The Conversion of the Ethiopian Eunuch
We have been studying Acts as an inspired analysis of corporate spiritual renewal (DEFINE). As you might expect, CSR’s have lots of conversions to Jesus, because conversion is what happens when people discover that Jesus is real and good. Christian conversion is not embracing a religious philosophy or committing to a moral code; it is a life-changing encounter with the living Jesus.
Luke narrates three conversion stories in Acts 8-10. This morning, we will look at the first of these three conversions—the conversion of the Ethiopian eunuch. There are three key characters in this story (MAP): the Ethiopian eunuch, who is returning home from Jerusalem, Philip, a Jewish Christian who has been in Samaria, and (the main character) the risen Jesus. Read 8:26-39. It’s easy to get stuck on the unusual details of this story (ANGEL’S VOICE; DESERT ROAD; “CLOSE THE DEAL” WITH A TOTAL STRANGER)—and decide that it has no relevance for normal people like us. But that would be a big mistake, because this story contains two important lessons about Christian conversion that are universal:
Through the eunuch, we learn that Jesus draws all kinds of people to himself.
Through Philip, we learn that Jesus works through his followers to help people he is drawing. Let’s consider each of these two lessons in greater detail...
The Ethiopian Eunuch: Jesus draws all kinds of people to himself
The Ethiopian eunuch’s conversion illustrates Jesus’ promise to take the initiative to draw all kinds of people to himself (Jn.12:32). We might expect that Philip, who was a working-class Jew from a family with a biblical heritage, would become a follower of Jesus. But a black, sexually-altered treasury secretary for the royal family of a distant and totally pagan country? Yet the story emphasizes the lengths to which Jesus will go to draw people to himself. The passage narrates the culmination of Jesus’ drawing—but it also provides hints at how Jesus had been drawing him long before this time. Here’s my guess at his story:
The fact that he was a eunuch meant that he was from a lower class and worked his way up into this position of influence. Such people were required to become eunuchs because the royal class didn’t want them polluting their blood lines and diluting their inheritances. In a culture in which marriage and family were everything, this man gave all this up for career advancement. (In this respect, he was like a lot of Americans who sacrifice their marriages and families to succeed in their careers.)
Yet his career success evidently did not fulfill him. Somehow (maybe through Jewish businessmen) he became aware of the God of Israel—and something about what he heard about this God stirred a longing in him to know more. So he made a long and dangerous trip to worship this God and learn more about him.
While in Jerusalem, he was probably disappointed, because Judaism forbade non-Jews and eunuchs from entering the Temple (Deut.23:1). He was undoubtedly turned away from full participation in worship and instruction—and this could have disillusioned him about the God of Israel.
But he purchased (probably at great expense) either the whole Old Testament or at least the scroll of Isaiah, and he was reading it on his way back home—and this text gave him great hope. He would have read a passage that promised that God would one day welcome eunuchs as his own sons, and when people from all nations could have the joy of knowing him (read Isa.56:3-7)!
At any rate, he was reading a passage that had arrested his attention (Isa.53:7,8). Who was this person who was like him (without descendants), yet who was so unlike him (voluntarily gave himself up as a sacrifice for others)? What was the connection between this Person and God’s promise in Isa.56:3-7? When would this day come? Maybe he was praying to God, asking him these questions. And just at that moment, Philip (guided by Jesus’ Spirit) ran up alongside him to answer the very questions he was praying about!
Before we see how Philip helped the eunuch connect these dots, let’s consider how we can identify with this eunuch whom Jesus was seeking. I believe that everyone in this room can do this—either as a Christian in retrospect, or as a seeker in process.
Separated from the love relationship with our Creator which was designed to be our center, we seek to fill this void and validate ourselves with some good thing(s) in the created order: CAREER; ROMANTIC RELATIONSHIP; SOCIAL ADVANCEMENT; POLITICAL CAUSE; RELIGIOUS PATHS; etc.
These good things provide a temporary sense of meaning and identity, but they cannot ultimately fulfill the longing of our hearts. As Augustine said in his Confessions, “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are not at rest until they find their rest in you.” Inevitably (and often very painfully), they disappoint us.
It is usually in the midst of this disappointment that God begins to draw us to himself. Somehow, God pierces our hearts with the hope that he is real and that he can fill the void in our souls. We find our hearts opening to this possibility, and (as a result of his prior initiative) we begin to seek God. We may be aware of dysfunctional religious people, but we no longer use them as an excuse for discrediting God because we want spiritual reality.
Sometimes, like this man, we come across biblical truths that deeply resonate with us, even though much of the Bible remains confusing and even disturbing. We may even begin to pray to God and ask him to reveal himself to us.
In this setting, God brings you into contact with someone who knows Jesus, who helps you connect the dots. You may have known this person for a long time, or (like Philip) he/she may be a total stranger. They maybe very much like you culturally, or (like Philip) very different. They may converse with you personally and privately (like Philip), or they may give a public message (like this one) that speaks to you as though you are the only person in the room. Through their words, God illuminates your soul and enables you to understand that Jesus is the way to God—and you sense Jesus summoning you to personally entrust yourself to him as your Savior and Lord. And when you do this, you want to tell others (especially this person)—and you begin to experience the joy of knowing Jesus that transcends your relationship with his messenger. (ALEKSANDR SOLZHENITSYN?)
Do you identify with the eunuch? Are you disillusioned with what you depended on for meaning and identity? Are you seeking God? Are you beginning to recognize how God has been seeking you? Do know understand how Jesus provides the way to God? Do you hear his summons to entrust yourself to him? How will you respond to Jesus’ drawing?
Philip: Jesus works through his followers to help people he is drawing
Now let’s think about Philip, who Jesus worked through to help the eunuch complete his search. You and I can be like Philip, because the secret to his helpfulness was not how great he was, but rather how wonderful the gospel is and how wise Jesus’ Spirit is!
First, Philip exemplifies the importance of knowing knew how to apply the gospel. I mean this in two ways—one way that you probably expect, and one way that you probably don’t expect.
He knew how to apply the gospel to the eunuch. He didn’t have a canned script; he started with the eunuch’s question, and helped him understand how Jesus fulfilled Isaiah 53 through his own death (see Isa.53:6,8b-12). In the same way, we need to be able to begin with whatever spiritual need the person recognizes (e.g., guilt; loneliness; meaninglessness; etc.)—and explain how God meets that need through Jesus. (Read through the Gospel of John to see how Jesus did this.)
Maybe more importantly, Philip knew how to apply the gospel to himself. Otherwise, he wouldn’t have been willing to speak to this man. As a religious Jew, he would have been disgusted by this black eunuch. As a member of the working-class, he would have been intimidated by this politically powerful person. But because Philip was centered in the gospel, he was free from both of these barriers to help. He understood that his standing with God was based not on his ethnic identity, moral record, religious heritage, etc.—but through Jesus’ death alone. He understood that he was no better than anyone else—including this sexually altered black man from a pagan country. He understood that Jesus loved this eunuch and was able to give him new life just as he did Philip. This made him both humble (“I am just as deserving of God’s judgment and just as forgiven by grace alone as anyone else”) and confident (“If Jesus can reach me, he can reach anyone, no matter how intelligent or rich or powerful”). This humble confidence in the gospel is one of the most important keys to being an effective witness for Jesus. That’s one big reason why it’s so important that we keep growing in our understanding and appreciation of the gospel!
Second, Philip exemplifies the importance of being alert and responsive to Jesus’ guidance. I’m afraid Philip wouldn’t be very popular with many Christian evangelism trainers. He didn’t have a scripted presentation that he used on everyone. He didn’t have a master strategy for how he was going to focus on a certain market segment. He didn’t have a rigid follow-up strategy for those who responded to his witness. He simply stayed in close touch with Jesus, trusted that he was drawing people to himself, and responded to his guidance (even when counter-intuitive)—and left the rest to Jesus.
This makes all the difference in the world! I wish every Christian here would watch/read/listen to Bill Hybels’ “Walk Across the Room” at least once a year—because he nails this. Jesus is with us, giving us all the guidance we need to show and/or share his love with the people he brings into our lives. We don’t have to know the answer to every question, we don’t have to figure out how to get a person from A to Z, we don’t have to know what needs to happen next. We just need to ask for and listen for the Spirit’s guidance, and respond to him when he guides us—even when his guidance seems counter-intuitive.1
It may be to help your grouchy neighbor with a household project. It may be to initiate a conversation with a stranger at the park and show them God’s love by being sincerely interested in him. It may be to tell a distant relative that you are praying for a problem he has shared. It may be to invite a friend to read a certain Christian book or come to a Bible study. It may be to offer to pray with someone about their recognized need for God’s forgiveness. It may be to give a needy person physical aid with an attitude of genuine love and respect.
When you respond to Jesus’ guidance like Philip did, you may help a total stranger pray to receive Christ. That’s happened to me only very rarely. But through your Spirit-led words and deed, you may help someone move closer to a life-changing encounter with Jesus—and that’s just as important!
If we just started each day like Philip—rejoicing in God’s grace, telling God we’re available to show and share his love, and then responding to his promptings as we recognize them, we will have lots of “Philip” experiences—maybe not as dramatic as this, but still helpful to seekers and awesome to us! This is one of the things that makes following Jesus the greatest adventure!
1 It must have seemed counter-intuitive to Philip to go to Samaria, since he was Jewish. Once the Samaritans responded, it must have seemed counter-intuitive to him to leave this “responsive field” and go to a desert highway. Once he was on the highway, it must have seemed counter-intuitive to him to run alongside the chariot of a wealthy stranger. But Philip simply responded to the Spirit’s promptings, and he left the rest to Jesus