The In-Between Years - Part 46

Series: The In-Between Years

August 15, 2021
Brad Shockley

Episode Notes

The In-Between Years — Part 46

By now you should know this, but just in case Acts 1:8 is what could be called a divine outline for Luke’s second volume (divine in that Jesus speaks the words recorded by Luke in this verse). Speaking to those first disciples Jesus says…

8 But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.”  Acts 1:8 (ESV)

This witness projection plan is kind of the skeleton, the frame on which Luke wrote Acts. It has three phases and each phase is clearly seen. Phase I makes up chapters 2-7 with the disciples saturating Jerusalem with the gospel. We have just entered into phase II with the now scattered disciples — and particularly Philip — taking the gospel to Judea and Samaria. That will be chapters 8-12. The ends of the earth begins in chapter 13.

Last week we watched Philip effectively witness to the Samaritans of all people. They received the good news of Jesus’ kingdom with joy. We also covered the odd story of Simon the magician. Philip isn’t finished yet, though. Today we see why Philip will eventually be eventually called Philip the Evangelist in what is probably the most preached text on faith sharing by Baptist preachers. You’ll see why.

It is incredibly appropriate and helpful to use this text for teaching and encouraging Christians to share their faith. But there is layer here that’s missed, one I hope to peel back this morning.

Let’s get started in Acts 8 verse 26…

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… Acts 8:26–27a (ESV)

Probably in a vision, an angel approached Philip and told him to head toward Gaza, the last watering hole before one entered the desert regions on the way to Egypt. “So he arose and went.” Way before Nike came up with their famous slogan, God’s people were living it out: Just do it. 

27 … 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  Acts 8:27b-c (ESV)

When Philip gets to the desert road, he finds an Ethiopian. The Ethiopia of ancient times was a large region in central eastern Africa that possibly included the area known as Ethiopia today. It was considered by the Greeks and Romans to be the outermost reaches of civilization. Interestingly, Homer, an ancient poet, referred to it as “the ends of the earth.” That will be important later in this series.

Ethiopia can be translated as “land of the burnt faces,” so we know for certain that our Ethiopian was a black man. There’s more. It says he was a “eunuch.” That’s a word many of us aren’t familiar with. Now this is a little awkward but it’s important to the story. Being a eunuch means that he had been castrated. Now why in the world would anyone do that?

JB Polhill, in his commentary on Acts, explains…

In the ancient world slaves were often castrated as boys in order to be used as keepers of the harem and the treasury. Eunuchs were found to be particularly trustworthy and loyal to their rulers. So widespread was the practice of placing them over the treasury that in time the term “eunuch” became a synonym for “treasurer” …[1]

Sure enough, we discover that this eunuch is a high ranking official in the court of Candace (a special title, not a name), queen of the Ethiopians and and he was in charge of her treasure. In today’s terms he would be a minister of finance. It wasn’t uncommon for slaves to hold high positions in the ancient world.

Luke tells us even more about our Ethiopian: he had come to Jerusalem to worship. This reveals more about him than everything else combined. He wasn’t a Jew, yet he had come to Jerusalem to worship and was on his way home, a thousand mile journey taking weeks, and that was one way!

He was what was called a God-fearer among the Jews. They were Gentiles who had great respect for the Jewish faith and attended synagogue, keeping of some of the Jewish laws, but couldn’t be a full Jew. A number of these God-fearers are mentioned in the NT, always in a positive light.

We don’t know how, but somehow he had been exposed to the Hebrew faith, a novelty among ancient religions in that they had one God. The Jews were also admired and hated for refusing to mingle with the people and cultures they lived in. And they had a code of conduct, a defined set of moral laws they lived by, that stood in stark contrast to the loose morals of cultures around them.

By all accounts this man should have been happy. He was successful, powerful, wealthy, influential even. I mean what ruler doesn’t listen to the one they trust with their purse strings? But he must have sensed a gaping hole in his soul that the religion of his people couldn’t fill, all the power and prestige couldn’t fill, so he, at great expense, took his servants and enough supplies to last the long journey and headed to the holy city of the Jews, Jerusalem, where the temple of their God was. Maybe he could find what he longed for there.

His visit would have been disheartening. He traveled all that way to worship this God he felt drawn to, only to find that he wasn’t allowed in the temple.

Gentiles could enter the outer court of the temple, so God fearers worshiped there. But because he was a eunuch, he couldn’t have even done that. Why? The OT law expressly forbid eunuchs from entering.

One commentator explains,

“All of the rules were there to get across a spiritual idea. It often was missed, but the spiritual idea was that God is holy and we are sinful and you can’t just walk in to God; you need to be cleansed. Something needs to be done about your sin. All of those rules and regulations were like object lessons to try to get that across.

But some of the rules permanently excluded people. Some people could never go in. One of the rules was no eunuch, no castrated person, could ever go in and worship God. So he went to all this trouble to be excluded. He went to all this trouble to be left on the outside.”[2]

What’s worse, ancient Jewish religious leaders had a very low view of eunuchs. Josephus, an ancient Jewish historian wrote…

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; (291) 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 a monstrous nature when it is looked on; nor is it lawful to geld man or any other animals.[3]

Let me take a bit of a rabbit trail here and acknowledge that younger generations find this revolting and understandably so. It appears to make God an incredibly cruel deity, excluding poor souls who have a physical defect through no fault of their own. I totally get that, and to be honest for a long time it bothered me too. Until I realized that God’s motives for this exclusion weren’t cruel. The temple was the place where heaven and earth met. It pointed people to the day when heaven and earth would be joined together like they were in Eden once again. When God will actually dwell on the earth. And when he does there’ll be no no sin. No pain. No handicaps. God’s exclusion from the temple of the things that wouldn’t be a part of the New Eden was a way of pointing people to his bringing all things to rights. In fact, at the end of my message I’ll show you God’s love even for eunuchs to spite the fact they couldn’t enter the temple.

In truth, though, I can only imagine what he felt like after traveling all that way, only to be rejected because of something that wasn’t even his fault. This man wasn’t deterred. He was determined to find God, so much so he didn’t let his bad experience keep him from searching. He had come to Jerusalem to worship… 

28 and was returning, seated in his chariot, and he was reading the prophet Isaiah.  Acts 8:28 (ESV)

While in Jerusalem he sought to own a copy of God’s word. Most only saw copies of the written word — our OT — in the synagogue where a Rabbi would read them aloud for folks to hear.  It was extravagant for an individual to own a copy. He bought the book of the prophet Isaiah. It was one of the most widely read and respected books at that time.

The Ethiopian wasn’t allowed to seek God in the temple so he sought him in His word. I’m reminded of what God told his people, the Israelites in Jer 29.13, but you will see is true of anyone…

13 You will seek me and find me, when you seek me with all your heart.  Jeremiah 29:13 (ESV)

If you truly seek God you will find him. Jew or Gentile. Man or woman or child. Rich or poor. You’ll see this happen again in chapter 10. While the horses trotted along in the desert heat, he sat and read aloud to his servants from the old prophet’s book.

Now this is where the story get’s interesting.

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.  Acts 8:29–31 (ESV)

The chariot is moving and Philip has must run to catch up with it. As he does he hears the Ethiopian reading from Isaiah. And then he gets it. He understands why God has sent him to the middle of the desert. He had a divine appointment with someone seeking God.

God had set it all up! This is why I tell you that God does most of the work when it comes to telling people about Jesus.

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.”  Acts 8:32–33 (ESV)

This is from Isaiah 53:7-8. Of all the OT scriptures the Ethiopian could have been reading. Isaiah 53?! Isaiah 53 is one of the most powerful, most beautiful pictures of Jesus is found in the OT, written hundreds of years before Jesus came. Look at what he was reading in context with me… 

1 Who has believed what he has heard from us? And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed? 2 For he grew up before him like a young plant, and like a root out of dry ground; he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him. 3 He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not. 4 Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. 5 But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed. 6 All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all. 7 He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he opened not his mouth. 8 By oppression and judgment he was taken away; and as for his generation, who considered that he was cut off out of the land of the living, stricken for the transgression of my people? 9 And they made his grave with the wicked and with a rich man in his death, although he had done no violence, and there was no deceit in his mouth. 10 Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him; he has put him to grief; when his soul makes an offering for guilt, he shall see his offspring; he shall prolong his days; the will of the Lord shall prosper in his hand. 11 Out of the anguish of his soul he shall see and be satisfied; by his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant, make many to be accounted righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities. 12 Therefore I will divide him a portion with the many, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong, because he poured out his soul to death and was numbered with the transgressors; yet he bore the sin of many, and makes intercession for the transgressors.  Isaiah 53:1–12 (ESV)

When you look at that text through through the lens of Jesus you see him with razor sharp clarity…

34 And the eunuch said to Philip, “About whom, I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?”  Acts 8:34 (ESV)

What? Not only did God set it all up, not only was this guy reading from Isaiah about Jesus, not only did he ask for guidance, he was already on the right track! The Spirit was already at work in the Ethiopian’s heart paving the way for the gospel to march in and change his life…

35 Then Philip opened his mouth, and beginning with this Scripture he told him the good news about Jesus.  Acts 8:35 (ESV)

I love how Luke writes, “Then Philip opened his mouth…” Theres an old saying, “Preach the gospel, if necessary, use words.” That’s a great sentiment because what we do preaches a powerful sermon, but at some point we have to open our mouths and do what Philip did. Tell the good news about Jesus.

If we get anything out of this account we get a glimpse of just how far God will go to meet someone who seeks Him. We also observe the role of the Spirit, the Helper sent in Jesus’ place who leads and guides us in sharing the Good News.

And we also learn that the good news of Jesus is for everybody, no matter the color of your skin, or how much money is in your bank or account, or if you’re a religious moral person, or a prostitute and outcast. All barriers are broken down in the gospel.

There’s more to the story. Luke lets us see the gospel take root and bear fruit in our dark-skinned friend’s life…

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?”  Acts 8:36 (ESV)

Philip must have explained to him that getting baptized was the sign for identifying with Christ. He most have told him about Jesus himself being baptized and what Jesus said in the great commission…

19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”  Matthew 28:19–20 (ESV)

It’s interesting to note the Ethiopian initiated the baptism and not Philip. Unfortunately some of our brothers and sisters in the faith have taken a few verses, mostly out of Acts, and used them to make baptism the hinge on which your salvation swings. If you aren’t baptized, you aren’t saved. If that’s the case, Philip would have been the one initiating baptism, saying, “We gotta get you in the water so God can finish saving you!”

The hinge of salvation swings on what you’ve done with Jesus, not what you’ve done in a creek or baptistery.

NOTE: verse 37 is missing in some translations: “And Philip said, If you believe with all your heart, you may.” And he replied, I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.”

 We’ve encountered things like this before. Our earliest manuscripts omit this, but somewhere along the way, a copyist added clarity in the margins and it ended up getting put in.

The fact that the Ethiopian wanted to be baptized was evidence he got it. He believed in and received Jesus.

Note that he asked, “What prevents me from being baptized?” We can totally understand why he asked that. At the temple he’d been turned away, prevented from entering under the old covenant, but under the new covenant in Jesus, all those who call on the name of the Lord will be saved. Under the new covenant its whosoever will may enter in. Under the new covenant God’s spirit no longer dwells in temples made with hands; we become His temples! Get this…

The man who was turned away from God’s temple in Jerusalem became God’s temple in the desert… 

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.  Acts 8:38–40 (ESV)

Remember, they were at the last watering hole before entering a desert region. People were there because it was a well traveled route. In front of everyone he was baptized and went on his way rejoicing. This dear man from the land of burnt faces had finally found what his soul ached for. And it was worth more than his office, his wealth, his power.

Legend has it our Ethiopian brother went on to become an evangelist in his home country.

Conclusion: I believe the Ethiopian picked the scroll of Isaiah back up along the way and kept reading on from chapter 53, and as he did he discovered a little present the Spirit had left for him…

3 “Don’t let foreigners who commit themselves to the Lord say, ‘The Lord will never let me be part of his people.’ And don’t let the eunuchs say, ‘I’m a dried-up tree with no children and no future.’ 4 For this is what the Lord says: I will bless those eunuchs who keep my Sabbath days holy and who choose to do what pleases me and commit their lives to me. 5 I will give them—within the walls of my house— a memorial and a name far greater than sons and daughters could give. For the name I give them is an everlasting one. It will never disappear!  Isaiah 56:3–5 (NLT)

I’ll close with a little NT Wright…

Luke has many more things to tell us about how the early church developed and grew, not least how it read the scriptures. But he plants this story at the heart of the moment when the gospel is starting to go out into the wider world, to make it abundantly clear that wherever you go, whatever culture you come to, whatever situation of human need, sin, exclusion or oppression you may find, the message of Jesus as the one in whom all the promises of God find their ‘Yes!’ (2 Corinthians 1:20) is there to meet that need. And, among all the promises, the promise of the Servant, through whose death the power of evil has been broken and its punishment exhausted, stands supreme, whether you are on a lonely road through the Gaza desert… or on your knees in the privacy of your room.[4]

The promise is true…

13 For “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”  Romans 10:13 (ESV)

[1] Polhill, J. B. (1992). Acts (Vol. 26, pp. 223–224). Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers.

[2] Keller, T. J. (2013). The Timothy Keller Sermon Archive, 2012-2013. New York: Redeemer Presbyterian Church.

[3] Josephus, F., & Whiston, W. (1987). The works of Josephus: complete and unabridged. Peabody: Hendrickson.

[4] Wright, T. (2008). Acts for Everyone, Part 1: Chapters 1-12 (p. 136). London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge

Content Copyright Belongs to Pleasant View First Baptist Church