Updated: Feb 17, 2020
The title of this blog may be controversial to some. Throughout Christian history, the honor of being “the first Christian convert” was ascribed to Cornelius. According Acts 10, Cornelius was a Roman centurion. Peter was sent by God to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ to him and his family. As Peter preached, the Holy Spirit, evidenced by speaking in tongues, fell upon Cornelius’ household. Having received the gift of the Spirit, there was nothing to prevent them from being baptized and welcomed into the Christian faith. Therefore, Cornelius is considered the first Gentile convert because Peter, an officially recognized apostle of Jesus, was the person God used to bring Cornelius to the Christian faith. Moreover, Peter’s dream provided the definitive word concerning the inclusion of Gentiles.
But Peter’s story is not the whole story, or even the first story. The first story occurs two chapters earlier in Acts 8. Philip, who is considered to be one of the first deacons, (therefore, not an apostle), is sent by an angel to go to a desert road. On this road, he encounters an Ethiopian eunuch from the court of Queen Candace on his way home from worshipping in Jerusalem. He has a scroll in his hand and is reading the prophet Isaiah. By the end of the story, Philip has interpreted the scriptures in light of Jesus (preached the good news), baptized the eunuch (in water that miraculously appeared in the desert), and is snatched away by the Holy Spirit, leaving the eunuch behind rejoicing. Please note that rejoicing is also a sign of one being filled with the Holy Spirit.
So here’s why I think the Ethiopian eunuch was the first Gentile convert to Christianity.
The Ethiopian eunuch's conversion is initiated by God
Like Cornelius, the eunuch’s conversion was not initiated by another human being. In both instances, God (by means of the Holy Spirit and an angel) initiates both conversion stories. Neither Peter nor Philip would have encountered the would-be converts if they had not been supernaturally commanded.
The Ethiopian eunuch is a Gentile
Here is the part where scholars disagree. Some argue that he’s a Jew because he went to Jerusalem to worship and he has a scroll of Isaiah. However, he is a eunuch and a foreigner. As such, he would have never been fully included since, as a eunuch, he was more than likely unable to be circumcised. I would argue that the eunuch’s actions (worshipping in Jerusalem and reading the prophet Isaiah) describe him in the same way Luke’s words describe Cornelius: “a devout man who feared God” (Acts 10:2).
The Ethiopian eunuch's conversion represents the universal spread of the gospel
Prior to his ascension, Jesus tells those gathered around him that they “will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon [them]; and … will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth" (Acts 1:8). As one reads through the book of Acts, the gospel spreads as Jesus foretells. As a matter of fact, Philip has just finished preaching a revival in Samaria before being sent to the desert road. And who does he find on that road? The Ethiopian eunuch.
To the ancient mind, Ethiopia represented the ends of the known world. Homer referred to Ethiopians as “the far-off Ethiopians.” For the biblical writers, Ethiopia represented the universal scope of the gospel (Ps. 68:31). Thus, the Ethiopian eunuch's conversion signals that the final stage of expansion: “to the ends of the earth” is and will be achieved.
The Ethiopian eunuch's conversion fulfills Jesus’ words in Acts 1:8 and it also fulfills Isaiah 56:3-8:
Do not let the foreigner joined to the Lord say, "The Lord will surely separate me from his people"; and do not let the eunuch say, "I am just a dry tree."4 For thus says the Lord: To the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths, who choose the things that please me and hold fast my covenant,5 I will give, in my house and within my walls, a monument and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off.6 And the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord, to minister to him, to love the name of the Lord, and to be his servants, all who keep the sabbath, and do not profane it, and hold fast my covenant—7 these I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them j joyful in my house of prayer; their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.8 Thus says the Lord God, who gathers the outcasts of Israel, I will gather others to them besides those already gathered.
Moreover, the passage that the eunuch is reading and is quoted in Acts 8:32-33 is from Isaiah 53. Both Isaiah 53 and 56 were probably on the same scroll. The eunuch will more than likely read Isaiah 56 and know that it is fulfilled in him. In Christ, he, too, has been “gathered” and fully included in the people of God. The fact that he is a eunuch will no longer count him out.
The Ethiopian eunuch's conversion is linked to the conversion of Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles
The Ethiopian eunuch and Paul are converted at the same time of day. In Acts 8:26, a Greek word is found that is only used twice in the entire book of Acts: mesabrian. It can be translated as “south” or “noon.” The NRSV translates it as “south” in Acts 8:26, signaling the direction Philip is traveling. However, going “south” on this road from Jerusalem to Gaza is redundant. If you are going on this road from Jerusalem to Gaza, you would have to be traveling south. The footnote in the NRSV acknowledges that one can translate it as “noon,” which in my opinion, it a better translation. In other words, the angel is giving him instructions that include a location and a time.
The next occurrence of mesabrian is in Acts 22:6. It is the retelling of Paul’s conversion that happened at mesabrian, and is translated here as “noon.” I think the two conversion stories are linked. The conversion of the Ethiopian eunuch as the first Gentile convert actually foreshadows the conversion of Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles.
The Ethiopian eunuch's conversion is linked to Cornelius, the first officially recognized Gentile convert
Let me introduce you to one more Greek word: kolyo. It is used only 3 times in Acts and is usually translated as “hinder” or “prevent.” This word is used in Acts 8:36 when the eunuch questions what is to prevent him from being baptized. It is used twice in reference to Cornelius. First, when Peter witnesses Cornelius and his family speaking in tongues and concludes there is nothing to prevent their baptism (Acts 10:47) and when he retells the story (Acts 11:17). Thus, the Ethiopian eunuch’s conversion foreshadows Cornelius’ conversion. Although Cornelius will be the first publicly recognized Gentile convert, the Ethiopian eunuch is the precursor. The Ethiopian eunuch's conversion hints at the expansion of the gospel among Gentiles and that this expansion will be sanctioned by the leaders of the community.
So what can we learn from all of this? Well, there are 3 things I would like to leave you with:
1. The Ethiopian eunuch’s conversion paves the way for the full inclusion of women in the Christian community. Circumcision will not be a qualifying factor, nor will male genitalia.
2. Although we are told that he is Ethiopian, an official, over the treasury, and a worshipper in Jerusalem, Luke repeatedly refers him as a eunuch. He uses his most “deviant” characteristic to label him. This practice is called "master labeling" and is very familiar to people of African descent. It may also be the reason the Ethiopian's conversion has been eclipsed by that of Cornelius. For those reading this blog under the burden of somebody’s “master label” that truncates your personhood into a single characteristic, and not your best one either, remember: God sees you just like God saw the Ethiopian man and sent some help.
3. Can you work outside your job description? Philip was a deacon. Ordained. Hands laid on him and yet God keeps on sending him to preach like an apostle. The work God has for each of us cannot be summed up in a single title. Like Philip, we must be faithful enough to follow God’s lead in unexpected ways and humble enough to do it when there’s no authority figure to see or acknowledge it.
Although some do not acknowledge the Ethiopian's primacy as the first Gentile convert, the overwhelming majority credit him with bringing Christianity to Ethiopia. Indeed, the Ethiopian Orthodox church traces its beginnings to the Ethiopian eunuch.
Regardless of how people remember him, one thing is certain: The Ethiopian eunuch allowed nothing to prevent him from being baptized or spreading the gospel to his nation. He did not allow the things that might have previously counted him out (castration, being a foreigner) stand in the way of a new opportunity. So, whatever you are facing today, I encourage you to not let "master labels" or being overlooked by others prevent you from receiving what God has for you or from taking your rightful place. Today is the day for you to MOVE FORWARD, just like the Ethiopian eunuch.