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Spirit-led Philip

Now an angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Go south to the road — the desert road — that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” So he started out, and on his way he met an Ethiopian eunuch, an important official in charge of all the treasury of Candace, queen of the Ethiopians. This man had gone to Jerusalem to worship, and on his way home was sitting in his chariot reading the book of Isaiah the prophet. The Spirit told Philip, “Go to that chariot and stay near it.” Then Philip ran up to the chariot and heard the man reading Isaiah the prophet … The eunuch asked Philip, “Tell me, please, who is the prophet talking about, himself or someone else?” Then Philip began with that very passage of Scripture and told him the good news about Jesus. As they traveled along the road, they came to some water and the eunuch said, “Look, here is water. Why shouldn’t I be baptized?” And he gave orders to stop the chariot. Then both Philip and the eunuch went down into the water and Philip baptized him. 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. Acts 8.26-30, 34-39.

In Isaiah 11.11-12, Cush or Ethiopia is described as one of the four corners of earth — one of the “ends of earth” to which Jesus had said his disciples would be his witnesses once the Spirit had come (Acts 1.8). And Luke sees that prediction as now being at least partially fulfilled as Philip meets this Ethiopian eunuch and leads him to Christ. (This Philip is not the apostle Philip but the Philip who was one of the seven men “full of the Spirit” whom the apostles had chosen to look after the distribution of food to the widows in Jerusalem — Acts 6.1-5).

The Ethiopian had made the long journey to Jerusalem to worship the God of the Jews there. He was presumably a “God-fearer” — one of those people from other nations who saw a truth in the Jewish beliefs about God that they did not see anywhere else. But this Ethiopian would have met only with disappointment at the end of his journey. As a eunuch he was incapable of being circumcised and so would have found himself excluded from the temple, for the Torah made it clear: “No one who has been emasculated by crushing or cutting may enter the assembly of the LORD” (Deuteronomy 23.1). So his journey had, it seemed, been for nothing. Well, not quite nothing … While in Jerusalem, he had been able to purchase a scroll — a scroll of the prophecy of Isaiah — and now he is reading it as he makes the long journey back home.

If he has already glanced at chapter 56 verse three to five, he will perhaps be feeling a little puzzled, for those verses will have told him: “Let no foreigner who has bound himself to the LORD say, ‘The LORD will surely exclude me from his people.’ And let not any eunuch complain, ‘I am only a dry tree.’ For this is what the LORD says: ‘To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths, who choose what pleases me and hold fast to my covenant — to them I will give within my temple and its walls a memorial and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that will not be cut off.”

“Surely,” the eunuch must be thinking, “that is a direct contradiction of the text from Deuteronomy 23 that has been used against me in Jerusalem to keep me out of the temple?”

“Not so,” the rabbis in Jerusalem would have told him if he had put the point to them. “One day, in Isaiah’s prophetic future, that will no doubt be possible, but not now. Now is not ‘the Day of the Lord'”

“Oh yes it is!” says Philip, who has joined the eunuch in his chariot. And he opens up the Gospel from Isaiah 53, which is the bit that the eunuch had been reading out loud when Philip met up with him. Philip tells him the good news of Jesus and explains to him that he — a Gentile eunuch — is as welcome in the Kingdom of God as is Philip himself.

And it is this “whosoever will may come” aspect of this story (and indeed the whole story of Philip who has already evangelised the outcast Samaritans) that is as important to Luke as the idea that the Gospel is being spread to the ends of the earth. I think he wants me to understand that it’s not only the spreading of the Gospel that is important: it is the nature of the Gospel and the way that I spread it that is just as important. He wants me to be as full of the Spirit as Philip was and to be as open to the Spirit’s leading as Philip was. He wants me to let the Spirit prepare the ground, choose the moment, give the openings, and supply the words. For Luke knows that it is then, and only then, that my evangelising will be real and that there will there be those who go on their way rejoicing because of it.

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