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According to Acts 8, the angel of the Lord told Philip to go to the road that leads from Jerusalem to Gaza. On his way, Philip happened upon an Ethiopian eunuch, an official in the court of the queen of the Ethiopians. As the story goes, the eunuch is in his chariot, reading the Scriptures. At the eunuch’s request, Philip joins him in the chariot to explain what he is reading. The end result is that the eunuch is baptized and Philip is whisked away by the Spirit.
This was and continues to be one of my favorite conversion stories in the book of Acts. After all, Philip is given this amazing privilege of partnering with God in the work of spreading the gospel and being part of the joy of others coming to know God’s love and grace in their lives. Because of Philip, the eunuch’s life was forever changed and the gospel spread to Africa. It’s an inspiring story of God using Philip’s faithfulness to accomplish big things in the Kingdom of God.
Beyond His Comfort Zone
More recently, however, I have been drawn not so much to what Philip does for the eunuch, but to what the eunuch does for Philip. The eunuch, after all, was not Philip’s typical audience. The farthest Philip had gone out of his comfort zone at this point was Samaria, a city that had historic ties to Israel and a growing population of persecuted followers of Jesus. By contrast, the eunuch was an outsider. He was African, not mid-eastern, and likely dark-skinned. Moreover, he was a eunuch, someone who was specifically identified in Deuteronomy 23:1 as forbidden to enter the assembly of God’s people.
It’s not hard to imagine that Philip would have been uncomfortable with the eunuch and in various ways, the text itself betrays this. Note that while the eunuch is animated and active in the story, Philip comes across as reserved and restrained. It is the eunuch who invites Philip to explain the text to him. It is the eunuch who asks to be baptized. It is the eunuch who is described as rejoicing in his new-found faith.
By contrast, Philip is largely just there, reacting and responding as needed. Maybe the author didn’t feel the need to include more about Philip. Or maybe Philip just wasn’t all that excited about having the eunuch join the community of faith. Maybe Philip was a little nervous about what effect it would have, allowing eunuchs into the kingdom (was this a slippery slope?). Maybe he was worried that the eunuch didn’t know enough doctrine to be baptized or to proclaim the gospel to others. Maybe he simply didn’t like the idea of associating with eunuchs.
Whatever Philip may have felt, it seems likely that this divinely arranged meeting between Philip and the eunuch changed not only the eunuch, but Philip. Because of the eunuch, Philip learned that God’s vision of the Kingdom, God’s scope for the Kingdom, was a whole lot bigger than he had realized. Because of the eunuch, Philip came to see that he still had much to learn himself about the nature of God and his redemptive work. And through the eunuch, this strange outsider from another part of the world who didn’t know Jesus but in whom the Spirit of the Lord was stirring, Philip’s understanding of God, the gospel, the Kingdom breaking into the world, was stretched to better reflect and align what God had in mind.
Your Daughters Shall Prophesy
It seems to me no accident that later in Acts, Philip is described as having four daughters who had the gift of prophecy. I imagine that for Philip, having daughters prophesy, females receiving and proclaiming a word from the Lord, was not so comfortable either.
• Perhaps Philip’s encounter with the eunuch had made him realize that it was not his job to put limits on who God called or how and in whom God’s Kingdom took root.
• Perhaps his eyes began to open to the ways in which God was overturning every human preconception and prejudice.
• Perhaps he came to see how God was genuinely doing a new thing.
• And perhaps, in an effort to continue gaining a fuller picture of the Kingdom, Philip began regularly to seek those outside his tribe, his ethnic group, his socio-economic stratum, his religious community, his political association, in an effort to witness how God was at work there.
Reading this story today, I can’t help but wonder, what more do I, do we, have to learn about the nature of God and the kingdom from those who are outsiders to us? What gift might God be eager for us to receive from them? Until we open ourselves up to those who are different from us, we will never know.