On this Fifth Sunday of Easter, we continue to watch the march of the Easter Gospel across the ancient world as the early Christians followed the marching orders of Jesus given in Acts 1:8. Actually, it was not so much a march as a meander, particularly in the case of Philip in our text.
At least it looks that way if you follow his travels on a map, because he starts by moving north out of Jerusalem into Samaria (Acts 8:5-25). Then Philip moves way south toward the Negev where this story happens. But then in what sounds like the blink of an eye, he finds himself in Philistine territory along the coast of the Mediterranean, landing at last in Caesarea, a coastal town in the north of Israel.
If you just follow the map, this all looks haphazard. In fact, if you don’t read this story carefully and in context, it reads like a story whose various parts are connected by the famous words, “and it just so happened.” But a careful and contextual reading reveals that this is not about happenstance; it is about the Holy Spirit propelling and empowering the church exactly where Jesus said it would go.
And that makes this story much more than an interesting history lesson. It is an immensely important motivational message for the modern church. If the church of today is ever going to get unstuck and make progress in this world, we’ll have to be as sensitive to the movement of the Spirit as Philip was when he preached the Risen Christ to “the outcasts of Israel.”
Indeed, more than one person has suggested that the book of Acts is misnamed when it is called, “The Acts of the Apostles.” It should be called, “The Acts of the Holy Spirit.” That is surely the case in this story, where Philip is not an apostle and the Holy Spirit is the main actor in each part of the story.
Philip was a deacon, one of the original 7 deacons appointed by the apostles to help feed the poor widows. Early in the life of the church, the heavenly harmony we’ve seen in Acts 2 and 4 was disrupted by a painfully modern issue, ethnic strife. The Hellenistic Jews complained that the Palestinian Jews were getting preferential treatment in the daily distribution of food to widows. Rather than spend their energy waiting on tables instead of preaching the Gospel, the apostles wisely decided to appoint 7 men “full of the Spirit and wisdom” to take care of the widows. Philip is mentioned second in the list, right after Stephen.
In God’s providential plan, Philip would become much more than a deacon. When his fellow deacon, Stephen, was martyred for his faithful and fearless testimony about Christ, Philip joined the frantic exodus from Jerusalem which was caused by a fierce persecution led by a young man named Saul. We will soon hear about that young man in Acts 9, but first God had something important for Philip to do.
Acts 8:2 is a very important verse in the history of the church’s mission, because it tells us that “all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria.” The apostles, the Christ-appointed preachers, were still in Jerusalem. But everyone else was scattered. How would the Gospel spread to the ends of the earth if the preachers were stuck back home in Jerusalem? Well, God had a plan. Acts 8:4 challenges the church of all ages. “Those who had been scattered preached the word wherever they went.”
The very next thing we hear is that “Philip went down to a city in Samaria” where the Gospel spread like wildfire. Just like that, the Gospel has touched “the outcasts of Israel,” people who were ethnically and religiously half breeds, scorned by the pure Jews. Yet, by the power of the Spirit, these “dogs” are now part of the flock, approved by Peter and John themselves (Acts 8:14-17). Jesus’ plan is proceeding as he commanded, from Jerusalem to Judea and Samaria, but in ways the apostles could not have imagined.
No one could have dreamed how the Gospel would reach the ends of the earth. Here’s how it happened. The Holy Spirit (disguised as an angel?) said to Philip, “’Go south to the road—the desert road—that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” Do an about face. Leave the flourishing church in Samaria and head to the badlands of the wilderness. Which Philip does immediately and without question.
And it just so happened that “on his way he met an Ethiopian eunuch, an important official in charge of all the treasury of Candace, queen of the Ethiopians.” And it just so happened that this man was returning from Jerusalem where he had gone to worship. And it just so happened that he had a copy of Isaiah’s prophecy for his travel reading. And it just so happened that he was reading that part where Isaiah talks about the silence of a lamb who was slain. No, this didn’t just happen. It was all arranged by the Spirit, who says to Philip, “Go to that chariot and stay near it.”
What a perfect example of God knowing what he’s doing, even when we don’t. Jesus had said, go the “ends of the earth.” That’s exactly how the Greeks and Romans saw Ethiopia (cf. Homer’s Odyssey), which was probably what we call northern Sudan today. Which means that this man was black; indeed, in the Greek, “Ethiopian” means “burnt or black.” Further, he was an important official, meaning that he would have access to the corridors of power back home. He was an important African man.
But he was also a devotee of the Jewish religion. That’s why he had just journeyed all the way to Jerusalem to participate in a Jewish feast. His light reading for the trip was a large scroll of Isaiah. He was a deeply devout proselyte, a “God fearer.” Sadly, he was also a eunuch, which meant that he was legally excluded from the Temple. He was, in spite of his piety, an “outcast of Israel.” Both an important African and a devotee of Judaism who was excluded from its holiest place, he was the perfect choice to be the first non-Jew to hear the Gospel.
The Holy Spirit made sure he heard it and believed it. At the Spirit’s explicit command, Philip ran up to the chariot and asks exactly the right question. “Do you understand what you are reading?” Now, this important official might have blown off this lone figure sweating in the desert heat. But he responds with the very kind of question asked by the crowd at Pentecost, a question that indicates a Spirit-produced openness. “How can I unless someone explains it to me?”
Well, the Spirit had provided that someone in the person of Philip, who uses that mysterious passage from Isaiah 53 to tell the Ethiopian “the good news about Jesus.” There’s a subtle word play going on here. In Isaiah 53 the lamb did not open his mouth. Verse 35 of our text in the original says that Philip “opened his mouth,” which is an Old Testament way of saying that God was speaking through him. He opened his mouth and out came the Gospel, even though he wasn’t an apostle who had spent 3 years with Jesus. The Holy Spirit overcame his lack of credentials and training.
Clearly, the Holy Spirit opened the Ethiopian’s mind and heart as well, because the next thing we read in verse 36 is the man asking to be baptized. Verse 37, recorded in a footnote as the possible addition by a scrupulous scribe, has Philip asking if the man really believes, to which the man replies with a perfectly orthodox confession of faith. And just like that, the man was baptized and the gospel had reached one of the ends of the earth.
How do we know this was the Spirit’s doing? Because the passage begins with the Spirit’s word to Philip and it is shot through with explicit and implicit references to the Spirit and it ends with the Spirit mysteriously snatching Philip away and depositing him in Azotus (Ashdod in Philistine parlance). Rather than reacting with shock to this sudden disappearance, the newly converted Ethiopian “went on his way (back to Ethiopian) rejoicing (and witnessing as he had been witnessed to?).”
Philip continued to preach the Gospel in formerly Philistine territory until he arrived in the important Roman town of Caesarea in northern Israel, where we find him next with 4 unmarried daughters who are all (surprise!) prophetesses (Acts 21:8). It would be surprising and disappointing if the Ethiopian didn’t do the same. Whenever new converts were scattered by persecution or by religious pilgrimage or by personal business, they preached the Gospel. It wasn’t just the Acts of the Apostles that spread the Gospel. It was the Acts of the Holy Spirit using ordinary people.
The New Interpreters Bible sums up this passage in its context. In these early chapters of Acts, we see the Gospel going to “the whole household of Israel—resident Jews from Jerusalem to pilgrims from the most distant parts of the Diaspora, pious Jews most devoted to their religious heritage to those most detached from it. Why? To prepare the reader for the Lord’s most shocking commission of another Jewish convert who will carry the word of God beyond Israel as ‘a light to the nations (Acts 9:15).’”
A textual sermon on this passage should highlight and celebrate the role of the Spirit in the early church’s incredible success. And it should challenge today’s church to be open and dependent on that same Spirit, so that we will preach the Gospel wherever we go. Asking good questions and speaking of Jesus with bold simplicity will, by the Spirit’s power, lead the most unlikely people to faith in Christ.
Desmond Doss was a coward, a lily livered, yellow bellied coward, and everyone knew it. Until “Hacksaw Ridge,” which is the title of the movie that tells the story of Desmond Doss.
The movie is set in WWII. Like all red-blooded American boys, Desmond wanted to help in the war effort, so he enlisted in the army. But because of his peculiar brand of the Christian faith, he wouldn’t carry a rifle or kill anyone. He wanted to serve, so he volunteered to be a medic, which his fellow soldiers interpreted as cowardice. So, they mocked him, excluded him, even beat him up. The Army itself tried to drum him out. But he insisted he wanted to serve, but as a medic.
Doss was part of the invasion of the important Japanese island of Okinawa. Doss’ unit was tasked with the impossible mission of taking Hacksaw Ridge, a sheer cliff 100 feet tall on top of which were thousands of fiercely patriotic, even suicidal Japanese troops. The Army had to climb that cliff using crude rope ladders. So up the cliff went Desmond Doss, the coward.
On top was a living hell. It was like walking into a hacksaw. Hundreds of Americans troops were maimed and killed. Before long, they had to retreat back down the cliff, all except Desmond Doss. He stayed behind to rescue the dying. He found a man bloodied beyond recognition, and dragged him to the edge of the cliff. Doss fashioned a rope harness and, wrapping the rope around a stump, slowly lowered the man to waiting comrades below. When he finished that, Doss set out in search of more injured GI’s. One by one he dragged them to the edge and lowered them over. After a while, he began to pray, “Lord, help me find one more.” Over and over, he prayed, “Help me find one more.”
By the time that day was over, Desmond Doss, the coward, had saved 75 men. His formerly scornful comrades now praised his faith and his courage. His bravery and dedication earned him the Congressional Medal of Honor. It’s a true story.
His prayer should be the prayer of all believers as we march and stumble and crawl through the living hell that our world often is. “Help me get one more.” But the only way we will dare to pray and live that way is by the leading and empowering of the Holy Spirit.
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, May 2, 2021
Acts 8:26-40 Commentary