On the face of it, the story is not, shall we say, in the same league, so I found myself wondering what Luke found so important about this event....to merit its inclusion.
Throughout Acts, Luke places heavy emphasis on the presence and appearance of the Holy Spirit. He also focuses on recording the development of the early church and the occurrences encountered by the evangelists - all emanating from the need to “spread the word”. Both of these elements feature strongly in this passage which, from that perspective, starts to give it greater importance.
Following Stephen’s death, the first Christian martyr, persecution escalated in Jerusalem and the evangelists scattered, Philip, one of the seven new evangelists appointed by the apostles went to Samaria where he preached, healed the sick and baptised believers.
We are told that one day an angel, often used as a manifestation for the Holy Spirit, appeared and told him to go south on the desert road towards Gaza. This was rather strange as it was a deserted desert road with little traffic, however, Philip’s faith was sound and he did as he was told and came across the Ethiopian eunuch riding in his chariot with his entourage. He was reading (or being read to) aloud from the book of Isaiah. Apparently this was fairly commonplace, perhaps the equivalent of listening to Songs of Praise to pass the time on a long journey!
The angel directed him to approach the chariot and engage its occupant, the eunuch was a very high ranking government official and immediately invited Philip to join him and help him understand the passage from which he was reading. Somewhat surprisingly, rather than wanting the actual meaning of the passage explained, what the eunuch particularly wanted to know was “whether, in the passage, the author was referring to himself or someone else?”
Philip immediately took the opportunity to tell the eunuch that even though Isaiah was written approximately 700 years before Christ, the passage related to the character of Jesus and referred to the way in which he would suffer and die for our sins. Philip was so inspirational about Jesus being the Messiah that when they came to a stream, the Ethiopian asked to be baptised.
Now this to me is where the amazing moment comes in the story, and every translation I have read says the same, basically, as they are coming out of the water, Philip “vanishes” and for want of a better word is teleported by the Holy Spirit reappearing in a town some 30 miles away. We are used to bible references about God communicating through angels and Jesus performing even life giving miracles, but this story reflects a new dawn in that it is an example of God’s power beginning to be seen at work through an ordinary person.
So in this one passage we have the Holy Spirit visibly working through the evangelists and the beginnings of a dramatic shift of preaching from the Jews in Jerusalem to Judea and Samaria and further parts of the world. Put these two facts together and the story becomes really quite significant, we see the beginnings of the development of the early church and the extraordinary occurrences which God used to demonstrate His presence and support it’s development.
We are told the eunuch became an evangelist and Ethiopia was one of the earliest countries to become Christian, our Gospel reading, John 15:1-8, talks of Vine, Branches and fruit, here is a perfect example of Christ the vine, Philip the branch and the Ethiopian official the fruit.
So where does that take us today? What will we take home from this account?
The Ethiopian was already open to the scriptures so that he was able to hear the message of Jesus through Phillip. Philip also was primed by the Holy Spirit to be able to preach the gospel, his faith brought him to a remote but exact place to encounter the Ethiopian, to be ready for the conversation and to baptise him. God had prepared them both for their part in hearing and believing in Jesus Christ. This echoes Paul’s writing in 2 Corinthians chapter 2 verse 10
“for we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works which God prepared in advance for us to do”.
In other words, it is there, if we have the faith and look hard enough within ourselves we have got the skills to work in Christ’s name.
I have often heard people say “how can a good God allow suffering in the world?“ and someone else might add “if only someone would explain that”.
We can be the ‘passer-by’, looking on but not approaching, not having the courage or commitment to get involved or we can be like Phillip having confidence in the faith that God is guiding us to do the right thing. Amen