I'd like to look at this passage from the perspective of the Ethiopian eunuch.
Here is a man who as far as the world is concerned is an insider. He is a top banker. He is in charge of the treasury of the Queen of Candace - actually Candace is the name of a dynasty and a province within Egypt. He is being driven in a chariot. He is a man of influence.
But here is a man who as far as his faith is concerned is an outsider.
We presume that he is a Jew: there was a large Jewish community in Egypt. But he does not live in the land that God had given to the Jewish people. His ancestors would have been the people who disobeyed what God said through Jeremiah, and chose to move to Egypt at the time of the exile. They chose to live in a different land. And the land of Israel was so important to the Jewish people. He would have been a welcome visitor to Jerusalem, but very much a second class visitor.
And secondly, he is a eunuch. He has been castrated. And that would mean that he would not be allowed into the temple. Nobody who was disabled or not 'whole' was allowed into the temple precincts. His worship could only have been at a distance.
I just wonder whether there was a particular reason that the passage from Isaiah had struck him: 'In his humiliation he was deprived of justice. Who can speak of his descendants?'
So although he is an insider as far as the world is concerned, as far as his faith is concerned he is an outsider.
I think that many of us can feel insiders as far as the world is concerned, but outsiders as far as faith is concerned. In the community, at work, we are respected people, we have or have had influence.
But when we come to church, there is something missing. We feel on the outside. Perhaps we think we are not from the right sort of background for church or God; we hear people talk of a particular way of relating to God, or of having certain experiences, or of using a special kind of language, and we think, 'I am not there'. And we long to belong. We get miffed when the vicar goes to see certain people but not me, when others are given responsibility, but never me. We feel an outsider.
The interesting thing about our Ethiopian is that, whether he feels an outsider or not, he has a hunger for God and for the things of God.
He has travelled from Ethiopia to Jerusalem for worship - big journey
On his way home, he is reading the bible. He is reading it intelligently, using his mind, thinking about what it is saying.
Henry Martyn points out several things that we can learn from this man
1. It is a good thing to read the bible
2. It is wise to make good use of our time. This man is sitting in his chariot. He has not much to do. I presume he has a chauffeur. He hasn't got any tapes. So he is reading the bible.
Well we may not have the chariot or the chauffeur - and I wouldn't recommend reading the bible while driving. But there is no reason why we cannot make good use of time in the car, or even walking to work: you don't have to just listen to Heart or Radio 2 or 4, or whatever. It is a great opportunity to pray, listen to talks or even the bible: You can download an audio bible MP3 for free. Website:www.faithcomesbyhearing.com
3. He is coming back from worship and he is taking time to reflect on what he has heard. Possibly the passage that he is reading was one of the passages that he had heard read back in Jerusalem, and he needed to do a bit more thinking about it. I love it when people come up to me and say, 'I went home and I looked again at that passage - and you were wrong!'
So here is someone who is interested in the things of God: He goes to church, he reads his bible, he thinks about things.
As he is travelling along, this stranger comes up, hears him reading from the bible and asks him, 'Do you understand what you are reading?'
And in reply the Ethiopian asks three questions. And those are questions are extremely helpful for us.
1. 'How can I unless someone explains it to me?'
WE NEED THE CHURCH
The Ethiopian could have told Philip to get lost. It is probably what I would have done: 'It's all right. I'm OK'. We're British: self-made people who worship our creator. Islands of respectability who are paralysed by the fear of embarressing ourselves or other people.
He could have told Philip, 'Well what this means to me as a eunuch is ...'
But he knows that is not enough, and he knows that he needs help if he is going to understand the passage.
So he asks Philip to explain the passage to him.
Now we believe that the message of the bible is clear. But we do need help in order to understand what it means. We need help from the Holy Spirit and we need help from the people of God. We cannot separate the bible from either.
Someone coming to the bible for the first time, and reading parts of the Old Testament, might think - for instance - that it is right to destroy a house if it has mildew, stone someone who has committed adultery or commit genocide. We might feel very uncomfortable about that - that is the work of the Holy Spirit in us - but we need the church, the people of God, to help us understand those passages, and many others, in the context of the message of the whole bible, as understood for the last 2000 years by the people of God.
That is why the historic creeds are so important. Yes, we test the creeds in the light of the bible, but we read the bible in the light of the creeds. That is why when we preach, we should aim to help people understand the message of the bible; it is why it is good to meet with others more experienced in the faith to read together, to ask what is going on here.
It is why homegroups are a vital part of our life together as a church - although I have to say that I am not really a fan of those groups where people read a passage and say, 'What does it mean for you?' That is not what the Ethiopian asks Philip. He asks, 'What does it mean?' And yes, of course, for each of us, there will be different things that God says to us through a passage - different connections we make within a passage because of the way we think - different ways in which we are called to live out the passage - but in the end it is not about what I think it means that is important, but what it actually does mean that is important (even if I recognise that this side of heaven we can never fully understand what it means).
So we need our Philips. We need to listen to the saints and the scholars and the communities of the past and the present to understand the passage. We need to listen to the voice of the church, the people of God. Do not separate the bible from the teaching of the church.
2. 'Tell me please, who is the prophet talking about, himself or someone else?'
One of the standard essay questions that is still given to students studying the book of Isaiah is, 'Who is the servant mentioned in Isaiah 53?'
And we are told that, 'Philip began with that very passage of scripture and told him the good news about Jesus'.
IT IS ALL ABOUT JESUS
The reason that we seek to understand the bible is not to gain a better knowledge of the bible. The reason that we try to understand the bible is because the bible points us to Jesus.
That is the key.
The passage that the Ethiopian reads is a gift passage. He is reading from Isaiah 53:7-8.
If you look at Isaiah 53:7-8 in our bible it is slightly different. The reason for that is because the Ethiopian was reading from the equivalent of the then 'TNIV', a contemporary version of the bible (called the Septuagint - using common Greek). That warns me against getting too hung up about particular versions of the bible - and certainly about hanging large doctrines on particular words that are used in a particular version. The important thing is that the passage points us to Jesus.
We don't know exactly what Philip says, but if it was similar to his message earlier on, he preaches the good news of Jesus Christ and the Kingdom of God:
Jesus, the son of God, who came to live among us, as one of us, puts up no resistance when they come to arrest him, is unjustly condemned and executed. But he died for us. He died so that we can be forgiven, and so that we might have the opportunity to live a completely new life. God raised this Jesus from the dead; and now he is Lord. His Kingdom is over all nations, and is for all people. Now it is mainly invisible. One day it will be seen. But the good news is that we can become part of Jesus' kingdom now by turning to him, by repentance, by receiving his Holy Spirit, and the mark of baptism.
It really is all about Jesus.
One of the reasons that the eunuch is able to go on his way rejoicing, even though he will be the first Christian in Ethiopia, is because he has understood the single most important fact about interpreting the bible. It is all about Jesus. He only had the Old Testament to go on, but for him, whenever he read it, he would read it with Jesus shaped spectacles.
3. 'Look, here is water. Why shouldn't I be baptised?'
It is an interesting question. He does not ask, 'What must I do to be baptised?' The person who asks that question has not quite got it. They think that they have to do something. The eunuch's question is the other way round: 'Why shouldn't I be baptised?'
In other words he is saying, 'if Jesus died for all people; if he died for me; if because of him there is forgiveness of sins and new life, why shouldn't I be baptised?' And the answer is, 'if you are at that point, then there is no reason why you shouldn't be baptised'.
IT IS ALL ABOUT GRACE
You could have said that there were many reasons why he should not have been baptised.
In the eyes of the law, he was not a complete human person.
He couldn't possibly understand after only one conversation.
He was a wealthy banker: there were no doubt several things that were not right in his life, probably including his pension.
There was going to be no follow up.
There was no-one to support him when he got home.
Yet Philip, with complete irresponsibility, goes ahead and baptises him.
He should have known better. In verse 13, he has baptised Simon the sorcerer. By verse 18 Simon is showing his true colours, and is in big trouble with no less a person that Peter.
If a male wished to become a Jew, he needed to be circumcised
If you wish to become a citizen of this country, you need to prove you can speak English, take an exam and go through a citizenship ceremony.
If you wish to become a citizen of heaven, a subject of Jesus Christ, you need someone, preferably someone whose authority is recognised beyond the local church community, throw some water over you.
It is grace. The second century church struggled with this story. If you look in some of our bibles you will see that later versions add in a simple confession: 'Philip said, 'if you believe with all your heart, you may.' The eunuch answered, 'I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God'. Maybe he said it, maybe he didn't. What is significant is that the earliest texts do not have that.
He has heard about Jesus, he wants in, and he asks to be baptised.
What Philip and the Ethiopian understand is that this is all by grace. Grace: God giving us what we do not deserve, completely and totally as gift. GRACE: God's Riches At Christ's Expense.
The whole point is that here is a man who doesn't meet the requirements of the law, who has not got his life sorted out, who doesn't fully understand, who won't be supported when he gets home - but in whom the Holy Spirit of God is profoundly working.
The Ethiopian hears the good news - notice it is called 'good news' four times in this chapter (v12, 25, 35, 40): it is about God's love for the one who is outside as far as faith is concerned: it is about forgiveness, it is about a friendship with God, it is about a new life and a new direction, it is about being part of God's eternal kingdom.
And a man who has been sympathetic, but as far as faith is concerned on the outside all of his life, suddenly realises that because of Jesus, he can become someone on the inside, simply by receiving.
And for those of you who feel or who know that you are on the outside, that you are not good enough or worthy enough for God, that you don't know enough, that you don't speak the right language - the good news is that because of Jesus you can become an insider, simply by receiving. You receive forgiveness and you receive citizenship in the Kingdom by receiving Jesus, just as you would receive someone throwing water over you.
It is about the bible and the church, it is about Jesus and it is about Grace.