This article is part of our weekly series, “The Book of Acts and the Church Today.” You can see all articles in the series here.
Acts records thousands of conversions. But it only details the stories of a few converts. In Acts 8–9, Luke tells three consecutive conversion stories in detail. Simon’s “conversion” warns against hypocrisy (Acts 8:9–25). Saul’s conversion extols God’s sovereign, conquering grace (9:1–18). Why might the Spirit single out the conversion story of a eunuch from Ethiopia in Acts 8:25–40? Perhaps it’s to convince us that God saves outsiders. God’s promise of grace is for those who are near—those who seem to fit in to the church, and for those who are far—those who have little in common with insiders (Eph. 2:17).
What Hope Is There for Outsiders?
So far, God’s witnesses had told about Jesus “in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria” (Acts 1:8)—to insiders, those who had a close connection to ancient Israel. But the good news must go also “to the end of the earth,” to those who were “strangers to the covenants of promise” (Eph. 2:12).
God directed Philip to an Ethiopian eunuch. If you plot all the nations represented at Peter’s Pentecost sermon, Ethiopia doesn’t make the map; Russia is closer to Jerusalem. He is clearly among the “far off” (Acts 2:39). He’s also a eunuch—emasculated, sexually disabled. Eunuchs were deemed qualified to deal closely with important women (see Est. 2:3, 14). But eunuchs were also stigmatized. This biological male didn’t fit in with other men. In Israel, he would have been unfit for the priesthood (Lev. 21:20). He would never enjoy marital relations or produce children. His outsider status is even confirmed by his vocation as a court official to the Queen of Ethiopia. Being important can be a hurdle to faith (see Mark 10:22; 2 Kings 5:1–14).
Spiritually, the eunuch had been gaining religion but had not yet embraced Jesus. He was financially privileged—very few people owned Scripture scrolls in those days—but lacked spiritual understanding. You can sense his frustration: how can I understand what I am reading “unless someone guides me?” (Acts 8:31).
The man’s location is also symbolic. The revival was happening in Samaria. What fruit could come from a desert meeting (Acts 8:26)?
But God was working to save this ethnic, social, and religious outsider. His country of origin—Ethiopia, sometimes called Cush—should remind us of God’s ancient promise. God had vowed to “recover the remnant that remains of his people” from places like Ethiopia (Isa. 11:10, 11). “Cush shall hasten to stretch out her hands to God” (Ps. 68:31; cf. 87:4; Zeph. 3:10). Clearly, no one is too far off to be out of reach of God’s grace.
How Does God Save?
The eunuch’s cry for help harmonizes with Romans 10:14: “How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching?” As Philip had preached in Samaria (Acts 8:5) and would later preach on his way to Caesarea (Acts 8:40), so he preached a private sermon to this lost man.
Reading the Bible, as the eunuch was doing, is a great start. The Greek words for reading and understanding are nearly identical. And the eunuch did even better than we often do; he read aloud (Acts 8:30). Oral reading demands more scrupulous attention to the text, and can help prevent daydreaming. So we should keep reading the Bible, out loud when possible. “The real secret of re-reading is simply this: It’s impossible. The characters remain the same, and the words never change, but the reader always does.”[i]
But like the eunuch, we also need church-authorized preaching (Rom. 10:15). The eunuch asked an important question about the text he was reading, Isaiah 53:7–8. Who is the prophet talking about? Who willingly offered himself as a sacrificial lamb? Who deliberately humbled himself to face injustice? Who had his life cut short, never marrying or having children? A eunuch especially would wonder who would deprive himself of physical descendants. From this text, Philip preached Christ as the good news both Isaiah and the eunuch had been waiting for. Preaching is a means of grace because it reveals Jesus, who has given himself for everyone who will believe, the Jew and the Greek. And the Spirit moved the eunuch to believe the message. So he was baptized, marked out as a follower of Jesus. He “went on his way rejoicing” (Acts 8:39).
Is it strange that Luke never mentions the man’s name? We only know he is a foreigner and a eunuch. But this knowledge plays into a text the eunuch would encounter if he kept reading. “Let not the foreigner who has joined himself to the Lord say, ‘the Lord will surely separate me from his people’; and let not the eunuch say, ‘Behold, I am a dry tree’” (Isa. 56:3). Here is God’s promise: To the godly eunuch, “I will give in my house and within my walls a monument and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off” (4–5). This Ethiopian eunuch became grafted into Jesus’s family tree (see Heb. 2:13). He has a name: Christian. He has a place: God’s family. He has a future: eternity with God. Thank God. Because he is us.
[i] Verlyn Klinkenborg “Some Thoughts on the Pleasures of Being a Re-Reader” New York Times, May 29, 2009.