Friday, August 17, 2012

Philip Teleports? (Acts 8:39-40)

How did Philip get from the desert to Azotus? The Spirit of the Lord caught him up (Acts 8:39)

At the conclusion of the famous encounter between Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8:26-40), Acts adds a summary statement (Acts 8:39-40). It is noted that after Philip accomplishes his mission, he is “snatched” and lands in the seacoast town of Azotus (Acts 8:39 NASB). The text reads almost if the missionary is teleported.

When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away; and the eunuch no longer saw him, but went on his way rejoicing. But Philip found himself at Azotus, and as he passed through he kept preaching the gospel to all the cities until he came to Caesarea. (Acts 8:39-40 NASB)
There is an intentional contrast between the two characters as the eunuch leaves by his own volition whereas Philip is led by the Spirit. The natural and supernatural are placed next to one another and in doing so the Spirit moves them in opposite directions. Just as there had been direct divine involvement in their meeting (Acts 8:26, 29), so there too in their separation (Acts 8:39-40).

Nothing is said of Philip’s ministry in Azotus. Acts begins the next chapter with Saul/Paul and the book and follows him, not Philip (Acts 9:1). The significance is not Philip’s ministry in Azotus as this is the only New Testament reference to the former Philistine stronghold. The importance is in getting Philip to Azotus.

Philip is subject to a sudden disappearance. The language is indicative of a supernatural exit. The Greek harpazo implies a sudden forceful action with no resistance. This verb suggests that Philip is taken by force and is rendered variously “caught” (ASV, KJV, NKJV, RSV), “snatched” (NASB, NLT, NRSV), “took” (CEV, MSG, NIV) and “carried” (ESV, HCSB). He next finds himself in Azotus (Acts 8:40). The passive “was found” (heurethē) is properly translated as reflective. Though some have interpreted that Philip merely had a strong inner compulsion to go to Azotus, the text implies a supernatural exit.

This form of transport is unique as it the only such occurrence in the New Testament though the use of the verb is not without precedent. Darrell L. Bock (b. 1953) analyzes:

The Spirit takes Philip away. The verb here for being caught up ἁρπάζω (harpazō), appears twice in Acts (in Acts 23:10 Paul is taken away from a scene to protect him) and twelve other times in the New Testament (Matthew 11:12, 12:29, 13:19; John 6:15, 10:11-13, 27-29 [2x]; II Corinthians 12:2-4 [2x; Paul caught up into the third heaven]; I Thessalonians 4:15-17 [saints being caught up in the air]; Jude 1:22-23; Revelation 12:5). His instant removal makes clearer still that God is at work. It recalls Jesus’ removal in Luke 24:31. Like Elisha, Philip is directed in ministry (I Kings 18:12, 46; II Kings 2:16 [a similar taking up]; similarly 11:24). (Bock, Acts (Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament), 345-46)
The Western text has a longer reading which adds that an angel did the snatching. I. Howard Marshall (b. 1934) notes:
This is an abrupt ending to the story, and it is eased by a longer form of the text which reads: ‘And when they came up out of the water, the Holy Spirit fell upon the eunuch, but the angel of the Lord caught up Philip...’ Since in the Greek sentence the word for ‘Holy’ comes after ‘Spirit’, it can easily be seen that the whole of the italicized phrase might have dropped out of the text by accident. If so, the longer form of the text could have been the original wording, in which case the story would have related explicitly how the gift of the Spirit followed upon the eunuch’s baptism. Although the MS evidence for the longer text is weak, it could be original. The phrase ‘Spirit of the Lord’, however is found in Acts 5:9 and Luke 4:18, and the picture of the Spirit (rather than an angel) transporting a person is found in I Kings 18:12; II Kings 2:16; Ezekiel 3:14; et al. In any case, the fact that the eunuch went on his homeward journey rejoicing allows us to infer that he has received the Spirit. (Marshall, Acts (Tyndale New Testament Commentaries), 165-66)
This addition might remove inconsistency from the text but makes no difference in understanding what happened to Philip.

Though unique in the New Testament, teleportation is not unprecedented in antiquity. Charles H. Talbert (b. 1934) documents:

This type of supernatural transference of a person from one place to another is mentioned elsewhere in antiquity (I Kings 18:12; II Kings 2:16; Bel and the Dragon 36; Fragment Targum on Pentateuch, Genesis 28:10: “as soon as our father Jacob lifted up his feet from Beersheeba to go to Haran, the earth shrank before him and he found himself in Haran”; Philostratus, Life of Apollomius of Tyana 8.10; Gospel of the Hebrews [so Origen, On Jeremiah 15:4, and Jerome, On Micah 7:6)]). (Talbert, Reading Acts: A Literary and Theological Commentary on the Acts of the Apostles, 80)
Like Elijah, Philip is moved by God to his next point of ministry (I Kings 18:12, 46; II Kings 2:16). God transplants Philip back to where he was headed before getting his orders to meet the eunuch as Philip was in the north, called south and transported back north. Azotus is 20 miles up the coast, the next major town north of Gaza (Acts 8:26). Philip is working his way up the coast. In being snatched, Philip makes up for lost time. When he is next seen twenty years later “the evangelist” has continued this trajectory, residing in Caesarea (Acts 21:8).

What literary figures have the ability to teleport? What instances can you think of where someone has disappeared without a trace? Do you believe Acts describes a miracle or simply a strong inner compulsion? Does God still relocate people in miraculous ways? Why is Philip snatched, for his own benefit or the eunuch’s?

Time does not seem to be a pressing issue in Azotus so it can be inferred that it is not out of practicality that Philip is snatched. There are, however, several advantages to this methodology:

  • This exit prevents the eunuch from developing any personal attachment to Philip.
  • It is a sign that confirms that the eunuch has indeed encountered the supernatural.
  • It assures that Philip does not reinterpret his mission and rechart his course. His mission is the same both before and after the encounter; the eunuch is merely a diversion. Philip is not called to open the door to the Gentiles. That will be Paul’s assignment.
  • Most importantly, the emphasis is on Spirit as the one doing the work, an important theme in the book of Acts. The Holy Spirit is far more active than Philip in the account. The episode begins as it ends, with divinely encountered outreach and power. The Spirit leads him to the encounter and takes him away.
Richard Bauckham (b. 1946) comments:
The story of Philip’s transportation, which is unique for Luke and indeed unique in the New Testament, points to the stormy return of the prophetic Spirit and the way in which there were ecstatic experiences of it in the primitive community and among the hellenists, for whom the miraculous ‘divine guidance’ of the mission was also connected with the eschatological gift of the Spirit (cf. Acts 13:2ff; Galatians 2:1; Acts 16:6, 19:19, etc.). We might ask whether the original pre-Lukan story of the transportation of Philip to Azotus might not be meant to express a divine legitimation of the preaching of the missionaries from the ‘hellenist’ circle in a semi-Gentile city...Luke has allowed the theme of the transportation to stand as an archaic relic—which no longer accorded with his time—but left out the story which went with it. (Bauckham, The Book of Acts in Its Palestinian Setting, 53)
F. Scott Spencer (b.1956) summarizes:
Philip’s boundary-breaking mission in Acts 8 is appropriately capped off by his sudden, miraculous removal from the scene, after baptizing the eunuch, and relocation at Azotus, from where he continues his evangelistic tour up the coast to Caesarea. The Spirit blows where it wills, sweeping the gospel across standard zones of times, space, and society. (Spencer, Acts, 94)
Do you think the Ethiopian missed Philip after he left abruptly? Have you ever arrived at a place without knowing how you got there? Have you ever felt compelled to go somewhere? Is the Holy Spirit guiding your path?

“I like teleporting better - less windy.” - Ando Masahashi (James Kyson, b. 1975) after running with Daphne Millbrook (Brea Grant, b. 1981), on “Heroes” (2006-2010), “Our Father”, December 8, 2008


  1. Great insight here! I appreciate the explanation of the Greek and cross references to other similar incidents in the Old Testament and ancient literature. I recently saw this in Acts and needed more information! Most commentaries explain it away as meaning he wasn't seen until he arrived in Azotus, but they are ignoring the first half of the verse with harpazo...where he was snatched away by the spirit. Really appreciate the time you put into this research!

  2. This was also known as a mini rapture. Teleportion is accurate. Rapture seems more to be both teleportation and time travel.

  3. This was also known as a mini rapture. Teleportion is accurate. Rapture seems more to be both teleportation and time travel.

  4. I was never taught this as a Independent Baptist. They just said he was led by the spirit. Then, at a new job, a non-denominational preacher friend showed me this. Began a new study. Makes sense. Many "types" in the bible. Thanks