Commentary on Acts 8:26-40
This week we read of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch. It’s a story that wasn’t supposed to happen.
The wrong people
Remember that Jesus has specially commissioned the twelve apostles (Acts 1:5, 8). They were devoted to the word and prayer. So much so, that when a dispute arose over how to distribute food, they punted (Acts 6:2-4). It did not occur to them that Jesus, who appeared to them as one who serves at table (Luke 22:27), was to be their model in this as well.
Readers who have dialed into Jesus’ upside-down kingdom, the place where the servants rule, would know to keep an eye on the table-servers. They would not be taken off guard when Acts unfolds with the surprising storyline: those who were commissioned to go from Jerusalem to all Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth (that is the apostles) simply hang out in Jerusalem while everyone else gets pushed into the mission of God in Judea and Samaria by persecution (Acts 8:1).
In Acts 8 we pick up with one of these table-servers, Philip, sent far from the controversies of food distribution and his navigation of linguistic and cultural tensions. He first brings the gospel to Samaria (Acts 8:4-25), in fulfillment of Jesus’ promise and command in Acts 1:8. The Spirit then sends him to this peculiar eunuch, who will carry the message into Africa. The “deacon” (as some interpret the role assigned to the seven in Acts 6) turns out to be the true apostle!
The other character in the story is a bit of a surprise as well. The Law had proscribed men with crushed, mutilated, or missing genitalia from full participation in Israel’s worship (Leviticus 21:20; Deuteronomy 23:1).1 Isaiah, however, envisioned redemption for the sexually ambiguous. In the eschatological restoration of God’s people, eunuchs would be brought within God’s house and given a name greater than sons and daughters (Isaiah 56:3-5). God’s embrace of the eunuch, and a foreign eunuch at that (compare to Isaiah 56:6-8), shows that the promised age of restoration has begun to dawn.
The suffering servant
In Luke-Acts, a critical theme is that rightly reading scripture, which is to say reading it as a testimony of Jesus’ suffering messiahship, requires instruction from a faithful interpreter. What Jesus does twice for his followers in Luke 24 Philip does here for the eunuch.
The eunuch reads Isaiah 53:7-8 and Philip uses this as a springboard for telling the eunuch about Jesus (Acts 8:32-35). Much to our chagrin, Luke does not tell us what Philip actually said. However, it is interesting to note what he does and does not cite from Isaiah 53.
He cites the portion of the text about the servant’s silence, and that which underscores that he was unjustly condemned. The notion of Jesus’ innocence is a critical, and unique, component to Luke’s crucifixion scene (see Luke 22:41, 47). Last week we saw how Luke-Acts narrates Jesus’ death and resurrection as the realm in which antithetical judgments of Jesus play out. The human leaders judge him as worthy of death, God judges him to be innocent and worthy of an eternal throne. Isaiah 53 underscores that innocence.
Interestingly, Luke does not include the very end of Isaiah 53:8. It is there that Isaiah says the Servant “was stricken for the transgression of my people.” Luke does not develop a theology of substitutionary atonement. Instead, Luke-Acts depict the death of Jesus as Israel’s complicity in injustice, the action that shows God’s people that they, too, need to turn and be forgiven.
Inclusion and surprise
In what we might regard as an unobtrusive miracle, the eunuch driving through the wilderness sees water. So he asks to be baptized. Thus, he sides with God: the good works that Jesus did were indications of God’s own hand upon him; the death of Jesus was a denial of God’s spirit and presence; the resurrection is God’s vindication, such that Jesus is now enthroned as lord and Christ. In baptism the eunuch adds his own yes to the divine yes that suffuses Jesus life — before and after the cross.
The story ends much as it began: God seeing to it that the gospel rushes to the ends of the earth, even as those commissioned for that particular job sit at home in Jerusalem. The eunuch himself will take the message into Africa, while the Spirit whisks Philip away to preach along the shores of the Mediterranean as far north as Caesarea.
This is the sort of passage that should hold up a mirror to many of us, especially those of us in well-ordered denominations with extensive procedures and protocols for being entrusted with the gospel message. God will not wait for us. God often seems more bemused with us than committed to our affirmation of some as ministers of word and prayer while the gospel runs off untethered in the hands of those commissioned to other tasks or not noticed at all.
In this story, in the bursting forth of the Kingdom of God, not only is there a beautiful eschatological reversal that embraces the previously-excluded eunuch. There is also the unsettling reversal in which the one commissioned to tend the table at home finds himself setting the table in dessert places, while those sent far and wide by Jesus’ command quietly slip from the story of God’s redeeming work.
- Folks interested in how ancient Jews thought about variously sexed people can get a quick overview of the possibilities here: http://www.sojourngsd.org/blog/sixgenders