or who he would meet. The word is simply go down to the road, and he follows the lead of the angel. Low and behold, when he arrives at the road he hears a man reading the scriptures while riding in a chariot. As for the man in the chariot, we quickly learn that he is Ethiopian, a royal official (apparently, he is the head of the department of the treasury), and he is a eunuch. This latter fact is central to understanding the story. He serves the Queen, the Candace, and being a eunuch, he is trustworthy (see the book of Esther for the role of eunuchs in a royal administration). While he is a trusted official, he is also excluded from the worship of Israel. We’re told that he was returning from Jerusalem, where he had gone to worship, but that would have been difficult since, according to Leviticus he would have been excluded from the Temple (Lev. 21:20).
While he might not have been welcomed into the circle of worshipers, he was a student of scripture. We’re not told if he was of Jewish background, a convert, or a God-fearer. Whatever his religious location, in this moment in time he is reading from Isaiah. The passage has messianic implications. In fact, when Philip flags him down and gets in the chariot, the Ethiopian asks Philip about the identity of the one spoken of in the prophecy—is it the prophet or another? That gives Philip the opening he needs to share the gospel. What all he says is not written down. What is noted is that the Ethiopian responded positively to the explanation and went on to ask whether he could be baptized. After all, there was a pool of water by the side of the road. What prevents him from being baptized? Philip, who had already baptized Samaritans, without authorization, can’t see why he should withhold the water in this case. So, they get out of the chariot, go down to the pool, and Philip baptizes him. As soon as the man comes out of the water, the Spirit snatches Philip away, delivering him to another area needing evangelizing.
The reading opens up a number of questions, including the question of who authorizes baptism. It’s not in Philip’s job description, which involves table service. But Philip has a bigger sense of call, and his ministry is affirmed by the Spirit. How do you say no to the Spirit of God? Then there is the status of the Eunuch. We know something about the barriers to his inclusion, but that doesn’t appear to be a problem here. Philip doesn’t seem to care. He just shares the good news, and when the request for baptism comes, he goes for it. There is here an immediacy to the sacramental act that many of us might be uncomfortable with. It’s true that over time, the churches moved from immediate baptism to prolonged instruction prior to baptism. I don’t know if either is the correct method, but at least in the New Testament baptism accompanies profession of faith rather quickly.
Perhaps the message here concerns the work of the Holy Spirit, who in Acts seems intent on pushing boundaries. It’s not that there are no rules or rites of inclusion, but they are not as narrowly drawn. Better yet, they are expansive. They force a person to fit a particular set of cultural expectations, even as one experiences a change in identity. That is, the man remains an Ethiopian and a eunuch, but through his baptism into Christ, he becomes a new creation. That which had once defined him spiritually no longer does.
We as church are often content to remain within our circles of comfort. We tend to sit in the same pew; sit with the same people at coffee hour; talk with the same people after church. We don’t mean to snub the new-comer, we’re just comfortable with our context. The Spirit of God, however, has an uncanny ability to upset our comfort zones. With the case of this encounter, Willie James Jennings notes that this is a “story of divine compulsion.” In other words, Philip doesn’t initiate the encounter, God does. Jennings writes further: “The Spirit is driving a disciple where the disciple would not have ordinarily gone and creating a meting that without divine desire would not have happened. This holy intentionality sets the stage for a new possibility of interaction and relationship” [Acts: Belief, p. 87]. In Jennings reading of Acts, he reminds us that in the history of the church, too often we have combined the invitation to discipleship with a vision of “civilization” that has nothing to do with the Gospel. So, here in this story, we have an invitation to celebrate our differences, knowing that realm of God is a diverse realm, and through the Spirit’s work, we are brought into relationship with each other.
As we hear this story of a divinely set up encounter between a follower of Jesus and seeker of God, we are invited, in my reading, to enter the lives of others, people who are different. We enter their lives, sharing the good news of Jesus, but without expecting them to become “just like me.” But, together, in our differences and diversity, we move toward the realm of God, each being transformed by the Spirit (not by any cultural visions). In the case of the Ethiopian Eunuch, the differences include ethnicity and sexual identity. These are not changed by the encounter, but the heart of this man is drawn toward Jesus, into whose life he is baptized. From there he rejoices in his encounter with Jesus.
Without any further ado, Philip is caught up by the Spirit and deposited at Azotus, where he begins preaching again as he journeys toward Caesarea. As for the Ethiopian, nothing more is said. One can assume that he returned to Ethiopia, where like so many others in Luke-Acts, he shared the good news. While Christianity was officially established in the fourth century CE, could a see have been planted much earlier, all because of a Spirit led encounter?
Robert Cornwall is the Pastor of Central Woodward Christian Church in Troy, Michigan. He holds the Ph.D. in Historical Theology from Fuller Theological Seminary. He is the author of a number of books including Out of the Office (Energion, 2017), Marriage in Interesting Times (Energion, 2016), and Freedom in Covenant (Wipf and Stock, 2015) and blogs at Ponderings on a Faith Journey.