Dear friends in Christ! The 12 days of Christmas ended this past Thursday and on Friday we began the season of Epiphany. “Epiphany” is when something that is essentially invisible displays its reality and power. When we speak about Christ’s Epiphany, we are recognizing and confessing that in the Person of Christ the heavenly has broken into the earthly, that God has appeared now “in the flesh.”
The glory of the Lord shines in and through Jesus, the God-man. The Epiphany season focuses on the glory, the divinity, of this God-man.
Because the Babe who was born in Bethlehem is the Savior of all people—as the coming of the Gentile Wise Men shows—the season of Epiphany also has a “missions” theme. Mission work, telling others the Good News about Jesus, is nothing else than revealing Jesus to people. As we tell others about Jesus, He reveals Himself to them in His Word. Mission work, then, is Jesus’ work today in gathering His Church, in rescuing people out of the mass of lost, condemned humanity and bringing them into His Church. It is Christ at work today!
That’s precisely what we have in our text today—Jesus through His word and preacher of that Word, revealing Himself to a man to bring him to faith. Here the risen and ascended Christ is guiding and directing the course of His Church.
As we examine our text today we will see that Jesus reveals Himself to people today in His word and by preachers who proclaim that word; in doing so He rescues them and brings them into safety in His Church. As He does this, we will see the Epiphany “run around”: that is, Holy Scripture points us to the Church and the Church points us to Holy Scripture.
1. Now an angel of the Lord spoke to Philip, saying, “Arise and go toward the south along the road which goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” This is desert. So he arose and went. And behold, a man of Ethiopia, a eunuch of great authority under Candace the queen of the Ethiopians, who had charge of all her treasury, and had come to Jerusalem to worship, was returning. And sitting in his chariot, he was reading Isaiah the prophet. Then the Spirit said to Philip, “Go near and overtake this chariot.” So Philip ran to him, and heard him reading the prophet Isaiah, and said, “Do you understand what you are reading?” And he said, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” And he asked Philip to come up and sit with him.
The Lord directs Philip—not the Apostle but the deacon—to go along this desert road where he met this Ethiopian treasurer. This man was richly blessed in so many ways. He was obviously wealthy as he was in a high position of government; he was certainly wealthy enough to have a scroll of Isaiah. Somehow the Lord had previously worked on his heart and given him the greatest blessing-- this Gentile recognized the God of Israel as the true and living God and served Him, coming to Jerusalem to worship Him.
Yet, as richly blessed as he was, he was still stumbling: “Do you understand what you are reading?” And he said, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” That this richly blessed Ethiopian is on a wilderness road seems also to describe his spiritual condition. All his rich blessing seems to do him no good because he does not understand the word of God that he is reading. He certainly got no help from the priests in the temple who were more concerned about a superficial outward keeping of the law, a works-righteousness, than they were about the Savior from sin. Spiritually, this richly blessed man is alone, floundering in a spiritual wilderness.
That’s the same state, the condition, of those who want to “do their faith” all by themselves; it’s the state of the so-called lone ranger Christians, those who think they have no need of the Church. They are alone, unattached, in a spiritual desert. The difference, though, between them and this Ethiopian treasurer, is that he did not want to be there; they though want to be in their own spiritual desert. They take pride in not being a part of the Church, thinking they have no need of her.
This is a trap, a snare of the devil. In the Church, in communion with our fellow Christians, we have the word of God and the holy Sacraments in our midst. Through these the Lord works to create and strengthen faith. If the devil can get us to actually believe that there is a “do-it-yourself” Christianity, that we don’t need our fellow Christians, that we need not be part of a congregation where God’s word is rightly proclaimed and His holy sacraments rightly administered then he was won the battle and soon faith will wither in that spiritual desert.
This is why here and elsewhere Holy Scripture points us to the Church.
Again, this Ethiopian treasurer is in this spiritual desert not by choice but by circumstance. He had just been in the temple. He had just seen the sacrifices offered up; the very sacrifices that pointed forward to the Savior. He had seen that sheep led to the slaughter of the sacrifice—but that was it. There was no connection made by the priests to the Savior sent by God to take away the sins of the world. The religion of the Jews had devolved into a religion of the Law—not of the promises. The Jews instilled in the people a works-righteous mindset in which they went through the motions of the sacrifices but thought that by it God owed them. Because they did all these “good things” they felt no need for grace.
This Ethiopian was upright and godly. The Lord was certainly working on His heart. He surely sensed something was wrong so he was reading/ studying Scripture. This man was no lone ranger believer by choice—unlike so many today who think they can be Christians without going to church or having any connection with the Church. Such people are really proud and arrogant: I don’t need the Church. They think they on their own can figure out Scripture and all its saving doctrine. Many will even pick and choose what they want to believe.
Instead this Ethiopian treasurer was humble. “Do you understand what you are reading?” And he said, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” He didn’t think he knew it all or could figure it out; he was not ashamed of his ignorance but implored Philip to teach him. This is key for us today: let us hear God’s word with fear—it is the word of God—and let us study it in humility. By God’s grace, this man knew something was not quite right in what he was hearing in Jerusalem; he studied Scripture but in his godly humility realized by his own he could not rightly figure it out so he said to Philip: How can I understand it unless someone guides me?
Holy Scripture points us to the Church. Christ has entrusted His word and Sacraments to His Church. It is the blessed duty of the Church to preach God’s word in all its truth and purity and to administer the holy sacraments as He instituted them. Precisely through this work of the Church Christ is gathering people from all over the world into His Church; He does this through the preaching/teaching and administering the sacraments.
Does that mean every single denomination and congregation teaches rightly? Does it mean that it doesn’t matter to what congregation one belongs? Hardly! But let the Ethiopian was studying Scripture be our example: so let us always compare what we hear in church to the Scripture. Is what we hear in accord with Scripture throughout? Then let us believe it and take it to heart. If it is contrary to the clear word of Scripture, let us then reject it and flee that congregation.
From His Church God sends us preachers and teachers to bring us the Word. This is God’s grace. Again look at the Ethiopian. He was just one man on a desert road. It seemed a waste of Philip who should have been preaching before many people. But in His love for him God does not leave this Ethiopian in that spiritual desert—He sends him Philip to teach him on that desert road, free from distraction.
In grace He sends him Philip. Notice what Philip does: Then Philip opened his mouth, and beginning at this Scripture, told Him the Good News about Jesus. Like this Ethiopian, each one of us, too, needs an explanation of what Scripture says which is taken from Scripture itself, so that we can grasp a proper, pure understanding of what is necessary for us to believe to be saved. Then we read that when they came to some water, the eunuch said, “See here is water. What hinders me from being baptized?” …And [Philip] baptized him. God sends us preachers with the word and baptism.
2. Here we come to Epiphany’s run around: Holy Scripture points us to the Church and the Church now points us back to Scripture. The Church’s proclamation is Christ Jesus, our Savior; that we are saved by God’s grace through faith in Him. All of Scripture leads into that or flows from it: Then Philip opened his mouth, and beginning at this Scripture, told Him the Good News about Jesus. That section that the Ethiopian was reading was a prophecy of the suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus. Philip showed this man that Jesus was the fulfillment of this and all of the OT prophecies. By showing prophecy and fulfillment, Philip was clearly teaching this man that Jesus is the Savior; He came to be our righteousness; He came to pay for our sins by enduring God’s wrath over our sin; He came to reconcile us sinners to the holy God; He came to die for us but also to rise again and open heaven to us. Jesus is the center and object of the Church’s preaching—and like Philip, the Church preaches Christ by going back to the Scripture, the very word of God that proclaims this exact thing.
Just like it was a humble thing for the treasurer to ask Philip to guide him in the teaching of Scripture, so is it a humble thing for the Church to proclaim Jesus alone. The Church’s message is not about human wisdom but the simple message of the foolishness of the cross. The Church does not develop, formulate, its own teachings but like St. Paul simply passes on what she has received. And that’s why the Church points back to Scripture: it is the sole source of all our teachings and doctrines. If any Christian goes beyond what the Scriptures teach or take away from what Scripture says, they are to be rejected.
The Church points us back to Scripture alone because the word of God is God’s power unto salvation. In and through the word alone, the Holy Spirit is at work. That’s why the word of God is the power of God—His Holy Spirit is at work. Again we hear the Ethiopian’s question: “How can I [understand] unless someone guides me?” Left to us Scripture—the prophecies and their fulfillment in Christ, the teachings of Christ—are all a closed book to us, unintelligible, nonsense. That’s why the Church points us back to Scripture. By the work of Holy Spirit, who proceeds from the Father and the Son, He opens our understanding so that we might comprehend the Scriptures [Luke 24.45].
Here we come full circle because us understanding Scripture, coming to know Christ as our Savior—like this Treasurer did that day—is an Epiphany. Christ is revealed to us. By His grace we now know Him rightly and have a blessed grasp of the saving truth. In Scripture Christ is revealed to us and by the Spirit’s work we have the Epiphany and in faith cling to Jesus and His saving work.
Just as our Ethiopian treasurer then desired baptism, so too are we baptized. Baptism is the word made visible and by it is the outward, concrete act that we are now connected with Christ and His death and resurrection and also to our fellow Christians in the Body of Christ, the Church.
Our text gives us the blessed Epiphany runaround—Holy Scripture points us to the Church—to the preaching of the word, the gathering around the holy Supper and to fellowship with our fellow Christians; and the Church points us back to Holy Scripture, the Word through which the Spirit creates and nurtures saving faith. INJ