Now an angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Rise and go toward the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” This is a desert place. – Acts 8:26
What if one day, you feel a strong sense that you must go to a faraway deserted place? Would you go? What for God?, you would ask. There’s nothing there, you would say.
The Spirit-filled deacon Philip obeyed the Lord. I don’t know how he heard it from the angel of God. Maybe it was a dream. Maybe a vision. Maybe a strong prompting in his heart. Maybe a stranger walked up to him and just told him to.
So he rose and went. It’s interesting that the word “rise” is used twice here, in the call and in the response. It’s like Philip was lying down somewhere resting. Maybe he was resting after his mission work in Samaria. Rise! Get up! There’s work to be done! God calls. We work, we rest, we rise.
Philip obediently makes his way to the desert road from Jerusalem to Gaza. Maybe as he is walking down the road, he sees nothing. Maybe he sees other travellers. Maybe he stops to rest from time to time. But there was no further instructions from God. Until the Spirit spoke to him, “go over and join this chariot.” Sometimes, God reveals His instructions only step by step. We may not see the whole at the start, but God desires we obey wholly the part He has shown. In time, He may show the whole.
Now in the chariot is a high-ranking royal official of the Ethiopian kingdom, a eunuch, equivalent to a Minister of Finance. I don’t know whether you’ve ever tried to approach a vehicle with a Minister of Finance of another country and ask to join him. I have not. But that’s what Philip did!
When the Spirit speaks to us, it may be through an audible voice, or a stirring in the heart, or a thought that comes to our mind, or some other form. It’s easy to doubt, especially when the instruction is daunting. Yet, Philip was boldly obedient. What’s the worst that could happen?
Luke, the writer of Acts, gives us background to this Ethiopian eunuch. He’s a Gentile who believes in YHWH, but not yet a proselyte, ie, convert to Judaism. He’s clearly devout because he took a long journey to go to Jerusalem to worship God. And as Philip approached the chariot the eunuch was in, turns out the eunuch was reading Isaiah 53 out loud.
What better Old Testament scripture more apt than Isaiah 53 which points to Jesus! Surely, this too was orchestrated by God. Philip starts the conversation by simply asking, “do you understand what you are reading?” Sometimes, all we need really is just to position ourselves at the right spot, and when the right moment arises, to ask simple questions like, “what are you reading?”, or “how are you doing?”, or “what’s going on in your life?”
The eunuch responds to say, “how can I unless someone guides me?” The eunuch then invites Philip up the chariot. This eunuch was hungry to know God’s Word! Again, this surely must have been God going before to prepare this eunuch’s heart.
The eunuch reads Isaiah 53:7-8 and asks Philip, who is this referring to? Isaiah or someone else? The question is spot-on!
Verse 35 describes Philip to have “opened his mouth” and telling the eunuch the good news of Jesus. This little detail is telling. Obviously for Philip to speak to the eunuch, Philip had to open his mouth. Yet, I know the fact true of me–so many times a divine appointment arose, I did not open my mouth. I was afraid. Such a simple act. Yet, we know how weighty our words are. We know that the act of opening our mouth has consequences.
Philip must have gone through all the Old Testament scriptures pointing to Jesus that the eunuch believed in Jesus within that conversation. As they continued on their journey on the desert road, they came across an oasis with a water pool. How timely! Just as the eunuch believed in Jesus, God orchestrated that they pass a water pool in the desert. So they got off and Philip baptised the eunuch.
The instant that they came up from the water, the Holy Spirit swept Philip away. Gone like the wind. The eunuch might have been startled at first. Did he just encounter an angel? Or a spirit? Or a ghost? No, the eunuch was sure of his faith in Jesus, and that what he just experienced was from God. For the eunuch went away rejoicing.
On this note, I should highlight that the prophecy of Isaiah is especially significant for a eunuch. Generally, the Bible refers to eunuchs to mean people who are unable to have sex (through birth defect or castration) or who choose not to have sexual relations (Matthew 19:12). God declares through Isaiah: “3 … let not the eunuch say, “Behold, I am a dry tree.” 4 For thus says the LORD: “To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths, who choose the things that please me and hold fast my covenant, 5 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 passage applies, I believe, to people who are, or choose to be celibate and thus are, unable to have children. God says to these, you are not a dry tree; you are especially favoured; you will receive an inheritance better than sons and daughters.
In Jesus, the consummation of this promise begins. In the return of Jesus, the consummation of this promise will be complete.
Coming back to the story, Philip went on to preach the good news everywhere he went as he continued north towards Caesarea Maritima (which I visited not long ago; it was the Roman administrative capital of Judea, with significant Greek influences; eventually the amphitheater or hippodrome was used as an entertainment venue where people would watch Christians be devoured by lions). It’s likely that Philip would eventually suffer such a fate, if not through some other means.
In this story, we see that God is the one who calls, instructs, prepares hearts, prepares the setting, prepares the Scriptures, prepares the water for baptism, and carries away for His mission. God is the one who orchestrates everything for His mission.
Our responsibility is to listen, respond, obey, rise, go, position ourselves where God wants us to be, open our mouth, preach the gospel, and baptise.
And the nations will come to know God, and will go rejoicing.