“Do you understand what you are reading?” Philip asked. “How can I,” he said, “unless someone explains it to me?” So he invited Philip to come up and sit with him. (Acts 8.30-31)
It Just So Happens
The Acts of the Apostles is a real page-turner with all the makings of a great novel: indelible heroes in Peter and Paul, a huge, colorful supporting cast, and a plot propelled by hair-raising events and startling epiphanies. Serendipity is the name of the game, because the Early Church is everywhere at once, yet in terms of cohesive vision and structure, for quite a while it’s nowhere at all. Acts’ author, Luke, is fond of starting episodes with “now,” “in those days,” and other pivotal phrases that mean, “It just so happens.” With more players entering the scene and more occurring in new places, each transition becomes more dramatic.
If Luke were an ancient novelist crafting epic fiction, we’d marvel at how he contrives coincidence to weld his storylines together. But he’s an amateur historian recording what he sees and hears. What’s more, his motives for composing Acts (and his Gospel) as a means of reaching fellow Gentiles place crucial importance on credibility, totally negating serendipity’s value as a literary device. When reading Acts, we can't lose sight that its fortuitous twists and turns are more than happenstance—actual or contrived. Something bigger than coincidence forges its fragments and figures into one narrative. Something not readily visible or logically apparent pulls the story together and pushes it forward. And that’s Luke’s point. The Holy Spirit plays the dominant role here. Its presence, guidance, and movement shape every aspect of Christian life. “It just so happens” because the Spirit sees that it happens.
By Acts 8, the wonder of Pentecost and the resurgent Jesus movement are old news. The sect creates big problems for the religious majority. Everything the new-fangled "Christians" teach and do is so far beyond the pale of mainstream Judaism there’s no reasonable way of reeling them in. A fervent counter-activist, Saul of Tarsus, spearheads a campaign to destroy the Church; the first casualty, Stephen, is railroaded through the courts and stoned. The Apostles scatter, ostensibly to lower their profile in Jerusalem. Yet (it just so happens) their scattering launches the Church’s missionary era, as new believers in the provinces join their ranks. One apostle, Philip, goes to Samaria, where he converts many. Once things quiet down in Jerusalem, he rejoins the Apostles.
Philip’s not there long before the Holy Spirit, in angelic form, sends him out again. No destination is given. All he’s told is “Go south to the road—the desert road—that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” (Acts 8.26) The instruction must sound odd, as there’s not much of anything there. Philip obeys, though, and along the way, he happens to meet an Ethiopian eunuch—“an important official in charge of all the treasury” of Ethiopia’s queen (v27). It just so happens the eunuch also is departing Jerusalem after worshiping in the Temple. A passage from Isaiah captures his attention: “He was led like a sheep to the slaughter and as a lamb before its shearer is silent, so he did not open mouth. In his humiliation he was deprived of justice. Who can speak of his descendants? For his life was taken from the earth.” (Isaiah 53.7-8) Something about this speaks to him, but he can’t put his finger on it without knowing whom the prophet talks about.
Perhaps the eunuch sees himself in the passage. As a foreigner and eunuch, his Temple worship is confined to the outer court, far from where the action is. He very well may be smarting from humiliation of being told he’s unworthy to access space reserved for Jews. (In his native land, the velvet rope drops for someone of his stature.) Then there’s the part about the sacrificial lamb having no heirs—a loss the eunuch surely understands. Who is this figure? The mystery overtakes the eunuch. He pulls over to study the text more closely. At that moment, Philip happens by. The Spirit tells him, “Go to that chariot and stay near it.” (v29) He asks if the eunuch understands what he’s reading. The eunuch replies, “How can I unless someone explains it to me?” (v31) Philip is the perfect person to unlock the text. “Philip began with that very passage of Scripture,” verse 35 says, “and told him the good news about Jesus.” As they trundle down the road, they happen by some water. The eunuch asks if there’s any reason why he can’t be baptized. Of course not. After Philip welcomes the eunuch into the faith through baptism, the Spirit whisks him off, and the new believer goes his way, rejoicing.
Character and Confidence
Luke crams a lot of information into his 14-verse account, none of which we should mistake for descriptive prose. Every detail is carefully placed to enlighten us that something profound transpires when Philip meets the eunuch. It sets the Church’s course forever after and defines its calling to embrace people of all ethnicities, genders, classes, and cultures. Since he already touched on inclusion with Philip’s Samaritan ministry, Luke uses the episode to highlight the character and confidence required to enter and perpetuate an inclusive faith community.
It just so happens Philip and the eunuch share one trait eclipsing all their differences: they’re unintimidated by differences. Neither views the other’s status, color, identity, religion, and culture as threats. To be sure, they instantly surmise their differences on sight. And each comes from an environment encouraging him to look down on the other. A person weaker than Philip would scoff at a non-Jew—a eunuch from a pagan land, no less—presuming Isaiah had anything to offer him. Someone less grounded than the eunuch would never admit not understanding the prophet to an average nobody like Philip. Yet every cultural inhibition and intimidating dynamic falls aside when the eunuch genuinely desires to find meaning in Scripture and Philip arrives to open his mind to Christ’s truth.
“It just so happens” happens to us day after day, as the same Holy Spirit present, guiding, and moving the people of Acts remains present to guide and move in our lives. Sometimes we’re like Philip—inexplicably sent to souls who’ve pulled aside, seeking answers we can provide. Sometimes we’re like the eunuch—puzzled and sensing God wants to speak to us, yet not exactly sure what God is saying. Either way, “it just so happens” cannot happen if barriers, prejudices, and stereotypes intimidate us. Responding to the Spirit’s guidance calls for character and confidence to ignore everything we see so we can achieve all God asks of us and receive all God has for us.
The story of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch is a study in character and confidence.