Easter 5 • Acts 8:26–40 • May 6, 2012
By Andrew Bartelt
Verse 26: The pericope is framed by the actions of “messenger of the Lord” (v. 26) and the “spirit of the Lord” (v. 39). The “mal’ak yhwh” emphasizes the special presence and activity of God, giving witness to God’s plan and purpose in Christ.
Like the commands to the OT prophets, Philip is told to “get up and go” (cf. 1 Kgs 17:9, Jon 1:2). Although most translations take μεσημβρία in the sense of “south,” it more commonly (and always in the LXX) means “noon” (Acts 22:6). If so, the incident may recall the visitation to Abraham in the heat of the day (Gn 18), another instance of an extraordinary meeting for special revelation.
Verse 27: Philip “got up and went” and encountered what would seem to be the minister of the treasury under the queen (“Candace” is likely a royal title) of Nubia. If he was actually a eunuch, he embodied the fulfillment of Isaiah 56:3–5 as a reversal of the prohibition of Deuteronomy 23:1. Returning from worship at Jerusalem, he was most likely a proselyte, a “Jewish Gentile” who would also represent the transition from prophecy to fulfillment and from Israel to the nations.
Verses 28–30: It was normal practice to “read out loud,” so the Spirit’s command to join him in this chariot would naturally engage Philip in the reading. His question represents wordplay in the Greek: γινώσκεις ἃ ἀναγινώσκεις.
Verses 31–34: Was it coincidence or divine providence that he was reading Isaiah 53?! The citation is the LXX rendering of Isaiah 53:7b–8 (stopping short of the final line). There are several deviations from the Hebrew, but the general gist is clear, even as the Hebrew itself is difficult. The point, however, is not in these details, but in the general referent: Of whom is the prophet speaking?
For us, Isaiah 53 stands as one of the clearest and most important prophecies about the suffering servant fulfilled in the passion of Christ, but this is not necessarily obvious. Judaism of the time did not connect the messianic servant figure with one of suffering, but one can easily speculate that the officer in Acts 8 was simply reading what the text says and asking the right questions.
Interestingly, the citations of Isaiah 53 in the Gospels relate to Jesus’s healing ministry (Mt 8:17) or the rejection of belief (Jn 12:38). Luke comes the closest to the context of Jesus’s passion (Lk 22:37), emphasizing that “this must be fulfilled in me” (τοῦτο τὸ γεγραμμένον δεῖ τελεσθῆναι ἐν ἐμοί), but the citation is from 53:12, “he was counted among the lawless.” One wonders, too, if the officer in Acts 8 was reading, or was confused by, only the verses cited. A few verses before (Is 53:4–6) or after (including the very next line in v.8) clearly speak of his suffering, punishment, and even death on behalf of others, specifically the “us” of Isaiah 53. One could argue that a little better textual and contextual study might have helped the officer. On the other hand, he did not yet have the Christological reference points that we almost take for granted! And, indeed, that was the fundamental issue.
Verse 35: In any case, Philip met the officer where he was in his uncertainties, and “beginning with this scripture,” he “evangelized Jesus to him” (εὐηγγελίσατο αὐτῷ τὸν Ἰησοῦν). The clause could well be rendered, “proclaimed (or announced) Jesus as the good news.” In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus is the subject with τὴν βασιλείαν τοῦ θεοῦ as the object (4:43, 8:1). The “good news” of the kingdom is a person, who embodies all that the righteous reign of God entails.
One wonders what other prophetic texts may have been engaged, after beginning with this one. But this is not a textbook on dialogue evangelism, though it is a wonderful case study in how the Word of the Lord was going forth, not just by the thousands on Pentecost, but here by means of one enquirer at a time.
Verses 36–40: The denouement of the story gets even better. Even on the desert road, there was water. There was also the Word, a young faith, and the evangelist Philip. There was also the Spirit of the Lord, certainly present all along even if in the background since the “angel of the Lord” sent Philip in the first place (v. 26). As a Gentile proselyte to Judaism, the officer knew of a baptism of repentance; now, Christian baptism marked him as a disciple of Jesus.
That same Spirit then snatched Philip away (ἥρπασεν) on to his next assignments. The officer went on his way, rejoicing (χαίρων). The theme of joy is a major theme in Luke, now extended into the expansion of the Gospel into all the world.
(Note: v. 37 is now almost universally omitted as a secondary, Byzantine reading (cf. KJV) as it “fills in” the dialogue: “Then Philip said, ‘If you believe with your whole heart, it is possible.’ He answered and said, ‘I believe that the Son of God is Jesus Christ.’”)
This is, of course, a wonderful example of an evangelistic encounter. Philip is sent to a pious Jewish proselyte, returning from a temple pilgrimage, well-educated and well-positioned as a government official, reading a significant prophetic passage (and still not understanding it), who then actually asks for help! And, of course, Philip takes the opportunity.
But this incident is set into the larger context of the Word of the Lord going forth to the end of the earth (1:8) by the direction and power of God’s spirit. The “angel of the Lord” has sent a messenger of the gospel, and the kingdom of God came to one who was not far from it.
But the key to the whole text is already stated in Luke 24:27. We often speak of a “Christocentric hermeneutic,” and here we witness it at work. As with a jigsaw puzzle that can boggle the mind and eyes, Jesus is the picture on the box.
He is the lamb who was slain, the one who was deprived of justice so that God’s justification of sinners might be accomplished. And by the power of the Spirit, the Word of the Lord continues to go forth, even to the end of the earth.