Fear filled the air, as a result of the martyrdom of Stephen. Within a few chapters, the church went from gladness and gathering to fear and scattering. The whole church was in crisis and lives were in danger. “That day a severe persecution began against the church in Jerusalem” (Acts 8:1). Living here meant to wonder, “Will I be next?” Stoning or imprisonment was not off limits. Luke, the traveling companion of Paul, knew for certain the tumultuous conditions Paul created as he “ravaged” the church.
Anxiety was high. All scattered, in order to distance themselves from the chaos, all except for the Apostles. The leadership stayed and the church fled. To remain was too uncertain. It meant possible death.
Grief was deep. A shocked church was now in mourning. Luke honored Stephen by, not only naming him first in the list of servants, but by also adding this description, “a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit.” This is how he was known. The church made loud “lamentation” and buried Stephen (Acts 8:2).
Fear. Anxiety. Grief. All of these are natural responses in times of rapid change, loss of home or job security, separation from loved ones, injustice, violence, failed health, or death. Anxiety among college students alone is at an all-time high. As they navigate remote learning, their mental health is suffering. No one comes out unscathed in times such as these.
Philip stood on Samaritan soil in the most uncertain of times. His community was scattered, and he was displaced. His “job” changed, and the leadership, the Apostles, were at a distance. His co-servant, brother in Christ and friend was murdered. He probably had just buried and mourned Stephen along with other “devout men.” There was surely a complexity of emotions.
But after Stephen’s death, Luke moves quickly to the recounting of Philip in Samaria. He dedicates a whole packed chapter to Philip proclaiming the Messiah. This is the familiar part of Philip’s story, where people often dive in or recount – the miracles, unusual people coming to faith and the Ethiopian Eunuch. This is where Philip “becomes” the evangelist. When Luke refers to him this way later in the book of Acts, he may be drawing attention to Philip’s work, or possibly he is distinguishing this Philip from the other Philips, like Philip the Apostle (Acts 21:8). But probably, like Stephen, he was already a servant and an evangelist. That is what got Stephen into trouble. Luke does pointedly highlight Philip’s movement in this chapter. But to miss Luke’s “prologue,” in the chapters prior, is to miss important context and certain details. Luke has something greater in mind. God is weaving His story.
Again, we were introduced to Philip at the time of his commissioning- when the Apostles prayed for him. This is reminiscent of Luke’s introduction to the book of Acts, the Lord’s commissioning of the disciples. “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). Acts 1:8 is the church’s commission. And it is Philip’s.
I do not remember many details of my own commissioning. But one thing stands out — meeting Bill and Vonette Bright, the founders of Campus Crusade for Christ. As a young missionary I was impressed by something unusual the Brights did. When they sensed the Lord calling them away from a vocation as “successful business owners” to a vocation of the Great Commission, they literally signed a contract with the Lord. In this contract, they gave up all of their rights. Everything now belonged to the Lord. He was already the owner, but now they saw themselves as stewards of God’s generosity. They considered themselves “slaves” of the Lord, just as Christ “emptied Himself, taking on a form of a slave” (Phil 2:7). They did not know the particulars that lie ahead, but they trusted the Lord. When they signed the contract, they were acknowledging the Lord was trustworthy, and their lives were His. They were His servants, for His purposes, wherever He sent them.
In the moments following the commissioning in Acts 1:8, the disciples stood gazing — looking for Jesus. There are no other instructions. There is no plan how they will get to the ends of the earth. After being aroused by angels, the disciples do the next thing as Jesus instructed – to go wait in Jerusalem. They had no idea how these things would play out — just as Abraham had no idea how he would have descendants like the stars, or how Moses would get a people group through the wilderness, or how Mary could have a baby. The ends of the earth were a long way away. There were not many of them. But they did the next thing, to wait in Jerusalem.
Luke clearly points out that Philip and the scattered church went from Jerusalem to Judea and Samaria. The commissioned were thrust out, and, along with them, the gospel. Though Luke spotlights Philip, the church scattered was doing the same thing as Philip –extending the gospel wherever they went – into Judea and Samaria. They were evangelists during this very chaotic and uncertain time. As a result, Philip preached the good news to eager Samaritans, ready to receive the gospel. God healed many and there was great joy. The gospel then spread from city to city.
This chapter of Philip’s story ends with his providential encounter with the Ethiopian Eunuch. The Ethiopian Eunuch is hungry for the truth, and simply needs someone to explain Scripture to him. Philip is available, asks a question, and extends the gospel to him. The Eunuch is baptized and will go back to his home in Ethiopia. What is fascinating is, Ethiopia was considered the ends of the earth. Philip was living out Acts 1:8. He then is miraculously snatched up and taken away … (to be continued and completed in part 3: Really Good News for All People).
Questions to Ponder:
- What emotions do you repeatedly recognize as you face the uncertainty of today?
- Do you remember your commissioning or a time you stepped out into the calling God had for you?
- What did you decide was going to get you through the challenging days that would inevitably come?
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