What are the barriers that stand between you and God? Luke’s account of the Ethiopian official in Acts 8:26–40 shows you God breaking down barriers with resulting joy at the good news about Jesus. That is news you need for 2023.
God brings the ends of the earth to himself. The Holy Spirit is at work. An angel of the Lord sent Philip to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza. Acts describes barriers falling. Acts 8 begins with scattered Christians fleeing persecution bringing the good news to the Samaritans, who had corrupted the worship of the true God. Philip’s initial preaching there is confirmed by an apostolic visit. Now God sends Philip to the south of the land of God’s people, on the road to Gaza, one of the five cities of the Philistines. A bigger barrier is about to fall as Philip is instructed by the Spirit to approach the chariot of an Ethiopian official traveling home from a visit to Jerusalem. The Spirit’s work in this incident will prepare for Peter’s preaching to the Roman centurion, Cornelius, and before that, Saul’s conversion and call to be an apostle to the gentiles.
“Philip explains to the Ethiopian eunuch that the servant song of Isaiah 53:7–8 is indeed fulfilled in the person of Jesus (Acts 8:30–35). The seemingly odd inclusion of this event in Luke’s narrative illustrates the arrival of the gospel even to nations of Africa.”G. K. Beale & Benjamin L. Gladd, The Story Retold: A Biblical-Theological Introduction to the New Testament, page 165
The Spirit of the risen Christ is breaking down the barriers of the old covenant. The Ethiopian had traveled far to worship, but as a gentile, was restricted to the outer court of the temple at Jerusalem. His physical condition, depending on how specifically “eunuch” is used, may have prevented him from becoming a proselyte, Deuteronomy 23:1. Yet he longed to worship God in truth. He had purchased a scroll of the Scriptures and was reading as he rode. He was reading from Isaiah 53. A little further ahead in the scroll he would have encountered a prophetic encouragement,Isaiah 56:4–7. What barriers seem to separate you from God? You may not face the specific barriers the Ethiopian did. But you may think of yourself as too sinful to be accepted by God, not good enough to really be his child. The Spirit of the ascended Lord is tearing down those barriers and doubts. John 12:32 speaks not only of Christ being lifted up on the cross, but also of his ascension as drawing people to himself.
“The pilgrimage of this Ethiopian official to the house of God in Jerusalem—and even more so, his faith in the good news about Jesus—signaled the beginning of international expansion of God’s kingdom, predicted by ancient psalmists and prophets….” “The ancient law excluding uncircumcised Gentiles and castrated eunuchs from the community of the Lord was tied to a physical sanctuary that was now obsolete…. The ‘house of prayer for all nations’ was not the product of Herod’s construction in Jerusalem. It was located (among other places) at a wadi beside a wilderness road in old Philistine territory, where a castrated Ethiopian was cleansed for priestly service though faith in the Lamb of God, who ‘was led like a sheep to the slaughter’ (8:32, quoting Isa. 53:7).”Dennis E. Johnson, The Message of Acts in the History of Redemption, pages 99, 100–101
Rejoice in God’s covenant grace. First, proclaim the gospel. The overheard words provided the perfect introduction. Although there is no record of messianic interpretation of this passage between Isaiah’s time and that of Christ, Jesus saw himself in the passage (Mark 10:45), and so taught his disciples after his resurrection. He hears the Ethiopian reading Isaiah 53; what an opportunity to tell the good news about Jesus! The good news is that Jesus died as the sin-bearer, but also that his death is not the end of the story. In language that may well have sounded mysterious to the prophet, the Servant who laid down his life would see his descendants. He would justify many. The resurrection is part of the prophecy. Look for the doors the Lord opens for you to talk about your Savior and his work. Remember that this is 2023 A.D., the year of our Lord. Speak the good news. Pray for the expansion of the kingdom of Jesus Christ.
Rejoice in the unifying work of Christ. Baptism sealed the union of the newly believing Ethiopian with the Savior. His baptism is not only part of the confession of faith on the part of the official. It is also God making clear that the new covenant sign is not limited to the physical descendants of Abraham. The baptism of the Ethiopian is God saying, “This person belongs to me! He, too, has become part of my covenant community.” As you think of your own baptism, and as you witness the baptism of others, have your ears open to what God is saying in the sacrament. Unanswered questions remain: Why did the Spirit take Philip just then? What happened to the Ethiopian? Don’t be distracted by the minor issues. Remember that Acts is not the story of Peter, Paul, or even Philip or the Ethiopian. It is the story of what the ascended Lord is continuing to do in redeeming his people, in building his church. Notice what Philip continues to do following this. The covenant people now include the Gentiles. Here is where the door was opened for those of us who are not the biological descendants of Abraham to come to the Savior. Luke records the joy of the Ethiopian, giving you the proper response to the spread of the good news.
Rejoice! God’s grace has reached out to you. Rejoice, and continue to make the good news known.