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. 36 And as they were going along the road they came to some water, and the eunuch said, “See, here is water! What prevents me from being baptized?” [KJV: 37 And Philip said, If thou believest with all thine heart, thou mayest. And he answered and said, I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.] 38 And he commanded the chariot to stop, and they both went down into the water, Philip and the eunuch, and he baptized him. 39 And when they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord carried Philip away, and the eunuch saw him no more, and went on his way rejoicing. 40 But Philip found himself at Azotus, and as he passed through he preached the gospel to all the towns until he came to Caesarea.
I was speaking with a friend recently who shared with me something that has troubled my soul since I heard it. He was telling me of a recent conversation he had with a man on his wife’s side of the family. This man was quite irate and frustrated. The cause: his granddaughter had announced that she felt called to go to the mission field. This fact had upset her grandfather because, as he put it, a person of her gifts and skills should commit to a business and set about making a living for herself. He shared with my friend that he viewed this desire to go to the mission field as irresponsible and foolish. In fact, he said that it was wasteful. Most troubling of all is the fact that the grandfather saying this calls himself a Christian and has long held leadership positions in his local church.
As a Christian, I was and am deeply troubled by this. Frankly, I hope that you are as well. I suppose I am troubled because of the fact that God the Father has such a missionary heart and it seems incomprehensible that His children would not have the same. How, for instance, can one read the book of Acts and dare say that missions efforts are wasteful and irresponsible? To the lost person they may seem such, but how can they appear that way to one who says he is saved?
The story of Acts is the story of a missionary God sending a missionary Church to reach the nations with good news. We have seen over these last eight chapters of Acts an expansion of the gospel to the world. It has now moved from Jerusalem to Samaria. This morning we will see that God begins to advance the gospel past Samaria to the far reaches of civilization. This is evident in our text this morning, in the amazing and intriguing story of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch.
We have seen already Philip’s missionary heart in his outreach efforts in Samaria. Indeed, God used Philip to transform that region and the gospel came to Samaria with power through this faithful servant’s witness. Now, God has a special task for Philip. He will once again be used in a mighty way by a mighty God. As such, Philip serves as a moving example of what we should and can become for the Kingdom of God.
Consider the marks of Philip as they become evident in this morning’s text.
Philip had made himself available to God and man.
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.
It has been noted that God, in His wisdom, took a man from a successful ministry in Samaria and sent him on a surprising task to reach one person. An angel comes and commissions Philip to go. This is a striking occurrence. John Chrysostom, in the 4th century, said to his congregation, “Look how the angels are assisting the preaching: they themselves do not preach but call these [to the work].” John Calvin, in the 16th century, rhetorically asked “what was the purpose of this roundabout process” and exclaimed, “It is certainly no ordinary recommendation of outward preaching that the voice of God sounds on the lips of people, while the angels keep silence.”[i]
Indeed, it is an honor to see that God’s normal means for reaching the nations is through human instrumentality. We are the primary missionary vehicle for the Spirit of God. Why did not the angel simply go to the Ethiopian Eunuch? Because that is our task. Note the obedience of Philip:
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.” 30a So Philip ran to him
The “Ethiopia” referred to in our text “is not to be confused with modern Ethiopia.” Rather, it is likely a reference to “the ancient kingdom of Meroe,” the Old Testament “kingdom of Cush” whose “population consisted of blacks.”[ii] Thus, this man was likely a black man from ancient Cush. Furthermore, he is a eunuch. While this word can have different meanings (i.e., it may at times simply refer to a court official), it likely means in this case that this man had been physically dismembered, castrated. Eunuch’s oftentimes achieved positions of great prominence, at the Ethiopian Eunuch was clearly one of these people. Luke tells us that “he was in charge” of the Queen’s treasure.
One anecdotal piece of evidence for this is the fact that he possesses a scroll of Isaiah. Scrolls were not cheap. They were, of course, handmade and difficult to acquire, but he had done so, obviously out of the abundance of the Queen’s treasury. But what is more important about the fact that he owns and is reading a copy of Isaiah is what it reveals about his spiritual condition. He is a God-seeker and a God-fearer. He is searching for God. For whatever other reasons he might have come to Jerusalem, Luke tells us that he had come to worship. We will discuss later some of the dynamics surrounding this fact, but for our purposes at this point, let us simply say this: the Ethiopian Eunuch had come and Philip went to him.
Philip was a mighty tool in the hand of God because Philip had made himself available to God and man. His availability to God is evident in the fact that he did not protest God’s call to go. God called. Philip went. There is an inspiring and convicting simplicity in that transaction. God brings the call and Philip brings obedience.
His availability to man is evident in the enthusiasm with which he approached the Ethiopian Eunuch. There is something beautiful about verse 30a: “So Philip ran to him.”
Behold the missionary heart of a child of God! He was ready to go and he was eager to go!
How about you?
How about me?
Why are we so reticent? So timid? So tepid in our witness bearing?
The world was changed forever because people like Philip ran into the darkness with the light! There was no slouching here. There was no hesitation. There was no calculation. There was, instead, raw, passionate obedience to the call of his King!
Philip was well grounded in the Scriptures.
But Philip does not merely go. He goes as a man who is prepared and mighty in the scriptures. This is vitally important, for the Ethiopian was reading scripture when Philip approached.
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.
Let me stop for a moment and draw your attention to the fact that the Ethiopian needed somebody to help him understand the Bible. It is true that the Bible is understandable to all who read it with the Spirit’s guidance, but may we note that the Bible was given not only to individuals but also to the Church? We read it best when we read it together, helping one another to understand as we go.
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?”
The Eunuch is reading from Isaiah 53, the great Messianic prophecy. He is wanting to know who this suffering servant who laid down His life was. He asks a reasonable question: is Isaiah talking about himself or somebody else.
35 Then Philip opened his mouth, and beginning with this Scripture he told him the good news about Jesus.
My, what a word! Philip opened his mouth and explained the scriptures to him. How could he do that? He could do it because he had immersed himself in the Word and knew what it was about and to whom it pointed! He had allowed scripture to take root in his life and, as a result, God could use him in amazing ways!
Do you understand how badly you limit yourself as an instrument of God when you ignore scripture?
R. Kent Hughes tells a story of a time when Ian Thomas boarded a plane in a state of exhaustion. As he shut his eyes and tried to go to sleep, he heard a voice calling to him: “pssst.” Then it called again: “pssst!” He turned to look at a man who was sitting there with his Bible open. The man said, “I am reading in the Bible about Nicodemus in John 3, and I do not understand it. Do you know anything about the Bible?”[iii]
Church, what are you going to do when this happens to you? When you are on that plane and the person next to you asks you to help them understand, what are you going to say? “I’ll call my preacher when we land?” But what if the plane goes down? That person does not need to be stalled, they need to be engaged! They do not need to be put off, they need you to know the Bible!
If human beings are the normal instrumentation for God’s missionary purposes, then the Bible is his normal source for spiritual illumination. In the scriptures we learn of Jesus and are able to point people to Jesus through them! The Bible is powerful because God is powerful.
One of the most notorious Roman Emporers was Julian the Apostate, a young man who served as Emporer from 361 to 363 AD. He is called “the Apostate” because he presented himself earlier in his life as a Christian, but then came to reject the faith. In fact, he persecuted the Christian Church and tried to launch a revival of the old Roman religions.
Julian once wrote a book against the Christians, a book that has not survived. In response to this book, a Christian leader named Apollinarius penned a response, a rebuttal, a defense of the Christian faith. When Julian read this response, he mouthed his famous words about his opinion of Christianity and the Christian writings: “Anegnon, egnon, kategnon.” Translated, this means, “I have read it, understood it, and condemn it.” Another Christian leader, St. Basil, responded to Julian’s infamous comment with these words: “Anegnos all ouk egnos: ei gar egnos ouk an kategnos.” Translated, this means, “Thou hast read it, but hast not understood it; for hadst thou done so, thou wouldst not have condemned it.”
Yes, to understand the scriptures is to open your heart to the life-changing power of God! To read with an open heart is to move from condemnation to awe and acceptance. The Ethiopian Eunuch experienced this. So can people all around us…but not if we are not prepared to help them understand!
Philip understood and lived out the full, radical implications of the gospel.
There is more here. The fact that this man is a eunuch is actually critically important to understanding what is happening.
36 And as they were going along the road they came to some water, and the eunuch said, “See, here is water! What prevents me from being baptized?” [KJV: 37 And Philip said, If thou believest with all thine heart, thou mayest. And he answered and said, I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.] 38 And he commanded the chariot to stop, and they both went down into the water, Philip and the eunuch, and he baptized him. 39 And when they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord carried Philip away, and the eunuch saw him no more, and went on his way rejoicing. 40 But Philip found himself at Azotus, and as he passed through he preached the gospel to all the towns until he came to Caesarea.
That question, “What prevents me from being baptized?” is a question with a lot of pain behind it. As a matter of fact, this eunuch, though a man of some position and prominence, had experienced the feeling of being prevented from doing a great many things. He had been prevented from having a wife and fathering children. He had been prevented from being a “normal” part of society. With all of his responsibilities and status, he was still viewed as not really a man at all.
Tellingly, as one who had recently been up to the Temple to worship, he had experienced prevention as well: he had been prevented from every truly being a full member of the covenant community of the Jews.
Deuteronomy 23:1 offers a strong impediment to a eunuch’s full entry into the family of the Jews.
No one whose testicles are crushed or whose male organ is cut off shall enter the assembly of the Lord.
What is more, the sentiments of Josephus offer us a clue into how eunuch’s were viewed by the Jews.
Let those that have made themselves eunuchs be had in detestation; and do you avoid any conversation with them who have deprived themselves of their manhood, and of that fruit of generation which God has given to men for the increase of their kind; let such be driven away, as if they had killed their children, since they beforehand have lost what should procure them; for evident it is, that while their soul is become effeminate, they have withal transfused that effeminacy to their body also. In like manner to you treat all that is of monstrous nature when it is looked on; nor it is lawful to geld man or any other animals.[iv]
While Josephus is speaking of those “that have made themselves eunuchs,” this gives us a good insight into the kind of mindset this man likely encountered among the Jews. Thus, as you can see, his question, “What prevents me?” is a powerful question and one likely asked with a growing sense of amazing possibility.
It is fascinating to note that in Isaiah 56, just three chapters after the chapter he is reading when Philip comes to him, Isaiah offers a promise of future hope to eunuchs.
3 Let not the foreigner who has joined himself to the Lord say, “The Lord will surely separate me from his people”; and let not the eunuch say, “Behold, I am a dry tree.” 4 For thus says the Lord: “To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths, who choose the things that please me and hold fast my covenant, 5 I will give in my house and within my walls a monument and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off. 6 “And the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord, to minister to him, to love the name of the Lord, and to be his servants, everyone who keeps the Sabbath and does not profane it, and holds fast my covenant—7 these I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer; their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.” 8 The Lord God, who gathers the outcasts of Israel, declares, “I will gather yet others to him besides those already gathered.”
Had he skipped ahead and read this already? Is this why he purchased a copy of Isaiah in particular? Had he heard that this prophet actually dared to offer hope of inclusion in the family of God, and was he seeking this text out? We do not know.
Regardless, a thought had been slowly dawning in his mind, a thought that seemed almost too good to be true. The thought was this: “Maybe there is hope even for me. Maybe I too can find a place.” And then he reads Isaiah 53, about this mysterious One who came and suffered and was wounded and killed so that we might have life.
Then Philip comes. Philip comes and tells him that the One to whom Isaiah was pointing was none other than Jesus. Jesus is the one who suffered so that we could be healed. Jesus is the one who was wounded for our transgressions. Jesus is the one who experienced pain so that we could experience peace. Jesus is the one who came so that lost, broken, scarred, wounded, despised, outcast humanity could have life!
And when the eunuch hears it he asks with trembling lips: “What prevents me? What about me? Does this mean that there is hope for me? Does this mean that even I, a eunuch, can be saved?”
And Philip answers, “Do you believe? Do you trust? Do you receive this Jesus?”
And he does! The Ethiopian eunuch believes. And guess what? Nothing prevents him from coming to Christ. Nothing.
There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. (Romans 8:1)
You are not scarred beyond the point of acceptance into the Kingdom of God. There is no wound Jesus cannot heal. There is no sin Jesus cannot forgive and cover with His blood. There is no distance beyond His reach. There is no darkness too strong for His illuminating power.
You can come. You can come. We outcasts can come to Jesus!
[i] Francis Martin, ed. Acts. Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture. New Testament, vol.V. Thomas C. Oden, gen. ed. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2006), p.97. Esther Chung-Kim and Todd R. Hains, eds. Acts. Reformation Commentary on Scripture. New Testament, vol.VI. Timothy George, gen. ed. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2014), p.115.
[ii] Polhill, Acts, p.117. Robertson, Acts, p.36. Ben Witherington III, The Acts of the Apostles: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary. (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1998), p.223.
[iii] R. Kent Hughes, Acts. (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1996), p.120.
[iv] Clinton E. Arnold, “Acts.” Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary. Vol.2. Clinton E. Arnold, gen. ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2002), p.286.