Psalm 139:1-18, Acts 8:25-40
July 24, 2011
Today we read this story of Philip and the Ethiopian. This has always been an interesting story to me, but I’ve also always wondered why it’s here. Is it really that important? Lots of people were coming to the faith in those days – many Jews, and now many Gentiles. But why this story of this man from another country. Well, let me share a few things you may not have known about it.
First of all, it has always been a mystery to me why this Ethiopian, a man who was of high status in the government of Ethiopia, was reading from the prophet Isaiah in the first place. Did you ever wonder about that? Did he just pick up the scroll from a local book store in Jerusalem, because it sounded interesting? Was he curious about the Jewish faith and wanted to learn more about it?
Well, after reading a couple of commentaries, it came to my attention that this man was probably reading from the prophet Isaiah because he was Jewish. I didn’t realize that before, but it makes sense! He was probably a convert to Judaism. And because he was, he was probably in Jerusalem for the Passover. And then, either he stayed on the 50 days until the Jewish celebration of Pentecost, or he came back for that festival, too.
Remember how the people were amazed on Pentecost because they heard the word of God in their own languages. And in that account we have that list of countries and languages – a list that is the bane of every lay reader on Pentecost Sunday!! Well, I went back to that chapter to see if Ethiopia is named among those countries. And it is not. But, the continent of Africa is named. And of course you know from your High School Geography that Ethiopia is in Africa!
So it was very likely that converts to Judaism from the various nations in Africa would have been in that crowd on Pentecost. And maybe this man was there, too! I think it was likely that he was! Remember also, that in this story he is very quick to invite Philip – a total stranger otherwise – to ride with him! If he was a stranger, that would have been a very unwise thing to do! So, did he remember Philip as one of those from the Pentecost event?
The other thing to remember here is that it would be unusual for very many people actually to own a copy of the scroll of the prophet Isaiah! As you know, all copies in those days were done by hand, and not many people would have been able to own even a part of the scriptures. It would have been very expensive! So it would make sense that this man, who was “in charge of the Queen’s treasury,” would have been wealthy enough to afford one!
So Philip was led to this man’s caravan. And he heard him reading. So he asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?” And the man answered, “How could I understand unless someone guides me.” That answer also supports his being a Jewish convert. Because the Jewish people believed that, to understand the scriptures properly, they needed to be guided by a religious authority – a teacher or a rabbi. So either the man recognized Philip as being among the other disciples on Pentecost, or he believed him to be such a person of authority – or perhaps both. So he did invited him to come up and ride with him.
Well, Philip comes up and he recognizes that the man is reading from Isaiah chapter 53. Now, if you’re familiar with that passage, you recognize it as a prophecy about the “Messiah” being a “Suffering Servant.” The Jewish people had two images of the Messiah in their prophecies, the “Conquering King” and the “Suffering Servant.” And the second one, the image of a suffering Messiah, was very hard for them to understand, especially in the days of the Roman occupation when they longed for a “Conquering King” to deliver them. It makes sense to us, because we know the whole story. But it was hard for them. So it would be natural for this man to be confused about the passage. So, he asks Philip who the passage is referring to. And Philip enlightens him.
Now, I want you to notice a couple of things in this story. First of all. I want you to notice the “anxious heart” of this man. He wanted to know! He was “seeking understanding,” as the title of this message states. But what did he want to understand? Had he heard all of the “buzz” that was going around Jerusalem in those days? And it certainly was! In the Emmaus story, the two disciples ask the unrecognized Jesus, “Are you the only visitor in Jerusalem that has not heard what has happened these days? Was this man on hand to witness the Pentecost events? Had he heard the talk about the disciples of Jesus, who were now proclaiming that his death and resurrection was for the forgiveness of sins? Had he heard the suggestion that Jesus may even have been the Messiah? And if so, how did he fit in with the writings of the prophets that talked about the “Suffering Servant.” No wonder this man was reading this particular chapter in Isaiah!
The more I read this story, the more I realize that is why it’s important. Yes, it was important for Luke to tell the story of this man because he was a foreigner. But it was even more important to tell his story because he was struggling with the meaning of Isaiah 53. I think the people in those days were trying to work out the whole “Jesus as the Jewish Messiah” thing. And they were struggling to put it all together with what the scriptures said about him – especially the “Suffering Servant” passages. And as Jesus explained all of that to the travelers on the Emmaus Road, now Philip was explaining it to this man.
Again, this is one of those things that we just tend to understand. Because it’s all been worked out and explained and understood for centuries. But they didn’t know it like we know it. I’m sure it was an important subject for Theophilus, to whom this book was written. And it was just as important to the other people of his day who were reading it!
The other thing I want you to notice here is the openness the man had to what Philip had to say, despite the fact that it seemed to go against what the priests and religious leaders were saying. That was a huge part of this whole picture! Remember, those priests were the highly respected as leaders of their faith and their nation! And they were the authority figures the man said were needed if one was to understand the scriptures! Do you see how confusing this becomes?!
In some ways it hasn’t changed. Even in our day, people are not always open to new understanding of things, are they? (He said from a Presbyterian pulpit!) In those days, many of the religious leaders were not open to new things, and too many people aren’t in our world, either! Too many people in our world don’t want to know. Instead of saying “How can I understand unless someone guides me,” they would say “I don’t want to hear your understanding, so don’t bother me!” “I’d rather make up my own mind, thank you,” or “I already have made up my mind, so don’t bother me with your facts!”
And before you start pointing fingers at other people on this, remember, that when you point your finger, there are three pointing back at you! Because don’t we all have that tendency inside of us? Don’t we all get a certain pride in our understanding that, from time to time, gets in the way of our “seeking understanding?” Don’t we have a comfort in it that we don’t want to disturb? That’s what I’m challenging us to think about today. Do we seek understanding? Or do we resist understanding?
While you’re thinking about that, consider what it was like during other times – especially the Age of Enlightenment. That was a tough time for the church! That was a time when people were being challenged to accept new understanding of a lot of things! For instance, the notion that the earth being not the center of the universe was particularly hard. That’s one I’ve mentioned before. But it does tend to be the quintessential example of this. It was a hard one for people to accept. Yet now, with that understanding we have been able to explore our solar system and walk on the moon!
At the time, though, people didn’t want to accept it! It was too upsetting. It flew in the face of their traditional understanding and interpretation. I know that’s almost hard for us to believe! But maybe there are some things that fit into that category for us! Maybe in some way we are uncomfortable with the things our faith calls us to do and to be. Maybe we think we’ve got it all figured out, and we’re not interested in hearing anything else, especially if it calls us to change!
I think that’s always been a problem for God’s people. Even Peter had to be told three times by God that certain foods were no longer “off limits.” God’s people have always been reluctant to change, yet we worship a God who we believe changes lives! That’s what’s so great about our faith.
So ask yourself this today. “Has your life been changed?” Are you different from the person you might have been if Christ had not come into your life? Do you see things differently than you might otherwise have seen them? Do you do the difficult things the faith calls you to do, like loving enemies, giving sacrificially, and reaching out to the outcast and downtrodden? And do you seek a greater understanding all the time of what it means to be Christ’s followers?
For some people, the call of God on their lives is too much. For some, the difficult injunctions of Jesus are just too hard to follow. And for some, they have simply re-written the faith to exclude the things they find to be the most difficult. As you think of all that, think of the people then who had to figure out this whole business of a “suffering Messiah.” It made no sense, I’m sure. But they were open to seeking understanding. Are we open to seeking understanding that might go against something we’ve been raised to think, or that society dictates to us? Those questions are always before us as God’s people! So as God’s people, let us never stop striving to seek his wisdom and understanding!
Lord, help us to be open to where your Spirit leads us. Help us to seek the understanding you give. Help us to be the people you call us to be. For we pray in Jesus’ name, Amen.