[8:1-3]. «They were all scattered … except the apostles».
Not only did Saul approve of Stephen’s killing, but he employed himself to «ravage» the Church, dragging believers into prison (v. 3); he fully participated in a «great persecution» that dispersed almost all, given that only the apostles remained in Jerusalem (8:1,14,25): why this attachment of the apostles to Jerusalem? The question is evidently “un-Jewish”. Let us briefly say that this was the city where God had declared that he would live «forever» (1 Kings 8:13) and Jesus himself had said: «It cannot be that a prophet dies outside Jerusalem» (Luke 13:33).
Certainly, Jesus had also said to preach the Gospel to all peoples, but the apostles continued to hope that sooner or later Jerusalem, as a whole, would be converted, inaugurating the long-awaited “kingdom of God”. Stephen’s act might appear to be an imprudence or even an error, which had caused the mass flight of believers and so, at that point, in Jerusalem, the apostles had to start again, almost anew; but the hope was not over and God was powerful enough to remedy Stephen’s “imprudence”, committed certainly for noble reasons – but still an imprudence!
The above analysis is not explicitly made by Luke, who, however, specifies that Stephen was buried by anonymous «devout men», who « made great lamentation over him» (v. 2): for this burial and mourning the apostles are not mentioned and it is known that, sometimes, silence can be very eloquent. Another consideration that reinforces the thesis is that when, some time later, Saul offered the same style as Stephen, he was promptly sent away from the church in Jerusalem (9:30).
In remaining in Jerusalem, however, the apostles proved themselves to be courageous and held the importance of having that point of reference useful to everyone for the Church.
[8:4-25]. Philip brings the Gospel to Samaria.
Moving on from the question of the “table servants”, Luke highlights two contrasting characteristics of the Twelve Apostles, which would have been at once inadequate and essential. Jesus, for example, had instructed them to be his witnesses, in addition to Jerusalem and Judea, also in Samaria and «to the ends of the earth» (1:8), but we have seen that they did not move from Jerusalem, even when the persecution had arrived there. Thus, God sent Philip to Samaria, another (after Stephen) who should have been in charge of providing assistance; and another (after Stephen) who impressed on evangelisation that centrifugal path desired by Jesus.
In Samaria there was something of the descendants of those tribes of Israel who had profoundly deviated from the right faith (2 Kings 17:24-41), but among whom Jesus himself had begun his work (Jn 4:39-42). The result obtained by Philip was exceptional, because, typically, minorities were converted, while in this case it seems that it was the region of Samaria as a whole that received the Word of God (8:6, 14).
Philip worked miracles and brought great joy, the crowds converted and were baptized, but there was no descent of the Holy Spirit like at Pentecost: this was manifested only when Peter and John arrived, who laid hands on those who believed; like at Pentecost, however, there was a “before” in which no one had received the Holy Spirit and an “after” in which all received him. The work of the Holy Spirit, in short, is to unite believers, not to separate them into two categories.
In this episode too, therefore, the apostles appear “inadequate” to bring the Gospel out of Jerusalem, but essential for its full manifestation and to maintain the unity of an increasingly diverse Church. The passage ends with Peter and John who, after the “inspection visit”, return to Jerusalem again.
[8:26-40]. Philip’s unpredictability.
One could understand who Paul was by what he did, while Philip was regarded by God as a “jolly”: first a “table servant” (6:5), then an evangelist of crowds (8:5-6), then he was led into the wilderness for an important meeting (8:26-29), then as an itinerant evangelist, arriving at Caesarea (8:40). We find Philip at Caesarea after a long time, as if he had not moved from there anymore and we are also induced to think so since he had brought up a family, raising four daughters who were prophetesses (21:9).
Philip is a kind of arsonist, who starts the fire and then runs away. To evangelise Samaria, in fact, he moved north from Jerusalem, while to meet the Ethiopian minister he went south to Jerusalem; then the Spirit took him to the coast west of Jerusalem (Ashdod), from where he headed north, keeping close to the sea and evangelising the various cities, until coming, as stated, to Caesarea (about 100 km from Ashdod).
Caesarea was the Roman stronghold of the region, but presumably Philip will have testified primarily to the circumcised, although there were Romans who sympathised with the God of Israel. It was not known how important the church of Caesarea would be, because it was only then that God would begin systematically to pour out his Spirit on the uncircumcised (Cornelius and others, Ch. 10), but not through Philip (who probably later took care of it), because it was good that such a crucial novelty was initiated by the most authoritative believer, that is, by Peter.
Focusing on the overall figure of Philip, we neglected his famous meeting with the minister of the Queen of Ethiopia (called the eunuch). This minister had gone to Jerusalem to worship, and it is a sign of how much Judaism had already spread. A corroboration of this spread emerged around the 1990, when the Ethiopian tribe of the Falasha was recognized as substantially Jewish and transported by air bridge to Israel, where currently more than 100 thousands of these “black-skinned Jews” live.
It was an angel who directed Philip to the eunuch, who at that time was sitting on his chariot and reading Isaiah 53, a chapter suitable for Philip to proclaim Jesus to him. The eunuch received the message brought to him by Philip and, arriving at a place where there was water, asked to be baptised. Philip baptised him and presumably would have liked to stay in order to explain the eunuch many more things, but he was immediately taken away by the Spirit (in chapter 10 we will see how the Spirit will unexpectedly interrupt also Peter).
Significantly the eunuch did not worry about Philip’s disappearance but rather continued his journey «rejoicing» (v. 39). A true evangelist, in short, does not speak of himself and does not bind to himself, but speaks of Jesus and makes people meet with Jesus. Just as for a true evangelised it’s the relationship with Jesus that which he cultivates and that which he is most fond of, even if he is obviously grateful to those who brought him the message.
Christianity brought to Ethiopia by the eunuch has somehow remained there as a majority to this day.