Listening to God

This week we hear the story of Phillip following the guidance of God to launch a man’s conversion.  Phillip does not hesitate in his given task, but runs to do the Spirit’s bidding.  Is listening to God any harder today?  And why is this guy being a eunuch such a big deal?  Read on to find out!

Scripture: Acts 8:26-39

26 Then an angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Get up and go toward the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” 27 So he got up and went. Now there was an Ethiopian eunuch, a court official of the Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, in charge of her entire treasury. He had come to Jerusalem to worship 28 and was returning home; seated in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah. 29 Then the Spirit said to Philip, “Go over to this chariot and join it.”

30 So Philip ran up to it and heard him reading the prophet Isaiah. He asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?” 31 He replied, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” And he invited Philip to get in and sit beside him.

32Now the passage of the scripture that he was reading was this: “Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter, and like a lamb silent before its shearer, so he does not open his mouth. 33 In his humiliation justice was denied him. Who can describe his generation? For his life is taken away from the earth.” 34 The eunuch asked Philip, “About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?” 35 Then Philip began to speak, and starting with this scripture, he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus.

36 As they were going along the road, they came to some water; and the eunuch said, “Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?”  38 He commanded the chariot to stop, and both of them, Philip and the eunuch, went down into the water, and Philip baptized him.

39 When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away; the eunuch saw him no more, and went on his way rejoicing.

Background on the Text:

  1. This passage begins an interesting and troublesome aspect of the Book of Acts, namely the relationship between the Jews, the Jewish Christians, and the Gentile Christians. In general, the early Christians needed to understand for whom the gospel was proclaimed, and God’s continuing promises to the Jewish people. Acts tries to address these concerns, but sometimes veers into anti-Semitism, which we must avoid.
  2. The story of the Ethiopian eunuch is the first prominent story of an “outsider” being converted to the new faith.
  3. This story immediately precedes the story of the conversion of Paul, and thus is the last story of this section of the Book of Acts. 

Exegesis (close reading of the text):

  1. Philip is either one of the original apostles or one of the “seven” who were chosen to serve. It is probably more likely this is the original apostle.
  2. Philip has most recently been preaching in Samaria, which was an area that was considered not perfectly Jewish, since they hailed from the part of Israel that had been conquered by the Assyrians back in 722 BCE. These folks had developed their own customs and rituals related to Judaism.
  3. The angel of the Lord tells Philip to go toward Gaza. The trip is presented as a God thing. Ethiopia was then a region south of Egypt, also known as Cush or Nubia. Eunuchs were castrated males who were usually put in charge of the king’s harem, but many rose to high rank in the monarchs’ courts. This eunuch was the treasurer for the Candace, or queen of Ethiopia. The Hebrew scriptures have a mixed record where eunuchs were concerned. In Deuteronomy 23:1, it states that eunuchs “will not be admitted to the assembly,” generally interpreted as they couldn’t go into the Temple. But Isaiah 56:3-5 promises that eunuchs and foreigners will be included: 3 Do not let the foreigner joined to the Lord say, “The Lord will surely separate me from his people”; and do not let the eunuch say, “I am just a dry tree.” 4 For thus says the Lord: To the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths, who choose the things that please me and hold fast my covenant, 5 I will give, in my house and within my walls, a monument and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off.” This was a promise given to the Israelites during the Babylonian exile
  4. This particular eunuch had traveled to Jerusalem, presumably on business, but stopped in the Temple? to worship. He was a devout man, and on the return home he was reading a scroll of the prophet Isaiah.
  5. At the urging of Spirit, Philip goes over to the chariot and hears the eunuch reading (all reading was done aloud). So Philip rather boldly asks if the eunuch understands what he is reading.
  6. The eunuch gives an interesting answer: how can I understand unless someone guides me? The message is that the Hebrew Scriptures are in need of expert interpretation.
  7. The passage that was being read was Isaiah 53:7-8. This is one of the Servant Songs in Isaiah. The identity of the Servant was, and is, highly debated. Philip uses this as an opportunity to interpret the Servant Song as referring to Jesus. Other interpretations say that it refers to the people Israel, or the prophet Isaiah.
  8. The eunuch clearly believes Philip’s interpretation, and is moved to ask to be baptized, a sign of conversion and new life. They stop near water, the eunuch is baptized, and Philip is whisked away.

Questions the text asks of us:

  1. Again, we see that in Acts, the Church is Spirit-led. Everything good that happens is due to the Spirit’s urging. How do we know when the Spirit is leading us?
  2. The history of Christianity is one of exclusion and inclusion. We have excluded and then included just about every identifiable group at some point in our history. The story of Acts generally follows the trajectory of more and more people being included in God’s plans. What is the history of the Coop within this cycle of exclusion and inclusion? Where are our growing edges?
  3. The story revolves around a particular interpretation of Isaiah. This approach, to develop a Christo-centric interpretation of texts that predated Jesus by at least 500 years, was the dominant Christian interpretive mode for almost 2000 years. It completely ignored the fact that the Hebrew Scriptures were written for the Jewish people living in a particular time and context that had nothing to do with Jesus. The purpose of this interpretative style was to show that God had always planned on having Jesus “save” humanity, and so the Hebrew Scriptures predicted everything about Jesus. Why do you think this was important to so many people?
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