|Scripture Readings: Isaiah 53:1-12; Isaiah 56:1-8; Acts 8:26-40||Download and print sermon (PDF)|
By Rev. Stephen ‘t Hart*, Free Reformed Church, Baldivis, Western Australia
Preached at Pasig-Imus Joint Worship Service on February 5, 2012
Text: Acts 8:36 b “See, here is water. What hinders me from being baptized?”
Just as the eunuch could look to the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53, so we too may look up to Jesus, and on the basis of what He has done in our place, we too may come before the Father holy and undefiled; we too may take our seat among the assembly of the LORD. When we come before the LORD through Jesus Christ, then we are no longer a dry tree, but, grafted in to the Tree that is Christ, we are made vigorous and green. We have gone from being separated from the living God to being free and forgiven and brought in to the assembly of the LORD.
Congregation of our Lord Jesus Christ.
When we come to church each Sunday, we have the privilege of joining the assembly of the Lord. We are the church of God. We are His covenant community. And that is a miracle: we, who were dead in our trespasses and sins are now joined to Jesus Christ and made alive in Him.
The Bible describes this miracle in various ways. In Romans 11, the Assembly of the Lord is described as an Olive Tree. We, who were wild shoots, have been grafted in to that Olive Tree, and can now partake of the root and the richness of it (Romans 11:17). In John 15, Christ describes Himself and His church as the Vine and the Branches. A branch that is joined to the Vine is green and living. A branch that is not connected to the vine is dry and withered.
And so when we are joined to Christ as a part of the assembly of the Lord, we become like a green branch, living and fruitful. Or, as Psalm 1 puts it, a leafy-green, fruit bearing tree.
That is a miracle, for there was a time when we were no more than dead wood: when we were strangers of the covenant and outside the Assembly of the Lord. There was a time when we were disqualified from being a part of the Assembly of the Lord. For we, who were designed to bear fruit for God disqualified ourselves from being able to do so. Sin mutilated our souls and deformed us. Sin turned us into dry trees, making us unable to bear fruit for God.
And yet here we are: the congregation of our Lord Jesus Christ, seated in the Assembly of the Lord! What Isaiah prophesied in chapter 56 has come true before our very eyes: we who were separated from the Assembly of the LORD have received a place and a name. We have been gathered into the house of the Lord and made joyful in His house of prayer.
And that is the message that the Holy Spirit gives us in Acts 8, in the story of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch. Because of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the eunuch received a place and a name in the assembly of the LORD. And so I preach to you the Gospel as we have read it from Isaiah and Acts under the following heading:
A Dry Tree Made New in the Water of Baptism
1. What made the tree dry.
2. What gave the tree life.
What Made the Tree Dry
Although we call the book of Acts The Acts of the Apostles, it is more accurate to call it The Acts of the Ascended Lord. For behind the work of the apostles we see the hand of God.
This is particularly evident in Acts 8. In the first part of this chapter, Philip joined those who fled Jerusalem after the death of Stephen and went down to Samaria. In Samaria he preached Christ to the people, and multitudes of people believed and were baptized. Then, when the apostles in Jerusalem heard about it, they sent Peter and John to them. Peter and John prayed, and the Holy Spirit was poured out in a special way upon the people of Samaria, proving that they too shared in all the promises of the gospel and were full members of God’s new covenant community. Then in verse 25 Peter and John slowly made their way back to Jerusalem, preaching and teaching as they went. Philip was now left in charge, so to speak, and with a new church community of what must have been thousands of Samaritans, he had a lot of work to do. The New Testament was not yet written, and so the Samaritans needed eye witnesses of what Jesus had said and taught, as well as those who were full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom so that they might be instructed in the Way.
But this was not the work of Philip: it was the church gathering work of our Ascended Lord. And the Lord had a different plan. And so he instructed Philip in verse 26, “Arise and go toward the south along the road which goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.”
If you have some maps in the back of your Bible, you might want to look at a map of Palestine in Christ’s time. Philip had been preaching in Samaria, north of Jerusalem, which is in the middle of Palestine, half way between the Dead Sea and the Sea of Galilee. Gaza, on the other hand, is south of Jerusalem, towards the bottom of the map, close to the Mediterranean Sea. So this was an unusual instruction: Here was Philip, well north of Jerusalem, having an effective ministry and reaching many people, (one might have said he was indispensible) but then the Lord told him to make his way south down the road to Gaza. One might have thought it would be more efficient for an apostle from Jerusalem to go, but the Holy Spirit had prepared and chosen Philip for this task.
And then the Bible also adds another comment in verse 26. “This is desert.”
Now Gaza was an old Philistine city which had been destroyed about 100 years before Christ. The Romans had built a new Gaza to the south of the original one and a new road went to the new Gaza. However, Acts 8 specifies that Philip had to go to an area that was classed as “desert” or “a deserted place” and so we can assume that he was to go down the old Gaza road. Humanly speaking this did not make sense. If Philip had studied the theory of missions and followed the rules for successful church planting, he would have stayed back in Samaria and built on his initial success. But this was not the Acts of Philip, but the Acts that the Lord did through Him. And the Lord wanted Philip to go there for a reason.
And the reason was a man in a chariot.
He was from Ethiopia, a eunuch of great authority under Candace the queen of the Ethiopians, who had charge of all her treasury, and he had just come from Jerusalem to worship. And the Holy Spirit had prepared his heart to receive the gospel.
It is important that we understand what sort of a person this man was. The Bible says that he was from Ethiopia. In Biblical times Ethiopia was a much larger region than it is today, and it is quite certain that this man came from what is now called Sudan. We can be even more specific than that, and conclude from the reference to Candace that he likely came from the ancient city of Meroe, a large and wealthy city on the banks of the Upper Nile.
Now this Ethiopian was in charge of the treasury of the Ethiopians. In Ancient Ethiopia it was believed that the king was a descendant of the gods, and so he did not take care of the royal business: this was left to the Queen Mother, and the Queen Mother’s title was Candace. This Ethiopian, therefore, was one of the most important people of that rich and powerful nation in Africa.
And this man had come to Jerusalem to worship. In his home town, perhaps through the Jews who lived in that area, this Ethiopian had heard about the God of Israel, and now he had gone all the way from “the ends of the earth” to Jerusalem to worship the Lord there.
But the Ethiopian was also something else: he was a Eunuch, a man who had been castrated. Eunuchs were more common in those days and did more than care for the king’s harem; indeed many government officials were eunuchs. And that was a problem for this Ethiopian. Not in the first place because marriage was not possible, nor would he be able to have children, but because it affected his relationship with God. Because he was a eunuch, he was not able to join the covenant community of Israel. He could never enter the Temple and worship the Lord there. For this is what the Lord had declared to Israel in Deuteronomy 23:1: “He who is emasculated by crushing or mutilation shall not enter the assembly of the LORD.”
The Ethiopian feared God, but he could never join the Jewish assembly of the LORD; meeting with God’s covenant community in the Temple was out of bounds. And all the gold of Ethiopia could never change that. If the Ethiopian had asked the Jewish leaders, “What hinders me from becoming a Jew, from worshipping with you in the temple?” he would have been told, “It is not possible, for you are a Eunuch. That is a wall to big to climb over, a chasm too deep to cross.”
The Eunuch was a dry tree. Not only was he unable to have a family, but he was unable to be fully incorporated into the family of God.
But why was that? Most eunuchs do not become eunuchs by choice, but it is something that is forced upon them. Why couldn’t they enter the assembly of the LORD?
The Bible does not spell out the answer to this question, but there were reasons why eunuchs could not enter God’s assembly. One reason is that in some of the countries around Israel, eunuchs participated in strange and wicked idol worship, particularly in service to the goddess Ishtar or Ashtoreth – the goddess of fertility. God did not want heathen idol worship mixed with the true worship of His Name.
But I believe that there is another reason also as to why the LORD prohibited eunuchs from entering the temple. In Leviticus 21:17-20, a Levite could not serve in the temple not only if he was a eunuch, but also if he had any other defect such as being blind or lame or having broken bones, if he was a hunch back or dwarf or had a skin or an eye defect. And Leviticus 22 says that these rules also applied to the animals that were to be given for sacrifice, with Leviticus 22:24 specifically saying that an animal that was castrated either deliberately or by injury was not to be offered to the LORD. And this was to be a clear message to the people that God’s holiness demands perfection in those who come into his presence. Man was created in the image of God, and a deformed image where man’s God-created nature was mutilated could not come before His holy throne.
The Eunuch had come to Jerusalem to worship. But when he was there, he was confronted with the awful truth that he was a dry tree. Although he wasnot excluded from fellowship with the God of Israel, (for he could worship God in a limited way, and the Lord would accept him) the Ethiopian eunuch was excluded from the covenant community of Israel, and the fact that he was a eunuch – something that he could never change – hindered him from becoming a full member of the assembly of the LORD. He could never be fully grafted into God’s Olive Tree, into His covenant community.
And yet this eunuch, the man in charge of the gold of Ethiopia, wanted so much to be close to God’s House and a part of His people, that he travelled all the way to Jerusalem. In this Ethiopian eunuch we see the fulfilment of Psalm 68:31, “Envoys will come out of Egypt; Ethiopia will quickly stretch out her hands to God.”
But did he come all the way to Jerusalem only to be turned back, to be denied entrance into the Assembly of the LORD? That must have been a question that troubled this eunuch. He wanted answers. He wanted to know who God is, how God works in this world and what He had planned for the future. And so, while he was in Jerusalem the eunuch purchased a scroll containing the book of Isaiah.
And as his chariot made its way down that desert road to Gaza, he unrolled the scroll and, as was the custom in those days, read it aloud.
May we assume that he began at the beginning? Starting with Isaiah 1, the Ethiopian would have read of the justice and the wrath of God. In Chapter 6 he was confronted with the intense holiness of the LORD, such holiness that the angels cover their faces in His presence and Isaiah cried out that he was a man of unclean lips. But then as he read further, he would have read Isaiah 11 that a branch would come from David’s line and that God was planning to make all things new, where the wolf dwells with the lamb and the leopard with the young goat. He would have read in that chapter that this kingdom would be for all people and that the Gentiles too would seek Him, and that Cush, or Ethiopia also would come to share in that glorious time. And then, reading on in Isaiah, the Ethiopian would also have read that great chapter of comfort, Isaiah 40, that the glory of the LORD would be revealed, and all flesh would see it together.
But would he, an Ethiopian, a eunuch, be a part of that future kingdom? Would he, who was barred from entering the assembly of the LORD, see the glory of the LORD when it was revealed? How could He be able to see such glory that caused even Isaiah to cry out “Woe is me, for I am a man of unclean lips?”
The Ethiopian feared God, but he was a dry tree. God’s holiness demands perfection in those who would come into His presence. The Ethiopian was not perfect, and of himself he could never become perfect. There was a barrier that was too high to climb, a chasm too deep to cross. What the Ethiopian needed was a substitute. What he needed was one who would take his imperfections upon Himself, so that the eunuch would be declared perfect in God’s eyes. So that he could then enter God’s eternal presence and be a dry tree no longer.
What Gave the Tree Life
So here was this eunuch, one of the highest officials of ancient Ethiopia. He had made the long trek all the way to Jerusalem to worship the LORD. But for the Ethiopian, the joy of worshipping the LORD must have been bitter-sweet, for he could not be incorporated into the Assembly of the LORD. Because he was a eunuch, he remained outside the covenant community. He had come to Jerusalem as a dry tree, and he was leaving Jerusalem in the same way. He had not found for himself a place in the house of the LORD, nor was he made joyful in the House of Prayer (Isaiah 56). For he had not yet come to an understanding of the Truth.
But now, as his chariot slowly bumped along the Old Gaza Road, the Ethiopian unrolled the Scroll of Isaiah, a prophecy that had been given more than 700 years earlier, and he read from the 53rd chapter. He read of an incredible promise that Someone would come to bear our griefs and carry our sorrow. But the Ethiopian was stumped: Who was this man that Isaiah 53 spoke about? Was it Isaiah himself, or was it some other person whom the Ethiopian did not know about? If only he could understand!
And as he was reading, he looked up there was a man, Philip, jogging alongside his chariot! And Philip asked him, “Do you understand what you are reading?” To which the Ethiopian responded, “Quite frankly, No! How can I, unless someone guides me?” And so he invited Philip to come up into the chariot and sit with him. And then, starting with those verses of Isaiah 53, Philip opened his mouth and preached Jesus to him.
Philip spoke of the birth of Christ, the One who grew up in Nazareth as a tender plant, having no form or appearance that made Him look special.
Philip spoke further that Christ was despised and rejected, smitten by God Himself and afflicted. He was led as a sheep to the slaughter and His justice was taken away. But He did not open His mouth to defend Himself, for it was the will of the LORD to bruise him. Jesus Christ, the perfect suffering Servant was smitten and afflicted. But terrible though this was, it was good news for the eunuch! For it was God’s plan, His will, that this should happen to His Servant. For in Jesus Christ we have our substitute. He was the Lamb without blemish, the perfect and holy One. He was the One who could take our flaws and deformed lives and all our spiritual imperfections upon Himself. For the LORD had laid on Him the iniquity of us all.
Here then was the gospel for the eunuch: He had been created in the image of God, created to bear fruit for God. But this man, most likely by no choice of his own, had been mutilated, deformed. He was a dry tree, unable to be fully joined to the Assembly of the LORD. But the mutilation of his body was not the thing that was so serious, but that was just an illustration of the mutilation of his soul! This eunuch then was a picture of our alienation from God, and our deformities. In ourselves we all are disqualified from having fellowship with God. And we all have no way to change that. For us too, it we were to rely on ourselves then our separation from God is a wall too high to climb, a chasm too deep to cross. But the LORD has given us His Servant, His own Son. He was crushed and He was cut off from the land of the living so that we might be justified and never more be rejected by God. Because of the suffering and death of Jesus, we can now come before Holy God. In Christ we may join the assembly of the righteous. In Christ we may be a part of God’s covenant community, this congregation of our Lord Jesus Christ!
And for the Eunuch therefore, in Christ the sting of Deuteronomy 23:1 is removed. In Christ the eunuch can no longer say, “I am a dry tree”, for in Christ he will find in the house of the LORD a place and a name that is better than that of sons and daughters. In Christ the eunuch can receive an everlasting name that shall not be cut off (Isaiah 56:5). Jesus is the answer that the Ethiopian eunuch was searching for. In Jesus, the good news of salvation is offered to the eunuch, and he can be fully incorporated into the family of God.
And so, bursting with the joy that he was now accepted in Christ, the eunuch said to Philip, “See, here is water. What hinders me from being baptized?”
What hinders me? In Christ the eunuch is a dry tree no longer. In Christ the eunuch is made new. In Christ the Wall of separation is torn down, and the chasm is able to be crossed. What is there now to stop him from being fully incorporated into the assembly, the covenant community of God?
And so, believing that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, the Ethiopian eunuch became a dry tree made new in the water of baptism.
And then the role that God wanted Philip to play in this Ethiopian’s conversion was over, and the Holy Spirit caught him away and placed him in Azotus, the old Philistine city of Ashdod. From there Philip made his way north to Caesarea and 20 years later, in Acts 21:8 he was still there.
But the Ethiopian went on his way rejoicing, back to Ethiopia. He did not have what we have: he did not have the gospels or the letters of Paul for the New Testament had not yet been written. But he had Jesus. He understood and believed that Jesus had died in His place, had been rejected by God so that he would never more be rejected by Him.
And he had the prophecy of Isaiah. And as he read on in this scroll, he would come to the invitation of Isaiah 55:1, “Ho! Everyone who thirsts, Come to the waters; and you who have no money, come, buy and eat.”And, “Surely you shall call a nation you do not know, and nations who do not know you shall run to you, because of the LORD your God, and the Holy One of Israel; for He has glorified you” (Isaiah 55:5).
And then, praise be to God, he would come to Isaiah 56:3-5:
Let not the foreigner who has joined himself to the LORD say, “The LORD will surely separate me from his people”; and let not the eunuch say, “Behold, I am a dry tree.” For thus says the LORD: “To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths, who choose the things that please me and hold fast my covenant, I will give in my house and within my walls a monument and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off.
Can you imagine the joy that would have filled the Ethiopian’s heart as he read those verses?
But it is not just the eunuch who can experience such joy. It is also for you. Just as the eunuch could look to the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53, so we too may look up to Jesus, and on the basis of what He has done in our place, we too may come before the Father holy and undefiled; we too may take our seat among the assembly of the LORD. When we come before the LORD through Jesus Christ, then we are no longer a dry tree, but, grafted in to the Tree that is Christ, we are made vigorous and green. We have gone from being separated from the living God to being free and forgiven and brought in to the assembly of the LORD.
When Philip was speaking to him, the Ethiopian eunuch saw some water and asked, “What hinders me from being baptised?” What prevents me from accepting God’s call to leave life as a dry tree behind and to be joined to God’s covenant community? Why would I not be baptized right now and so begin my new life in Him?
And that is a question we may all dwell on this morning. “What prevents me from accepting God’s call to leave life as a dry tree behind, so that I might live a life firmly planted in the Assembly of the LORD? What prevents me from enjoying the full benefits of what Christ has accomplished for me? What prevents me from being a part of the congregation of our Lord Jesus Christ not just in name but also in practice? What prevents me from joining the assembly of the LORD, from having Christ preached to me every single Sunday, indeed even twice a Sunday? What prevents me from doing what pleases the LORD and holding fast to His covenant?
Beloved in the Lord, there is nothing that separates us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. There is nothing to keep us from taking our place in the Assembly of the Lord, to have within His house a place and a name. Embrace the gospel in faith and live in it! Amen.
* Stephen ‘t Hart is currently minister at the Free Reformed Church of Baldivis, Western Australia. He has previously served as missionary in Papua New Guinea, where he was involved in church planting and theological training.