Fruitful Eunuchs

Fruitful Eunuchs April 30, 2018

In Acts 8, Luke offers the first glimpse of the international scope of the gospel. Its setting in Acts is significant. Everything in Luke’s Gospel moves toward Jerusalem. The “infancy” narratives conclude with twelve-year-old Jesus in the temple, listening and teaching (Luke 2:41-51). Between Luke 9 and 19, Jesus marches relentlessly toward Jerusalem, from the mount of transfiguration to the Mount of Olives where He will be crucified. The two disciples on the road to Emmaus return to Jerusalem once they recognize Jesus (Luke 24:13-35), and at the end of the Gospel Jesus sends His disciples back to Jerusalem. Luke ends his Gospel where he began, in the temple (Luke 24:50-53).

Jesus’ disciples don’t leave until Stephen (“Crown”) becomes the first Christian martyr. Then they flee, dispersed like seed, spreading the good news of the risen Jesus. Stephen’s blood is the seed of the church’s mission. The deacon Phillip ends up in Samaria, performing miracles of healing and winning converts.

As Jesus said (Acts 1:8), the apostolic witness doesn’t stop in Samaria. When Peter and John later lay their hands on Samaritans, the Spirit falls on them. A Samaritan Pentecost follows on the original Pentecost in Jerusalem, incorporating Samaritans into the original company of Jewish disciples. Immediately, the Spirit of Jerusalem, Judea, and Samaria sends Phillip away to the desert, where he encounters a high-ranking member of the Ethiopian court.

In Hebrew, Ethiopians are Cushites, descendants of the firstborn of Ham (Genesis 10:6-7), whose very name evokes a sense of exotic threat erupting from the southern netherworlds (2 Chronicles 12:3; 14:9-15). This Ethiopian is a Gentile God-fearer. He has been to Jerusalem for worship, but, as Warren Gage and John Beck point out, he could not have found the experience satisfying. Eunuchs were not admitted to the congregation of Israel (Deuteronomy 23:1).

Like the disciples on the road to Emmaus, the eunuch is leaving Jerusalem, but Luke is setting up a contrast of old and new. The eunuch will not return to the temple. Ever since Stephen’s blood has been mingled with the blood of Jesus, the Way leads in new directions.

When Phillip meets him, the eunuch is in a desert place, a setting that mimics the barrenness of his own body. Yet his reading gives him hope. Though the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53 is cut off from the land of the living (Isaiah 53:8), he will see his offspring (Isaiah 53:10). The Suffering Servant is a kind of eunuch, but a fruitful one, as his suffering issues in fruitfulness for Zion, the barren woman who becomes a joyful mother of children (Isaiah 54:1).

Further on, Isaiah makes explicit reference to eunuchs: “Let no eunuch complain, ‘I am only a dry tree’” (56:3). Rather, the eunuch who keeps Sabbath will have an enduring name better than sons and daughters (56:5). No wonder the eunuch is eager to know this man.

Phillip has learned his hermeneutics from Jesus: Beginning with Isaiah 53 (Acts 8:35; cf. Luke 24:27), he proclaims the gospel of Jesus from all the Scriptures. As they travel, the eunuch sees water. Confessing Jesus, he is baptized, watered to become a fruitful tree, a tree of life. Excluded from the temple, he becomes an “Israelite” by receiving water in the wilderness.

As Jesus said about another text of Isaiah, so Phillip could say: This day Isaiah 56 is fulfilled in our sight. The new is better than the old: It turns dry land into pools of water; it is the covenant of the fruitful eunuch.

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