Connections 04.29.2018: Where It Starts

Acts 8:26-40

When Philip met the Ethiopian on the desert road, the eunuch was reading the passage in the Isaiah scroll that talks about the suffering servant. When the Ethiopian asked Philip about the identity of the servant, Philip answered him, “starting with this scripture” (v. 35).

What Luke means is that Philip started where the Ethiopian was, which was in Isaiah 53. As it happened, that meant that Philip started with Scripture. That’s a good place to start when you’re telling someone about Jesus.

But it’s not where Philip’s explanation really started. It really started with everything that had happened up to this point, some of which Philip knew about and some of which he didn’t. He knew about his experiences, although neither he nor anyone else knows all about what lies behind, beneath, and within their own experiences. And he certainly didn’t know about the Ethiopian’s experiences. But the totality of their experiences led to this moment.

Philip started with Scripture, but he didn’t stay or stop there. He went on to tell the eunuch “the good news about Jesus” (v. 35), which went beyond what Isaiah 53 said and into the events of Jesus’ life. But the good news of how Jesus fulfilled the prophet’s hope through his life, death, and resurrection hadn’t been written down yet. Paul wasn’t even a Christian at this point, and he wouldn’t write his first letter that went on to be included in the New Testament, and which is the oldest writing in it (1 Thessalonians), for another twenty years. The first written Gospel wouldn’t appear until twenty years after that.

So to tell the Ethiopian about Jesus, Philip had to tell what he had heard in the preaching and teaching of the apostles. And he had to talk about his own experience with Jesus.

We have the advantage of the New Testament, so we have more Scripture to work with than Philip did. Do we know more about Jesus than Philip did? Who knows? But we know the same Jesus Philip did. We know him as our crucified and resurrected Lord. We know him through the preaching of the Gospel, through the presence of the Spirit, and through the community of the church.

On that day in that chariot on that desert road, Philip started with Scripture. But his exchange with the Ethiopian really started long before: it started with all of their experiences. And, since God told Philip to go to the place where he met the eunuch and to speak to him once he got there, we can also say that their conversation had its roots in God’s purposes. In fact, Philip’s exchange with the Ethiopian happens in the context of what God has always been doing, was doing then, is doing now, is always doing, and will always do.

It’s rather mind-boggling to realize that our experiences with and conversations about Jesus happen in the context of all of God’s activity too.

Discussion

1. An angel told Philip to go to the desert road, and Philip went, even though the angel didn’t tell him why he was going. What does this teach us about Christian obedience?
2. How would you describe the Ethiopian eunuch’s religious commitments before he met Philip?
3. Philip guided the Ethiopian in reading Scripture. What kind of guidance in reading Scripture is available to us?
4. How does Scripture point to Jesus? How does Jesus fulfill Scripture?
5. How can we join Philip in sharing the good news of Jesus everywhere we go?

Resource Shelf

The story echoes texts such as Deuteronomy 23:1 and Isaiah 56:3-7. The Deuteronomic text explicitly states that castrated men cannot enter the assembly of the Lord. Yet the Isaianic text states that in the new age of salvation, even the eunuchs and foreigners would be admitted into God’s house (see Isa 56:3-7). It is significant that this man was a eunuch from a foreign land, for he embodies those of whom Isaiah 56:3-7 speaks.

In Isaiah, the eunuch and the foreigner were to find full acceptance in God’s house, the temple. It is significant that in the Lukan narrative the promise of Isaiah, the promise of full inclusion among God’s people of foreigners and eunuchs, finds its fulfillment not in Jerusalem and the temple, from which the eunuch is returning, but in his hearing and receiving of the gospel. Readers miss much of the punch of this story if they fail to observe that this man, as a foreigner and eunuch, is excluded from the fold of Israel. Thus, whatever sense readers make of this story, it is best not to downplay the Gentile (foreign) status of this character.

This eunuch is certainly sympathetic with the Jewish faith. He is, after all, returning to his homeland after having made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem to worship (v. 27). While the text leaves a gap, not saying one way or the other whether the eunuch would have been welcomed into the inner courts, it is legitimate for readers to fill the gap with the assumption that he would not have been welcomed into the inner courts of the temple. Nothing Luke has said to this point would imply the welcoming of the eunuch, and readers later will learn of staunch, even violent resistance to the idea of allowing non-Jews into the temple (21:29). This eunuch represents a Gentile who is sympathetic with the Jewish faith, but who is not “qualified” to be a full participant within this faith.

Readers would profit to pause and reflect further on the notice that the eunuch has been to Jerusalem to worship (proskyneo, v. 27). Recall that Israel’s raison d’être was to worship (latreuo) God (7:7). Luke does not employ the same Greek word in 8:27, but he does not sharply distinguish between the two words (see, e.g., Luke 4:7, 8; Acts 7:42, 43; 24:11, 14). This non-Jewish person, one excluded from the temple by those who have run Philip out of Jerusalem, satisfies better in his life Israel’s reason to be than does Israel itself.

J. Bradley Chance, Acts, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2007) 136-37.

Michael Ruffin is husband to Debra, father to Joshua (Michelle) and Sara (Benjamin), grandfather to Sullivan. A graduate of Mercer University and Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, he has previously served as a pastor and as a university professor. He lives on the Ruffin Family Farm in Yatesville, Georgia. He is the Connections Series Curriculum Editor.

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