For an introduction to this series, click here.
June 3, 2007
The Sanhedrin had done it: they had stoned a man for preaching Christ. They began to systematically attack the church, which initially had the desired effect of getting the Christians out of Jerusalem: "And there arose on that day a great persecution against the church in Jerusalem, and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles. Devout men buried Stephen and made great lamentation over him." (8:1-2) The Christians were stunned by this development, and many left Jerusalem in fear for their lives. But as they scattered, they did not let that stop them from preaching the Gospel.
Philip, one of the six remaining deacons, made the first significant move, preaching the Gospel in Samaria. Remember the Samaritans were mixed-race and were despised by most Jews. But Philip had a wonderful ministry in their midst.
But there was a problem in town, named Simon. The Bible tells us Simon held a lot of sway over the people because of his magic and other tricks he was able to do. They all thought of Simon as a spiritual leader, even though he himself knew it was all sleight of hand and nonsense. So when Philip came preaching and led many of Simon's followers away, Simon figured these new guys were just like him: "Now when Simon saw that the Spirit was given through the laying on of the apostles' hands, he offered them money, saying, 'Give me this power also, so that anyone on whom I lay my hands may receive the Holy Spirit.' But Peter said to him, 'May your silver perish with you, because you thought you could obtain the gift of God with money! You have neither part nor lot in this matter, for your heart is not right before God. Repent, therefore, of this wickedness of yours, and pray to the Lord that, if possible, the intent of your heart may be forgiven you. For I see that you are in the gall of bitterness and in the bond of iniquity.' And Simon answered, 'Pray for me to the Lord, that nothing of what you have said may come upon me.'" (8:18-24)
Simon thought the Apostles were hucksters like him. He was surprised when he found out that this was not a trick. Whether or not Simon believed after what Peter said to him, we don't really know. We assume that he did not, but perhaps he did after all.
In the midst of this great work, an angel came to Philip and said, "Rise and go toward the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza." (8:26) Remember that the first few years of the church were a special time. God used visions and even angels to help the church accomplish God's purpose. These things were both a sign to the Jews and an encouragement to the believers.
As he is traveling across the desert, he meets up with a caravan and hears a man reading from the book of Isaiah out loud, "Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter and like a lamb before its shearer is silent, so he opens not his mouth. In his humiliation justice was denied him. Who can describe his generation? For his life is taken away from the earth." (8:32-33, ESV)
This of course is the story of the Ethiopian eunuch. This man was probably the treasurer of the kingdom who happened to be Jewish (why else would he be traveling from Jerusalem with a copy of Isaiah?) And I'm sure you are familiar with the story, how Philip used the text from Isaiah and told him the Gospel. He believed, and famously asked to be baptized at a watering hole they came to.
Baptism, of course, has its roots in Judaism. Perhaps this man was a converted Jew and not a born one. This man had perhaps been baptized into Judaism, and doubtless he had witnessed baptisms. He was familiar with the custom, and understood the significance of the ceremony: that of renouncing a former religion and adopting a new. He may have seen some Christian baptisms in Jerusalem.
If you are not aware, Ethiopia was for many centuries the only Christian kingdom in sub-Saharan Africa. The kings of Ethiopia claimed to be the descendant of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, although that has never been proven. Today we think of Ethiopia as the epitome of famine and want, but for most of the last millennium that was not the case. Ethiopia was for many years a prosperous kingdom, and was the only area of Africa not to be dominated by a European power between 1800 and the end of World War II. It was a series of corrupt governments and bad economic and weather conditions in the last 40 years that led to the severe famines and other problems many of us associate with Ethiopia.