Commentary on Acts 8:26-40
Again we meet the deacon Philip, whom we saw yesterday as a very successful preacher of the Gospel to the people of Samaria. The Samaritans were doing so well that Peter and John were now sent to baptise them in the Holy Spirit.
In today’s reading, Philip gets instructions from God to take the desert road to Gaza on the south coast of Palestine, the same place from which comes so much tragic news almost daily on our TV screens. The distance from Jerusalem to Gaza is about 80 km (or 50 miles).
On his way, Philip runs into an Ethiopian eunuch, the finance minister of the queen of Ethiopia, who was on his way back after a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Eunuchs were commonly used in positions of seniority and trust, especially where the women of the royal household were concerned. They often became powerful and very rich.
‘Ethiopia’ corresponded in this period to Nubia, from the Upper Nile region at the first cataract (Aswan) to Khartoum. It would now be part of the Sudan. Kandake (Candace) was the traditional title of the queen mother, who was responsible for performing the secular duties of the reigning king. He was thought to be too sacred to have to deal with such administrative chores.
As we are told the eunuch had gone to Jerusalem to worship, it is very likely he was a convert to Judaism or else a Gentile who believed in the God of Israel.
As Philip catches up with him, the man is reading a passage from the prophet Isaiah. It was Isaiah 53:7-8, from the Fourth Song of the Suffering Servant which is read at the liturgy on Good Friday and is a text long seen by the Church as pointing to Christ in his passion. It was also the usual practice at the time to read aloud and that is why Philip knew what he was reading.
Philip asked him if he understood the passage. “How can I,” the man replied, “unless someone explains it to me?” This is something we need to acknowledge too. We cannot really understand the meaning of the scriptures unless we have someone explain them to us. We cannot simply expect to know what they mean just by reading nor should we expect that God will directly inspire us. We have to take the natural means available to us, namely, the experience and the knowledge of experts and people of deeper wisdom. The texts are separated from us by language and centuries of custom and lifestyles. Like the eunuch, we need interpreters to help us understand.
Here, the eunuch was quite at a loss to know what the passage was about. “Tell me, if you will, of whom the prophet says this – himself or someone else?” And Philip proceeded to show the official how the words applied to Jesus in his suffering and death and this gave him the opportunity to proclaim the whole message of the Gospel.
So completely won over was the eunuch that, as they passed a stretch of water, he asked to be baptised there and then. In other words, he was expressing his total faith in Jesus as Lord and Saviour. Where was this stretch of water? There are several possibilities – a brook in the Valley of Elah (which David crossed to meet Goliath, 1 Sam 17:40) or the Wadi el-Hasi, just north of Gaza or it could have been any other suitable stretch of water.
As soon as the baptism was done, Philip disappeared but the eunuch continued on his journey home filled with happiness. This is typical of the joy which is associated in the Acts with salvation.
Meanwhile, Philip’s work of evangelising was not done. He found himself in Azotus. It was one of five Philistine cities about 30 km from Gaza. From there he proceeded north all the way to Caesarea in Syria, a distance of about 100 km. Caesarea had been rebuilt by Herod. With an excellent harbour on the Mediterranean it served as headquarters for the Roman procurators.
We now say goodbye to Philip but he will reappear again some 20 years later, still in Caesarea, still an evangelist and enjoying domestic bliss (21:8).
As we read this story we might reflect that there will be times when we will be given opportunities to share the Gospel with people who are searching for meaning in their lives. But will we be ready? If someone presents us with a question about a Bible passage or a belief of our Christian faith, will we have the answer? Will we be ready to go beyond the answer and lead our enquirer to a further level of understanding? If not, then, like the eunuch, it may be time for us to take steps to deepen our understanding of the scriptures and of our Christian beliefs.