The word of the day is “go.” If we look below the surface of events, we discover that what seems to be happenstance is directed by an invisible hand. In our reading of Acts 8:26-39, we hear the story of the conversion and baptism of an Ethiopian official who is returning from Jerusalem to his homeland in Gaza. But Luke, the historian, unveils the divine guidance that moves the action forward to its conclusion in the eunuch’s baptism. The historian writes, “An angel of the Lord spoke to Philip and said, ‘Arise and go toward the south along the road which goes from Jerusalem to Gaza’” (OSB vs. 26). And when Philip saw the chariot of the official, the Holy Spirit said, “Go near and overtake this chariot” (OSB vs. 29). Today, we consider how God works below the surface to arrange things for our good and witness through the Holy Spirit.
To begin with, note that Luke, the writer of Acts, does not tell us how the angel appeared. Furthermore, the angel gave no reason for the instruction. Our first reaction is to question why Philip should leave a thriving and promising mission in the city of Samaria. And why take the most difficult road that goes through the desert when there are easier routes to take? However, despite these open questions, Philip obeys the angel without question.
Philip Encounters a Royal Chariot
Because of the isolation of the rugged terrain, Philip probably did not pass many travelers along the way of what was called “the wilderness road.” Imagine his surprise when he saw a royal chariot and its entourage. Luke writes that there was a man of high stature sitting in the carriage. Luke explains that he was an official of the queen of the “Ethiopians” (vs. 27). The historian calls the ruler “Candace,” a title of royalty. This monarch ruled the kingdom of “Kush” or “Nubia” to the south of Egypt. Luke says that the eunuch in the chariot had “great authority” because he was the overseer of all Candace’s treasury (vs. 27).
We do not know why a man of his prominence chose the remote road through the desert. But Luke tells us that he was returning to his country after worshipping in Jerusalem. Was he a Jew? Though ancient opinions vary, Irenaeus (c. 130 – 202) says he was. The Orthodox Study Bible agrees. It notes that “The eunuch had a thorough knowledge of Judaism and was likely a Jewish proselyte (convert) (OSB fn. Act 8:27).
The Holy Spirit Opens an Opportunity for Witness
Whatever religious status the eunuch had, the Holy Spirit instructed Philip to approach the chariot and “overtake” it (OSB vs. 29). The original Greek text reads that the deacon should “draw near” (Strong’s #4334) the vehicle and “join himself” to it (Strong’s #2853).
Once again, Philip obeyed without question. As he caught up with the chariot, he found that the eunuch was reading the passage from Isaiah 53:7-8 that foretold the Lord’s passion. Philip then knew the reason for the puzzling directives that the Lord had given him. Philip opened the conversation with a question, “Do you understand what you are reading?” (OSB vs. 30). The official was humble enough to admit that he needed a teacher (OSB vs.31).
Philip used the method of persuasion that we have noted in previous posts. This was the interpretation of the Scriptures that demonstrates that the Crucified and Risen Lord is the fulfillment of the scriptures. In this case, Luke writes, “Then Philip opened his mouth and beginning with this Scripture [of Isaiah’s prophecy of the Lord’s passion], he preached Jesus to him (OSB vs. 35).
The result was another surprise. The eunuch asked, “What hinders me from being baptized?’ Philip replied that only the heartfelt belief that Jesus Christ is the Son of God” is required. With that, the Gospel broke through new barriers. For one thing, the eunuch was a foreigner. Eventually, as Irenaeus reports, the official was to bring the proclamation of the Gospel to the distant land of Ethiopia south of Egypt (Against Heresies, 3.12.8).
But for another thing, even if the eunuch was a Jew, there is no mention of the observance of the Law of Moses. The evangelist taught that he only needed faith to be baptized and received into the fellowship of believers.
In summary, what seemed to be an unlikely chain of unlikely coincidences was a work of the Holy Spirit. At each step, the Spirit directed the course of events according to the will of God. The Spirit was the actor behind the action. We see this from the beginning angelic instruction, through the prompting of the Holy Spirit, to the end when Philip was whisked away and found in Azotus 53 miles from Jerusalem and 34 miles from Gaza.
Is your life a series of accidental occurrences? Do things happen to you by chance? The Book of Acts denies these suppositions. In today’s reading, we found that the Holy Spirit was the prime mover of the life and growth of the church. He was the inspiration and power that lead the church and its individual members to accomplish the will of God.
Our secular age believes that life began and developed by random incidents. But for those who look at the world through the witness of Luke, there is nothing haphazard about the creation or about history. Thus, if we are to follow the Word of the scriptures, we must recover the trust in God’s sovereignty. Within all that exists and behind all that happens is the rule of God, who governs it all.
In All Things God Works
St. Paul said, “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to His purpose (NIV Romans 8:28). We might say that God, the source of all that exists, works in all things. For those who “love him,” “those who are called according to His purpose,” He works for good. Moreover, just as He did for Philip, He opens up new possibilities for our witness if we are attuned to His will.
Therefore, St. Basil said, “Do not say, ‘this happened by chance, while this came to be of itself.’ In all that exists, there is nothing disorderly, nothing indefinite, nothing without purpose, nothing by chance… How many hairs are on your head? God will not forget one of them. Do you see how nothing, even the smallest thing, escapes the gaze of God?” (“Three Hundred Sayings of the Ascetics of the Orthodox Church,” 2011).
Church Father St. Irenaeus of Lyons in his book Adversus haereses (Against the Heresies, an early anti-Gnostic theological work) 3:12:8 (180 AD), wrote regarding the Ethiopian eunuch, “This man (Simeon Bachos the Eunuch) was also sent into the regions of Ethiopia, to preach what he had himself believed, that there was one God preached by the prophets, but that the Son of this (God) had already made (His) appearance in human flesh, and had been led as a sheep to the slaughter; and all the other statements which the prophets made regarding Him.”