Unity in Acts of the Apostles (Part 1: Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch)

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Unity in Acts of the Apostles (Part 1: Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch)

Introduction

The fifth book of the New Testament, Acts of the Apostles, describes the formation and growth of the Christian church immediately following the ascension of the Messiah. Primarily narrative in form, Acts is a bridge between the four biographies of Jesus and the twenty-two letters addressing the members of the established Christian church. In Acts, the Holy Spirit takes the leading role in guiding the church, and one of the main purposes of the Spirit is to bring unity to the founding community of believers.

Under the guidance of the Spirit, as Christianity crosses geographical, ethnic, social, and religious boundaries, the growing community learns that the divine concept of unity is based on a shared belief in Christ, as opposed to ancestry and/or a faithless, ritualistic religion. Several narratives zoom in on this aspect of the Spirit’s guidance, four being of particular interest to the topic at hand: (1) the encounter between Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch (the first account of a Gentile’s conversion and baptism), (2) the encounter between Peter and Cornelius’ household (the first account of a Gentile group’s public conversion), (3) Peter’s defense at Jerusalem, and (4) Paul and Barnabas’ defense before the council of Jerusalem. The latter two are main examples of how the early church maintained unity in the face of conflicts arising from distinctive practices and different interpretations of Scripture.

I will study each of these four passages in a series which I hope will help us grasp more deeply the concept of unity as portrayed in Acts of the Apostles. The fifth, and last, article in the series will focus on the unity within the Trinity illustrated in Acts—a unity which should be reflected by the community of believers who profess to be led by God, and who wish to emulate the divine example. This type of unity is crucial to the realization of the Great Commission, which is at the core of the Adventist church’s mission.

Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch

Now an angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Rise and go toward the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” This is a desert place. And he rose and went. And there was an Ethiopian, a eunuch, a court official of Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, who was in charge of all her treasure. He had come to Jerusalem to worship and was returning, seated in his chariot, and he was reading the prophet Isaiah. And the Spirit said to Philip, “Go over and join this chariot.” So Philip ran to him and heard him reading Isaiah the prophet and asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?” And he said, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” And he invited Philip to come up and sit with 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 before its shearer is silent,
so he opens not his mouth.
In his humiliation justice was denied him.
Who can describe his generation?
For his life is taken away from the earth.”

And the eunuch said to Philip, “About whom, I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?” Then Philip opened his mouth, and beginning with this Scripture he told him the good news about Jesus. And as they were going along the road they came to some water, and the eunuch said, “See, here is water! What prevents me from being baptized?” And he commanded the chariot to stop, and they both went down into the water, Philip and the eunuch, and he baptized him. And when they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord carried Philip away, and the eunuch saw him no more, and went on his way rejoicing. But Philip found himself at Azotus, and as he passed through he preached the gospel to all the towns until he came to Caesarea. (Acts 8:26-40, ESV)

The plot of this story, rich in imagery and actions, is carried out by three leading characters: the Spirit, Philip, and the Eunuch. Three other characters are subtly or obliquely present: Candace, the queen of the Ethiopians (Candace is a term indicating a hereditary dynastic title;[1] it is “not the name of a person, but the title of the queen mother, who ruled in the place of her son”[2]), the person/s leading the chariot, and Jesus Christ, the suffering servant.

The Spirit

The Spirit appears in the beginning and at the end, and performs three actions: gives Philip two commands, both meant to enjoin the disciple and the eunuch, and snatches Philip away after the eunuch’s baptism. These commands involve a close collaboration between God and a disciple chosen for a specific task, and are fruitful to the extent that Philip complies, which he does remarkably in this narrative.

The angel’s commands include two spatial markers: God sends Philip south, and specifically along the road going down from Jerusalem to Gaza (vs. 26). Two roads going from Jerusalem to Gaza were available to travelers: one “went straight west to the coastal plains via the village of Lydda and linked with the caravan route between Egypt and Damascus; the other extended southward from Jerusalem to Hebron and then westward to Gaza. Philip’s instructions are to take the second route […] a road that was not much in use in those days.”[3]

Adding to the oddity of this command is the possible alternative translation of south, which can also mean noon.[4] If we adopt this rendition, then the command implies traveling at noon, in the high heat of the day. The task awaiting Philip suits well the strangeness of these directions.[5]

Philip

Philip follows the Spirit’s command in an “instant obedi­ence [which] reveals absence of any doubt of the authenticity of the message he had re­ceived.”[6] The oddity of a request which takes Philip into desert for no explicit purpose makes Philip’s compliance all the more extraordinary. Evidently, he is comfortably familiar with the voice of God, and trusts God enough to follow despite the limited information and unusual itinerary.

With the addition of the clause specifically mentioning the topography of the place (This is a desert place; vs. 26), we are left wondering at the very beginning of the story: what is Philip to find there, in the desert?

The Ethiopian Eunuch

Very quickly, we are illuminated regarding what Philip finds on this desert road: a high-ranking, rich Ethiopian eunuch, who had come to Jerusalem to worship and was sitting in his chariot, reading the book of Isaiah as he travelled home. But there is much more to this eunuch than meets the eye. In some ways, he is as peculiar a character as the strangeness of the divine commands.

The eunuch is portrayed as a proselyte returning from Jerusalem to his home country of Ethiopia. Commentators indicate that the biblical country Ethiopia “does not correspond to modern Ethiopia (Abyssinia), but to the Nubian kingdom whose capital was Meroe, south of Egypt, which is today part of Sudan.”[7] According to historical records, many Jews established residence in Egypt and Ethiopia, and “invited the Gentiles to their religious services, with the result that many Gentiles be­came God-fearers (see also Acts 10:2).”[8] The Eunuch was likely a regular worshipper at a Jewish synagogue in his home country.

His incredible dedication to God is illustrated by the fact that he embarked on an almost yearlong pilgrimage (the trip is estimated to have taken five months each way![9]) in order to worship at Jerusalem and learn more about Him. In addition, he owned a copy of Isaiah (something difficult to possess at the time[10]), which not only points to his wealth, but also to his enthusiasm for the biblical records. That the Eunuch was well to do is also evident in his function as prime minister of finances and the possession of a chariot.[11] He was likely  accompanied by a large retinue, to which a single traveler would have customarily attached himself in those days.[12]

It is important to note that, while Judaism allowed for the conversion of foreigners, a particular aspect of this man’s identity prevented him from being fully accepted into the assembly of God: the fact that he was a eunuch. Commentators are not in agreement as to whether he was a literal eunuch, or is merely referred to as such because of his position at the royal court. What is known, however, is that eunuchs were excluded from full participation in the temple service, based on Deuteronomy 23:1, which forbid castrated people from entering the temple.[13] Thus, the Ethiopian eunuch was likely regarded as a semi-proselyte and relegated to the Court of the Gentiles.[14]

Despite his arduous quest, which prompted the long international journey, the eunuch’s spiritual hunger had not been satisfied in Jerusalem. As he traveled back home–an opportunity he evidently used to seek a better understanding of the Scripture, he was troubled with questions he hadn’t found answers to.[15] He was reading from Isaiah 53:7-8 out loud (something customary in ancient times[16]) in Greek–Philip’s native tongue.[17] As Philip enters into dialogue with him, the eunuch doesn’t ask a general question, but specifically seeks to understand who Isaiah 53 is speaking about.

A key passage of Scripture, Isaiah 53 depicts Jesus as the suffering servant, who took our iniquity upon Himself in order to redeem us. To know this Person is the single most important aspect of the entire Scripture–and this is what preoccupies the eunuch’s mind as Philip reaches him.

Interestingly, two other passages in Isaiah (which the official had no doubt read multiple times) are of immediate relevance to this story and the eunuch’s conversion.

First, Isaiah makes specific reference to the land of Cush (the term used in Scripture for Ethiopia) as “one of the lands from which the Lord will ‘reclaim the remnant that is left of his peo­ple’, when the Messiah stands ‘as a banner for the peoples’ and the nations ‘rally to him’.”[18]

In that day the Lord will extend his hand yet a second time to recover the remnant that remains of his people, from Assyria, from Egypt, from Pathros, from Cush, from Elam, from Shinar, from Hamath, and from the coastlands of the sea. (Isaiah 11:11, ESV)

Secondly, Isaiah includes the assurance that one day “foreigners and eunuchs would no longer be excluded from the fellowship of God’s people (Isaiah 56:3-7),”[19] promising “an everlasting name within the walls of God’s temple for faithful eunuchs.”[20] Thus, Isaiah addresses two key aspects related to the Ethiopian’ identity: being a foreigner, and being an eunuch. The beauty of this text is worth rendering in full here:

 

Let not the foreigner who has joined himself to the Lord say,
“The Lord will surely separate me from his people” ;
and let not the eunuch say,
“Behold, I am a dry tree.”
For thus says the Lord:
“To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths,
who choose the things that please me
and hold fast my covenant,
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.

“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,
everyone who keeps the Sabbath and does not profane it,
and holds fast my covenant—
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.”
The Lord God,
who gathers the outcasts of Israel, declares,
“I will gather yet others to him
besides those already gathered.”

(Isaiah 56:3-8, ESV)

No doubt holding to such a beautiful promise, the eunuch desired to know who was this God who longed to gather to Himself the foreigners, the outcasts, and the eunuchs. As he and Philip journey together in his chariot, and as he learns about this God and about the redeeming sacrifice of Jesus, they come across water. The eunuch is ready to seize the opportunity and expresses a desire to be baptized, professing belief in Jesus Christ. The chariot comes to a halt, both get down in the water, the eunuch is baptized, and Philip disappears as soon as the new Christian gets out of the water.

Overcoming Boundaries – A Pathway to Unity

The artistry with which this story is told is brilliant. The spatial markers desert and water, framing the narrative, are symbolic of the spiritual implications. In the desert Philip comes across water. In a Gentile eunuch–an arid land by Jewish misconceptions–the evangelist encounters fertile soil.

Noteworthy is also the pun on “gaza,”[21] a Persian word adopted into Greek and Latin, which means “royal treasury, or “treasure.” On the road to Gaza, Philip meets a foreigner in charge of Ethiopia’s gaza (treasure). Most importantly, the eunuch manifests deep spiritual richness as he embraces the saving belief in the most treasured being: Jesus Christ, the Savior.[22]

Three times, as the opportunities arise, the Ethiopian demonstrates being ready, not only for further Bible study, but also for a major spiritual decision. The eunuch’s baptism, performed by a non-apostle[23], is the first record of a Gentile’s inclusion in the Christian church–truly a historic moment in the carrying out of the Great Commission.

With this deliberate move, the Spirit baptizes the Christian community into a different kind of unity than what the Jews had been holding on to for centuries: a unity based on a common belief in Jesus Christ and the redeeming power of His sacrifice. Christ is as central to this narrative as He is to the entire Scripture and our salvation from sin. It is in the virtue of our acceptance of His incredible gift that we can seek and find a unity pleasing to God.

Related Article: Pathways to Racial Unity Within Adventism

It is beyond the scope of this article to ponder the reasons why God chose this as the first record of a Gentile being baptized into the Christian church, but it is certainly notable that this convert’s identity is very dissimilar from that of a typical Christian Jew: he was a black, foreign, castrated, Gentile man.[24] So many boundaries are broken within just one short account.[25] So extraordinarily much has been accomplished in just one episode of unwavering, faithful obedience.

Fulfilling the Great Commission – A Pathway to Unity

The prediction that the good news of salvation would reach the end of the earth begins taking fulfillment as, with this encounter, the gospel takes a path towards the South. Commentators speak about the Ethiopians being considered as “living in the ends of the earth. In other words, with the gospel going to the Samaritans and then to the Ethiopian, it was going to the last two geographical spheres of the Great Commission as given in Acts 1:8.”[26]

And, as noted above, not only is the gospel reaching “the end of the earth, but [it] also includes those located on the margins of, or excluded from full rights in Judaism, that is, the God-fearers.”[27]

The five spatial markers, South, on the road from Jerusalem to Gaza, desert, in his chariot, and water, all refer to the eunuch, indicating where he was. God sent Philip to find the eunuch, and the evangelistic campaign begins right where the eunuch was, literally and spiritually: on his way home, in his chariot, at Isaiah 53.

Notice, too, that God doesn’t snatch Philip and bring him to the eunuch, although the end of the story shows us that He can, and indeed even does. Instead, Philip is led to find the eunuch, and in order for that he needs to get on the road and walk. He needs to take personal steps towards this new encounter–steps though faith and obedience, but nevertheless human steps. Philip needs to demonstrate blind faith and unwavering obedience before he can fulfill the task he was assigned.

Obeying the Spirit – A Pathway to Unity

No doubt, Philip is a remarkable person. First, we find him bringing the Samaritans, “who were in between the Jew and the Gentile, into the church. Now he leads the Ethiopian, who was a half-convert to Judaism, into the assembly of the Lord.”[28] A Greek-speaking Jew from the dispersion, Philip “has a distinct role in the expanding ministry of the Christian church [as] he bridges the gap between the Jew and the non-Jew.”[29]

Philip does not make any detour from God’s command in order to seek approval from his brethren. He knows Whom he is following, and he does so without delay and questioning. In simple faith he went on “the less frequented, less promising route from Jerusalem to Gaza […] without know­ing that on the road he would meet a traveler whose conversion was to become so memorable.”[30]

There is no indication in the text whether this baptism story was shared with the brethren immediately, and if it was, whether there was any controversy around it. But it is interesting that this episode occurs away from the potential distractions and hindrances likely to transpire closer to Jerusalem.

It is also highly interesting that “only one other passage in the NT contains as much explicit supernatural guidance as this: the conversion of Cornelius in Acts 10:1—11:1s.”[31] Acts 10:1—11:1 also happens to be the other passage in Acts describing Gentile conversion and reception into the Christian community of faith. Could it be that God needed to intervene so powerfully in these two instances in order to break down resilient barriers raised over centuries of misinterpretation of Scripture? And could it be that God has intervened in similar ways throughout the past two millennia of Christianity?

Would it be possible, also, that the Holy Spirit might need to intervene powerfully today in order to show us the direction we need to take, and in order to correct long-held beliefs erroneously deemed to be biblical? If so, may God endow us with a tenfold measure of humility, and a hundredfold measure of reliance on Him.

Searching the Scriptures – A Pathway to Unity

It is indeed very sobering to consider what misinterpretation of Scripture has achieved over the millennia of human existence. The misuse of Scripture, whether out of ignorance, conscious defiance, or blindsided misunderstanding, has led to too much abuse and unspeakable atrocities–even the very death of Christ! Perhaps less dramatic, though unquestionably harmful nonetheless, the misuse of Scripture has the potential to deeply hurt faithful believers and servants of God, whose hearts are ready to follow divine commands as immediately and as wholeheartedly as Philip was.

Certainly, the Bible is a key component of our knowledge of God, as even this story makes clear. Taking the example of this teachable eunuch, whose thirst for saving truth took him on a long journey to Jerusalem, let us search the Bible in a humble spirit, opening our hearts and minds to Christ’s purpose for us, both individually, and as a church commissioned with spreading the good news of God’s love and salvation to every corner of the earth. Above all, may we know God’s heart, and may our church unity stand upon the very foundation of our faith, hope, and love: Jesus Christ.

Click here to read the rest of this series

Read another article series exploring theological unity within the Adventist church

______

Notes.

[1] Darrell L. Bock, Acts (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academics, 2007), pg. 341.

[2] Simon J. Kistemaker, New Testament Commentary: Exposition of the Acts of the Apostles (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1990), pg. 312.

[3] Kistemaker, pg. 311.

[4] “South. Gr. mesembria, generally rendered ‘midday’ or ‘noon.’ However, in the Northern Hemisphere, the sun is in the south when it reaches its meridian; hence the word also came to signify locality, that is, ‘the south.’ Some authorities prefer the translation ‘noon.’ ” Francis D. Nichol, Ed., The Seventh-day Adventist Bible Commentary: The Holy Bible with Exegetical and Expository Comment, Vol. 6 (Washington, DC: Review and Herald Publishing Association, 1980), pg. 219. See also David G. Peterson, The Acts of the Apostles (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing House, 2009), pg. 292.

[5] Kistemaker, pg. 311.

[6] Francis D. Nichol, Ed., The Seventh-day Adventist Bible Commentary: The Holy Bible with Exegetical and

Expository Comment, Vol. 6 (Washington, DC: Review and Herald Publishing Association, 1980), pg. 219.

[7] David G. Peterson, The Acts of the Apostles (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing House, 2009), pg. 293; See also

Kistemaker, pg. 312.

[8] Kistemaker, pg. 312.

[9] Bock, pg. 342.

[10] Ajith Fernando, Acts, NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1998), pg. 283.

[11] Fernando, pg. 284.

[12] Nichol, pg. 220.

[13] Fernando, pg. 312.

[14] Bock, pg. 342.

[15] Peterson, pg. 294.

[16] Kistemaker, pg. 313.

[17] Kistemaker, pg. 313.

[18] Peterson, pg. 292.

[19] Kistemaker, pg. 313.

[20] Fernando, pg. 283.

[21] Richard I. Pevo, Acts: A Commentary (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2009), pg. 221.

[22] Nichol, pg. 220.

[23] Bock, pg. 345.

[24] Peterson, pg. 291.

[25] Kistemaker, pg. 312.

[26] Fernando, pg. 283.

[27] Bock, pg. 339.

[28] Kistemaker, pg. 312.

[29] Kistemaker, pg. 310.

[30] Nichol, pg. 219.

[31] Pevo, pg. 222.

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Adelina Alexe is a Ph.D. student in systematic theology at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary. She loves God and enjoys nature, arts, and meaningful conversation. Her special research interests are narrative theology and hermeneutics.