Reading the cross

Philip speaks to the Ethiopian, and Our Lord to the two on the way to Emmaus
Patrick Henry Reardon is a Senior Editor of Touchstone: A Journal of Mere Christianity

 

Theological reflection on the sufferings of Jesus may well begin with that scene in the Acts of the Apostles [8.26–40] where Philip overhears the pilgrim from Ethiopia reading the book of Isaiah. The passage that the gentleman read was this: ‘He was led as a sheep to the slaughter; / And as a lamb before its shearer is silent, / So he opened not his mouth. /In his humiliation his justice was taken away, / And who will declare his generation? / For his life is taken from the earth.’

The reader inquires of Philip, ‘Of whom does the prophet say this, of himself or of some other man?’ Then, says the Sacred Text, ‘Philip opened his mouth, and beginning at this Scripture, preached Jesus to him.’

It is surely instructive to observe that Philip, in preaching the Gospel to the Ethiopian inquirer, begins with sufferings of Jesus. He speaks of the Lord as the Lamb of God, humiliated and slain for the sins of the world. Philip, in his ministry to this man, was ‘determined to know nothing but Jesus and him crucified.’ To this powerful man from the royal court of Ethiopia, Philip preached the weakness of God. With this cultured, educated visitor from afar, he shared the foolishness of God, which is wiser than men.

Philip instructed this man on the sufferings of Jesus in reference to the fulfilment of biblical prophecy. That is to say, the preaching of the Gospel deliberately related the message of the Cross to the teaching of the Hebrew Scriptures.

There are three points worthy of remark here. First, there is the historical fact that Jesus suffered and died.

Second, there is the theological interpretation of that fact, namely, the thesis that Jesus’ sufferings and death were ‘for our sins,’ which means that the death of Jesus on the Cross was an act of sacrifice, an act of worship. Already, in this earliest stage of the proclamation of the Gospel, the Lord’s crucifixion was perceived as a deed of sacrificial atonement. It had the value of what the Old Testament calls a ‘sin offering,’ a sacrifice to take away sins and restore man to communion with God.

Already, prior to the conversion of St Paul, and constituting a formal thesis of Christian preaching to which St Paul appealed, it was affirmed that Jesus not only died on the Cross, he died on the Cross ‘for our sins.’ St Paul asserted that he received this thesis from the Church and handed it on. This thesis we already find in the preaching of Philip.

Third, this theological interpretation of the death of Jesus was based on a specific reading of the Hebrew Bible: ‘Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures.’

What Philip did was the complementary opposite of what the risen Jesus did for the two disciples on the way to Emmaus [Luke 24.13–35]. We recall that these two men, when they met the Lord, were struggling with the scandal and tragedy of his death. They were not struggling with Scripture: they were struggling with the Cross. To enable them correctly to understand the Cross, Jesus took them to the biblical writings; ‘beginning at Moses and all the Prophets, he expounded to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.’ Jesus goes to the Scriptures in order to interpret the Cross.

Philip accomplishes the same thing by going in the opposite direction. The Ethiopian is not struggling with the Cross; he is struggling with the Scriptures. Philip asks him, ‘Do you understand what you are reading?’ And the reader answers, ‘How can I, unless someone guides me?’ Philip then takes the man to the Cross in order to interpret the Bible, the very opposite direction of Our Lord, who took his two disciples to the Bible in order to understand the Cross.

Both, of course, are essential. There is not understanding of the Hebrew Scriptures without the Cross. There is no understanding of the Cross without the teaching of the Hebrew Scriptures.

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