The New Testament Book of Acts contains many fascinating stories of the growth of early Christianity. One of those stories tells of the conversion of an African man from Ethiopia whose coming to belief had great significance for early Christianity – more than we might realize ...
“Now an angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Go south to the road – the desert road – that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” So he started out, and on his way he met an Ethiopian eunuch, an important official in charge of all the treasury of the Kandake (which means “queen of the Ethiopians”). This man had gone to Jerusalem to worship, and on his way home was sitting in his chariot reading the Book of Isaiah the prophet. Then Philip ran up to the chariot and heard the man reading Isaiah the prophet. “Do you understand what you are reading?” Philip asked. “How can I,” he said, “unless someone explains it to me?” So he invited Philip to come up and sit with him …” (Acts 8:26-31).
Reading the story of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch it is hard for us, as modern readers, to grasp the way in which the story would have been perceived by its original hearers in the early Church.
In the ancient world Ethiopia epitomized the idea of remoteness. The Greek poet Homer spoke of the inhabitants of Ethiopia as the “farthest of men” – the most remote known peoples (Odyssey 1.23), and the term Ethiopia was often used by classical writers to mean all of unknown sub-Saharan Africa – to “the ends of the earth.”
This sense of the exotic and distant land from which the eunuch came was heightened by other details of the story – the fact that the inhabitants of Ethiopia were dark-skinned was exotic in itself. The fact that the man was a eunuch also placed him in a small minority of Jews or Gentile proselytes to the Jewish faith. Even more exceptional was the nature of the eunuch’s position as an important official in a distant land perceived to be “ruled by women” (a number of the Kandake queens ruled Ethiopia during that era). All these factors would have come together in the minds of early Christians to form a very vivid image of a man from the ends of the earth.
We see how these facts would have been perceived when we apply them to the wording of the great commission given by Christ to his disciples before his ascension: “…you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8B). Acts records that commission being fulfilled in Jerusalem (Acts 6:8-8:3), in Judea and Samaria (Acts 8:4-25) and, in the story of the Ethiopian eunuch, to “the ends of the earth” (Acts 8:26-40). That is doubtless why, out of all the thousands of people that were converted at that time (Acts 4:4, etc.), the story of the Ethiopian eunuch was selected to be told in detail. The commission certainly was to take the Gospel to all the Gentile world, not just to Ethiopia, but the early readers of Acts would have immediately recognized in that account how God was working out His purpose and beginning to fulfill His intentions.
There are many exemplary lessons we can see in the story of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch: the willingness of Philip to follow the Spirit’s prompting to do the work of God, the devotion of the Ethiopian to travel the huge distance to Jerusalem to worship, the humility of the powerful man in the way he asked Philip’s help to understand God’s word, and many more. But a lesson we should not forget is that if we keep in mind the plan and purposes of God, we will see them being fulfilled in and around us if we are observant. If we look for them, we will see the signs of God’s work being done and be strengthened by them, as the word continues to go out to “the ends of the earth.”