It's a story so unusual, so extraordinary, and so mind-blowing that when we step back and consider the narrative, it forces us to reconsider the typical ways we think and talk about our lives.
It's a story that you're probably familiar with, but before we dive into that passage from Scripture, I want you to examine yourself: what is your street-level theology of God's involvement in your mundane affairs?
What do you tend to tell yourself when an unexpected or unplanned thing alters your day? What do you say to you when your story takes a turn that surprises you, regardless of whether that turn seems good or bad? How much credit do you usually give yourself for what you could have never caused or planned? How much do you look at your life through the lens of the sovereign grace of God?
Let's be honest: our street-level theology isn't as strong as we want it to be. We don't actually trust in the sovereignty of God as much as we say we do. Phrases such as "good luck," "it was a coincidence," "serendipity," or "as fate would have it" easily fall from our lips (or flood our thoughts) as we describe (or reflect on) our situations, locations, and relationships of everyday life.
This beautiful story of faith from Acts 8 will lovingly confront us with the inadequacy of our reasoning.
It's important to understand what's happening before Philip meets the eunuch, so let's recap.
Philip, the deacon / evangelist, had been driven out of Jerusalem by the persecution of Saul but was still enjoying a vibrant ministry in Samaria (Acts 8:1-13). God was confirming the truthfulness of Philip’s message with signs and wonders, and crowds were gathering with enthusiasm.
What more could an evangelist want? Hungry people were responding to God's power and presence!
But just at the height of this high and holy ministry moment, the story takes a gloriously dramatic change. I love what happens next!
An angel comes to Philip and tells him to leave his vibrant ministry in the city of Samaria and travel the road that goes through the desert between Jerusalem and Gaza. This directive from the angel is more interesting and challenging than may hit you at first glance. I can find four reasons:
First, you have to wonder why God is calling Philip away from a vibrant ministry situation where the Spirit is clearly at work, and where many people are coming to faith.
Second, the timing of the request is unusual. The "go south" command is probably better translated "go at noon." It would be brutal for Philip to walk through the desert during the heat of the day, and there would be few people with him on the road. Not only is God calling Philip away from a place where many people are spiritually hungry, but he's sending him to a place where likely no one would be.
Third, the angel gives Philip no indication at all of what his mission or destination will be. Philip is told to simply go, with no knowledge of why he's going and no understanding of where he'll be at journey's end.
Finally, what strikes me most is how Philip obeys this unusual command without a word. He doesn't argue that he should stay in Samaria, where ministry is going so well. He doesn't demand to be clued in to the nature of his mission. He doesn't question the wisdom of God. He literally says nothing!
If you were Philip, what would you be thinking when the angel commanded you to go? How upset would you be if God took you away from something that seemed to be going so well? How tempted would you be to demand an explanation before you accepted the mission?
At this point in the story, we're confronted with the humbling nature of true faith in God.
This story is God's story, not ours. It was God's mission, not Philip's. The narrative is a drama of the Lord's wise choices, not a drama of our ministry successes. He's in complete control, while we have little control over anything in our lives.
God doesn't owe us any explanation. Why? He hasn't been commissioned to manage our agenda, but rather, he's chosen us to be part of his. Perhaps one of the ways God loves us most is by not explaining things to us that we'd find very difficult to understand and accept.
You see, this story reveals that Philip clearly knows the place true faith has assigned to him. He knows that he's been chosen to be part of something that's dramatically bigger than his own wants, needs, and feelings. As a result, when God calls, Philip goes - no argument, no debate.
Can the same be said about our faith?
As Philip walks along the desert (and most likely deserted) road from Jerusalm to Gaza, he encounters a very powerful court official of the Ethiopian queen, Candace. This eunuch was an esteemed and trusted man, responsible for all of the queen's treasure (Acts 8:27).
As Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch cross paths, Philip has no idea that this man is actually his destination. There's no final geographical location for Philip's trek; rather, this dignitary is the reason for his journey.
In this reality, the glorious character of our God is revealed. God has manufactured all of the details of this encounter for one thing: the rescue of the soul of this man. God is so magnificent in his love, so amazing in his grace, and so tender of heart that he would go to this extent for the heart of one man.
Let that sink in for a moment.
While Philip was seeking to evangelize the masses, God is aware of, and attentive to, the seeking heart of one African man. Our Lord, who is at the same time ruling the nations of men and controlling the forces of nature, is never too busy or too distracted to not have a loving heart for one person seeking him.
God knew this high court official was searching the Scriptures but didn't understand what he had been examining. This poor man was spiritually intrigued, but he had not yet been spiritually awakened, and God knew that for spiritual enlightenment to take place, this man would need help. So, for the sake of one lost but seeking man, God altered the story of another man so that the seeking man would experience his saving grace.
But when Philip first encountered the Ethiopian, he had no idea of any of this. Remember, Philip had been humbly willing to go on a mission he didn't understand, so it wasn't just the court official that needed divine help; at this point, Philip needed it too.
That's when the Spirit said to Philip, "Go over and join this chariot." (Acts 8:29)
As Philip ran to meet the man in the chariot, he heard him reading from Isaiah. Philip had reached his destination! Philip asked the man if he understood what he was reading, and when the man said he needed an explanation, he invited Phillp to come and sit with them. As they continued down the road, they had the most important conversation of this official's life.
For the first time, through the lens of Isaiah, this high-ranking official heard about the person and work of the Messiah that Isaiah wrote about - Jesus Christ. For the first time, he heard the best news that any seeking heart could ever hear, so much so that as they came upon water, the official demanded to be baptized. After Philip and the eunuch came out of the water, the Spirit whisked Philip away because his job was done and the official saw him no more.
Just like that, the story ends. We hear nothing else of the Ethipoian eunuch. Why? Because God has made his divine point, using this little vignette to reveal to us the wonder of his amazing sovereignty, love, and grace. The Author has done his job, so the narrative of Acts moves on.
After reading stories of faith like this in Scripture, we're tempted to draw human-to-human parallels. What does Philip's faith reveal about our lack of faith? How should we seek answers like the eunuch sought after answers? These are good questions to consider, but they ultimately miss the point.
While we should esteem Philip for his faith and the willingness that it produced in him, it's vital to understand that Philip isn't the hero of this story. And while we should also have a heart for the Ethiopian official, who in the middle of his own spiritual confusion continued to seek God, we need to understand that he's not the hero of this story either.
Like every other story of faith that we could ever recount, God is on center stage here. God is the hero of the moment!
God is so glorious in his sovereignty that he orchestrates our individual lives for his glory and our good. That means he's not just powerfully ruling over the grand moments, but intimately ruling over all the little details of our lives as well.
God is so glorious in his love that he will never ignore a seeking heart, even if it's only of one person. He'll listen to the cries of anyone who seeks him, and he'll make a way for them to find him and know him.
God is glorious in his management of our time. He'll control moments so we can experience eternally significant encounters, even when we would actually be satisfied with just our days to be easy and moderately successful.
God is so tender of heart that he turns the proud and rebellious hearts into humble and seeking hearts that have an insatiable hunger for him.
Our God is no respecter of race, power, or position. No, his grace levels the playing field. We all are desperately needy, and we all have no hope without him. The seeking soul on the streets of Samaria shared identity with the powerful official on the road to Gaza: lost, apart from rescuing and forgiving grace.
So, again and again, God will send out people of grace to give grace to people who need grace.
Oh, and by the way: there's no way that this encounter would have ever happened by chance. It can only happen at the intersection of God's sovereignty and his grace. Our hero Redeemer does all of his saving work at that intersection!
Memorize these words of grace that explain this strange and wonderful story: "You will seek me and find me, when you seek me with all your heart." (Jeremiah 29:13, ESV)