“Discerning God’s Purposes”
The first seven chapters of Acts is consistent in terms of the general context of the ministry of the earliest believers. Everything happened in Jerusalem. All the believers were Jewish. Thus, the apostles Peter and John encountered a man who begged for charity at the temple gate as they entered the temple precincts at a regular time of prayer (Acts 3:1). Peter’s explanation to temple worshipers occurred within the temple complex, where the news would have quickly spread (3:11). And ongoing tensions between the believers and Jewish officials indicate that those believers continued to proclaim the message of Jesus’ resurrection on temple grounds, where they also worshiped (see chapters 4 and 5). This Jewish context is the place for extraordinary descriptions of the community of believers as both loving God and neighbor. On the one hand, they were loving and worshiping God by devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the worship practices of the temple (see “to the prayers”, 2:42). On the other hand, they were also loving neighbor and one another in their care for one another, not only in their practices of fellowship (e.g., sharing of meals) but also in the fulfillment of the Old Testament assurance that there would be no need among God’s covenant people (see Deut 15:4).
After the scattering of those believers from Jerusalem (Acts 8:1), however, the narrative focus shifts to an eclectic group of persons. Rather than persons who have lots of things in common, these persons share almost nothing in common. Unlike the persons in the first seven chapters who seem to have some sort of a defined “place” with regard to what we would describe as the people of God, the individuals or groups whom we encounter in these next several chapters of Acts would have been understood as much more ambiguous within the broader story of God. In chapter 8, the story is told of Philip, one of seven persons appointed to assist the apostles with caring for the oversight of the ministry of tables (6:1-7), who began to preach about Jesus as the Christ/Messiah among the Samaritans, whose history included intermarriage with other displaced nations after the Assyrian invasion (late eighth century BCE), the construction of a temple at Mount Gerazim to rival the temple in Jerusalem. Not only was there hatred and animosity between the Jews and the Samaritans, but their similar religious practices and Scriptures reflected their debate over which group was the true (and faithful) people of God. Philip’s successful ministry among the Samaritans suggests that such issues should be put to rest, as the gospel about Jesus as the Messiah is inclusive of all and overcomes the historical obstacles that separated the Jews and the Samaritans for centuries.
Given Philip’s ministry among the Samaritans, one may find it difficult to offer rationale for the divine guidance that directed Philip from his successful ministry in Samaria to an obscure location southwest of Jerusalem (Acts 8:26). Not only was the location obscure, it was imprecise: “the road that leads from Jerusalem to Gaza” (8:26; CEB) could have meant any number of different locations that stretched over a span of 50 miles. The narrator offers no explanation for these instructions, nor does he mention anything about Philip objecting to them. What is noteworthy is that he responded as one who could discern God’s call and guidance. It is because of Philip’s willingness to go where God sent him that he ended up crossing paths with another … the focus of the passage before us.
What is interesting here is how the narrator of Acts describes this encounter. He introduces the man as “an Ethiopian [who] was on his way home from Jerusalem, where he had come to worship. He was a eunuch and an official responsible for the entire treasury of Candace (Candace is the title given to the Ethiopian queen.)” (Acts 8:27). One would have expected the narrator to mention that, despite his important governmental status, this official would have been excluded from worship practices at the temple in Jerusalem. After all, his condition as a eunuch would have done just that, which also would have kept him from fully participating as a member of the Jewish people, either as one born into a Jewish family or as one who might convert to Judaism. Such liminal status would have made him an outsider, from a Jewish perspective (not to mention him being seen as “defective” and even “evil” in the broader Gentile world). Yet the narrator mentions nothing explicitly about this, focusing instead on their encounter in light of their differences in status: (1) the eunuch was in a chariot reading a copy of the prophet Isaiah aloud, whereas Philip had to run to catch him; and (2) Philip asked an ironic question to the eunuch about what he is reading (aloud), whereas the eunuch responded about his need for someone to help him understand and then invited Philip into his chariot. Despite their differences, Philip “proclaimed the good news about Jesus” (8:35 CEB) to his audience of one … a message that must have been effective since the eunuch exclaimed upon seeing some water, “Look! Water! What would keep me from being baptized” (8:37 CEB)? After all the years of exclusion on the part of individuals and institutions, he recognized the inclusive nature of the gospel of Jesus Christ because Philip not only preached inclusion but also practiced it.
Philip’s response and treatment of the Ethiopian eunuch are noteworthy, not because he called attention to what had ostracized the man but because it was an issue that neither he nor the narrator brings up. Philip’s attention was so focused on obedience to divine guidance that it seems as though he never noticed what defined the man as an outsider for so many others. As a result, we are left with a picture of the inclusive nature of the gospel that transcends Jewish/Gentile distinctions. And the Ethiopian eunuch was not only baptized—a sign of his inclusion within the church or the people of God—but also “went on his way rejoicing” (8:39 CEB), Luke’s signature way of describing believers living out their Christian life as a “journey” or “on the way” with God.
What is often the topic of discussion within more than a few Christian circles is whether some groups of people can really be Christian. And like the person whom Philip encountered in this passage in Acts, these groups are often treated as outsiders: excluded from “true” worship, disqualified from church leadership and ministerial rites such as ordination, and even called “sinners” for who they are, not for what they have done. But Philip’s lack of attention on such an issue mirrors how we see Jesus respond to others in Luke’s Gospel: he embodied the gospel that reversed the boundary markers of the community that kept the “lost” lost, the “sinner” sinful, and the “outsider” outside. What this passage in Acts suggests is a different perspective … a perspective like that of Jesus: one that focuses on the gospel and the inclusion of others, rather than on defining boundaries that keep people outside of the people of God. Such a perspective may actually find God already at work, like was the case with the Ethiopian eunuch. In Wesleyan terms, this would be called “prevenient grace.” Yet this is also the kind of grace with which we are called to partner. The real question is whether we have developed the discernment to discover God’s purposes in such unexpected places and people.