This passage starts with the ominous words ‘And Saul approved of their killing him.’ (Stephen). By the end of the next chapter, the same Saul is preaching the gospel in Jerusalem. It’s one of the most famous turn-arounds in history.
But two other stories of people coming to faith are told in between those two points. And they show how God works in different ways as he meets and transforms different lives.
Acts 8:4-25 tells the story of the mission to the Samaritans, and especially of Simon Magus, a magician (conjurer or sorcerer? It’s not quite clear!) who was something of a local celebrity who came to believe through Philip’s preaching. When Peter and John went to teach the new church in Samaria, they met Simon. He was used to being able to do impressive stuff, and offered to pay them if they would teach him how to lay hands on people so that they might be filled with the Holy Spirit.
It’s not completely clear what his intention was – to keep his reputation as a worker of wonders, or to help spread the gifts of the Spirit, happy to pay for the privilege of service. Peter’s reaction suggests the former.
Conversion isn’t usually so much of a sudden turnaround as it was for Saul. For many people, as for Simon, belief takes a while to work through the way that we live and transform us. In fact, we’re never going to stop being converted and transformed for as long as we live and follow Christ. But even the big things that need to change in our lives may take time. God has time – but the sooner we listen to him through those who guide us, the more fully and more joyfully we will live!
The Ethiopian Eunuch
Next we hear (8:26-40) of Philip’s next assignment, as God leads him to a meeting on the road with a wealthy and influential Gentile, an Ethiopian eunuch who was treasurer to the royal court. This unnamed man was reading from Isaiah, and accepted Philip’s help to understand what the prophet had written.
Philip explains this scripture, and carries on to show how it is fulfilled in Jesus. The Ethiopian has heard enough, and asks for baptism. As soon as he’s been baptised, the Holy Spirit transports Philip to his next destination, Azotus, where he carries on preaching.
Meanwhile, the Ethiopian ‘went on his way rejoicing’. As he was reading Isaiah, he was clearly interested in Israel’s faith. But as a eunuch, he would never have been accepted fully into Israel, even had he converted. He had now been received into a faith with space for everyone, regardless of race or other status. We don’t know whether or how he found help to continue to grow in faith, but tradition traces the birth of the ancient Ethiopian churches back to him, so something clearly worked.
For Simon, belief had come first, and then transformation. Perhaps for this man, transformation had already begun as he explored the Jewish faith, to be completed with belief and baptism into Christ. These things don’t always happen the same way!
Then, after hearing of events around Philip, we come back in chapter 9 to Saul, still trying to wipe out the Christian heresy. Famously, on the way to Damascus he meets Jesus in a vision, and over the following days his life is turned around and he becomes the greatest evangelist ever known, doing more to establish, interpret and promote the faith he once tried to destroy than any other person of whom we know.
Saul’s conversion has often been seen as the ‘normal’ way to be converted, as the typical ‘born again’ experience. Perhaps we’ve forgotten Simon and the Ethiopian, both mentioned by Luke as part of the build-up to his friend and hero Paul.God draws us into fulness of life by different pathways, as different people. But belief and transformation are always part of the process, working out in different orders and ways.
Guides on the way
We will ourselves be at different points in this journey of faith and transformation. But we are also called to help others on the way. Simon, the Ethiopian and Saul all needed others to help and guide them, even though Saul was addressed directly by Jesus, and will be keen later to stress that he didn’t depend on anyone else for his faith!
Simon and the Ethiopian both needed first to hear the word of God through Philip; but both were also helped by others. Simon needed to go beyond conversion to transformation, and it took the challenge of Peter and John to make that possible. The Ethiopian had already been helped by Jewish teachers to bring him to the point where he was ready for Philip’s explanation of the good news. They didn’t understand Isaiah in the same way that Philip did and we do, but their faith opened windows through which Philip could shine God’s light.
Saul didn’t need teachers as much as he needed people who would trust him. It’s not surprising that in Damascus and in Jerusalem, Christians were suspicious. They remembered who had held the coats of the mob that lynched Stephen, and suspected a trick. In Damascus, God persuaded Ananias (against Ananias’ better judgement!) to go and welcome Saul into the church by baptism. Once he escapes to Jerusalem, Saul is still suspect, but Barnabas (who we met in the story of the earliest church) chooses to trust him and bring him into the church family. It reads as though this isn’t (like Ananias) because of a direct leading from God, but just because this is the kind of thing Barnabas does. He trusts, encourages, accepts. I like Barnabas.
Perhaps this can be an encouragement to those of us who don’t feel up to preaching like Philip or teaching like Peter. Those who are on the journey into faith also need those who will simply accept and trust them, helping them to find a place in God’s family, the church. Is there anyone in your own church who’s on the journey into faith? Could you, perhaps, trust, accept and welcome them to help them on the way?
You’ll be in good company.