“Do You Understand What You Are Reading?” (Acts 8:26-40)
Today, we continue our Easter season series entitled, “How does the Church live in the light of the resurrection of Jesus?” We are using the readings from the Book of Acts assigned for us this Easter season. Acts, you remember, is St. Luke's record of the life of the Church immediately following the resurrection of Jesus. And so we get a picture of how the Church lived then and learn how we can live now with Christ's Easter joy shining in our hearts.
This morning's text is the story of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch. Philip overhears the man reading a portion of the Bible, and asks “Do you understand what you are reading?” When the man reveals that he does not, Philip proceeds to explain it to him, but in so doing, he points him to Jesus. This is what we want to learn and be reminded of today: that whatever part of the Scriptures we begin with, we will always point people to Christ, and that we would be ready to do this whenever and wherever the Spirit leads us.
Do you understand what you are reading?
The Bible is clear. It should not be hard to miss the clear, simple Gospel message that “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” Any person, when taking the Bible at face value, should be able to read it and hear the Good News about Jesus. And God willing, by the power of the Holy Spirit, the person who reads it will be brought to a repentant trust in the Savior.
On the other hand, there are some dark, mysterious passages. Peter, for example, in his second epistle, makes mention of Paul's letters, and says, “There are some things in them that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures.” (2 Pet. 3:16) With this in mind, it is helpful to have someone experienced, trained, with a knowledge of the original languages – or at least a good set of resources on hand, like Bible commentaries and dictionaries – to be able to understand those difficult passages. One rule of thumb is always to interpret the dark passages in light of the clear passages. But it's important to grapple with those unclear passages so that people don't lose their way and get caught up in strange and dangerous doctrines derived from those dark passages.
Using the Bible the wrong way
There are plenty of folks out there who do twist the Scriptures to their own destruction. There are plenty of people who use the Bible the wrong way.
Some see the Bible as simply a book of rules to be obeyed and get on the good side of God.
Some see it as a book to justify their racial prejudices. For example, years ago, the “mark of Cain” was thought to be black skin, and so some folks thought that black people were cursed. Also, upon the invitation of some friends years ago, I went to a home Bible study where their sole focus was studying the genealogies of the Bible. In a very weird, convoluted way, they connected these genealogies to the lineage of the Queen of England. Their claim was that white Anglo-Saxon people were the true chosen people of God and all the promises given to Israel in the Old Testament apply to England and America. Needless to say, I didn't return to that Bible Study, and thankfully my friends didn't stay much longer with that group either.
A few years ago there was a book called “The Bible Code,” which saw the Bible as a book with secret codes in which we can find all sorts of modern day prophecies. Others view the Bible as a book of myths and allegories, all to be understood symbolically.
Then there are those who interpret the Bible metaphysically, that is, beyond the literal, plain sense of Scripture, always looking for some hidden meaning. This is especially represented by the Unity School of Christianity and its founder Charles Fillmore.
Here's an example of what they do with the Bible. The following I found at a weblog dedicated to metaphysical interpretations of the Bible. The author is explaining the story of the paralyzed man whose friends lower him down through the roof in order for Jesus to heal him.
- Paralyzed man symbolizes the crippling thoughts which handicap us, keeping us stuck and immobilized, blocking our good.
- People assisting the paralyzed man represent faith-oriented thoughts which refuse to see anything but health and wholeness
- Process of lowering man through the roof suggests the creative process in which Divine Ideas come from our Christ Consciousness
- House stands for human consciousness
- Scribes symbolize worldly thoughts which come from traditional thinking
- Bed or mat generally serves as a badge of lack consciousness
- Earth usually represents our physical body
- Son of Man symbolizes that within us that knows the difference between truth and error
- Evil represents purely material thoughts which deny our divinity
- The phrase ‘Your sins are forgiven. Stand up and walk’ invites us to eliminate our error thinking (give up the false for the true) so we can behold our wholeness
Funny, I always thought that the story was simply about Jesus showing his divine power to heal and forgive sins. That's because IT IS! But again, there's an example of the ignorant and unstable distorting the Scriptures to their own destruction. We need to heed St. John's warning in today's Epistle “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world.” (1 Jn 4:1)
Using the Bible the Right Way
Instead, the right way to use the Bible is to point people to Christ, wherever you begin. We point people to THE Christ, not the “Christ Spirit” or the “Christ consciousness” but Jesus Christ … the Son of God and the Son of Mary, born in Bethlehem, raised in Nazareth, walked and talked in Palestine, crucified outside the gates of Jerusalem, laid in a borrowed tomb, and truly rose again after three days, and who still lives and is present today with his Church to truly forgive sins and to comfort and to strengthen us with his Body and Blood in the Sacrament.
Take, for instance, the story in our text today of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch. Philip was given a message to head south from Jerusalem toward Gaza, about a 50 mile trip. How did he receive the message? Was it a dream? A vision? We're not sure. All the text says it was from an angel of the Lord. And Philip obeyed the message. (Notice, no secret messages here, right? We're just reading what the text says!)
Meanwhile, there was a eunuch from Ethiopia traveling in his chariot. He was the queen's treasurer, so he was a bigwig. He probably had a few bodyguards along with him and his own chariot chauffeur. The eunuch, after all, is pictured for us sitting down and reading in his chariot. That wouldn't be the safest thing to do if he was the driver. He had just been to Jerusalem to worship and now was returning home. Evidently, he was a convert to Judaism, or if not a full convert, at least on his way to becoming one. Somehow, he had gotten a copy of the book of the prophet Isaiah, probably the Greek translation made some 200 years earlier, called the Septuagint. And more than likely, the man was reading aloud, since that was the custom in the ancient world. If you had a text in front of you, you would read it aloud.
So there's Philip, standing there, watching this chariot roll by, and the Spirit tells him, “Go over and join the chariot.” And Philip runs over there. I get this picture of Philip running as fast as he can to catch up with the chariot and he trots up to where the eunuch is sitting reading. Overhearing him reading from Isaiah, Philip asks him between breaths, “Do you understand what you are reading?” The eunuch replies, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” And he tells his driver to pull back on the reins, stops the chariot, and invites Philip to sit down for a Bible study.
The passage that Philip overheard the eunuch reading was from Isaiah 53: “Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter and like a lamb before its shearers is silent, so he opens not his mouth. In his humiliation justice was denied him. Who can describe his generation? For his life is taken away from the earth.” The eunuch asked Philip whether Isaiah was talking about himself or someone else. Philip proceeded to tell the eunuch that it was indeed about someone else. And I love the way St. Luke puts it: “Then Philip opened his mouth, and beginning with this Scripture, he told him the good news about Jesus.”
That's the right way to use the Bible. Whatever Scripture passage you begin with, the ultimate goal is to bring the conversation around to Jesus. Because it's all about Jesus. On several occasions, Jesus confirmed this himself. In one of his post-resurrection appearances to his disciples, Jesus said “that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” (Luke 24:44)
It would be nice to know what exactly Philip said to the eunuch as he interpreted that verse for him. I imagine it went something like this: “My friend, the prophet is clearly speaking about someone else. And that someone else is Jesus of Nazareth, the eternal Son of God, the promised Messiah of the Scriptures. He is the one who was led like a sheep to the slaughter, when he was led to a hill outside of Jerusalem and nailed to a cross. Like a silent lamb at shearing time, Jesus did not open his mouth and attempt to defend himself when he was on trial before the Roman governor Pilate, because Jesus knew that this was all part of the plan of salvation of mankind. The prophet speaks of Jesus' 'humiliation.' This refers to the way that our Lord Jesus, although he was true God, willing humbled himself and became a true Man and for a time set aside his rights as God, living in poverty so that you and I might become rich with the treasures of heaven. Justice was denied him, because he was the only Man who ever lived who was truly innocent. It is true that he was unjustly sent to his execution, but in this way God's justice for sin was satisfied. All your sins and mine were laid upon Jesus at the cross. And don't forget to keep reading, my friend, for the prophet has more to say: 'Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him; he has put him to grief; when his soul makes an offering for sin, he shall see his offspring; he shall prolong his days.' After Jesus' sacrifice was completed, after the payment in full was made for sin, God the Father raised his Son from the dead. His days are prolonged. In fact, they are prolonged forever, for Jesus lives, never to die again. The prophet goes on to say of the Savior, 'by his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant, make many to be accounted righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities.' My friend, by trusting in this Jesus, the righteous one, who bore your sins, God declares you to be righteous. And as our Lord Jesus said, 'Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned.'”
That's just a guess at what Philip may have said. Whatever Philip's exact words were, the Ethiopian came to faith in Jesus as his Savior and requested to be baptized right then and there. And that's pretty much the last we hear about these two men in the Bible. Philip was swept away by the Holy Spirit to continue his missionary efforts along the coastline. And the early Christian writer Irenaeus tells us that the eunuch became a missionary to his people back in home.
Do you understand what you are reading? The Scriptures have a lot of variety in them. There are clear passages. There are dark passages. 66 books. Around 36 different authors, all inspired by the Holy Spirit. Written over a period of about 16 centuries … 1600 years. But the central message is the same. It's all about Jesus. So thank God today, for those Philips whom your merciful Lord has sent your way … parents, pastors, Sunday School teachers, youth leaders, friends, grandparents, uncles, aunts, and so on … people who helped you along the way to understand the Scriptures and to know your Savior.
And don't be surprised if God turns you into a “Philip,” too. Don't be surprised if you suddenly find yourself in a conversation with someone quite different from you, someone whom you meet in passing, but whom God has placed in your path in order to help them to better understand the Scriptures, in order to help them to know the Savior. Pray and study so that you will be ready when that day comes. Abide in the word of Jesus, and like the sap that flows from the vine to the branches, you will bear the fruit of faith and love … faith in your Savior and love that serves your neighbor with acts of mercy. And there's nothing more loving and merciful than pointing people to the Savior found in the Scriptures.