I know I’ve promised to spend some time on Pentecost in this series, and we will get there. But for today, let’s jump ahead a bit to one of my favorite stories in the entire Book of Acts: Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch (Acts 8:26-40).
Now, the (Other) S-Word only makes two appearances in this story, but for my money, the Holy Spirit is the star of this blockbuster tale.
The action begins with an angel giving Philip the Evangelist a set of marching orders – or, in this case, walking orders: the angel tells him to hit the road that goes from Jerusalem to Gaza.
Along the way, he’s passed by an Ethiopian eunuch, sitting in his chariot reading the Book of Isaiah. (The text says he ‘met’ him, but the way I read the story and maps, they were both travelling southwest toward Gaza.)
When I imagine this story, I envision a narrow, bumpy, gravel trail (by today’s standards) and a large, cumbersome scroll. It wasn’t a smooth, wide-shouldered highway and he wasn’t reading from a compact, light-weight Kindle, is the point. Not ideal conditions for study for sure, so clearly, the Eunuch is pretty intrigued by the text. He’s even reading it out loud – perhaps he’s so eager for understanding that he’s picking his driver’s brain on what the Scripture is all about.
So the Eunuch rumbles past Philip, and the Spirit tells him to go near the chariot. Philip runs to catch up to it, overhears what the Ethiopian is saying and interrupts him.
‘Do you understand what you are reading?’ Philip asks in Verse 30 – no greeting or salutation, or even an ‘Excuse me, I’m sorry to disturb you, but …’ – instead, he launches right into a meaty spiritual conversation by asking a know-it-all’s question of a complete stranger.
A gentile, no less.
And what’s more, a castrated gentile.
Now, the Ethiopian was obviously interested in Judaism, since he was reading from Isaiah and was on his way home from worshiping in Jerusalem. But Judaism may not have been particularly interested in him: it says very clearly in Deuteronmy 23:1 that ‘No one who has been emasculated by crushing or cutting may enter the assembly of the Lord‘, and yet Philip doesn’t hesitate to share the Gospel with him. (‘Crushing’?!? Yikes.)
A quick digression: The ancient Jews were a pretty finicky lot, weren’t they? After all, having a small bit of your male anatomy removed by circumcision was a prerequisite for a male Jew. But remove a little too much from the very same area and you were disqualified from being a Jew. (Here’s hoping the mohel has a steady hand!)
Anyway, back to our odd story.
The Ethiopian doesn’t bat an eye at the strange intrusion – he seems grateful, in fact – as he invites this holy hitchhiker aboard the chariot for an impromptu travelling Bible study session. Philip connects the Isaiah prophecy the Ethiopian was reading with the Jesus narrative, and they happen upon ‘some water’. A lake? A stream? A slough? A puddle? Dunno. But whatever it was, it was good enough for the Ethiopian to hold his horses.
‘Look, here is water. What can stand in the way of my being baptized?’ asks the eunuch.
This whole story is pretty strange, but what I think is most remarkable is the Ethiopian’s question: What can stand in the way of my being baptized?
Not Deuteronomy 23:1. Not the fact that only minutes ago, he’d never even heard of Jesus. Not the fact that all he knew of Jesus was shared by a complete stranger who he randomly (it seemed) picked up on the highway. Not the fact that he’s a foreigner and could expect to spend most of his life cut off from other believers.
Contrast the Ethiopian’s conversion experience on the Road to Gaza with that of Paul on the Road to Damascus – the Eunuch needs no face-to-face, blinded-by-the-light encounter with the risen Christ to change his life.
Do you live with that kind of openness to what Jesus has in store for you?
Now, it’s not in the text, but I hear similar ‘What can stand in the way of…’ questions – and similar responses – implied in Philip’s actions.
In Verse 26, the angel tells him to take a trip on the desert road to Gaza. He has no idea why at this point, but he asks ‘What can stand in the way of me obeying this command?‘ My lack of knowledge about why? My disdain for long, apparently pointless journeys in the desert? The extensive list of to-do’s I’ve given myself for today?’ Nope, nope and nope. He’s commanded and he says, ‘Yes, Lord.’
Then, in Verse 29, the Spirit tells him to catch up to the Ethiopian’s chariot. ‘What can stand in the way of me obeying this command? My shyness? My tiredness? My fear of rejection (or worse)? The fact this guy is a sullied eunuch? My lingering disdain for Gentiles?’ Nope, nope, nope and nope. He’s commanded, and he says, ‘Yes, Lord.’
What commands has the Spirit given you? What can stand in the way of your saying, ‘Yes, Lord’?
Anyhoo, back to our story.
Philip agrees that nothing need stand in the way, and he baptizes him. And at this point, this crazy story gets even crazier:
‘When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord suddenly took Philip away…’ – Acts 8:39a
Did He beam Philip up like some celestial Scotty from Star Trek?
And an equally interesting question apart from ‘how’ is ‘why’: Why was Philip suddenly and supernaturally removed from the scene?
Verse 40 says he appeared at Azotus – ~34 miles north of Gaza. Does this mean he was teleported there, as I speculated above? Dunno.
Anyway, Philip then traveled around, preaching in all the towns until he reached Caesarea. Nothing in that description makes it sound like he had a divine appointment that couldn’t wait.
In fact, once he gets to Caesarea, Philip seems to go into retirement. We don’t hear from him again until Acts 21:8, when Paul and his posse stayed with Philip in Caesarea for a few days when they’re on the way to Jerusalem. And that’s the last time his name appears on the New Testament.
So perhaps Philip’s sudden departure in Acts 8 wasn’t so much for the sake of Philip and his ministry, but for the sake of the Ethiopian and his. With the baptism complete, Philip has no more part to play, and the sudden, dramatically supernatural disappearance of the person who brought you to Christ would certainly make a strong impression on a conversion experience that had up to that point been odd, but mostly pretty mundane. At any rate, it doesn’t seem to bother the Eunuch any:
‘When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord suddenly took Philip away, and the eunuch did not see him again, but went on his way rejoicing.’
According to tradition, this Ethiopian eunuch rejoiced all the way home, and kept on rejoicing in a manner so contagious that he established a Christian church that still stands today. Two millennia later, Ethiopia is one of very few African countries where Christians are the majority (63%), and this is directly attributable to Acts 8:26-40.
All because Philip heard the Spirit’s command and chose not to find an answer to the question, What can stand in the way of me saying, ‘Yes, Lord.’
† † †
As much as I love this story, it also makes me a little sad.
It makes me long to have the Spirit speak this loudly and this clearly in my life, and do amazing things through me to change the lives of individuals and through them, entire people groups.
But why don’t things work like this anymore? Is the Spirit less willing to get involved? Or are we less willing (or maybe less able) to let Him?
What is the Spirit commanding you to do. What can stand in the way of you truly saying, ‘Yes, Lord’, and what are you going to do to knock it aside?
Peace be with you.