The readability of a text is measured by certain formulas. When Philip the Evangelist finds a man struggling to read the Bible, he throws away the formulas and does something else.
Little Liam and Amelia are in first grade. Although some kids their age went to actual classrooms, Liam and Amelia attended school online. When they first started in the fall of 2020, they could read a little. But in first grade, they learned to read a lot. Now they’re excellent readers for their age and reading at a third-grade level.
One of the stories they might have read in the early days of first grade went like this:
Charlotte wants to build a fort.
She gets a big cardboard box.
She gets some strong tape.
Her dad helps, too.
He gets some scissors.
He cuts the cardboard.
He makes windows and doors.
They set up the fort in the backyard.
Her brother wants to play.
Her sister wants to play.
Her friends want to play.
Charlotte and her dad look at each other.
They need a bigger fort!
Readability scientists would give this story a very high readability score. The story is much more readable than a version like this: “Charlotte desires to construct a military fortress, but is lacking suitable material. However, she is soon able to acquire a cardboard box, and with the help of industrial grade packing tape, shears and staples, the child manages to erect a citadel of such impressive proportions that her siblings and the neighborhood children are all eager to participate. Soon, Charlotte and her father, who assisted in the project, come to the startling realization that a larger edifice is indicated.”
One online source defines readability as “the ease with which text can be read and understood.” Factors contributing to a readability score are the number of words in a sentence, the length of words and how many syllables they contain, fonts, spacing, etc. Two common assessment tools are the Flesch Reading Ease (FRE) and the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level (FKGL) formulas originally developed for the Navy and the Department of Defense. Now, Microsoft Word has a built-in function that provides FRE and FKGL scores, and the popular editing tool, Grammarly, also uses FRE and FKGL formulas to assess readability.
An old journalism adage insists that when writing for a general audience, authors should try to imagine the audience as a group of eighth-graders.
In the Acts reading for today, we encounter a person who’s experiencing readability discomfort. Does it surprise you that he’s reading the Bible — what we call the Old Testament?
And would it surprise you to know that he’s not reading the story of David and Goliath? Nor is he confused by the riveting account of the baby Moses floating on the Nile in a basket made of bulrush reeds.
No, he’s plodding through Isaiah 53.
Have you ever had the feeling that some parts of the Bible are virtually unreadable? Have you ever thought to yourself: “What is the apostle Paul trying to say?” And forget all those prophets in the back of the Old Testament!
If we were to read Isaiah 53 ourselves, we might be just as uncomfortable as was the prince of Ethiopia. Like him, we might think that these texts read like “obscure speech and difficult language,” to cite Ezekiel (3:5).
Christians, along with Jews and Muslims, are called “People of the Book.” This story in Acts of the interaction between Philip the Evangelist and the Ethiopian gives us an opportunity to discuss interpretation and comprehension of the biblical text. Let’s look at it from three perspectives: text, teacher and comprehension.
It is very unusual that this Ethiopian was reading at all, let alone reading something from the prophets. The literacy rate in the land of Cush — often the name associated with ancient Ethiopia — probably wasn’t any higher than it was in first-century Palestine, where the literacy rate was barely 1 percent.
In most villages, only one person — usually the leader of the synagogue — could stand up on the Sabbath in the synagogue and read the Torah. The gospels give us an example: Following his conversation with the devil in the wilderness, Jesus goes back to his hometown and attends the synagogue “on the sabbath day as was his custom. He stood up to read …” After reading, “he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down” (Luke 4:16, 20). A rule might have been in place that if no one else stood to read, the same person could repeat the ritual of standing, reading, and sitting seven times. By then, the congregation had heard a reading from the Torah, the Writings, the Prophets and more.
These readers were of vital importance. Without them, the people would have no way of knowing, let alone understanding, the word of God. But, on the other hand, it wasn’t really that important.
Why? Because the ancient Palestine people lived in an agrarian economy and sending one’s son to school was considered a waste of time and money. Boys were expected to be in the fields. And, moreover, theirs was a culture of oral tradition. The long and short of it was that a person could be illiterate and still fulfill all the requirements of the law, thank you very much.
But Jesus had learned to read. As a precocious lad of 12, he had schooled the scribes and Pharisees in the finer points of the Law. Jesus was evidently a second reader on this particular day when he stood to read. What’s interesting is the text Jesus chose to read. What do you suppose it was? Isaiah, the same prophetic source that the Ethiopian was reading! A portion of the Torah had probably already been read (see Acts 15:21), so Jesus stands up, reads a passage from Isaiah, including, but not limited to, 61:1-2. And then he sits down.
Here’s the thing: The literacy rate in the United States is 99 percent. No doubt almost everyone who shows up at your Zoom online church service, or in person at your brick-and-mortar building, can read. But honestly, your congregation probably has more in common with the audience to whom Jesus read 2,000 years ago than we’d care to admit.
A recent report by the American Bible Society shows that “only 9 percent of respondents read their Bible on a daily basis, the lowest figure in the decade.” Why? It’s hard to say. A number of factors may account for the decline. But one thing is certain: It’s not a readability issue as it used to be when the King James Version had its mystical imprimatur as the divine and inerrant word of God. For many people, reading the KJV was like trying to read the Bible in Latin.
What this means is that churchgoers generally are not like the Ethiopian of today’s story. They’re more like Jesus’ neighbors, who went to synagogue and couldn’t read the Scriptures to save their lives. What saved them was that someone else could read. And today, if people read and hear the Scriptures, it’s likely to be in church, and if not, it’s likely the Scriptures are not read or heard at all.
The implication is that the public reading of Scripture is as essential as it always has been.
The literacy issues mentioned above continued well into the medieval period and into the Renaissance and beyond. Until the Reformation, no earnest and devout Christian worried about reading the Bible, or even understanding the Bible. The priest would read the text (although some priests were illiterate themselves), and the church would tell you what to believe about the text. Easy!
Then Johannes Gutenberg came along with his little printing press, and suddenly the Bible was being printed in the vernacular — how vulgar! — and people were coming up with the strangest ideas about biblical texts. In short, the Catholic Church, and even multitudinous Protestant churches, could no longer limit or control how people interpreted the Bible. Protestants with their printing presses had introduced into the general population a hermeneutical virus of pandemic proportions!
But this was not the problem for the Ethiopian court official in Queen Candace’s kingdom in today’s reading. This was an educated man. He was evidently trustworthy because he was in control of the keys to the treasury. He was somebody!
But when Philip hitches a ride with him and sits beside him in his new Chariot XL, he sees that the man is troubled. The conversation begins with a question: “Do you understand?” No, he doesn’t. “What don’t you understand?” And the Ethiopian explains. And then Philip explains.
We need teachers. If we can read, we had parents and teachers who were instrumental in teaching us to read. As our learning increases, and if we consider ourselves lifelong learners, we know that we must do the research and we must find the voices of the past to gain wisdom about the present.
We cannot, as so many seem to do these days, trust our own judgment, or think we can make pronouncements without considering a vast body of opinion when forming our own.
This is especially true on matters of theology, ethics and biblical texts. Before we begin to spout hair-brained ideas about the meaning of the book of the Revelation of Jesus Christ, for example, we might consult scholars and theologians of the present day, as well as those of centuries gone by. Establish how the text has been interpreted in the past. Then, we might offer our own view, but not without being able to explain why.
We need those who can help us unpack the Scriptures. These people have always been important.
Go back to Jesus’ day. In those days, the people who knew the Scriptures were priests, scribes, elders, Pharisees and Sadducees. Although the gospels usually present them in a negative light, they had a vital function in the religious life of the community. And remember that when the exiles returned from their Babylonian captivity, it was the scribe and priest Ezra who incited a religious revival: “The scribe Ezra stood on a wooden platform that had been made for the purpose; … And Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people, for he was standing above all the people; and when he opened it, all the people stood up. Then Ezra blessed the Lord, the great God, and all the people answered, ‘Amen, Amen,’ lifting up their hands. Then they bowed their heads and worshiped the Lord with their faces to the ground. Also … the Levites helped the people to understand the law, while the people remained in their places. So they read from the book, from the law of God, with interpretation. They gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading” (Nehemiah 8:5-8, emphasis added).
The Ethiopian was eager to learn from a teacher. He would have agreed with the biblical proverb: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not rely on your own insight. … Do not be wise in your own eyes” (Proverbs 3:5,7).
This is why the church has pastors, teachers and evangelists who are eager to step into Philip’s role as a teacher, mentor and guide. In fact, the Bible explicitly states that some people have been gifted for this very task, and we should not hesitate to make use of their skills: “Some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ” (Ephesians 4:11-13).
Philip asked the Ethiopian dignitary in the chariot — in so many words — “Just what don’t you understand?” And the Ethiopian was like, “Everything!”
You’ve got to love what Luke, the writer of Acts, notes about this encounter: “Then Philip began to speak, and starting with this scripture, he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus” (v. 35).
He started with the Bible! He didn’t start with a joke, a personal anecdote, a comment or discussion of the culture or questions about the man’s religious, ethnic and cultural backgrounds. The man was reading from Isaiah, so Philip started with Isaiah, and then led him on a journey through what was Philip’s Bible of the time, the Hebrew Scriptures.
It’s a good principle that when sharing one’s faith we ought to start with the Book. Start with the Bible, then talk about our experience with the Scriptures as a source of faithful guidance for our lives. Rather than launching into philosophies of this world, fads and movements, we can just keep it simple and do what Philip did. Start with the Bible.
And then what did Philip do?
He told him the “good news about Jesus”! Isaiah 53, he said, is about Jesus. Philip no doubt explained how Jesus was good news. This is what people need to hear, isn’t it? Not only in the age of Covid, but anytime and anywhere. People are thirsty for good news. Philip told him about Jesus.
Sharing our faith is hard for many of us. But perhaps we over-complicate this. We might ask someone, “What don’t you understand — about life, your life, your faith, your journey, your mission, your purpose?” After their response, you say, “Let me tell you about Jesus.” Not hard at all.
Final observation: This text also reminds us that there’s no need for misunderstanding. The word of God, the psalmist wrote (He was not referring to the New Testament!), is a “lamp to my feet and a light to my path” (119:105).
What don’t you understand? If your answer is “everything,” just remember that it is no longer a readability issue. That excuse won’t fly. Instead:
The journey toward understanding is enlightening and rewarding.
—Timothy Merrill and Carl Wilton contributed to this material.
Clark, Heather. “2020 ‘State of the Bible’ report finds few Americans read Bible daily.” Christiannews.net, July 24, 2020. Retrieved November 16, 2020.
Oakes, John. “Were people literate in the time of Jesus?” evidenceforchristianity.org, December 4, 2005. Retrieved November 14, 2020.
“Readability.” Wikipedia.org. Retrieved November 15, 2020.
“U.S. Literacy Rate 1990-2020.” macrotrends.net. Retrieved November 23, 2020.
Wright, Erin. “Understanding Readability Scores.” erinwrightwriting.com. Retrieved November 19, 2020.
THE OTHER TEXTS
May 2, 2021, Cycle B
What Does the Text Say?
In many ways, Psalm 22 is a peculiarity in the Psalter. It is an individual lament, with all the constitutive components of that literary genre, but with those parts rearranged, repeated and otherwise modified. The chief problem, as the psalmist announces it (vv. 1-2), is that he has been abandoned, he believes, by his God, later identified in the psalm as Yahweh/the Lord (v. 8). Having elaborated on his woes in the first half of the psalm (vv. 2-21), the psalmist turns in verse 22 to an extended declaration of the Lord's sovereign grace and power to save. In a gradually widening circle — beginning with his kin (v. 22), then moving to his co-religionists in "the great congregation" (v. 25), then extending to "the ends of the earth" (v. 27), including the dead who "sleep in the earth" (v. 29), and concluding with generations "yet unborn" (v. 31) — the psalmist unites the entire human race with his praise of the Lord's benevolent dominion (v. 28). So elaborate and extensive is this portion of the psalm — normally understood to be the vow — that some scholars have wondered whether it is a separate psalm altogether.
What Is One Possible Approach to the Text?
What Do You Live For? An expression that has been around a long time is: "It's to die for" (whatever 'it' is). In The Lion King, Simba asks his Uncle Scar whether he will like the surprise uncle is getting him. Uncle Scar replies, "It's to die for!" To Die For is the title of a 1995 Nicole Kidman movie. When we describe chocolate cake, we may say it's "to die for." "It" could be a car, a leather jacket, banana bread or a dreamy vacation. However, "It's to live for" is not a popular expression, nor does it appear that it ever will be. Yet, surely, we must ask the question, "What is it that I live for?" The psalmist writes of the Lord who feeds the poor, who is remembered by the "ends of the earth" (v. 27), who is worshiped by "all the families of the nations" (v. 27) and who "rules over the nations." The psalmist says: "I shall live for him" (v. 29). Who are we living for? Ourselves? Our families? Our spouse? All good. What are we living for? Success? A fat portfolio? Recognition? Achievement? All good. But above and beyond these valid pursuits, we must ask if we can — like the psalmist — say: "I shall live for him."
*Homiletics has treated this text in other installments. Select Psalm in the Scripture Index drop-down menu and click GO.
1 John 4:7-21
What Does the Text Say?
This text is an admonition for the children of God to love one another. The reason why love should so characterize the Christian community is that "love is from God" (v. 7), i.e., it emanates from God because "God is love" (v. 8). The anti-gnostic sentiment of this text, and indeed the entire epistle, cannot be under-appreciated. God might be many things to the gnostic, but love is not one of them, and certainly not a divine love that is incarnational ("God sent his Son …"), i.e., enfleshed. God is not love in the abstract. God's love was demonstrated in a tangible, if shocking, way. God "sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins" (v. 11). The text does not suggest that we grow closer to God by receiving love, but by giving love. The thrust of this text, then, is to promote love in the community of faith: "Those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also" (v. 21). God's love is incarnational and transformational. John in this text links knowledge (gnosis) ("By this we know …) with love. If we truly know God, we will live with each other in a love that is without fear of what a final day of judgment may reveal: "Perfect love casts out fear."
What Is One Possible Approach to the Text?
How to Be in Love. Want to be in Love? Get on over to Highway 92 in Illinois, and you'll find yourself in Love, somewhere between Davenport to the west and Chicago to the east. Or, get down to Arizona, and by the time you get to Phoenix, you'll find yourself in Love on Highway 60. But you could also be in Love in Kentucky, Missouri or Texas. You might someday be in Love-land if you ever get to Colorado. Of course, the Bible (in today's epistle text) has other ideas about being in love. In verse 16, we're told to "abide in love." We are to live in love, in other words. Living in Love, Illinois, Arizona, Kentucky or Texas, does not satisfy this biblical commandment. The preaching question for today, then, is: "Are we living in love?" The discussion that follows will suggest ways to get to Love so that we can take up our residence there. To get to Love, we will need to connect with God who is love; we will need to care for our brothers and sisters; we will need to sacrifice for one another; we will need to let go of the fear that keeps us from giving ourselves to others; we will need to reject all forms of hatred (v. 20). When these things merge, we may just find ourselves "abid[ing] in love" (v. 16).
*Homiletics has treated this text in other installments. Select 1 John in the Scripture Index drop-down menu and click GO.
What Does the Text Say?
Unlike the "I Am" saying of Jesus in chapter 10, where Jesus is identified first as the gate and then as the shepherd, Jesus' identification with the "true vine" and the subsequent description of the connection between vine, branches and fruit is far less confusing. Jesus is the vine, God the Father is the vine-grower, and true believers are the branches. The branches get pruned now and again and some fall away on their own, which suggests the reality of crisis and tribulation for those who believe. However, the "pruning" is not for punishment, but so that the community of Jesus can be even more fruitful. Indeed, Jesus says that the pruning has already been accomplished and that those who remain have "already been cleansed" (v. 3). Yet, there is an ominous tone to the metaphor. There are branches that do not produce fruit, and, therefore, these are removed, thrown into the fire and burned (vv. 2, 6). The hint of punishment by burning and being thrown into the fire is found in passages of the synoptic gospels concerned with last judgment (see Mark 9:43). Here, however, the fruitless branches that are burned are not those who do not come to faith, but apparently those who were at one time fruitful (hence, believers) and yet have fallen away and are no longer "true" to the faith — i.e., apostate. It is impossible to identify those who may be fruitless branches.
What Is One Possible Approach to the Text?
The Dark Side of Gardening. Okay, the text is about vines and fruit. We're opening the scope a bit when we mention "gardening." We like this gospel text. It opens with: "I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower" (v. 1). Ahhh. It's a nice image. The reality, however, is that these eight verses are pretty grim. We could say "harsh." After the nice sentiment in verse 1, Jesus gets right to it: "He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit." It gets worse. Even the fruitful branches get "pruned." Think about it. Two blades enclose some part of the branch and cut into it and snap it off. It gets worse still: "Branches are gathered, thrown into the fire and burned" (v. 6). If the branch doesn't bear fruit, if it withers on the vine, it's removed and thrown into the fire. And think of the plowing and digging of gardening. Think of the plucking, pulling, weeding, and all the work of planting, fertilizing and watering every day. Come the fall and winter, plants need protecting. Gardening is not all fun and games. So, as the "branch" of this text, are we ready and willing to look at the dark-side message of this passage? The vine-grower has expectations. Are we willing to submit to the shears? Will we make the most of the nutrients provided? Will we abide in Jesus?
*Homiletics has treated this text in other installments. Select John in the Scripture Index drop-down menu and click GO.
Click here to download a ZIP file of the May-June 2021 issue as Word Docs.
Leader: Like a whisper that lures us to safety,
People: Strong as a shout that bids us to come,
Leader: Gentle as a prayer that eases our worry,
People: Like a clear bell that rings out our name,
Leader: Your Word comes to us, Loving God.
People: It calls us, comforts us and urges us to depart from evil and do good, to seek peace and pursue it.
Leader: Talking God, open our hearts to hear you
People: And free our voices to praise you.
You give us life; we must offer commitment. You give us Scripture; we must study. You give us children; we must serve as good parents. You give us talents; we must minister accordingly. You give us the church; we must extend fellowship. You give us the gospel; we must share the Good News. You give us each other; we must live in love. You give us money; we must invest in the eternal. O Giver of all that we call good and perfect, transform our gratitude for what you have placed within our hands into significant means of serving others as well as you. Amen.
—With thanks to Rev. William Quick,
Metropolitan United Methodist Church, Detroit.
Leader: Go now. It's your call.
People: We go to proclaim God's word.
Leader: You are the heralds of Christ.
People: The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ,
Leader: and the love of God,
People: and fellowship in the Holy Spirit,
Leader: be with you all.
O Word of God Incarnate
Lord, Speak to Me
Open My Eyes, That I May See
Worship and PraiseW
Thy Word (Grant)
Tell Me the Story (Merrick)
Open the Eyes of My Heart (Baloche)
WFor licensing and permission to reprint or display these songs on screen, go to ccli.com. The worship and praise songs suggested by Homiletics can be found in most cases on Google by using the title as the search term.
on Acts 8:26-40
The first Gentile convert to Christianity recorded in the New Testament was an Ethiopian eunuch, whose conversion is recorded in Acts 8:26-40. The conversion of this unnamed, unmanned foreigner marks the start of the worldwide advancement of the religion based on Jesus Christ, one of the few founders of a world religion who left no biological descendants.
Instructions to Philip come from an “angel of the Lord” (v. 26), a figure that appears far more commonly in the Hebrew Bible than in the New Testament (roughly four times more frequently). References to this divine messenger — which is what both the Hebrew and Greek words in the Bible translated “angel” mean — are commonly in a genitival construction (i.e., “angel of NN”), as in the form found here (and at Matthew 1:20, 24; 2:13, 19; 28:2; Luke 1:11; 2:9; Acts 5:19; 12:7, etc.), or as an “angel of God” (Acts 10:3; Galatians 4:14).
Angels in general are referred to more frequently in the New Testament than in the Hebrew Bible, reflecting the development of belief in celestial beings of all sorts in the Mediterranean world during the inter-testamental period (roughly 200 B.C. to A.D. 200), but many of those references are to heavenly beings that appear only in apocalyptic contexts, as opposed to the quotidian appearances of angels in the Hebrew Bible. The instructions coming from an angel is tantamount to their coming directly from God; the well-known equivalent expression would be, “the word of the Lord.”
Philip the Evangelist (not to be confused with Philip the Apostle) is known only from the book of Acts. One of the seven almoners chosen by the Jerusalem church to serve at table and to administer the church’s relief to its widows (Acts 6:3), Philip was known in the biblical tradition principally for his evangelistic effectiveness among foreigners (i.e., non-Jews). Luke reports (Acts 21:8-9) that Philip had four unmarried daughters who lived with their father and who possessed the gift of prophecy, and that Paul lodged with them at Caesarea on his last missionary journey to Jerusalem.
Having been chosen by the church at the same time Stephen was chosen, and for the same tasks, Philip was part of the dispersion that fled Jerusalem following Stephen’s death (Acts 8:1-4). During his exile in the city of Samaria (probably Sebaste or Shechem; Samaria is normally known in the Bible as a region rather than a city), Philip converted many non-Jews to Christianity, including the magician Simon Magus, through his preaching and miracle working (Acts 8:4-13).
It was from his work in Samaria that he was instructed to go “toward the south” (or “at noon” — the Greek can be translated either way) to a “wilderness road” that leads from Jerusalem to Gaza. Some modern translations (e.g., the Revised English Bible, the New American Bible, the New Jerusalem Bible) read “the wilderness road” as a proper place name. Whether this route can be identified with certainty is not known (cf. 1 Maccabees 5:28).
An “Ethiopian” (v. 27) was considered by the people for whom Luke-Acts were written to be anyone with dark skin (that is, darker than their own; the etymology of the Greek word Aithiopia means “burnt face”), especially those who lived in the regions south of Egypt. That region was considered by many ancient writers (including the writer of Luke-Acts, cf. Acts 1:8) to mark the bounds of the known world, and it was often thought of by the biblical writers to be a source of wealth, power and exotic peoples (cf. Isaiah 45:14). In the present context, the nationality of the official is meant to signal the spread of the gospel beyond Israel and the receptivity of foreigners to that message.
It is not coincidental that the Ethiopian official is a eunuch reading (aloud, v. 30) from the book of Isaiah (53:7-8). Although eunuchs were well-known throughout the ancient world and served the royal households of both Israel (2 Kings 9:32; 23:11; Jeremiah 38:7, etc.) and its neighbors (Esther 2:3, 14, 15, etc.), their status was highly ambiguous in the biblical tradition. Eunuchs were ordinarily castrated males, and whether the legislation in Deuteronomy 23:1 prohibiting males with “crushed testicles” from being admitted to the assembly of the Lord was directed toward them or simply incidentally included them is not known.
What is certain, however, is that their inability to reproduce marked them as victims of supreme misfortune in the highly pro-natalist world of the Bible (cf. the emphasis on the Suffering Servant’s lack of “generation,” v. 33). Eunuchs and foreigners, by virtue of their inability to produce Israelite males for the cult of Yahweh, were, along with barren women, excluded from the vehicle that transmitted the religion of Israel (i.e., the assembly of Jewish males). This point is made poignantly and uniquely in the one oracle in the entire Bible devoted to eunuchs and foreigners, Isaiah 56:1-8. It is very likely that our passage was envisaged as the fulfillment of that oracle.
Although eunuchs were usually regarded in biblical Israel as alien royal imports (at worst) or as maimed unfortunates (at best), by the time of the New Testament, when the pro-natalism of biblical Judaism was under severe strain from Greco-Roman (and Jewish) asceticism (see, for example, Matthew 3:9), eunuchs had become powerful symbols of the values of the kingdom of heaven inaugurated by the unmarried and childless Jesus (Matthew 19:12), which depended for its advancement not on biological reproduction, but on adult conversion. Although this attitude lasted through the time of the apostle Paul (see his commendation of celibacy in 1 Corinthians 7), by the second generation of Christians, transmission and preservation of the Christian message through progeny was rapidly becoming the norm for ordinary believers, with celibacy being reserved for a spiritual elite.
The eunuch, like many eunuchs (e.g., Potiphar, Genesis 39:1), was a high official in the administration of the “Candace” or queen of Ethiopia (v. 27). The title was used by queens of the realm of Meroe, a Nubian province on the upper Nile in modern-day Sudan. Although the word appears only here in the biblical text, it is clear from external sources that it is not, as formerly thought, a proper name (cf. KJV).
Urged by the (Holy) Spirit to join the Ethiopian, Philip exegetes a passage from Isaiah about the Suffering Servant in light of the gospel about Jesus (vv. 29-35). Earlier in Luke’s two-volume work of Luke-Acts (Luke 24:13-35), Jesus had similarly interpreted Hebrew Scriptures in light of his own life and teachings, which were understood to be “things about himself” (24:27).
On the basis of Philip’s exegesis of Isaiah, the eunuch requests baptism, fulfilling the great commission, Jesus’ final instructions to his disciples (Matthew 28:19). Although Paul explicitly repudiated the commission to baptize because of the conflicts it created in the Corinthian church (1 Corinthians 1:14-17), his position was taken out of extreme necessity, and was not reflective of early Christian practice, in which baptism was central. Christians had not, of course, invented the ritual of baptism, as ablutions for ritual purification were widespread in the ancient Near East. What appears to have been a distinctly Christian interpretation of the rite, however, is found in Paul’s idea of baptism as representing the believer’s new life through the symbolic participation in the death and resurrection of Jesus (Romans 6:4; Colossians 2:12). Although it is likely the eunuch was baptized by being completely immersed (as would appear to be the force behind the dying-and-rising symbolism indicated by Paul in Romans), the text does not specify this.
Philip’s sudden removal to Azotus (ancient Ashdod, a Canaanite city about 20 miles north of Gaza) by being snatched away by the Spirit (v. 39) is reminiscent of other abrupt spiritual translations (e.g., Obadiah’s in 1 Kings 18:12; the prophets’ speculation about Elijah, 2 Kings 2:16; cf. Jesus’ sudden disappearance in Luke 24:31). Philip continued to move northward in his missionary route, eventually stopping at Caesarea (v. 40), an important port and location of the Roman governor of Palestine; it became identified as the home he shared with his four prophetic daughters (Acts 21:8).
The Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level (FKGL) formula is a tool for measuring the readability of a text. Many people think that reading the Bible is something like reading a textbook on economics. This is one reason today’s lesson from Acts is so interesting. Here we find a man reading a book in a foreign language, and it’s not an easy book to read, even for a native. How can he understand what he’s reading?
INTERPRETATION OF THE BIBLE
It’s very interesting that Philip, who did not have what we call the New Testament because it didn’t exist, used what we call the Old Testament, or First Testament, or Hebrew Bible, to tell the Ethiopian about Jesus.
Some people, including a few preachers, don’t have much use for the Old Testament. They don’t like the Old Testament version of God. They don’t like all the rules and commandments. They don’t like the warring and the blood. They don’t like the eye-for-an-eye culture of vengeance.
In taking this view, they are, of course, denigrating the Scriptures of one of the three major monotheistic religions of the world, Judaism. That aside, today’s Acts lesson teaches us that the nature and work of Jesus Christ can be found not only in the four gospels, but in the Old Testament as well.
So, why would the angel of the Lord direct Philip to just the right road, at just the right time, to intercept this foreign traveler as he begins his journey home? In all likelihood, it’s because here is a man whose heart is uniquely receptive to the gospel message.
How do we know that? Because of who he is.
We know nothing of the reason for this man’s long journey to Jerusalem — whether it was an affair of state or a personal religious pilgrimage. But we do know he would not have received a warm welcome at the temple. He was very likely returning home in great disappointment.
Now, maybe that had something to do with his race, but far more likely it was because he was a eunuch. The law of Moses specifically prohibits a person of his physical condition from entering the temple (Deuteronomy 23:1). The scribes and pharisees would have shunned him on the streets. The learned rabbis, with whom he longed to discourse, would have spared him little time.
He had the personal wealth to buy a scroll — a handwritten manuscript of the book of Isaiah — a souvenir of great price. But alas, he had no one to discuss it with.
“Blood is thicker than water,” they say. The scribes and pharisees in Jerusalem believed that you had to belong to the chosen race in order to be saved. Yet, in baptizing the Ethiopian, Philip is proving the opposite to be true for followers of Jesus. Water — the baptismal water of the gospel of Christ — is thicker than blood.
The early Christians learned this lesson rather early. It was no time at all before Paul was off on his missionary journeys, spreading the good news far and wide among the Greeks and Romans. He had a little trouble, at first, obtaining the seal of approval from his fellow apostles in Jerusalem, but soon Paul’s inclusive vision prevailed. Three centuries later, far more Christians would be Gentiles than of Jewish origin, and the Roman emperor himself would be bowing the knee to Christ.
Down through the centuries, the good news of Jesus Christ has reached out to include countless groups of outsiders: the put-out, the put-down, the discarded, the set-upon of our world. The church at its best has reached out and ministered to all the children of God.
Not that this is always easy. It’s not. Here in this country, we have a long and sad history of racial division, that in some times and places has led white Christians to bar believers of African ancestry from their sanctuaries. But the gospel of inclusion — the gospel that believes water is thicker than blood — always triumphs.
The monks of Dark Ages Ireland preserved much of Western learning by laboriously copying thousands of ancient scrolls onto sheets of vellum, or dried sheepskin. One man could spend the better part of a lifetime producing just one copy of those elegant books (that’s one copy, not one edition).
Today, Google has digitized the contents of several vast university libraries. What seemed unimaginable to the ancients — that the sum total of human knowledge could be available always and everywhere, caught up in “the cloud” — is now nearly within our grasp. These are indeed times of remarkable change!
Martin Luther and John Calvin thought they were living in remarkable times, too. Johannes Gutenberg had recently come out with movable type, which allowed printing presses to produce dozens of books a day. For the first time in human history, it was possible for ordinary Christians to hold in their hands an entire Bible — and, not only that, to own their own copy! No longer would the written Word of God be restricted to a wealthy, educated elite.
In many of our churches, we hand out Bibles to Sunday school kids: yes, old-fashioned, printed Bibles, not a download for an iPad or Kindle. Although the kids — digital natives, all — may think this a little old-fashioned, those ancient Irish monks would have considered our Sunday school Bibles an unimaginable luxury.
Both Philip and his Ethiopian friend would have thought so as well!
As the Ethiopian learns in conversation with Philip, the word of God in the Bible is so much more than mere words on a page. God’s word, in the Scriptures, is a living word. Now, there are some people today — just as there have always been down through the centuries of church history — who would rather make God’s word into something static, rigid and unchanging. It’s a lot easier to practice Christianity if you imagine the Bible is a simple rule book that prescribes, for any given situation, exactly how we’re supposed to behave.
Yes, there’s no shortage of laws in the Bible, but we Christians believe the law is always tempered by grace. More than that, we’ve gained, in recent centuries, a greater understanding of the Scriptures as not merely a book, but a whole library of books. We’ve learned how the message in those books fairly blazes into life when we understand something of the people who wrote them, and the communities for which they wrote them. We’ve also learned how important a principle it is to let Scripture interpret Scripture, to test what we’re reading on one page against the great, gospel message that’s present throughout the whole.
Show the children a map of a wilderness area, and point out the trails, rivers, mountains and other features. Ask them if they think it’s difficult to find your way through the wilderness. Mention that hikers can get lost. Tell them the story of the man from Ethiopia (you might explain where Ethiopia is located) who got lost in thought while reading the book of Isaiah. He said in frustration, "How can I [understand it], unless someone guides me?" (v. 31). Ask the children to describe how a guide through the wilderness would help you find your way, and what a guide through the Bible might do. Point out that a Christian named Philip sat down next to the Ethiopian and told him the good news of Jesus, and how the book of Isaiah pointed people toward Jesus (vv. 31-35). Let them know that the Ethiopian found the right path and was baptized and became a Christian (vv. 36-38). Have the children name some people who guide them through the Bible — pastors, teachers, parents, etc. Then invite them to be guides to other children, telling them the story of Jesus and the good news of his love.