Evangelism, Ethiopians and Eunuchs: A Sermon on Acts 8:26-40

So we are still in the book of Acts, we’ve been here since October and we are only still in chapter eight. As we go through Acts we are starting to see the story unfold in a way where the good news is moving from Judea, to Samaria to the ends of the earth. Last week we read the story of Philip going to Samaria and how he was received there, we also got the side story of Simon the magician and how he responded to the good news. Now we are moving along. John and Peter have come, checked in on the new Christians in Samaria and everything seems to be going well, and now they are heading back to Jerusalem, and along the way they are embodying the good news. So then Luke keeps following Philip a bit longer.

Now an angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Go south to the road-the desert road-that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” So he started out, and on his way he met an Ethiopian eunuch, an important official in charge of all the treasury of the Kandake (which means “queen of the Ethiopians”). This man had gone to Jerusalem to worship, and on his way home was sitting in his chariot reading the Book of Isaiah the prophet.

The story begins with Philip getting some instructions from an angel. He is told to go south, down a desert road. Now Gaza was destroyed over a hundred years earlier. So this is a strange direction for him to head, but he does it anyway. So on his way, he didn’t even make it to the road, he runs into an unlikely character. This is probably one of the more interesting characters we will run into in Acts. He is a wealthy Ethiopian eunuch. We can assume right away that because he is Ethiopian, that he is black. Luke’s audience would be fascinated with this Ethiopian. It is a culture that they don’t know very well and that brings a sense of awe when they think of them. Why? Well, the odyssey speaks of the “far-off Ethiopians…the furthermost of men.” Ethiopians are people from an exotic land, the edge of the world. They are people that are from the very ends of the earth. Does this kind of description remind you of anything? Remember, last week, we talked about how Jesus’ words are creating a structure for Luke to tell his story. He is showing Jesus’ words come true.

But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.

We are here now. The ends of the earth. You can almost taste the story going in this direction now. And to top it all off, this guy wasn’t just from the ends of the earth. He was also a eunuch. This means his private parts had been cut off. Why is this important? Well Judaism had a specific view on eunuchs, and a lot of it was inspired by a verse in Deuteronomy 23.

No one who has been emasculated by crushing or cutting may enter the assembly of the LORD.

So not only did this guy represent people that were at the ends of the earth and all the types of people that they couldn’t even comprehend. He also represents the very people that have been ostracized and kept away from God because of their very identity. Not only would they have been kept out of the temple, but they also couldn’t participate in the very tradition that made someone a Jew, a follower of God. Anyone think of what that is? That’s right. Circumcision. You can’t get circumcised if there is nothing to circumcise. And to top it all off, this guy was powerful. He was an important official in charge of money for the Queen of Ethopia. So here we have a powerful guy from the ends of the earth, who under any normal circumstances could not be part of the people of God. Then, if who he was wasn’t weird enough, what he was doing was even stranger. He was coming back from Jerusalem where he was worshipping. So we know he wouldn’t have worshiped like the Jews would have had normally, because he wouldn’t have been allowed into the temple. He may have been allowed in the outer courts where the Gentiles were. But that’s about it. And he was reading the Book of Isaiah the prophet. So again it’s emphasized that he is wealthy because he can read.

So this is probably the strangest of strange characters that we could be running into right now. But really it all fits perfectly into where we know this story is going. Luke has set it up beautifully. He shows us literally the most unlikely of characters to show up on the road at this time reading from Isaiah. So as we read, keep in mind all the qualities about him.

The Spirit told Philip, “Go to that chariot and stay near it.”
Then Philip ran up to the chariot and heard the man reading Isaiah the prophet. “Do you understand what you are reading?” Philip asked.
“How can I,” he said, “unless someone explains it to me?” So he invited Philip to come up and sit with him.
This is the passage of Scripture the eunuch was reading:
“He was led like a sheep to the slaughter,
and as a lamb before its shearer is silent,
so he did not open his mouth.
In his humiliation he was deprived of justice.
Who can speak of his descendants?
For his life was taken from the earth.”
The eunuch asked Philip, “Tell me, please, who is the prophet talking about, himself or someone else?” Then Philip began with that very passage of Scripture and told him the good news about Jesus.

So we have prodding again here telling Philip what to do and where to go. Philip runs to the chariot. I like that. He runs. He hears the eunuch reading. This means of course that he was reading out loud, like you would back in these days. And we find out exactly what he is reading. It’s Isaiah 53 and he needed help understanding what he was reading. The eunuch already had an understanding of the Jewish story of God and his people but he didn’t understand what this was about. This gives us a brief look into how people would have been reading the prophets at this time. They would have read Isaiah very differently that we read it now. You see we read Isaiah as a book of prophecy, a book that was telling the Jews that their messiah was coming and was going to save the world. We don’t understand most of it still, but we see it as this book of weird poetry that is pointing to Jesus. Rather people in this time didn’t read it exactly like that. N.T. Wright puts it like this.

“Rather, he was meditating deeply on the fate of Israel in exile, and on the promises and purposes of God which remained constant despite Israel’s failure to be the light to the nations, or even to walk in the light herself. Gradually a picture took shape in his praying, meditating mind: the figure of a Servant, one who would complete Israel’s task, who would come to where Israel was, to do for Israel and the whole world what neither could do for themselves, to bear in his own body the shame and reproach for the nations and of God’s people, and to die under the weight of the world’s wickedness. Only so, he perceived, could the promises be fulfilled. Isaiah was writing a kind of job description: This is what we want! A Servant who will accomplish God’s will, and rescue Israel and the world!”

– N.T. Wright.

The eunuch by reading Isaiah was entering into this narrative and desiring the same things. He thought, maybe that Isaiah was that prophet, or maybe that this prophet had already come? So who is he talking about? Philip has this wonderful opportunity to use the exact passage that he was reading to show him how the longings of Israel find their fulfillment in the story of Jesus. So he tells them the good news.

I wonder if this is weird for us to hear stories like this? Do we even have stories anymore of people like this? Can we translate this into our context at all anymore? I’m not sure if we can. After all, how often is it the case that we run into someone asking questions about the fulfillment they are asking for, and we know the answer is Jesus, does that even happen anymore?

Q: Do you have a story where this was the case for you? Where you were able to tell the good news of Jesus to someone who was already seeking?

As they traveled along the road, they came to some water and the eunuch said, “Look, here is water. What can stand in the way of my being baptized?” And he gave orders to stop the chariot. Then both Philip and the eunuch went down into the water and Philip baptized him. When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord suddenly took Philip away, and the eunuch did not see him again, but went on his way rejoicing. Philip, however, appeared at Azotus and traveled about, preaching the gospel in all the towns until he reached Caesarea.

This is an interesting moment in this story. Remember that as a eunuch, the ritual to become part of the Jewish faith was impossible for him, there was all sorts of things that came in the way of him belonging to the family of God. So when he starts to hear the story of Jesus and he sees some water, he jumps at the opportunity. What could possibly stop him? No wonder he was so excited. Joining into a faith that he once was excluded from he is now embraced with open arms. No wonder he was so excited. Imagine feeling like your purpose was tied up into a religion or a life that you could never actually be part of.

All right, so this is the end of this story. The story is short, so I wanted to go through the story and at least lay out for you some basic things so that we can understand the context better and what is happening. Generally when speaking about a passage, I have a dozen books that I go through to better understand what is happening. All of them pointed to the greater story in which this story is a part and how it symbolizes something greater. However, this week, some of the readings I found online pointed towards the idea that this passage is a great lesson in evangelism. So I thought we would spend some time in the idea of evangelism this morning, if this story has anything helpful to add to out thoughts on it and where to go from there. I started getting the idea that some people use this verse or section of verses to teach about how to evangelise to people. Which got me thinking more about this story a bit more and what is happening here.

I think one of the key characteristics about this story is a lesson in evangelism, but probably not the way we would expect. Constantly what this story seems to point out and allude to is how God is prodding Philip to do one thing after another. Philip only asks one question in the entire story, and God is telling him everything else. Where to go, when to go, what to do. It is the angel that tells him to go down that road, then he is told to go to the carriage. It is almost as if Luke needs to continually remind us that it isn’t Philip here that is causing all this to happen, but it is God. God’s plan is going forward whether Philip likes it or not, and Philip is given the opportunity to join in.

This is where I struggle quite a bit with understanding my upbringing, reading the scriptures and now how I see the world. You see. Sometimes I start to think evangelism is this weird made up thing that Christians have done to somehow motivate them to do the right thing or care about people. It is this forced habit that you just have to talk to people about the “Lord” and make sure that they get saved so that they don’t go to hell.

How this story talks about evangelism is God needing to get this good news out to the whole world and so he starts spreading it and using people that want to join in on the fun to do it.

How we see evangelism now is that all our friends are going to go to hell unless we tell them to say a prayer and accept Jesus into their hearts.

Lately I wonder if evangelism starts to look different as time goes on from Acts and as we start to understand our faith differently. We don’t live in a world now where evangelism like Philip and the Ethiopian went through is a normal occurrence, or even close to that experience. Besides, Luke was trying to show us something by placing that story in that time. So to use this as a step by step evangelism tool, might not be the wisest way to look at this story. But people do it anyway. I found this article entitled Lesson in Personal Evangelism: Philip and the Ethiopian in Acts 8, and it gives us four steps to successful personal evangelism. 1. Listen to the Holy Spirit, 2. Move out of your Comfort Zone, 3. Be prepared to evangelize, 4. Positive Results. The desire to see this as lessons in evangelism is there, but I think they might be taking out the wrong lessons. For the last year or so, almost every Friday night, there is a few people that setup on the corner less than a block away to “evangelise.” They yell about God’s judgment and wrath and where the world is going if they don’t repent and follow Jesus. He hands out tracts, argues people on the street and he is relentless in his desire to save the masses. And somehow, hearing stories about salvation, and stories like this, gives them the drive they need to go on the streets and make converts. But I’m not sure if it is about evangelism, I’m not even sure many of us, if any, “evangelize” in the regular sense of the word anymore.

Q: Is this story a story of evangelism? Do you evangelize? Why? Why not?

So if this is a lesson,I wonder what that teaches us about it? I’d like to suggest that maybe we think along the lines of this parable in Mark

He also said, “This is what the kingdom of God is like. A man scatters seed on the ground. Night and day, whether he sleeps or gets up, the seed sprouts and grows, though he does not know how. All by itself the soil produces grain-first the stalk, then the head, then the full kernel in the head. As soon as the grain is ripe, he puts the sickle to it, because the harvest has come.”

I wonder if this is a better way to see evangelism, that God is up to a whole lot in the world and we have the option to join in with him when the time is right. This whole story with Philip was dictated by the moves of God and he was just available, present and ready to move when the time is right. Maybe instead of gearing ourselves up and then constantly failing and feeling bad about it because we aren’t “saving people” we spend that energy to be the kind of person who God uses to share his good news through.

“Luke 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 yo 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” is there to meet that need.”

So unfortunately, I am not going to extract a four step process out of this story so we can all be sent out of here as better Philips in the world, ready to evangelise and save all your friends. However, I do hope we see this story for what it is. A story that shows that God is up to a plan that is way bigger than we can wrap our heads around. A story that symbolizes God’s salvation reaching to the very ends of the earth and to the very people who were once kept outside of his story. God’s story reaches them. It reaches everyone and it will reach everyone and you have the opportunity to join in. You don’t need to convert people to believing your set of beliefs, you need to live as if your beliefs are real. Live the kind of life that is sharing the good news around you through the actions in your life. This is the ultimate form of evangelism, and it is through that life that God’s good news will continue to go forward.

I’ll end with a quote about Saint Patrick, since yesterday was his day, and what he discovered in his church planting and evangelism efforts.

The supreme key to reaching the West again is the key that Patrick discovered – involuntarily but providentially. The gulf between church people and unchurched people is vast, but if we pay the price to understand them, we will usually know what to say and what to do; if they know and feel we understand them, by the tens of millions they will risk opening their hearts to the God who understands them. – George Hunter III

 

One Comment

  • Thanks so much for posting these thoughts. I will be recycling them in my message this week. Thanks for the quote regarding St. Patrick that too will be used again. I especially appreciate moving away from the tendency to turn Philips experience into an evangelistic formula! Thanks, Jeremy

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