We analysed the performance of Ethiopia in achieving the health-related millennium development goals (MDGs) with the aim of acquiring lessons for the sustainable development goals (SDGs). Ethiopia achieved most of the health MDGs: a 67% reduction in under-five mortality, a 71% decline in maternal mortality ratio, a 90% decline in new HIV infections, a decrease in malaria-related deaths by 73% and a more than 50% decline in mortality due to tuberculosis. We argue that these achievements are due to implementation of a mix of comprehensive strategies within the health system and across other sectors of the government. Scaling up of interventions by disease control programmes (including the health extension programme) and strengthening of the health system have played important roles towards the achievements. These health gains could not have been realised without progress in the other MDGs: poverty reduction, education, access to safe drinking-water and peace and stability of the country. However, the gains were not equitable, with differences between urban and rural areas, among regions and socioeconomic strata. Ethiopia's remarkable success in meeting most of the targets of the health-related MDGs could be explained by its comprehensive and multisectoral approach for health development. The inequity gap remains a challenge that achieving the health-related SDGs requires the country to implement strategies, which specifically target more marginal populations and geographic areas. This also needs peace and stability, without which it is almost impossible to improve health.