Commentary on Acts 8:26-40
God who raised Jesus orchestrates unlikely relationships that the status quo does not otherwise permit for the transformation of marginalized individuals.
This narrative is the second encounter between the Hellenist evangelist Philip (one of the six chosen for table ministry, including Stephen, 6:1-7) since the persecution that began after the stoning of Stephen (7:54-60). The first was with Simon in Samaria. The conversion of Simon and others in Samaria required intervention from Peter and John from Jerusalem (8:14-16). In our pericope, the intervention is divine. Both the Angel of the Lord and the Spirit speak to Philip (8:26, 29) telling him first to go and take the road down from Jerusalem to Gaza (where he will find a man who is over all the Kandakē’s or Ethiopian Queen’s Gazē, treasury) and then to go join himself to the Ethiopian’s chariot. In Acts the Angel of the Lord releases people from bondage (12:7, 8). The Angel of the Lord and the Spirit facilitate the divine-human encounter that results in releasing the Ethiopian from bondage to the literal text enabling him to see beyond the text to the risen Jesus.
The story of the Ethiopian official is one of several lengthy conversion narratives in Acts (cf. Simon, 8:3-25; Cornelius, 10:1-48). The Ethiopian, like Cornelius, is an important person of rank (dunastēs); authority within the Kandakē’s administration. Initially, his ethnicity is highlighted. Syntactically, he is first an Ethiopian and secondarily a eunuch. His status as a black Ethiopian is significant. Yet, in the second half of the story, the physical condition of the Ethiopian as a eunuch is highlighted (verses 34, 36-39). Eunuchs were excluded from participation in Temple rituals and from full admittance, as proselytes, into Israel’s community. As a eunuch he is ritually or religiously far off. Thus, his conversion embodies and transcends the expectation of “Ethiopia reaching out her hands” (Psalm 68:31; cf. Book of the Wisdom of Solomon 3:14) and being drawn near to God.
The Ethiopian’s anonymity is curious given that Philip’s name occurs nine times in the Greek text. The story is about Philip as an unlikely instrument (based on the ministry limitations placed upon him, 6:1-7) to reach the Ethiopian. If the Ethiopian had been named perhaps we would miss the significance of his ethnicity and his social ranking. No Ethiopians are named among the Pentecost crowd, 2:9-11. As an Ethiopian he represents those who are geographically and ethnically, far away.
Philip must have looked rather haggard having only recently fled Jerusalem with possibly just the shirt on his back, like a vagabond. The Ethiopian was a learned man able to ascertain the literal meaning of the scriptures. Yet, he did not allow his attainments to blind him to his limitations. We should practice a faith that continually seeks understanding rather than an understanding that is seeking faithful followers. God is the ultimate object of our faith, and God remains inscrutable less God become made in our image. God raised Jesus. The humility by which the lamb endured his death is embodied in the Ethiopian. The Ethiopian demonstrated humility in relation to Philip and the scriptures. Despite his high social status, he invited Philip to join him.
The Ethiopian was reading the scripture passage (Trio-) Isaiah 53:7 from the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible or the Septuagint. The text is about a metaphorical lamb led to slaughter, silently enduring his death and whose life is finally taken up from the earth. The eunuch asked whether the text was autobiographical or about someone else. This question may seem strange to a Christian indoctrinated his whole life to believe this text speaks about Christ. Surely then (and now) many persons died courageously for what they believed.
One did not open his mouth so that others could. Similar Greek words that characterize the lamb’s silence and humility, “he did not open his mouth” (ouk anoigei to stoma autou), introduce Philip’s explanation of the scriptures, “and Philip opened his mouth” (anoiksas to stoma autou). Philip told the Ethiopian the good news about Jesus, verse 35. Strikingly, the Ethiopian is referred to as the eunuch, beginning with his request that Philip explain to him the scriptures, verse 34. The eunuch responds to the good news by expressing a desire to participate in the ritual of baptism (cf. 2:41). Both Philip and the eunuch enter and emerge from the waters together, verses 38-39. Why did the Ethiopian so readily accept Philip’s interpretation? Perhaps, even though the text does not say so, the Spirit spoke to the Ethiopian too, just like God gave dreams/visions to both Peter and Cornelius bringing them together to effect a household conversion.
How might we envision what God accomplished in the encounter, which is never exactly the same as the story told? God is living and multi-dimensional; so is life. One can read the words of the text without being able to experience or see in the text what God did in Jesus. The text must be interpreted or translated. The Greek word that we translate as read literally means to know up (Greek: anaginōskō ; a combination of the preposition ana, translated as up and the verb ginōskō interpreted as to know). To interpret is to seek to understand what the words signify or point to beyond the symbols on the page.
The Spirit, a constant presence, snatched up Philip who landed in Caesarea. This is God’s Spirit doing as it pleases and not boxed in by human expectations and limitations. We find here no broken pattern in Acts of how or when God’s Spirit anoints people. Sometimes Luke narrates visible manifestations and sometimes he does not. Just because we construct a theology that boxes God’s Spirit in does not mean that God IS in the boxed.
The prophet asks, Who will tell his story? The metaphorical lamb’s story is thrice told in this context — in the text read, from Philip’s mouth, and by the Ethiopian as implied by his going his way rejoicing. The good news about Jesus should evoke rejoicing especially among those living on the margins needing to know what the text means for them. The Ethiopian’s story vividly demonstrates how God in the Jesus-event will and can draw different persons, not of our choosing, to experience the power of the resurrection.