Bible study: Acts 8 – Philip, the Samaritans, and the Ethiopian

Some thoughts from my personal Bible study, mainly asking questions of the text and pondering some potential answers.

Why didn’t Philip give the Samarians the Holy Spirit?

We’ve already met Philip earlier in Acts; he was one of the people put in charge of administration while the Apostles focused on teaching. Stephen, who features in the previous chapter, was also one of these so-called administrators. So this is the second account of someone supposedly less senior in the Christian ranks doing something quite extraordinary. Philip preaches the gospel to the Samarians (yes, those same Samarians that Jews generally avoided like the plague), and they receive him and his message enthusiastically (which is unusual for them too).

But it takes a visit from the heavyweights Peter and John for them to receive the Holy Spirit. Why is that? Wasn’t Philip good enough? Had he missed something? Why was the Holy Spirit given selectively?

I wonder if perhaps it has something to do with how much they believed. They had heard from Philip about Jesus, and it was convincing enough for them to accept the message and be baptised (more on that later), but it seems like a very quick turnaround. They understood in their heads, but it took the personal experience of the Apostles to show them that it was about their heart too. I don’t think it was that Philip was insufficient; let’s not forget that there was a huge amount of history between the Jews and the Samarians, so the fact that they listened at all is something of a miracle. Countering that much history and transforming that number of hearts is no mean feat. Peter and John gave them that last little push, and introduced them to the Holy Spirit.

Why didn’t the Ethiopian understand Isaiah?

We’re told that this Ethiopian eunuch had gone to Jerusalem to worship, so we can assume that he was probably a Jew, by belief if not by birth. He’s also pretty wealthy, because he’s got his own copy of this bit of scripture – not everyone did. We’re not told why he was reading it – maybe it was read out in the temple and he was trying to remember what he’d been taught, or maybe he was doing some background research, or maybe someone had referred to it and he was trying to make sense of it. Who knows. What we do know is that despite his best efforts he doesn’t feel qualified to understand it.

This is perhaps some evidence of what Jesus was so keen to put right with the Pharisees. There were barriers, whether educationally or socially, that prevented people from understanding God’s word, and put up walls to make relationship with God something exclusive. That’s not what God wanted at all. In this case, God sends Philip to explain it to the Ethiopian. Philip isn’t a Pharisee, he isn’t a scholar in the traditional sense. In fact until his trip to Samaria we was a Nutrition Distribution Administrator. Just an ordinary bloke, explaining the so-called mysteries of God.

To our eyes, that passage in Isaiah is probably pretty obvious, because Jesus is front and centre of our understanding. Sometimes the truth is more simple than we think it is.

Why were people so eager to be baptised?

Before the Samarians have even experienced the Holy Spirit, they’re getting themselves baptised. Even Simon gets a dunking. And the Ethipian, having probably only known about the gospel for a matter of minutes, begs to be baptised in a bit of water he happens to be passing. There are no baptismal classes, there are no candles, there is no official liturgy, and no one sings “All things bright and beautiful”. Quite a different experience of baptism to ours, I’d say.

The fact that baptism isn’t explained perhaps gives us a clue – it was normal practice in other contexts too. Baptism wasn’t something exclusive to Christians, the Jews did it too. I don’t know the whole history of it, but I get the impression that there was almost an expectation that if you accepted the teaching of a rabbi or significant teacher then you would be baptised into their following. It was normal for them, so the writers never explained it. No one described the temple in much detail either, because everyone knew what it looked like. And today, if I was telling you about my drive home from work, I wouldn’t explain the Highway Code, because my contemporaries already know it (or should do). Baptism happened. A lot. Which might show us that their understanding of it is different to ours today.

These days, if I like what someone says, I might follow them on Twitter. It’s a public affirmation that I’m willing to be associated with what that person says. In a similar way, the Samaritans accept Philip’s teaching enough to be baptised, as a public declaration of their association. But following someone on Twitter isn’t the same as marrying them. The differece Peter and John made was that they helped them form a relationship with Jesus, opening their hearts to receive the Holy Spirit in the process. It shows us that we don’t need to understand eveything fully to be able to take the first step, but also that head knowledge isn’t enough – we need to nurture a living relationship with Jesus to make that public declaration complete.

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