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Acts 8:39-40 Philip is carried off

by Pastor Timothy Smith on Wednesday, January 22, 2020

39 When they came up from the water, the Lord’s Spirit carried Philip off. The eunuch did not see him any longer but went on his way rejoicing.

Whatever water Philip and the Ethiopian had found—a spring, a gully, a puddle, or what have you—Luke tells us that they went down to it together, and they came up out again together. This does not mean, as is sometimes argued, that this baptism was by immersion. However deep or shallow the water was, the men went to it, used it together with the words of Christ, and then returned to the chariot. Arguments about the form of baptizing too often turn baptism into a command to be obeyed rather than a gift from God. It is an act of grace and of the gospel, and it must not be turned into an act of obedience; an act of the law.

At this time, the “Spirit of the Lord” carried Philip off. There are two questions here. First: What does Luke mean by the Lord’s Spirit, where we might have expected the Holy Spirit? Are these two similar terms for the same being, the Third Person of the Trinity? The title “Spirit of the LORD” occurs for “Holy Spirit” in the Old Testament, especially with regard to the Judges, as when the Spirit came upon Othniel (Judges 3:10), Gideon (Judges 6:34), Jephthah, Samson, and then also Saul and David (1 Samuel 10:6; 2 Samuel 23:2). The Spirit of the Lord is also mentioned in connection with the ascension of Elijah (2 Kings 2:16). It would be best to equate “the Spirit of the Lord”  or “the Lord’s Spirit” here with the Holy Spirit, while remembering Martin Franzmann’s point: “Philip was transported from the scene by the Holy Spirit, and that means the Lord Jesus too, for the two always work in perfect harmony and concert” (New Testament Commentary Vol. 2, p. 1237).

The second question is, what does Luke mean by “carried him off”? In the apocryphal Bel and the Dragon, there is a comical and completely un-historic scene in which an angel commands the prophet Habakkuk to share the stew he has just made with Daniel in the lion’s den in Babylon, and then carries him there by the hair: “The angel of the Lord said to Habakkuk, ‘Take the dinner which you have to Babylon, to Daniel, in the lions’ den.’ Habakkuk said, ‘Sir, I have never seen Babylon, and I know nothing about the den.’ Then the angel of the Lord took him by the crown of his head, and lifted him by his hair and set him down in Babylon, right over the den, with the rushing sound of the wind itself” (Bel and the Dragon, 34-36).

Noting what happens here with Philip, we are happy to accept a prophet being transported quickly to Babylon or Persia from Palestine. The trouble with the apocryphal story is not geography, but chronology: Habakkuk’s ministry happened around 600 BC; Daniel was thrown in with the lions under King Darius in 539 BC.

Assuming that the Holy Spirit did not grasp Philip by the hair, what did he do? The Greek word is harpazo, “to snatch away” like a bird of prey snatching a rabbit or a fish for his dinner. The Greeks also spoke of harpies, the Snatchers, a personification of tornadoes, whirlwinds, or hurricanes (Homer, Odyssey) which were later mythologized into monsters with bodies of birds and heads of women. Could Luke mean a storm or a whirlwind? It seems as if Luke would have told us more if he wanted to equate this transposition with that of Elijah in the whirlwind (2 Kings 2:11). We are left without details, and since the eunuch did not pursue the matter, we can allow this detail to pass as a factual event for which we have no explanation. It delights God to work signs and wonders were necessary, and if we are ready to pray to God for miracles to happen in our own lives, we must also be ready to accept the miracles of the Scriptures as having taken place exactly as they are presented.

Without any mention of a whirlwind, a storm, a rustling leaf or even the receding noise of a dove’s flapping wings, the eunuch continues on his way, off of the pages of Scripture. He returned to his country and his queen, and that is all we know about this first Gentile Christian.

40 Philip, however, found himself at Azotus. He went from place to place preaching the gospel in all the towns until he came to Caesarea.

Azotus is the Greek name for the old Philistine city of Ashdod. Philip went from there to various seaside towns and villages, preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ. Caesarea is some thirty miles to the north, so Philip had plenty of places in which to stop and preach. One of these was the port of Joppa, where part of the story of Jonah took place (Jonah 1:3). There was also Antipatris, previously known as Aphek, once an Amorite stronghold in the days of Joshua (Joshua 13:4). There was also the village of Lydda, about which we will hear more in chapter 9.

Another city in this region, midway between Azotus and Lydda, was Jamnia. Known as Jabneh in the Bible (2 Chronicles 26:6), today it is the center of a disagreement among scholars. There was some sort of debate held at Jamnia (Jabneh) shortly after the destruction of the temple in 70 AD. The debate was whether certain books (Song of Solomon, 1-2 Chronicles, and perhaps Ecclesiastes) should be included in the canon of the Old Testament. Whether this was “the” council that decided the issue is the point of the dispute today, but there was a meeting at this city at that time (70-90 AD) about that subject. Whereas it was once common to speak about the “Synod” of Jamnia or “Council” of Jamnia, today one more often hears about “the debate at Jamnia.”

Philip’s preaching tour took him all through the region, telling the good news about Jesus. At this point Philip also disappears from the account, but only for a few chapters. When next we encounter this faithful minister of the gospel, it will be in Caesarea, where we will find him older, married, and with four grown daughters (Acts 21:8). He would be the host for Luke and others (doubtless this was the moment when Luke was able to speak with Philip about the events of this chapter), but we will note that Philip would also be the host to the man we encounter next in Acts: Paul.

In Christ,
Pastor Timothy Smith

Pastor Tim Smith

About Pastor Timothy Smith
Pastor Smith serves St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in New Ulm, Minnesota. To receive God’s Word for You via e-mail, please contact Pastor Smith.


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