Sermon 2 May 2021


Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch

The gospel is only good news if it gets there in time.

Carl F. H. Henry

There are two main characters in this story and before we look at what happened when they met, I want to introduce you to both independently.

Firstly Philip, who is known as Philip the Evangelist or Philip the Deacon. Initially I wondered if he was the same man as Philip one of the Apostles, because that Philip brought different people to Jesus, including some Greeks who wanted to meet him. However, it seems that there were two Philips in the New Testament. Philip the Apostle and this Philip. This Philip is always referred to as one of the Seven Deacons, because he alongside Stephen, Procorus, Nocanor, Timon, Parmenas and Nicolas were chosen by the twelve apostles to serve the people of God. We know that as one of this group he was known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom.

After the persecution and scattering of the church in Jerusalem Philip found himself in Samaria where he proclaimed the Messiah and performed signs of healing and deliverance. This led to a dramatic response which in turn led the disciples Peter and John to come down from Jerusalem and check out what was happening in this community of half-Jews. What they found was that although the people had been baptised by Philip, they had not received the Holy Spirit and so the apostles laid their hands on them to receive the Holy Spirit.

What do we learn about Philip from this?

  1. He was a well-regarded member of the early church.
  2. He was used to serving his community.
  3. He had been caught up in the persecution of the Jerusalem church and had fled to Samaria.
  4. He was eager to share his faith and all he had received from Jesus. His experience in proclamation and healing could indicate that he may have been one of the 72 sent out by Jesus.
  5. He was successful in mission but he missed out the baptism of the Holy Spirit so Peter and John needed to add to what he had done.

I wonder how he felt after this event. Was he pleased to see Peter and John and relieved when they helped with the work in Samaria or was he embarrassed that he “hadn’t got it right” by missing out the baptism of the Holy Spirit? Luke doesn’t tell us. Some people would be rejoicing that so many people had responded positively to the gospel and be thrilled when Peter and John came and joined in with the mission adding a new dimension and bestowing their blessing on this work (the first we hear of the early church going into Samaria). Others would be discouraged; they had worked their socks off and got a great response and then along came Peter and John and pointed out the bits they had got wrong and then appeared to get all the glory!

Before we go on, I want you to take a moment to think about how you would have behaved and thought if you had been in Philip’s shoes after the events in Samaria.

Now let’s meet the Ethiopian Eunuch. Sadly, we don’t know his name, perhaps because he introduced himself to Philip by his title and profession. He was an official of the Kandrake or Queen Mother of the Kingdom of Ethiopia. She was an important woman not just in Ethiopia but on the world stage. He oversaw her treasury, which tells us that he was a highly trusted servant. He carried prestige and status. He was highly educated and intellectually curious because he was reading as he travelled.

He came from Ethiopia or Cush which is not the same as present day Ethiopia. It lay to the south of Egypt, beginning at Syene and extending to beyond the confluence of the White and Blue Nile. It corresponds generally with what is now known as the Soudan (i.e., the land of the blacks). We know that the Hebrews traded with Ethiopia.

The word Ethiopia meant country of the burnt faces in Greek and the Hebrew term Cush was derived from the same source. So it is likely that this man was dark-skinned, which in this era of “Black lives Matter” and the allegations of racism in the Church of England is important to remember. When black people walked into British churches in the 1950s & 60s, we treated them with distain and some still do today but right in the first chapters of Acts we see the Lord picking a black African as one of the first followers outside Israel.

He was also a eunuch. Some people have questioned if this was entirely likely because it would have meant that he would not have been allowed into the Temple to pray when he went to Jerusalem, but Luke uses the word 6 times in this passage so it seems likely that it was not simply a title given to a senior servant of a female monarch but was in fact physically true. So not only was he ethnically different but his sexuality was also challenging to family orientated Jews.

What do we know about this man?

  1. He was extremely affluent.
  2. He was a person of power and authority.
  3. He was spiritually and intellectually curious.
  4. He almost certainly ethnically black African.
  5. He had an ambiguous sexuality.

He was going home after a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, with potentially more questions than he came with. He was what we today sometimes call a seeker; looking for meaning and with a desire to worship. I wonder how he had been received in Jerusalem, whether his hosts had welcomed him because of his desire to worship or if they had treated him as an outsider? I wonder if he was travelling home thinking what a wonderful time he had had and eager to learn more or if he was feeling deflated and unwanted, searching the Scriptures for something to feed his spiritual hunger?

We are going to take another short break for you to imagine what it must have been like to be this man, at the start of a long journey home.

Finally we come to the actual story!

It begins with an angel of the Lord speaking to Philip. He is told to go south to the road from Jerusalem to Gaza. A desert road. It was the equivalent to being told to go to the A4 between Marlborough and Hungerford. A main road. The angel did not tell Philip why he should go, he was simply told where to go and even that was not very specific. If it had been me, I might have asked for a little more detail! But Philip simply went. This is the secret of working with God. Do what he asks, go where he directs and don’t ask too many questions. Just trust.

Then as Philip was on his way; presumably on the road the angel had told him about, he met the Ethiopian Eunuch. I don’t suppose he was introduced but rather he came across this traveller. Probably travelling with an entourage, with outriders, servants and a grand chariot he would have been hard to miss! Philip would have watched this spectacle, and as he did so the Spirit told him to ‘Go to the chariot and stay near it’, so he ran to catch up. Some people have suggested that Philip ran alongside the chariot and he might have done so but it is more likely that he walked (albeit quite fast). On such a long hot journey, animals would not be expected to gallop or even canter but would gently make their way carrying goods and people to their destination. It would have been a tedious trip for those not expected to walk or drive. Perhaps that was why the eunuch was reading. And as was the practice at the time he was reading aloud. As Philip walked alongside, he could hear what was being read.

Now he knew that the eunuch was interested in spiritual things. Now was his chance to tell him all about Jesus! Maybe he started to get butterflies in his stomach. This is why the angel had told him to come …! He began to tell him the good news. He had his speech all prepared. He had memorised what Peter said that first Pentecost, so he began to tell him the gospel… NO HE DIDN’T.

He met the man where he was. ‘Do you understand what you are reading?’ he asked. He found a common meeting point. So often when we think about telling someone about Jesus we imagine a beautifully prepared speech which the person listens to with open mouth before falling to their knees and accepting Christ as their saviour. Since we see this as highly unlikely, we stop before we even begin.

Philip made no assumptions. He asked a question. ‘Do you understand?’ The man was coming from Jerusalem. He might have been to a theological seminar! He might have been simply reading Isaiah as poetry to sooth his soul. Philip’s question began a conversation. Maybe he felt that this was going to be a conversation that went somewhere because of the dramatic way God had got him there but it was still a conversation not a bombardment!

The eunuch responded, ‘How can I understand unless someone explains it to me?’ What an amazingly acute statement! Listen to it again:

HOW CAN I UNDERSTAND UNLESS SOMEONE EXPLAINS IT TO ME?

Isn’t this true of people around us today?

Once again Philip didn’t launch into a pre-prepared speech. He asked the eunuch what he was struggling with. ‘Who was this passage about?’ He replied. This was Philip’s opportunity to engage. I imagine that that long chariot journey became a little shorter as together the men discussed about Jesus, and what had happened since his death and resurrection. We are not told the whole conversation, but it must have included something about baptism because it is the eunuch who suggests that Philip baptise him. He doesn’t wait to be invited, to do the course or understand the Scriptures, he asks to be baptised NOW.

I wonder how long that conversation was? It certainly included all that the eunuch needed to know to begin his walk of faith because immediately after the baptism Philip was taken away by the Spirit to continue his work in Azotus near the coast around 15 miles away.

Luke tells us that the eunuch went on his way rejoicing but I imagine that Philip did too. Strengthened and encouraged to listen afresh to the calling of the Lord to go where he was leading, preaching in all the towns as he went.

As we end, I want to challenge you to listen more carefully to the Holy Spirit’s promptings. You may think he is taking you to the middle of nowhere, but God doesn’t ask us to understand just to obey. He will lead you (and me) to the people he wants to hear the good news (maybe we will be the answer to someone’s prayers to have someone to explain things to them). But when you get there, start where they are. Ask questions and listen so that you know where they are at and you can make what you have to say relevant to them.

I want to end with this quote from Matt Diaz

We Christians sometimes think we need a plan for evangelism. I don't think Jesus had an evangelism plan. I think He just interacted with the people He came into contact with.

So let us go where the Spirit sends and interact with the people we meet there.


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