The God Who Gathers the Outcast

The God Who Gathers the Outcast

The God Who Gathers the Outcast
Text:  Acts 8:26–40

Main Point: Nothing in your past can prevent you from finding lasting joy in Jesus and being fully incorporated into the family of God.

Sermon Outline:

I.   The Unexpected Message (Acts 8:26)
II.  The Appointed Meeting (Acts 8:27–34)
III. The Main Point (Acts 8:35–40)

Good morning church, it’s so good to worship together with you today after our all-church campout at Dosewallips State Park. To be honest, one of the things I enjoyed the most about this last weekend was that it gave me the opportunity to simply hang out with a wide range of people in our church family. And in many cases, learn how they first heard the good news of the gospel and finally responded in repentance and faith.

On the one hand, their stories emphasize the seemingly mundane and ordinary ways in which God works. But, on the other hand, their stories —like the next three conversion stories in the book of Acts (the Ethiopian eunuch, Paul, and Cornelius)— remind me that God is more than ready to employ extra ordinary means when he chooses. And in the case of the next three conversion accounts in Acts, Luke wants us to help us see the true depths of God’s compassion and undeserved favor to mankind in gospel of Jesus Christ.

Yet, Before we turn to the account of Phillip and the Ethiopian eunuch today, I want to do something a little different… Grab a pen, a pencil, a crayon from your child so that you can write down your answer to this question: “What are we supposed to learn from this account of Phillip and the Ethiopian eunuch? What’s the main point” Just think about it, why do we have this story in our Bible?

Well, now that you have recorded your thoughts, let’s turn to our passage and the angel’s message to Phillip in verse 26.

The Unexpected Message (Acts 8:26)

Now, I know it’s really easy to jump past the angel’s message into the interaction between Phillip and the Ethiopian… But if we did, we would miss two important truths in this surprising development.

First, God is free to use whatever means he chooses to accomplish his sovereign purposes.

Whereas the mass conversion in Samaria was the result of God sovereign providence (the great persecution in Jerusalem pushed Phillip into the regions of Samaria to begin with). What do we see in Phillip’s journey to Gaza (a major city on the caravan route leading to Egypt, about 430 miles southwest of Samaria)?[1] We see that it is the result of God’s direct command through a supernatural messenger.

Second, given the fact that God moves Phillip out of Samaria shortly after the apostles depart, we are able to see that A church’s ultimate health and stability are not dependent upon any single person.

Just put yourself in Phillip’s position for a minute. He just led hundreds maybe thousands of Samaritans to faith in Christ. They need to be discipled and taught and led toward maturity in Christ… this is no small need! This is a monumental task! Even more, that scoundrel Simon the magician was still around and a constant threat to the church. If I were Phillip, I’d probably be thinking, “I guess I know what God has planned for the rest of my life. After all, I’d be dishonoring Christ and harming his church if I left any time soon.”

Yet, this may be the very reason that God sent the angel to Phillip in the first place. Whether Phillip realized it or not, his work in Samaria had come to an end. God was actively removing him from the heart of an urban revival to send him on a distant assignment into the middle of a desert for a single gospel conversation with the most unlikely person.

The Appointed Meeting (Acts 8:27–34)

The Person (in the chariot) Notice what does Luke want us to know about this man?

He is an Ethiopian. This meant that he was a dark-skinned man from the region south of Egypt that ancients considered to be the edge of the known world. (To put it in modern geographic terms, ancient Ethiopia occupied the combined area of both Sudan and Ethiopia.)

He is a eunuch, a court official of Candace, queen of the Ethiopians. Now you may be wondering why I didn’t split these details. Well, it’s because the former is necessarily connected to the later. As you probably know, the term eunuch literally denotes a male who has been rendered infertile through castration.[2] This is no small detail for a number of reasons, the most basic being that eunuchs were generally ostracized and treated as outcasts by the rest of society. But that is not to say that this man had been somehow victimized by others. Rather, in many cases, men willingly chose to become eunuchs because there was no other path to the highest level of service in the kingdom. And while this is unthinkable to our modern sensibilities, the simple reason was that it protected ancient monarchies from the dangerous results of —shall we say—compromising relationships in the court or royal family.

Simply put, a man had to endure a great sacrifice if the wanted to attain the great honor of the king and queen’s service. In fact, over time the term “eunuch” became a virtual synonym for “court official.”[3] And given the fact that Luke employs both terms side-by-side, it seems reasonable to conclude that this man is has made the physical sacrifice required to serve as a court official to Candace (which by the way is a title, like Caesar, not personal name), Queen of the Ethiopians.

He is in charge of all her treasure. This one man oversees the untold wealth and treasure of an entire kingdom. Here is the honor. Here is the reason for the sacrifice. In human terms, he has taken his career all the way to the top. And as a result, he should be living his best life relaxing and enjoying everything that he accomplished… but he’s not… He has traveled close to 1,000 miles to worship in Jerusalem and is starting his arduous 1000-mile trip back home.

The Problem

Yet in these very details, Luke’s original audience instantly recognizes a problem: there is an unavoidable and humanly insurmountable obstacle to this mans’ worship. The temple and every aspect of its worship was regulated by the law of Moses. You know, if you touched a dead body, you were excluded from the temple until you purified yourself. If you had mold in your house, you were excluded until you cleaned your house and purified yourself. But Why? Why did God have all these rules? Well, the rules were there to make it clear that humans cannot just waltz into God’s presence as they are. God is holy and humans are not, we soiled in sin and need and to be cleansed. See, all of the rules and regulations served as object lessons to get this one central point across.

But some people could never go in because some of the rules excluded people for life!

Deuteronomy 23:1 No one whose testicles are crushed or whose male organ is cut off shall enter the assembly of the Lord.

Don’t miss this, the unstated problem in this passage is that this man traveled all of the way from Ethiopia to Jerusalem to worship God, but was never allowed to enter the holy temple itself because of a single verse in Deuteronomy… He went through all the trouble of traveling over 1,000 miles, only to be denied in the final inches of his quest. He would never be able to become a full convert to Judaism but would forever be limited to the fringes of Judaism as a Gentile ‘God-fearer’—a person who was allowed to attended synagogue but never allowed to join in public worship.[4]

And to make matters worse, the very sacrifice that he endured to attain personal advancement and the honor of men was the very act that forever excluded him from worship in the temple because his condition was forever irreversible. And as such he would always be treated as an outcast, a man who earnestly desired God but was forever cut off from his presence.

So how do you think would most people respond? Well, after throwing a massive temper tantrum outside the temple, they’d probably abandon their pursuit of God all together. Right? After all who wants to follow a God who openly discriminates against eager, authentic worshipers?

Well, for everything we can see in the passage, this man didn’t abandon his pursuit of God. Rather, he seems to have redoubled his pursuit because he is actively pouring over a copy of Isaiah when Phillip shows up.

The Passage (Acts 8:­32–34)

Now I have to admit that, on the surface, this encounter appears to be just one more glorious example of God’s sovereign providence in the ministry of Phillip the evangelist; the eunuch is reading one of the most powerful and definitive prophecies about Jesus Christ in the entire Old Testament— Isaiah 53! And to make it even better, what does the eunuch want to know? He wants to know who this person is! (To use a baseball metaphor, this question is more evangelism t-ball than the kind of big-league apologetics that a man of this caliber might require.)

But now that we know so much more about this man. We need to slow down a minute and ask the question why? Why is he reading the prophet Isaiah on his return trip to Jerusalem and why is he particularly concerned with the identity of Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53? Well, let me outline the broader context of this section in Isaiah called the Servant Songs.

  • Chapter 53 promises a day when a future servant will suffer incredible injustice and atone for his people’s sin.
  • Chapter 54 promises a time of unmatched blessing for Israel under a New Covenant, in which God’s people will be “taught by the Lord” (54:13) and established in something they have never had, righteousness (54:14).
  • Chapter 55 points forward to a time in which God begins a work of new creation in the world that changes everything…
  • And as we turn to chapter 56 God makes it clear that this new creation will have a dramatic impact on those who were formerly excluded and treated as outcasts. People like foreigners and eunuchs!

Isaiah 56:3–6 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.” 4 For thus says the LORD: “To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths, who choose the things that please me and hold fast my covenant, [remember a New Covenant through the Suffering Servant] 5 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. 6 “And the foreigners who join themselves to the LORD, to minister to him, to love the name of the LORD, and to be his servants, everyone who keeps the Sabbath and does not profane it, and holds fast my covenant—

Isaiah 56:7–8 7 these I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer; their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.” 8 The Lord GOD, who gathers the outcasts of Israel, declares, “I will gather yet others to him besides those already gathered.” [he is going to gather other outcasts as well]

The Reason

Back to our question “why”. Why is the eunuch so enamored with the suffering servant? It’s because this section of Isaiah promises a day in which a suffering servant will open the way for former outcasts, like foreigners and eunuchs, to receive an eternal inheritance and an equal place in the house of the Lord, right alongside the restored outcasts of Israel.

He sees the promises of God and he wants them more than anything in the world. Even more, he understands that the key lies in the suffering servant of Isaiah 53. But he is utterly flummoxed because he cannot unravel this person’s identity in his own wisdom… yet in this moment of frustration, a seemingly random Jew runs up to his chariot and askes, “Do you understand what you are reading?” (8:30). And what is his answer? No, no, I don’t. “About whom, I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?” (8:34)

The Main Point (Acts 8:35–40)

The Fundamental Answer

Acts 8:35 Then Philip opened his mouth and beginning with this Scripture [Isaiah 53–56] he told him the good news about Jesus.

And how might Phillip deliver the good news of the gospel to someone like this Eunuch? Well, to use the words of Tim Keller, it might sound something like this:

“Don’t you see, my African friend, the Mosaic law has always been pointing to a spiritual truth? We’re all like We’re all outcasts, excluded from the presence of God. Because of our sins, nobody loves God with all their heart, soul, strength, and mind. Nobody loves their neighbor as themselves. And because of this, nobody can waltz into God’s presence just as they are. To be honest, we all deserve to be excluded, to be lost, and condemned.

But here is the good news. Jesus Christ was excluded on the cross. In the very moments before his death he cried out, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ He experienced God-forsakenness on the cross, he experienced what we deserve. He was excluded so we could be brought in. He was made unclean so we could be cleansed. We could never, ever, make it ourselves. We could never cleanse ourselves. We could never be good enough. But Jesus, the suffering servant and ascended Christ has done it for us that we might experience eternal joy in him.” That’s the good news of Jesus.

And for everything we can see in the text, somewhere along that dusty desert road, the outcast Eunuch came to saving faith in Jesus Christ. Because his final question to Phillip is not “what shall I do to be saved?” Rather, his final question in verse 36 is “what prevents me from being baptized?”

The Final Question: (Acts 8:36–39)

Now, I realize that many people cite this passage as a proof-text for instantaneous baptisms after conversion. But, given the identity and condition of the Ethiopian in this passage, I think his question about baptism is driven by an underlying concern that he may still be treated like an outcast or second-class citizen in the church of Jesus Christ because the present active verb in his sentence is “prevent.” See, I think that his underlying question is something like this: “Is there anything that is still preventing me OR might prevent me from fully identifying with Jesus and his people like I was prevented from participating in worship at the temple in Jerusalem?”

Well, what do we see in these verses? The answer in Isaiah is emphatically NO. Nothing prevents you from fully identifying with God’s people and having full acceptance before God himself. Your ethnicity doesn’t matter. Your past choices don’t matter. Your physical condition as a Eunuch does not matter because God himself has made a way for you through the substitutionary sacrifice of Jesus Christ.

And what is the result? He is baptized into the body of body of Christ. And he returns to Ethiopia rejoicing (experiencing the promised joy in Isaiah 56:7) in his new-found relationship with God and his people through Jesus Christ.

The Main Point

So, now that we have worked through the cultural details and the broader biblical context of this passage, let’s turn back to our opening question, “What is the main point?

Main Point: Nothing —nothing— in your past can prevent you from finding lasting joy in Jesus and being fully incorporated into the family of God.This truth has monumental implications for believers and unbelievers alike because every single one of us struggles with the baggage from our past.


Everyone Carries Baggage and Shame

On the one hand, we carry shame for countless things we have done in the past.

  1. Maybe you cheated to get good grades but never mastered the necessary content.
  2. Maybe you abandoned your morals to secure a romantic relationship
  3. Maybe you ruined a marriage to quench a sense of personal deficiency or lust.
  4. Maybe you engaged in sexual practices which God expressly forbids in his Word.
  5. Maybe you ended a life in to protect your future.
  6. Maybe you turned your back on God for a time after professing faith in Christ.
  7. Maybe you turned a blind eye to unethical practices or workplace abuse to secure a promotion.
  8. Maybe you look back and realize that you were a destructive, toxic parent.

And on the other, we carry shame for things that happened (or were done) to us in the past.

  1. Maybe you were wrongfully blamed for a significant problem or personal conflict.
  2. Maybe you sinfully abused or taken advantage of and stripped of your innocence.
  3. Maybe you were wrongfully treated as an outcast by the very people that should have loved you the most in your family or church.
  4. Maybe you thought your spouse was a true believer when you got married only to find out, over the years, that they were not…
  5. Maybe your adult children hate you, even though you truly loved them and raised them the best you could.
  6. Maybe you were wrongfully terminated from your job on account of someone else’s incompetence or failure.

Don’t miss this, in one way or another we are all tempted to believe that we could never be fully acceptable to God, fully loved in Christ, and fully incorporated into the family of God because of our past choices and experiences define us to the core— whether we are a Christian or not.

But What does the Gospel Say?

 If you have not come to faith in Christ, nothing in your past can prevent you from finding complete forgiveness and lasting hope in Jesus Christ because God doesn’t not accept you on the grounds of your good works. No. He saves us by his grace through faith.

Ephesians 2:8–9 For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.

Why does it work this way? Because as we already saw, Jesus paid for our sin and bore our shame on the cross. So that we might be forgiven and accepted before God.

Psalm 103:10–12 He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities. For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far does he remove our transgressions from us.

We are cleansed. We are whole. We are his, no matter what our past may hold. This is what happens when you come to faith in Jesus Christ! And if you are with us today and have not received this forgiveness and grace, I want to ask you, why are you still waiting? What is holding you back? It’s here. And it’s yours if you repent and believe today.

But what if you are one of the many people who struggle with the shame of the past after coming to faith in Christ?

First, we need to rightly acknowledge that our past can leave us with scars that mark us for life. Scars that not only make us feel dirty, angry, cynical, or downright disillusioned but that leave us feeling unwanted and unworthy.

Second, we need to recognize the present danger that this kind of shame can have on our Christian life. If left unchecked, these feelings can drive us away from the life-giving fellowship of the local church AND utterly destroy our spiritual from the inside–out.

But most of all, we need to recognize the gospel-truth that no matter what our past entails, we are forever loved by God in Christ AND forever united to the body of Christ because of the work of Jesus Christ.

  • Romans 5:1–2 Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God.
  • Romans 5:6 For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly.
  • Romans 5:6–8 but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

[1] To put it in modern terms, it would be the equivalent to walking from Silverdale Washington to Grants Pass Oregon.

[2] Cf. J. Schneider, “εὐνοῦχος,” TDNT 2:765–68; B. Kedar-Kopfstein, “סָרִיס,” TDOT 10:344–50.

[3] Eckhard J. Schnabel, Acts, Expanded Digital Edition., Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapid: Zondervan, 2012).

[4] Bruce Milne, The Acts of the Apostles: Witnesses to Him… to the Ends of the Earth, Focus on the Bible Commentary (Ross-Shire, Great Britain: Christian Focus Publications, 2010), 198.