[Photo by Daniele Levis Pelusi on Unsplash]
The story of Acts has taken a dramatic turn in chapters 6 and 7, as Stephen becomes the first martyr in the church. A great ensuing persecution scatters many of the believing community from Jerusalem. While this initially seems like a loss for the church, it also has the effect of spreading the message beyond the capital city and into the surrounding area. The story in Acts 8 shows the gospel arriving in Samaria, and also to a visitor from Ethiopia. This section, following the journey of Philip, contains some of the most remarkable miraculous events in the book of Acts.
Acts 8:4-13 | The Gospel to Samaria
- It's worth noting that Jesus himself had already preached to Samaritans during his earthly ministry. However, Philips arrival is the first time that the news about Jesus' death and resurrection will have come to Samaria. It's possible that there might have been some people who had heard Jesus previously - prior to his crucifixion - who now would see his power at work through one of his followers. This may be why, in 6 verse, the crowds are eager to hear what Philip has to say.
- The introduction of Simon the Sorcerer is interesting. He's the first character presented in the story who also has spiritual power, but without being connected to Christ & the Spirit. The story doesn't seem to comment clearly on whether or not Simon's magical powers were deceptions or actual spiritual power channeled from another source. But it is clear that even he finds the power of the Spirit impressive.
Acts 8:14-25 | God's Power, Not For Sale
- This section raises an issue that is important among Charismatic Christians today: what is the relationship between believing the gospel, being baptized with water, and receiving the Holy Spirit? Do they happen in a particular order every time, and if not, why not? Here, we see people who are baptized with water, but wait several days before being filled with the Holy Spirit. This contrasts with what will eventually happen in Acts 10, when a group of Gentiles gets filled with the Holy Spirit and receives spiritual gifts before being baptized in water. The implications seems to be that these things could happen in any order, and that God simply wants all of them to happen at some point.
- When Peter and John "lay their hands" on the people, it seems that they are able to confer the Holy Spirit onto them. Of course, God works co-operatively with his Apostles - they don't have the authority to tell God what to do. But it is interesting to note the very strong human instrumentality at work here. Philip, for all the power he had flowing through him, needed to bring in others in order to give the Holy Spirit to the newly converted Samaritans.
- The "laying of hands" as a form of prayer, dedication, and commission is extremely common and important in the book of Acts.
- Simon's act of essentially asking if he could buy the Holy Spirit from the Apostles has given birth to a term in the English language for using money to (illegitimately) buy religious or spiritual power/authority. We call the practice "Simony." So if, for example, someone paid a significant amount of money in order to become a pastor at a famous televised church, that would be Simony.
- Peter - whose birth name also happens to be Simon - gives Simon a serious and stern corrective talk. The tone is fierce and the warning is perhaps even a bit harsh, but Simon clearly gets the message and seemingly humbles himself, asking to be prayed for.
Acts 8:26-40 | The Ethiopian Eunuch
- After Peter and John return to Jerusalem, the Holy Spirit speaks to Philip and gives him highly specific travel instructions. This is not the only time that this kind of thing will happen in Acts. This should be interesting to Christians who have ever heard one of their brothers or sisters claim to have heard God's voice audibly speaking to them. On the one hand, Acts seems to imply that this kind of thing is entirely possible, and perhaps even necessary for the Church. But it also seems to be that God's voice spoke to these early believers in clear, distinct, unmistakable ways, and not in vague, abstract feelings only.
- The Ethiopian Eunuch is a unique and intriguing character. While his name is not given, just the title "Ethiopian Eunuch" requires some unpacking. First, the place: "Ethiopia" is actually a Greek word, an exonym used by the Greeks to refer to kingdoms in Africa south of Egypt and the Sahara desert. While the Greek etymology of the word seems to have some pejorative connotations, it may also be based on an older Amharic word. The kingdom of Nubia is likely what the word refers to. Secondly, there is the term Eunuch, which refers to man who has been castrated, typically as a requirement to serve in a royal court position.
- This particular Eunuch was a servant of "the Kandake," a word that was often incorrectly treated as a name by Greeks and Romans, and gets Latinized as "Candace." The fact that he is travelling abroad, and doing so in a chariot, tells us a few things: 1- that his position afforded him some luxury and privileges, 2- that he already had an interest in the Hebrew religion and scriptures, 3- that the journey from Ethiopia to Israel was a manageable journey, 4- that his status as a eunuch still afforded him things like literacy, since we encounter him reading.
- It is worth noting that in Isaiah 11:11 lists Ethiopia (called Kush in the Hebrew Bible) among the places where the people of Israel had been scattered to during the exile. There was a Hebrew presence in that portion of Africa for quite some time even before the days of Christ, so it should not be surprising to encounter an Ethiopian who practices the Hebrew religion. Interestingly, Isaiah is the very book that this Ethiopian Eunuch is reading from.
- The Eunuch is reading from Isaiah 53, a passage that is famous for it's uncanny and striking resemblance to the story of Jesus. Here we see one of Jesus' followers (Philip) explicitly connection Isaiah 53 to Jesus. We don't know how long their conversation lasted, but it was long enough for Philip to have mentioned that Baptism was a part of following Jesus, and the Eunuch seems eager to take that step at the first sign of water. This passage reminds us that Baptism is the starting line of the Christian life, rather than the finish line. It is the initial step, and not the completion of the Christian life.
- Perhaps the strangest part of this story is the fact that Philip seems to - for lack of a better word - teleport from this road between Jerusalem and Gaza to the town Azotus. This may be one of the strangest and seemingly most "sci-fi" miracles reported in the Bible. And nothing like it ever quite repeats. The closest parallels we have are to people being rescued from prison by angels without seeming to actually bypass the guards (as seen earlier in Acts), or perhaps Jesus' own ability post-resurrection to suddenly appear among his disciples in a room with locked doors.
The stage is set now for a larger conversation to emerge: since non-Jewish people are beginning to enter into the Way, becoming followers of Jesus, how should the primarily Jewish Christian community respond? How can they be inclusive ... or should they? These questions will begin to be answer as God brings on board his chosen instrument to reach the Gentiles: that very same Pharisee who approved of the stoning of Stephen, Saul of Tarsus.