Lesson: Acts 8:26-40
26 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.) 27 So 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 28 and was returning home; seated in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah. 29 Then the Spirit said to Philip, “Go over to this chariot and join it.” 30 So Philip ran up to it and heard him reading the prophet Isaiah. He asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?” 31 He replied, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” And he invited Philip to get in and sit beside him.
32 Now 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. 33 In his humiliation justice was denied him. Who can describe his generation? For his life is taken away from the earth.”
34 The eunuch asked Philip, “About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?” 35 Then Philip began to speak, and starting with this scripture, he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus. 36 As 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?” 38 He commanded the chariot to stop, and both of them, Philip and the eunuch, went down into the water, and Philip baptized him. 39 When 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. 40 But 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 book called “The Acts of the Apostles” was written around 85 to 90 CE by the anonymous author of the Gospel According to Luke. The first 15 chapters of Acts are a didactic “history” of the early Jesus Follower Movement starting with the Ascension of the Christ and ending at the so-called Council of Jerusalem where it was agreed that Gentiles did not have to be circumcised and keep all the Kosher dietary laws to become Jesus Followers.
Chapters 16 to 28 of Acts are an account of Paul’s Missionary Journeys, his arrest, and his transfer to Rome – and the stories are not always consistent with Paul’s letters.
Today’s reading – the conversion of the high-ranking Ethiopian eunuch – is filled with references that were important to the late First Century Jesus Follower Community.
Philip was one of the first deacons (6:5) and just prior to this story, was spreading the Jesus Movement by converting Samaritans (8:4-8).
In the First Century, Ethiopia was seen as “the ends of the earth,” so the conversion of an Ethiopian official was a fulfillment of Jesus’ exhortation to the apostles to be his “witnesses … to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1.8).
Most references to eunuchs in the Hebrew Scriptures were unfavorable. Eunuchs were prohibited from making offerings at an altar (Lev. 21:20) and from being admitted to the assembly of YHWH (Deut. 23:1). The only favorable reference was to eunuchs who keep YHWH’s sabbath in Isaiah 56:4. The story of the conversion of the Ethiopian eunuch was therefore an important statement of openness and inclusion in the Jesus Follower Community to all who accepted the good news.
The Ethiopian eunuch was reading verses (vv. 33-34) from the “Suffering Servant Songs” in Isaiah 53. The Gospel According to Mark first presented Jesus as the Suffering Servant-Messiah. The four Suffering Servant Songs in the Book of Isaiah were written during the Babylonian Exile (587 to 539 BCE) and originally referred to the Judeans in captivity.
Given the use of the Suffering Servant description for Jesus the Christ in the Gospel According to Mark, the author of Acts applied this description in this story as part of “proclaiming the good news about Jesus” (v.35).
The power of the Spirit was always the “driving force” in Luke/Acts. Here the Spirit “snatched Philip away” (v.39) and transported him 23 miles to the northeast to Azotus, from whence he traveled another 55 miles to Caesarea, the headquarters of the Roman governor, proclaiming the good news to all the towns along the way (v.40).
Epistle: 1 John 4:7-21
7 Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. 8 Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. 9 God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. 10 In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. 11 Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. 12 No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.
13 By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit. 14 And we have seen and do testify that the Father has sent his Son as the Savior of the world. 15 God abides in those who confess that Jesus is the Son of God, and they abide in God. 16 So we have known and believe the love that God has for us.
God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them. 17 Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness on the day of judgment, because as he is, so are we in this world. 18 There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love. 19 We love because he first loved us. 20 Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. 21 The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.
There are three letters attributed to “John” – an attribution given in the late 2nd Century about the same time that the four canonical Gospels were attributed to Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John. (We do not know the actual authors of any of the Gospels.)
Scholars also conclude that the three letters attributed to “John” were written after 100 CE because they do not reflect the tense relationships found in the Fourth Gospel between the Jesus Followers and the Temple Authorities (in Jesus’ lifetime and until 70 CE) and the Pharisees (from 70 CE until the “parting of the ways” around 100 CE).
The author of 1 John was likely an individual speaking on behalf of a community of followers of the author of the Fourth Gospel.
Today’s reading takes key ideas from the Fourth Gospel and makes the beautiful and powerful statement that God is Love (v.16) and that we love God only by loving one another (vv. 20-21).
The phrase “atoning sacrifice” (v.10) is also used in v.2:2, but it is not found elsewhere in the Christian Scriptures. The Greek word translated as “atoning sacrifice” is also found in the LXX version of Lev. 25:9 and Num. 5:8 where it is translated as “atonement” (regarding the Day of Atonement) and as restitutionary atonement.
The reading also notes that the Son is the “savior of the world” (v.14) and not just the savior to a particular group.
Gospel: John 15:1-8
1 Jesus said to his disciples, “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. 2 He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. 3 You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. 4 Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. 5 I am the vine you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. 6 Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. 7 If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. 8 My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.”
The Fourth Gospel is different in many ways from the Synoptic Gospels. The “signs” (miracles) and many of the stories in the Fourth Gospel are unique to it, such as the Wedding at Cana, Jesus’ conversation with the Samaritan woman at the well, and the Raising of Lazarus.
The chronology of events is also different in the Fourth Gospel. For example, the Temple Event (“cleansing of the Temple”) occurred early in Jesus’ Ministry in the Fourth Gospel, rather than late as in the Synoptic Gospels. In the Synoptic Gospels, the Last Supper was a Passover Seder, but in the Fourth Gospel, it occurred the day before the first day of Passover so that Jesus (who is described as “the Lamb of God”) died at the time lambs were being sacrificed at the Temple for the Passover Seder to be held that night.
Today’s reading is also unique to the Fourth Gospel and is part of “the Farewell Discourses” (Chapters 14 to 16) in which Jesus gave insights and instructions to his disciples at the Last Supper.
The vine (and vineyard) were common images in the Hebrew Bible for Israel and for God’s people (Isaiah 5:1-7; Jer. 2:21; Ezek. 19:10-19). Here it is applied to the relationship between Jesus and his disciples.
The word “abide” has numerous meanings, but the meaning generally accepted in the context of this reading is to maintain such a close relationship as to be integrated into the other – as shown by the verse that the branch cannot bear fruit unless it “abides in the vine.” (v.4)