Acts Week 5
By Jack Levison
W. J. A. Power Professor of Old Testament and Biblical Hebrew, Southern Methodist University
Read this week’s Scripture: Acts 8-9
EnlargeJust Passing Through
After Stephen’s martyrdom, everything changes for the church in Jerusalem. On the day of Stephen’s death, “a severe persecution began against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout the countryside of Judea and Samaria” (Acts 8:1). The powerful preaching that once took place only in Jerusalem now happens haphazardly, as “those who were scattered went from place to place, proclaiming the word” (8:4).
The whereabouts of one among the scattered masses, Philip, are puzzling. After he brought an Ethiopian eunuch to faith in Jesus, “the spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away,” and he “was found in Azotus” (Acts 8:40, KJV, emphasis added). This use of the passive voice [Author’s Note 1] is certainly imprecise; that’s why I often nail my students for using the passive voice in their essays. By whom was he found? When? Why in Azotus, on a trade route, when the spirit could snatch him and transport him anywhere without the help of roads?
In Luke’s case, the passive voice serves to underscore the randomness of Philip’s whereabouts and the fact that Philip, wherever he was, did what all of the scattered band of persecuted believers had been doing (8:4): “he passed through, proclaiming the word” [my translation] — what towns we don’t even know — “until he came to Caesarea” (8:40).
Asterisk that! If you think of God’s guidance in terms of place (God leads us somewhere special) or vocation (God leads us to do something special) or person (God leads us to someone special) — don’t. It’s what we do on the way to that special someone or someplace or something that matters. Mission begins with an apparently random passing through. This randomness matters a great deal more than getting to a destination — because one thing stays the same: wherever they are, whenever they arrive, however they get there, Jesus’ followers disperse a well-defined message rich with the good news of Jesus. Mission takes place on the way, while passing through.
Philip’s mission in Samaria marks a new phase. This is the first time in Acts that exorcisms occur, and they take place with strange, new accoutrements, such as “crying with loud shrieks” (Acts 8:7). In the next verse, we encounter the first mention of joy in Acts: “there was great joy in that city” (8:8). Then we read of the first time anyone has to pray or lay hands on others to receive or impart the spirit; the spirit does not arrive spontaneously, as it did previously at Pentecost (compare 8:15–17 with 2:1–4). [Author’s Note 2]
This is also the first time we meet a prominent unbeliever who comes to faith. Simon the magician is an expansive personality, whom the Samaritans call “great” and “the power of God” (8:9–10). Even more remarkable is that Simon believes, is baptized, and becomes devoted to Philip (8:12–13). This verb, be devoted to, signals the depth of Simon’s commitment to Philip:
- Jesus’ followers “were constantly devoting themselves to prayer” (1:14)
- After Pentecost, “they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching” and other signs of unity (2:42)
- Daily they devoted themselves to one another [“they spent much time together”] in the temple (2:46)
- “We [the apostles], for our part, will devote ourselves to prayer and to serving the word” (6:4)
Now, Simon exercises no less devotion to Philip. Simon also “listened eagerly” to Philip (8:6), although, prior to Philip’s arrival, the Samaritans “listened eagerly” to Simon (8:11). Simon displays no hints of jealousy; instead, he sticks to Philip like glue, because he, like his fellow believers, is amazed at the signs and miracles Philip can perform (8:13).
Everything seems hunky-dory. Then … enter the apostles from Jerusalem. Uh oh. Authoritative, order-imposing apostles. Simon the magician, not knowing better, offers them money. “Give me also this power,” he asks, “so that anyone on whom I lay my hands may receive the Holy Spirit” (Acts 8:19). Peter responds viciously:
May your silver perish with you, because you thought you could obtain God’s gift with money! You have no part or share in this, for your heart is not right before God. Repent therefore of this wickedness of yours, and pray to the Lord that, if possible, the intent of your heart may be forgiven you. For I see that you are in the gall of bitterness and the chains of wickedness. (8:20–23)
Simon responds with genuine repentance. “Pray for me to the Lord,” he begs, “that nothing of what you have said may happen to me” (8:24).
The story, as it stands, causes me to judge Peter harshly. If the apostles hadn’t arrived on the scene, Simon likely would have developed in his faith and remained devoted to Philip. Instead, Peter arrives, lashes out with a vitriolic condemnation that, though true perhaps, is short on patience and mercy. If Simon hadn’t repented, Peter’s rage would have seared and severed the faith Philip was patiently nurturing. It looks as if Peter is being too possessive of apostolic prerogative, unwilling even to entertain the possibility of power-sharing.
Learning From Philip
Peter’s stubborn and impatient management style is not the whole story. The apostles appear to have come to Samaria, not to look over Philip’s shoulder, not to micromanage his ministry, but to extend what he began by conferring the spirit upon believers, both men and women. Peter and John go down, pray for them to receive the holy spirit, then lay their hands on them that they might receive the holy spirit (8:15, 17), which apparently Philip had been unable to confer despite his miracle-working power.
With their job done, the apostles don’t linger so that they can check up on Philip and the Samaritans. Right after Simon repents, “after Peter and John had testified and spoken the word of the Lord, they returned to Jerusalem” (8:25). Just as they had done earlier when a rift in the Jerusalem church arose over neglected Greek-speaking widows, once again the apostles delegate responsibilities to a coterie of other believers.
In fact, they’ve even learned a thing or two from Philip. Remember that only the apostles remained in Jerusalem when everyone else was scattered (Acts 8:1). Now, after visiting Samaria, they do exactly what the scattered groups of persecuted believers have done: they don’t simply return straight home. Instead, they can be found “proclaiming the good news to many villages of the Samaritans” while they head back to Jerusalem (8:25).
Asterisk this as well. Good leaders take their authority seriously, but they know the limits of control as well. The apostles do what Philip can’t: confer the holy spirit by laying their hands on people. When that job — their job — is done, off they go, leaving their underlings free to fly in mission, and picking up a few pointers for effective mission along the way.
Philip in Flight, Sort Of
And fly Philip does! The spirit snatches Philip up and transports him, like the famed Israelite prophet Elijah. Remember how a chariot, at the end of Elijah’s life, took him into the sky. His protégé, Elisha, lost sight of Elijah and “did not see him again” (2 Kings 2:12). That’s almost exactly what Luke says of Philip in Acts 8:39: “the eunuch saw him no more.” Philip’s presence — and absence — is as momentous as Elijah’s.
But there is work to do, mission to make, before the spirit snatches Philip. The story begins, “Then an angel of the Lord said to Philip …” (8:26). It continues shortly later, “Then the Spirit said to Philip …” (8:29). The spirit directs the show, and Philip listens closely, sidling up to an Ethiopian eunuch on his way home from Jerusalem.
Before we move on, recall what my tutor at Christ’s College, Cambridge, S. Gorley Putt, said. You’ll find it in our first Lectio reading: “The delight is in the details.” That’s certainly the case here, where a single, parenthetical detail unlocks the whole story. That detail? “(This is a wilderness road.)” (Acts 8:26). This seems incidental enough, even forgettable. Yet it’s not insignificant, because this detail takes us right back — whoosh! — to Isaiah 40:1–5, with its reference to the voice of one crying in the wilderness. [Author’s Note 3] The wilderness in Isaiah’s vision is more than topography; it represents the new exodus, the salvation that God is about to reveal to “all flesh” (Isaiah 40:5) through haggard and hesitant Israelites, who are weary to the bone of Babylonian exile.
Philip’s role in this salvation unfolds on a wilderness road, when a eunuch asks him to explain a text in — no surprise here — the book of Isaiah, where he reads about the suffering servant (Acts 8:32–33; Isaiah 53:7–8). Picture them sitting side by side, a black man and a (relatively) white man, a sexually crippled man and a robust man with four daughters (Acts 21:9), bouncing along in a chariot on a desolate road, united solely by the scroll of Isaiah that is draped over their knees. It’s a sight to behold.
And they must have read for quite some time, absorbed by the profundity of Isaiah, until, all at once, the eunuch asks, “Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?” (Acts 8:36). Why does he ask to be baptized when he sees water? The answer lies in Isaiah 58 — five chapters later than where the eunuch was reading when Philip joined him. After Isaiah urges Israel to fast from oppression [Author’s Note 4], he promises, “and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail” (Isaiah 58:11). These are the words that may well have conjured in the eunuch a desire to be baptized.
But that’s not all that prompted the eunuch to be baptized. Turn back a few columns in the scroll of Isaiah, and you’ll find these words:
[D]o not let the eunuch say, “I am just a dry tree.” For thus says the LORD: “To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths, who choose the things that please me and hold fast my covenant, I will give, in my house and within my walls, a monument and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off” (Isaiah 56:3–5).
This stunning transformation of the temple allows the eunuch, crushed testicles and all, to join with Philip in study — and worship. Of course he will be baptized — fully included for the first time in the people of God.
Put an asterisk here, too. Mission is daring, taking us to all sorts of maimed and maligned people. Philip, who had brought despised Samaritans to faith, who had allowed a misguided magician to stick to him like glue, now comes to the side of another human aberration, an Ethiopian eunuch, and leads him, with utter disregard for taboos, to the center of the very temple worship from which he had just been excluded on his pilgrimage to Jerusalem.
A Scholar Stopped in His Tracks
Philip makes his way north to the coastal city of Caesarea, south of Galilee (Acts 8:40). Meanwhile, Saul is en route to Damascus, far to the northeast, in Syria, to ravage more of Jesus’ followers. On this route he has his famed encounter with the risen Jesus.
Through this encounter, the church’s former nemesis, Saul, is transformed. He cannot see, and he neither eats nor drinks. Although he is blind physically, he and a believer named Ananias have visions about each other. Ananias naturally resists the thrust of his vision, for he claims to have heard how cruelly Saul has treated the followers of Jesus. Still, Ananias relents and, having entered Saul’s house, lays his hands on him and says, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on your way here, has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit” (Acts 9:17). As soon as Saul can see, he is baptized, eats some food, and regains his strength.
What happens next may be startling, though in the pattern of Acts it is entirely predictable. “For several days he was with the disciples in Damascus, and immediately he began to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues, saying, ‘He is the Son of God’” (9:19–20).
Saul’s preaching is grounded in Scripture. Luke writes, “Saul became increasingly more powerful and confounded the Jews who lived in Damascus by proving that Jesus was the Messiah” (9:22; emphasis added). The verb translated “proving” has the ring of “gathering up” or “bringing together” — in this case, “marshalling” arguments from the Jewish scriptures, the Old Testament, to demonstrate that Jesus is the Messiah.
Saul’s inspired preaching consists of scriptural interpretation. Like Peter at Pentecost, who gathered a slew of Scripture quotes. Like Peter before the Jewish elite, whose sermon featured Psalm 118:22. Like Stephen, who spoke of little other than Israel’s history, from Abraham on down. Saul’s experience, in fact, helps us to understand the work of the holy spirit even better. Saul does not concoct fresh revelations (though he had them!) to demonstrate that Jesus is the Messiah. Instead, he marshals scriptures that were already familiar to his hearers in the synagogue.
Saul’s first sustained words make it clear that he was not converted to Christianity. Christianity didn’t yet exist as a religion separate from Judaism. Saul was not converted but called to follow Jesus. Naturally, he turned to his new vocation with a vengeance — a vengeance for discovering the work of Jesus in the only scriptures he cherished: the Law, Prophets, and Writings.
Saul’s passion leads him to experience the persecution he once triggered. So begins an itinerant career of passing through, preaching, and persecution. Meanwhile, Peter heals the sick and raises the dead. The torch has not yet passed from Peter to Paul. Not quite yet (Acts 9:23–43).
One more asterisk, please. As Saul escapes from one city to the next, he doesn’t go about recounting his experience — how he lurched to the ground, or how inexplicable blindness gripped him, or how he heard the voice of Jesus. No. Like Peter and Stephen before him, the holy spirit leads Saul straight to Israel’s Scripture. Filling with the holy spirit inspires the ability to marshal Old Testament scriptures to demonstrate that Jesus is the Messiah.
Questions for Further Reflection
- What changes for the fledgling church in Chapter 8? Put yourself in their shoes — how might those changes impact your life and faith? In the 21st century there are sisters and brothers in Christ throughout the world who are similarly scattered and persecuted. In what ways might you stand in solidarity with them?
- If you have time, re-read the story of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch in Chapter 8. There is much that can be gleaned from this text, but Dr. Levison particularly highlights the daring nature of a mission that seeks out the marginalized. What does this teach us about God’s character, or who we are called to be as disciples?
- Citing the sudden movement of Peter and his ensuing ministry (8:39–40), Dr. Levison asserts that the journey is often more important than the destination. How do you see that demonstrated in the text? How have you seen that experienced in your own life?
- After Saul’s calling, he immediately begins preaching in the surrounding area, focusing on the ways in which Scripture points to Jesus as the Messiah. What does Dr. Levison point out as notable about this fact? (*Hint: Check out the final paragraph!) Is there a place for personal testimony in our preaching today? Why or why not? How does this text inform your answer in either direction?
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