Summary: Philip’s call to travel the road to Gaza doesn’t make human sense, but it reminds us to trust God when we have to go through the wilderness of life experiences.
There is a theme in American Literature, U.S. movies, and Broadway musicals where protagonists from rural areas come to the big city and make it big. Even Clark Kent has to move from the farm to Metropolis before he makes the big time as the investigative reporter who doubles as Superman. And we all know the lyric that goes, “If I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere…” from “New York, New York.”
So, Acts 8:26 probably seems strange to those of us who live in this land where success is measured in numbers and the size of the audience determines the magnitude of the star. Let’s read it from my efforts in the Greek New Testament. Shall we? 26) But the Angel of the Lord spoke to Philip saying, “Rise up and depart about midday along the way going down from Jerusalem to Gaza. It is in the wilderness.”
There are several surprises for me in this verse. First, the “Angel of the Lord” is an Old Testament phrase that is always used to describe God getting directly involved with a specific person. Usually, we start out reading about the “Angel of the Lord” only to discover that it was God in person. Why would the ancient Hebrews have used such a phrase? I believe it was to tell us that God is God’s own messenger (that’s what an angel is supposed to be). God isn’t off somewhere so far away that He isn’t involved with us. Instead, God comes to people as His own messenger. This passage isn’t any exception to the formula because verse 29 and verse 39 show God directly involved as the Holy Spirit.
Okay, what are the other surprises? Well, I’m sort of surprised about the timetable for Philip’s journey. God commands him to get up and depart about noon. It reminds me of Robbie O’ Connell, an Irish musician who lives in the U.S., when he went back to Ireland to chase down some authentic folk songs that hadn’t yet been recorded. Since his journey meant going to lots of pubs to hear the local performers play, he said: “It’s a very difficult task, ya’ know. First, ya’ haf ta’ get up very early in the afternoon.” It sounds funny, but I guess you’d have to get some sleep if you were staying up past midnight to listen to music every night.
Well, Philip had to get up “very early in the afternoon” to do God’s will and, if that sounds funny, I think it’s because we always think of doing God’s will according to human efficiency. Yet, if we’re listening to the Lord, that right time might be when our airplane is late and we think it’s such a disaster. Then, we strike up a conversation that allows us to share our faith with one of our fellow passengers. It isn’t efficient in human terms, but it is in God’s timing. If we’re listening to the Lord, that right time might be when we’re waiting for someone to show up at Starbuck’s or Caribou Coffee. We’re all agitated inside because our appointment is late, but suddenly someone starts a conversation and we get a chance to share about Jesus.
Now, we also know that this is a desert area. How many of you would choose to walk out in the desert at mid-day? I remember that we used to drive from California to Oklahoma to visit some of my relatives. This was in the days before air conditioning was common. Guess when we would try to cross as much of the desert as we could? That’s right! We traveled by night or early morning before the sunrise. We wanted to “beat the heat” if we could. Yet, God didn’t allow Philip to “beat the heat.” God sent him out at an inconvenient time with unlikely potential for success.
So, Philip leaves Jerusalem to go down to Gaza. You know where Gaza is, don’t you? It’s the old Philistine territory. Today, it’s the Palestinian territory. It’s largely desert. In fact, the “angel” defines it as wilderness in verse 26. Now, for Philip to leave all the action in Jerusalem and go down to Gaza would be tantamount to a pastor of a large church in a major metropolitan city suddenly deciding that he needed to become the bi-vocational pastor of a tiny rural church. It just doesn’t make sense, humanly speaking.
In fact, the phrase about this area being wilderness seems to underscore the fact that God was sending Philip out to a place where you really wouldn’t expect there to be any prospects. The wilderness is a dangerous place and, in the Bible and the books from the inter-testament period, it often represents a place where demons and evil spirits reside. It doesn’t seem like God is giving Philip a very productive field to work. But God knows best.