Pursuing Answers to Questions of Faith & Life

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Philip and the Ethiopian - Acts 8:26-40

My family and I have been reading through Acts.  We just made it to 8:26-40 and the familiar story of the Ethiopian eunuch.  In my experience growing up in church, I typically heard this passage preached in regards to the need to be able to share the Gospel at any time with anyone, even if there is a racial barrier.  Given our country’s racial history, this is an important lesson—Jesus is not just for my race, but for all races—people from every nation, tribe and tongue will be before the throne of the King.

We should not limit Gospel opportunities to people of our own race.  Nor should we limit Gospel opportunities just to people we know or are comfortable with.  God led Philip to a total stranger.  He listened and observed and when the door opened, he stepped through it, trusting God to guide his words.  The words the Eunuch was reading, Isaiah 53, is one of the most prophetic and messianic passages in the Old Testament but Philip still had to have the knowledge and courage to start with those Scriptures and lead someone to Christ.

But something else struck us in reading this passage.  When the Eunuch asks, “Why shouldn’t I be baptized?”, he and Philip were not talking about race or a racial barrier.  They were talking about the man being a eunuch.

Ethiopia had a significant Jewish population from the days of the Exile, highlighted particularly by the flight of Jews who took Jeremiah with them into Africa.  To this day there is a significant Jewish population in that area and they maintain an entrenched tradition regarding the Ark of the Covenant replete with many replicas.

It’s likely that this man was either born a Jew or was a convert to Judaism.  He had made a long pilgrimage to Jerusalem to worship.  But when he got there, the doors would have been closed to him.  He would not have had access to the Temple because of the injury done to him in making him a eunuch.

Deuteronomy 23:1 is a graphic verse which prohibits anyone with his type of condition from entering in the Assembly of the people.  He was cut off physically, and that cut him off spiritually.  He was not allowed to worship in Jerusalem, not allowed to offer sacrifices, not allowed to enter into the courts of the Temple.  He was excluded from full participation and citizenship in the Assembly of the people.

Imagine his disappointment after traveling all that way. 

This is worse than a rain out at a baseball game.  Worse than coming home to the house burned down.  Worse than your honeymoon flight to Hawaii being cancelled.  Worse than making a trip to the Statue of Liberty only to have it closed for repairs.

He was denied access to God.  It wasn’t that it was closed, or rained out or shut down for maintenance.  He was stopped at the door while everyone else was walking right in and worshiping.

It wasn’t his race that stopped him; it was the fact that he was a eunuch. 

What happened to this man was probably forced upon him and yet he was denied access to God.   

This was not a moral issue, this was an injury.  

 Sadly, to the Temple establishment, it didn’t matter how far he had come to worship.

He was on his way home: disappointed, confused, frustrated. 

He was wealthy enough to have brought or bought a copy of Isaiah, but it’s unlikely anyone would have helped him, anyone would have answered his questions

And then along came Philip. 

Philip had been in Samaria—a city maybe 30 miles north of Jerusalem.  God told Philip to get on the road that goes south from Jerusalem.  So he knew that God had something for him to do on this trip.  The amazing thing is that God would have told Philip to start his journey a couple of days before the Ethiopian was even ready to leave Jerusalem—there’s no mention of miraculous transportation like happened later. 

Philip would have made this trip looking for God’s opportunity.  Then he heard the voice of God saying to go near this wealthy man’s chariot.
Reading into it a little bit, the text mentions the man’s wealth.  But so far, Acts reminds people that the believers were willing to give away everything.  So I’m guessing that Philip did not have clothes to match the status of this man.  And he came running up to the chariot which likely had a number of servants and animals in a traveling group, for a wealthy man would not travel alone and he couldn’t be reading the scroll and driving the chariot at the same time.  Not to mention that the whole scroll of Isaiah was likely a very expensive item.

Here’s an example of what the scroll looks like and a museum housing a whole copy.  

The first picture below may give you a sense of what it could look like.  The second is an actual picture of the Isaiah scroll from the Dead Sea Scrolls.  It is about 24 feet long.

Now what do you think their first thought would be to Philip running up to them?
·         Was he a beggar, asking for food or money?
·         Was he the first wave of robbers that they have to defend against?  A distraction?
·         Was he going to treat their master with contempt if the stranger finds out he is a eunuch?
·         In other words, is this guy going to be a problem?

And yet God sent Philip, not to beg but to be a blessing.  The physically poor was going to give to the wealthy.

This tells me something about the heart of God.  The Ethiopian may have left Jerusalem disappointed, and cut of from God, but God wanted to make sure they “met together”.  God wanted to restore this man and men like him—to once again tear down the wall, the veil that kept people separate from him.

Philip obeyed and ran to the chariot—he was allowed to approach or at least get within earshot.   

Maybe the Eunuch wondered how long it would take before the stranger asked for a handout.   

Instead, Philip did the unexpected because God had prepared the opportunity.

He could hear the Ethiopian reading from Isaiah.  And not just any part of Isaiah… chapter 53.  I have my own experience with this chapter.  It is a powerful and prophetic chapter on the suffering & sacrifice of the Messiah.

Instead of asking for something, Philip offered something.  Instead of taking or receiving, Philip gave and blessed.  Philip may have been poor materially, but he was wealthy spiritually.  He was exemplifying Peter’s words to a paralyzed man—“I don’t have any silver or gold, but what I do have, I give to you…”

Philip had the Truth.  Philip had faith in the Messiah.  Philip had the Holy Spirit empowering him.   

And he faithfully gave.

“Do you understand what you are reading?” Philip asked.

“How can I,” he said, “unless someone explains it to me?”

I hope that each one of us, if presented with an opportunity like this, we would not hesitate to speak.  I love what comes next in describing Philips actions—vs. 35—“Then Philip began with that very passage of Scripture and told him the good news about Jesus.”

Philip was invited closer, to sit and speak with this man.  Philip followed the leading of the Spirit, showed an interest in him, spoke up when the door of opportunity opened, and started right where the man was and pointed him to Christ.

This with a man who was likely very disillusioned.  Somehow, in the course of their conversation, the man was asked, “Look, here is water.  Why shouldn’t I be baptized?”

This is the man asking about the fine print.  He’s asking if there’s any catch to this Jesus.  He’s asking if there’s something about him or his body that prevents him from fully participating in the Way of being a disciple of Jesus.

If you’ve ever wondered what it was about Philip’s conversation that moved this man to want to go from Judaism to Jesus, this question of the Eunuch’s is the answer.

The answer was No.  There was nothing that hinders him from full participation in the faith.  Philip showed him from Scripture that the Messiah makes a man such as him whole and includes him in the Temple.  The ministry and promise of the Messiah includes him and does not denigrate him.

·         Isaiah 56:3-8--Let not the foreigner who has joined himself to the LORD say,
“The LORD will surely separate me from His people.”
Nor let the eunuch say, “Behold, I am a dry tree.”
4For thus says the LORD,
“To the eunuchs who keep My sabbaths,
And choose what pleases Me,
And hold fast My covenant,
5To them I will give in My house and within My walls a memorial,
And a name better than that of sons and daughters;
I will give them an everlasting name which will not be cut off.
6“Also the foreigners who join themselves to the LORD,
To minister to Him, and to love the name of the LORD,
To be His servants, every one who keeps from profaning the Sabbath
And holds fast My covenant;
7Even those I will bring to My holy mountain
And make them joyful in My house of prayer.
Their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be acceptable on My altar;
For My house will be called a house of prayer for all the peoples.”
8The Lord GOD, who gathers the dispersed of Israel, declares,
“Yet others I will gather to them, to those already gathered.”

Just a couple of chapters from the verse they started with is the answer and hope to the eunuch’s 
frustration and exclusion.

  • God through Messiah will escort men like him into the Temple—God’s own house
  • God through Messiah will give men like him a Memorial - history with the people
  • God through Messiah will give men like him, a family name and essentially adopt him as an heir that cannot be removed.
  • God through Messiah will give men like him, a foreigner a role of purpose and significance
  • God through Messiah will accept his offerings and sacrifices
  • God through Messiah will hear his prayer

This is exactly what the Eunuch was hoping for in the first place and he jumps at the opportunity to be included in what Jesus is doing.  He is excited, he is included, he is wanted.

Jesus will take this man, formerly excluded, and draw him near and make him a citizen.  As foreigners and eunuchs were treated much the same—what Philip explains to him mirrors Ephesians 2:11-13
“Therefore, remember that formerly you who are Gentiles by birth and called ‘uncircumcised’ by those who call themselves ‘the circumcision’ (that done in the body by the hands of men)—remember that at that time you were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world.  But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near through the blood of Christ.”

Vs. 18 says that “For through Him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit.”

Ephesians 3:12—“In Him and through faith in Him we may approach God with freedom and confidence.”

Hebrews 4:16—“Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.”

“Is there some reason why I can’t be baptized?”  Is there anything excluding me?  Is there any fine print I need to know about so I don’t waste my time again?

No there is no reason.  Nothing is stopping you from coming to Jesus.  You can approach the throne of Grace with confidence because you are accepted on the basis of the Blood of Christ.

The only thing stopping this man at this point was not believing the message.  I suspect he was concerned that this was too good to be true.  The same thing that stops any man or woman is our own unwillingness. 

Unwillingness to turn from your sin and turn to Jesus—this is called repentance.  It requires agreeing with God that what He calls sin is your sin—not excusing it, not trying to get off on a technicality, not saying the Bible is wrong or outdated. 

I’m not saying you instantly become perfect or no longer struggle with sin, but you are agreeing that there is something wrong, that something does need to change.  No matter what that sin is, Jesus will welcome you close and promise to cover your sin with His blood shed on the Cross.  He will say, “Go and sin no more” then empower you to overcome the temptation.

Everyone meets and comes to Jesus this way.  The first thing He will deal with is admitting our need for Him and His forgiveness.  That means agreeing with Him and His judgment on your sin—then moving forward in a new life with Him.

We are all born with a sin problem.  It may manifest as a different struggle for you than for me but both of us must start our walk with Christ with the repentant heart—I’m wrong, my sin is wrong—help me overcome my sin by the power of the Holy Spirit. 

Over time, your understanding of what sin is will grow and change as you spend time worshipping God through the reading and hearing from the Word of God.  By that I mean, you’ll come to learn that some things you never thought of, some things that you excused, that other people or your culture said was OK, really are not compatible with a walk with Jesus.  Don’t ignore this voice.

This Eunuch was seeing the barrier that excluded him come crashing down in the love of Christ. 

As a result, he stopped everything. 

He stopped his chariot and everyone traveling with him.  He didn’t waste any time committing himself to this new access to God in which even he was acceptable.  His baptism was his crossing over from death to life, accepting the proposal from the bridegroom and identifying himself with the family of God.

That was the greatest miracle this day.  A new creation took place in front of everyone.  A man’s eternal destiny was changed.  It is my conviction that this is a greater miracle than the miraculous disappearance of Philip.

I believe the Eunuch would agree.  My evidence?  The man went away rejoicing, not because Philip disappeared but because he found new life in Christ.  In this moment, his life, and possibly the life of his home nation, was forever changed as he carried home this new hope of access to God.

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