Seize the Day:  a Call to Missions

| Acts 8:26-35

The Point:  Take your place in God’s mission to the nations.

Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch:  Acts 8:26-35.

[26]  Now an angel of the Lord said to Philip, "Rise and go toward the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza." This is a desert place. [27]  And he rose and went. And there was an Ethiopian, a eunuch, a court official of Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, who was in charge of all her treasure. He had come to Jerusalem to worship [28]  and was returning, seated in his chariot, and he was reading the prophet Isaiah. [29]  And the Spirit said to Philip, "Go over and join this chariot." [30]  So Philip ran to him and heard him reading Isaiah the prophet and asked, "Do you understand what you are reading?" [31]  And he said, "How can I, unless someone guides me?" And he invited Philip to come up and sit with him. [32]  Now the passage of the Scripture that he was reading was this: "Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter and like a lamb before its shearer is silent, so he opens not his mouth. [33]  In his humiliation justice was denied him. Who can describe his generation? For his life is taken away from the earth." [34]  And the eunuch said to Philip, "About whom, I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?" [35]  Then Philip opened his mouth, and beginning with this Scripture he told him the good news about Jesus.  [ESV]

The Great Search. When we first come to believe the gospel, we are often conscious of what we did and said that resulted in our conversion. Later, when the depths of our sin are uncovered and we learn that we were actually in a much worse condition than we feared, we appreciate the truth of the matter: our coming to Jesus Christ in faith was the result of the Spirit’s work in our lives, drawing us to embrace the Savior offered in the gospel. Both aspects of the conversion of the Ethiopian are essential. From one angle, we need to think about Philip’s participation in the Ethiopian’s conversion – for example, Philip’s willingness to heed the command of God to search for the Ethiopian eunuch. From another angle, we need to think about what God accomplished in the heart of the Ethiopian before Philip encountered him and also the role of the Scriptures – the written Word of God – that the man was reading. In this way, from both aspects of the story, what we have here is The Great Search. There is, of course, something of far greater significance at work here than the conversion of a single African. The road that Philip and the Ethiopian traveled led eventually into North Africa. The gospel was about to break forth into another of the boundary markers established in Acts 1:8 – Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and now the end of the earth. What seems to be taking place unobserved in some remote desert region will impact the course of the church for centuries to come. We need only remember that some of the most important names in early church history were Africans – Cyprian, Tertullian, and Augustine, to name but three. While initially the conversion of the Ethiopian appears less significant in light of the outbreak of revival in Samaria, in the purposes of God the Ethiopian’s conversion will have a far greater significance in the long term. That in itself is a lesson for us: what we may think insignificant may, from another and wholly divine perspective, be far more important. The eye of faith must be trained to see further than our physical eyes. Two roads led south from Jerusalem, one through Hebron into Idumea (Edom) and the other, joining the coast road, heading toward Egypt, just before the coastal city of Gaza. Gaza was one of the five principal cities of the Philistines, which had more or less successfully resisted Israelite conquest until the time of the Maccabean revolt, a century and a half earlier. It must have appeared as odd to Philip that he was asked to travel westward on a road that went away from the location of God’s blessing in Samaria. With the countless numbers of converts in Samaria, it could be argued that Philip’s presence was needed to help the fledgling community of believers come to terms with what had happened. The purposes of God often seem strange to us, particularly when we are in possession of only a fragment of the total picture. It must have required a great deal of faith on Philip’s part to comply. Sometimes God may lead along a path that to us seems pointless, but that is because we can see only the small picture and not the bigger one. Two puzzling issues emerge in our study of Acts thus far. First, we learned of thousands of conversions. Apart from the recent revival in Samaria, we already noted that approximately 20,000 individuals living in the region had been converted. But surprising as it is, we have not yet been told how any one of them individually experienced conversion. Second, we have not been shown a single example of one-to-one evangelism. We have been told that those who left Jerusalem because of the persecution went about preaching the word [8:4]. Every believer gave testimony to the gospel they had come to embrace. But we have not been told what they said or how they went about it. The record of Philip and the Ethiopian is, therefore, particularly important for us to get some appreciation of the early church’s evangelistic strategy. Luke’s emphasis is not necessarily what we might have expected. Several features of the Ethiopian’s conversion are highlighted. Preparation.  When Philip encountered the Ethiopian, he met a man in a chariot. This simple fact tells us that he was a man of wealth and power, a court official [27]. Most people traveled on foot. The prosperous rode on a donkey. Military generals rode on horseback, but a chariot signaled wealth. The Ethiopian is described as being a eunuch [27]. The law forbade eunuchs from entering the temple [Deut. 23:1]. In some countries a commoner might elect to become a eunuch in order to serve in the royal palace. The reason was that eunuchs ensured sexual fidelity. Such men traded the hope of family for wealth, security, and a status among the elite. However, eunuchs could never attain the status of royalty and were always servants, even if wealthy ones. Coming from Ethiopia, his skin would be very dark, and more importantly, the region was on the furthermost boundaries of the Roman Empire (some 1,500 miles from Jerusalem). Jesus had told His disciples to go to the end of the earth [1:8], and this incident is a signal of how this command is going to be fulfilled. Philip also encountered a man whose perspective on life had been greatly shaken. As treasurer to Queen Candace of Ethiopia, he was a man of considerable importance and trustworthiness. He was returning from a visit to Jerusalem, where he had gone to worship [27], signaling that he was most likely a Gentile God-fearer – someone who had become enamored of Judaism. The Ethiopian’s quest had led him to make the considerable journey from Ethiopia to Jerusalem. Was it here in Jerusalem that he had acquired a copy of the scroll of Isaiah? Luke tells us, He had come to Jerusalem to worship and was returning [27-28]. It is not clear what “worship” the Ethiopian would have been permitted to partake of in Jerusalem. As a Gentile, he would have access only to the Court of the Gentiles on the Temple Mount, and then only if his status as a eunuch was unknown. The law was explicit in forbidding eunuchs the right to enter any part of the temple. Perhaps he had managed only to attend a synagogue – possibly the Synagogue of the Freemen mentioned in Acts 6. The entire experience would probably have proved frustrating: both his Gentile status and his emasculation removed him from the center of things. He, in all likelihood, felt like an outcast. It is, then, all the more important that the eunuch was now poring over the Isaiah scroll, trying to find answers to his quest for truth and for a way to bring him nearer to the presence of God, if that was even possible. Disappointed by his experience in Jerusalem, perhaps, and now frustrated by his inability to understand the Scriptures, the Ethiopian is reading Isaiah 53 when Philip finds him. Is there a better passage in the Old Testament in which Jesus Christ is more clearly set forth as the remedy for our wretched condition? Hardly! The Ethiopian was reading the fifty-third chapter of the prophecy of Isaiah, which was an excellent thing! Almost every verse of Isaiah 53 is cited in the New Testament. It is the basis of one of Jesus’ greatest pronouncements: that He had come to give his life as a ransom for many [Matt. 20:28, alluding to Isa. 53:12]. The problem that Philip had anticipated was this: did the Ethiopian understand what he was readying? There are opportunities for us to place the Word of God in the hands of others that we must take advantage of. Can you think of what these might be for you? Providence.  What are the chances of a man like this, burdened by his sin and searching for answers to some of the greatest questions a man can ask, finding someone like Philip on a lonely desert road? Slim to none! However, this type of temporal perspective fails to reckon with the overruling providence of God. Nothing is impossible when God has determined a certain course of action. Profession. Some manuscripts (and therefore some translations) omit Acts 8:37: And Philip said, “If you believe with all of your heart, you may.” And he replied, “I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.” These words are very similar to what Paul said to the Philippian jailer in Acts 16:31. The Greek is not just “believe in” but “believe into” Jesus Christ, suggesting that our faith must lodge in the most intimate of ways with Jesus Christ. What do you say to a man seeking Jesus Christ? Over the last half-century, it has become common to say, “Ask Jesus into your heart”, rather than “believe in Jesus Christ.” The change reflects a loss of an important element in what true conversion represents. Asking Jesus into our heart is suggestive of addition: we are adding Jesus to what we already are. It is the statement of someone who believes he is merely sick, not dead. The gospel, on the other hand, is designed for those who have nothing of themselves to offer. As Luther puts it, “The gospel is entirely outside of you,” It is characteristic of the New Testament that conversion involves abandoning any hope in oneself entirely and laying hold of Jesus Christ alone for salvation. We have seen how significant Jesus’ final words in Acts 1:8 are to the way Luke recorded the history of the church’s expansion from Jerusalem. Samaria represented a boundary marker in the progress of the gospel, but technically the Samaritans were considered half-breeds, whereas the Ethiopian was representative of a true Gentile. As a native of the ancient land of Cush, he brings to mind several Old testament prophecies that indicate the coming of Cushites into the kingdom of God [Isa. 11:11]. The Ethiopian was not merely a Gentile; he was also a eunuch – one more factor that barred him from participation in Jewish worship. We are not told if he was born this way. Most likely, he was not. There is much evidence that men became eunuchs in order to acquire prestigious jobs guarding important female leaders. Physically, there was something broken about the Ethiopian that was symbolic of his spiritual condition. He was unfit for the presence of God. But Philip brought news that God had raised up a new temple in which he could receive full membership. It is a word of good news to everyone afflicted with physical disability. The question that the Ethiopian asked in 8:36 is therefore all the more interesting: See, here is water! What prevents me from being baptized? The barriers are broken down, and nothing is going to hinder God from bringing the gospel to the end of the earth. God can break down every barrier. This man began to discover that the answer to his quest entailed embracing the gospel found in the scroll he held in his hands. The eunuch had begun to see that there was nothing hindering him from experiencing the salvation of which it spoke. The Lord’s Servant, of whom he read in Isaiah 53, has done everything that is necessary. Nothing can be allowed to hinder the grace of God in our lives. The Lord’s mercy can overcome every obstacle. There is another lesson here, about personal evangelism. This is not the primary message of the passage, but it is an important one. Luke wants us to observe what made Philip such a great evangelist. It did not have anything to do with technique or a formula. It had everything to do with Philip’s heart. Several key issues need underlining. First of all, this story cannot be divorced from everything else we know about Philip. From the moment he emerged in Acts 6, we have known him to be a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit [6:5]. In every area of his life, Philip was a man who lived in close fellowship with God and in willing and joyful obedience to God’s demands. Everything about Philip speaks of a life lived in the presence of God. He was obedient to the Spirit’s leading in these strange and unusual circumstances simply because he was always obedient. This was the way Philip lived his life. Second, Philip obeyed the command to engage in witnessing and had the courage to seize it. There was no need for Philip to engage in what is otherwise known as pre-evangelism. The Ethiopian was reading Isaiah 53, after all! It was a golden opportunity to ask him if he understood what he was reading! The door was already open for Philip to walk through. It was time to speak boldly of the truth. Philip knew it and had the courage to do it. Third, Philip was able to explain to the Ethiopian the good news about Jesus [35]. Scripture is easy to understand, once we realize that it all points to and centers on the Lord Jesus Christ, in one way or another. Of course, we must give due sensitivity to sound principles of interpretation. Yet there is a sense in which a heart and mind full of Jesus will find Him in all the right places in the Old Testament.”  [Thomas, pp. 235-246]. 

Questions for Discussion:

1.         How do you see God at work in the salvation of the eunuch? What features of the Ethiopian’s conversion does Luke highlight? What role did the eunuch’s reading of Scripture play in God saving the eunuch? Note how God led the eunuch to read a particular passage when Philip approached him. Think about how God worked to bring about your conversion.

2.         Luke, in his description in Acts of the salvation of various individuals, always has a greater significance than the salvation of that particular individual. What is the greater significance of God saving the Ethiopian eunuch?

3.         Think about what God is doing in this passage. Philip is in the midst of a great evangelistic work in Samaria where there are numerous converts. Yet God calls Philip to go to a lonely stretch of road to meet with one person, and a Gentile at that. What is God doing? What does this tell you about the importance of always being ready to go where God leads us?

4.         Thomas writes: “The eye of faith must be trained to see further than our physical eyes.” Note in this passage how Philip’s eye of faith saw further than his physical eyes. What are you doing to train your eye of faith?

References:

Acts, Darrell Bock, BENT, Baker.

The Acts of the Apostles, David Peterson, Pillar, Eerdmans.

The Message of Acts, John Stott, Inter Varsity.

Acts, Derek Thomas, REC, P & R Publishing.