How would you feel if you made a very long journey to see the natural beauty of Niagara Falls, but when you arrived you were told “you must keep your distance.” There you are, close enough to see the mist rising from the falls, but instead of enjoying that wonderful natural beauty you are kept in the highly commercialized part of town. There is something similar happening to an Ethiopian eunuch we meet in Acts 8. He has a desire to worship the God of Israel, and takes a long trek to seek God’s presence at the temple in Jerusalem. But he can only get so close before he is barred from going further. He is a foreigner and a eunuch, a guarantee of always being considered as too unclean to enter the temple. And so he can only go as far as the busy and noisy outer courts of the temple, where people are buying and selling for the sacrifices. Perhaps you feel you have a similar problem, wanting to draw close to God, but not feeling good enough to do so?
When we meet the eunuch, he is already on his way home. He has gone as far as he was allowed to go in his pursuit of God’s presence. Now, on his way home, we find something remarkable. God is pursuing him.
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.) 27 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 28 and was returning home; seated in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah. 29 Then the Spirit said to Philip, “Go over to this chariot and join it.” Acts 8:26-29 NRSV
Sometimes we fail to see God in the details. We might be ready to affirm that God desires to bring salvation to sinners, but we might fail to appreciate that God desires to work in the life of this or that particular sinner. We might even be that particular person we doubt God could be interested in. Yet God’s work in the life of one individual could not be clearer than we find in His pursuit of the Ethiopian eunuch. Let’s see what happens next:
30 So Philip ran up to it and heard him reading the prophet Isaiah. He asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?” 31 He replied, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” And he invited Philip to get in and sit beside 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 silent before its shearer, so he does not open 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 The eunuch asked Philip, “About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?” 35 Then Philip began to speak, and starting with this scripture, he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus. Acts 8:30-35 NRSV
The good news Phillip has for the eunuch is that Jesus is the one described in that prophecy of Isaiah 53:7,8 and he is now risen from the dead. Jesus is the suffering servant. And you can imagine Phillip pointing out the surrounding verses in that same prophecy of Isaiah to tell why he suffered:
Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases; yet we accounted him stricken, struck down by God, and afflicted. 5 But he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed. 6 All we like sheep have gone astray; we have all turned to our own way, and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all. Isaiah 53:4-6 NRSV
They made his grave with the wicked and his tomb with the rich, although he had done no violence, and there was no deceit in his mouth. 10 Yet it was the will of the LORD to crush him with pain. When you make his life an offering for sin, he shall see his offspring, and shall prolong his days; through him the will of the LORD shall prosper. 11 Out of his anguish he shall see light; he shall find satisfaction through his knowledge. The righteous one, my servant, shall make many righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities. 12 Therefore I will allot him a portion with the great, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong; because he poured out himself to death, and was numbered with the transgressors; yet he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors. Isaiah 53:9-12 NRSV
Jesus suffered to bring salvation to the sinner. But did he suffer for an outcast like the Ethiopian eunuch? “Philip began to speak, and starting with this scripture, he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus.” I wonder if Phillip went on to the prophecy of Isaiah chapter 56:
3 Do not let the foreigner joined to the Lord say,
“The Lord will surely separate me from his people”;
and do not let the eunuch say,
“I am just 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.
6 And the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord,
to minister to him, to love the name of the Lord,
and to be his servants,
all who keep the sabbath, and do not profane it,
and hold fast my covenant—
7 these I will bring to my holy mountain,
and make them joyful in my house of prayer;
their burnt offerings and their sacrifices
will be accepted on my altar;
for my house shall be called a house of prayer
for all peoples.
8 Thus says the Lord God,
who gathers the outcasts of Israel,
I will gather others to them
besides those already gathered.
Isaiah 56:3-8 NRSV
I wonder if Phillip told the eunuch about Jesus quoting from this passage in the outer courtyards of the temple as he rebuked those making profits there. This was to be a house of prayer for all nations, but how could the nations worship among all the buzz of commerce? Did the eunuch’s heart warm as he heard about Jesus’ concern for the outcast, for the foreigner and the eunuch who came to the temple to worship? Did it burn as he heard that Jesus was the servant who suffered even for an outcast like him? Did it rejoice to know that this Jesus was risen from the dead and that God was pursuing him, specifically sending Phillip to tell him the good news? Something did indeed happen in the eunuch’s heart:
36 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?” 38 He commanded the chariot to stop, and both of them, Philip and the eunuch, went down into the water, and Philip baptized him. Acts 8:36-38 NRSV
As an Ethiopian and a eunuch, there was only so far this man could go in becoming a Jewish convert with full privileges. And yet here he was baptized, symbolizing his complete inclusion into the body of Christ. As an Ethiopian and a eunuch, there was only so far he could go in pursuing the presence of God at the temple before he would be stopped by the religious authorities. But here God pursued him. Now through the Holy Spirit he had become the place of God’s presence. The good news for the Ethiopian eunuch is good news for us. God loves and pursues the outcast. Are you pursuing Him?
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