representation in stained glass of apostles Peter and Paul

Studying Acts 8 29-40

We are studying Acts 8:29-40 this week, a text we often refer to as “the story of the Ethiopian eunuch.” We looked at this same text several years ago, those notes are still here, and I still like them. For that matter, I think I was a lot more attuned to the resonances with other baptism narratives last time we looked at this text.

Here are a few additional things that stand out this time through:

Philip the Evangelist’s specific identity – is sometimes brought up as a question. It is a little unclear, if we don’t like to jump to conclusions. Philip (the Apostle) is named in Acts 1:13. Philip (the Hellenist, deacon) is named in Acts 6:5. Philip “the evangelist” is named in Acts 21:8, where he is living in Caesarea, identified as “one of the seven,” and has four prophetic daughters. That may not prove anything one way or another. But putting it all together, it seems like the preponderance of the evidence [we know of one group of “the seven,” namely the Hellenist deacons; we know of a Philip who was an evangelist – in this week’s story!; that particular Philip was last seen arriving in Caesarea …] easily leads us to conclude that the Philip in Acts 8 is the Philip the Evangelist of Acts 21, who is the Philip the Hellenist deacon of Acts 6:5.

What difference does it make? Well … who can baptize?! Legitimately??!! If we’re looking for Authoritative institutional guidance from The Bible on that vital point, we might really, really care about the answer to this question.

Otherwise, maybe not so much.

The wilderness – the road from Jerusalem to Gaza – already represents a fair trip from Samaria, where Philip was most recently active. Bible Journey has a nice map of Philip the Evangelist’s journey, with a synopsis of Philip the Evangelist’s activities. [They, too, read him as Philip the deacon.]

We’ve noted before how significant this wilderness location is, resonating with lots of other significant Biblical narrative – Moses, the Exodus, Elijah, 2nd Isaiah’s road to redemption (e.g., Isaiah 43:18-21), John the Baptist, Jesus’ own baptism …

This is another one of those stories in which someone has to say “yes” or the story doesn’t happen. Philip gets a message from the “angel of the Lord,” and then – does what the angel says to do. This is the indispensable condition for the story as we have it. That seems important.

A “Queen of the South” shows up again in this story – she hasn’t come as far as Solomon’s porch in the Temple in Jerusalem herself, but her treasury official has. We had that possibly oblique reference to Luke 11:31 last week. This week, Philip has headed “south,” to meet a representative of an actual Queen of the South, who will encounter something greater than Solomon.

There’s a suggestive relationship between the activity of the Spirit, Scripture, proclamation, and baptism. The Spirit is active all through the story. Scripture is instrumental, in this case especially providing an occasion for Philip’s proclamation. The proclamation leads to baptism. And there’s more activity of the Spirit following baptism. All very ecclesiological, actually.

Perspective. At first the story seems to be told from Philip’s perspective. But as the story unfolds, we can easily imagine how the story feels from the Ethiopian’s perspective: He’s reading Scripture. Suddenly – and just at the right time – a Spirit guide [aka Philip] shows up on the road! The guide opens the Scriptures – interpreting in them the things about Jesus (see Luke 24:27). Suddenly – just at the right time – there’s water in the wilderness! [a veritable stream in the wilderness] Let whoever will take the water of life as a gift – nothing prevents him from being baptized. Philip baptizes him. Just as suddenly, the angel of the Lord aka Philip vanishes, and the road lies open … he goes on his way rejoicing. From the Ethiopian official’s perspective, this is the story of the Lord’s miraculous provision for his salvation.

From Philip’s perspective, it’s fairly straightforwardly the next step on his evangelist’s mission.

The wording of the Ethiopian’s question – “What is to prevent me from being baptized?” – is really poignant. Here is probably a Jewish man, excluded by law from inclusion in the “assembly” – or so we think. (Deutronomy 23:1) So, impediments to full participation are likely on his mind. So he asks – “Where’s the fine print – that excludes me?” And, look! – there isn’t any.

Baptism of the Spirit? Do we call this an instance of that?

Earlier in Acts, there’s specific mention of receiving the Holy Spirit after Peter and John lay hands on believers who have previously been baptized (Acts 8:14-17). Later, the Spirit falls on “all who heard the word” in Cornelius’ household (Acts 10:44-48). The text of Acts does, that is, seem to make a distinction between water baptism and Spirit baptism, a distinction that matters. What the text is specifically saying about this particular baptism, however, seems a little less clear than that.

What is clear in this narrative is that the Spirit is tremendously active, and that the Ethiopian minister rejoices because of it.

This text is one of the lectionary texts for the Fifth Sunday of Easter (B) – and it’s a great story. So we are likely to have heard it in church, at least once or twice.

fresco Philip with Ethiopian in chariot

Images: “Stained Glass St Blaise Church Dubrovnik” (cropped), Tony Hisgett, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons; “Menologion of Basil” Мастер Георгий, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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