Does your church welcome all ethnicities? All races? Does your church’s ethnic demographic resemble that of the community around you? If not, why not?
This week we’ve been reading Acts 8:4-40, learning how the Spirit has been pushing the church to get woke. So far the Spirit, through the ministry of Philip, has taken the good news of Jesus to a new ethnic group, the Samaritans. But the Spirit is not done. When it comes to helping the early church get woke, the Spirit is only just getting started.
We see this in verses 26-40, as the story returns to the ministry of Philip. First, in verses 26-29, an angel directs Philip travel to southwest on the road from Jerusalem to Gaza. I want to give you a sense of what kind of travel we’re reading about. When Philip first went north to Samaria, he might have traveled 20-30 miles. Now he is heading south. First he has to backtrack the 20-30 miles to get to Jerusalem, and then he’ll get on the road from Jerusalem to Gaza. Based on what we read here, it seems that Philip is somewhere southwest of Jerusalem when he has another fascinating encounter.
Heading toward Gaza, Philip comes upon an Ethiopian eunuch who had been in Jerusalem to worship, but was now on the long journey back to Ethiopia. Think about what the Spirit has done here. We’ve been talking all along about the outward movement of the Spirit, pushing the earliest Christians to spread the good news about Jesus. And now Philip meets an Ethiopian.
Do you know where Ethiopia is? It is in East Africa, right above Kenya. We don’t know how much territory the Ethiopian kingdom covered in the first century. The boundaries were very different from what they are today. Some scholars believe that this man was from an area in modern day Sudan which is immediately to the west of Ethiopia. My point is that this man is African. He’s not Jewish. He’s not Middle Eastern or Arabic, but African. Consider the skin color of this man.
You might think, “Wait a minute, Joel…aren’t we supposed to be colorblind?” We are not to be colorblind. I know the idea of colorblindness is out there in our culture, but the reality is that there are different skin tones and God creatively wonderfully made them that way. This man’s skin was likely a shade of brown, and God specifically sends Philip to him.
The man was also a eunuch, meaning that he had likely been castrated in order to serve the Ethiopian Queen without fear for any indiscretion. He could be trusted and was an important official, in charge of the Queen’s treasury. At this time the Ethiopian kingdom was powerful. So not only is the Spirit leading Philip to a diverse audience, but to one that could take the Gospel to a center of power in the ancient world.
The Ethiopian official, because he was a eunuch, would have been barred from worship in the temple, with its regulations against those who had some kind of mutilation. Having just attempted to worship in Jerusalem, the man is reading Isaiah, but not understanding. The Spirit directs Philip to talk with the Ethiopian. Side note here: do you see how much the Spirit is talking with Philip? And Philip is listening. He is attentive and aware of what Holy Spirit is asking him to do and it is 100% in line with the heart of God and he is obedient.
What happens? In verses 30-38, Philip and the Ethiopian discuss Isaiah 53:7-8, and Philip shares the Gospel, explaining that the passage in Isaiah was fulfilled by Jesus, the Messiah. While we don’t read the words, “the Eunuch believed,” we can assume so because he asks Philip to baptize him. Not only is this an instance of the Spirit reaching one who is of a different ethnicity, but also one who was not allowed access to worship at the temple. The message in Acts 8:4-40 is clear: when it comes to the Kingdom of God, all are welcome!
Once again, through the Spirit leading outward, the Kingdom of God is expanding across ethnic boundaries, across international boundaries, giving us an illustration of the outward, missional mindset we too must have.
This wonderful story concludes in verses 39-40 as the Spirit miraculously takes Philip away to Azotus, which is just north of Gaza on the Mediterranean coastline, and Philip preaches the Gospel in all the towns, continuing north, until he arrives in Caesarea which is about halfway up the coastline of Israel.
Again and again in this passage, what have we seen? We have seen Spirit guiding Philip to preach the Gospel to those of non-Jewish descent. The Spirit is pushing the outward movement of the Gospel, fulfilling the words of Jesus that the disciples were to be his witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. The Spirit continues to lead us today to include all people of all races and ethnicities. We need to think outwardly about the mission of God’s Kingdom.
Tomorrow we conclude this week’s study of Acts 8:4-40 with some practical ideas of how to apply this outward principle, that we, the church of 2020, might follow the Spirit’s lead in getting woke.