Africa Stretches Out Her Hands To God: The Story of Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch

by Dr. Michael Whiting, DBU Staff

Day 7 of Advent

Today's Reading

Acts 8

The good news the shepherds declared on that first Christmas Eve, of God’s peace and joy for all nations, was spreading through much suffering in the Early Church. Stephen was brutally stoned to death for his testimony in defense of Jesus, and many others of the early Jerusalem Christian community were scattered because of harsh persecution from the Jewish leadership. Yet it was through this suffering that Jesus’ coming as Savior and Lord would be announced to nations beyond Israel, beginning (perhaps surprisingly) with Africa!   

As persecuted Christians went, they continued preaching about Jesus. One of those, Philip, who had been chosen along with Stephen in Acts 6 was sent by the Lord to the road south of Jerusalem leading toward Gaza where he providentially encountered a high-ranking treasury official from the court of Queen Candace of the African Kingdom of Meroe (Ethiopia).

This African official, a God-fearing, Gentile-follower of Israel’s Yahweh, was returning from Jerusalem where he had been worshipping and even had in his hands a manuscript of the book of Isaiah that he was reading aloud from his chariot.

How was it that this African had come to know and worship God? Israel’s connection to the continent of Africa goes back to Old Testament times. Numbers 12:1 records that Moses married a woman of “Cush” (the Old Testament word referring to Africa). The descendants of Jacob, as we know, were enslaved and sojourned in Egypt, and some historians identify the Queen of Sheba in 1 Kings 10 as visiting Solomon from an ancient kingdom in East Africa. (In fact, there is even a tradition today that claims the Ark of the Covenant is held within an Ethiopian church.) 

By the time of Jesus, there was already a sizable Jewish population in Roman North Africa. According to an early tradition, it is claimed the apostle Mark served as a pioneering missionary and church leader in Alexandria, and we know from the Book of Acts that early Jewish Christians and friends of Paul - Apollos, Aquila, and Priscilla - traveled from there. The Gospel was touching the continent of Africa in apostolic times! 

In this particular missionary story in Acts 8, we witness the first detailed conversion of a full Gentile to Jesus in the Book of Acts, and that Gentile was African! Philip responded obediently to the call of the Lord, leading the man to salvation by declaring that Jesus had fulfilled the Suffering Servant prophesied in the Book of Isaiah (chapter 53: 7-8). Immediately afterward, he requested Philip to baptize him in a nearby river to declare his new identity in Jesus as the Messiah and went on his way full of rejoicing. No one really knows what happened to the African official after this story, but we can be quite sure he returned to Africa to share with others his encounter with Jesus through the testimony of Philip.

Luke included this story in his narrative to highlight the conversion of a Gentile as the Gospel was going forth from Jerusalem and touching the uttermost parts of the earth just as Jesus had commissioned. The message of Christ reached Africa long before it ever touched Europe or North America, continued throughout the early centuries, and has been witnessing tremendous growth to this day. It is estimated that there are over 600 million who claim Christian faith in Africa today, which is more than any other continent on the globe! 

In forthcoming devotionals this Advent season, you will read more stories of Africans whom the Lord has saved and whom He has used to tell the global church of the great work of His Kingdom throughout Africa. As the author of Psalm 68:1 prophesied, “Ethiopia shall soon stretch out her hands unto God,” and the Lord indeed has answered from heaven.