The Good News Saves the Outcast
Topic: Missions & Evangelism Passage: Acts 8:26–8:40
In some traditions, after the reading of God’s word, the person reading says, “This is the word of the Lord.” The congregation replies, “Thanks be to God.” Let’s do that today and express thanksgiving for the precious word of God. I’m reading from verse 26…
26 Now an angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Rise and go toward the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” This is a desert place. 27 And he rose and went. And there was an Ethiopian, a eunuch, a court official of Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, who was in charge of all her treasure. He had come to Jerusalem to worship 28 and was returning, seated in his chariot, and he was reading the prophet Isaiah. 29 And the Spirit said to Philip, “Go over and join this chariot.” 30 So Philip ran to him and heard him reading Isaiah the prophet and asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?” 31 And he said, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” And he invited Philip to come up and sit with him. 32 Now the passage of the Scripture that he was reading was this: “Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter and like a lamb before its shearer is silent, so he opens not his mouth. 33 In his humiliation justice was denied him. Who can describe his generation? For his life is taken away from the earth.” 34 And the eunuch said to Philip, “About whom, I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?” 35 Then Philip opened his mouth, and beginning with this Scripture he told him the good news about Jesus. 36 And as they were going along the road they came to some water, and the eunuch said, “See, here is water! What prevents me from being baptized?” 38 And he commanded the chariot to stop, and they both went down into the water, Philip and the eunuch, and he baptized him. 39 And when they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord carried Philip away, and the eunuch saw him no more, and went on his way rejoicing. 40 But Philip found himself at Azotus, and as he passed through he preached the gospel to all the towns until he came to Caesarea.
Before jumping to the particulars of this passage, I want to zoom out. There’s a lot of value in seeing the bigger picture. Reading the Bible is like hiking a mountain. It’s one thing to see a boulder on the trail. It’s another to see that boulder in relation to the mountain. But it’s even more amazing when you summit and see the entire landscape. So let’s hike up two more levels and look down on this passage.
The Onward March of the Gospel
The next level up: how does this story about Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch function in Acts? It’s often used to promote personal evangelism and support believer’s baptism. But the major thrust can be lost in these details. The basic point is to display the onward march of the gospel. Jesus has a plan according to Acts 1:8. The Spirit empowers his church to spread the gospel in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth. Chapters 2-7 focused on the gospel spreading in Jerusalem. Chapter 8 shows the gospel spreading to all Judea and Samaria (Acts 8:1). The first half of chapter 8 is the gospel spreading in Samaria, north of Jerusalem. This second half is the gospel spreading south of Jerusalem to a man heading home to Africa.
In other words, Jesus’ plan is right on track. Nothing is hindering the spread of his gospel—not even the persecution. In fact, there’s a bit of humor in where this story falls. The story falls right between two accounts of Saul persecuting the church. Look at 8:3—“Saul was ravaging the church, and entering house after house, he dragged off men and women and committed them to prison.” Now look at 9:1, “But Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord…”
Smack in the middle of these two pictures of persecution is Luke sitting back saying, “Meanwhile in all Judea and Samaria, the gospel was still spreading…” In other words, you’re not going to stop the risen Jesus. He’s greater and more powerful.
Many of you are well aware that one of our missionary families was sent home from Turkey. The Turkish government doesn’t want them spreading the gospel. Having them sent home was disappointing. At the same time, that doesn’t mean Jesus’ hands are tied in getting the gospel to Turkish people.
The kids and I were in a wreck last weekend. Totaled the van. Thankfully, everyone was okay. Insurance man calls me Monday morning and says, “Hey, I live in Fort Worth. I have three kids. I’m truly sorry for what happened. Why don’t you meet me down at the dealer and we’ll get you set up with a new van today.” “Okay!” We go down there. I’m appointed a salesman. Guess where’s from? He’s from Turkey. I get to spend the next five hours with this guy getting all the paper work done. We eat lunch together, and along the way I get two opportunities to share Christ.
A wreck south of Waco ends with me and a man from Turkey, who’s open to hearing the good news. Jesus’ plan to spread the gospel among all peoples isn’t constrained by persecution. It doesn’t matter if it’s an Ethiopian on a chariot to Africa or a Turkish man selling a car. Jesus will save his people. The onward march of the gospel will prevail. Are we being faithful with the opportunities he gives us?
God’s Unfolding Plan in Jesus to Restore Israel
Let’s move to an even higher level: how does this story function in the Bible. Not just within Acts, but within the Bible. To this point, it’s very clear that God is fulfilling his promises to save Israel (Acts 1:6-8). Some of those promises included the gift of the Holy Spirit, and we have seen that fulfilled at Pentecost.
Some of those Old Testament promises included what God would do to restore Israel. The book of Kings tells the story of Israel’s sin ripping the nation of Israel apart. Eventually the northern kingdom sets up its captiol in Samaria, while the southern kingdom keeps its capitol in Jerusalem. But Ezekiel 37 promised a day when God would gather and reunite his people under the rule of a superior son of David.
The book of Acts answers that promise too. Again and again, Jesus is that superior Son of David.[i] He’s not like David whose body is still in the grave; he rose victorious over the grave and has taken his seat at the right hand of God. As a result, Jews in Jerusalem—the southern kingdom—get saved by Jesus; and Jews in Samaria—the northern kingdom—get saved by Jesus. That’s the first part of chapter 8; that’s the reason the gospel goes to Samaria. Jesus is gathering people from both kingdoms and uniting them under his lordship, fulfilling the prophecy of Ezekiel 37.
But something further was expected with Israel’s restoration. Something further was going to happen when the superior Son of David would establish his kingdom. This King would also gather the outcasts and the foreigners into his people. Some of them, according to Isaiah 11:11, would be from the very place that this eunuch was from—a remnant would come from the land of Cush or Ethiopia; not the Ethiopia we know, but our modern-day Sudan. That’s where our story comes in with the Ethiopian eunuch. It’s part of this larger story of God restoring his people and bringing in the outcasts.
The State of the Eunuch as an Outcast
He’s one of the outcasts that the Old Testament mentions explicitly. He’s the epitome of outcasts. He’s got three strikes against him. First of all, he’s a foreigner. To be a foreigner in the Old Testament was to start life separated from God’s covenants, separated from God’s promises to Israel (cf. Eph 2:11-12).[ii]
He’s also a eunuch. He could have been born that way, but it’s far more likely that somebody made him unable to have children. Luke’s intent is to emphasize that he’s a eunuch. Notice the guy holds a fairly high office back home. He’s a court official of Candice, queen of the Ethiopians, who was in charge of all her treasure. But throughout the rest of the passage, Luke simply refers to him as “the eunuch.”[iii] Not “the court official.” Not “the Ethiopian man.” Simply, “the eunuch.”
Why persist with the most awkward title? Because Luke is making a huge point about God’s saving plan, and we’re going to see it from Isaiah in just a moment. But before we get there, consider life as a eunuch in the Old Testament. Under the Mosaic covenant, marrying and having children was the way to maintain inheritance in the land and to perpetuate your name.[iv] It was worse than death—it was a curse—to lose your name.[v]
You can see the implication for a eunuch, who couldn’t have any offspring. There were also laws that excluded eunuchs from God’s assembly—Deuteronomy 23:1-8. So not only can they not perpetuate their name, but they were accustomed to being outcasts. No inheritance, no name, no community.
So he’s a foreigner—strike one. He’s a eunuch—strike two. He also doesn’t understand the revelation of God’s saving plan—strike three. Philip asks him in verse 30, “Do you understand what you’re reading?” The eunuch says, “How can I unless someone guides me?” He’s reading Scripture. He’s even reading a passage about the way God plans to save his people through the Suffering Servant. But he doesn’t understand it. He came to Jerusalem to worship what he knew, but he’s still lost. He doesn’t know God, because he doesn’t understand the revelation of God’s saving plan.
We know people like this. People who know what’s in the Bible, but who don’t understand it truly. People who may even try religious things to fit in, but deep down know nothing of God’s saving work. People who are strangers to God’s promises, and without hope. People cut off from God because of their sin. People not welcomed into certain circles because of sins done to them. We used to be people like this. We’re Gentiles, foreigners; we were once strangers to the covenants of promise. We were without God in the world, as Paul says in Ephesians 2:12. We were lost, without hope, no understanding of what God did for us.
Good News for the Outcast from Isaiah 53
What’s the answer for this outcast? What’s the answer for all outcasts? It’s the good news of Jesus Christ. Philip hops in the chariot. Verse 35 says, “and beginning with this Scripture he told him the good news about Jesus.” Let’s take a deeper look at the good news. Let’s do so from the passage the eunuch asks Philip to explain. So turn with me to Isaiah 53. I’ll actually start reading in Isaiah 52:13…
13 Behold, my servant shall act wisely; he shall be high and lifted up, and shall be exalted. As many were astonished at you—his appearance was so marred, beyond human semblance, and his form beyond that of the children of mankind—15 so shall he sprinkle many nations; kings shall shut their mouths because of him; for that which has not been told them they see, and that which they have not heard they understand. 1 Who has believed what he has heard from us? And to whom has the arm of the LORD been revealed? 2 For he grew up before him like a young plant, and like a root out of dry ground; he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him. 3 He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not.
We’re introduced to a Servant. The basic idea is that God’s Servant will be exalted and bless many nations. He will sprinkle them like the priest sprinkled the people clean (Lev 16:14-16). But there’s a sense of astonishment, something puzzling. How can such magnificent blessing—blessing that shuts the mouths of kings—flow from such horrific suffering? Who could really look on this weak, dispicable, lowly, suffering Servant and conclude, “Oh, that’s definitely the arm of the Lord; that’s definitely God’s mighty way of saving us”? What person would draw that conclusion?
The only person who can draw that conclusion is the one who truly grasps, and who truly embraces the rest of Isaiah 53. The rest of Isaiah 53 solves the riddle. It does so next by explaining that the Servant would suffer as our substitute. Verse 4…
4 Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. 5 But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed. 6 All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all.
Notice, his sufferings are not for anything that he did wrong. His sufferings were actually the ones that we deserved for straying away from God. We all strayed from God and became guilty of his punishment. That’s the bad news. The bad news is that our sins have separated us from God. The guilt we have incurred must be punished. God is holy. He will not sweep sin under the rug. We all need forgiveness.
The good news is this: the Lord’s solution to our need for forgiveness was to place the punishment we deserved on the Servant. Blessings flow from the Servant, because he suffered in our place.
Next, the Servant voluntarily pursues death and gets cut off for us. Verse 7…
7 He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he opened not his mouth. 8 By oppression and judgment he was taken away; and as for his generation, who considered [it]? [For] he was cut off out of the land of the living, stricken for the transgression of my people? 9 And they made his grave with the wicked and with a rich man in his death, although he had done no violence, and there was no deceit in his mouth.
So the Servant isn’t a helpless victim; he’s a voluntary offering. His suffering and death are unjust, because he has done nothing wrong. Yet he gives his life willingly for the sake of others. Consider the language Isaiah uses in verse 8. “[For] he was cut off out of the land of the living.” Just like the foreigner was cut off. Just like the eunuch was cut off. Just like we were cut off. The Servant is cut off that we might enter in. He was cut off in death that we might enter life with God. He died not for sins that were his own; he died for our sins. He endured our curse until it cut him off.
Finally, we see that the Servant produces many offspring by giving them his righteousness. Verse 10…
10 Yet it was the will of the LORD to crush him; he has put him to grief; when his soul makes an offering for guilt, he shall see his offspring; he shall prolong his days; the will of the LORD shall prosper in his hand. 11 Out of the anguish of his soul he shall see and be satisfied; by his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant, make many to be accounted righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities. 12 Therefore I will divide him a portion with the many, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong, because he poured out his soul to death and was numbered with the transgressors; yet he bore the sin of many, and makes intercession for the transgressors.
This is remarkable. See, the Servant has no offspring when he dies. That’s the idea back in verse 8.[vi] From a human perspective, this Servant was surely cursed since he had no generation to succeed him, no posterity. He died with nothing to follow him in the land. It was a cursed death. No wonder the eunuch is so interested in this Servant, this Servant who seems to identify with his own predicament so specifically. But verse 10 then says, “he shall see his offspring.” How can he see his offspring, if he had no children when he was cut off?
The point is that his redeeming work creates spiritual offspring (cf. John 12:24). He sees his offspring in that God would raise the Servant from the dead to secure all the offspring for whom he died as they trust in his substitutionary death. That’s huge for this foreigner and this eunuch. God’s people aren’t marked by a physical connection to Israel; they’re marked by a spiritual union to the Suffering Servant. True blessing isn’t tied to the ability to maintain your own name; it’s tied to knowing the Servant and the forgiveness he gives you to enjoy God’s name. Anybody who trusts in his substitutionary death gets reconciled to God, gets forgiveness, gets a righteousness that’s not their own, gets incorporated into God’s people.
Can you picture Philip witnessing to the eunuch? “Anybody from anywhere, no matter what they’ve done, no matter what they’re condition is because of what they did or what others did to them, no matter how far of an outcast you may be, this Servant died to make you righteous before God and bring you into the countless blessings of his covenant people!” That’s the good news according to Isaiah 53.
But check this out. Isaiah goes on to get really specific about the results of the Servant’s death and resurrection. Isaiah 54 breaks out in song for Israel, and announces to Israel that it’s time for her to lengthen the chords on her tent, because her offspring would possess the nations and will fill the desolate places. In other words, multitudes of people would pour into the heritage of God’s people, because of the Servant’s work. “There won’t be enough room for them in here! Make way for the nations!”
Chapter 55 of Isaiah then invites the nations: “Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price…Incline your ear, and come to me; hear, that your soul may live…” That’s the call to all of us. God’s salvation is free! Come and receive it for life. Then in Isaiah 56, God mentions two types of people that he promises to save because of the Servant’s work, and you know who they are?
The foreigner and the eunuch (Isa 56:3-8). God will be their inheritance. They will get community within his walls. They will get a name that’s better than sons and daughters and won’t ever be cut off—which, if you look back to 55:13, was another way of saying that God would share his state in glory with these eunuchs.[vii] The foreigner—for him it says that God would make them joyful in my house of prayer. Full incorporation into the people of God and, most importantly, into fellowship with God. That’s what they get because of the Servant.
The Outcast Saved, Incorporated, & Rejoicing
Can you can imagine Philip teaching all this about the Servant, and then turning to the eunuch and saying, “His name is Jesus Christ.” Starting from this passage, he told him the good news about Jesus.
Jesus becomes the key to understanding the revelation of God’s saving plan. The promised Servant came, he died, and he rose again, and his name is Jesus. There’s no more riddle to solve, because God saved his people through Jesus.
Only Jesus was exalted as equal with God. Only Jesus’ glory can stop the mouths of kings. Only Jesus was himself the arm of the Lord revealed. Only Jesus was without sin. Only Jesus could bear the sins of the world. Only the infinite value of Jesus’ death could remove the infinite guilt our sin incurred. Only Jesus rose from the dead. Only Jesus prospers the will of the Lord in counting many outcasts righteous.
The eunuch had three strikes against him: a foreigner, a eunuch, and no way to understand the revelation of God’s saving plan. He was an outcast. He was lost. He could not know God by a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. He needed to know the Servant who made the only pilgrimage that really matters: the road to Calvary, where he took away our sins and reconciled us to God. But the Holy Spirit leads Philip to share the good news about Jesus with the eunuch.
It’s no wonder that after going on for a bit, the eunuch commands the chariot to stop at some water, and says “What prevents me from being baptized?” The answer is nothing! No sin, no ethnic barrier, no social barrier, no community, no self-righteous prig—nothing stands in the way. In Christ, he is accepted before God and welcomed into the family; and so are you, if you trust in Christ. If you trust in Christ, and in nothing else to save you, then you’re 100% accepted because Jesus suffered, died, and rose again to make you righteous before God. If you believe that message, then make it public through baptism if you haven’t already.
Philip baptizes the eunuch in verse 38. The eunuch gets incorporated into God’s people. All this then leads to the eunuch rejoicing in verse 39. That’s a pattern we’re starting to see in Acts. Salvation in Christ produces joy in God’s people. Bitter Christian is an oxymoron. Joy is the fruit of grace reaching down to save us, lost and depraved as we were, and bringing us into fellowship with God, in whose presence is fullness of joy and at whose right hand are pleasures forevermore.
Evangelism is spreading joy through the good news about Jesus
Can we start viewing our evangelism efforts that way? And our ministry of the word in Care Groups that way? And our Sunday gathered that way? And our concern for each other that way? You’re on a mission to spread joy to all peoples through the good news of Jesus Christ. God saved you to make you joyful in Christ and to make you an instrument in bringing his joy to others. The greatest thing in the world is to be saved and to know Jesus Christ, and let’s never get over him. Let’s pray for the joyful song of Isaiah 54 to become the song of White Settlement and Fort Worth. But it’s got to become the song of our own hearts first and our own homes first and our own church first.
Christ saves and gathers the outcast; the church is home for outcasts
Let’s also leave reminded that Christ saves and gathers the outcast. We see this in Jesus’ own ministry as he draws near to a Samaritan woman. She’d been through five husbands, and the one she was currently living with wasn’t her husband. She’s an outcast and looking for joy in all the wrong places. Perhaps some of those husbands left her for others. She was lost and thirsty for life, trying to get by with a religious façade. But Jesus sees her true need, and offers her living water in himself. He gathers the outcast.
Jesus does the same through Philip in Acts 8. Therefore, his church should be a home for the outcast. What did Isaiah say? All of us like sheep have gone astray—every one. Our sins have separated us from God. We’re all outcasts. But in Christ, he has gathers the outcast. He has welcomed us. In Christ we’ve been accepted by God. We can’t become a people who look down on the outcast. We must become a people who rescue the outcast and welcome the outcast. Church isn’t about going and staying where everybody is just like us; it’s about Jesus gathering a diverse people who love one another for his sake, no matter what our background or what he saved us out of.
Conform our lives to God’s global mission, not the other way around
Finally, if God is fulfilling his promise to restore Israel, if he’s right now gathering the foreigner and the outcast through the onward march of the gospel, then life is about conforming our lives to his mission, not the other way around.
Philip had it good in Samaria. He had a little evangelism crusade going on. Many people were getting saved. There was much joy in that city. Then an angel comes and says the Lord wants him to head south to a desert. He doesn’t even know why yet. But he goes. The Spirit then tells Philip to join the chariot. He doesn’t know why yet. But he goes. How come? Because life is about God’s mission to make Christ known. His food is to do the will of the Father.
In his book, The Mission of God, Christopher Wright says this: “I may wonder what kind of mission God has for me, when I should ask what kind of me God wants for his mission.”[viii] Life isn’t so much about how God fits into the story of our individual lives, but about how our individual lives fit the story of God’s mission. Instead of “How do I squeeze making disciples into my schedule?” we ask, “How is my schedule going to serve making disciples?”
God is on a mission to rescue the outcast. God is on a mission to gather the foreigner. How will you conform your life to that mission this week? Pray and ask the Lord to guide you in that mission, as he did for Philip in rescuing the eunuch. Let’s spread joy in telling others the good news about Jesus.
[i]Acts 2:25-31, 34-36; 4:25-28.
[ii]The Law made exceptions for the sojourner, who chose to abide by the customs of Moses. But for the most part, the foreigner living outside the land was viewed quite negatively. They were idolators.
[iii]Acts 8:34, 36, 38, 39.
[iv]Cf. Exod 32:13; Num 27:1-11. That’s why you also get laws concerning Levirate marriage—marrying your brother’s wife if he dies in order to perpetuate his name in the land (Deut 25:5-10).
[v]Cf. Deut 25:6 with 29:20.
[vi]The particle ‘et in Isaiah 53:8 could also make “his generation” the direct object of “considered,” thus rendering the passage as follows: “By oppression and judgment he was taken away, and who has considered his generation? For he was cut off out of the land of the living…” See discussion in Oswalt, Isaiah 40-66, 394-95. The meaning would then reflect how, from a human perspective, this one was surely truly cursed since he had no children (i.e., a generation) to succeed him. In this way, Jesus also identifies with those under the Mosaic covenant who experienced rejection and curse for having no children. By the way Luke cites Isaiah 53:8 in Acts 8:33, he seems to be thinking along these lines: “Who can describe his generation? For [hoti] his life is taken away from the earth.”
[vii]See the discussion in Oswalt, Isaiah 40-66, 448, 458.
[viii]Christopher Wright, The Mission of God (Downers Grove: IVP, 2006), 534.