This is Black History month so it seems like a great time to focus on one of the great stories of a black man in the New Testament. His story is told in the last half of the eighth chapter of Acts. Philip the Evangelist had been preaching in Samaria where he had a tremendous revival and many people came to faith in Jesus. But the Holy Spirit called him to leave that well-populated area to go out into a deserted area to meet with a single person, a traveler on their way home from Jerusalem, where he had gone to worship God. We don’t know this man’s name. We know his importance in the world. He served as treasurer for the Queen of Ethiopia. We know that he was a eunuch which means he had been castrated at some point in his life, probably when he became an official for the Ethiopian government. We know that he was religious. It certainly took a lot of effort to travel all the way from Ethiopia to Jerusalem by means of a chariot. It would be a lengthy trip by car today on nice roads traveling at 70 miles per hour. He was a “God Fearer” which meant that he was a Gentile that worshiped the God of the Israelites, but who had not been circumcised to become a Jew. Since he was a eunuch he wouldn’t have been allowed to become a full member of the Jewish faith. But he certainly loved God and wanted to both worship him and learn more about how to both worship and serve him in his daily life. On his way home from Jerusalem he was still studying and striving to grasp the word of God. He had obtained a scroll of the Book of Isaiah and was reading from it as he traveled along. He obviously was a person of significant wealth to be able to purchase such a scroll, since most people wouldn’t have been able to afford such a purchase.
I suspect that most of the people who traveled down to Jerusalem to worship and spent the week listening to the reading of different manuscripts of the Old Testament Scriptures and carrying out the different rituals of the law, were not continuing to read from the Old Testament on their way home. Most likely the majority felt they had fulfilled their yearly obligation and now were able to get back to regular life. After all, how many of us leave worship each week even talking about what we studied or learned from the things that went on in worship or Bible study?
What is so amazing to me is that the Spirit told Philip to join himself to the chariot and he ran up beside the man in the chariot and noticed he was reading from the Manuscript of Isaiah. He asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?” The fact he would ask such a question is impressive to me, but the answer from the Ethiopian official is even more impressive. Think about being asked that question as you are reading something in a public place. How would you respond if you were sitting on a airplane or in some public area and were reading from the Bible and someone came up to you and asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?” How would you respond? Most likely, I would say something, “Well, I think so. I read it a lot and think I am getting it for myself.” But this important, official who was likely used to people bowing to him and addressing him as “Sir” responded to a total stranger running up beside his chariot, asking him if he understood with an honest appeal. “How can I unless someone guides me?” He then invited Philip to join him in his chariot and to help him in his understanding.
He told Philip what he was reading and it was what we now know as Isaiah 53. It is one of the most powerful prophesies of Jesus coming into the world and giving his life as a sacrifice so that we can be saved. The Eunuch asked, “Who is he talking about, himself or someone else?” Philip started right there and preached to him Jesus. The truth is the Bible is so pointed toward Jesus that one can began anywhere and head straight to Jesus and he will be in good shape. What is even more impressive to me is that as Philip preached Jesus to him the Ethiopian official took it very personally. They came to a certain stream or body of water and he asked Philip, “See, here is water. What hinders me from being baptized?” They stopped the chariot and both of them went down into the water and Philip baptized him there in this deserted area. Then they separated and the official went on his way rejoicing.
I wish we knew for certain what happened after this in his life. There is a tradition from the third century that he went home to Ethiopia and started a congregation of the Lord’s people and that later Philip the apostle came there and stayed until he was executed for his preaching of Christ. But the tradition is that they church in that part of the world grew and became one of the strongest in the world of that day.
What is certain is that he was an honest man, open to the truth of God’s word and of such an humble heart he was ready to admit his need for help and to accept the help of another person he didn’t know at all. I wish we knew his name. I hope to meet him in heaven and learn more of what happened when he got home to Ethiopia. His heart for God and listening to His word should be held up for all people of all times.