The apostle Philip was able to understand cultures different from his own. Because of this, the Gospel spread throughout the Middle East. Philip is written about in the Book of Acts, specifically chapter 8.
Philip probably never imagined he would be the first person to share the Gospel with an African. After all, he wasn’t one of the official Apostles who had received the “Great Commission” from Jesus Himself. His job in the church had been to serve elderly widows, by distributing to them the food provided by the Church.
Because of persecution against the believers, Philip was forced to flee from Jerusalem. These Christian refugees were not cowed by their sufferings. In fact, they “preached the word wherever they went” (verse 4). When Philip proclaimed the Gospel of Christ in the district of Samaria the Holy Spirit brought such conviction that “with shrieks, evil spirits came out of many and many paralytics and cripples were healed” (verse 7).
Then, surprisingly, the Lord spoke to Philip through an angel and told him to leave Samaria and go to a lonely desert road near Gaza.
Why leave an amazingly successful ministry to go to the desert!? Philip started out, and on his way he sees a chariot and is told by the Spirit to go and stay near it. Philip does so, and has a most significant conversation with “an important official in charge of all the treasury of Candace, queen of the Ethiopians” (verse 27) who had gone to Jerusalem to worship. The conversation they have about some verses in Isaiah results in the official opening his mind and heart to Jesus and asking for baptism.
As we look more closely to details in this story we can discover some key clues for effectively sharing the Gospel with anyone, including those from a different cultural context.
God Prepared the Way
This encounter was obviously arranged by God. Both men were uniquely prepared for the experience.
When Philip was chosen for his church administrative position, he had needed to fulfill two requirements: to be “full of the Holy Spirit” and to have good sense (Acts chapter 6, verse 3). In addition, he had a servant heart, happy to care for lesser privileged members of the congregation. In Samaria he showed his love for Jesus as he shared the Gospel and then saw God’s power at work. Undoubtedly because of these characteristics God chose him for a unique evangelistic opportunity.
All we really know about the Ethiopian we find in this brief text. He is a high official of the court of the “Ethiopians,” the Upper Nile region, reaching approximately from Aswan to Khartoum. He is responsible for the treasury of “Candace” (a dynastic title for the Queen Mother), and undoubtedly a black African.
The term eunuch may refer to the common practice of castrating potential royal administrators in their youth or simply a description of his being a male high government official. We don’t know if he was a Jew (though there were a number in that part of the world), a Gentile convert to Judaism, or a Gentile adherent to Jewish monotheism, ethic, and piety.
But it is obvious that God has prepared him for this encounter. He has made the long, arduous, hot trip to Jerusalem through the desert to worship in Jerusalem, somewhere he has secured an expensive copy of Isaiah, and he is deeply engrossed in reading it.
Effective evangelism is an experience where God takes the initiative and brings His prepared follower to meet someone in whose heart He has been working.
In my experience, the initial contact with a potential recipient of the Gospel is the hardest step. The Gospel is usually not a normal conversation topic. In many cultures, people rarely like us invading their personal, private space.
Sensitive, Obedient, Observant, Non-threatening
The Holy Spirit did not give Philip any clues as to the man’s background. He only told him to approach the chariot. Some key stages in his approach:
- Philip is sensitive to the Holy Spirit’s leading.
- When the Spirit nudges him, he obeys.
- Coming close to the official, he observes and listens before he speaks. Philip seems to want to discover some clues about him before he opens the conversation. How very crucial this tactic was!
- He asks a non-threatening question, “Do you understand what you are reading?” which in reality was an offer of help.
- The Ethiopian could not have known the importance of his response to this simple question. Why should he trust this stranger? But in God’s providence, he felt his own nudge and shared his difficulty in understanding the text he was reading.
The communication between the official and Philip centered around two anchors—the text of the Bible and the person of Jesus. The Ethiopian could read the words, but what did they mean? His source of information was meager. Philip knew the text and its meaning and from this basis opened to his listener an orientation that went far beyond what he was expecting.
Acts 8, verse 35 reads, “Then Philip began with that very passage of Scripture and told him the good news about Jesus.” Earleir in the chapter (verse 5), we learn that Philip “proclaimed the Christ” in Samaria. Jesus was Philip’s basic message.
Jesus is the essence of the missionary message. When we share his life, his words, his compassion, his truth, and his justice, there is no one more attractive to individuals of any culture or economic level. Our difficulty is getting out of the way so that people can see him rather than being distracted by our unintentional distortions of the Gospel.
How Does the Story End?
Philip’s presentation of the Gospel had been so complete that the official knew that he was not only faced with a decision to believe but also had to commit himself openly through baptism. We don’t know all who formed his retinue: certainly a driver, perhaps a personal servant, and a body guard. Before them all he publicly declared his commitment to Jesus. The man continued on his journey rejoicing. He had not only found an answer to his intellectual question; he had found life through Christ.
Then Philip left him. Verse 39 says, "the Spirit of the Lord suddenly took Philip away, and the eunuch did not see him again, but went on his way rejoicing."
Though the Ethiopian official would be alone as a Christian for a while, he had the Scripture which had spoken to him and the presence of the Spirit to help him grow in its understanding. One of the early church fathers (Irenaeus) adds the detail that this same Spirit gave him courage and power in his own country to preach what he had himself believed.
In just 8 chapters of Acts, the Gospel spreads from Jerusalem, to Samaria, and is pushing on to the “uttermost parts of the earth” (Acts 1, verse 8) though people like Philip who was humble, prepared, obedient, and sensitive to both the Spirit’s guidance and the needs of the people he meets.
W.J. Larkin, Jr. Acts (IVP, 1995)
J.R.W. Stott. Acts (IVP, 1990)