There is something to be said about the desert. Although, by all accounts, the desert appears to be a dry and barren wasteland, it surprisingly is the setting for many prolific, spiritual events. The Israelites spent their fair share of time in the desert as it became their schoolhouse for learning Divine Lordship. The Goliath killer and future ruler of Israel, David, hid from the maniacal and murderous King Saul in the desert, and it proved to be God’s pathway for him to succeed the throne (1 Samuel 23:14). It was in the desert where John the Baptist was cultivated for the cherished but deadly ministry God had ordained for him in preparing the way for Jesus, the Messiah (Luke 1:80). This same Jesus was escorted into the desert to be baptized by the fiery temptations of the Devil, right after his water baptism, which preempted the start of his earthly ministry (Luke 4:1-2).
The desert has housed encounters between God and man that have treasures yet to be exhausted. As of late, my attention has been brought to a less popular desert encounter, nestled neatly in Acts 8. It is often breezed past as readers are still awed by the preceding story of Peter, who speaks with such authority and conviction as he humbles the poisonous Simon the Sorcerer. And immediately following the desert encounter in question, the famous conversion of Saul on the Damascus road sucks up any lingering interest. The desert story that has arrested me lately is Philip’s strange and life changing meeting with the Ethiopian Eunuch.
I have little concern with what type of eunuch he was, or his shade of skin, which the scriptures seems to care even less about. One primary question has been swimming through my mind about this Ethiopian. Before I share it, I must set the scene.
An angel begins talking to the apostle Philip, and instructing him to head south from Jerusalem along the road that leads to Gaza. Philip seems completely willing and gladly marches on his way. While walking he sees the Ethiopian in his chariot headed in the same direction, away from Jerusalem. The Spirit tells Philip to catch up with the chariot, and in doing so, he overhears the man reading from the book of Isaiah. Philip openly questions whether the man understands what he is reading. He responds with, “how can I, if no one helps teach me?” Philip is invited to join the Ethiopian in the chariot as he preaches the gospel of Jesus to him. The Ethiopian is deeply convicted, and at the first sight of a pond or lake, in the desert, he urges to declare his belief in Jesus through baptism. As they come out of the water Philip disappeared, but the Ethiopian left praising God (Acts 5:26-39).
Here is my question. Why did the Ethiopian not hear the gospel of Jesus in Jerusalem?
What Did I Miss?
Jerusalem is still swelling over the recent events surrounding Jesus’ life, death, and now resurrection. It is the epicenter of a rapidly growing movement of revolutionary spiritual conviction and fervor. If the Ethiopian was in Jerusalem for any amount of time, I would think he would have bumped into Jesus’ story more than once. How could this God-fearing Ethiopian spend time in God’s city and not learn about God’s son? I’m quite perplexed with this question.
The easy answer would be that because of general Saul’s persecution against the church, there was no believer there to cross his path. But this is too weak of an answer, largely because Philip was in Jerusalem when the angel called on him and he wasn’t alone. In fact, there was Peter and John and other apostles and believers (Acts 8:14,25; 9:26-30). The deeper answer may lie in one important principle, Jerusalem has walls, the desert has none. Jerusalem was filled with many too blinded by their prejudice for the Ethiopian to be presented the gospel.
The Jews who consented and begged for the death of Jesus were woefully unwilling to bend their theological prejudice, even for the Son of God. He revealed himself as sent from the Father in every way possible and their prejudice and pride would not give way to His divinity. Their dogmatic bullheaded biases carved out the wooden beams that would bear his bloody body. Jerusalem was a house for those who could not see, a symbol of blind ignorance, therefore it could do little to help others see.
Trailblazing in the Desert
The Ethiopian was a foreigner. The Jews, including the now Christian ones, really struggled with how foreigners fit into God’s plan of salvation. It was Philip who first went to Samaria to preach Christ after His resurrection (Acts 8:5). It was not until the believers in Jerusalem heard of the miracles he was doing there and the resulting baptisms that Peter and John were sent (Acts 8:6-8, 14). Philip was trailblazing across barriers of ethnic, religious, and national prejudice. It is no wonder the angel chose Philip to meet the Ethiopian in the desert. He proved to care less about Jewish pride and more about breaking down walls for the gospel.
Jerusalem was not a fit place for this Ethiopian to understand the words of Isaiah. Think of the words that speak to Jesus being led like a sheep to the slaughter yet maintaining his silence as he willingly gives his life, even for those that are violently beating, bruising, and berating his body. His life was taken from the earth in humiliation. His justice was ripped away from him (Acts 8:32-33). Jerusalem was far from being equipped to offer lessons on grace and justice to this Ethiopian. He must be met by an apostle, outside of the city, in a desert, who embraces his enormous value despite the prejudice of his brethren.
Walls Come Down
In 2021, it appears we are in another desert, a spiritual and moral one. This desert caters to addressing our racial pride and prejudice. The American Christian lens sees some color when it participates in oppression and no color when it wants to absolve itself of its sins. America has built human garbage chutes leading from the color-lined slums to the prisons. Where are the masses of Christians in outrage? Children are caged at borders when dogs in this country have their own hotels and health insurance. What happened to the Christians? Black and brown bodies are deemed too cheap to die of old age, and are disproportionately walled off from good healthcare, good education, and good policing.
God is once again using deserts. The desert is a great equalizer. Vital resources are scarce, and there is less to lay claim to, and even less need for self-reliance. Arrogance becomes idiotic. Entitlement gets buried in the sand. The harsh environment cares little about what you think, what color you are (because the sun will change that), or what flag you are willing to die for. The walls disappear in the desert.
It is while journeying through the desert that water appears for the Ethiopian’s baptism. The desert, when used by God, has the exact resource needed to accomplish His purposes. It also lacks every resource that would produce ongoing prejudice.
Focused on Unfailing Love
If we ask the walking Jesus to sit with us in our chariot in this desert– the Biblical wall-breaking Jesus–it just may be that water will appear. We need it to appear. Our baptism is before us, not behind us. We need to be baptized in this desert.
I’m ready for a church, a Christianity, willing to let go of its entanglement with Jerusalem thinking. We believe in ourselves way too much, when God has given us little confidence that our collective witness is primed to receive the anticipated “well done.” I want to acknowledge and dismantle the oppressive existence of racial prejudice and discrimination, so that Christ can be preached with boldness and without shame. I want don’t want to allow the Ethiopian to enter our presence, worship, and leave, having never met Jesus. I want to focus, tirelessly, on showing the world His unfailing love, His far-reaching grace, and His eternal salvation.
I can get outside of the walled Jerusalem and learn how to baptize in the desert.