At the end of the story about Stephen, one of the most dominant characters of the New Testament makes his entrance. We are introduced to a man named Saul, who stands and holds the cloaks of the accusers while he oversees and approves the execution. While we will talk much more about Saul in the time to come, the next thing we see is this early church being persecuted and scattered throughout the land. At the beginning of Acts 8, we are told Saul continues to be one of the leaders of this persecution.
Nevertheless, it is the very next paragraph that assures the reader God’s redemptive plan for the world goes on unhindered. They continue to bring shalom to chaos and healing to brokenness. While the church gets pushed to different corners of the empire, Philip ends up in Samaria; he preaches to those in Samaria and the Kingdom of God advances explosively, just as Jesus taught them.
There is a sorcerer there who latches onto Philip and begins to follow him. When the church hears the news that people in Samaria are jumping in on God’s redemptive plan for the world, they excitedly send Peter and John to investigate. When Simon (the former sorcerer) sees them casting out evil spirits, his old self can’t help but want a piece of the action. But this early movement is not interested in cheap thrills, spiritual gimmicks, or economic advancement. They are wanting to grow deep roots and they exhort Simon accordingly.
I find the next story so inspiring to my walk as a Jesus follower. Continuing to follow the prompting of the Spirit, Philip heads down the road that runs from Jerusalem to Gaza. There he meets an Ethiopian eunuch who has traveled to Jerusalem to worship the God of Israel. It’s at this point where most of us might appreciate some context.
This Ethiopian eunuch is the treasurer for the Queen of Ethiopia; he’s an important guy.
He is on his way back from worshipping the God of Israel. We are not told he is a Jew, though it’s possible he might be. (I personally find it unlikely that Luke would leave such a detail out of his account.)
Even if he is a Jew, as a eunuch he will not be allowed to worship Adonai and would have been excluded from the assembly; he would have been forced to worship God as an outsider. The book of Deuteronomy explicitly excluded those with damaged (or altered) genitalia from entering the assembly of worship (cf. Deut. 23:1).
The guy is carrying around a scroll of Isaiah — this is unheard of. You may remember us talking about how an entire village would only have a few scrolls for the entire town of hundreds or thousands. The fact that this guy is carrying around Isaiah tells you he is obviously of incredible wealth (which is expected as the treasurer for Candace) and takes his Bible study very seriously. He knows everything we mentioned above — and he went to worship the God of Israel anyway. He is coming back from Jerusalem where he stood in the court of the Gentiles and caught glimpses of the House of God.
This outsider is content with what he is able to receive from God. And he’s serious about his Text.
Now, back to our story. Philip sees he is reading Isaiah and asks him if he understands what he is studying. Like a typical middle-easterner, the man responds with, “Who could understand by studying these words by themselves? How could I understand it without your help?”
I imagine, sensing this is the reason God had him on this road, Philip climbs into the chariot and begins to expound on the message of Isaiah. The passage tells us the eunuch is studying Isaiah 53. Being a holiday reading, it would make perfect sense for the eunuch to read this on his way to the Temple for worship and possibly still be thinking on it and studying it on his way back. This is the prescribed reading for his trip. Every Jew would be reading these words on that day.
But now watch what Philip does because HE KNOWS HIS TEXT.
What the passage says directly is that Philip tells the eunuch about Jesus, starting in Isaiah 53 (and the assumption is that he continues reading). You don’t suppose he got through the next few chapters, do you? Isaiah 56:
Thus says the Lord:
“Keep justice, and do righteousness,
for soon my salvation will come,
and my righteousness be revealed.
Blessed is the man who does this,
and the son of man who holds it fast,
who keeps the Sabbath, not profaning it,
and keeps his hand from doing any evil.”
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.”
For thus says the Lord:
“To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths,
who choose the things that please me
and hold fast my covenant,
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.”
No, that would be crazy if Philip went to THAT passage! Crazy brilliant.
But now wait. We need to look at the question the eunuch asked and Philip is answering, because I think therein lies the lesson. The eunuch had asked him: “Is this passage [Isaiah 53] talking about the prophet or someone else?”
You might remember that we talked about this entire ending to Isaiah as being a call for Israel to be God’s servant. Because they suffer, they will be building the future. For the historical readers of Isaiah, this is not a “messianic” prophecy. This is an exhortation to suffer for the LORD. My point is that the eunuch’s question has nothing to do with the Messiah.
His question is about himself.
His question is this: “Does this exhortation belong only to the prophet and the people of God? Does it apply to outsiders like me?”
And Philip explains to him, using Isaiah (possibly chapter 56), that in Jesus, this good news and call from God is for ALL PEOPLE. While he may be excluded from the assembly of worshippers at the Temple, he is not excluded from the community of God and the invitation to partner with Him in putting the world back together.
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?” And he commanded the chariot to stop, and they both went down into the water, Philip and the eunuch, and he baptized him.