The story’s about a man sitting in a chariot and reading the Bible as he made his way back home to the Sudan area. If God had caught up with the chariot and asked the man, “You searching for something?” the man could easily and truthfully have said, “Yes, I’m searching for God.” God might well have said to him in that pleased way of his: “Yes, and I’ve come looking for you.”
From Meröe (in Sudan) to Jerusalem is a long way but the black gentleman made the trip. Overland it’s something more than 1,800 miles via Cairo. He would have begun his journey in the highlands of central Africa and sailed down the Nile, the longest river on earth, for more than 1,300 miles to Cairo. Then he would have got off the boat and traveled overland more than four hundred additional miles to Jerusalem. The story’s told in Acts 8:26-40.
What a journey! And why does he make it? We’re told he wanted to worship! But, bless me, he could have worshiped just about anywhere; he could have done that at Meröe, without leaving home! And on both banks of the Nile there were green strips of fertile land made possible by the life-giving river, but immediately beyond them in the wilderness areas with their intimidating cliff formations dwelled the gods of Egypt. He could have worshiped at Luxor or Karnack or Thebes; he could have worshiped at shrines in numerous places; there were plenty of priests and temple servants around but he wanted none of it—he sailed by them because his heart was set on the one true God whose central place of public worship was Jerusalem! The truth is, it wasn’t a place he sought—it was a Person! He wanted to be where that Person had made his presence and truth known for centuries.
He knew what he was seeking but what he hadn’t known until that day when God met him on a road not much used, a barren road—what he hadn’t truly known was this: the Holy One was looking for him.
No one seeing him would have pitied him because he was the Finance Minister to one of the famed queens of Nubia—the Kandake. Look at him, an educated, accomplished, esteemed and God-hungry man who didn’t mind confessing he needed help to glorify God. “I need help to understand what I’m reading,” he said at a critical moment in his life. When the man asked him if he understood what he was reading he didn’t sneer or take offense; he didn’t let his education and grand status go to his head. “I need help,” he said!
He’s never named but he’s called the “eunuch” five times.1 In some sense a eunuch, along with foreigners, was excluded from membership in the People of Israel. The idea that God despised eunuchs (or anyone else) is simply nonsense but eunuchs were not permitted to live and function as a part of Israel. 2
Whatever happened at Jerusalem, however exclusion showed itself, it might well have been that among all the thousands of God-worshipers there the purest heart present was the heart of that eunuch who despite his devotion to God was to stay on the outer fringe. One of the beauties of this man is that despite his knowing that he was in some sense not permitted into the “inner circle” his devotion to the God who knew about Deuteronomy 23:1 was profound and pure and God must have been pleased.
It would help us to understand what is going on here in this story if we keep all this in mind. The man’s social or intellectual status is not in question; his religious convictions are not disputed and certainly his religious sincerity and practice is an example we all would be pleased to follow.
So what’s the central message of the event? He’s an “outsider,” he’s been excluded! For all his accomplishments society would see him as “damaged goods”; for all his sincere religious devotion he was excluded from fellowship in the People of Israel. 3
As Isaiah tells the story (52:13—53:12) Israel itself was misunderstood. It too was abused by nations more powerful than them and they would have been despised but the abusive kings would be startled when they learned that Israel’s sufferings were the way to world blessing. Apostate Israel as a whole would come to understand that the faithful remnant within them was sharing their suffering in order to bring them blessings (Isaiah 49:1-9 and Acts 13:46-47, note the “us”). And the faithful would come to know that Jesus shared the suffering of his own nation that salvation might come to all the nations of the world, that all the “outsiders” could experience the full salvation and fellowship of God.
That’s what the eunuch heard! He found himself spoken of in the Bible and couldn’t wait to get “in”.
One of the central themes of Luke’s writings as he tells the Story of God as it climaxes in Jesus Christ is this: God has come to embrace all those who are clearly “outsiders”; he has come to offer them fellowship in the person of Jesus Christ. Jews. Gentiles, women, the truly poor, the despised rich, those who wander the earth on the moral outer fringes, Samaritans and all those who in one way or another and for one reason or another are imprisoned and enslaved, the abused and the despised. (See Luke 4:15-21 where Jesus lays out his Spirit-given program for life and note the stress on the Holy Spirit throughout the book of Acts and in this story—8:29, 39.)
Once more, the man in Acts 8 would not be pitied and Luke shows no interest in making him appear pitiful. Just the same, this without a name, especially in light of his devotion to God and his reading OT Scripture would have been aware of the “distance” between God and him, would have been aware of the “distance” between society (even religious society) and him.
Now from the very Bible that spoke of that “distance,” he hears about Jesus who is central in the very section he is reading (Isaiah 53). He hears of Jesus, who is the revelation of God—the God who has come to obliterate “distance” and to give childless people like him a name that is better than children (Isaiah 56:3-4). In hearing about Jesus he knows he is being offered more than a grudging “tolerance”.
No wonder he wants to know, “Well, then, that means I can be baptized too, doesn’t it?” He’s claiming the privilege! He isn’t asking if he must be baptized! That question never occurs in the entire NT and it certainly isn’t being asked here. This is an excited man who wants fully “in”! In various ways and from various perspectives, despite his moral decency, his religious sincerity and loving grasp of truth he has been classed as an “outsider”. Now he knows that in Jesus he can find all that God offers and so he claims the right to be baptized.
But what had baptism to do with it?
Please, if you want to know what baptism has to do with life in and acceptance with the Savior, read what the NT says about baptism. God came looking for this lovely man and he, an eager believer, ended up being baptized and going home rejoicing. Write me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you’d like to talk about it.
[Holy Father, so many for one reason or another are required to live on the outer fringe of society and religious life though they love you with all their hearts. There are people behind bars who can only vainly beg, “Let me out” and there are those who live in isolation and are dying as they ask, “Let me in.” Come near to them to bless them and convince them that you keep them near to your heart and that you seek them as you sought out the noble heart of the nameless man on Gaza’s road. Holy Father help us to come to believe that you run after us down the desert roads we often take, even as you did when you came to meet us on the dusty roads from Bethlehem to Golgotha. And in the light of that truth, wherever they are—in prison for just reasons, in terminal wards, in jobs that crush their spirits, in poverty that kills hope, as people without physical grace or beauty and so are forced to live in loneliness, childless and with ceaseless tears, or warring against moral weakness that leads them to believe they aren’t wanted, or in being uneducated they are insolently sent to the back of some line—in light of that truth assure them by someone and in some way of your love for them, with a smile, a word that brings hope, a look that speaks not of scorn but of sincere respect, an offer of a job, an opportunity to become equipped for something better. And bless them Loving Father with courage, even gallantry and without blinding resentment, as they search for you because by abuse and loss and being unforgiven by people around them multitudes are led to doubt you, though you are looking for them even as you went looking for this outsider. Help them Father to embrace with faith and joy the privilege of baptism into the Lord Jesus and the complete freedom when it comes to them from your loving hand through your ministers who often appear on strange and deserted roads. In Jesus this prayer, Amen]
1. There’s good reason to believe that the biblical words behind “eunuch” should all be understood as someone who’s been castrated. It seems clear that lexical work can’t settle the issue.
2. “Exclusion” in such situations has nothing to do with “discrimination” in a hostile sense. Note that God takes responsibility for the existence of the dumb, the blind and the deaf as well as the gift of speech, hearing and seeing in Exodus 4.11.
Deuteronomy 23:1 does not say, “He that has been castrated is not loved by God!” It’s the case that we’re all “excluded” from certain functions. It’s a part of daily living and we all live happily with that unless it’s clear that the “exclusion” is unjust or due to spite, cruelty, arrogance or some such thing. In the OT the exclusion of the deformed or the mutilated is not without a loving purpose. I mean to develop this matter (God enabling) but this isn’t the place. This we need to note: had you asked the eunuch in Acts 8 about his exclusion, whatever he might have said he would not have thought it evil for he knew GOD and was pleased to worship him even in his exclusion. God’s critics, who sneer at him and aren’t prepared to give him a patient listening to, might think they’re doing the eunuch a service but he wouldn’t take their view. Among the other things the eunuch might say to the critics is this: “It wasn’t GOD that castrated me! His enemies did! When I’m excluded it’s one of God’s ways of marking out the self-serving evil that His enemies perpetrate on people. You call my ‘excluded’ status an outrage; I call it my opportunity to serve him as a living protest against all that’s evil—yours included.”
3. You’ll remember in Alice Walker’s marvelous book Color Purple that Celie who through no fault of her own has been badly abused by her wicked father is called “damaged goods” and for years she believes she is. Sigh.