Reading for Tuesday, April 17: Acts 8
V1 – “And Saul approved of his execution.”
Of all the testimonies in the scriptures about the power of God to reverse fortunes and set people on new trajectories, none stands out quite like Saul. Our first introduction to Saul is as a villain — persecutor of Christians, ravaging the church (v3), entering into their homes with murder on his mind. Saul comes to us as a predator, bloodthirsty with righteous indignation. And yet, as we will soon see, one encounter with Jesus is enough to transform him into a radical ambassador for the cause of Christ, willing to risk his reputation, his religious standing, even his very life for the One he calls Lord.
The drama shifts to a new player: Philip. We’ve already been introduced to Philip in ch6. He emerges as one of the men chosen to distribute food, a man full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom (6.3). But we find him here assuming even more responsibility. He sets out to take the Gospel to another people group: the Samaritans, the racially mixed group despised by most pious Jews. Philip’s ministry is accompanied by signs and wonders and many respond in faith. Peter and John visit these new believers and the Spirit falls upon them, confirming their status as citizens in the Kingdom and co-heirs with Christ.
But we also see the age-old human dilemma crop up again. Just as Cain was jealous of Abel’s favor with God, Simon longs for the same mighty demonstration of God’s power to flow through him. I don’t think this is necessarily sinful; we should all want to do great things in the name of Jesus. But Simon’s actions are a little shady; he offers the disciples money, soliciting his wealth in exchange for a more prominent role. Simon’s battle is an interior one, the old Simon waging war with his new identity in Christ. As the text tells us, Simon had always declared his own greatness (8.9-10) and these old habits die hard sometimes. But another Simon — Simon Peter, the fisherman transformed by God’s grace — confronts this self-serving impulse head on. He calls Simon the sorcerer to repentance, to abandon the old self and embrace the new. This is the same struggle we’re faced with today. Thankfully, the scene closes with Simon’s acceptance of Peter’s word. We’re reminded that greatness is for the Lord to dispense per His prerogative. Faithfulness is the role we’re called to play. I like to think Simon lived out the rest of his days in simple faithfulness, perhaps even quietly, learning that his identity was not bound up in signs and wonders, but instead in the identity of His Savior.
The final episode of this awesome chapter is one of my favorites. Philip is called to a desert place (8.26) to encourage a desert of a man: an Ethiopian eunuch. The scene is well-rehearsed for many of us. The eunuch is reading from Isaiah and he lacks understanding. Philip helps him interpret what he’s reading in light of the person of Christ. He responds in faith, putting Jesus on in baptism before Philip is whisked away, presumably to another setting to preach the Good News to yet another outsider, expanding the borders of God’s Kingdom.
Personally, I think Philip would’ve known his Bible well enough to encourage the eunuch to keep reading in Isaiah. For immediately after the language of the suffering servant in Isaiah 53, God tells us of the power of this servant’s sacrifice, of His work to reverse our fortunes and bring new life into dry places. Like baptismal waters emerging from a desert landscape, the power of God brings life and vitality into the wilderness of the human heart. So I think Philip would’ve directed the eunuch to Isa 56, where the Lord makes these promises:
“Let not the foreigner who has joined himself to the Lord say ‘The Lord will surely separate me from his people’; and let not the eunuch say, ‘Behold, I am a dry tree.’ For thus says the Lord: ‘To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths, who choose the things that please me and hold fast my covenant, I will give in my house and within my walls a monument and a name better than sons or daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off.” (Isa. 56.3-5).
This God-fearing eunuch would have been barred from the temple courts. Because of his physical condition, he could only approach God from a distance. But the Good News ushers him into a new reality, a relationship with God predicated on faith not on flesh. And he is promised that which has never been possible for him: a heritage, a lineage, participation in a family name that supersedes sons or daughters, an eternal identity that is never cut off.
This is the Good News.