MESSAGE FOR AUGUST 15, 2010 FROM ACTS 8:26-40
This week, we move into one of the best known and most preached accounts in the book of Acts—the conversion of the Ethiopian eunuch. Before we move into the text, let’s remind ourselves again of Luke’s big picture message and see how he uses this account to support that larger message. We said last week that the big picture message of Luke is that the gospel message in the earliest years of the church went out just as Jesus said it would—to Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth. Last week, we saw that Samaria received the gospel and just after the Holy Spirit showed up, Satan made his presence known in the person of Simon the magician. This week, we see the gospel move to the final area Jesus commissioned his apostles to bring it—the end of the earth.
Although Luke will tell us in chapter 10 that the Gentile world was reached with the conversion of Cornelius, here in chapter eight we see what story tellers call a foreshadowing of this movement of the gospel into Gentile territory. That is—to give us a glimpse of what is to come. In this account, Philip preaches the gospel to a man from Ethiopia. Ethiopia in Biblical times is not the same country we call Ethiopia today. The Ethiopia cited in the Bible is sometimes called Cush and sometimes Nubia. It’s located several hundred miles west of where Ethiopia is today in what we now call Central Sudan in Africa. That means this man lived about 1000 miles from Jerusalem. Scholars tell us that this journey he took by chariot from Ethiopia to Jerusalem would have taken about five months each way.
Like last week, Luke’s larger point is to communicate that the gospel is going forward and now it has reached--what would have been considered then—“the end of the earth.” Ethiopia had a different culture and a different language from Palestine or Samaria. This was a brand new ethnic group getting the gospel. Missiologists would say that it was “ethno-linguistically” different than Palestine. Ireneaus, a believer who lived in the second century, reports that this man from Ethiopia became a missionary to his people so it’s clear that God’s intention was not only to reach this man with the gospel, but also the nation of what was then Ethiopia. Perhaps Luke’s main message here is—God will go to any length to reach people—especially new people groups with the gospel. This account is an amazing testimony to the sovereign power of God and his willingness to arrange, with surgical precision, a set of very unlikely circumstances to come together in such a way as to eventually reach this new ethno-linguistic group in Northern Africa.
That’s our main point as we see Luke carefully putting on display—God’s sovereign power displayed in reaching the people of Ethiopia. If we don’t remember that from this account, then we have missed a huge slice of Luke’s message here. When I read this account, I can’t help but be struck by how many of the circumstances God had to perfectly order and orchestrate in order to have this Ethiopian convert to Christ. God goes to some extraordinary and supernatural means to reach this man and through him, Ethiopia. As I read this text, I see no less than 11 separate displays of God’s sovereign power necessary for this man to be converted and this morning we will go through them quickly so fasten your seat belts. The first one is in verse 26 where we read, “Now an angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Rise and go toward the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza” This is a desert place.” That’s clear enough. God wants to reach this Ethiopian but there’s a problem; he is leaving Jerusalem for Africa and God’s evangelist is out of position to preach to him. Philip is in a remote area in a desert, while the Ethiopian is on “the road that goes out from Jerusalem to Gaza.” So what does God do? He could have done several things. He could have had some other believer in the area preach to this man, but in Acts he generally works through evangelists and apostles to reach people. He could have had the Holy Spirit direct Philip where to go—he does that a bit later. Instead, in his sovereign authority, God sends an angel of the Lord to Philip to give him directions that would lead him to the Ethiopian.
Angels are seen occasionally in Acts, but typically they only appear to do what humans can NOT do. In chapter five, it was an angel that miraculously released the apostles from prison while the Sanhedrin was holding them for trial. In chapter 10, when Cornelius has his vision where he is told to send for Peter, it is “an angel of God” who comes to him in that vision and instructs him. Luke wants us to see that when God brings angelic beings onto the scene in the early church, that explicitly and powerfully communicates God’s overtly direct and supernatural involvement. This is an extraordinary measure—to use an angelic being as God’s GPS to direct Philip to this man. We see two more displays of God’s sovereign power in verse 27. And he [Philip—in response to the angel’s command] rose and went. And there was an Ethiopian…” First, Philip meets an Ethiopian who as we said had travelled 1000 miles from his homeland. Rome had only a limited relationship with Ethiopia—there wasn’t much trading between Rome and this country at this time. This man and those who travelled with him would have been among the few Ethiopians to travel that far north.
Ethiopians were rarely seen in Palestine. You could have perhaps sat on the side of the road for weeks or months without seeing a single Ethiopian. Yet here one appears right on God’s schedule so that he can hear the gospel and be saved. As a side note, you have to wonder what those evangelical pastors in the south must have been thinking in the 60’s when, in their bigotry, they refused to support the civil rights movement as many of them did. Did they read the same Bible as you? In my Bible, God converts a black-skinned African long before he converts the first Northern European from whom we and many of those pastors were descended. A second marker of God’s sovereign power here is the fact that Philip arrives on the scene just as this man is passing by. We know this man is within eyeshot of Philip because Luke tells us in verse 27, “He had come to Jerusalem to worship and was returning, seated in his chariot, and …the Spirit said to Philip, “Go over and join this chariot.”
Though Philip had been ministering many miles away from here, he walked on the road the angel had commanded him to and ends up intersecting the Ethiopian at just the precise moment he is passing by. A coincidence? Think about the math required to figure out how to bring this off perfectly. You would need to know the distance between Philip when the angel met him and the Ethiopian and how fast Philip could walk it. You would also need to know the distance the Ethiopian would need to travel in that time and the speed of his chariot so that at just the right moment he would intersect Philip. You would also have to figure in any number of other variables like interruptions, bathroom breaks, etc…. The good news is--algebra is not a problem for God because he orders the entire universe and is in absolute control over every single variable. There are no x’s or y’s to God—there are no unknown variables to him.
The next important detail relevant to this man’s conversion and which God sovereignly orchestrated is—This man is a eunuch. A eunuch--as most of us know is a man who has been castrated. That was not all that unusual and in fact in Gentile nations, eunuchs were the preferred court officials until not that long ago. But within Judaism, the eunuch was viewed as a second class citizen. Deuteronomy 23:1 says, “1 “No one whose testicles are crushed or whose male organ is cut off shall enter the assembly of the LORD.” We know this man had embraced Judaism because he had travelled five months to worship in Jerusalem and he had his own personal copy of a scroll of the Old Testament. Yet this man—when he arrived in Jerusalem couldn’t formally gather with God’s people. So, this is a man who worships the God of the Hebrews, but knows that because he is a eunuch, he will never in his life be able to gather with the people of God and worship with them. The point is—that helps prepare him to hear the gospel, through which Christ has rendered obsolete all those ceremonial laws through his death. The gospel promises full inclusion to all people—Jew/Greek, slave/free, black/white, male/female and best of all for him…eunuchs. I think we would be foolish to believe that this man and Philip didn’t speak of that truth in their discussion and it doubtless made the gospel even more appealing to him. Finally, he would be accorded equal status with all the other children of God.
Another detail we’ve already discussed, but is worth noting again as a display of God’s sovereignty is—the Ethiopian is either a Jewish convert or someone extremely sympathetic to Judaism and knowledgeable of the Old Testament Scriptures. This is a huge detail and vitally important. In order for this man to be converted as rapidly as he was, he would have needed to have some background in Judaism. Jesus was the Jewish Messiah, after all. He would have needed to know about the God of Abraham and his dealings with his people. He would have needed to know a bit about the prophets—in this case, Isaiah—in order to ask a question, the answer to which, pointed straight to Jesus. As we move further into the story, another sovereignly orchestrated detail is the fact that this man was a very highly placed official and would have had significant influence within Ethiopia. In verse 27, it says that he was “a court official of Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, who was in charge of all her treasure.” That’s what Luke wants us to see. That would explain how this man was able to take 10 months off to worship in Jerusalem—like Nehemiah in the Old Testament, who was allowed a leave of absence by the king he worked under. That also explains his chariot—which only a few privileged people would have had.
Beyond that, once this man is converted, he has a very visible platform from which to speak to the most influential people in the nation. He had real power and influence in Ethiopia and if you wanted to choose only one person to reach an entire nation, you would probably choose a highly placed person who had an abundance of influence, resources and contact with other highly placed people. We see again, not only the sovereignty of God in raising up this man, but also his wisdom in choosing this man, in his particular position to reach Ethiopia. Another detail that shows God’s orchestration is—God commands Philip through his Spirit to go over and join the chariot. Like God’s employment of the angel, we once again see his overtly supernatural influence. If God doesn’t command Philip to join the chariot, he would have never done so. No one else would have known God’s plan for this man and for some reason, God chooses not to use an angel this time. We know Philip would not have approached the chariot on his own initiative because his mission was to preach in Samaria—that was his mission field—that’s the field God was opening up by his Spirit. We infer from Acts 21 that Philip stayed in Samaria all his life—so far as we know, he was never part of “the end-of-the-earth missions movement.” He reached Samaritans and he lived in Caesarea in Samaria when Paul came to stay with him some 20 years later. So, when Philip sees a black skinned Ethiopian in a chariot, that’s not someone he would have been at all compelled to target for evangelism.
That’s doubtless why God sovereignly steps in and overrules Philip’s understanding of his mission and tells him to “go over and join the chariot.” We see the grace of God in Philip’s life. He doesn’t argue with God. He doesn’t say—“But he’s not in my target audience.” Or, “You want me to go up that that guy with the fancy clothes and the chariot—are you sure God?” None of that--he just does what God tells him to do and in fact in verse 30 we read, “So Philip ran to him…” The next detail that God sovereignly orchestrates is found in the next phrase. “Philip ran to him and heard him reading Isaiah the prophet and asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?” At the precise moment Philip appears, the Ethiopian is reading the Bible. You don’t have to be Billy Graham to figure out how to approach this man with the gospel—he just happens to be reading out loud from the Bible! Think how many other books this Ethiopian could have been reading. Or perhaps, he could have been sleeping, or talking to a member of his entourage, or just enjoying the unfamiliar scenery outside Jerusalem. But no, he’s reading the very best book in the world to adequately prepare someone to know Jesus at just the moment when Philip the evangelist is told to go talk to him.
Another separate but closely connected detail God sovereignly orchestrates is the Ethiopian is reading from a passage that explicitly points to Jesus’ sacrificial, atoning death. There are 27,570 verses in the Old Testament and over 1000 chapters. Of those 1000 plus chapters, the Ethiopianp just happens to be reading from Isaiah 53. That one chapter, more than any other chapter in all the Old Testament, explicitly predicts the passion and death of the Jewish Messiah, Jesus Christ—the suffering Servant. Of 27 and a half thousand verses, this man just happens to be reading one of the most—if not THE most explicit reference to the lamb-like, sacrificial offering of the Messiah on the cross. Luke cites Isaiah 53:7-8. “32 Now the passage of the Scripture that he was reading was this: “Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter and like a lamb before its shearer is silent, so he opens not his mouth. 33 In his humiliation justice was denied him. Who can describe his generation? For his life is taken away from the earth.” Think of the odds against the Ethiopian, even if he were reading from the Bible, to be reading this particular verse. It’s a one in a over a thousand shot that he will be in this chapter and a one in over 27,000 shot that he will be reading this verse! And the odds that he will be reading the Bible in this gospel bullseye text, on this road intersecting Philip, as an Ethiopian who is a eunuch and a highly placed government official are surely incalculable—billions to one. But it’s not a matter of chance—that’s what odds are all about. It’s about a God who precisely orchestrates everything in the universe and that includes all these details so that this Ethiopian meets Jesus and is able to then reach Ethiopia with the gospel.
But that’s not all. The Ethiopian asks the absolute perfect question to open up the gospel. He asks, “About whom, I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?” I can think of no better and easier set up for the gospel than to have someone ask an evangelist from Isaiah 53, who is the subject of that text. Evangelists have a name for people who are completely ready to hear and accept the gospel when it is given. They call them “low hanging fruit.” The fruit is ready for harvest with very little effort involved. This Ethiopian is not just low hanging fruit. He’s so ripe he’s has fallen off the tree, onto the ground and has bounced right into the passing apple cart! All of that is amazing, but it’s still not the end of these God-orchestrated details that Luke displays. The Ethiopian’s conversion presents a challenge because in Acts baptism was done immediately following the conversion, but he is converted through Scripture on his chariot as he is riding along on his way back to Ethiopia. He has his entourage with him, so how does he get baptized? Not a problem according to verse 36 because—There is sufficient water by the roadside for the Ethiopian’s baptism. “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?”
So immediately after this man is converted in his moving chariot, he happens to be going by enough water for him to be baptized. Philip must be thinking either, “This is WAY too easy” or perhaps if he were like me, “God, could it be like this every time?” The baptistery literally comes up to meet them on the road and he is baptized—almost certainly by immersion. If they would have sprinkled him, there would have not needed to be any noticeable source of water—a puddle would have done the job. And what’s more, God burdens this Ethiopian that he needs to be baptized. Philip doesn’t even need to prompt him!
Let’s apply this truth of God’s sovereign power in evangelism and world mission right now when it is fresh in our minds. Luke’s intention is to show God’s sovereign power in the conversion of this Ethiopian and the larger point is as we stated earlier— God will go to any length to reach his elect people—especially within new people groups with the gospel. This text illustrates the lengths to which God can and will go to reach his elect people with the gospel. The only odds greater than the ones that all of these circumstances happened by chance—are the odds against this Ethiopian coming to Christ. There was absolutely ZERO chance of that because as Luke takes pains to tell us--this was God’s chosen man to come to know him and bear his gospel to his people in Ethiopia.
Some people hear the language of election found throughout the Bible in the same context as evangelism and they think—why would anyone evangelize if God is, without question, going to reach his own?—that notion kills the motivation for evangelism. Not at all! It didn’t kill the motivation for Spurgeon or Whitfield or William Carey, father of the modern missions movement—all of whom were champions of God’s sovereignty in election. Election is God’s work; evangelism is our work as we join God in his mission to save his people. Evangelism is about obedience and the fact that God predestines people to be saved does nothing to change our obligation to be obedient to the Great Commission. Election means that there is a solid, secure hope for the person bearing the gospel to win converts because as God told Paul in his mission to Corinth, “I have many in this city who are my people.”[v. 10] Another point of application is—we can easily believe the evangelism-killing lie that the ultimate responsibility for convincing someone to accept Christ is ours. No it’s not—it’s God’s and as we see here so powerfully--God will prepare people.
This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be as knowledgeable as possible to help people with the questions they bring, (God uses sharp instruments more frequently than dull ones) but it does mean that, as we’ve see in the case of this eunuch—God will do whatever it takes to save his own—especially new people groups who don’t know Christ. We should go to the streets or to the foreign fields with a sense of confidence that it’s NOT ultimately on us and our gifts to win converts. This account tells us the lengths to which God is willing and able to go to--to save his own. We must always remember that God wants lost people saved from their sin far more than even the most zealous evangelist. He is far more passionate about saving people from hell than we are. We know that because he has far more invested in the success of that mission than we do. We give some time, energy, we risk our reputation a bit, but he gave his only Son.
He gave Jesus Christ to live a perfect life and die on the cross to take the penalty onto himself for our sins—a penalty WE all deserve from a holy God. He died and was brutally punished by his Father as he poured out on Jesus the wrath that we deserve—we, who regularly rebel against the holy Lord of the Universe. He gave infinitely more to this mission than we ever could and we should never labor under the misapprehension that we must in some way coerce or twist God’s arm to save people. This story illustrates just what God will do to reach a person for Christ or reach a new people group for Christ. We can go out to others who need the gospel with boldness, fueled by the knowledge of God’s zeal for lost people and his sovereign power to bring people to himself. This truth should embolden us to share our faith with others, knowing that if a person belongs to God, he or she ultimately will without any question be converted. They will not be able to do anything to withstand being saved as God’s irresistible grace works in and through the gospel to bring them to Christ.
On a more immediate level, we are sponsoring a race for the purpose of getting the gospel to runners and those who attend. Lord willing, there will be several hundred people here on our property Tuesday evening who don’t know Christ and I’m convinced that, as in Corinth in Acts 18, God has some of his people in that crowd. They just haven’t yet trusted Christ. We know from this chapter that God will do whatever it takes to bring his own to himself, but we need more of you to partner with God in reaching these people, just as he partnered with Philip. In most cases, that won’t mean preaching the gospel to them, but it will in many cases mean adopting a runner by praying for them and coming on Tuesday to try to personally connect with them. We need to allow God’s power and zeal to save his own to motivate and mobilize us with the gospel to get out of our comfort zones. We need people here on Tuesday who will step out in faith and interact with lost people to see if there is openness to the gospel. If you find such a person, you may call on one of the leaders to give them the gospel, or you may feel led to give it out yourself. Just do what Philip did—work in response to God’s prior working and be obedient to God.
May God give us the grace to trust in him and know that he desires
to bring people to himself far more than we do and may that knowledge compel us into the white harvest fields here
and to the nations.
 Bock, Luke, p.342.
 As cited in Bruce, Acts, p. 178.
 IVP Bible Background Commentary, Electronic version—on comments related to this text.
 IVP Background …referring to this account.
Page last modified on 8/31/2010
(c) 2009 - 2010 All material is property of Duncan Ross and/or Mount of Olives Baptist Church, all commercial rights are reserved. Please feel free to use any of this material in your ministry.