Fulfilling Isaiah (Acts 8.26-39) [sermon 5-7-2017]


May 6, 2017 by jmar198013

Manuscript of my sermon for May 7, 2017. From our ongoing series, “Luke and Acts: The Good News of God’s Salvation.”

Text is Acts 8.26-39.

An audio link is embedded below for those who’d like to listen.

To the end of the earth

Our lesson from Acts today was the story of how Philip the evangelist baptized the Ethiopian eunuch. You may recall that we met Philip last week. He was one of the seven Greek-speaking disciples the Jerusalem church appointed to make sure the widows of the church were being looked after.

In our Gospel lesson today, we heard Jesus tell his disciples: repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be preached … to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. And as the the book of Acts opens, and Jesus is about to ascend to heaven, he tells his apostles: you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth (Acts 1.8).

And that’s what the book of Acts is about, mostly. How the Holy Spirit empowered the first generation of disciples to proclaim the Good News of God’s salvation—beginning in Jerusalem at Pentecost. Then spreading throughout Judea, then to Samaria, and finally to the end of the earth. That is, to the borders of the Roman Empire and beyond.

The story we heard in our Acts lesson today is how the Good News of God’s salvation began to reach the end of the earth.

As our story began today, an angel spoke to Philip. Just before this angel spoke to him, Luke tells us that Philip had converted a Samaritan village (Acts 8.4ff). So, just as Jesus said, the Good News of God’s salvation had reached Samaria. Now, it’s time for the Good News to go to the end of the earth.

The angel told Philip to Go south to the road—the desert road—that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza. Literally the middle of nowhere. When he got there, he saw a chariot traveling along the road. And the Holy Spirit told told him: Go to that chariot and stay near it.

Philip had no way of knowing this chariot was carrying someone from the end of the earth. That already, the Spirit was enabling a disciple of Jesus to send the Good News of God’s salvation to the other side of the world.

In story time, we find out who was in the chariot before Philip did. Luke tells us it was an Ethiopian eunuch, an important official in charge of all the treasury of the Kandake (which means “queen of the Ethiopians”). This man had gone to Jerusalem to worship and on his way home was sitting in his chariot reading the Book of Isaiah the prophet.

A bit of background. First, this man wasn’t from the nation we now call Ethiopia. Back then, Ethiopians referred to citizens of the Nubian kingdom, south of Egypt—an area we now know as Sudan. He was a black man from beyond the borders of the Roman Empire. It was a thousand-mile journey between his nation and Jerusalem. He had gone to Jerusalem to worship—probably he’d come for Passover and stayed through Pentecost. He may even have purchased the Isaiah scroll he was reading while in Jerusalem, to take home with him for personal study.

The Ethiopian eunuch had obviously fallen in love with the God of Israel. How had he even heard of Israel’s God, way out there on the edge of the ancient world? Well, this is probably going to blow your minds, but here goes. We all know there was a temple in Jerusalem. What I bet you didn’t know is that there were two other Jewish temples, both in Egypt. Fully-functioning, with priests and offerings and everything. [1] They’d been established by Jewish communities who’d moved to Egypt after they left the exile in Babylon. So the Ethiopian eunuch would have had two long-established Jewish communities not terribly far from him. And in Acts 15.21, Jesus’ brother James says as a matter of established fact: Moses has been proclaimed in every city for a long time.

In other words, God had been preparing the world—to the ends of the earth—for the Good News of salvation that would come through Jesus. God was no stranger to this Ethiopian eunuch from the edges of the known world, and the eunuch was no stranger to the God of Israel.

I believe—and I pray you do, too—that God is still working and moving in the world, and that no nation and no person is a stranger to God.

The Eunuch and the scriptures

There are two things you have to know to appreciate the story of Philip and the eunuch.

The first is Deut. 23.1-8. That passage begins:  No one who has been emasculated by crushing or cutting may enter the assembly of the Lord. The rest of the passage, down to verse 8, places strict prohibitions on foreigners in the assembly. Some can enter the assembly three generations removed. But others can’t enter at all, not even in the tenth generation. So Deut. 23.1-8 absolutely excludes eunuchs and foreigners from the assembly of Israel, and that includes in the temple. The Ethiopian eunuch obviously fits both categories.

The second thing we need to know is Isa. 56.3-8. That passage positively includes eunuchs and foreigners in the assembly and says God welcomes their offerings. In fact, Isaiah forbids eunuchs and foreigners from excluding themselves from God’s people because they feel ashamed or worthless. According to Isaiah, God’s word on the matter is:

Don’t let foreigners who commit themselves to the Lord say, “The Lord will never let me be part of his people.” And don’t let the eunuchs say, “I’m a dried-up tree with no children and no future” … For the Sovereign Lord, who brings back the outcasts of Israel, says: I will bring others, too, besides my people Israel.

Knowing what Isaiah 56 says about foreigners and eunuchs is crucial for understanding the story we heard today about Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch. Because when Philip met the eunuch, he was reading Isaiah 53. Just three chapters earlier in our Bibles. But the eunuch was reading Isaiah from a scroll—so just a column or two over on his scroll.

I don’t know exactly what changed between Deuteronomy 23 and Isaiah 56. But here’s what I suspect. The laws in Deuteronomy 23 were all about context—protecting the young nation of Israel from the pagan religious practices of the nations around them. Those practices included emasculating young boys for service in pagan shrines. God didn’t want that kind of cruel and dehumanizing behavior going on among his people, especially in the name of religion. [2] But later, after the Exile, Jewish people met a lot of foreigners and eunuchs were were good and decent people. And who were attracted to Israel’s God. Should those righteous foreigners and eunuchs be excluded from God’s people? They didn’t choose to be born foreigners or made eunuchs.

In other words, Deut. 23.1-8 made sense for its time and place, and Isa. 56.3-8 made sense for its time and place. And both were faithful words from God.

Now, imagine this eunuch. A foreigner who has committed himself to the God of Israel. He came all the way to Jerusalem from the ends of the earth just to worship God in the official temple. If they gave out awards for, Who traveled the farthest distance to come to worship this year?, he’d have won. Hands-down.

He was wealthy and powerful. The people of Jerusalem would have welcomed him as an exotic dignitary from across the world. Jews and Greeks didn’t discriminate against Africans for being black—many of them found dark Africans beautiful and fascinating. And still—even as they may have oohed and ahed over this rich and powerful nobleman from the other side of the known world, there were strict limits placed on his access to the temple. He could be at the temple in Jerusalem. But he couldn’t go in the temple.

Maybe some official gatekeeper told him: I’m sorry, sir—you’ll have to stay outside, in the Court of the Gentiles. Deuteronomy 23 says no eunuchs and no foreigners allowed. Rules are rules, you know.

I wonder—did the Ethiopian eunuch hang his head in shame? Or did he say, Oh yes, I understand completely. Trying to keep his chin up, fighting against the hidden rage and the red hot tears that stung his eyes. Rejected by God! It’s enough to make you sick, really.

Maybe some well-meaning person standing nearby tried to soften the sting of rejection. Mister, we’re sure sorry about that, really we are. We know you came from the end of the earth to worship our God, but see—we don’t make the rules. They’re God’s rules and, you know, we’re sure he had a very good reason for them.

Of course, I’m having to rely completely on my imagination here to reconstruct this scenario. Not only because Luke chose not to share these sorts of details when he wrote Acts. But also because I’m quite confident that none of us has ever seen or experienced anything quite like this in a church setting. Right?

I bet some of you are wondering: But preacher—if Isaiah the prophet had called on the people of God to welcome the foreigners and eunuchs hundreds of years before, why hadn’t they obeyed?

Well, for one—I suspect the leaders of the people succumbed to the fear of the slippery slope. If we allow this one exception, then all these other terrible things will happen. I can hear the temple priests now: You tell foreigners and eunuchs that God welcomes them and their offerings, there’s no telling what that will lead to. They wouldn’t know any better than to bring crawfish or pork chops or something equally unclean. Probably use strange fire, too.

Or maybe the priests got him on a technicality. All Jewish men—including converts—had to be circumcised. Given what we know of how they made men eunuchs in African royal courts at the time, the Ethiopian eunuch couldn’t have been circumcised even if he wanted to.

Church, the voice of God comes to us through his prophet Isaiah even today: My plans aren’t your plans, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord (Isa. 55.8). God is bigger and bolder and more merciful and loving than any technicality or slippery slope we can come up with to keep somebody else out. He’s going to find a way to welcome those who seek him, even if that means he goes around “official” channels.

Reading Isaiah with the eunuch

Luke says when Philip met the Ethiopian eunuch, he was reading from Isaiah 53. The famous passage that says things like:

He is despised and rejected of men;

a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief:

and we hid as it were our faces from him;

he was despised, and we esteemed him not.


we did esteem him stricken,

smitten of God, and afflicted.

Notice, Isaiah didn’t say God struck this person and afflicted him. It says that we humans saw him suffering and judged him stricken by God. Anyway …that passage. And maybe the eunuch didn’t get Isaiah yet, but Isaiah sure got him.

Luke says Philip heard the eunuch reading Isaiah 53. That means he was reading out loud to himself. The passage he was reading said: In his humiliation he was deprived of justice. Do you think the Ethiopian eunuch felt humiliation and shame because he couldn’t come into the temple to worship? Do you suppose he felt the sting of injustice, since he could’t help being foreign and a eunuch? I bet he did.

Luke tells us the Ethiopian eunuch also read this line from Isaiah 53: Who can speak of his descendants? You know that one poked at a tender spot for the eunuch, because he couldn’t have children, either. That’s where Philip found him, and that’s right where Philip began telling him the Good News about Jesus: Isaiah 53.

Here’s the way I hear their conversation unfolding in my mind:

See here, Mr. Eunuch, where it says: He was looked down on and passed over; and, people turned away, and they looked down on him, thought he was scum (Isa. 53.3). Anything like that ever happen to you?

And maybe the eunuch said:

Yes Sir. Why just recently at Passover, when I was turned away from the temple because I am a eunuch from another country. People looked down on me, and thought I was not as good as them. I guess I made them a little uncomfortable.

And then Philip might have said something like this:

Right. Well, same thing happened to this other guy I know. Last Passover. In Jerusalem. The high priests rejected him. All his friends turned their backs on him. The high priests and Romans had my friend killed. Crucified—lynched, really. People just looked the other way. I guess he made them uncomfortable, too.

And then perhaps the Ethiopian eunuch said something like this:

Oh my, I am very sorry, my friend! That is very bad news.

But then Philip tells him:

No, not at all! No, it’s actually very good news. See what Isaiah says here: the fact is, it was our pains he carried—our disfigurements, all the things wrong with us. … Through his bruises we get healed (Isa. 53.4-5).

How can that be? asks the eunuch, who is perplexed but fascinated.

And then Philip would say:

Because, Mr. Eunuch—he has felt the sting of rejection that tears your heart like a garment. Not just yours, but everyone. He took your shame on himself and it died with him. He won, and his victory is also yours. He let himself be excluded so that you could be included!

But then the Ethiopian eunuch might reply:

I still don’t understand, Sir.

And then Philip would point to the scroll and say:

Brother, it’s all right here! Tell me what it says.

So the eunuch carefully reads the words at the end of the passage:

Still, it’s what God had in mind all along … The plan was that he give himself as an offering for sin so that he’d see life come from it—life, life, and more life. And God’s plan will deeply prosper through him … Through what he experienced, my righteous one, my servant, will make many “righteous ones” … Because he looked death in the face and didn’t flinch, because he embraced the company of the lowest … he took up the cause of all the black sheep. (Isa. 53.10-12)

And then tells Philip:

I see now! The prophet says this was all God’s good plan. Because he let himself be exposed to that violent rejection, those who had been excluded are now counted as righteous. Because of what he did, he will have many descendants.

And then the eunuch just has to know:

Who is this man?  Tell me the Good News! Tell me about your friend who fulfilled this prophecy!

So Philip replies:

His name is Jesus. And you can be one of his descendants. Even though you are a foreigner, he can make you one of God’s own people. And even if you’re a eunuch, he will give you a very large family!

We don’t know how Philip got from there to baptism, and maybe it’s not important. What’s important is that somehow as that conversation unfolded, the eunuch got it, mostly. He said, Look, here is water. What can stand in the way of my being baptized? That’s an interesting question—what can stand in the way of my being baptized? Almost as if he’s still expecting some catch. That’s not surprising for a man who’s only been told the all reasons why he can’t be included among God’s people.

The Ethiopian eunuch’s baptism was the fulfillment of Isaiah 56. He became an embodiment of that prophecy—here he was a foreigner and a eunuch and God was accepting him and his offering. At last! Accepted by God. Included in God’s people! Welcomed into the new temple God is building through Christ and his church!

That is why what Philip told him was good news. That is why Luke tells us the eunuch went on his way rejoicing. Because he was no longer an outsider. He was living proof of Isaiah’s prophecy: For the Sovereign Lord, who brings back the outcasts of Israel, says: I will bring others, too (Isa. 56.8).

Philip showed the eunuch the Good News of God’s salvation is that Jesus has fulfilled Isaiah 53. Jesus offered his life to God on behalf of those who had been called “unclean.” And so God accepts the offerings of our lives through Jesus. Even those, like the Ethiopian eunuch, who had been called “unclean.” And so Isaiah 56 was fulfilled. The eunuchs and foreigners are included in God’s people.

But that’s not all. Isa. 45.15 said: the merchants of Ethiopia … Will all come over to you … Hands folded in reverence, praying before you … God is with you! There is no other God—none. That one got fulfilled as the wealthy Ethiopian official was embraced by God in the waters of baptism.

And then there’s Isa. 49.6: I will also make you—that’s Jesus—a light for the Gentiles, that my salvationGod’s salvation—may reach to the ends of the earth. Jesus had said that he would send witnesses to the end of the earth (Acts 1.8). And that’s exactly what happened when the Ethiopian eunuch went back to his land. On the edge of the known world. Rejoicing over God’s salvation.

And so, church—our work is to continue what God and Jesus and Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch began. To take up the cause of all the black sheep, the ones who have been considered unclean and excluded from God’s people. To bring them to the Good News of God’s salvation—that God has heard them crying out in their shame and humiliation. That they are not strangers to God. That God knows and loves all his children. That Jesus has borne their shame and rejection in his cross. That in the incarnation, death, resurrection, and glorification of Christ, Father God has embraced the company of the lowest. Our work as the church is to keep fulfilling Isaiah 56 through the Good News of Isaiah 53. We need to know who the foreigners and eunuchs of our time are to do this. I believe we are wise enough to know this.

Because the bottom line is, God has embraced the church in our shame and uncleanness through the waters of baptism. And Jesus’ word to us is the same as it ever was: Do unto others as I have done for you.

[1] For a solid introduction to Jewish temples in Egypt, see Bobby Valentine. “Indiana Jones, Temples of Jews and Acts: Who Did Philip talk To? Exegetical Notes on Acts 8.27 and Why History Matters.” Stoned-Campbell Disciple. February 11, 2017. Accessed April 28, 2017. http://stonedcampbelldisciple.com/2016/01/19/now-there-was-an-ethiopian-who-did-philip-talk-to-exegetical-notes-on-acts-8-27-and-why-historical-context-is-essential/.

[2] Ian Cairns, Deuteronomy: Word and Presence, International Theological Commentary, ed. Fredrick Carlson Holmgren and George A. F. Knight (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1992), 201.


One thought on “Fulfilling Isaiah (Acts 8.26-39) [sermon 5-7-2017]

  1. Lianne Simon says:

    Thank you. Those passages always bring tears to my eyes.

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