Sunday, September 30, 2018

THE ETHIOPIAN

In the eighth chapter of the book of Acts we read about one of the most unlikely occurrences of a baptism that one could imagine. It took place in the first century A.D. in the desert region south of Jerusalem.

Although this baptism took place very early in the newly emerging church, it was not the very first baptism. In fact, in the second chapter of Acts, we are told of one instance in which about three thousand appear to have been baptized. Nevertheless, this baptism of the eighth chapter is the first one that we are told about that speaks specifically of the individual who was baptized. This alone makes this particular baptism significant, and an indication that the author Luke wanted us to draw some lessons from it.

The act of being baptized is one of the most underappreciated of church traditions today. It is more than a church tradition of course, for we are told several times in the New Testament by Jesus and by the apostles that believers ought to be baptized (For example Mark 16:16; Acts 2:38).

But why? What are the reasons? 


Why Such a Strange Custom?

There are many reasons for baptisms. The heart of the matter and the core meaning of a believer’s baptism is that it is a demonstration that he or she is putting their old life to death and rising into a new life with Christ. Our old life, the old ways in which we lived, these ways are in the past. We go down into the water putting our old life to death.

But when we rise out of the water—oh, this is the moment!
It is a demonstration that our new life has begun! We are not actually saved by the baptism itself; rather it is an expression and a declaration by us that we are putting ourselves on a new path in our new life. It is a demonstration to God and to those present that our old life to the world has died, and our new life with Christ has given us new direction for living.

That is the essential meaning. That is the fundamental meaning. What I mean by saying that there are many reasons for baptism is that each of us has different things about our past that we no longer want to have part of our lives. We want these things dead and buried. We want to start all over and we want to live a new life with Christ.

If we were able to talk to the three thousand that got baptized at the baptism service in the very early days of the church, I am sure that we would receive three thousand different answers as to what they had put to death in their lives in order to begin new with Christ. 

A Unique Baptism

As I mentioned, the fact that Luke, the author of the book of Acts, takes the time to speak specifically of one particular baptism in chapter eight makes it significant. The author calls it purposefully to our attention so that we would be certain to give it our consideration.

One could say that this baptism was unusual in some ways. First of all, it came about not as the result of preaching or because it was part of some sort of service, but that is only a small matter.

However, this baptism was also unique in other ways that are more significant. For example, one would think that we might hear first about a man or woman from the region of Judah who heard the gospel of Jesus Christ, came to believe the message, learned about baptism, and asked to be baptized. This, we may think, would be the natural progression in the growth of the church.

But this was not the case. The man whose story we are told and who was baptized was not a local person, nor was he even from the region at all—not even from Middle East. He was African—from Ethiopia[1].

For these reasons and others that I will speak of in a moment, we could say that this baptism was unusual. However, there are also some other ways in which the baptism of this man from Ethiopia has more in common with many of us than we first can see.

Let’s take another look at this Ethiopian… 

Why Did the African Cross the Red Sea?

First of all we must ask: What was this man from Ethiopia doing on the desert road south of Jerusalem?

According the account that we have in the Bible, the man had been on a journey to Jerusalem to worship in the temple. At the time of his baptism, he was headed back to Ethiopia to resume is job and life there. We also learn by the account that in Ethiopia, this man was a court official of Candace, the queen of the Ethiopians. He  was an important man. He was, in fact, in charge of all of her treasure.

Another unusual (and perhaps unsettling) fact about this man is that he was a eunuch—a castrated male. This is a little awkward, isn’t it? Perhaps we do not know exactly how to take this. In some cultures of history, young boys were sometimes castrated for various reasons. Often the reason was so that they could be trusted servants of royalty. Kings and queens did not like too much testosterone in the men of the court. These men just seemed to cause too much trouble. Castrated men seemed to be better behaved.

We can see that right away in this story, there are several things in it that are unexpected and which make us wonder why this is the first baptism that is mentioned individually in the new church. There are so many questions that we have about this entire situation.

Because this man was from Africa and not from the land of Judah, we may expect that he was a Gentile. But we cannot even say this for certain. Indeed he was not from Judah, but that does necessarily mean that he was not Jewish. The Ethiopians have a long tradition of Judaism, even claiming a blood connection. In these modern days, this has even been confirmed by DNA matches. 

A Convoluted History

How did this happen? How did the Ethiopians obtain this blood connection with the Jews? This is another fact largely lost in the fog of history, but the Ethiopian Jews believe that when Abraham was forced to flee southwards, the connection between the two peoples was made. Then during the times of slavery of the Jews in Egypt, some of them made their way southward into the area of Ethiopia (Kush).

It is said that more migrated to the area during the wicked reign of Manasseh of Judah, who sought to forcefully convert Jews into pagans. Still another group came accompanying Melinik I, who is said to have been the son of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba and who ruled in Ethiopia about 950 BC. 

A Complex Man

But putting speculation aside, the true fact is that we do not know how this tie became established, nor do we know the true ethnicity of the Ethiopian eunuch. Was he a Jew or was he a Gentile, or some mix of the two? We might say that we cannot put his genetic letter into any specific mail slot, because we do not know his complete address.

Even his gender is also a compromise of sorts. He was a man, and yet, those who are unconcerned about offending others might say that he was not a “whole man.” It is wrong to say that he was a homosexual. Being a eunuch and being a homosexual are two separate things.

But I think that we can say that in many ways, his life must have been difficult. When other boys his age were going through puberty, he was not. It is not difficult to imagine him enduring ridicule and times of much self-doubt and excessive introspection.

Certainly the Ethiopian eunuch could not have a family. This also must have been uncomfortable for him when he visited the temple in Jerusalem. The temple was a highly family orientated and segregated place. Everyone had their designated place. The priests had their own sanctified area, the rest of the Jewish men also had theirs, near to where the priests were, and the women further away in the court of the women. Even the Gentiles who came to worship had their own designated court around the perimeter, since they were not allowed into the temple proper.

The Ethiopian was obviously different than anyone else at the temple. He was probably of much darker skin, but if he was indeed a Jew, he must have wondered where he should stand. The Old Testament law also had many regulations regarding eunuchs as to what they may or may not do, where they were allowed and where not. I am sure it was not an easy thing for him to come to the temple. He seemed not to fit into any of the categories. 

A Purposeful Journey

And yet, we are told that he had gone to Jerusalem to worship. He was not there to make a statement of some kind, so probably he would not want to cause a disturbance. But the point is, he had to think about all of these things, just as he had had to do his entire life in many different circumstances.

For his entire life, this had been his experience. He was different than everyone else. He did not fit in. In almost every area of life, he was an outsider.

Yet, he was seeker and he was a believer. Despite the likelihood that he would suffer many strange looks and despite the fact that he would be uncomfortable, he made the long and arduous journey to come to Jerusalem in order to worship the Lord. This action alone of worshiping God was important to him. All other difficulties were irrelevant. 

A Meaningful Return

At the occasion of his baptism, he was on the road returning to his native Ethiopia. He was riding in a chariot, reading a book as he bounced along. He had in his hands something that he probably had just purchased in Jerusalem, because it seems like what he was reading were new thoughts to him. He had never read these words before.

Here is what the Ethiopian was reading: 

He was oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth.
Like a lamb being led to the slaughter, and like a sheep silent before her shearers, he did not open his mouth.
He was taken away because of oppression and judgment.
Was there anyone at all who considered his heritage?
He was cut off from the land of the living;He was struck because of my people’s rebellion. (Isaiah 53:7-8) 

The Ethiopian must have been moved by these words. These words seemed to look right into his soul!
“He was oppressed and afflicted.” The Ethiopian knew about this.
“Was there anyone at all who considered his heritage?” Neither would the eunuch ever have offspring or a family.

The Ethiopian undoubtedly could relate to many of these injustices even in his own life. 

An Angel Appears to Philip

It was sometime before all this was occurring that an angel of the Lord appeared to a follower of Jesus named Philip. This man Philip was not one of the original disciples, but an early evangelist—one who brought the news of Jesus to the people.

Philip had been in Jerusalem when the angel told him to go down the southern road into the desert area. Apparently without knowing exactly why he was to do this, Philip obeyed. He caught up to the Ethiopian about the time that the Ethiopian was reading the words from the book of Isaiah.

Now the Holy Spirit prompted Philip: “Go over and join his chariot,” the Spirit told him.

The Ethiopian was reading aloud the book of Isaiah. People always read out loud in those days. It would drive a modern-day librarian mad.

A Disciple Appears to the Eunuch

Philip, walking near to the chariot could hear what the man in the chariot was reading.

“Do you understand these things?” he asks the Ethiopian.

“How can I, unless someone explains them to me,” was the reply.

The Ethiopian eunuch now invites Philip up into the chariot so that the evangelist could explain the passage. He again reads the words to him so that Philip could hear them plainly.

“Who is the prophet talking about?” the Ethiopian asks Philip. “Is he speaking of himself, or of someone else?”

Beginning with this passage, Philip tells the Ethiopian of Jesus, how even the prophet Isaiah foresaw the plan of God for the redemption of his people. Philp told the Ethiopian of the coming of Jesus and of his life. He explained to him how he was crucified for our sin and rebellion against God, and how Jesus demonstrated his power even over death by becoming alive again after having been dead three days.

Somewhere in this teaching, Philip must have also spoke of baptism and how it was a symbol and a sign of this new life of rising from the dead. As they rode along, the Ethiopian listened intently. He was a man of deep thought, and he had come to believe all that Philip explained to him. At that moment, as if by design, they came upon some water.

“Look!” the Ethiopian exclaimed. “Here is some water! What is there that prevents me from being baptized even at right now?”

The two men together climbed down from the chariot and into the water. Philip baptized the Ethiopian eunuch in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

When they both came up out of the water, this same Holy Spirit snatched Philip away. This undoubtedly was a little startling for both men. Philip suddenly found himself in a place called Azotus, some twenty or so miles away.

As for the Ethiopian, he had no idea what happened to his messenger from God. We only read that the Ethiopian saw him no more. Perhaps he thought Philip must have been an angel. Philip was not an angel, but he certainly had been a messenger of God to the Ethiopian.

But it is the next words of the story that are perhaps some of the most significant of the entire text. After all of this, we read that the Ethiopian “went on his way rejoicing.” 

The Ethiopian Finds His Sense of Belonging

No longer did it matter to the Ethiopian eunuch that he did not fit into any of the circles of people that he had known. Every experience that he had in life up to this point only served to emphasize to him that he was different than everyone else.

Even his experience in the temple showed him that. With its highly regulated areas of segregation, there was no area into which he actually could say that he belonged. At the temple as in everywhere else, he was an outsider. He had not left the temple rejoicing.

But now he had become part of the kingdom of God. His baptism is not what made him part of this kingdom. It was his belief that did that. But by his baptism, he demonstrated his death to the previous life that he lived, and his resurrection into his new life.

“The old things are passed away. Behold, all things have become new!” 

We All Need a Sense of Belonging

We are all eunuchs of sorts. Of course I do not mean that we are physically so, but only that every one of us sometimes feel as though we do not fit into any particular group. We feel like we are different. We are outsiders.

Even when we go to church we feel like outsiders. Everyone has their own cliques, their own circle of friends that they hang out with and talk with. We are not included.

But the Ethiopian shows us that even the most unique among us can have a sense of belonging in the Kingdom of God. We fit in there!

In fact, in the Kingdom of God, the things that make us different as individuals are not things that will ostracize us, but they are instead celebrated!

God has made each one of us unique for a reason. Each one of us demonstrates the creativity of God in our own unique way…and not only his creativity, but his grace and his love and his wisdom.

By putting our old lives to death and beginning new in Christ, like the Ethiopian eunuch, we can all go on our way rejoicing.

We are the body of Christ.

I would not be surprised that as the Ethiopian continued his journey to the south, he also continued reading from the book of Isaiah. Here is what he would have read a few chapters later:  

Let not the foreigner who has joined himself to the Lord say, “The Lord will surely separate me from His people.”Nor let the eunuch say, “Behold, I am a dry tree.”

For thus says the Lord, “To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths, and choose what pleases me and hold fast my covenant—to these I will give in my house and within my walls a memorial, and a name better than that of sons and daughters.
I will give them an everlasting name which will not be cut off.” (Isaiah 56:3-5)






[1] The Biblical Ethiopia is not the Ethiopia of today. In Biblical times, the name Ethiopia referred to the lands along the Nile River in the southernmost part of Egypt and the Northern Sudan. The region is also referred to as Nubia or Kush.

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