How a Hitchhiker Changed a Nation
—The story of Philip and the Ethiopian
By Maria Fontaine
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We can look at the events in the life of Philip, one of the early witnesses described in Acts 8:26–40, from several viewpoints. Here is one that came to mind when I was meditating on these verses.
It was around 34 AD. The persecution that had been sparked by the killing of the first Christian martyr, Stephen, had forced many Christians to leave Jerusalem. Philip was among those who fled, heading for the city of Samaria. Despite the historical animosity between Jews and Samaritans, he couldn’t help remembering the Samaritan woman who Jesus had met at the well. He could still see the sincere hunger for the truth in the eyes of the townspeople whom the woman had urged to come and see for themselves.1
As Philip began telling the people of the city of Samaria about the Messiah and the wonders and miracles he himself had seen, many began to bring the sick and those who were afflicted by evil spirits, begging him to pray for them. The resulting miracles caused many to become followers of Jesus. When news of these happenings reached Jerusalem, several others joined him to assist in this blossoming new work.
It seems to me, however, that Philip was about to discover something even greater than having crowds of people rejoicing that he’d come to help them. The Lord spoke to Philip and asked him to leave behind the exciting happenings in Samaria and launch into a new mission.
Philip showed once more that following Jesus and making disciples held first place in his life as he grabbed his gear and hit the road.
Jesus’ ministry had never reached further south than Jerusalem. The Lord spoke to Philip, “I need you to go down to Jerusalem and then take the road toward Gaza,”2 and he felt his faith stretching even more than it had when he had headed for Samaria.
Although these instructions pointed to an unknown mission for Philip, he was determined to obey. He was probably expecting some exciting new mission to reach big new crowds with even bigger miracles. After all, he’d followed the Lord’s instructions to go to Samaria, and look what had happened.
But as the hours of walking turned into days, Philip was probably wondering where the crowds were going to come from out there. Finally, through the shimmering heat of the parched landscape, he saw a few figures in the distance, resting in the shade of a large rock. Coming closer, he sighed. It was nothing more than a lone chariot with a small escort of horsemen.
With the stopped chariot only a short distance away, he could now clearly see a well-dressed African man seated behind its dozing driver, its richly adorned horses pawing the earth, impatient to be on their way.
The man seemed to be intently studying something. Coming closer, Philip could just make out the words the man was reading out loud to himself: “He was led as a sheep to the slaughter: and like a lamb, dumb before his shearer, so opened he not his mouth.”3
The man had been so deeply focused on the scroll that he hadn’t noticed Philip as he came up alongside the chariot.
“You wouldn’t by chance be wondering what that scripture means, would you?” Philip questioned.
The startled Ethiopian’s curiosity was piqued, and he invited Philip to join him in the chariot as they set off again along the road to Gaza.
The two were soon lost in conversation, the Ethiopian eunuch posing question after question as he studied first the scroll and then his new teacher’s face. Philip excitedly told of his experiences with the Messiah: the many miracles, the unconditional love, the words of wisdom formed in such simplicity, and of Jesus’ death and resurrection.
I can imagine the Ethiopian man finally uttering in amazement, “I have studied these scriptures, but the meaning of these words has been a mystery to me until now. What must I do to have the key that will continue to unlock these truths? How can I discover what this Jesus alone can reveal: the answers to all that I seek?”
Philip explained that the first step was to believe in Jesus, and that a way to declare this was to be baptized. Since they had at this point arrived at an area where there was water, the Ethiopian asked to be baptized.
Philip had instilled vision and fire in the heart of this Ethiopian eunuch, who turned out to be a top advisor to the queen of Ethiopia. The eunuch already had the scriptures to work with. Philip was igniting the fuse of his belief, faith, and understanding, and the Ethiopian was able and ready to pour out to many others all that he now understood.
The Lord topped off this Ethiopian eunuch’s experience with one last confirmation that must have convinced him that he’d been part of a miracle. As Philip and the Ethiopian both came up out of the water after the baptism, in this flat desert area where you could see for miles, Philip was suddenly gone; he had been snatched away by God’s Spirit!
History tells us that apparently the efforts of this single Ethiopian man resulted in one of the earliest known branches of Christianity in Africa that continues to this day.
After finding himself at the town of what is now called Ashdod, miles away from where he’d met the Ethiopian man, Philip may have wondered if what seemed so totally real might have all been a dream. Yet there was one thing he couldn’t deny: his vision to follow Jesus and give others what they needed in order to be disciples was the driving force in his life.
The Bible says that he set off traveling to a number of other places telling others about the Messiah, instead of going back to Samaria. Historical accounts indicate that Philip’s journeys eventually led him to Asia Minor, or roughly what today is the Asian part of Turkey, to make disciples and to teach them to teach others.
I believe he discovered that there is unlimited potential to make disciples wherever the Lord leads. It may be found in the slow, plodding task of teaching others step by step, or, as with the Ethiopian, it may be found in the culmination of the work of God’s Spirit in a person’s life.
You just never know what a day may bring or what a far-reaching chain reaction can be set off as we faithfully do our part to teach others to teach others.
Originally published May 2014. Adapted and republished October 2018.
Read by Irene Quiti Vera.