Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch

Scripture: Acts 8:26-40

 

Title: The Gospel as Treasure

 

Structure:

  • Introduction
  • Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch
  • Conclusion

 

Introduction:

Recently Robyn & I were fortunate enough to spend a week in Taupo

–         While we were there we came across a pamphlet detailing the top 10 walking tracks around the Taupo area

–         One of these walks was up Mount Tauhara, which is the mountain you can see tucked behind the Taupo township

–         I was quite keen to climb this mountain so Robyn and I came to a mutual agreement that she would go shopping for a mothers’ day present for my mum while I went climbing (climbing is less exhausting than shopping)

 

Anyway, Mt Tauhara isn’t that tall – the summit is only 1,088 meters and the track begins half way up anyway – but it is pretty steep all the way

–         I smashed it – got the top in 1 hour – which isn’t bad for an old guy

 

At the top a woman, with her three kids, laid down a painted rock

–         She explained to the rest of us there what she was doing

–         The idea is to paint a rock and then write on the back # the name of your town Rocks

–         For example, we might write #TawaRocks or if you come from Dunedin you would write #DunedinRocks

 

You hide the rock somewhere that people are likely to find it and then the finder snaps a photo holding it, uploads the photo onto social media, and re-hides it for someone else to find

  • – It’s sort of like a treasure hunt – except you don’t keep the treasure for yourself, you pass it on for others
  • – Apparently one rock which started in NZ has ended up in Italy

 

Today is the first of three Sundays when we promote Tranzsend’s prayer and self-denial campaign

–         Tranzsend supports and resources NZ Baptist missionaries serving overseas

–         The theme for this year’s self-denial campaign is treasures handed down

–         Jesus is the greatest treasure God gave the world and one of the main ways that Jesus is handed down to us is through the gospel

 

The word gospel simply means ‘good news’

–         In particular it refers to the good news that, through faith in Jesus, God accepts us

 

The gospel also refers to the four accounts of Jesus’ life and work, which we read about in the New Testament books of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John

–         In many ways though the whole Bible points to Jesus – both the Old Testament and the New Testament – it’s all about Christ

–         In fact, Jesus is the key to understanding the Bible

 

Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch:

Please turn with me to Acts chapter 8, verse 26

–         You can find Acts 8 on page 161 toward the back of your pew Bibles

–         The Scripture reading I’ve chosen to go with this theme, that the gospel of Christ is treasure, is the account of Philip’s conversation with the Ethiopian eunuch

–         This is sort of a painted rocks story in that the treasure of the gospel is passed on to a distant land

–         From Acts chapter 8, verses 26-40 we read…

 

26 An angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Get ready and go south to the road that goes from Jerusalem to Gaza.” (This road is not used nowadays.) 27-28 So Philip got ready and went. Now an Ethiopian eunuch, who was an important official in charge of the treasury of the queen of Ethiopia, was on his way home. He had been to Jerusalem to worship God and was going back home in his carriage. As he rode along, he was reading from the book of the prophet Isaiah. 29 The Holy Spirit said to Philip, “Go over to that carriage and stay close to it.” 30 Philip ran over and heard him reading from the book of the prophet Isaiah. He asked him, “Do you understand what you are reading?”

31 The official replied, “How can I understand unless someone explains it to me?” And he invited Philip to climb up and sit in the carriage with him. 32 The passage of scripture which he was reading was this:

“He was like a sheep that is taken to be slaughtered,     like a lamb that makes no sound when its wool is cut off.     He did not say a word. 33 He was humiliated, and justice was denied him.     No one will be able to tell about his descendants,     because his life on earth has come to an end.”

34 The official asked Philip, “Tell me, of whom is the prophet saying this? Of himself or of someone else?” 35 Then Philip began to speak; starting from this passage of scripture, he told him the Good News about Jesus. 36 As they travelled down the road, they came to a place where there was some water, and the official said, “Here is some water. What is to keep me from being baptized?” 37

38 The official ordered the carriage to stop, and both Philip and the official went down into the water, and Philip baptized him. 39 When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord took Philip away. The official did not see him again, but continued on his way, full of joy. 40 Philip found himself in Azotus; he went on to Caesarea, and on the way he preached the Good News in every town.

 

May the Spirit of Jesus illuminate this Scripture for us

 

In my 20’s I got a job working for a Non-Government Organisation which supports people with disabilities to live in the community

–         Part of my role was to accompany people, who experienced disability, as they led awareness training

–         This involved visiting schools and workplaces so people could talk about their lives and their disability as a way of breaking down barriers and helping mainstream society to accept individual difference

 

One guy I worked with lived with cerebral palsy

–         Cerebral palsy can affect people in different ways but in his case his movement and speech was disrupted, which meant he used a wheelchair to get around and other people found his speech difficult to understand

–         Every other part of his anatomy was in good working order

 

Although he was quite intelligent and capable the sound of his voice created a barrier in other people’s minds so that he was often prejudged as inferior or people simply lost patience with him and wrote him off

–         Part of my job was acting as his interpreter

–         He would say something and I would repeat it so that those in the room who weren’t used to his voice could get his meaning

–         My job then wasn’t so much to help him – he didn’t need my help

–         My job was to help others to understand him

 

One thing I learned quite quickly was that disability is a social construct

–         By which I mean it wasn’t cerebral palsy that disabled this guy so much as the society in which he lived

–         Other people’s prejudice was more disabling to him than cerebral palsy

–         It was not being given a fair go that disabled him

 

Our passage from Acts today begins with an angel of the Lord telling Philip to go out into the wilderness to a lonely road

 

An angel of the Lord is basically a messenger sent by God

–         That’s what angel means, ‘messenger’

–         Receiving a visitation from an angel made it abundantly clear that God was in this

 

Philip was one of Jesus’ 12 disciples

–         When Jesus called Philip to follow him, the first thing Philip did was to introduce one of his friends (Nathanael) to Jesus [1]

–         Nathanael also became a disciple of Jesus

–         Some people are like Philip – they are the glue connecting people

 

Philip was known as an evangelist

–         Evangelism has almost become a swear word these days, which is quite sad because evangelism is actually a good thing

–         It is a word closely related to ‘gospel’ or good news

–         An evangelist is essentially someone who spreads good news

–         Or to put it another way: evangelism is one beggar telling another beggar where to find bread

–         Philip is called an ‘evangelist’ because he was one man telling others in need they could find acceptance with God through faith in Jesus

 

Prior to being visited by an angel of the Lord, Philip had a very successful time telling the Samaritans the good news about Jesus

–         Crowds of people believed Philip’s message and became Christians by being baptised

 

It seems quite strange then that, after such a successful ministry in Samaria’s principal city, God would then send his star evangelist into the middle of nowhere

–         But Philip didn’t question God’s strategy – he simply trusted that God knows best and went where the Lord directed him

 

Travelling down this deserted road (at the same time as Philip) was an Ethiopian eunuch. What are the chances?

–         It’s a bit like finding a painted rock from Africa on the top of Mt Tauhara

 

Now when we hear the word Ethiopia we tend to think of famine and poverty and starving children

–         But in the ancient world Ethiopia was different to that – more wealthy

–         On today’s map it is located in North Sudan

–         So the Ethiopian eunuch was most likely a black African man

 

A eunuch is a man who has had his equipment (his tackle, his junk) removed or damaged so he can’t have children or even relate with a woman sexually

–         To a certain extent he has been disabled by the society he lives in

–         On the one hand a eunuch (if he was skilled enough) could rise to great power in government

–         This particular Ethiopian eunuch was something like the minister of finance in a very wealthy nation – so he was no slouch

–         But on the other hand eunuchs were also the subject of much derision and scorn – people made fun of them or despised them

 

I imagine it was a very isolated and lonely life being a eunuch

–         You could fall in love but you couldn’t marry or have children

–         You could rise to great power but only in the service of others

–         You could be very good at what you do but still have to endure sniggers and smirks behind your back from people far less capable than you

–         You could serve a very important purpose but never actually belong or be remembered. There was a certain injustice that came with being a eunuch

 

The Ethiopian eunuch had travelled a long way to Jerusalem to worship God

–         Somehow he had heard about the God of Israel and liked what he heard

–         Assuming he had been castrated though, under the Law of Moses, he could never belong to the congregation of God’s people [2]

–         He couldn’t even be circumcised and yet he did what he could to draw near to the Lord

–         He travelled to Jerusalem to worship God, he obtained a copy of the scroll of Isaiah the prophet (no doubt at great expense) and he read these holy Scriptures to know God better

 

It appears the eunuch’s visit to Jerusalem was somewhat disappointing

–         As Jesus had demonstrated, when he cleared the temple, the whole Jewish religious system was set up to exclude foreigners like this eunuch

–         No doubt his experience in Jerusalem had made it more difficult for the eunuch to understand the Hebrew Bible (our Old Testament)

–         How might he relate with this wonderful, powerful, creative, redeeming, faithful God?

 

The Bible is difficult to understand

–         What is meant as good news often comes across as bad news or, even worse, as nonsense

–         Because the Bible is hard to understand many people these days lose patience with it and write it off as a myth or untrue

–         In this way they seek to disable the Scriptures

–         This is quite unfair to God (a denial of justice)

 

Part of our role as Christians is to interpret the meaning of Scripture for those (like the eunuch) who do genuinely want to understand what the Bible is saying

–         That’s one reason why we have Bible study groups – not just to improve our own knowledge but also to help others interpret the Scriptures

 

The guy I worked with, who had cerebral palsy, struggled with understanding the Bible and the Old Testament in particular

–         There are verses in the Old Testament which seem to us today to be quite unfair to those who live with disability.

–         For example, Leviticus 21 where it says…

 

No man with any physical defect may make the offering: no one who is blind, lame, disfigured or deformed; no one with a crippled hand or foot; no one who is a hunchback or a dwarf; no one with an eye or skin disease; and no eunuch. 

 

If you live with a disability and you don’t understand the broader context of the Bible then words like these can very unhelpful – they sound like rejection

 

What we need to understand is that the Law of Moses is not the ideal and it was not meant to be permanent

–         God gave the Law to Israel as a provisional step towards restoring His ideal for creation [3]

–         There are a number of things the Law of Moses appears to condone which are far from ideal – like slavery for instance

–         Is slavery God’s ideal? No – of course not. But God couldn’t change everything all at once, it would be too much for people.

–         So God, in His grace and wisdom, meets people where they were at and regulates certain contemptible practices (like slavery) to protect the vulnerable

–         The Law of Moses was actually a huge moral advance for people living at that time in history but it was never the end goal – it was merely a stepping stone to the ideal

 

The prophets who came after Moses (like Isaiah & Jeremiah and all those guys) also provided a stepping stone, but ultimately we find God’s ideal in Christ

–         Jesus didn’t come to do away with the Law & prophets – he came to fulfil the Law – that is to restore God’s ideal for humanity

–         If the Law and the prophets were given to help transition us to God’s ideal then Jesus came to complete that transition

 

Jesus is the one who shows us what God’s ideal looks like

–         And when we look at Jesus’ attitude towards people who lived with disability we find it was one of acceptance and respect and empowerment

 

Returning to our friend the Ethiopian eunuch

–         God, who sees everything, is aware of the eunuch’s struggle with the Old Testament and acts to help him understand the full picture

–         The Holy Spirit says to Philip, Go over to that carriage and stay close it

–         Philip runs over beside the carriage – it would have been moving quite slowly so would not be hard to keep up with

–         And Philip hears the eunuch reading from the book of Isaiah (it was customary to read aloud in those times) so he asks the eunuch…

–         “Do you understand what you are reading?”

 

Socially speaking Philip and the eunuch were poles apart

–         The eunuch was high ranking and Philip was low ranking

–         They were also likely from a different cultural background

–         But that is often the way of Christ – he comes to us in weakness, when we least expect it and in the presence of someone quite different from us

–         Despite the social distance between them the eunuch is humble enough to admit he doesn’t understand and invites Philip to sit with him

–         By inviting Philip to sit beside him the eunuch closes the gap between them

 

The passage of Scripture the eunuch was reading was this…

 

“Like a sheep that is taken to be slaughtered, like a lamb that makes no sound when its wool is cut off, he did not say a word. He was humiliated and justice was denied him. No one will be able to tell about his descendants because his life on earth has come to an end.”   

 

Interestingly the eunuch doesn’t ask Philip, what does this mean?

–         He already knows what it means from his own personal experience

–         The eunuch knows what it is to have parts of himself cut off

–         He understands humiliation and injustice

–         He is well aware that he can’t have descendants and that his life is coming to an end

–         He knows well enough what it is to be near the top and still feel like you don’t belong, still wonder what the meaning of your life is

–         He can identify with the one being written about in a very real way

–         So he asks Philip,

–         “…of whom is the prophet saying this? Of himself or of someone else?”

–         Because whoever it is, the eunuch can relate to that person profoundly

 

Philip starts where the eunuch is at by explaining that the passage he is reading is talking about Jesus – Jesus is the key to understanding the Scriptures

–         Philip then goes on to explain the good news about Jesus – that through faith in Christ we can find acceptance with God

 

We can’t be sure of all that Philip talked about but given that the eunuch had a copy of Isaiah’s scroll on his lap it’s tempting to think that Philip pointed him to chapter 56 where Isaiah says…

 

A man who has been castrated [a eunuch] should never think that because he cannot have children, he can never be part of God’s people. The Lord says to such a man, “If you honour me… and if you do what pleases me and faithfully keep my covenant, then your name will be remembered… among my people longer than if you had sons and daughters. You will never be forgotten.”

 

Do you see here how Isaiah moves beyond the Law of Moses?

–         The Law said a eunuch could not be part of God’s people but by the time of Isaiah God is saying the eunuch is able to belong

 

I can imagine Philip saying to the eunuch: the way we honour God, the way we please him, the way we keep his covenant is through faith in Christ. Put your trust in Jesus, believe in him, and you will find acceptance with God

–         You see, Jesus has fulfilled the law on our behalf and so being a foreigner and a eunuch is no longer a barrier

–         This was incredibly good news to the eunuch

 

As they travelled down the road, they came to a place where there was some water and the official said, “…What is to keep me from being baptised?”

–         In other words, I believe in Jesus and I’m willing to demonstrate my faith in Christ through baptism

–         God had clearly set this encounter up – he had clearly woven Philip’s and the eunuch’s lives together at just the right moment

–         So Philip baptised him

 

After the eunuch’s baptism the Spirit of the Lord took Philip away to preach the good news about Jesus in other places while the eunuch went on his way rejoicing because he had found acceptance with God through Jesus

 

We don’t hear any more about the Ethiopian eunuch (in the New Testament at least) but early Christian tradition, dating from Irenaeus in the second century, says that he went on to proclaim the good news about Jesus in Africa

–         The eunuch shared the treasure of the gospel he had been given

 

Conclusion:

Part of the work of our Tranzsend missionaries involves being a Philip to those around them – helping others to understand the good news about Jesus found in the Bible

[1] John 1:43-45

[2] Deuteronomy 23:1

[3] Refer to Paul Copan’s book, ‘Is God a Moral Monster’, pages 57-62.

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