Following directions

Sometimes, being faithful means figuring out how to stay true to the gospel when bad things happen that we don’t expect. Without explicit instructions from God telling us specifically where to go and what to do, we have to faithfully discern how to live as Christians whatever the circumstances.

As we’ve seen, this was certainly the case for Philip the evangelist, who was part of a group of believers that left Jerusalem because of persecution. He proclaimed the gospel to the Samaritans. He healed them. He cast out their demons. He paved the way for Peter and John to continue spreading the good news among the Samaritans. 

Philip, in other words, made the best of a bad situation, without (as far as we know) any explicit instructions from God.

But sometimes, the instructions are explicit and direct. God says “Go” and, well, you just go.

In Acts 8:26, Luke writes that an angel of the Lord told Philip to take the road from Jerusalem to Gaza. Philip may still have been in Samaria at the time, or he may have been temporarily back in Jerusalem. The road in question would have taken him southwest, away from Samaria, away from Jerusalem, to the Mediterranean coast.

Somewhere along the road, Philip found out why God had sent him there:

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 and was returning home; seated in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah. (Acts 8:27-28, NRSV)

In the space of just two sentences, Luke paints a quick and compelling portrait of an interesting character. The man was Ethiopian, meaning from the land south of Egypt — possibly what is now Sudan as opposed to modern-day Ethiopia. He was probably black. He was a man of power and status, serving the queen directly (“Candace” is a title, not a personal name) as treasurer. As was common at the time for men in the queen’s service, he was a eunuch. And he was a man of means and education, owning a scroll of Isaiah and able to read it.

Even more interesting, however, is the fact that he had made the long journey from Ethiopia to Jerusalem to worship, probably for one of the pilgrimage feasts, and was now returning home along the southbound road. While not himself a Jew, he was drawn to Israel’s God and to their Scriptures. Unfortunately, as a eunuch, he would have been barred from the Jewish assembly (Deut 23:1). Indeed, depending on the extent of his castration, it may have been impossible for him to receive the covenant sign of circumcision.

Ahem. Enough said on that subject.

He was, in other words, an impressively devoted seeker. At the temple in Jerusalem, he would have been allowed to enter the Court of the Gentiles, but could go no further. How could a eunuch be part of the covenant?   

With God, all things are possible. And more than merely possible: they happen by design.

We’ll dig into the conversation between Philip and the Ethiopian in the next two posts. For now, however, notice how in this story Luke presents God as clearly in control of the events. He told Philip where to go without telling him why (Acts 8:26). He told Philip to approach the Ethiopian’s chariot (vs. 29). And at the end of the story — spoiler alert! — after the eunuch is baptized, God whisks Philip away in a manner reminiscent of Elijah (vs. 39), to send him off on his next evangelistic assignment.

Why does this matter?

Remember Jesus’ commission: his followers would be his witnesses “in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). In short order, Luke has shown the gospel moving outward from Jerusalem to Judea and Samaria. And in Greek literature, Ethiopia was considered the outer limit of the civilized world — the “ends of the earth.”

Thus, the unsuspecting eunuch would become the first to fulfill the final part of Jesus’ commission. His conversion, in turn, becomes the springboard for Luke to launch his central theme: the mission to the Gentiles.  

“You shall be my witnesses.” That might sound like a daunting commission, and sometimes we have to faithfully improvise to carry it out.

But other times, we just need to follow directions.