It is written:
Now an angel of the Lord spoke to Philip, saying, “Arise and go toward the south along the road which goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” This is desert. 27 So he arose and went. And behold, a man of Ethiopia, a eunuch of great authority under Candace the queen of the Ethiopians, who had charge of all her treasury, and had come to Jerusalem to worship, 28 was returning. And sitting in his chariot, he was reading Isaiah the prophet. 29 Then the Spirit said to Philip, “Go near and overtake this chariot.” 30 So Philip ran to him, and heard him reading the prophet Isaiah, and said, “Do you understand what you are reading?” 31 And he said, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” And he asked Philip to come up and sit with him. 32 The place in the Scripture which he read was this: “HE WAS LED AS A SHEEP TO THE SLAUGHTER; AND AS A LAMB BEFORE ITS SHEARER IS SILENT, SO HE OPENED NOT HIS MOUTH. 33 IN HIS HUMILIATION HIS JUSTICE WAS TAKEN AWAY, AND WHO WILL DECLARE HIS GENERATION? FOR HIS LIFE IS TAKEN FROM THE EARTH.” 34 So the eunuch answered Philip and said, “I ask you, of whom does the prophet say this, of himself or of some other man?” 35 Then Philip opened his mouth, and beginning at this Scripture, preached Jesus to him. 36 Now as they went down the road, they came to some water. And the eunuch said, “See, here is water. What hinders me from being baptized?” 37 Then Philip said, “If you believe with all your heart, you may.” And he answered and said, “I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.” 38 So he commanded the chariot to stand still. And both Philip and the eunuch went down into the water, and he baptized him. 39 Now when they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord caught Philip away, so that the eunuch saw him no more; and he went on his way rejoicing. (Acts 8:26-39)
In our study of baptism, we come now to the account of the Ethiopian eunuch. The text opens up with the evangelist Philip’s encounter with this government official. A detailed study of the eunuch will teach us some extremely valuable lessons regarding baptism.
Acts is clear that this is a very important text, as underscored by the fact that Philip is told to go and preach to this gentleman by an angel. Throughout the Book of Acts, each time an angel instructs one of God’s people to do something, it relates to the proclamation of the Gospel and an important turn in the narrative. This is shown in the three other times this occurs in Acts (c.f Acts 5:19-20; 10:3-6; 27:23-24). This is also underscored by the fact that the Spirit is said to speak to Philip (Acts 8:29). Notice the way that the Book of Acts shows the importance of events when the Spirit speaks (cf. Acts 10:19-20; 12:12; 16:6-7; 20:23; 21:11). All of this goes to show us that the story of eunuch is a pivotal event in the Book of Acts.
What exactly is a eunuch? The main idea behind the word is one who is incapable of producing children.
“The current edition of the Bauer-Arndt-Gingrich-Danker Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature presents three meanings for εὐνοῦχος, which reflect a particular interpretation of the threefold reference to eunuchs in Matt. 19: 12: “a castrated male person, eunuch . . . a human male who, without a physical operation, is by nature incapable of begetting children, impotent male . . . a human male who abstains [from] marriage, without being impotent, a celibate.”[ 2] The first three definitions of εὐνοῦχος in the lexicon of Johannes P. Louw and Eugene A. Nida reflect a similar interpretation of Matt. 19: 12: “a castrated male person—‘ eunuch’ . . . a human male who without being castrated is by nature incapable of sexual intercourse—‘ impotent male’ . . . a male person who abstains from marriage without being necessarily impotent—‘ celibate.’”[ 3] Louw and Nida, however, add a fourth definition: “an official of an Oriental court who was entrusted with various important responsibilities and who was also a eunuch—‘ court official, eunuch.’”[ 4] They go on to argue that in some instances when the word is used with this fourth meaning, the focus is on the person’s physical condition, while in other instances the focus is on the person’s official responsibilities and position.” (Sean D. Burke, Queering the Ethiopian Eunuch: Strategies of Ambiguity In Acts (Emerging Scholars), 19-21 (Kindle Edition); Minneapolis, Minnesota; Fortress Press)
In antiquity, eunuchs were often made such intentionally, through castration and other surgical procedures. Certain male officials would have this procedure done on the male servants and guards entrusted with the care and security of the royal wives and concubines, in order to ensure that these male servants and guards would not reproduce and interfere in the royal lineage.
There is also evidence which suggests that many of the eunuchs in the ancient world were homosexual. While nothing in the text in Acts 8 suggests this is the case with the Ethiopian eunuch, it would have been normal for a first century reader to make this connection.
“Hence also eunuchs gained fame in antiquity as male prostitutes. Indeed the castration of abandoned boy children and slaves was one of the chief means of filling the male brothels that were an important part of Greek and Roman culture. The practice of castrating slaves for sexual purposes was criminalized by the (pederastic) emperor Hadrian in the early second century C.E. The eunuch whose testicles were crushed prior to adolescence would, as I indicated, not develop secondary masculine characteristics. While this act could be seen as prolonging the ideal of youthful beauty, it could also be seen as the “feminization” of the male and thus as a “transgendering” of the male. In the highly gender-conscious atmosphere of much of late antiquity, persons could be described as eunuchs who preferred the passive (or “feminine”) role in sexual intercourse with other males. In this case, being a eunuch could be as much symbolic as literal.” (Theodore W. Jr. Jennings, Jr., The Man Jesus Loved, 188 (Kindle Edition); Cleveland, OH; The Pilgrim Press)
However, even if the eunuch were homosexual, this would not provide sanction for his continuing to live such a lifestyle due to repentance (see below).
Where exactly was the Ethiopia that this eunuch was traveling from?
“Although later history has led readers to identify Ethiopia with the current state of that name (including the region of ancient Axum and later Abyssinia) and the Greek term would not have excluded this, that nation is not directly in view here (central as Axum became in Christian history by the early 300s). The Greek title “Ethiopia” technically included all of Africa south of Egypt,[ 865] but the Candace’s title has convinced nearly all scholars that the Nubian kingdom of Meroë is specifically in view here.[ 866] James Bruce discovered Meroë in 1722, and John Garstang’s work (1909–14) identified the site archaeologically.[ 867] (1) Meroë’s Location Meroë’s Nubia was what was then a black African kingdom between Aswan and Khartoum, the two leading cities of which were Meroë and Napata; it had endured since about 760 B.C.E. and since at least the early third century B.C.E. had ruled from its capital in Meroë.[ 868] Even under Napata, Meroë was a significant site; it was founded by 1000 B.C.E. and expanded significantly about 590 B.C.E. At about one square mile (2.59 sq. km. or 640 acres), it is, apart from Egyptian cities, “the earliest large-scale city” we know of in Africa.[ 869] People in the Mediterranean world often spoke of Ethiopia as near Egypt (Plut. Exile 7, Mor. 601DE) or directly south of Egypt (Jos. Ant. 2.239; War 4.608; Appian Hist. rom. pref. 9;[ 870] Juv. Sat. 10.150)[ 871] and also described Meroë as south of Egypt (Μερόη, Arrian Ind. 25.7).[ 872] Even a later novelist who fictionalized freely about Ethiopia recognized its capital as Meroë (Heliod. Eth. 9.16, 20, 24; 10.3, 5).[ 873] Meroë was between the Nile’s Fifth and Sixth Cataracts, four miles (6.4 km.) north of modern Kabūshīyah in the Sudan—that is, some two hundred miles south of modern Egypt and one hundred miles northeast of Khartoum. The fame of Nubia and its location indicate that this official “had traveled no small distance, and was an official of no minor kingdom.”[ 874] Any of Luke’s contemporaries who derived information from sources such as Herodotus might in fact expect Meroë to be nearly a two months’ journey south of Elephantine, and more exotic expanses yet two months farther south (Hdt. 2.29–32).[ 875] Given the length of the journey in each direction, the official presumably remained at least a month in Jerusalem after coming,[ 876] which could suggest at least a quarter of a year for the journey[ 877] and perhaps considerably more. For an official with important duties (and perhaps political considerations in the court), this was no small sacrifice and expression of devotion.[ 878]”. (Craig S. Keener, Acts: An Exegetical Commentary : Volume 2: 3:1-14:28, 15074-15098 (Kindle Edition); Grand Rapids, Michigan; Baker Academic)
So, the journey from Ethiopia to Jerusalem and back would have likely taken about four months or longer for the eunuch to conclude. This is especially interesting when we remember that according to the Old Testament, eunuchs were not allowed in the innermost areas of the Tabernacle and Temple.
Deuteronomy 23:1-He who is emasculated by crushing or mutilation shall not enter the assembly of the LORD.
Even with these restrictions, the eunuch was willing to travel to Jerusalem in order to worship the one true God. What incredible faith and piety!
The text identifies the queen for whom he served as treasurer as Candace. This was a term and not a personal name (similar to “Herod” or “Pharaoh”). This is made clear in other ancient texts from the first century period (cf. Pliny the Elder, Nat. 6.186; Pseudo-Callisthenes, Life Of Alexander Of Macedonian 3:18). Undoubtedly, this eunuch had very important and official duties of state. Again, the fact that he was given this time to travel to Jerusalem speaks of his faith and devotion, as well as his high standing in the sight of the queen to allow him to undertake such a journey.
We are told that the eunuch was reading from Isaiah the Prophet. The section he was reading (Isaiah 53) was written some seven hundred years before Christ was born, and well known among the Jewish people of the first century to contain amazing prophecies of the Messiah. This is the common understanding of not only the New Testament writers, but the Jewish people in that context.
“Jesus himself first drew the connection in Luke 22, quoting Isaiah 53: 12. He told his disciples, “I tell you that this Scripture must be fulfilled in me: ‘And he was numbered with the transgressors.’ For what is written about me has its fulfillment.” The New Testament writers went on to quote from Isaiah 52: 13–53: 12 six more times: Romans 15: 21 quotes 52: 15 John 12: 38 and Romans 10: 16 quote 53: 1 Matthew 8: 17 quotes 53: 4 Acts 8: 32–33 quotes 53: 7–8 1 Peter 2: 22 quotes 53: 9 Notice: there are fifteen verses in the extended prophecy. All told, the New Testament cites phrases directly from seven of them—almost half. Attentive Bible students will find more than fifty additional New Testament allusions to words or concepts found in Isaiah 53.” (John F. MacArthur, The Gospel according to God: Rediscovering the Most Remarkable Chapter in the Old Testament, 36 (Kindle Edition); Wheaton, Illinois; Crossway)
It was not until centuries after Jesus’ death that some Jewish apologists began to claim that Isaiah 53 was not Messianic.
In response to the objection of many modern day Hebrews that Isaiah 53 was referencing the nation of Israel as a whole and not the Messiah, Brown has documented:
“It is impossible, both contextually and logically, for Isaiah 53 to be speaking of the people of Israel. Rather, the text clearly speaks of one individual, and as many rabbis recognized through the ages, that individual was the Messiah. For the last thousand years, religious Jews have often interpreted Isaiah 53 with reference to the people of Israel, but that has bv no means been the consensus interpretation, and it is not the interpretation of the Talmudic rabbis. So, for example, the Targum interprets the passage with reference to the Messiah—as a warring, victorious king, even to the point of completely twisting the meaning of key verses117—while the Talmud generally interprets the passage with reference to the Messiah, or key individuals (like Moses or Phineas), or the righteous (for details on this, see 4.8). Note also that Sa’adiah Gaon, the influential ninth-century Rabbinic leader, interpreted Isaiah 53 with reference to Jeremiah. This means that virtually without exception, the earliest traditional Jewish sources—and therefore the most authoritative Jewish sources—interpret Isaiah 52: 13-53: 12 with reference to an individual, and in some cases, with reference to the Messiah. As stated above (4.5), this is highly significant. While it is true that Rashi, Ibn Ezra, and Radak all interpreted the passage with reference to Israel, other equally prominent leaders, such as Moses ben Nachman (called Nachmanides or the Ramban), felt compelled to follow the weight of ancient tradition and embrace the individual, Messianic interpretation of the Talmudic rabbis (found in the Midrash, despite his belief that the plain sense of the text supported the national interpretation). Noteworthy also is the oft-quoted comment of Rabbi Moshe Alshech, writing in the sixteenth century, “Our rabbis with one voice accept and affirm the opinion that the prophet is speaking of the Messiah, and we shall ourselves also adhere to the same view.” This too is highly significant, since Alshech claims that all his contemporaries agreed with the Messianic reading of the text, despite the fact that Rashi, Ibn Ezra, and Radak had all come out against that reading. Could it be that Rabbi Alshech and his contemporaries came to their conclusions because the text clearly pointed in that direction? The Messianic interpretation is also found in the Zohar as well as in some later midrashic works (for references, see below, 4.8). Thus, it is clear that there is substantial Jewish tradition—spanning a period of up to two thousand years—that differs with your objection.” (Michael L. Brown, Answering Jewish Objections to Jesus : Volume 3: Messianic Prophecy Objections, 49-50 (Kindle Edition); Grand Rapids, MI; Baker Books)
Even though this Messianic interpretation was commonplace in the first century world of the Jewish people, it is not surprising that a foreigner would not understand the significance of the passage. So Philip begins peaching Jesus to him from this point. It is helpful to remember that Isaiah 53 describes in graphic detail the atoning death, burial, and resurrection of the Messiah which are the core facts of the Gospel of Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 15:1-8).
It is also evident that Philip preached about repentance, as the word “Christ” was a title that was used which denoted authority. The power of Christ calls us to repent of our sins, for unless we repent we will perish (Luke 13:3). In order for our sins to be blotted out, we must repent of them (Acts 3:19-21). There is a Day of Judgement coming which stands as a reason for why God commands all men everywhere to repent (Acts 17:30-31). The eunuch definitely repented of his sin, as shown by his good confession that Jesus Christ is the Son of God (again, denoting his submission to Christ-Acts 8:37).
As Philip preaches Jesus to the eunuch, they come to some water and the eunuch asks what is stopping him from being baptized. The text thus reveals an important fact: preaching Jesus involves preaching baptism! Most denominations of our day and age do not “preach Jesus” by including baptism. Notice the distinction between the Bible account and the denominational mindset.
Further, the eunuch clearly understood his need for baptism into Christ, as evidenced by his request. If baptism was not essential to salvation, why would the eunuch request baptism immediately? If baptism was not necessary, why would the eunuch command the chariot to stand still?
Everything in the text suggests that the eunuch understood that baptism was a part of the plan of salvation.
Notice that Philip and the eunuchs conversation reveals the basic knowledge and action required for a person before he may be acceptably baptized: that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and that a person is willing to repent. If a person misunderstood element of baptism-or some other important doctrine of the Bible-would this invalidate their baptism?
The Romans had not understood the connection between baptism and burial/resurrection to new life with Christ (Romans 6:3-4). The Corinthians had misunderstood the connection between baptism and the leadership of Jesus (1 Corinthians 10:1-5), and between their baptism and being made to drink of one Spirit together in the one body (1 Corinthians 12:13). They had also failed to realize that denying the resurrection of Christ was robbing them of their hope of being with their loved ones who had died in Christ through baptism (1 Corinthians 15:29). The Galatians had failed to grasp that baptism made Jews and Gentiles into the chosen people of God, the seed of Abraham (Galatians 3:26-29), and the Colossians somehow had missed that baptism into Christ’s death and resurrection affirmed the end of the Old Testament Law (Colossians 2:11-17). Peter’s readers had not understood the connection between the salvation of the Noahs through water and our own through the waters of baptism, thus seeing the relationship with redemptive suffering (1 Peter 3:19-21).
In all of these examples of disciples who had misunderstood some element of baptism, the recipients of these Epistles were still hailed as Christians. They needed to learn (or perhaps in some cases “relearn”) these facts, correct misunderstandings, and grow in their knowledge and appreciation of these truths; but they were acknowledged as saved believers nonetheless.
Indeed, in the only example in Acts of what we may term “rebaptism,” we see that it involved people who were baptized with the baptism of John after Jesus’ death, and yet had not learned of Jesus Christ when they were baptized (Acts 19:1-5). As Acts 8:37 shows, the basic knowledge element required before baptism could be accepted was whether or not one understood Who Jesus Christ is.
Interestingly enough, the wording of Acts 19 actually argues against these disciples being Christians when Paul first met them.
“(a) Did Luke regard the twelve Ephesians as already Christians before their encounter with Paul? Their ignorance of the Holy Spirit and about Jesus, and the fact that Paul did not count their earlier baptism sufficient but had them undergo baptism in the name of the Lord Jesus, indicates a negative answer. But what of Luke’s description of them as ? It is true that in Acts usually equals ‘Christians’, but the 19.1 usage is unique: it is the only time that is not preceded by the definite article. Now used absolutely always has the sense in Acts of the whole Christian community of the city or area referred to, not just ‘Christians’ generally, but the whole body of disciples as a single entity: for example, (6.7); (9.19); [ ] (9.38); (21.16). is almost a technical term for Luke. ‘The disciples’ act as one (19.30), are ministered to and consulted as one (20.1), are one as the target for the false teachers (20.30), are one so far as the decisions of the council affect them (neck–singular–15.10). When he wishes to speak of a smaller group than the whole body, Luke either qualifies his description of precisely (as in 9.25) or else he speaks of ‘some of the disciples’ ( –21.16). Luke’s description of the twelve as therefore probably implies that the twelve did not belong to ‘the disciples’ in Ephesus–a fact confirmed by their ignorance of basic Christian matters. Indeed, I would suggest that Luke deliberately describes them in this way in order to indicate their relation, or rather, lack of relation to the church at Ephesus. Nor need the mean any more than a mistaken (or charitable) presumption on Paul’s part4–a mistake which Paul quickly discovered and rectified by putting them through the complete initiation procedure, as with all new converts.” (James D.G. Dunn, Baptism In The Holy Spirit, 1972-2001 (Kindle Edition); London; SCM Press)
If a person is convicted of their need to be rebaptized, serious attention should be given to that matter. For example, when I study with friends from a denominational background who were taught that they were “saved” and then baptized, they often want to be reimmersed. Sometimes, I work with people who had been baptized but who had not repented. In these cases, rebaptism should be given considerable attention.
So, in summary, what does this passage teach us about baptism?
First, this passage teaches us that baptism is for any person from any nation, of any skin color, and of any sinful background.
Second, this teaches us that baptism is preceded by hearing God’s Word,.
Third, baptism is for those who believe in Jesus Christ.
Fourth, baptism is for those who are willing to repent of their sins.
Fifth, baptism is for those who show their faith and repentance making the Good Confession, that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.
Sixth, baptism is in water.
Seventh, baptism is an immersion. Notice that both Philip and the eunuch go down into the water, and he baptizes him; and then he comes up out of the water. This is the language of immersion.
Further, consider this:
“Consider this: Here are two men on the road to Gaza, a desert road. Ethiopia was approximately 1,580 miles from Jerusalem where the Eunuch had just visited. The Eunuch is now making the long journey back to his homeland in Ethiopia. Do you think he might have been carrying drinking water with him? Of course he would have. A 1,580 mile journey on horse-back or on camels, covering a distance of 25 miles per day, would have taken about 63 days. If the Eunuch had brought no drinking water, he, his attendants, his horses or camels and every other living thing that traveled with him would have died of dehydration during the trip back to Ethiopia. Do you think that a guy who’d managed to become the treasurer of the queen’s wealth was so stupid and short-sighted that he wouldn’t have brought plenty of drinking water? Water for himself, his attendants, and his animals for the 1,580 mile journey? Of course he would have been carrying water. A lot of water! This leads to the baptismal mode. If sprinkling was a God-directed, God-approved mode of baptism, Phillip and the Eunuch would not have needed a body of water for baptism. The Eunuch had water with him and would have simply said, “See, here is some of my drinking water; what doth hinder me to be baptized?” He wouldn’t have needed to stop the chariot and neither man would have gone down into the water as the account states. Yes, the Bible is an incredible document.” (Michael Shank, Muscle and a Shovel: A Raw, Gritty, True Story About Finding The Truth In A World Drowning In Religious Confusion, 10th Edition: Includes Randall’s Secret, Full Index, Q&A’s, 2816-2827 (Kindle Edition))
Eighth, the text teaches us that baptism involves a baptizer.
Ninth, baptism involves rejoicing.
The Ethiopian eunuch teaches us many important lessons about baptism.
The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit, be with you all. Amen.