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Martin Luther King Jr. Day – Biblical Selections

Introduction: Galatians 3:26-28

For ye are all the children of God by faith in Christ Jesus. For as many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.

This is the weekend that we celebrate the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr. There have been many African-American spokesmen on television, radio, and in the newspaper articles talking about the contributions of blacks in American society. These are all good, but I want to go back, way back, even thousands of years. I would like to look at the stories of 8 men and women in the Bible who were black.

I should start off by pointing out it is difficult to determine with accuracy black men and women in the Bible because the Bible is color-neutral. There is never any reference to race or racial features. The main distinction throughout the Bible is between those that serve God and those that do not, whether as individuals or as nations. It is not definite that everyone from Ethiopia or Cyrene was black, but certainly you could reasonably assume that it was a good possibility. So this study will have to be considered reasonable speculation.

The Ethiopian Eunich

The story of the Ethiopian Eunich is found in Acts 8:26-39. Verses 26-29 tell us, "And the angel of the Lord spake unto Philip, saying, Arise, and go toward the south unto the way that goeth down from Jerusalem unto Gaza, which is desert. And he arose and went: and, behold, a man of Ethiopia, an eunuch of great authority under Candace queen of the Ethiopians, who had the charge of all her treasure, and had come to Jerusalem for to worship, Was returning, and sitting in his chariot read Esaias the prophet. Then the Spirit said unto Philip, Go near, and join thyself to this chariot."

We see from verse 27 that this man was an important government official in the court of Candace, queen of the Ethiopians. We also see that the man was one who loved reading God’s word. We don’t know why he had a copy of Isaiah, but we know that God brought him to this passage to show him the way of eternal life. Notice how God brought these two men together. From a social class viewpoint Philip was from the lower class whereas the Ethiopian was an important government official. Racially, Philip was Greek whereas the Eunich was African. But neither man saw these distinctions in each other. All they saw was another person seeking the things of God. And they joined together, rich and poor, white and black, to share the good news of God’s message. God used Philip to lead the Eunich into an encounter with Christ. I wonder how many Ethiopians heard the gospel message because of this one man’s testimony?

Simon of Cyrene

Mark 15:21 tells us the first part of the story of Simon, "And they compel one Simon a Cyrenian, who passed by, coming out of the country, the father of Alexander and Rufus, to bear his cross." We know very little about Simon. We see from this verse that he had come from the country to Jerusalem on this occasion, perhaps on business. He must have been a strong man. I don’t think the soldiers would have picked a weakling. God had appointed him to be there, not to help Jesus with the cross, but to encounter the one who was to be crucified for his sins. Except for Mark’s obscure reference to Rufus and Alexander we would have no more information about Simon.

Rufus in Rome

It is in Romans 16:13 that we have Paul’s reference to Rufus, "Salute Rufus chosen in the Lord, and his mother and mine." According to the patristic writing of the second century the gospel of Mark was written for the Roman Christians. If this is true, it would make sense that Mark would identify Simon of Cyrene as the father of Rufus and Alexander, two men that the Roman Christians would know. None of the other gospel writers include the names of the sons. So perhaps the Rufus that Paul greets is the same Rufus that Mark writes about. It is a good possibility. So I’m going to include Rufus in our list of black men in the Bible. This reference tells us about Rufus and it also tells us more about Simon.

Paul emphasizes that Rufus is chosen in the Lord in Romans 16:13. Rufus must have been a willing follower of Christ. But this also tells us that Simon not only accepted Christ as his Savior, but he passed on the gospel message to his sons.

Lucius of Cyrene and Simeon called Niger

The church at Antioch became the hub of missionary movement. It grew to become an important center in the early church history. It was the headquarters of Paul and Barnabas. But the way it started is a real lesson in how God uses different men for different purposes to accomplish his work. It was after the stoning of Stephen that the early church was scattered. Acts 11:20 tells us, "And some of them were men of Cyprus and Cyrene, which, when they were come to Antioch, spake unto the Grecians, preaching the Lord Jesus." This was something different. Notice it says they spoke to the Grecians. Before this the Christians who were scattered proclaimed Christ only to the Jews living in the city. But these men from Cypress and Cyrene proclaimed the gospel message to the non-Jews. Who were these anonymous men? Later on we find the church is built up and Paul and Barnabas have joined the work. And then it mentions two black men that must have been part of the group that first preached in Antioch. Simeon called Niger and Lucius of Cyrene. The word "Niger" means "black." Long before Paul and Barnabas were in Antioch God had raised up these two black believers to build the church.

Ebedmelech

Jeremiah had been cast into a dungeon to die. In Jeremiah 38:7-12, and 39:16-18 is told the story of how Ebedmelech petitioned the king and took men to rescue Jeremiah. He was not willing to stay back. He was willing to get involved in this great injustice. In Jeremiah 39:18 God tells Ebedmelech, "As a reward for trusting me, I will preserve your life and keep you safe."

Solomon’s Bride

It is most difficult to determine if this person was from African descent or not. The reason is that the Song of Solomon is a love poem. Song of Solomon 1:5 says, "I am black, but comely, O ye daughters of Jerusalem, as the tents of Kedar, as the curtains of Solomon." But naturally this is poetic language as is the next verse which describes how she is dark. In her favor is the fact that Solomon uses the uniqueness of her skin color as a point of beauty to him, and the Hebrew word he uses here is shachar which does mean black. So if one of Solomon’s brides were black, you would have to say that she received one of the highest honors of all time because the Song of Solomon is considered one the most beautiful love poems of all ages.

Moses’ Ethiopian Wife

In Numbers 12 we have an interesting thing take place. Verse 1 tells us Moses married an Ethiopian woman. Both Moses’ brother Aaron and sister Miriam spoke out against this woman. Perhaps this is the first example of racial prejudice. But, Aaron and Miriam could have been upset with their brother for marrying a non-Jew, and race may not have been a consideration. We don’t know. The passage of scripture is not clear why they didn’t like her.

The interesting thing about this story is that God took the side of the Ethiopian woman. The woman was apparently a believer, so any criticism they had against her would be unjustified. In God’s kingdom, he doesn’t want to see his children fighting over things that are so unimportant.

Conclusion

I want to conclude this teaching with excerpts from Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech "I Have a Dream" that certainly needs to be the dream of every Christian.

I say to you today, my friends, that in spite of the difficulties and frustrations of the moment, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.

I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: "We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal."

I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at a table of brotherhood.

I have a dream that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.

When we let freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God's children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, "Free at last! free at last! thank God Almighty, we are free at last!"

This dream will never come to pass until people are willing to let the message of Christ’s love shine in their hearts. Let us be the ones to carry the gospel message forward. And let others know that we are Christians by our love.

Footnotes:

This study on Biblical People of Color 1998 by David Humpall. All Rights Reserved.

All scripture verses unless otherwise noted are from the King James Version

Jeremiah 39:18 from The Living Bible

King’s "I Have a Dream" delivered on the steps at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C. on August 28, 1963.

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