Then Philip began to speak, and starting with this scripture, he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus. As they were going along the road, they came to some water; and the eunuch said, “Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?” Acts 8:35-36
Acts 8 tells the story of an Ethiopian, an official in the court of the queen, who was returning home following a trip to Jerusalem. On his trip, the official encountered Philip, on of the seven Christians chosen in Acts 6 for oversight of the Greek-speaking church.
What first caught my attention was this: Philip proclaimed the good news about Jesus to someone who knew nothing about it. The Ethiopian then immediately asked to be baptized. It seems to imply that that Christian baptism was part of Philip’s story of good news.
Well, yes, but as I dug into the text I found that there is even more to the story.
The official is reading – aloud, as was the custom – from the book of Isaiah, whom he acknowledges as a prophet. One might think, then, that he is a Jew returning from a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. (The nature and existence of a Jewish community in Ethiopia from ancient times is a topic for another day.) The thematic element of God’s people serving in foreign courts recurs frequently in the scriptural texts. However, the text never clearly states that the man is Jewish. Rather, the text emphasizes his foreignness, and it describes him as a eunuch.
The Law, in Deuteronomy 23:1, prohibits those who have been emasculated from entering the “assembly of the Lord.”
The reasons for the exclusion are unclear. Among the possibilities:
- The assembly, like the priesthood, is a form of offering to God, and under the Law of Moses offerings should be free of blemish.
- The eunuch could not father children who could take possession of the inheritance of land bestowed by the Lord, and thus were not a link in the land-and-progeny covenant from one generation to the next.
- The association of eunuchs with foreign royal or cultic practices that Israel rejected.
There may be other possibilities as well. The author of Deuteronomy is not at all interested in explaining.
The word “assembly” is קָהָל (qahal) in Hebrew and ἐκκλησία (ekklesia) in the ancient Greek translation of the Old Testament known as the Septuagint.
The “assembly” is a subset of “all Israel.” One commentary identifies the assembly as “all those adult males who are enfranchised to make decisions, participate in cultic activities and serve in the military of Israel.” Whatever its extent or purpose, eunuchs and certain foreigners could not be members.
The prophet Isaiah, however, envisioned a day when eunuchs and foreigners would become fully functioning members of the people of God. In Isaiah’s prophecy, covenant faithfulness is a better marker of holiness than physical perfection or national purity. And this is good news for those who had been excluded by the Law’s demands. In Isaiah 56:3-7, the prophet writes:
No foreigner who has joined himself to the Lord should say, “The Lord will exclude me from his people,” and the eunuch should not say, “Look, I am a dried-up tree.” For the Lord says this: “For the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths, and choose what pleases me, and hold firmly to my covenant, I will give them, in my house and within my walls, a memorial and a name better than sons and daughters. I will give each of them an everlasting name that will never be cut off. As for the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord to minister to him, to love the name of the Lord, and to become his servants, all who keep the Sabbath without desecrating it and who hold firmly to my covenant, I will bring them to my holy mountain and let them rejoice in my house of prayer. Their burnt offerings and sacrifices will be acceptable on my altar, for my house will be called a house of prayer for all nations.”
The gospel fulfills Isaiah’s vision of a great reversal for eunuchs and foreigners. All who believe in Jesus are part of his church – his assembly. The word we translate “church” (ekklesia), remember, is the same word that the Septuagint used for “assembly” in Deuteronomy 23.
As our baptismal liturgy affirms, “Through the Sacrament of Baptism we are initiated into Christ’s holy church, are incorporated into God’s mighty acts of salvation and given new birth through water and the Spirit.” Everyone baptized into Christ Jesus is included as a part of the family of God. We are part of a people whos spiritual roots reach back even beyond Moses to the family of Abraham and Sarah.
In Christ, those who were once strangers to God’s covenant and excluded from God’s assembly now have a place at the table. Everyone who belongs to Jesus now has full access to God’s temple not-made-with-hands, where the church’s offerings of praise and thanksgiving are accepted for Christ’s sake. Those without sons and daughters to call their own now have countless brothers and sisters in the Lord. God bestows this gift to all who put their faith in Christ. This is certainly part-and-parcel of the good news about Jesus.
“What is to prevent me from being baptized,” the Ethiopian eunuch asked. He didn’t just mean, “Is there enough water here to get the job done? Do I need to fill out an application or take some classes or something? Am I supposed to wear a white robe? I don’t have one.” Rather, he was asking “Does the condition which kept me at arms length from God and his people still apply, or has God made a way for me to be a part of his family? Am I welcome at the baptismal font with my mangled junk and my foreign accent and my job working for a pagan government, or do these things prevent me from being baptized into Christ and his church?” (This is also the point of the similar question about Gentile converts in Acts 10:47.)
How appropriate, then, that a foreigner and a eunuch should hear good news in the story of Jesus. That story of Jesus is not complete without the story of Christ’s church, the assembly of the Lord to which believers are united through Christian baptism. And how appropriate that the whole conversation is kicked off with a reading from the prophet Isaiah.