For some reason Ethiopia was left out of the list of nations present in Jerusalem on Pentecost (see Acts chapter 2). Whether Luke, the writer of both the Gospel that bears his name and Acts, had that specifically in mind by the time he wrote what we know as chapter 8 is open for some speculation. But it’s apparent the Holy Spirit was concerned about including Ethiopians in the rapidly expanding “way” of Christ:
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. But Philip found himself at Azotus, and as he was passing through the region, he proclaimed the good news to all the towns until he came to Caesarea. –Acts 8:26-40 NRSV
There’s a lot more going on in this fascinating passage than the Ethiopian connection, of course. Still, it’s a good beginning point. The Holy Spirit was at work, extending the good news of Jesus Christ, a process that continues up to the present day.
It wasn’t Philip’s idea to head down that wilderness road from Jerusalem to Gaza. It’s to his credit that he went. He may have been wondering why initially, but there’s no indication he had doubts or second thoughts. He soon encountered an unusual “evangelism target,” to use a much more modern term: a government official charged with responsibility for the royal treasury. But, of course, that’s not all. This man happened, also, to be a eunuch.
Keep in mind that observant Jews of that time did their best to avoid contact with foreigners and people who had any kind of abnormality, disability, sickness, or other such ritually unclean characteristics. The temple in Jerusalem was off limits, even to male Jews, who were sick, disabled (whether that meant a broken bone, speech impediment, or leprosy), or had recently touched either a dead body or a menstruating woman. The actual list is much longer, but I don’t see the point in dwelling excessively on this.
In any event, we pick up Philip’s story as he encounters this Ethiopian eunuch reading from the prophet Isaiah, but unable to understand who or what the passage is really about. And so God places Philip in the right place at the right time to explain the Isaiah connection with Jesus.
The story could have ended right there, but the eunuch (sadly we never learn his name and must be satisfied to keep using a descriptive term to identify him) makes Philip’s evangelistic/missionary work even easier: “Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?”
His task accomplished, Philip is “snatched” by the Holy Spirit and soon found himself someplace else. The eunuch, meanwhile, went on his way rejoicing.
Granted, this probably isn’t a pattern for widespread evangelistic efforts. Yet it highlights some important truths for us today: There are no national boundaries when it comes to the gospel of Jesus Christ. Neither are there physical, sexual, or gender restrictions as to who God wants as a follower of Christ. Just as it was not Philip’s role to judge who was “qualified” to receive the good news, neither is it ours to do the equivalent in the 21st century. To share boldly, almost by definition, requires that we be inclusive and open.
*From the 2012 ForeWords archive