“‘Do you understand what you are reading?’ Philip asked. ‘How can I?,’ the Ethiopian eunuch said, ‘unless someone explains it to me?’” (Acts 8:30-31).
African Christianity is old, very old, and this text provides a clue as to why that is. After he preached to the Samaritans, an angel of the Lord sent Philip south, toward Gaza, where he met an Ethiopian official on his way home from a trip to worship in Jerusalem. This man was a eunuch, rich and powerful, a convert to the Jewish faith, though one who, because he was a eunuch, was not permitted to approach the temple altar, no doubt a major disappointment to him. When Philip met him, the eunuch was reading Isaiah 53:7, “He was led like a sheep to the slaughter, and as a lamb silent before its shearers.” He asked Philip, “How can I understand this, unless someone explains it to me?” So Philip used the familiar Old Testament passage to tell the eunuch about Jesus, his death, his “being led like a sheep to the slaughter,” and its saving significance for the man’s life. Then he baptized him. End of story? Not really. Only three short chapters later in Isaiah (chapters the eunuch no doubt read as he continued his journey home), the prophet wrote, “This is what the LORD says, ‘To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths, who choose what pleases me and hold fast to my covenant” (all things this Ethiopian had no doubt done), “to them I will give within my temple and its walls a memorial and a name better than sons and daughters” (Isaiah 56:4-5). What a fantastic day this had been for the eunuch, and all because Philip was sent. If God could send Philip, he can also send us, which is why today we’re praying, Lord, here am I; send me (Isaiah 6:8).