The Conversion of the Ethiopian Eunuch
Acts 8 : 26 - 40
Hum drum Bible, some may say! Not much to interest me! Boring. Boring. Nothing to get excited about. Not if you read this part of Acts. It is full of meaning and power, fascination and divine revelation.
Philip himself must have told this story to Luke. It is reasonable to accept that Philip was the primary historical source. Immediately however we are arrested by the supernatural, the direct connection between human life and the life of the risen Jesus Christ. An angel of the Lord spoke to Philip. Note that this was not just any angel for there were thought to be many. This was an angel of the Lord ie., of the Lord Jesus Christ - who directed Philip to travel down the Jerusalem - Gaza Road. This led via Bethlehem and joined the main road to Egypt south of Gaza. Half the world used this road at that time. It was like the M1. We are not told exactly where this meeting took place. There were no motorway services in those days. But it was not a chance meeting. Philip met an Ethiopian eunuch as, we are told, he was travelling in his chariot and was reading.
A eunuch was a male who may have been castrated, was impotent, voluntarily celibate or otherwise not inclined to marry and procreate. Eunuchs were not practising homosexuals. They had a variety of roles in ancient society as courtiers or equivalent domestics, treble singers, religious specialists, government officials and guardians of women or harem servants. They were made into reliable servants of royal courts.
Eunuchs did not generally have loyalties to the military, the aristocracy, nor to a family of their own (having neither offspring nor in-laws, at the very least), and were thus seen as more trustworthy. They could also be
easily replaced or killed without repercussion.
Jesus spoke of three types of singleness in men in Mathew 19:12. There were, he said, 'those born without reproductive drive, those made so by physical means and spiritual celibates'. We do not know for sure which of these categories the Ethiopian eunuch may have belonged to.
This man had achieved a position of trust, power and influence probably because of ability and integrity. He was the equivalent of our Chancellor of the Exchequer. Candace is not a queen’s name but a title like ‘Her Majesty’. The Holy Spirit told Philip to walk beside the chariot. The eunuch had been to Jerusalem to worship. At that time there were many people who were weary of idol worship, polytheism and the sex saturated temples and cults that were part of religion. They turned to Judaism with its One Living God and its high ethical standards which gave honour and meaning and direction to life. If they remained as interested synagogue attending outsiders they were called God-fearers. Astonishingly in Scotland to this day especially in the highlands there are such God-fearers who attend church but never actually become members. Some however in the ancient world became full membership proselyte Jews, men being circumcised and adopting the full code of the Law and customs of Judaism. There were Jewish settlements throughout the whole ancient world. There as nothing unusual about someone from far away being familiar with Judaism. We know which of the two categories this eunuch belonged to - the God-fearers. The text does not tell us this. We know that Judaism prevented eunuchs from becoming full Jews (Deut 23:1).
Philip caught up with the chariot. The Ethiopian was reading aloud from Isaiah 53 about the Suffering Messiah. Not missing an evangelical opening Philip asked him Do you understand what you are reading? ‘Haven’t a clue’, the Ethiopian replied, ‘I need help - come and sit with me and explain’. It is fascinating that he asked Philip a question that scholars still ask today. 'Who is the prophet talking about, himself or someone else?' It was not hard for Philip to relate Isaiah 53 directly to Jesus and what had happened to Him and what had happened since His resurrection. The Good News was that anyone could be accepted by God through Jesus Christ.
This man was barred from fully practising Judaism. There was something else. He was black. Thus two taboos were shattered. Christianity accepted him as he was, physical condition and race. I become very frustrated when Christians and Christianity are described in today’s media as bigoted. Christianity is a universal and inclusive living faith. But that does not mean that anyone can live as they please. The Ethiopian already lived as a good Jew and respected and kept the Law. As a Christian, he was free from making the Law his route to salvation, but he was expected to live and even better and more blessed life, indwelt by the Holy Spirit.
The Ethiopian was coloured. We have lived through terrible times in which coloured people, black people have been discriminated against and even persecuted. Britain’s history is stained with participation in the slave trade. It was a devout evangelical Christian William Wilberforce who saw to the end of it as late as 1832, but negative attitudes to black people continued particularly in America and in South Africa.
The first black African slave arrived in America as early as 1619. We know that more than 200 years later Abraham Lincoln advocated the abolition of slavery. Passed by Congress on January 31, 1865, and ratified on December 6, 1865, the 13th amendment to the Constitution abolished slavery in the United States and provides that 'Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.' But President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated on 11th April 1865.
In America in 1960, when the civil rights movement first began to gain national attention, African Americans had been working to gain political and economic rights for nearly a century. Blacks had made some progress, but the laws that many southern state legislatures had written to prevent blacks and whites from living as equals continued to separate the races in restaurants, schools, theatres, parks, and other public facilities in many states in the South. Those blacks who had migrated to northern and western states in an attempt to escape the legal restrictions found that life in these new locations had similar restrictions because of customs based on racial prejudice, or a judgement or opinion based on a preconceived notions about race. Blacks in the North and West faced discrimination, or poor treatment based on race, in housing and the job market, among other areas. Police and citizens alike enforced the separation of races vigorously. Blacks who tried to mix with whites were arrested, beaten, or killed. Penalties for violence were rarely enforced when the crimes were acted out against blacks.
You are familiar with the doctrine of apartheid. Racial segregation in South Africa began in colonial times under Dutch and British rule. However, apartheid as an official policy was introduced following the general election of 1948. New legislation classified inhabitants into four racial groups ('native', 'white', 'coloured', and 'Asian'), and residential areas were segregated, sometimes by means of forced removals. Non-white political representation was completely abolished in 1970, and starting in that year black people were deprived of their citizenship, legally becoming citizens of one of ten tribally based self-governing homelands called bantustans, four of which became nominally independent states. The government segregated education, medical care, beaches, and other public services, and provided black people with services inferior to those of white people.
Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu were the mainspring agents for freedom and respect for black people. The New Testament has no racism. Christianity made no difference based on colour.
The story continues. They passed by a well, or a pool or a river. We know that the middle east has permanent shortage of water. They might have travelled for days without such an occurrence. The eunuch saw the act of providence clearly. He was meant to be baptised as a Christian there and then. One of the things the Bible is not good at is giving us the exact timing of happenings. We don’t know how long Philip talked with the Ethiopian. It could have been a day or even more. It may have been a few hours. They may have reached a regulated stopping place where animals and humans could be refreshed.
The Ethiopian was baptised by full immersion in the Name of the Father the Son and the Holy Spirit. For him, it must have been an extraordinary and fulfilling moment. He was a convinced and convicted Christian from then on. No doubt he returned home to share the Christian Gospel with everyone he encountered. His was an instantaneous conversion and for the rest of his life he had a story to tell.
There is an abrupt end to this episode. Philip said his good-byes, shook hands, and went his way - his task completed - that was why he had been sent to that particular spot - that was why he was there. Now he had other evangelistic opportunities to take up. The text says the eunuch did not see him again but went on his way rejoicing. You do not rejoice unless you are filled with the Holy Spirit. You can’t fake it. The presence of the Holy Spirit makes you rejoice and this is - as Paul put it - God’s deposit to you - for His full salvation.
Christianity flourished and survived in Ethiopia and still does. When Meseret Defar won the women’s 5000 metres at the London Olympics, she signed herself with the cross three times. That is not to say that Christians have not been persecuted in Ethiopia. They have from time to time. But they hold to an unbroken tradition of Christian Faith and are entitled to trace it from these pages of the Book of Acts. St. John Chrysostom (347 - 407 AD), Archbishop of Constantinople, mentions that the Ethiopians were present in the Holy City on the day of Pentecost in one of his Pentecost sermons.
The passage ends by telling us that Philip next appeared in the city of Azotus near the coast of Judea and parallel to Jerusalem and preached everywhere probably including Lydda and Joppa right up to Caesarea on the coast, 79 miles form Jerusalem itself.
It is a breathtaking episode at the birth of Christianity. There was no violence and no coercion; there was no first or second class; there was no black or white; there was expansionist Christianity sweeping across the middle east in the power of the Holy Spirit. We sing hymns about the Holy Spirit sweeping moving in this place and sweeping across the land and we cannot deny that God is working in our lives. But we’d all love to see the Holy Spirit move as in those far off days. Maybe it will happen again if we pray enough.