Acts 8:26-40 (CEV) Philip and an Ethiopian Official
The Lord’s angel said to Philip, “Go south along the desert road that leads from Jerusalem to Gaza.” So Philip left.
An important Ethiopian official happened to be going along that road in his chariot. He was the chief treasurer for Candace, the Queen of Ethiopia. The official had gone to Jerusalem to worship and was now on his way home. He was sitting in his chariot, reading the book of the prophet Isaiah.
The Spirit told Philip to catch up with the chariot. Philip ran up close and heard the man reading aloud from the book of Isaiah. Philip asked him, “Do you understand what you are reading?”
The official answered, “How can I understand unless someone helps me?” He then invited Philip to come up and sit beside him.
The man was reading the passage that said,
“He was led like a sheep on its way to be killed. He was silent as a lamb whose wool is being cut off, and he did not say a word. He was treated like a nobody and did not receive a fair trial. How can he have children, if his life is snatched away?”
The official said to Philip, “Tell me, was the prophet talking about himself or about someone else?” So Philip began at this place in the Scriptures and explained the good news about Jesus.
As they were going along the road, they came to a place where there was some water. The official said, “Look! Here is some water. Why can’t I be baptized?” He ordered the chariot to stop. Then they both went down into the water, and Philip baptized him.
After they had come out of the water, the Lord’s Spirit took Philip away. The official never saw him again, but he was very happy as he went on his way.
Philip later appeared in Azotus. He went from town to town, all the way to Caesarea, telling people about Jesus.
“How can I understand unless someone helps me?”
“Tell me, was the prophet talking about himself or about someone else?”
“Look! Here is some water. Why can’t I be baptised?”
This Ethiopian official is sitting in his carriage reading Isaiah from a scroll – aloud! Commentators tell me that was the norm back then – and that what we consider to be the norm (reading to yourself) only became the norm when monasteries required silence! Still – it was handy because it meant Philip could hear what he was reading.
He’s reading Isaiah 53:7-8. He’s on his way home from a pilgrimage to worship in Jerusalem, maybe he bought the scroll while in Jerusalem and is eager to get to grips with it.
Philip is courageous enough to start the conversation. Trotting alongside the still-moving carriage – Philip asks – “Do you understand what you are reading?” “How can I understand unless someone helps me?”
Or as other translators put it: “How can I understand without a guide?”
In our reformed tradition we are fond of saying that our sole source of authority is Scripture. Sometimes people quote the phrase “sola scriptura” – “scripture alone”. People sometimes mistake the “alone” to mean that we need nothing else. Yet “sola scriptura” is only one of the five “solas” of reformation theology:
Sola Scriptura (“Scripture alone”): The Bible alone is our highest authority.
Sola Fide (“faith alone”): We are saved through faith alone in Jesus Christ.
Sola Gratia (“grace alone”): We are saved by the grace of God alone.
Solus Christus (“Christ alone”): Jesus Christ alone is our Lord, Savior, and King.
Soli Deo Gloria (“to the glory of God alone”): We live for the glory of God alone.
And yet more, this Ethiopian official has the scriptures in his hands – in his carriage. For him, merely having the words of scripture in his hands is not enough – merely reading the words for himself is not enough – he has no idea what he is reading. “How can I understand unless someone helps me?” The URC in its statement of Nature, Faith & Order says that “the highest authority for what we believe and do is God’s Word in the Bible, (so far that sounds like “sola scriptura”) alive for his people today through the help of the Spirit.”
This Ethiopian official needs the help of the Holy Spirit. How does the Holy Spirit help him? The Spirit sends Philip as guide.
The Spirit is the driving force in this whole passage. The Spirit sends Philip to the carriage – the Spirit drives Philip to get involved – but on the surface – to the eyes of the world – Philip is doing the work; Philip is running alongside the carriage; Philip is being the guide; Philip is explaining the scriptures – starting with the bit that the Ethiopian is reading.
Philip starts in the place where the Ethiopian official IS – he takes his current questions and situation seriously – and uses that as the starting point for explaining the Gospel. He doesn’t say – jot down your email address and I’ll send you a tract – he gets in the carriage and explains what the Gospel is – starting with Isaiah – and ending with Jesus. This is what the Ethiopian Official needs – he needs someone who not only knows scripture, but also knows the God of scripture; someone who reads scripture but also LIVES scripture; someone to guide him who has felt the embrace of God; someone who can read the cold ink on the page in the warm light of God’s Spirit. He needs a Philip! Kingsteignton folk are not short of scripture or access to scripture – Bibles are free online or on your phone! What they ARE short of are Philips – people who know scripture and also know the God of scripture. You know what’s coming next, don’t you! On any given day of this coming week – you might be in a position to be a Philip for someone else… The second question… “Tell me, was the prophet talking about himself or about someone else?” The Ethiopian Official is on his way home from a pilgrimage to worship in Jerusalem. He is described as a Eunuch. If that’s what he was then he would not have been allowed far inside the Temple, he would have been denied access, left outside the inner courts, made to feel less than whole – probably shamed. It is an act of great faith and humility that he even went if he knew that’s how he would be treated. And he’s reading these words:
“He was led like a sheep on its way to be killed. He was silent as a lamb whose wool is being cut off, and he did not say a word. He was treated like a nobody and did not receive a fair trial. How can he have children, if his life is snatched away?” You might imagine that he identifies with these words… “shorn”, “treated like a nobody”, “treated unfairly”, the chance of children snatched away…
“Tell me, was the prophet talking about himself or about someone else?” In other words, “is this only about Isaiah and his situation back then, or is this about me too?” Philip might have said – the Bible is never only about “back then” – it is always a word to us, today, in our circumstances. Maybe Philip went on the explain that just a couple of turns later on in that scroll Isaiah says that the days are coming when Eunuchs who worship God will always be welcome in the house of God and will receive a name better than sons and daughters. But Philip certainly explains that not only is this about him – that God knows him – but that God understands all of his suffering and humiliation and shame because Jesus walked the way of the cross. And Philip explains that when the Eunuch’s story of being outcast and made to feel shame and humiliation is grafted into God’d story and refracted through the story of the cross and the resurrection – it becomes a story transformed, it becomes a story of redemption, restoration and hope. The third question… “Look! Here is some water. Why can’t I be baptised?”
What’s to stop me being baptised here and now?
Without the guidance of the Spirit, Philip might have had several answers… You don’t live in Israel; you serve a foreign queen; you’re a eunuch – you’re not whole; you live in the wrong place; you have the wrong job; your sexuality is suspect. what if someone asked you in Tescos – “here’s an aisle full of bottled water – can you baptise me right now?” you might say… errrr… I don’t have the authority… I’ll call Phil… you need to go on a course first… errr…. But it is God’s Spirit who is the driving force here – barriers and objections are bulldozed out of the way – and he is baptised there and then. He needs to be welcomed and accepted NOW. Walls of prejudice and prohibition that had stood for generations came tumbling down, blown over by the breath of God’s Holy Spirit, and another man who had felt lost and humiliated was found and restored in the wideness of God’s Grace in Jesus Christ. AMEN!
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