Jesus’s public ministry was mostly focused on his fellow Jews. But time and again, he commends the faith of those outside the Jewish fold. He praises the faith of a Roman centurion (Matt. 8:5–13) and a Syrophoenician woman (Matt. 15:21–28). When he heals 10 lepers, the only one who turns back to thank him is a Samaritan, whose faith Jesus commends (Luke 17:11–19). And after his resurrection, Jesus declares, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me” and tells his followers, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations” (Matt. 28:18–19).
Jesus was the one through whom all things were made (John 1:3). He created every ethnicity, and he calls people from every tribe and tongue and nation to himself. Centuries of colonialism have left many people thinking that the first black Christians emerged when European missionaries traveled to Africa. But if we read the Bible, we find the first black people coming to Christ on Day One of the church.
First Black Christians
When the Spirit is poured out at Pentecost, the apostles preach to people “from every nation under heaven,” including those from modern-day Iran, Iraq, Turkey, Egypt, and Libya (Acts 2:5–11). Three thousand came to Christ. This is the birthday of the church. On this day, Middle Easterners, Africans, and Europeans started worshiping Jesus together. Luke tells us what this looked like.
If we read the Bible, we find the first black people coming to Christ on Day One of the church.
These first Christians devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, to fellowship, to breaking of bread, and to prayer. They were selling their possessions and sharing their money with any who had need. They were worshiping together and eating together in each other’s homes (Acts 2:42–47). This wasn’t just gathering at the same church on Sunday. This was life together. But the Bible doesn’t just scan the multiethnic crowd. It also zooms in on individuals.
In Acts 8, an angel of the Lord sends Philip to a highly educated Ethiopian man, who is sitting in his chariot reading from Isaiah 53. This passage subverts every modern stereotype. In the framework that tried to justify slavery and segregation in America, black people were repeatedly painted as morally, spiritually, and intellectually inferior. But this account of the first known black Christian skewers those ideas.
In a world in which few were literate, this man is reading God’s Word when Philip finds him. As humble as he is learned, the Ethiopian welcomes Philip eagerly. Beginning with the description of the suffering servant in Isaiah 53, Philip tells him “the good news about Jesus” (Acts 8:35). As soon as they find water this man asks to be baptized (Acts 8:36). His enthusiasm leaps from the page.
Luke includes three details about the Ethiopian, in addition to his ethnicity. First, Luke tells us he was a eunuch. Second, that he was a court official of Candice, queen of the Ethiopians, responsible for all her treasure. Third, that he had come to Jerusalem to worship (Acts 8:27).
This man was both honored and marginalized. He had a position of great authority and trust. But he was also a eunuch who had been castrated as a child and was likely a technical slave. He was already a worshiper of God, but he hadn’t yet met Jesus.
If we read Isaiah 53 in context, we find it is the perfect entry point for this man. We see God’s suffering servant, pierced for our transgressions, despised and rejected by men, achieving victory through pain. And as Isaiah’s prophecy continues, we see specific promises to foreigners and eunuchs who trust in the Lord.
In Acts 8, we don’t just see an individual black Christian whose life mattered to God so much that his angel sent an apostle to help with his Bible study. We also see the continuity between the Old Testament and the New, as God’s promises to foreigners who trust him are fleshed out. We see hope for those whose bodies have been violated and for those unable to have children. And we see a black man going on his way rejoicing because he had new life in Jesus Christ (Acts 8:39).
Multiethnic Heartbeat of the New Testament
As the story of the newborn church unfolds, we hear its multiethnic heartbeat. The church blossoms from its Jewish roots to include more and more Gentiles. The followers of Jesus were first called Christians in Antioch, the ruins of which lie in Turkey (Acts 11:26).
Because we’re all immigrants to the text, it’s harder for us to see the racial and ethnic walls being demolished by the gospel wrecking ball. But that’s what is happening. Paul wrote to the first Christians in Turkey, “Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all” (Col. 3:11).
Because we’re all immigrants to the text, it’s harder for us to see the racial and ethnic walls being demolished by the gospel wrecking ball.
The Jew-Gentile divide was deeply ingrained in Jewish consciousness, and Paul speaks to it in two ways: Jew versus Greek, and circumcised versus uncircumcised. He also knocks down the slave-free divide in a culture that assumed slavery was normal and in which at least one person in three would’ve been enslaved.
Unlike slavery in America, first-century slavery was largely not race-based, so this was not a comment on ethnicity. But Paul also speaks to racial and cultural divides when he mentions barbarians and Scythians. These terms mean almost nothing to us. We don’t turn on the news and hear about barbarian immigrants or Scythian refugees.
But writing to America today, Paul might have said of the church: “Here there is no black American or white American, Asian American or Latino American, there is no rich or poor, no immigrant or native-born, but Christ is all, and in all.”
Love across racial difference isn’t just a modern, progressive ideal. It started as a biblical ideal. Interracial love is part of our inheritance in Christ. When we refuse fellowship across racial and cultural difference, we’re tearing Jesus’s beautiful body apart.