Philip and the Ethiopian
26 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[a] eunuch, an important official in charge of all the treasury of the Kandake (which means “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 This is the passage of Scripture the eunuch was reading:
“He was led like a sheep to the slaughter,
and as a lamb before its 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.”[b]
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. What can stand in the way of my being baptized?”  [c] 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.
Every year on Christmas Eve my family on my mother’s side has had a tradition to gather together for a big party. This tradition now goes back over forty years and is something that we all look forward to every year. As part of that evening we have the main traditional event of the night in which the classic poem “The Night Before Christmas” is read. My Uncle Joe started this tradition and it has continued on through all of those years even though he died many years ago now. The Christmas Eve party this year was no different as all of the traditions were carried on. After the reading of the poem, however, something unique happened this year. My Aunt Roberta, my Uncle Joe’s widow, declared that she had something to read too. Everyone hushed and listened up because she is still kind of the “Grande Dame” of Christmas Eve in our minds. As she began to read, the words that flowed from her were measured and steady. She read of a little boy who wanted to comfort his mother before his first day of school. The mother was worried and scared, but the little boy assured his mommy that he was a big boy now and every thing would be okay. We all listened mesmerized by the prose that she read. It was emotional and touching. Yet none of us completely understood why she was reading it. As she finished, we were all left to sit and ponder our own childhoods and how quickly they had raced by as well as how fleeting are the days that we have with our own children. As my Aunt closed the little diary from which she was reading, she looked up and said that this was a story that she wrote for her sister when her son Michael was getting ready for his first day of school. I was stunned. I had never considered that I was that little boy. The story that she had read that was so moving and thought-provoking was about me. I was actually part of the story. It brought a whole new meaning for me to the story and made it real in a way that I could have never imagined.
The book of Acts is full of narratives and it is in and of itself a narrative. It doesn’t just have the obvious smaller narratives like Peter preaching to thousands on the day of Pentecost or Stephen standing up boldly in front of the hostile Sanhedrin and eventually being stoned to death for doing so. The book of Acts is also full of narratives that run just beneath the surface of the text but that flow all through the veins of Luke’s writing. The grand story of Acts (narrative is, after all, just another word for story), is the spreading of the good news that the Messiah had come, had defeated man’s ultimate enemy of death, had shown himself to be the true king of the world, and had finally made the promised family of God available to all people. Now that is quite a story. You can imagine the responses of those who heard this story for the first time. But imagine hearing that story for the first time and then finding out that it involved you. It wasn’t just a story about a king and some other people. You were actually part of the grand narrative. That would make it real in a way that you could have never imagined.
As Luke shifts gears, it is significant to note that the Spirit calls Philip away from a successful and fertile ground of evangelism to a desert road that would have had very little traffic on it at the time. That must have seemed like a strange and possibly even frustrating call for Philip to have received. But he trusted God more than he trusted the seeming circumstances and so he went. As he was going down the road he saw a chariot which must have been a welcome sight to see anyone at this point. This was no regular person in this chariot, though (it would have been a little like seeing a limousine driving down the way). The chariot would almost assuredly have been drawn by an ox and so it would have been quite easy for Philip to run up and catch the chariot and then walk along side of it where he heard this Ethiopian man reading aloud which was the common practice in the first century as reading silently was almost unheard of.
The Ethiopian, we are told, was a eunuch and an important official in charge of the treasure of the Kandake of Ethiopia. The area that he was from would actually have been what is now modern day Sudan rather than modern Ethiopia. He was a black African man and was a eunuch which was a common condition for those in important royal positions back then as they could be more trusted after they had been castrated (the word for “eunuch” could be used more generically to refer to any government official but most likely carried the meaning here that he actually had been castrated). He was basically the secretary of the treasury for the Queen of Ethiopia, known as the Kandake. The kings of Ethiopia were believed to be the child of the sun and were considered too sacred and divine to be bothered with the everyday tasks of a monarch, thus the Kandake, the queen-mother, was the functional ruler. It would have been her to whom this man answered.
He was returning home after coming to Jerusalem to worship, although it is unlikely that he was Jewish or a Jewish convert as Eunuchs were specifically banned from taking part in the full membership and function of God’s people (Deut. 23:1). We are not told the details of why he was worshiping in Jerusalem but it is not hard to imagine why it was that even to those who were excluded from numbering themselves among God’s people fully, the piety and discipline of the Jewish faith still had a great deal of appeal. This man, we must be clear though, was an outsider to God’s people, barred by the law from ever fully being accepted as part of God’s people. He was as we all were at one time, or to borrow Paul’s words from Ephesians 2:12, he was “separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world.”
It would have taken some courage to approach this important official but Philip had been ordered by the Spirit and absolutely obeyed. As he approached and heard the Ethiopian reading from Isaiah he asked him if he knew what he was reading. The specific passage that Luke reports that was being read comes from Isaiah 53. It is a passage that has to do with the suffering and injustice experienced by the servant of the Lord. The faithful servant would be the one who would serve as a representative for all of the people through his suffering and take upon himself the iniquity of all. The Ethiopian was understandably confused by this. To whom was this passage referring? Who could possibly take the sin of all people upon himself? Who could take on such a task at the Lord’s bidding (Isa. 53:10) and still be given “a portion among the great” (Isa. 53:12)?
The exciting news was from Philip was that this time had come. The suffering servant of Isaiah was one and the same with the Davidic Messiah that most Jews were waiting for (there is no evidence that anyone connected these two figures as one before the time of Jesus). God had finally sent the rescuing servant and it was Jesus.
But there is more that we must understand that Luke no doubt expected his readers to see by including the specific detail that this man was a eunuch. As we mentioned earlier, Eunuchs were barred from participation in the assembly of the Lord’s people. But as the book of Isaiah continues to talk of the suffering servant of the Lord, he holds out a specific promise for the outcasts such as eunuchs, “Let no foreigner who is bound to the LORD say, ‘The LORD will surely exclude me from his people’. And let no eunuch complain, ‘I am only a dry tree’.” For a time is coming, declares Isaiah, when all people will be brought into God’s family; all people will be accepted and God’s house, his dwelling place, will finally be called a house of prayer for all nations (Isaiah 56:1-7).
Can you imagine if you were this man hearing this all from Philip for the first time. The great narrative of God working among his people from which he was reading, included him. Even the eunuchs would finally be brought into God’s people. And that time was happening now. The story was about him and all people like him. The outsiders were being brought into God’s kingdom.
As they continued on, Philip explained the rest of the good news which no doubt included much of what Peter had told the Jews on the day of Pentecost in Acts 2. It is no wonder after hearing the good news that the suffering servant had come and fulfilled God’s promises by taking his wrath onto himself and opening up God’s promises to even the eunuchs that this man was more than ready to jump in and share in Jesus’ death, burial and resurrection by being fully immersed in the waters of baptism (cf. Rom. 6:1-14).
We are told by Luke that the Ethiopian continued on his way but history seems to indicate that he well understood the true nature of the life to which he had been called. Second century church leader Irenaeus reports that this man went on to evangelize his own country and created large enclaves of Christians in northern Africa. Despite the fact that some have used this passage to argue for lone ranger Christianity, meaning that Christians don’t really need to be part of specific Christian family or community of true believers, Luke intended to convey nothing of the sort. This man knew that he had been brought into God’s family and that God had called him during a unique time for the unique task of opening God’s family up to the people of Ethiopia (Incidentally, early church writings indicate that this man went on to build a huge Christian community in northern Africa). It is, by the way, no coincidence that during the days of Luke, Ethiopia was called the ends of the earth. Just as the gospel had been brought to Samaria, as Luke has described in the last passage, so it was truly beginning its journey to the ends of the earth just had Jesus had promised (Acts 1:8).
The Bible is really one grand narrative that weaves together the promises that God has given mankind and tells the story of those who believe those promises. Paul boldly declared in 2 Corinthians 1:20 that “no matter how many promises God has made, they are ‘Yes’ in Christ.” Just as the Ethiopian found that true and found his own part in God’s story we each have our own part as well. God’s promises stand true whether you are riding in a chariot in Gaza or sitting at a computer right now. What are you waiting for? Go join in and be part of the story.
Are you as prone to listening to the guidance of the Spirit as Philip was? Imagine what might have never happened had he not obeyed the urging of the Spirit. What is the Spirit guiding you to do today? Who might he want you to talk to? Who is your “Ethiopian”?