Acts 8:26-40 14.6.19
What’s not to love about the man we meet in Acts chapter 8? He has come to Jerusalem to bow down to the God of Israel. From his home in Africa, that’s a trip of about 2,500 kilometres one way. Add in the return trip, by covered wagon (rather than a chariot, I think) and he’s on the road for maybe 3 months.
I guess he didn’t do this every year. Maybe it was more like a once-in-a-lifetime pilgrimage that a Muslim might make to Mecca.
Luke says in v27 that he “had come to Jerusalem to worship”. That means he had come to bow or bend his knee before the God of Israel. Alongside the locals? To join them in their sacrifices or their songs? No, he is on his own.
He may be the treasurer of Ethiopia, rich and famous on home turf. But in Jerusalem he doesn’t count. According to the law of Moses, this man is unclean – he is a Gentile, not a Jew. He is a black man from Africa.
Even worse, he is a eunuch. Four times in fifteen verses that is what Luke calls him. This seems like a bigger deal than his being black.
A eunuch is a man who has had his testicles removed, and maybe his penis. This was often done to men who held a position in a royal court. It meant that there would be no problem with them getting in bed with the king’s wives. Perhaps it was also that they could get on with their job without being distracted by any women.
In Jerusalem, a eunuch could not join in. The eunuchs stand over there with the others who can’t get in to the temple because they have a period, or have touched a dead body. They are all unclean.
So that’s a double negative for this man. A foreigner and a eunuch. He doesn’t have a chance of getting even close to the action in Jerusalem despite his six weeks on the road to even get there.
We pick up his story at the beginning of his trip back home. No doubt he has soldiers, servants and wagon drivers with him. He’s engrossed in reading – from a scroll of Isaiah the prophet – when Philip runs up to him.
We saw Philip last week, in Samaria. Enjoying something of a gospel revival itinerant ministry through the towns and villages of Samaria. Yet God has taken him from the towns into the desert. From the masses, to this one man.
That brings us to the first theme today:
Last Sunday I asked you to look back to 1:8 “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
I said last week that this was not so much a command to the disciples to do something – “go and testify to me” – but a statement of what God planned to do. His plan is to start the gospel of Jesus off in Jerusalem, and then take it to the territory of Israel, and then beyond that to everywhere else.
Our story today is about God doing what he has planned and resolved to do. It wasn’t Philip’s idea to go to this man. We read in verse 26 that God had sent an angel to direct Philip into the desert. Just as it God’s Spirit that whisks him off to somewhere else at the end of the story (verse 39).
This story is not primarily about the African. Or Philip. It is about God doing what he had planned to do – to make the name of Jesus known to the ends of the earth.
Will God get the gospel to Judea and Samaria? There was never any doubt about that. To Iran, Iraq and Syria? Yes, he had resolved to do that. To Africa? Sure. That’s what he’s doing here.
Will God get the gospel to “every nation … all tribes and peoples and languages” (Revelation 7:9)?. There is no doubt at all.
What if we fail to do our bit? Then he will do it through someone else. What if Islam grows stronger and atheism is on the rise, or there are other obstacles along the way? They will be servants to God’s resolve, not enemies.
It is very likely that it will be in a way that we don’t expect. I wouldn’t have taken Philip from a place of such fruitful preaching, and stuck him in a desert. God’s ways are not our ways however. What a great way to get the gospel into Africa.
Are you up to the task? Neither am I. Able to change unbelief, and make inroads which seem impossible? Me neither. Can you stick with the gospel when family members don’t want to hear it? Is it smart to keep investing in missionary work wherever we get the chance? Might ordinary, timid people like you have a wonderful part to play in the plan of God? Might extraordinary things come out of ordinary?
Makes you wonder why we’re even a little hesitant, even a little intimidated, even a little narrow in our vision, doesn’t it?
What will Philip talk about to this man? How smart simply to start with a question and not a sermon. “Do you understand what you are reading?” (v30b). As it turns out, he doesn’t. But there is something about Philip that means he might. Philip climbs on board, and while the wagon rattles its way back to Africa, they talk.
The black man is reading from Isaiah 53 … “Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter and like a lamb before its shearer is silent, so he opens not his mouth. In his humiliation justice was denied him. Who can describe his generation? For his life is taken away from the earth.”
I’ve been wondering if, as a eunuch, he might have felt the force of those words in a very personal way. Humiliated? Denied justice? Deprived of the ability to have children? Perhaps ridiculed and treated as though he is not a full man? Might he have felt that his life had been taken away?
Who is Isaiah’s man who was humiliated and ridiculed and cut off from life? Verse 35 “Then Philip opened his mouth, and beginning with this Scripture he preached about Jesus.”
Philip talked about Jesus. As the apostles have been doing since chapter 2. Jews, big people, small people, powerful people, powerless people have all heard the same message. There isn’t a gospel for the religious and another for pagans. One for the East and another for the West. There is only one.
There is only one true response. We’ve seen it across the last 7 chapters. Jews and Samaritans hear, believe, repent and are baptised. It’s the same for this man. No longer one rule for the Jews and another for others. One gospel. One response. One family.
Jesus has reversed everything. For 40 generations people have known that if you touch a dead body or a person with leprosy, you are unclean. Jesus, however touches both, and yet remains the purist person there has ever been.
For 1500 years, foreigners have been excluded, and eunuchs have been held at arms’ length. Now, people who were on the outside are now on the inside.
Has Jesus has changed God’s Word? No. He fulfils it. Had this black man read past Isaiah 53, he’d have come to Isaiah 56 where God says “Let not the foreigner who has joined himself to the Lord say ‘The Lord will surely separate me from his people/; and let not the eunuch say ‘Behold, I am a dry tree.” (v3) … 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.’”(3-5)
By the gospel, Jesus is bringing the man who had been on the outside, all the way to the inside. The eunuch whose name would die out when he died, the man without a future, now has a safe and beautiful eternal future.
God means that to show. John Piper tells the story of when his sister was being married in their church in South Carolina I think it was. The black people came, and sat out in the porch of the church like they always did. Until Mrs Piper went and ushered them into the front row. Had Jesus brought them in to the family of God? Then they had better be on the inside!
When I talk about those on the outside, who comes to your mind? Non-Anglo’s? Paedophiles and murderers? Poor people who have no money and no rights?
This black man is you! By nature you are on the outside; so am I. Ephesians 2:1 says “you were dead in your trespasses and sins” and 2:12 “remember that you were … separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel … having no hope and without God in the world.”
If you are on the inside, it’s got nothing to do with your race, your religion or anything else. It is all down to the grace of Jesus which reverses everything.
Do you remember the three stories of Jesus that Luke recorded in Luke 15: The story of the farmer who lost one of his one hundred sheep, the lady who lost one of her set of ten coins, the, and the father who lost one of his two sons? In the stories, the coin is found, the sheep is found and the son is found, but that wasn’t the end.
The farmer calls together his neighbours and friends and says “Rejoice with me”. The lady says “rejoice with me” to her friends. And the father says “we had to celebrate and be glad”.
This black man has been found in such a wonderful way that Luke says that he “went on his way rejoicing” (v39).
How do you go with rejoicing? Is thankful joy the mark of your life – your speech and your disposition? Or is it more:
… so that the thought of rejoicing your way through life feels more foreign to you than flying to Mars?
How did the really big things get to be these?
Part of our problem is that we have so much in Australia. We can buy most things we need. We can fix so many illnesses. We can make ourselves safe from the things that threaten others daily. We have so many distractions to dull the pain of the things that hurt.
We so easily think that the good life puts us on the inside, when it doesn’t. Or that our friends who don’t know Jesus are really alright, when they are not. We are locked out on the outside.
The result of thinking that we are on the inside because of something else, means that the big reversing grace of Jesus is really small. So that we never rejoice over him and what he has done. When it is like that, our lives are weak and sad.
You may have seen the film “Out of Africa”, with superb acting by Merryl Streep, and its exquisite musical theme. It was based on a 1937 book written by Karen Blixen, who with her husband farmed in Kenya. After the farm failed and close friends died, she was forced to leave Africa. What had been a paradise for them became a sad, lost world. She was “out of Africa”, with so many tears.
This man is going into Africa. Rejoicing. Not because his home is paradise – he is still a eunuch, he is back to work, and all that. Although now he knows the Living God. Now he is found. His name won’t live on through children he cannot father. His name is written in heaven, with the breath-taking privileges that come with that, because Jesus has made new everything that ultimately matters.
I bet that every day from this day on, he praised God for his resolve to make the name of Jesus known to the ends of the earth. I bet that he praised God every day that in Jesus, anything and everything that ultimately matters, was reversed.
He got the big picture. No wonder he rejoiced.
Might your joy be sour because you’ve lost hold of the big picture? Today can be the first day on the road back.