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A Practical Commentary On Holy Scripture by Frederick Justus Knecht D.D.

[Acts 8:1–40]

AFTER the death of Stephen, the disciples of Jesus Christ were grievously afflicted in Jerusalem. Among the worst of the persecutors was Saul, the same who had held the garments of those who put Stephen to death. He went from house to house, dragging out men and women who professed to be followers of Christ, and threw them into prison. On account of this fierce oppression the disciples were scattered abroad through all Judæa and Samaria, preaching everywhere the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Philip the deacon went to Samaria, where he cured all manner of diseases. The inhabitants of that city received the Gospel with joy, believed and were baptized.

When the apostles heard this, they sent Peter and John to confirm the newly-baptized. The two apostles went to Samaria and prayed for the new Christians. Then they imposed hands upon them, and they received the Holy Ghost. After Peter and John had preached the Gospel in Samaria and the country round about it, they returned to Jerusalem.

But an angel appeared to Philip, saying: “Arise and go towards the south to the way that goeth from Jerusalem down to Gaza. Philip went immediately. While journeying along he was overtaken on the road by an officer of Candace, queen of Ethiopia, who was returning from Jerusalem, where he had gone to worship.

As he rode along, sitting in his chariot, he read aloud the prophecy of Isaias. Then the Spirit said to Philip: “Go near, and join thyself to that chariot!” He did so, and heard the officer reading the words: “As a sheep He was led to the slaughter; and, like a lamb dumb before his shearer so opened He not His mouth.” Philip asked him: “Thinkest thou that thou understandest what thou readest?” The officer replied: “How can I, unless some one show me?”

He then requested Philip to come up into the chariot and sit with him. Philip did so, and, beginning with the text which had puzzled the officer, he explained to him all the Scriptures relating to Jesus Christ, instructing him in the mystery of Redemption.

As they rode on they came to a stream, and the stranger said to Philip: “See, here is water, what hindereth me from being baptized?” Philip replied: “If thou believest with thy whole heart, thou mayest.” He answered: “I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.” He then stopped the chariot, and they both went down into the water; and Philip baptized the officer. But when they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord took away Philip, and the officer saw him no more. Praising and blessing God, he went back joyfully to his own country.

The holy Sacrament of Confirmation. The Sacrament which St. Peter and St. John administered to the baptized Samaritans was the Sacrament of Confirmation, the outward sign of which is the imposition of hands with prayer. The anointing with chrism which accompanies the imposition of hands is not explicitly alluded to in the account given, but it can be proved from many sources that from the most ancient times anointing formed part of the outward sign of Confirmation. The inward grace imparted by Confirmation is the receiving of the Holy Ghost, with the strength given by Him to confess the Faith boldly, and to live in accordance with it. This Sacrament was instituted by our Lord, or else the apostles would not have administered it. The deacon, Philip, could not administer it, but only the apostles, who had received from our Lord the power and authority to apply to the faithful all the graces of Redemption. Hence bishops, as the successors of the apostles, are the ordinary ministers of Confirmation.

God knows how to bring good out of evil. The great persecution of the Christians in Jerusalem, far from destroying the Church, served by the wise Providence of God to increase her sphere of action and her glory. The persecuted Christians themselves became richer in merits, and many Jews and Samaritans were converted to the faith; and the Church was extended throughout Judæa and Samaria. Just as the storm which shakes the trees carries their seed to a distance, even so did the storm of persecution which broke over the Church in Jerusalem serve to scatter the seed of the Gospel, and propagate it in distant regions. “The blood of the martyrs”, writes Tertullian, “is the seed from which spring up new Christians”.

The conversion of the Samaritans was a very significant fact in the Church’s history. The Samaritans were, avowedly, outside the pale of faith, and did not belong to the chosen people of God, but stood, as it were, between the Jews and the Gentiles. By now calling them into His Church, God gave it to be known that His was to be no national Church, limited to the Jews, but a Universal, Catholic Church, intended for all countries and nations; and for this reason the head of the Church, St. Peter, went himself to Samaria to unite this new and important flock to the Mother Church. The conversion of the Samaritans prepared the way for the conversion of the Gentiles.

The object of miracles. The Samaritans paid heed to the words of Philip, and believed them, “for they saw the miracles which he did”.

The Universality, or Catholicity of the Church. God sent the messenger of the Gospel to the Ethiopian officer, although he lived in a Gentile country. Thereby God showed that the heathen also were called to have a share in Redemption, and that the Church was to be indeed Catholic. The curse which rested on the race of Cham (see Old Test. VII) was removed in the person of this Ethiopian: and in him the descendants of Cham, who had fallen away from God into the very lowest depths of idolatry, were now called into God’s Church, and offered salvation by her means.

He who corresponds with grace will obtain salvation. The Ethiopian was a man of good will. In spite of his wealth and high position, he made the pilgrimage to Jerusalem, and diligently studied the Holy Scriptures. God, by His preventing grace, first awakened in his heart a longing for the truth and for a right understanding of the prophecies, and then sent Philip to help him. The Ethiopian corresponded with grace, by humbly owning that he could not understand what he was reading, by begging Philip to explain it, and by accepting the instruction given him by the teacher whom God had sent to him. And as soon as he understood the necessity of Baptism, he did not postpone indefinitely the receiving of it, but seized the first opportunity that presented itself to be baptized. To him can be applied the words: “Blessed are they that hunger and thirst after justice, for they shall have their fill.”

The necessity and properties of grace. “If thou believest with all thy heart thou mayest be baptized (or born again to eternal life)”, replied Philip to the Ethiopian. And our Lord said: “He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved” (chapter LXXXIII). Faith is the root and ground of justification (Council of Trent); and he who does not believe cannot be justified or saved. We must, moreover, “believe with all our hearts”; we must grasp the doctrines of faith, not only with the understanding, but also with the heart and will, and shape our lives in accordance with our faith.

The chief Doctrine of Christianity is that of the Divinity of our Lord Jesus Christ. When the Ethiopian declared: “I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God”, Philip asked no more, but gave him holy Baptism on the strength of this confession of faith. He who believes in the divinity of our Lord, believes also in the Holy Trinity, and in all that Jesus taught. He especially believes that the Church was founded by Jesus Christ, and that He has sent to her the Spirit of truth.

Holy Scripture and the Infallible Teaching of the Church. The Ethiopian read the Holy Scriptures without prejudice and with a sincere desire to understand them; but he could not glean the truth from them, because there was nobody to expound them to him. The Scriptures are not clear, nor easy for everybody to understand. They form a divine and mysterious book, “in which (as St. Peter says about the Epistles of St. Paul) are certain things hard to be understood, which the unlearned and unstable wrest to their own destruction” (2 Pet. 3:16). Wherefore St. Augustine says: “From whence arise so many heresies, but because Holy Scripture, which is good in itself, is misunderstood?” But was the interpretation of Holy Scripture which Philip gave to the Ethiopian correct and reliable? Yes! And why was it so? Because Philip interpreted Holy Scripture as the apostles had taught it to him. But why was the interpretation of the apostles infallibly correct? Because they were instructed by the Holy Ghost in the right understanding of the Scriptures, and were by Him preserved from all error. Only the Holy Ghost, under whose inspiration the Holy Scriptures were written, can infallibly interpret their meaning. For that purpose the Holy Ghost was sent to the Church, that He might explain both Scripture and tradition to the faithful, and declare to them the true faith. The Holy Ghost, however, did not impart directly to the Ethiopian’s mind the true explanation of what he was reading, but He sent to him Philip, who had received from the apostles power and authority to proclaim the true faith. Thus faith did not come to the Ethiopian by the reading of the Scriptures, but by hearkening to the interpretation of them given to him by Philip. “Faith cometh by hearing; and hearing by the word of Christ” (Rom. 10:17).

APPLICATION. The first Christians confessed their faith boldly, and no persecution could frighten them out of it. Do you courageously confess your holy faith, or do you fear the ridicule of the unbelieving and foolish? Are you ashamed to make the sign of the cross, or to genuflect before the Blessed Sacrament, when others are present? Do you neglect to raise your hat to a crucifix, or to join aloud in public prayers, for fear of criticism? Be ashamed of such despicable cowardice, and pray to the Holy Ghost, whom you received in your Confirmation, to give you strength to overcome all human respect.

Are you as anxious to know your holy religion as was the Ethiopian officer? Do you, like him, pay great attention to the instruction which is given you? Are you willing to listen to the Word of God, and take what you hear to heart? Are you careful to learn your catechism? Do you take pleasure in reading spiritual books?

The Ethiopian went on his way rejoicing after he had learnt to know the true faith, and had been made a child of God. The purest and noblest joy is that which is spiritual and supernatural. Do you not feel a heavenly joy in your heart, when you have made either a good confession, or a fervent Communion? Is not your soul filled with a joyful sense of exultation, when you are assisting devoutly at any of the splendid religious ceremonies of the Catholic Church? Thank God that you are a child of His holy and infallible Church, and resolve that you will do honour to your holy Church by the piety and goodness of your life!








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