Acts 8:26–39 (NRSV)
Then an angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Get up and go toward the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” (This is a wilderness road.) So he got up and went. Now there was an Ethiopian eunuch, a court official of the Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, in charge of her entire treasury. He had come to Jerusalem to worship and was returning home; seated in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah. Then the Spirit said to Philip, “Go over to this chariot and join it.” So Philip ran up to it and heard him reading the prophet Isaiah. He asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?” He replied, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” And he invited Philip to get in and sit beside him. 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 silent before its shearer,
so he does not open his mouth.
In his humiliation justice was denied him.
Who can describe his generation?
For his life is taken away from the earth.”
The eunuch asked Philip, “About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?” Then Philip began to speak, and starting with this scripture, he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus. As they were going along the road, they came to some water; and the eunuch said, “Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?” He commanded the chariot to stop, and both of them, Philip and the eunuch, went down into the water, and Philip baptized him. When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away; the eunuch saw him no more, and went on his way rejoicing.
Some stories may be hard for us to enter because the wall between the text and our own experience as those who receive the story is built high and thick. But we can’t afford for that to be the case with this encounter between Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch.
Let’s place ourselves within the story.
We’re first greeted by Philip. We don’t often hear much about Philip. His evangelistic power is often trapped in the shadow of Peter and Paul, who formally bore the title of “apostle.” Even more confusing is his similarity in name to Philip the Apostle, one of the twelve original disciples of Jesus. But Philip was a faithful leader in movement of the early church of Acts. He was a servant leader, having been delegated the task of caring for the poor of the community in Acts 6. He was an effective preacher and evangelist who traveled throughout Samaria, even performing deeds of power as confirmation of the message he proclaimed. In Acts 21, we find out that Philip’s daughters as well had been given power from God to prophecy, bringing the word of God into people’s unique story.
Of course, Philip the evangelist is most well known for this encounter with a Ethiopian eunuch who was traveling on the wilderness road between Jerusalem and Gaza.
You might say that Philip had encountered this individual by fate or chance; it was certainly a delightfully serendipitous moment. But more than that, Luke tells us here in Acts that this encounter was the work of God, through the Holy Spirit and the whole assembly of divine messengers. One of these angels is said to have told Philip directly, “Get your butt in gear, Philip! Go toward the south, to the wilderness road.” The angel didn’t tell Philip why he was going. He had to trust that God would lead him and reveal the reason why he was there.
He must have known, upon seeing the royal caravan of the Ethiopian queen—or, at least, the chariot of one of her officials—that this was why he was sent. And sure enough, the eunuch engaged Philip in conversation. Barbara Brown Taylor, in her commentary, equates this scene to a foreign diplomat in Washington, D.C. pulling over and asking a street preacher, a sidewalk prophet, to join him in his Audi or Lexus (or, maybe these days, a Tesla Model X) to tell him what he was shouting about.
This court official invites Philip into the car, right along the side of the road, for a little Bible study. See, he had been listening to an audiobook version of Isaiah over his car stereo system…
Of course, there was no such thing invented yet. No, this guy was riding down the road with a scroll of the prophet in hand! If you know anything about scrolls and how expensive and unwieldy they can be, you might get a chuckle out of this scene. It reminds me of the people you see, in examples of bad driving, with the print edition of the Post-Gazette unfolded and draped over the steering wheel of a man driving through stop-and-go traffic.
Philip, enticed by the Spirit upon hearing the words of Isaiah, ran over to his car and exclaims, “You’re reading Isaiah? That’s one of my favorite books! We can be book buddies. Have you gotten to the end yet? That’s the best part. Oh I just can’t wait until you get to the end, but I don’t want to spoil it for you…”
But actually, the eunuch says, “How can I understand what’s going on unless someone guides me? I’ve gotten to chapter 53, and the prophet says, ‘like a sheep he was led to the slaughter, and like a lamb silent before its shearer, he does not open his mouth. In his humiliation justice was denied him. Who can describe his generation? For his life is taken away from the earth.’
“Who is the prophet talking about? Himself, or is it about someone else?”
Deep down though, he’s wondering, “is this the kind of story where we can see ourselves in what we’re reading? Am I wrong to find hope for myself in these words?”
Because, reading from Isaiah’s description of the servant who brings hope through suffering, his heart is saying, “That’s me! That’s me! Whoever this prophet is talking about, he knows my condition.”
See, this court official, as Luke tells us, is a eunuch. If you don’t know what that means, you might have to ask your parents when you get home. And if you’re the parent… I guess you’re out of luck! Suffice it to say, this man was not a parent and he could never be. Though he was glorified in his position in the upper eschaton of society, he was denied the possibility of carrying on his family line. Like a sheep led to the slaughter, he was cut off from his people!
More poignantly, he felt cut off from his God. Whether or not he was a Jew or Gentile, one of God’s chosen or a God-fearer of foreign descent, he was a eunuch. Even if he could participate in some religious functions, he was always a second-class citizen in the eyes of those in his faith that held to the religious purity laws of Deuteronomy, which say in chapter 23 that no one marked as a eunuch could enter the assembly of the Lord—ever. They would be forever cut off.
This eunuch has everything he would ever need, except the one thing most important to him—full inclusion among God’s people, without any stares, sneers, or snide remarks. His identity, the name he is called to this day, was his humiliation in the divine court.
But these words from Isaiah gave him hope. In addition to its blessing of the righteous sufferer, of which he was one, just three chapters later Isaiah proclaims a word of inclusion for those who have been cut off from God’s people.
In the restored kingdom, Isaiah says the eunuch will be blessed, saying:
Let no foreigner who is bound to the Lord say, “The Lord will surely exclude me from his people.” And let no eunuch complain, “I am only a dry tree.” For this is what the Lord says: “To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths, who choose what pleases me and hold fast to my covenant—to them I will give within my temple and its walls a memorial and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that will endure forever.”
To the eunuch, this must all be too good to be true. But if its true, this scroll of Isaiah would have been well worth its price. The message it offers him is more precious than gold. He needs to know for sure what it means, and so Philip is called over and he asks, “about whom does the prophet say this? Is this good news even for people like me?”
Philip takes up the mantle of Jesus in responding to the eunuch’s question. Jesus had come, proclaiming good news from Isaiah and saying that the words of Isaiah are fulfilled in his presence! Jesus had, after his resurrection, opened the minds of his disciples to the Scriptures. And now, Philip will be the conduit for the presence of Jesus for this eunuch, for whom Scripture is surely fulfilled in his hearing!
Luke doesn’t tell us exactly what Philip said to the eunuch, but given the reference to sheep and the slaughter in Isaiah, I’m sure he told him something about the good shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep. I’m sure Philip said something about the death of Jesus, in which he took on the scorn and pain this eunuch had known. He doubtlessly told of the good news of the resurrection, in which the one who was cut off for our sakes was raised to glory.
But we don’t know exactly what Philip told him about baptism. It was certainly a part of the story, but it’s not likely that Philip ever told the eunuch, “in order to receive the benefits of Christ, you must do this, this, and this.” Or, “if we don’t ever encounter any water here on the road, you’re out of luck, because you need it to get a ticket to heaven.” We can be sure, though, that Philip did not tell the eunuch that he could only become fully included in God’s family if he miraculously was restored to “normal” sexual function and attraction. This eunuch would be a eunuch in God’s kingdom, as he was in the kingdom of Ethiopia.
The eunuch didn’t wonder about baptism because he was strong-armed or threatened by Philip. Rather, he asked because the good news from Philip and Isaiah indicated that he could be baptized!
This court official was cut off from his people. He might not have been able to be circumcised and given the physical mark of God’s Hebrew children. And so he sees a water in the desert on their journey. He sees, as though a mirage, an oasis in the wilderness. And the eunuch goes out on a limb and asks, “what is preventing me from being baptized?”
Philip could have come up with all sorts of reasons. Others in the early church probably would have spoken them in his ear, trying to convince him not to baptize this man, threatening his evangelistic career. But, by the Holy Spirit, Philip silenced these voices and their reasons for not baptizing the eunuch.
In response to his question, Philip told him that he could receive this mark of the new covenant. The door to the kingdom was now open to him. The eunuch could receive, by water, the sign that he was a child of God, a full participant among God’s people, and one in which the Holy Spirit could work to bring good news to others.
The water of baptism was not a mere mirage in this eunuch’s wilderness. It was an oasis, a sanctuary of confident hope that sent a river of life through his desert.
You can imagine that this story would not have impressed everyone in the early church. Some would have been reluctant to extend this mark of the covenant to someone whose identity and difference separated them from what was “normal” or even natural. Others might have asked if the eunuch had been properly prepared for baptism, if he had said the right words or prayed the right prayers. I’ll admit the methodical Methodist in me gets a bit nervous and fidgety at the prospect of baptizing someone along the side of the road without adequate time to prepare and the presence of other Christians.
But the power of the Holy Spirit, the power of the resurrection had brought water to this desert, hope in this person’s despair and joy in his mourning.
This story shows us nothing other than the power of Jesus’ resurrection which brings abundant life for all God’s children. In this person’s life, Jesus’ spiritual presence becomes a living and active presence that restores to holy personhood one who had been cut off. The one who had borne the image of the kingdoms of Earth was shown to be someone who had always displayed the image of God!
Because of Jesus, this lost sheep of Israel and Ethiopia became part of the fold.
In response, it might be appropriate for us to consider what prevents us from experiencing the power of baptism. Many of us have already received God’s baptism as a permanently effective means of grace in our lives, but we may feel far from God’s power. We may be parched in a wilderness of our own making, or of situations we cannot control. But what is stopping us from coming to the oasis of God’s grace and diving in head first?
But this story can’t just be about us, because even the eunuch doesn’t keep his joy to himself. And if Philip had been content and stagnant in his baptism, the eunuch would have never known of this river of life! So the question we all need to ask is, “what is preventing anyone from being baptized into God’s family.” What is preventing anyone in our community or our extended family from being baptized and being fully included as a participant in the ministry of Christ?
God has called us all to be conduits of life-giving water in the midst of dry land. For whom is our church called to be an oasis of desperately needed water?
We can’t let go of that question until we have an answer. May we, like the Ethiopian eunuch, be willing to ask of God this question on our hearts: “who is begging for water? What is preventing them from diving in?”