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Living Water

Bible study on Acts 8:26-40 by Eleni Kasselouri-Hatzivassiliadi for the WCC Assembly, 4 November 2013: The text relates the mission of the Spirit to the symbol of the water of life. The Holy Spirit is the Life-giver, who sustains and empowers life and sends out God’s people to preach the good news of Jesus Christ. How and where do we discern God’s life-giving work, and how are we enabled to participate in God’s mission today?

15 July 2013

Bible Study 3

By Eleni Kasselouri-Hatzivassiliadi

Acts 8:26-40

Translation: New Revised Standard Version

26Then an angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Get up and go toward the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” (This is a wilderness road.) 27So he got up and went. Now there was an Ethiopian eunuch, a court official of the Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, in charge of her entire treasury. He had come to Jerusalem to worship 28and was returning home; seated in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah. 29Then the Spirit said to Philip, “Go over to this chariot and join it.” 30So Philip ran up to it and heard him reading the prophet Isaiah. He asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?” 31He replied, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” And he invited Philip to get in and sit beside him. 32Now the passage of the scripture that he was reading was this:

Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter,

and like a lamb silent before its shearer,

so he does not open his mouth.

33In his humiliation justice was denied him.

Who can describe his generation?

For his life is taken away from the earth.

34The eunuch asked Philip, “About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?” 35Then Philip began to speak, and starting with this scripture, he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus. 36As they were going along the road, they came to some water; and the eunuch said, “Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?” 38He commanded the chariot to stop, and both of them, Philip and the eunuch, went down into the water, and Philip baptized him. 39When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away; the eunuch saw him no more, and went on his way rejoicing. 40But Philip found himself at Azotus, and as he was passing through the region, he proclaimed the good news to all the towns until he came to Caesarea.

The story of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch is one of the most insightful and fascinating in Scripture. Acts 8:26-40 falls into the middle of the overall theme of the book: the spreading of the gospel according to the great commission given by Jesus in Acts 1:8. The good news has already been proclaimed in Jerusalem on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2) with tremendous results, and the followers of Jesus have just recently begun to expand into Judea (Acts 8:1-4) and into Samaria (Acts 8:5-25). The story serves as a bridge between the people of God and the uncircumcised world. it demonstrates God’s role in initiating the community of faith’s mission to people who were not Jewish and were on the margin of the growing Jesus movement.

The text in its context

Philip, after having great missionary results in Samaria, is commanded by a messenger of God to leave and move into a new place and a new mission. Acts 8:27 provides a brief introduction to the partner of Philip in the story. He is described as an “Ethiopian eunuch, a court official of Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, who was in charge of all her treasury.” Ethiopia, in ancient documents, referred to the countries south of Egypt, present-day Sudan and probably farther south. Homer referred to the Ethiopians as people “who are at the world’s end” (Odyssey 1.23). Therefore, it is safe to assume that people living in the countries south of Egypt were referred to as Ethiopians. The region was known in Old Testament times as Cush. During the Roman period, it was referred to as Nubia. According to Herodotus (II.22.3), the men in Ethiopia were black. The dark-skinned people from Africa fascinated the Greeks and Romans. The part of Africa from which this Ethiopian came can be safely assumed, since the text refers to the Candace.

The man is described as “a eunuch.” Greco-Roman audiences would have heard the word “eunuch” (ευνούχος) as a reference to a castrated male. Ancient constructions of masculinity were produced by intersecting discourses of gender, sexuality, social status, and race, and eunuchs troubled and destabilized each of these discourses. Therefore, as figures in texts, eunuchs had the potential to make visible the arbitrary and constructed character of ancient masculinities. On the other hand, the man was “a court official of Candace” and he “was in charge of all her treasury.” He was a minister or secretary of finance. This means he was well-to-do and a man of authority (although a slave). He came to Jerusalem to worship. This fact raised some questions about the religious identity of the man. Scholars are not in agreement about his religious status. According to Deuteronomy 23:1, a eunuch may not enter the assembly (קָהָל , qāhal; LXX, ἐκκλησία) of the Lord.

However, going to the intertext that is explicitly recited in Acts 8, we observe that in the book of Isaiah, Isaiah prophesied that eunuchs who keep the Sabbath, who choose the things that please the Lord God and who hold fast to the Lord's covenant will go to God's holy mountain. They will be made joyful in God's house of prayer, and their burnt offerings and sacrifices will be accepted on the altar, because the Lord's house “shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples” (Isaiah 56:4, 7-8). So this prophecy reverses the prohibition in Deuteronomy. Another option is that the eunuch was a God-fearer—a person who became a follower of Judaism but was not circumcised. Scholars opposed this idea because the God-fearers were introduced to Christianity in Acts 10, with the conversion of Cornelius. Acts did not say that the Ethiopian was a God-fearer, as they did with others (Acts 10:1–3, 22; 13:16, 26, 43, 50; 16:4; 17:4, 17). It seems that the eunuch was an adherent of Judaism. Probably, there were people in Ethiopia who associated with Judaism through the line of Menelik I, before Christ. There is no doubt that Judaic influence and an Old Testament reflection had reached Ethiopia long before the introduction of Christianity in 340 CE and before the Bible was translated into Ethiopic.

The passage of scripture which the eunuch has read, and which Philip expounds upon, is Isaiah 53:7-8, a text taken from the fourth Servant Song in Isaiah. The content of Philip's discourse is not related in the text, and it is possible that the writer of Acts was unaware of the actual words used by the evangelist. One can deduce from the text that it was at least the simple ευαγγέλιον, good news, gospel, that the eunuch heard, based on the Greek terms included and the eunuch's response in verse 36. In the Gospel of Luke there is reference to “all flesh” seeing the salvation of God (Luke 3.6), to repentance and forgiveness of sins being preached to “all nations” (Luke 24.47) and to people coming from “east, west, north and south” to sit at table with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (Luke 13.29).

The eunuch's reply to Philip's question was that he did not comprehend what he was reading and he was open to assistance. Therefore the eunuch's statement can be understood as a plea for understanding and teaching. The eunuch decides to be baptized, and the command was issued to bring the chariot to a halt. Both Philip and the eunuch went down into the water and consummated the conversion. The giving of the order to halt could indicate a driver, which would give a witness to this event. The phrase “Philip and the eunuch went down into the water” (κατέβησαν αμφότεροι εις το ύδωρ) is suggestive of immersion; and when coupled with the most basic definition of the word “baptize” (βαπτίζω) it seems quite clear that a water burial took place here. The opening statement of verse 39 compounds the implication of immersion: "they came up out of the water" (ανέβησαν από του ύδατος). It would seem that Acts is stressing the eunuch's baptism as the proper response to the gospel message by including within the text what could be seen as at least six references to the subject.

The Spirit once again comes and ushers Philip away from the eunuch and on to another mission. With this, as in verse 29 prior, the direct intervention of God is implied. The phrase “Spirit of the Lord” is found in Acts 5:9 and Luke 4:18, and the Spirit (rather than an angel) transporting a person is found in 1 Kings 18:12, 2 Kings 2:16 and Ezekiel 3:14. The fact that the eunuch went on his way rejoicing probably implies that he indeed received the Spirit.

The text in our context

The text offers a marvelous portrait of God's intervention in the first-century mission effort through the angel (vs. 26) and the Spirit (vss. 29 and 39).  Acts expands the theme of the universal gospel traveling to all peoples, as the Ethiopian represents not the beginning of the Gentile mission but the inclusion of the marginalized people of God as foretold in prophecy. Furthermore, the natural response to the preaching of Jesus from the scriptures is reiterated in a veiled and abrupt manner that not only serves as an intimate insight to the eunuch's heart but also as a reinforcement of the necessity of including water baptism in the gospel message.

Baptism is Christ’s invitation to people to abandon their old life, in which they were under the sway of sin and death, and to enter into a new life, in which sin and death have been defeated. Baptism, therefore is the sacrament of healing par excellence, a healing aimed at the whole person:  spirit, body and soul. Water, in baptism, becomes the symbol of new birth and life. The image of water runs through the Bible from the book of Genesis to Revelation. Water brings forth and sustains life not only physically but also symbolically. The crossing of the Red Sea and the deliverance from Pharaoh’s army became a touchstone of the Israelite’s faith and life. The disciples’ feet washing was not only an act of cleansing but also a commissioning of the twelve disciples to serve people in humility. Therefore we understand the importance and necessity of water when Jesus describes himself as “the living water.” Water is a gift of God that is a fundamental human right. In the early 21st century, there is a deepening global water crisis. Poverty, abuse of power, unjust political systems and inequality are at the heart of the problem. We Christians should promote the preservation, responsible use and just distribution of water for all. The tsunami of 2004 and recurring flooding in India have raised crucial questions to the Christian churches about water and how people can take water as a serious category for theological reflection and action. It is crucial and necessary to redeem water from its oppressive and exploitative uses and restore it back to its original life-giving and life-sustaining properties.

From the very beginning, Jesus’ community has been a worshiping community. While the church places much emphasis on its fundamental unity, it also promotes the diverse ways that people in various cultures worship and praise God. Contemporary theological reflection rightly repeats that globalization entails a westernization that weakens local cultures. Evangelism should not mean homogenization that undermines the varied expressions of liturgy. Liturgy, in all Christian traditions, is strongly connected with action and transformation of the injustices of the world. The eucharist, the heart and the fulfillment of liturgy, remembers those for whom Jesus had particular affinity, especially the poor, the powerless, the marginalized and rejected:

The Liturgy is not an escape from life, but a continuous transformation of life according to the prototype Jesus Christ, through the power of the Spirit. If it is true that in the Liturgy we not only hear a message but we participate in the great event of liberation of sin and of koinonia (communion) with Christ through the real presence of the Holy Spirit, then this event of our personal incorporation into the body of Christ, this transfiguration of our little being into a member of Christ, must be evident and the proclaimed in actual life. The liturgy has to be continued in personal everyday situations. Each of the faithful is called upon to continue a personal “liturgy” on the secret altar of his own heart, to realize a living proclamation of the good news “for the sake of the whole world.” Without this continuation the liturgy remains incomplete. [1]

Furthermore, the church of Jesus Christ is a hermeneutical community, with many and different hermeneutical voices, but with a common faith in Christ. It is always asking, like Philip: “Do you really understand what you are reading?” Church understands the Bible to be God’s divinely inspired word, expressed in a human way. This sounds similar to how it describes Jesus Christ: God’s Word, humanly expressed. The scriptures share with Jesus Christ a divine and-human, a “theanthropic” character. They are timeless, yet very much marked by the time that produced them.  The exegesis (the reading and understanding) of scripture is the exegesis of Christ. Christ is the hermeneutical or interpretative key of scripture and the whole life of the church.

The mission of the Church is, thus, the responsibility of interpreting the narrative of Jesus’ life and death now and here, proclaiming his message as the message of God’s creative power. The churches, today, should speak prophetically, rethink and re-evaluate theologically and practically not the institutional character of the mission and church but their eschatological awareness of being a glimpse and a foretaste of the kingdom of God, a proleptic manifestation of this ultimate reality that should always determine their approach to history. Mission calls churches to the task of forgiving, overcoming fear and hesitance, reconciling and defending justice for everyone, especially in contexts where the people of God suffer from violence, oppression, poverty and war. Mission should involve the whole people of God in sharing, serving and renewing one another in a spirit of love and respect for humanity and for the whole of God’s creation.  If churches and their faithful are unable to transmit through mission this gospel, which is not of the world, and thus not a reflection of civilization, wealth and knowledge, but the glory of God as it is revealed in the mystery of kenosis, of resurrection and of Pentecost, then they have nothing essential to offer to the world. The work of mission is not simply the proclamation of some ideas or an invitation concerning a few individuals. It is to bring together from division – as he did – all the nations of earth to build one community of faith and spirit that overcomes barriers of gender, race, culture, social and economic position or caste. It is an invitation to a common journey, to a liturgy of transformation of the whole world.

Questions for reflection and discussion

  1. Imagine you are the Ethiopian. What are your feelings after listening Philip’s explanation of prophet Isaiah?
  2. Write four words that express your thoughts and feelings regarding Philip and his missionary method.
  3. The new mission statement, Together towards Life, para. 59, declares: “Living out our faith in community is an important way of participating in mission. Through baptism, we become sisters and brothers belonging together in Christ (Hebrews 10:25). The church is called to be an inclusive community that welcomes all. Through word and deed and in its very being, the church foretastes and witnesses to the vision of the coming reign of God. The church is the coming together of the faithful and their going forth in peace.” Can you reflect on the paragraph in connection to our story?

Prayer

Our Triune God,

deliver us from tribulation, wrath, danger and necessity.

Help us to understand what we read.

Give us guides, to lead us into paths of light and wisdom.

Help us to proclaim in words and deeds your good news now and ever,

God of life, lead us to justice and peace

as you did with Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch. Amen


About the Author

Eleni Kasselouri-Hatzivassiliadi is a Greek-Orthodox biblical scholar, teaching in the Hellenic Open University, Greece.


[1] Anastasios Giannoulatos, Archbishop of Albania.