After preaching to the multitudes in Samaria, Philip the evangelist is told to journey to a deserted region south of Jerusalem on the road to Gaza (Acts 8:26-40). Along this road Philip preached to an Ethiopian nobleman. The story of the conversion of the Ethiopian is one of the many "pattern conversions" in the book of Acts, i.e., the conversions in the book of Acts all follow a similar pattern, which makes them especially helpful today when we would tell someone what to do to be saved.
Let us notice the events which led up to this conversion. The city of Gaza is one of the oldest cities in the world (Gen. 10:19). Archaeology has shown that there was a road built by the Romans that led from the western corner of Jerusalem in a westerly and southerly direction toward Gaza, traces of which are still visible. The road from Jerusalem to Gaza passed through no inhabited areas; it was "desert" in the sense that it was uninhabited.
Ethiopia was one of the great kingdoms of Africa. It lay south of Egypt on the Nile River and was bordered on the east by the Red Sea and Indian Ocean, and was bordered on the south by the (then) unknown regions of interior Africa.
The "eunuch" was a man who had been emasculated. Eunuchs were commonly employed in the attendance and supervision of the females of a king's court in Oriental countries. This man served in the court of Candace -- a name given to all the queens of Ethiopia. This eunuch had charge of all of the treasury of Ethiopia -- he was a man of great power and trust who had gone to Jerusalem to worship God. In all likelihood he was a proselyte to Judaism. During the time of Moses a ban was given which excluded eunuchs from entering "the congregation of the Lord" (Deut. 23:1).
The Old Testament looked forward to the admission of the Ethiopians to the kingdom of God. "From beyond the rivers of Ethiopia my worshipers, the daughter of My dispersed ones, shall bring My offering" (Zeph. 3:10).
While in Jerusalem to worship, he had probably availed himself of the privilege of purchasing a copy of the scroll of Isaiah -- and it was this scroll that he was reading on his way back to Ethiopia. He was reading from the 53rd chapter of the book, a passage which speaks at great length of the suffering of the Son of God and His death on the cross.
Philip ran to the chariot, heard the Ethiopian reading, and said, "Do you understand what you are reading?" This must have made an impression on the Ethiopian. In humility he said, "How can I, unless someone guides me?" The simple statement is also an acknowledgement that the passage he was reading was not in harmony with the usual Jewish idea of a conquering Messiah. He had trouble understanding how the description of the humiliation and condemnation of God's servant could be reconciled with Jewish ideas of a conquering prince. Philip began at Isaiah 53 and "preached Jesus to him." "Preaching Jesus" must include instruction on what to do to become a Christian. The question expressing a desire to be immersed would not have occurred to the Ethiopian unless he had been previously instructed concerning the act of baptism. No true preacher of the gospel has ever preached Jesus without preaching the baptism that Jesus commanded (Mark 16:16).
Near one of the streams which crossed the Jerusalem-Gaza road, the Ethiopian said, "See, here is water. What hinders me from being baptized?" Philip told him the only thing that stood between him and salvation was faith in Christ as the Son of God.
"Both Philip and the eunuch went down into the water, and he baptized him," which reminds us that baptism is a burial (Rom. 6:4). When the Ethiopian came out of the water "he went on his way rejoicing" over the fact that all his sins were forgiven.
I would like for us to consider the question the Ethiopian posed before his conversion: "What hinders me from being baptized?" He realized it was possible something could stand in the way of his baptism. What could hinder him? The color of his skin? His nationality? The fact he served a foreign government? The fact that he was a eunuch?
There are people today who are the proper subjects of baptism, i.e., they believe in Christ as the Son of God, and yet something hinders them from obeying the gospel. Let us notice a few things which "hinder" people from being baptized.
Jesus warned that His gospel would cause division (Matt. 10:34-39).
Sometimes we hear people say, "My mother was one of the kindest, sweetest, most pious women you could ever meet. She slaved for her kids and was a wonderful neighbor, but she died without being baptized. Is she going to heaven or to hell?" Let me say it kindly, but its none of your business (cf. Deut. 29:29). She is in the hands of a God who knoweth and doeth all things well.
People often ask, "But what about the man who dies on the way to the baptistery -- is he going to heaven or hell?" If the man is alive, I will tell him to be baptized (Mark 16:16). If he is dead, he is in the hands of God. We must argue on the basis of the law under which we live -- clemency is in the hands of the Judge.
The truth is that at the moment of death our destiny is sealed (Heb. 9:27). If I could do anything for the dead, I would. There is no sense in dwelling on the fate of those who have died without the gospel. We need to spend our time teaching those who are alive.
If your mother really was as pious as you said, do you think she would want you to do what is right or to follow her in error?
My first responsibility is to obey Christ myself (Heb. 5:8-9). Then, I have an obligation to teach those who are lost (Matt. 28:18-19). My responsibility is only to the living -- the dead are in God's hands.
It is a sad thing, but true: not everyone who claims to be a Christian lives up to their obligations in Christ. There is no question that there are people who claim to be Christians who will lie, cheat, steal and even commit adultery.
Hypocrites are a great hindrance to others obeying the gospel of Jesus Christ. Sometimes it is the hypocrite at school or work who drinks and everyone there knows it. Sometimes it is the hypocrite in the pew -- people can see they don't even come to Bible class and then pay no attention to the sermon and yet sing, "More About Jesus," or, "Tell Me The Story Of Jesus." They sing "Jesus Keep Me Near The Cross" and then talk and pass notes during the Lord's Supper. There are people who will sing "Purer In Heart Help Me To Be," and then be the biggest gossip in the country.
It is bad enough that hypocrites will be lost, but they are going to take others with them! Hypocrites in religion have always been a problem (Matt. 23:13-15). Hypocrites will get their "reward" -- either here or in eternity. "Some men's sins are clearly evident, preceding them to judgment, but those of some men follow later" (1 Tim. 5:24).
But is this really the reason for not obeying, or just an excuse? Hypocrites are pretty small individuals, and if you can hide behind them you must be smaller yet. I have gone to a lot of professional sporting events and have never seen anyone get up and leave because of all the hypocrites. There is a lot of counterfeit currency in circulation, but I've never seen anyone refuse money because they might get a counterfeit bill.
There were those in the first century who allowed the pride of life to get in the way of acknowledging Christ (John 12:42-43).
The humility of the Ethiopian was shown by his reading the Scriptures on the road and by admitting he did not understand what he was reading. Imagine the humility it must have taken for the treasurer of Ethiopia to command his driver to stop the chariot so he could be baptized!
Saul of Tarsus, later known as Paul, cast everything aside that he might gain Christ (Phil. 3:3-8).
The message of the cross is foolishness to many, "to us who are being saved it is the power of God" (1 Cor. 1:18-24).
Paul's only glory was in the cross. He told the Galatian Christians, "God forbid that I should glory except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world" (Gal. 6:14).
Some people want to obey the gospel, but say, "I am not sure I can remain faithful." This at least shows a proper respect for the fact that God requires faithfulness on the part of His people. Every Christian knows that every Christian sins (1 John 1:6 -- 2:2). When we sin we can ask God to forgive us (1 John 2:1).
Simon, an erring Christian, was told: "Repent therefore of this your wickedness, and pray God if perhaps the thought of your heart may be forgiven you" (Acts 8:22).
We can take comfort in knowing there is no sin that we have to commit. "No temptation has overtaken you except such as is common to man; but God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will also make the way of escape, that you may be able to bear it" (1 Cor. 10:13).
King Agrippa was "almost persuaded" to become a Christian (Acts 26:24-29). Felix was waiting for a "convenient time" to obey (Acts 24:24-25). There is never going to be a "convenient time" to leave sin. Will you not leave it now? Angels in heaven would rejoice over one sinner who comes to repentance.