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The Ethiopian Eunuch

Acts  8:26-40

One of the enduring mysteries for new Christians (and indeed many experienced ones) is this: when I read the Old Testament, how do I know what is still part of God’s “law” for me, and what is simply ceremonial regulation for the ancient Jew? In the New Testament, the question becomes how much in the way of instruction is related to the culture of the time, and how much is really applicable in any time?

In a sense, this passage today gives us the answer to that. The entire focus of the Bible is Jesus Christ.

·         The Old Testament is the preparation for Jesus Christ. The ceremonial sacrifices are the forerunner of the sacrifice of Christ on the Cross. Over and over again, we can look at the Old Testament and see pictures of our Lord. God was preparing one particular people for his coming.

·         This is the view which allows us to separate the “forever” from the “now” in both Old and New Testament. The question is, “What does this have to do with the Atonement of Jesus Christ?” For example, if it is an Old Testament picture (sacrifices) it no longer applies, for Christ is now our sacrifice. In the New Testament, we must ask the same question: is it just something done for the church in that time, or is it related to Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross? We still celebrate the Lord’s Supper – but our knowledge of bacteria have caused us to go to individual cups.

·         Of particular importance in today’s lesson is the prophetic aspect: the Old Testament points to Christ in prophecy. Do recall that prophecy is not meant to be a road map for investors in the stock market. It is meant to be the series of clues by which you know the real from the fake.

Bearing these things in mind, we now find a man who is reading the Old Testament – and needs a guide to explain it to him.

(Acts 8:26-40 NIV) Now an angel of the Lord said to Philip, "Go south to the road--the desert road--that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza." {27} So he started out, and on his way he met an Ethiopian eunuch, an important official in charge of all the treasury of Candace, queen of the Ethiopians. This man had gone to Jerusalem to worship, {28} and on his way home was sitting in his chariot reading the book of Isaiah the prophet. {29} The Spirit told Philip, "Go to that chariot and stay near it." {30} Then Philip ran up to the chariot and heard the man reading Isaiah the prophet. "Do you understand what you are reading?" Philip asked. {31} "How can I," he said, "unless someone explains it to me?" So he invited Philip to come up and sit with him. {32} The eunuch was reading this passage of Scripture: "He was led like a sheep to the slaughter, and as a lamb before the shearer is silent, so he did not open his mouth. {33} In his humiliation he was deprived of justice. Who can speak of his descendants? For his life was taken from the earth." {34} The eunuch asked Philip, "Tell me, please, who is the prophet talking about, himself or someone else?" {35} Then Philip began with that very passage of Scripture and told him the good news about Jesus. {36} As they traveled along the road, they came to some water and the eunuch said, "Look, here is water. Why shouldn't I be baptized?" {37} {38} And he gave orders to stop the chariot. Then both Philip and the eunuch went down into the water and Philip baptized him. {39} When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord suddenly took Philip away, and the eunuch did not see him again, but went on his way rejoicing. {40} Philip, however, appeared at Azotus and traveled about, preaching the gospel in all the towns until he reached Caesarea.

The Original Vanishing Hitchhiker

One of the enduring urban legends of our time is that of the “vanishing hitchhiker.” Everyone has a cousin who has a friend who had a buddy who was there; he picks up a hitchhiker and, in various spooky circumstances, finds that the hitchhiker has vanished upon arrival – but with some mysterious connection to the place where the disappearance happened. No such mystery here; Philip is directed and carried. But in the process we can see the character of an ordinary man of God. Philip will show up again in Acts, but only briefly. Let us look at his character before he goes.

The Obedient Servant

This is the same Philip who is chosen to wait on tables. Evidently he must have been a man of great faith, for God takes particular care in his instruction.

·         First, he is told by an angel that he is to go down to the desert road. No particular objective is assigned; nothing is explained. It’s hot in the desert, but Philip goes obediently. And note, he goes on foot.

·         Next, at the proper time, the Holy Spirit himself commands him to go up to the chariot. While the presence of the Spirit must have been comforting, I think my curiosity would have been sufficient to ask, “Why?” Philip, the obedient one, does not. He is a soldier in the army of the Lord.

The Servant of the Lord

Not only is Philip an obedient servant, he knows what it is to be a servant of the Lord God Most High.

·         Although this is an important person, he does not flatter him. The Spirit has sent Philip; no higher authority need apply for homage.

·         Philip takes the circumstances the Lord sends him. He does not pull out his tract on the Four Spiritual Laws. Instead, he seizes upon the man’s own curiosity. Something is troubling him; Philip will respond to the human being. Since every human needs Christ, Philip shows him the way from where he is to where he ought to be.

The Circumstances of the Servant

Philip, as we will see in next week’s lesson, leaves Jerusalem in a time of persecution. But we need to see that he goes as God commands. It’s fairly obvious. Consider:

·         If you simply wanted to leave Jerusalem in a hurry, this is not the direction you would choose. The “road to Gaza” is a road to nowhere, for Gaza is a ruin at this time.

·         Indeed, it is the road through the desert – a glance at a map would tell you that going down the inland route via the Jordan and crossing over at a more southerly point would be much more pleasant, especially when walking. Chrysostom tells us (relying on other accounts) that this took place in the heat of the day. Those who know the desert know that it’s best to travel at night during this time of year. But Philip not only goes where his Lord commands but also when.

·         Strangely enough, after this incident, he will wind up in Ceasaria – which is north of Jerusalem. The Christian life is a journey, not a destination.

The Ethiopian Eunuch

Of all stories of antiquity, none is so strange as that of the Ethiopian Jews – a story which continues today. The legend (if it is such) is that Judaism was brought to Ethiopia by the son of the “Queen of Sheba” – the Queen of Ethiopia who visited Solomon. The legend has it that she was pregnant by Solomon, and that the son, upon reaching adulthood, went back to learn from his father. By legend, he and his followers stole the Ark of the Covenant from the Temple (you will note that no mention is made of the Ark after Solomon’s reign[1]) and took it back to Ethiopia.

The Coptic church in Ethiopia claims it descends from those Jews, converted to Christianity by this treasurer. In one of their cathedrals – barred to those who are not members of the order – is supposed to be the Ark. All this may be the stuff of legend, but in our own time Israel has airlifted thousands of Ethiopian Jews to Israel. Just because it’s an old story doesn’t make it automatically false.

Status of a eunuch

We must first understand that this individual is an unusual human being. He is a eunuch; he has just returned from worshipping in Jerusalem. This is rare by the test of that time:

·         Being Ethiopian, it is highly likely that he is black. It would not be hard to decide that he was not native born.

·         He is also a eunuch – and therefore barred from Temple worship by the Law. He would be, in the eyes of the devout, a “God-Fearer” – but not a Jew. Think about it: how do you circumcise a eunuch?

·         But he is one who is willing to be taught.

Character of the man

We can deduce a great deal about this man from this little incident:

·         He is in a chariot – reading aloud (as was the custom of the time, so that those around could share the scarce resource of a book). This tells us not only that he was devout – he was “redeeming the time.” Like someone who listens to Christian radio or tapes in the car, he was making the best use of the time and circumstances God had given him.

·         He is a man with humility. He does not challenge Philip’s credentials; rather, he shares with him his immediate problem – “I don’t understand this passage.”

·         He confesses his ignorance. It wouldn’t surprise me if he even stopped once in a while to ask for directions.

Studying the Scripture

Your teacher frequently stresses the value of studying the Scripture – and here we see good reason for it:

·         It teaches you your ignorance. Most of us don’t know what it is we don’t know – but our eyes are opened when we study the Scripture.

·         It opens your mind to learning, for in the Scripture you always meet one greater than yourself.

·         It gives God an opportunity to minister to you, in the form of his servants. If your mind is closed, how can he speak to it?

Some Scripture speaks to us passionately. Can you imagine how this passage must have hit a man like this? For the complaint Isaiah prophesies is this: that the Christ would have no children – cut off, is the phrase. Just like the eunuch. Do you suppose the passage hit him hard?

It is fitting that the meeting was on the road. Like Paul on the road, we see that meeting God is on the journey, not only at its end.

Nature of Conversion

From the evangelist’s point of view it might seem that this would be a difficult man to convert. After all, the man has already adopted what was then the world’s greatest moral code – and this despite his skin color and lack of sexuality. How then would he want to change and become a Christian?

Two problems with the Law

Any moral code, no matter how great, has two intrinsic problems:

·         Ultimately, it depends upon force. “God will get you for that!” This leads to two things:

·         First, obedience may become only external – the heart need not be right.

·         Next, the human sinful nature soon asks, “What can I get away with?” Legalism sets in.

·         Next, if you fail at any point, you fail. It is no good saying you are not a thief if you commit arson. That leads to other problems:

·         Guilt must be dealt with, for a moral code provides no way out.

·         In dealing with that code, we must have a method for “covering” our deficiencies. These are such things as

·         Blame. We blame others, we blame society, the moon – you name it, we blame it.

·         Comparison. “At least I’m not the wicked sinner like …” True. Irrelevant, but true.

·         Making it up. Viewing God as cosmic beancounter, we say, “I’ll do two good deeds to make up for that one bad thing.”

The answer – we come full circle from the start of the lesson – is in the person of Jesus Christ.

·         No longer is there a moral code to fear and obey, but a Lord and Savior to love. The heart can now be right, and the actions follow that righteousness.

·         The Law can only forget my sins. Only a Person can forgive.

There is one final thing. When this more excellent way is explained to the man, his reaction is glorious. He redeems the time; he acts – he asks to be baptized immediately. The Kingdom of Heaven – the Pearl of Great Price – is before him and he grasps it joyfully.

[1] But see also Revelation 11:19

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