by Roger McCay
8 September 2019
Sermon Passage: Acts 8:26-40
Link to Audio Version
In comic books, radio, television, and movies over the last 81 years, the world’s greatest comic book hero has been rushing to the rescue of kittens, stopping mad scientists, and flying to save Lois Lane. When Clark Kent hears a call for help, or he sees a situation where only he with his special powers can do what is needed … Well, you know what he says: “This looks like a job for Superman!” Then he rushes into a phone booth, changes with super speed and then blurring with red and blue splendor comes out of it with an “Up, Up, and Away!” as he flies off to save the day.
In our passage today, we see Philip respond to a call, in order to help a man who desperately needed it. He didn’t run into a phone booth and change into a bright outfit to go save the day. But he did move out rapidly, dropping everything, going to the scene in order to bring what only a disciple of Jesus Christ could bring—the saving message of the gospel.
Philip’s example is one for all Christians. This is because we have the only saving hope for the world, and we are called to share this good news with the lost. Through the power of the Holy Spirit, lives are changed when we fulfill our calling to do this, for as Paul tells us in Romans 1, “The gospel is the power of God to salvation for all who believe.”
Yet, even knowing the power of this gospel, sometimes Christians still hold back and do not follow the call to actively engage in situations where the gospel message could save lives. I’m sure there are plenty of reasons why we miss these opportunities. Perhaps the most fundamental reason is that we sometimes simply fail to hear the call to share the gospel message with the lost (those who do not know Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior).
Let’s look again at vv. 26-27a.
26 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. 27 And he rose and went.
What we know from the previous passage in Acts is that Philip was involved in an important Christian ministry in Samaria, and was the chief evangelist. There he was very busy telling people about Jesus and was seeing droves of people come to the Lord. And then this call comes!
Out of the blue an angel tells him that he needs to pick up and head to a certain place along the road from Jerusalem to Gaza that is in the desert! Never mind that he was doing important work and was busy and successful for the Lord where he was. No, he was told to get moving. And the angel didn’t even tell him why he was to go or what he was supposed to do when he got there. He just knew he was called to go.
Now, Philip could have objected. “I’m too busy now.” Or, “Why? I don’t see…?” Or, “Send someone else.” Or, “Why the desert?” But, Philip trusted that God knew best. So, he followed the call to go.
Would you do that? Would you drop everything and follow God’s call even if it is personally inconvenient?
Listening to the promptings of the Spirit of God is essential to our following after God’s will. Every Christian has the Holy Spirit and has certain callings and duties for the Lord. Not all of us have the gift of evangelism, of course, but we all are gifted by the power of the Spirit in some way, as part of the body of Christ, in order to participate in his work in this world. Even if your gift is not evangelism, it could be that you will still be called, at some point, to share Christ with others.
Don’t say to yourself that there are certain things that God will not call you to do. Which might be a temptation, perhaps, because you consider yourself weak in an area. Don’t let your weakness stop you! Don’t try to stifle the Spirit! Jesus told the Apostle Paul that his power is made perfect in weakness. It is not in your power that his will is accomplished; it is in his power.
“But how can you know God’s will is?” you might ask. Romans 12:1-2 speaks to this question:
I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.
If you are a Christian, you are to live as a Christian—a disciple of Jesus Christ. Discerning God’s will in an ethical situation is one way to do this. Another way is discerning his will for your service to him. So, make yourself available to his will, and listen for his calling. He may not send an angel to tell you exactly where to go. But the Spirit does speak in subtle ways, and you must be open to the message and seek his voice.
When we discern God’s will for us, we are to then set out to do it. Excuses such as, “But I’m busy!” Or, “That will be inconvenient for me.” Or, “I’m too old.” Or, “Why me, someone else would be a better candidate for that mission.” Whatever myriad of excuses we can come up with to avoid doing God’s will are unacceptable.
Upon discerning God’s will you are to go and do it—and do it willingly, joyfully, and with the knowledge that God’s will is being done through you. That’s called obedience, my friends. Because Christ has given his disciples a mission in this world, we must listen for his call.
So, look at the rest of v. 27 through 28.
27b And there was an Ethiopian, a eunuch, a court official of Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, who was in charge of all her treasure. He had come to Jerusalem to worship 28 and was returning, seated in his chariot, and he was reading the prophet Isaiah.
In a place in the desert, along the road south of Jerusalem, God had set up a divine appointment for Philip to keep. This is a very important meeting, with huge implications. Luke’s placing of this account, as the gospel flies from Jerusalem into the world, does several things. We have already seen that phase two of the Lord’s mission (from Acts 1:8) was in full effect with the gospel going to Judea and Samaria. With this account we are now shown that phase three of the Lord’s plan is underway—the gospel going to the ends of the earth. Hence, it prepares us for what is to come with the gospel mission to the Gentiles. Further, it shows us that prophecy is being fulfilled. And all that is quite important. But I want you to consider how this account blows away boundaries and how it opens up the Kingdom of God to anyone who believes with a saving faith in Jesus Christ, even folks with whom we might be very uncomfortable.
So, who was this man to whom God miraculously transported Philip the Evangelist? We are told several distinct things about this man: he was an Ethiopian; he was a eunuch; he was a court official of Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, who was in charge of all her treasure; he had come to Jerusalem to worship; he was returning to Ethiopia; he was seated in his chariot; and he was reading the prophet Isaiah.
Okay, that is a lot of descriptive language. And, it’s really easy to run quickly by it, but it’s worth a pause. From Philip’s point of view, there really could not have been someone more “other.” Very likely, this guy was way out of Philip’s normal experience (a rather exotic figure and a far more radical individual that the Samaritans, even).
That he was an Ethiopian tells us a few things. For one, his race was probably that of a black African. Some have speculated that he was one of the lost remnants of the Jews (perhaps fulfilling Isaiah 11:11, which mentions Ethiopia as a place from which the Messiah would call the remnant of his people), and such is a possibility. The previous verse, however, Isaiah. 11:10, speaks to the gospel going to all the nations. Paul, in Rom. 15:12, quotes it as part of his reasoning of taking the gospel to the Gentiles. So, Isa. 11:11 is not a definitive proof he was a long-lost Jew. And, it seems unlikely he was. Luke, here in Acts, does not tell us that the man was a Jew, or a proselyte. Such would be important information, and Luke is very descriptive. Also, such would seem at odds with the flow of Luke’s message. So, without a further ethnic description by Luke, his identification as an Ethiopian naturally tells the reader that his race was “other,” from Philip’s point of view—a black African; a Gentile. He had come to Jerusalem to worship, and was reading Isaiah, which lets us know that he was most likely what is called a God-fearer, a Gentile sympathizer to Judaism and its God—much like Cornelius in Acts 10.
Another thing was that Ethiopia, his home, was outside the Roman Empire, and it was considered to be at “the ends of the earth,” which hearkens to the Lord’s mission given in Acts 1:8. Darrell Bock describes Ethiopia’s location:
Ethiopia is to the south of Egypt (Ezek. 29:10) and is known as Cush in the earlier books of the OT (Gen. 2:13). It is in what today is known as the Sudan, and it was in the Nubian kingdom, whose capital was Meroë.
So, the man was “the ends of the earth,” come near, so to speak.
That the eunuch was a court official of Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, and was in charge of all her treasure, was also quite something. The Candace (not a name but a title) was singled out in some of the historical writings of the Roman’s. She was described as a warrior queen. She was the mother of the king, who, apparently, was considered above the secular rule of his nation. Because of this, she ruled independently as Queen. The kingdom of Ethiopia and the Roman Empire had long had conflicts, but Rome had been unable to conquer them. Hence, from a political point of view, the Ethiopian eunuch was an official in a kingdom hostile to Rome. Even more, being in charge of the Queen’s treasury, it also meant that the eunuch was a powerful person in that kingdom.
That the Ethiopian was a eunuch was also quite something. The reputation of eunuchs in ancient times (the context of the original readers of Acts) was not a good one. One man describes it:
The eunuch was a figure perceived to be neither celibate nor morally chaste, but was a monstrous gender formation whose ability to navigate within and take on the properties of both male/masculine and female/feminine worlds (physically, sexually, socially, culturally, even politically) was the source of his/her ambivalent social status.
Another man described their situation as a “gender-bender.” They were “other”—not considered masculine males, but also not women. Thus, the state of a eunuch brought on a revulsion in people—a discomfort.
For some unfortunates, it was an ancient practice for eunuchs to be made in order to serve in high up positions in ancient political structures. We see examples of this in the Bible in Daniel, chapter 1, also Ebed-Melech the Ethiopian in Jeremiah 38-39, in Esther, chapter 2, and 2 Kings 9. Their physical alteration kept them from procreating, so neither they nor their children could cause certain problems when it came to thrones and such. This is what seems to be the case for the Ethiopian eunuch here in Acts.
Now, the Law given in Lev. 21:20 and Deut. 23:1 would not allow eunuchs to be part of the assembly (the Israelites gathered for worship), nor could they be priests. This basically excluded them from any of the religious worship of the Jews. They were outside those bounds. So, this man had travelled all the way to Jerusalem to worship, but was likely not able to even enter the temple, much less participate. He very well may have been quite frustrated about this situation, as he headed home to Ethiopia. Yet, in Isaiah there was a prophecy that would have given him hope (and he was reading Isaiah in his chariot). Isaiah 56:3-5 says this:
Let not the eunuch say, ‘Behold, I am 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.
This is essentially a promise that eunuchs who are within the covenant of the Lord will be included in the Kingdom of God, as inheritors of the promise. This is in line with what Jesus said was coming in Matt. 19:12, which has had considerable historical fallout,
For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let the one who is able to receive this receive it.
While much can be said about this statement, what we can see relevant to this passage was that despite the reputation of eunuchs, their ambiguous status, the revulsion generally felt towards them, and the exclusion of them from Judaic cultic worship, Jesus did not exclude eunuchs from being able to enter the Kingdom of God. With Matt. 19:12 and Isa. 56:3-5 taken into consideration, and seeing God himself sent Philip to have this gospel conversation with the eunuch, the boundaries to his inclusion in the Kingdom of God had become non-existent.
And so, we come to God’s mission for Philip. Although the Ethiopian was a believer in God, and Jesus had made it clear that eunuchs were welcome in the Kingdom of God, he still had not heard the gospel of Jesus Christ. This was a necessary step for this man’s salvation—to enter the Kingdom of God. He needed that message of good news. Therefore, God himself took steps to make sure that he got it.
Take a look at vv. 29-35.
29And the Spirit said to Philip, “Go over and join this chariot.” 30 So Philip ran to him and heard him reading Isaiah the prophet and asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?” 31 And he said, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” And he invited Philip to come up and sit with him.
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.”
34 And the eunuch said to Philip, “About whom, I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?” 35 Then Philip opened his mouth, and beginning with this Scripture he told him the good news about Jesus.
Philip, upon arriving on the scene was prompted by the Spirit to run up to the chariot of the Eunuch. Running alongside it, he overheard the man reading from the Book of Isaiah chapter 53, which is “The Suffering Servant” prophecy. Upon hearing the reading of the Scriptures, Philip saw an inroad to this man to share with him the good news of Jesus Christ. Philip didn’t hesitate. He didn’t reflect, “Oh, this is an uncomfortable situation. He’s obviously an Ethiopian Eunuch. He’s a different race, a different social status, and he’s looked down upon by my people because he’s a eunuch.” No, Philip jumped right in and struck up a conversation with him about the text. In the course of that conversation, with Philip’s knowledge of Jesus Christ’s fulfillment of that prophecy, Philip was able to “tell him the good news about Jesus.”
So, what was the result of this divine appointment and the faithfulness of Philip? Look at vv. 36-38.
36 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?” 38 And he commanded the chariot to stop, and they both went down into the water, Philip and the eunuch, and he baptized him.
The Ethiopian believed the gospel! Still more, after trusting in Jesus Christ as his Lord and Savior, the Ethiopian eunuch asked Philip, “See, here is water! What prevents me from being baptized?” There was no reason. While the doors to the temple in Jerusalem were shut for him, the doors of the Kingdom of God were wide open.
The eunuch, in his faith in Christ, was now a full member of the one church of God (the body of Christ), baptized by the Holy Spirit, just like every other Christian. The prophesy in Isaiah had come to fulfillment. And, appropriately, Philip promptly baptized him with water.
On a side note – If you are a believer (a disciple of Jesus Christ) and have not been baptized, you should be. What are you waiting for? The Lord has commanded you be baptized. “What prevents you from being baptized?”
39 And when they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord carried Philip away, and the eunuch saw him no more, and went on his way rejoicing.
I. Howard Marshall comments about this passage saying, “The way in which the story is told bears some structural resemblances to another story in which a Stranger joined two travelers and opened up the Scriptures to them, took part in a sacramental act, and then disappeared from view.” This stranger Marshall refers to was, of course, Jesus. Luke 24:27, the account of events on the road to Emmaus, tells us, “And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.”
The Gospel of Jesus Christ can be taught or preached from the starting point of any passage in the Old Testament (or the New, for that matter). Jesus demonstrated this to the two men on the Road to Emmaus, Philip did it from the passage in Isaiah to the Eunuch. And this is one of the reasons why I repeatedly ask, as we study the Old Testament together in the evening service, “Where is Jesus in this passage?”
The Eunuch would not have heard the message if not told it by another. Hence, the Lord called Philip and sent him to take care of it. Philip heard the call. He acted upon it. He was faithful in carrying out his calling. And the Lord blessed his obedience.
The rejoicing Eunuch is said by Irenaeus (one of the 2nd Century church fathers), to have gone home and became a missionary to the Ethiopians. We have his word for that, and, it seems a probable result. This powerful man who went rejoicing home (filled with the Spirit of God, and saved by the blood of Jesus Christ) would have certainly shared his joy with all those he could.
When you see an opportunity to share the gospel do you jump on it? Do you respond to the call? If it is someone with whom you might not be comfortable talking, because they are somehow “other,” do you draw back? Or do you, through the power of the Spirit, push your insecurities aside and boldly and lovingly share the gospel? And, do you know the Scriptures well enough to share Christ starting from any part of them?
My friends, it is on us, as Christians, as God’s designated agents for the gospel, to be prepared for those divine appointments and to be ready to act when God calls. Prepare yourself for the call. Act upon it when it comes. Because Christ has given his disciples a mission in this world, we must respond to his call.
It is interesting in vv. 39-40 that Philip is somehow transported north to a town called Azotus. The language in v. 39, “The Spirit of the Lord carried Philip away” is very similar to a number of verses in Ezekiel, such as 3:14, which we read earlier, where Ezekiel says, “The Spirit lifted me up and took me away.” The impression is that God supernaturally transported him. That’s pretty cool, isn’t it!? … “Up, Up, and Away!”
Well, in Azotus, Philip continued following the Lord’s calling of taking the saving message of Jesus Christ to numerous people day in and day out, as he worked his way up towards Caesarea. It’s like “The Never-ending Battle” that we see in Superman comics. Week after week Superman hears the call for help, and then he goes to save whoever it is that needs it, no matter who they are. After one is saved, another needs help, and then another, and so on with no end in sight (at least until the printing press stops).
As disciples of Christ we are part of a Never-ending battle (at least until Christ comes again). We don’t get to retire from this mission to share the gospel of Jesus’ saving work, until we go home to be with Christ. Until then, we must listen for the call, and respond, rejoicing in doing the Lord’s will all the days of our life. Because Christ has given his disciples a mission in this world, we must follow his call.
 Darrell L. Bock, Acts, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2007), 341.
 J. David Hester, “Eunuchs and the Postgender Jesus: Matthew 19.12 and Transgressive Sexualities,” JSNT 28:1 (2005), 14-15.
 Clark M. Williamson, “The Ethiopian Eunuch: Dealing with a Gender-Bender: Acts 8:26-40,” Encounter 73.3 (2013), 47-56.
 Marshall, Acts, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Downers Grove IL: InterVarsity Press, 2008), 161.
 Irenaeus of Lyons, “Irenæus against Heresies,” in The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus, ed. Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe, vol. 1, The Ante-Nicene Fathers (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1885), 433 (3.12.8).