Philip left his exceptional work in Samaria, where lots of people were coming to faith, to walk down a road where one person would hear about Jesus. But he didn’t know that beforehand. He simply knew he was supposed to go, so he went (Acts 8:26).
When I sat down to write about Philip a couple of weeks ago, I didn’t imagine it would blossom into three blog posts. (You can find the first two *here* and *here*.) But that’s what happens when we open the Word of God and allow the Holy Spirit to have His way in our study. I have read, studied, and taught this particular text more times than I can count; that’s why I thought it would be an easy post to write. As I started typing, however, He opened my eyes to fresh thoughts…and more thoughts…and more. I pray that you are even more blessed than I, as we jump back into Acts 8.
Obedience + Boldness
So Philip sidles up to the chariot; within moments, his ears perk up and a smile plays at the corners of his mouth (Acts 8:30). He knows those lines! Oh yeah, this is why God pulled him away from Samaria. It’s so obvious that it’s almost funny. The Ethiopian is reading from the prophet Isaiah (chapter 53, probably from the Septuagint, which is an ancient Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures). Philip, a humble table server and pastor catches his breath and asks this high official of the Ethiopian court, “Do you understand what you’re reading?”
Who did Philip think he was?!?
He knew Who God is.
Who do you think had more education? Between these two, who do you think usually held the position of authority? Who do you think rarely had anyone question his understanding? Who probably dealt with beggars and favor-seekers coming up beside his chariot all the time? Yes, Philip showed some real nerve simply by speaking to this guy!
Philip paid attention in church.
Here’s something else. How did Philip recognize this passage as prophecy? Perhaps he had studied extensively and the Holy Spirit revealed it to him, but more likely, he previously heard someone else explain it. When Jesus appeared to the disciples after his resurrection, He opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures (Luke 24:45), and on the way to Emmaus, beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to [two men] what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself (Luke 24:27). Surely these men didn’t keep such information to themselves. For example, Peter mentioned Isaiah 53 (but not the same verses) as he preached to the crowd at Pentecost (Acts 2).
Shift the spotlight to the Ethiopian. He’s a seeker. He just spent his vacation days travelling to Jerusalem so he could worship in the temple. He gathered a lot of information which he now needed to process. Sitting there in his richly-appointed chariot on his way home, the Holy Spirit prompts him to study this passage. As he puzzles over it, perhaps he even offered up a prayer to God Most High: “Lord, help me understand this. I want to know what’s true.” Then SHAZAM! Philip suddenly enters his peripheral vision and interrupts his reading. Perhaps this rich man’s hand froze mid-air as he reached toward his change pocket, where he kept some small coins for beggars.
But Philip didn’t ask for something paltry; he offered something profound.
So we shouldn’t be surprised when the Ethiopian immediately invites Philip into the chariot. Don’t miss this next line; it’s one of the most beautiful in Acts: Then Philip began with that very passage of Scripture and told him the good news about Jesus (Acts 8:35). Philip jumps directly onto the train of thought opened to him by the Ethiopian. He doesn’t say, “Never mind about that. Let me show you this tract.” He doesn’t ask some preapproved question designed to instigate a spiritual conversation. He listens, and he starts with what this guy does know. He answers his question.
When we apply this scenario to our day and time, here’s what we get. The gospel intersects with people’s lives exactly where the Holy Spirit designates, and it comes through me (or you). That mutual journey between myself and this person who doesn’t yet know Jesus begins with what I already know as well. On the foundation of what they know and what they want to know, it begins with my experiences of Jesus…not with a seminary degree, not with a prepackaged presentation, not with a tract. (I said it doesn’t begin with a tract, which doesn’t mean there won’t ever be an appropriate moment for the tract.)
Philip could act boldly because he saw how the Holy Spirit had led him to meet the Ethiopian. Then he could relax into the relationship because he was so well-acquainted with his Savior. He just started talking about someone he knew. This is the heart—the essential element—of sharing our faith: know Him, watch Him work, participate (in that order).
Don’t Dampen Desire
Apparently, Luke (the author of Acts) didn’t think we needed another recitation of the gospel because the next thing you know, this Ethiopian guy is asking to be baptized. Philip didn’t say, “Do you want to?” The man asked. That means Philip had told him about baptism, and he understood it as the appropriate response to faith. What does Philip say next? There’s a questionable verse (v. 37 could be a later addition), so let’s just think for a minute about what Philip didn’t say…
- Well, you need to study some more first. We have a class for people like you.
- Maybe you should think about it for a little while.
- Sorry, I’m not qualified. You have to be approved by an Apostle.
- Are you sure you want to do that in front of all these people?
- Let’s think about the logistics first. Do you have towels, dry clothes, disinfectant?
Don’t put a damper
on a new believer’s
desire for obedience.
I’m not criticizing any modern church’s approach to baptism here. My point is simpler. Once he understood, the Ethiopian’s passion for Jesus ignited quickly. Philip was wise not to put a damper on his desire for obedience. When God saves someone, let that person obey to the best of their understanding…even if it seems foolhardy to you.
As they trudge back onto the shore, dripping wet, Philip apparates like something from Harry Potter. Luke gives us a few lines to close out Philip’s story, but we don’t know what happens with the Ethiopian. Most people want to believe that he returned to Ethiopia and started a church…or a string of churches. I hope so. We do know that God’s will is never finished, so his purposes certainly continued in the lives of everyone involved.
Quick Review of Philip’s Story (with additional Scripture)
1. Philip’s obedience was more important than his successful work in Samaria. Does the Lord delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as much as in obeying the Lord? To obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed is better than the fat of rams. 1 Samuel 15:22
2. God’s will is bigger than you or me and involves all of creation. We can’t expect to comprehend its fullness. As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts. Isaiah 55:9
3. Sharing our faith with someone who wants to know is not complicated. It takes a bit of boldness, an ongoing/growing relationship with Jesus, and a willingness to start with what the other person knows. And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him. Hebrews 11:6