Few books of the Bible can match the Acts of the Apostles for sheer evangelistic thrill. Acts begins with the Holy Spirit pouring as fire onto the first 120 Christians, then walks with the gospel toward all corners of the known world. Whole families turned to Jesus in this book, manifesting the Holy Spirit in spectacular ways.
The Ethiopian’s conversion, though, happened in isolation. His story in Acts 8:25-39 reveals a desolate man with a private ache, pursued and healed by the Savior who knows every heart. The story can be a lesson for each of us, no matter where we are on our own journey.
The story’s context not only strongly suggests that the official Philip met was both gentile and castrated, but that these characteristics are central to the story.
The eunuch’s conversion interrupted the evangelist Philip as he traveled through Samaria with the gospel, performing miracles. The Holy Spirit suddenly directed Philip south, toward the Gaza road out of Jerusalem. Philip didn’t hesitate, perhaps expecting to lead another miracle-filled mass conversion there. But when he reached the Gaza road, all he found was empty desert — hot, dusty, quiet. He must have puzzled over this as he scanned the horizon, spotting only a single cart in the distance. The Spirit spoke: “Go catch up with that chariot and stay near it.”
Philip ran to the cart and walked alongside it.
Behind the chariot’s driver sat a man, a foreign eunuch in royal uniform. He bent over a scroll, reading aloud a passage from Isaiah:
He was led like a sheep to the slaughter and as a lamb before the shearer is silent, so he did not open his mouth. In his humiliation he was deprived of justice. Who can speak of his descendants? For his life was taken from the earth.1 “Do you understand what you are reading?” Philip asked. The official peered at Philip. “How can I, unless someone explains it to me?”
Waving him into the chariot, the eunuch pointed at the scroll: “Tell me, please, who is the prophet talking about, himself or someone else?”
Acts 8:35 tells us, “Then Philip began with that very passage of scripture and told him the good news about Jesus.”
Eventually the pair passed a body of water and the eunuch asked, “Does anything prevent me from being baptized?”
Philip baptized him immediately, disappeared, and the eunuch went on his way rejoicing.
Who was he?
So who was this new believer? Some historical details remain ambiguous, yet we have important clues:
Acts 8 introduces him as Chief Treasurer in the court of a Candace (queen) of the Ethiopians. “Ethiopia” refers to the ancient African kingdom of Nubia, located in what is today southern Egypt. This man was probably himself a Nubian, or of gentile ancestry.
Acts 8 also identifies him as a eunuch. Although this term could describe any royal servant, castrated or not, it’s possible the treasurer was a true eunuch. Royal courts in the Ancient Near East frequently groomed castrated men for high public office, as their barrenness presumably encouraged loyalty.2 An actual eunuch would have stood out, as well: Over time he develops unmistakable physical traits. However else Philip could have referred to this man, in this story he recognizes him simply as “the eunuch.” Even the story’s terrain parallels the man’s journey from barrenness (desert) to fertility (water).3
The story’s context not only strongly suggests that the official Philip met was both gentile and castrated, but that these characteristics are central to the story’s heart.
Consider the Ethiopian treasurer’s journey. He had made a long pilgrimage to Jerusalem to observe a feast at the temple. He may have been a Jewish proselyte, or simply had heard about and believed in the God of Abraham. He was wealthy, to be in possession of a precious scroll, and he was influential, having the trust of his queen to travel on pilgrimage. At the point we meet him he is returning from Jerusalem, absorbed in Isaiah 53.
We can only wonder what he had expected a few days earlier when he entered Jerusalem to worship. As a eunuch, he would have been barred from the temple (Deuteronomy 23:1), and as a gentile proselyte, he would have only peripheral access. He was a man of prestige and education, and he loved the God of Israel. But he apparently had not found one scholar in Jerusalem willing to discuss Scripture and answer his questions. He had traveled far to worship the Lord, but came away, through a dry and lonely desert, buried in one of the saddest passages in the entire Bible.
Philip, urged by the Holy Spirit to run to the chariot, came upon the eunuch just as he reached the passage about the helpless humiliation of one deprived of descendants and a name to carry on in the world. How could this eunuch not have empathy, considering his own humiliation? He had obviously been able to rise above his circumstances and had achieved great success in life. But the scripture that riveted him in that chariot described back to him his own experience of having been led like a silent sheep to the slaughter. His pain, his disappointment, his loss, leaped out from the page, and he had to know: “Who wrote this? Who is it that went through what I am going through?”
Just a few passages ahead in Isaiah from where the Ethiopian was reading, God promises eunuchs who are faithful a lasting memorial and a name within his Temple, better than offspring. This cannot refer to a restored earthy temple, with its ritual laws. The new Temple — the body of the resurrected Jesus (John 2:19) — refers to the New Testament church in whom Jesus dwells (1 Corinthians 12:12); it represents intimate communion with God through his Spirit (Ephesians 4:4-6); and it is the creative, redeeming work of God, who restores all of creation to himself (Revelation 3:12).
Meeting our darkness
The good news that filled the eunuch with joy was that he did not have to wait for paradise for his restoration. Jesus himself had entered his pain and isolation, conquered injustice and death, and enfolded him into the eternal family of God (Ephesians 3:14-19). One miraculous encounter changed the eunuch’s life forever. A key passage in his scroll (as Jesus himself declared when he quoted it: Luke 4:21) was fulfilled for the eunuch at that moment; whereas he had been captive and oppressed, blind and poor, he was now free (Isaiah 61:1).
You and I have histories snagged by sins and mistakes, not always our own. How easy it is to accept salvation yet struggle privately with burdens we believe God cannot heal. Our Savior stands over our shoulder as we read this story, and whispers: “I have been there. I know. I understand. I have left the 99 and come out to the wilderness to find you. I am here.”
Jesus didn’t save us just so that we can anticipate wholeness in the next life. His love transforms us now, if we will surrender our deepest aches to him: “If anyone is in Christ,” writes the apostle Paul, “he is a new creation; the old has passed away, behold, the new has come” (2 Corinthians 5:17). Jesus meets us in our darkness, and through the indwelling of his Spirit, draws us into a life defined by the power and abundance of God (Ephesians 3:8-20).4
Dr. Lila Docken Bauman teaches media, culture and communication courses at St. Louis University. She is married and has a young son.
1 Isaiah 53:7-8.
2 Warren Gage, “The Ethiopian eunuch finds joy.” www.knoxseminary.org/Prospective/Faculty/KnoxPulpit/wgage_eunuch.html. Downloaded 10-18-07.
4 For further study read C. Baxter Kruger, Across All Worlds: Jesus Inside Our Darkness (Vancouver: Regent College, 2007).