Mission in the Book of Acts
The Ethiopian Eunuch
We are about to head to Ethiopia, Africa, to do mission training for Next Generation for Christ; set up the Story of Redemption Film Series at some of the computer training schools that are used as outreaches for Churches of Christ in Ethiopia, and scout out the country for one of our mission partners, Let's Start Talking. And while we are there, we will film the story of the Ethiopian Eunuch! Here it is below.
26 Now an angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Go south to the road—the desert road—that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” 27 So he started out, and on his way he met an Ethiopian[a] 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, 28 and on his way home was sitting in his chariot reading the Book of Isaiah the prophet. 29 The Spirit told Philip, “Go to that chariot and stay near it.”
30 Then Philip ran up to the chariot and heard the man reading Isaiah the prophet. “Do you understand what you are reading?” Philip asked.
31 “How can I,” he said, “unless someone explains it to me?” So he invited Philip to come up and sit with him (Acts 8:26f)
Who is the gospel open to, and how can we share? When we look at mission in the book of Acts—which was written by Luke, one of Jesus’ apostles as a sequel to the book of Luke, we see that God wants to reach all peoples, that it is the Spirit who directs this mission, opening and closing doors, and that if we are open and faithful, God can use us to reach the most surprising people—people that he in fact, has already been drawing to him. And perhaps that is illustrated most vividly in Acts with the story of the Ethiopian Eunuch. And here, in Ethiopia, is a good place to tell this story.
The book of Acts opens up with Jesus, after the resurrection, and before Jesus ascends into heaven. 6 Then they gathered around him and asked him, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?”
7 He said to them: “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. 8 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.”
In response, Jesus tells his disciples to stay in Jerusalem, that there they will receive the Spirit, and that they will be his “witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). And this forms a bit of an outline of the book of Acts, with the gospel spreading through these different radiating people groups – all for the purpose of “restoring the kingdom” to Israel—this people that had been scattered.
And indeed, when Peter preaches on Pentecost in Jerusalem, 50 days after the resurrection, Jews represented from around the world are there, and thousands of people respond and are baptized. This ministry spread to Judea. And Peter and John, two of the apostles, had great success in Samaria converting the Samaritans. And why the Samaritans? They represented the lost tribes of Israel. And the ends of the earth in the book of Isaiah represents not a geographic area, but the Gentiles. And so God’s plan – his commission to us – is reach all peoples for Christ, and to bring everyone into his kingdom.
Now in Acts 8 we come across this story of the Ethiopian Eunuch, right after Luke has told us about the gospel reaching the Samaritans. Later in the book, in the story of Cornelius, Luke will tell of us Gentiles coming to faith in Christ. So where does this Ethiopian – this Ethiopian eunuch – fit in? And how would this Ethiopian Eunuch been viewed by Luke’s readers?
In many ways, an Ethiopian eunuch would have been viewed definitely as . . . different, someone Luke’s readers normally would not encounter.
The ancient Greek writer Homer [800-701 BCE] said that Ethiopians lived “at the world’s end.” Herodotus [484-425 BCE] claimed that Ethiopia “stretches farthest of the inhabited lands.” Ethiopia in ancient times was viewed to be larger than modern day Ethiopia, encompassing parts of Sudan, which is likely where this Ethiopian, who served under Candace, served.
Sometimes Ethiopia stood for Africa more generally, or the region south of Egypt, and certainly today’s Ethiopia is viewed to be at heart of Africa, with this country’s capital, Addis Ababa, serving as the capital for all of Africa. Ethiopians were said to have had the blackest of skins, which would have been quite unusual and little seen by Luke’s readers.
Ethiopians were often admired for their beauty and athleticism in ancient times, though despised by some. And this man was an important official, in charge of all of the finances-all of the money in the treasury, of the “Queen of Ethiopia.” He himself was likely rich as well, as he traveled in style with a chariot, he was sitting down when Philip approached him—which means he had a driver—and he was reading from a scroll from the Hebrew Bible, which would have been very expensive.
But despite this power and wealth, this man was a eunuch. People were sometimes born eunuchs, made that way by others, or a poor person might volunteer so that they might serve in a high position, for eunuchs were often trusted advisors. Heliodorus [third century CE], An Ethiopian Story, connects eunuchs with Ethiopian royalty. But many despised eunuchs. Lucian [second century CE] tells a story about a eunuch who sought to be a chief philosopher in Athens. One of his fellow philosophers said that eunuchs not only should be excluded from philosophy, but also from religion, temples, and public assemblies.
Now in this story, this African eunuch from Ethiopia is just coming back from Jerusalem to worship God. Because of this and the positioning of this story in the book of Acts, it seems likely that this man was perhaps an Ethiopian Jew. The Hebrew Bible mentions “Cush” many times, and this is sometimes translated Ethiopia, though that is problematic in many places. But Isaiah 11:11 speaks of God collecting the a “remnant that remains of his people, from Assyria, from Egypt, from Pathros, from Ethiopia or Cush . . . .”
This Eunuch seems to be one of those Jews scattered around the world, at the ends of the world, somewhere between Judea and Samaria and the ends of the earth, the Gentiles, that God is drawing to himself as part of the restored kingdom of God. And even today in Ethiopia there are Ethiopian or Black Jews who trace their lineage back to Abraham and Moses, who married a Cushite wife and even the Queen of Sheba, whom they believe to be Ethiopian.
This eunuch went from Ethiopia to Jerusalem to worship God - a journey of nearly 2000 miles to Jerusalem that would have taken two months to get there. Clearly he was dedicated, moved somehow with the desire to seek out God and worship him. He must have been filled with hope and anticipation to finally worship the God of Israel in his temple. But he had to have been bitterly disappointed, for according to the Hebrew Bible, eunuchs were not allowed to worship in the temple. His charioteer would have been able to enter the temple. His attendants would have been able to enter the temple. But not him. He would have been excluded. Marginalized. As so many people feel today, rejected because of their skin color, their ethnicity, a physical handicap, or their social status.
But somewhere along the way he picked up a scroll of the book of Isaiah, one of the books of the Hebrew Bible. And he was riding along in his chariot, reading this scroll, when the Spirit—who had told Philip, an evangelist—to go down to this road—told him to approach the eunuch’s chariot and stay near it. And he asked him, “Do you understand what you are reading?”
And he said, how can I unless someone explains it to me! I can imagine him demanding an explanation when he showed up in Jerusalem at the temple—a rich, important official—who was being turned away. He would not have understand that then, and he did not understand Isaiah now. And so, incredibly, he invited Philip into his chariot to sit with him and explain the Scriptures to him. And the Scriptures that he was reading from was from Isaiah 53 – a passage about a suffering servant, which was ultimately fulfilled in Jesus.
He was oppressed, and he was afflicted,
yet he did not open his mouth;
like a lamb that is led to the slaughter,
and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent,
so he did not open his mouth.
8 By a perversion of justice he was taken away.
Who could have imagined his future?
For he was cut off from the land of the living,
stricken for the transgression of my people.
If this eunuch were made so by others, perhaps he could identify with this suffering servant, who was oppressed, “cut off,” and had performed on his body a perversion of justice. He had no family future to imagine, as he could have no descendants.
But it may have been another passage from Isaiah very close to this one, Isaiah 56, that had caught his attention—a passage explicitly about eunuchs.
Do not let the foreigner joined to the Lord say,
“The Lord will surely separate me from his people”;
and do not let the eunuch say,
“I am just a dry tree.”
4 For thus says the Lord:
To the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths,
who choose the things that please me
and hold fast my covenant,
5 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 when this eunuch understood this passage from Isaiah, about being included in God’s kingdom, of having a future, a family, a name that would not be “cut off,” and that Jesus, as a type of suffering servant, also experienced injustice, but that through this injustice at the cross, God used him to take on the sins of the world and raised Christ from the dead, and that this kingdom was open to everyone, no matter their background, ethnicity, or status, he said, “Look, here is water. What prevents me from being baptized?”
Clearly, he was worried again that some hidden rule, some defect of his, would prevent him from being baptized into Christ, receiving forgiveness of sins and a family and taking on Christ’s name for forever.
But unlike in the temple, there was nothing preventing the eunuch from being baptized and receiving all of these blessings. “38 And he gave orders to stop the chariot. Then both Philip and the eunuch went down into the water and Philip baptized him. 39 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.”
So now, how about you? The kingdom of God is open to all—no matter their background, no matter their race, no matter their physicality. What prevents you from being baptized? What would be the benefits if you took this step and were baptized into Christ?
And if you have taken this step, what prevents you from sharing Christ with others? We learn from this story that:
Christianity has a long and rich tradition in Ethiopia. And this could perhaps be traced back to the conversion of this Ethiopian eunuch as recorded in the book of Acts. Irenaeus wrote in 180 AD "This man (Simeon Bachos the Eunuch) was also sent into the regions of Ethiopia, to preach what he had himself believed, that there was one God preached by the prophets, but that the Son of this (God) had already made (His) appearance in human flesh, and had been led as a sheep to the slaughter; and all the other statements which the prophets made regarding Him." (Against the Heresies) 3:12:8 In Ethiopian Orthodox tradition he was known as Bachos. In Eastern Orthodox tradition he is viewed to be an Ethiopian Jew named “Simenon the Black” (from Acts 13:1).
Eusebius, a church historian, wrote:
13 But as the preaching of the Saviour’s Gospel was daily advancing, a certain providence led from the land of the Ethiopians an officer of the queen of that country, for Ethiopia even to the present day is ruled, according to ancestral custom, by a woman. He, first among the Gentiles, received of the mysteries of the divine word from Philip in consequence of a revelation, and having become the first-fruits of believers throughout the world, he is said to have been the first on returning to his country to proclaim the knowledge of the God of the universe and the life giving sojourn of our Saviour among men; so that through him in truth the prophecy obtained its fulfillment, which declares that “Ethiopia stretcheth out her hand unto God.” Euseb. Hist. Eccl. 2.2.13–14
 Eusebius of Caesaria. (1890). The Church History of Eusebius. In P. Schaff & H. Wace (Eds.), A. C. McGiffert (Trans.), Eusebius: Church History, Life of Constantine the Great, and Oration in Praise of Constantine (Vol. 1, p. 105). New York: Christian Literature Company.
 Gaventa, B. R. (1992). Ethiopian Eunuch. In D. N. Freedman (Ed.), The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary (Vol. 2, p. 667). New York: Doubleday.