A few weeks ago, Richard Beck, author of the blog Experimental Theology, wrote a short piece on Phillip and the Ethiopian Eunuch that offered insights I had never before considered and I began to ponder the amazing implications of the story that I had heard over and over since childhood.
For those not familiar with the story, it is found in Acts 8, but to summarize briefly, shortly after Jesus’ ascension, Phillip, one of Jesus’ disciples, was preaching in Samaria. Up to this point, the gospel had been mostly restricted to Jewish people. Phillip and Peter had actually reached out to the Samaritans who were an ethnically and religiously related, but considered an outsider group who lived in 700 years of tension with the Jews. Phillip was called away to the desert by an angel where he met a Eunuch who was a high ranked official of the Queen of Ethiopia. He had been to Jerusalem to worship and was reading Isaiah. Phillip asks him if he understand what he is reading and the Ethiopian asks him to explain it.
This is where Beck begins to explain the significance of the story. He begins by explaining why the Ethiopian was an outsider.
No one who has been emasculated by crushing or cutting may enter the assembly of the LORD- Deuteronomy 23:1
Beck pointed out that the Torah (first five books of the Old Testament) prohibits eunuchs from entering the temple. The Ethiopian was returning home after worshiping in Jerusalem where he would have been confined to the outer court, both because he was a eunuch and a (probable) Gentile. Only Jewish males were permitted to enter the inside of the temple.
Let no foreigner who is bound to the LORD say, “The LORD will surely exclude me from his people.” And let no eunuch complain, “I am only a dry tree.” For this is what the LORD says: “To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths, who choose what pleases me and hold fast to my covenant—to them I will give within my temple and its walls a memorial and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that will endure forever. Isaiah 56:3-5
However, the very book the eunuch was reading prophesied that this would change. Note that both the foreigner and the eunuch would have a memorial within the temple and its walls, a place that the eunuch would have been excluded before.
It states that Phillip began from the scripture that the Ethiopian was reading, Isaiah 53:7-8 and preached Jesus to the man. I wonder if he continued to read to him through Isaiah 56. As they continued on their way, they reached water and the Ethiopian has this question:
“See, here is water! What prevents me from being baptized?” Acts 8:36 ESV
He is asking if he is again going to be excluded but instead, Phillip immediately baptizes him and he went away rejoicing. The people who were once excluded are now included.
Interestingly, three days after I had read Beck’s blog, my pastor also did a sermon on the same passage of scripture, and although he focused mostly on the importance of baptism in the story, he also pointed out that there are rules in the Torah that we no longer follow and emphasized that the way we differentiate between rules that we should still follow (such as the Ten Commandments) and rules that we don’t need to or should not (such as wearing mixed fibers or excluding eunuchs and women) are based on what Jesus declared were the two most important commandments: love God and Love your neighbor (Matthew 22:37-40). I have written before in Now It Gets Personal and Should Christians Drink Blood? that morality should be interpreted through the lens of love. However, I know that other Christians divide up what Gentiles should follow in the Old Testaments differently.
For example, Catholics, Lutherans, Calvinist, and Anglican basically divide the law into moral, judicial, and ceremonial, stating that the moral law needs to be followed, the judicial has some good ideas, but the ceremonial doesn’t need to be followed by Gentiles. The problem with this is that it still leaves a lot of ambiguity and room for interpretation and disagreement. The laws are not written under the headings of moral, judicial and ceremonial. Leviticus has prohibitions of cutting the corners of the beard right next to prohibitions about selling your daughter as a prostitute. How do we decide which is which, other than one is unloving (not choosing the best for the other person) and one only affects a hair style? Some Christians, including Brethren, believe in dispensations, or seven periods, in which we are currently living after the age of Mosaic Law and in the age of Grace which means they do not believe in following any Old Testament Law, only the exhortations written in the New Testament.
Very few Christians answer this question with the belief that Gentile Christians should be following all of the Old Testament law; however, even though this seems to be an incredibly small minority, I have run into movement time and again. The first time was a movement in Homer when I was working as a youth leader. Many of the youth were attending another church with guest speakers who were teaching Torah submission for Gentile Christians. The youth would return being renamed with “Hebrew” names and wearing Stars of David and generally confused as to whether they were now Jewish or Christian. A few years back, there was a small gathering of people in the Central Peninsula calling themselves Messianic Jews. Messianic generally refers to people of Jewish heritage who believe that Jesus is the Messiah, however these people were not of Jewish heritage, rather they were Gentiles who began to follow the Old Testament law. Now, up in Wasilla, there seems to be another movement of Christian Gentiles who believe they must follow the full law.
While I cannot find very many actual articles or teaching on this belief, the main points seem to be first, we can only find morality by obeying God’s laws set out in the Torah which do not change, second, we cannot separate Jesus from his Judaism and any attempts to have motivated by anti-Semitism, and thirdly, Paul’s writings have been overrated and misinterpreted.
While there is a some truth in all of these statements (and I can particularly relate to Paul being overrated above Jesus), there are also some giant problems which I will be exploring next week, but as a parting thought, I would like to remember the Ethiopian Eunuch who was included, heard the gospel, and went away rejoicing.