Then my Bible reading and study led me to the story of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8:26-39).
As a retired professor of worship I was checking biblical references to baptism. This passage is interesting because it contains perhaps the earliest reference to the scrutinies that accompanied baptism in the early church. This is similar to what older readers will recognize as a parallel to the scrutinies that have only recently been removed from marriage services: “If anyone knows of any impediment to this marriage, speak now or forever hold your peace.” This scrutiny is evident in the eunuch’s question, “Is there anything to prevent me from being baptized?”
I knew that in New Testament quotations of Old Testament passages, a reference to a verse or two is always shorthand for a complete pericope. When Philip got into that chariot, he did not comment on only the two verses from Isaiah 53:7-8 quoted in Acts, so I wondered about the exegesis Philip might have shared. Isaiah 53 alone? Probably not. They undoubtedly got to Isaiah 56:3-5 and Isaiah’s statement that eunuchs will be welcome in the assembly of the Lord, and will be given a name that shall not be cut off. There well may have been reference to Christ, who was led as a lamb to the slaughter, a lamb that was shorn of its fleece, another possible appositional allusion to the condition of the eunuch.
Philip and the Ethiopian may well have referred back to Deuteronomy 23:1 and the Mosaic prohibitions pronounced against eunuchs and anyone with an altered physical or gender condition as an outcast, one entirely cut off from the assembly of the Lord, and by implication, particularly from its leadership.
The next thing that impressed me was that the word Ethiopian was used only once. It never said, “Philip and the Ethiopian went down into the water.” The passage refers to the eunuch again and again, as if the writer Luke was stressing his gender condition. I wondered why this person’s gender was mentioned at all. Luke could simply have referred to him as the Ethiopian, couldn’t he?
Given this combination of Scripture passages, the Ethiopian probably had a real concern that there well might be something about him that would prevent him from being baptized. He was probably wondering how one should take these two contradictory statements. Isaiah provided an opinion quite different from the commonly held Deuteronomic views of the unacceptability of receiving one with a different or altered gender condition.
As I read I had difficulty believing what I was finding in the Scriptures. I prayed about this. God, I don’t understand what is happening to me. I am almost afraid of what you seem to be telling me through this study.
There is no mention of Philip’s answer to the eunuch’s question. It seems that God gave the answer by providentially providing water in the desert wilderness at just that moment. And Philip baptized him.
I believe that the early church understood before long that by baptism one enters “a royal priesthood,” (1 Peter 2:9) the priesthood of all believers. Priesthood had traditionally been reserved for red-blooded males, and only for a privileged few of them. But baptism was understood as an equalizer. For those who are baptized into Christ, there is neither Jew nor Greek, male nor female, bond nor free (Gal. 3:27-28). One can be confident that Luke, who worked so long beside the Apostle Paul, knew this full well. I believe that he was emphasizing here, and so strongly, that this person of a different gender condition is graciously received by Christ and welcomed into the body of Christ. The eunuch was baptized into the priesthood of all believers.
And the Ethiopian eunuch did indeed exercise his priesthood. He lived out his baptism as each of us should. The Ethiopian Orthodox Church has a tradition that “the eunuch” of this account proclaimed the love and acceptance by Christ to the Candace court, and was significant in the founding of the Christian church in that country. His discipleship at the feet of Philip carried with it an “apostleship,” a “being sent out” as a carrier of the good news of Jesus Christ to his own people in a way similar to that of the Samaritan woman who went back to her community after her encounter with Jesus at the well (John 4:28-29 and 39).
I still don’t know if others have provided a similar exegesis of this passage in Acts, Chapter 8. I am convinced that it was my Lord who opened my eyes in my Bible reading and study, and turned me around 180 degrees. God changed my whole way of thinking, breaking down in my mind the barriers to people of a “different” gender condition in the work of the church.
Arlo Duba is an honorably retired pastor living in Princeton, N.J.