The story in Acts 8 about Philip’s encounter with the Ethiopian eunuch provides a rich picture of how the Kingdom of God has been extended to those on the outside of the Jewish religious tradition. Additionally, Philip provides a beautiful model of cooperating with the Holy Spirit as he spread the good news about Christ first to Jerusalem (Acts 6:1-7), then to Samaria (Acts 8:4-13), and now to the ends of the earth, just as Jesus had instructed prior to his ascension (Acts 1:8).
As we read this passage, we quickly discover that neither the evangelist Philip nor the Ethiopian eunuch is the true protagonist of this story. Indeed, we do not even have any of Philip’s direct words recorded in this passage and neither do we know the Ethiopian’s name. Rather, the Holy Spirit is the one calling the shots and directing the action. From the beginning to the end of this passage, Luke stresses God’s guidance on Philip’s movements, first by speaking to Philip through an angel (v. 26), then by prompting Philip to go over to the Ethiopian’s chariot (v. 26), and finally by snatching Philip away to another location (v. 39).
Moreover, the Holy Spirit was already guiding and directing their conversation long before Philip encountered the Ethiopian eunuch on the desert road. Through God’s prevenient grace–the grace that goes before our conversion–the Ethiopian had been led to worship in Jerusalem. While we do not know how he came to hear of the Jewish God, or even how he had acquired a scroll containing the words of the Hebrew prophet Isaiah, it is clear that someone had “planted a seed” in his life that Philip was able to water into new growth in Christ (1 Corinthians 3:6-7).
Likewise, the evangelist Philip had been previously prepared for this encounter through his earlier work as a church leader in Jerusalem and a missionary to Samaria. Because Philip was filled with the Spirit (Acts 6:3)–perhaps from the Day of Pentecost several months earlier–he was now able to intuitively lean in to the Spirit’s nudgings. Philip follows the Holy Spirit’s direction without hesitation and allows himself to be used by God for the salvation of the foreign official.
As we too allow ourselves to be nudged and used by the Holy Spirit, we often find that God calls us to do things that may seem absurd or ridiculous. Many times, we do not understand where God is leading us or why the Lord has directed us to a certain place or person. Like Philip, we may find ourselves on a deserted wilderness road in the middle of the day wondering what we are supposed to be doing. In those moments, the only thing we can do is trust the Lord’s guidance and follow the promptings of the Holy Spirit. As this passage shows, important conversations occur when we least expect them. God shows up in unique ways and unusual places–even through an Ethiopian eunuch on his way to Gaza. We must be willing to go wherever God calls us, whether to the middle of the desert or to the city of Azotus; whether across the world or to our neighbor down the street. We are to be on the lookout for “God-moments”–those times when the Lord wants to use us to minister to someone by speaking the words of Christ into their lives. But we can only do this if we are open to God’s leading. We are to have a kind of relationship with God where we move when the Holy Spirit prompts. We are to have the same boldness as Philip when we reach out to those we encounter in our daily lives.
Similarly, the Holy Spirit calls us to flexibility in our ministry. Not only do we have to be open to “get up and go toward the south” on the wilderness road (v. 26) and be willing to be “snatched away” at a moment’s notice (v. 39), we must also be inclined to break a few rules every now and then. This Ethiopian eunuch was breaking all the rules. He was reading a sacred text not in the Temple or a synagogue, but on a dusty road in the back of a chariot. As an unclean Gentile and foreigner, he had somehow managed to learn of the Jewish God and sought to worship in Jerusalem. And then, after his conversation with Philip, he demanded, “Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?” (v. 36)
This request by the Ethiopian eunuch seems to go against both ancient and modern Christian tradition. He had not undergone catechism, nor had he made a public confession of faith. The sacrament of baptism is one that is typically done within the community of believers, not next to a deserted highway. Yet Philip consents and baptizes the Ethiopian in some water alongside the road. Likewise, our God is one who enjoys breaking the rules, and even builds a kingdom upon an upside-down and inside-out model of thinking. This passage calls us to be flexible for the sake of this Kingdom. Let us not allow ourselves to become like the Pharisees of Jesus’ day, putting our rules above the lives of other humans. The salvation of people is far more important than our religious rules or doctrines.
Finally, this passage reminds us to always be on the lookout for those on the margins so that they too may be included to the family of believers. This Ethiopian eunuch could not have been more of an outsider to first-century Judaism and the early church. First, he was a Gentile foreigner. For most living in Israel during the days after Christ, Ethiopia was as distant as the four corners of the earth. His language and skin color immediately set him apart from the early Christian believers. Second, he was a high court official in service to the queen of Ethiopia, “in charge of her entire treasury” (v. 27). At this time, the burgeoning Jesus-movement was made up of those with lowly places in society: fishermen and tradesmen, women and children, the uneducated and poor. In fact, those with political clout were the ones who had orchestrated Jesus’ crucifixion and continued to persecute the early Christians. Finally, this man was a eunuch. Because of his physical disfigurement, he would not have even been allowed to enter the Temple to worship. As Deuteronomy 23:1 clearly states, “No one whose testicles are crushed or whose penis is cut off shall be admitted to the assembly of the Lord” (NRSV). According to Jewish law, he was quite literally cut-off from the community of God’s people.
Yet this high class Ethiopian eunuch became a model for the many other outcast and excluded people now welcomed into the Kingdom of God. His conversion is a foreshadowing of what is yet to come, first through Peter’s vision and encounter with Cornelius (Acts 10), and then through Paul’s steadfast ministry among the Gentiles. The Ethiopian eunuch represents the firstfruits of a harvest of Gentile Christians, and his story paves the way for the Church to move beyond Jewish circles. Indeed, this very moment was prophesied in Isaiah only three chapters after the passage the Ethiopian was reading from on that day:
“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.
And the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord,
to minister to him, to love the name of the Lord,
and to be his servants,
all who keep the sabbath, and do not profane it,
and hold fast my covenant—
these I will bring to my holy mountain,
and make them joyful in my house of prayer;
their burnt offerings and their sacrifices
will be accepted on my altar;
for my house shall be called a house of prayer
for all peoples.” (Isaiah 56:4-7, NRSV)
Like Philip, may we allow ourselves to respond to the call of God as we cooperate with the Holy Spirit to bring in the outsiders and marginalized into the Kingdom-feast of Christ.