‘[The book of] Acts, like Easter, urges you to put cautious rationality on the shelf and follow an unrestrained God into the world, wondering as you go what else might be possible.…. [our] passage about an Ethiopian court official who has a divinely orchestrated discussion with Philip is outlandish,…It provokes a question upon which the church still ruminates: …what will it mean for all of us if the gospel is indeed good news for all people, without exception?’Dr. Matt Skinner
Chapter eight of the book of Acts brings us two pivotal moments for the new testament church. One good the other frightening. Chapter 8 presents a moment in time when God’s basic instruction to the apostles is almost accomplished and, ironically, in that same moment this new faith community of enters into a season of great darkness.
Let’s look first at the Locational Elements of this pivotal moment seen in the first 3 verses..
‘And Saul approved of their killing Stephen. That day a severe persecution began against the church in Jerusalem… All the believers that had been together since Pentecost now fled for their lives, only the apostles remained.’Acts 8:1-3
Two parallel events, both very different and yet both very similar, mark this new season for the church.
In Luke’s account of Jesus ascension, Jesus gave his apostles the instruction to testify to all they had seen in, and learned from, the Messiah – a challenge to be the first hand account of Jesus to those who had not witnessed God in the flesh, Jesus, and a second opportunity for those who had rejected Jesus. The logistical specifics of this command was to ‘go to those in Jerusalem, in Judea, in Samaria, and even to those in the remotest part of the earth.’ The apostles have now ‘gone’ to the people of Jerusalem, of Judea, and of Samaria, they were now facing the remotest parts of the earth – the only known obstacle was the ‘how, who, and the where’ of the remotest parts?’
Two simultaneous moments provided the path to speak to discover their plans.
The arrival of a young sincere and faithful young man named Saul, who we known him as Paul. A coming new star in religiosity and highly regarded politically as well. He endorsed the killing of Stephen, followed by a full scale effort to stop the spread of the Jesus movement going house to house weeding out Jesus followers. This sent the followers, who up to this point had remained in Jerusalem since Pentecost, to scatter back to their home.
The second logistical moment took place as the apostle Philip was sent by God, to go to a remote section of the road connecting Jerusalem with Gaza – a road in the wilderness. Soon, here on this ‘remoteish’ road he met a man who was of ‘the remotest place on earth.’ What a logistical plan! – scatter those near, back to their homes in Jersusalem, Judea, and Samaria, and then, bring a person to the apostle from the remotest place on earth!
This is the way God works, he uses the good as well as the bad to remove the obstacles so we can continue with God’s intended purpose.
Now, we see the Practical Elements with which God works. At this place, a distant destination for both men, a monumental moment takes place. In the wilderness, on this remote piece of the road, Philip meets a man who has three outrageous labels that God’s practicalities eliminate. He was…
The first is an obstacle for everyone in the non-remote places on earth, the second is an obstacle for the religious people of the non-remote places on the earth, and the third is an opportunity for the implementation of God’s Good News everywhere.
Ethiopian, brings us to God’s Geographical Practicality. Ethiopian is a word that in the Greek language literally means ‘Burnt Face’ referring to the color and hue of his skin, which leads to judgements and condemnations of his culture, heritage, basically to this man. Greco-Roman literature often referred to “Ethiopians” as being a ‘people who lived on the fringes of the inhabited world’, judging them as inferior beings. The presence of a Greco-Roman xenophobia should not surprise us even thousands of years later.
This was a meticulouslyorchestrated outrageous moment engineered by a God who is not daunted by skin color, culture, heritage or any other obstacle. God brought this remotest man to another man’s remotest place for an impossible encounter. As God gave Phillip a nudge, he approached the man and heard him reading from the Book of Isaiah,
‘He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth. By a perversion of justice he was taken away. Who could have imagined his future? For he was cut off from the land of the living, stricken for the transgression of my people. They made his grave with the wicked and his tomb with the rich, although he had done no violence, and there was no deceit in his mouth.’Isaiah 53:7-9
Philip asks the man,‘Do you understand what you are reading?’
The man answered,‘Who is the prophet Isaiah speaking of?’
Philip addressed question knowing that none of the obstacles were of any consideration.
The second practicality inhabited in this encounter – an Outlandish Practicality, particularly outrageous to the religious people and to the religious leaders – the man was a Eunuch. This meant that he had been castrated as a condition for his position in the queen’s court. The castration had taken place for one, or more, of the following reasons,
- The decision to be castrated had been made by others, possibly even by parents when he was a child or as an adult by his masters and employers, to theoretically give him the credibility required for a better future and better employment.
- The decision to be castrated was made personally by the man for the same reasons.
- The decision to be castrated was a very personal decision made by him, for himself, for his own personal reasons – reasons that few people would understand or accept.
Any one of these reason is as likely another reason; we can be assured that this purposeful condition of his body was a major reason for a lifetime of judgement and rejection. He did not fit the norms for conventional gender definition, he was not consider male or female; this put him outside the boundaries of masculinity and virility subjecting him to never-ending scorn and hatred.
The man was literate, he had the most influential ear in the queen, and he was trusted with her treasury, and subsequently he was rich. He owned a rare and expensive scroll of scripture, he traveled on his own, with his own staff, and he had personal access to a chariot. While not accepted socially by his own countrymen, he was definitely feared and respected. He had great influence at the remotest place on the earth – much more than Philip or any of the apostles. He would enthusiastically become a voice of witness to the remotest place on the earth. He would become the avenue for the good news that acknowledges worth and dignity – the good news that thwarts the prejudices that religions and societies easily fall into.
As Philip shares the ‘who’ of the Isaiah passage with the Ethiopian, the man meets and trusts in Jesus. He recognizes that Jesus is the one spoken of by the prophet and that this same Christ is the promised Messiah, the fulfillment of the Law. This realization is automatically met with a personal acceptance and embrace. His immediate response is to follow Jesus, he excitedly asks,
‘Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?’Acts 8:37
Philip in a wilderness place, probably the most foreign place he could be, here in this remotest place, a place where God brought the ends of the earth to him. Here Philip began to share the Good News with the remotest parts of the earth. There was no think tank, no missionary strategy, no confab of the most persuasive evangelists, here there was Philip in a remote place not far from his home, addressing a question of a man who was far from his home at the ends of the earth. Philip addressed the question, and did just as Jesus had instructed, he began to teach this pupil who the prophet Isaiah spoke of and proceeded from there to teach everything that Jesus did and everything that Jesus taught. Everything that Philip had witnessed and experienced. The man became entranced in learning of Jesus compassion and mercy, his grace, his teachings of hope and deliverance, his life validation of Love.
He was reading from the scroll of Isaiah so it is proper to assume that he was a Jew, although probably on the periphery of Judaism. He would have been familiar with the cleansing and religious aspects of baptism. He had an urgent need to express the cleansing from his sin and total immersion into the faith of following Jesus. Previously a seeker now he was a pupil, a disciple, a follower, and soon, a teacher; now he knew he was accepted, cleansed, loved. Now he was asking, ‘why not now?’
‘The Ethiopian reminds us that we are inclined to expect too little from the good news or to underestimate its capacity to bless and include others.’Justo L. González, Latin American Theologian and Historian
The Ethiopian has recognized something that we, in our evangelical comfort, have forgotten. He understands that faith is being a part of something Holy, an unexpected turn that brought him to an immersive experience into this faith and understanding. He is ready to plug himself in the source, to live the full life in Christ, dependent on Jesus. To thrive and grow, it is about a faith that we jump in with both feet. It is not about a new list of dos and don’ts, it about new life that writes truth on his heart, that leads him to strive to be like his source, like Jesus. Why wouldn’t he want to start now?
Jesus explained this to his followers as he said,
‘You have already been cleansed by the word, the truth, that I have spoken to you. Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.John 15:3-5
Good News is a call to abide, it is a call to remain fully connected to the source of life, Jesus, the source of strength, the source of rejoicing, the source of perseverance, the source of confidence, the source of hope, the source of peace. The Source.
While we, years after Martin Luther’s proclamation that salvation is not a ‘how to’ journey, it is a faith journey, we have settled for a distant future in heaven and ridged oversight of our actions and thoughts. Faith leads us to the same question as the Ethiopian,‘Why Not Now?!
Let’s return to our original question, ‘What will it mean for all of us if the gospel is indeed good news for all people, without exception?’
It is a question for all of us, What would it mean if we were to respond by saying, ‘Why not now?!’