Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch (Acts 8:26-40)

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And so it’s the early days of the church, and one of its leaders, a deacon named Philip, is about to change someone’s life.

He’s sent by God to a road in the desert where he encounters a chariot. This belongs to the royal household of Ethiopia, and in it is a eunuch, reading aloud from the Hebrew scriptures. Philip asks him if he needs any help in studying them; it ends with the eunuch being baptised in the name of Jesus. On it’s surface it seems like a simple story of evangelism and conversion.

But wait, look at the scripture the eunuch is reading – it’s the book of Isaiah. The section quoted is from Isaiah 53, a prophecy of a suffering servant who, despite facing terrible afflictions, would restore Israel to it’s former glory, as well as drawing all other nations to God. We’re rightly interested in the eunuch being told that the suffering servant piece refers to Jesus and the crucifixion, but more than that, look at what comes just a couple of chapters after that.

See, the eunuch obviously felt an affinity to Israel’s God, having been to Jerusalem to worship. However, he’s at a disadvantage – there’s no delicate way to put this so I’ll just quote Deuteronomy 23:1: “No one who has been emasculated by crushing or cutting may enter the assembly of the Lord.”. He wants to be a part of a community that worships God, but he can’t because of certain physical, um, issues.

But he’s reading the book of Isaiah, and not long after chapter 53 comes chapter 56, which talks of eunuchs being given an inheritance before God greater than children and descendants; it talks about people from foreign lands going into God’s presence and worshipping. Imagine how this reads to this guy who’s on the fringes of faith:

“To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths,
who choose what pleases me and hold fast to my covenant—
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.”

Suddenly faith is opening up; the Law is being fulfilled and those on the outside are being brought inside.

“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 –
these I will bring to my holy mountain
and give them joy in my house of prayer.”

The good news of Christ’s coming was meant for Israel first, but now it’s making its way to everyone else; horizons have been expanded and the early church was learning to deal with that. No wonder the work of the suffering servant was of so much interest to the Ethiopian eunuch; it seems to lead to a couple of promises that directly affect him. And God puts Philip in the right place at the right time to do something about that. That’s one of the themes of Acts – visions are given and the Spirit is poured out, all in order to broaden the story.

The Ethiopian church now traces its history to this moment, but there’s a wider message – barriers are broken, God is on the move and nothing can remain the same. Acts is, effectively, the story of the world changing in response to the message of Jesus. The Ethiopian man is just one example of this. It’s exciting stuff.

“The Sovereign Lord declares—
he who gathers the exiles of Israel:
“I will gather still others to them
besides those already gathered.”

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2 thoughts on “Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch (Acts 8:26-40)

  1. I just spoke on this passage to my students last week. Didn’t get anywhere near where you went with it (which is great stuff BTW) but tried to encourage them that at the heart of this story is one guy sitting down with another and studying the Bible. Now a bunch of them are inviting their friends to look at Scripture with them.

    • I hadn’t actually thought of the story in those terms! It’s great that it encouraged people to go off and study the Bible with each other. It bothers me that, in the UK at least, Bible study is often one of the worst attended meetings in local churches…

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