Background Story: God promised Abraham a homeland and multiple descendants to bless the world. Abraham’s descendants multiplied in Egypt but were enslaved. God delivered them ‘out of Egypt’ and called them to be a ‘kingdom of priests and a holy nation’ at Mt. Sinai. They occupied their homeland under Joshua and later God promised David a ‘perpetual kingship’ over God’s people. David’s son, Solomon, built the Temple as a dwelling for God, but Solomon introduced an idolatry that led to the destruction of the ‘Northern kingdom’ and the exile of the ‘Southern Kingdom’ in Babylon. They returned to their land but they remained under Pagan rule. Israel longed for a ‘conquering king’ and God sent Jesus. Jesus was ‘anointed by the Spirit’ at his baptism and he overcame the devil’s temptations in the wilderness. He gathered a ‘new people (12)’ around himself and after disciples recognized Jesus’ Messianic identity he was enthroned as ‘KING of the JEWS’ outside Jerusalem on a cross. He looked like a failure, but on the third day God raised him from the dead. He showed himself alive to his disciples, and then he ascended into heaven. From there he poured out his Holy Spirit empowering his disciples to be his witnesses in Jerusalem, in Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. In Jerusalem, the apostles proclaimed Jesus as Lord and Christ in Jerusalem though the religious leaders forbid they do so. When a disciple named Stephen testified how ‘Israel’s Story’ culminated in Jesus, the religious leaders had him stoned to death. Then a ‘great persecution’ scattered the believers who preached the gospel throughout Judea and Samaria. The Samaritans believed and were baptized at the preaching of another disciple, Philip, and this brings us to the story of Philip and the Ethiopian from Acts 8. You can watch the story here and read the comments below.
The Ethiopian Eunuch: As we move through the Book of Acts we see the continued works of Jesus through his Spirit-filled Church. God sends an angel to direct Philip. Then the Holy Spirit spoke to Philip and directed him to a specific person at a particular place. Philip was one of the seven selected to oversee the feeding of widows. Then when persecution scattered the disciples, Philip went and evangelized Samaria. The Lord sent an angel who told Philip to go south to the desert road from Jerusalem to Gaza. Without hesitation Philip went and there Philip met this Ethiopian man who was returning from worshiping God in Jerusalem. The Lord guided Philip both by an angel and by His Spirit. Philip was sensitive to God’s guidance and we see the gospel beginning to spread beyond Judea and Samaria.
On that desert road Philip met an Ethiopian eunuch, who was the official in charge of the treasury of the queen of the Ethiopians. This man was a worshiper of the God of Israel though he was not Jewish or even a proselyte to Judaism. He had been to Jerusalem to worship God, perhaps for one of the principle festivals, and was now returning to his home in Ethiopia. As he traveled he was seated in his chariot reading from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah. Having been directed to the road, the Spirit of God tells Philip to go over near the Ethiopian’s chariot. The Spirit tells Philip directly to stay near a very specific chariot. We aren’t told that Philip was seeking such guidance; we only know that Philip went to Samaria in response to the ‘great persecution’ and the command of Jesus (Acts 1:8). In Samaria crowds had listened to Philip preach Christ and do miracles and the Samaritans believed and were baptized.
Philip draws near the chariot where he hears the Ethiopian official reading from Isaiah the prophet. So Philip starts by asking the Ethiopian if he understood what he was reading. However, the man said the he needed someone to explain it and so he invited Philip to sit with him in his chariot. He had been reading in Isaiah (Isaiah 53:7-8) where it says, “He was led like a sheep to the slaughter, and as a lamb silent before the shearers, he did not open his mouth. He was deprived of justice and who can speak of his descendants? For his life was taken from him.” Philip began by asking the man what he already knew. This implies that he could have understood without Philips help. However the man asks for help and so Philip was more than willing to help the man. What he wanted to know from Philip was whether the prophet Isaiah was speaking about himself or someone else? So Philip began with that very passage and Philip told the man the ‘good news’ about Jesus. When they came to some water the Ethiopian eunuch wanted to be baptized. They stopped the chariot and both Philip and the eunuch went down into the water and Philip baptized the eunuch. When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord took Philip away. The Ethiopian didn’t see Philip again, and we are only told that he went on his way rejoicing (Acts 8:30-39).
This Ethiopian man comes into the picture right after we find Samaria accepting the gospel which was one of the results of the Jerusalem believers being scattered. In this story we find the gospel beginning to move out from Judea and Samaria to reach an Ethiopian God-fearer. He had gone up to Jerusalem to worship the God of Israel at the temple but being both a gentile and a eunuch he was essentially an outsider. We find him reading and seeking to understand the scriptures. When the Lord directed Philip to the Ethiopian and their paths crossed the man wanted Philip to explain the passage he was reading from Isaiah. Philip started with that passage and told him about Jesus. Seeing water the man wanted Philip to baptize him. Philip did this but when they came up out of the water Philip was mysteriously taken away leaving the Ethiopian to return home ‘rejoicing’!
This man was privileged in that he was a trusted Ethiopian official. However, in another sense the man was an outcast. He was a physically disabled Gentile and as a gentile and a eunuch—he remained an outsider who wasn’t able to fully participate in the temple worship. While reading from the prophecy of Isaiah on his way home he meets Philip and he wants Philip to explain whether Isaiah was speaking about himself or someone else (Acts 8:27, 32, Isaiah 53:7). Philip took the opportunity to explain how this prophecy and Israel’s story had recently come to a fulfillment in Jesus. The Ethiopian had been wrestling to understand the book of Isaiah, a book that offers hope to eunuchs, and when Philip told him about Jesus from the passage he wholeheartedly accepted. The story tells us the Ethiopian went home rejoicing and Church history tells us that he not only brought Christianity to his homeland but that he was responsible for the conversion of many in Ethiopia.
Isaiah 56:3–8 (NIV84) 3 Let no foreigner who has bound himself to the Lord say, “The Lord will surely exclude me from his people.” And let not any eunuch complain, “I am only a dry tree.” 4 For this is what the Lord says: “To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths, who choose what pleases me and hold fast to my covenant— 5 to them I will give within my temple and its walls a memorial and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that will not be cut off. 6 And foreigners who bind themselves to the Lord to serve him, to love the name of the Lord, and to worship him, all who keep the Sabbath without desecrating it and who hold fast to my covenant— 7 these I will bring to my holy mountain and give them joy in my house of prayer. Their burnt offerings and sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house will be called a house of prayer for all nations.” 8 The Sovereign Lord declares— he who gathers the exiles of Israel: “I will gather still others to them besides those already gathered.”