READ : Acts 8:5-6, 26-38
On that day the church in Jerusalem began to be attacked and treated badly. All except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria. . . . But Saul began to destroy the church.
The believers who had been scattered preached the word everywhere they went. Philip went down to a city in Samaria. There he preached about the Christ. The crowds listened to Philip. They saw the miraculous signs he did. They all paid close attention to what he said. . . .
An angel of the Lord spoke to Philip. “Go south to the desert road,” he said. “It’s the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” So Philip started out. On his way he met an Ethiopian official. The man had an important position. He was in charge of all the wealth of Candace. She was the queen of Ethiopia. He had gone to Jerusalem to worship. On his way home he was sitting in his chariot. He was reading the book of Isaiah the prophet. The Holy Spirit told Philip, “Go to that chariot. Stay near it.”
So Philip ran up to the chariot. He heard the man reading Isaiah the prophet. “Do you understand what you’re reading?” Philip asked.
“How can I?” he said. “I need someone to explain it to me.” So he invited Philip to come up and sit with him.
Here is the part of Scripture the official was reading. It says,
“He was led like a sheep to be killed.
Just as lambs are silent while their wool is being cut off,
he did not open his mouth.
When he was treated badly, he was refused a fair trial.
Who can say anything about his children?
His life was cut off from the earth.”
The official said to Philip, “Tell me, please. Who is the prophet talking about? Himself, or someone else?” Then Philip began with that same part of Scripture. He told him the good news about Jesus.
As they traveled along the road, they came to some water. The official said, “Look! Here is water! Why shouldn’t I be baptized?” He gave orders to stop the chariot. Then both Philip and the official went down into the water. Philip baptized him. When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord suddenly took Philip away. The official did not see him again. He went on his way full of joy.
Acts 8:4-6, 26-39 NIrV
In Acts 8 Luke tells how the first Christians began to share the message of Christ with people outside their immediate community. But you might be surprised what it took to get them to move out beyond their own home with the gospel.
Blood had been shed, and now everything was changed.
During the first days of the Christian church, the followers of Jesus lived peacefully in and around the city of Jerusalem. They worshiped together, both in their homes and in the temple, enjoyed meals and fellowship with each other, learned from the apostles’ teaching, and freely shared their property and possessions with those who were in need. It was a happy time, and these first Christians were popular with the majority of their fellow citizens. Luke, the biblical historian, reports that they lived together “with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved” (Acts 2:46-47).
But the happiness and popularity didn’t last. The Jerusalem authorities, alarmed by the rapid growth in numbers of those who accepted Jesus as the Messiah and became his followers, soon moved against this new group. They began to harass and threaten the leaders of the Christians. They arrested Peter and John repeatedly, warning them to stop preaching and teaching about Jesus. Then Stephen, one of the leading Christian teachers, attracted official attention. Enraged by his effective testimony and skillful arguments in support of Jesus as the Christ, the authorities seized him. After the pretense of a trial, they dragged Stephen outside the city and stoned him to death.
Blood had been shed, and now everything was changed. From now on the Christians would face hostility and intense persecution at the hands of the religious authorities in Jerusalem. These authorities even appointed a very capable and energetic young man named Saul of Tarsus (about whom we will hear a great deal more in the book of Acts) to take the lead in hunting down Christians for imprisonment or execution.
THE GOSPEL ADVANCES
In Acts Luke tells the story of the early church with great skill and care. He selects and arranges his narrative in order to emphasize how God is fulfilling his plan for the expansion of his church.
That plan is mapped out in Acts 1:8, where Jesus said to his followers:
“You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
The history recorded in Acts isn’t just a random collection of religious stories. It isn’t even a history of the birth of Christianity. What this book really offers is a description of the beginning of the fulfilment of God’s eternal plan for the whole human race. The apostle Paul talked about that plan in Ephesians, where he says that at the end of history God intends to bring all things in heaven and earth together under the rule of Christ (Ephesians 1:9-12). The first stage in the fulfilment of that plan is the creation of the Christian church, where Jews and gentiles, in fact, people from every race and nation, are brought together into a new worshiping community, bound to each other by faith in Christ. The book of Acts relates how the church expanded into the gentile world as the good news of Christ spread outward from Jerusalem. And Acts 8 shows God’s plan progressing as the gospel reaches Samaria, on its way to the ends of the earth. So here we see the Lord’s eternal purpose of gathering a people for himself from all the families of humankind unfolding just according to his plan.
God’s human instrument for accomplishing the particular part of the plan that is described in Acts 8 was a man called Philip. He was one of the seven “deacons” in the Jerusalem church (see chapter 6:1-6). His ministry, like that of his colleague Stephen, was also that of an evangelist. Though the deacons’ primary role was to distribute material assistance to those who lacked food or clothing, both Stephen and Philip were powerful and effective preachers and teachers as well. Acts 8 tells how Philip’s evangelistic ministry branched out, first in Samaria, and then in the desert near the city of Gaza.
“The believers who had been scattered preached the word everywhere they went. Philip went down to a city in Samaria. There he preached about the Christ. The crowds listened to Philip. They saw the miraculous signs he did. They all paid close attention to what he said. . . .”
Philip traveled around Samaria and “proclaimed the Christ” there, says Luke. That is, he publicly preached that Jesus was the Messiah, the Anointed One, God’s appointed Savior. He even performed miracles in confirmation of this message (v. 6). This outreach in Samaria illustrates the gospel’s wonderful power to overcome human prejudice and to replace hostility with reconciliation. The Samaritans were confirmed enemies of the Jews, and yet here we see how both are included in the body of Christ. God’s plan for his church includes outsiders as well as religious insiders. It’s for everyone. The gospel is good news for everyone in the whole world. Jesus is not just a Savior for some, for a chosen few, only for people with the right kind of background, pedigree or status. No. Philip was God’s messenger to bring the good news of salvation through Christ even to the despised people of Samaria.
It all sounds bold and exciting, doesn’t it. But if you back up a few verses and read the beginning of the story, you’ll see that the reason Philip was traveling in Samaria was not because he had consciously and intentionally decided to begin implementing God’s plan for world evangelization. The great persecution that had broken out against the church in Jerusalem following Stephen’s death had scattered most of the believers throughout Judea and Samaria. Philip went out because he was afraid. Like the others, he was running from the authorities. But as he ran he also told people about Jesus wherever he went (vv.1-4). So it seems that the apostles did not themselves personally take the initial lead in fulfilling Jesus’ Great Commission to take the gospel to the whole world and to make disciples of all peoples. Perhaps they were happy living and working in Jerusalem. Maybe they didn’t sense a call – at least initially – to uproot themselves and their families in order to travel to the ends of the earth. Whatever it was, God at this point bypassed the apostles and instead used people like Philip and a host of other anonymous believers, people who were scattered by the persecution, but serving as missionaries of Christ. This wouldn’t be the last time that the Lord shook the salt-shaker in order to get the salt – Jesus’ followers – into the world where he wanted it.
THE ETHIOPIAN EUNUCH
The second half of Acts 8 relates another incident that also shows the church expanding beyond the boundaries of its original Jewish environment. It’s the story of Philip’s encounter with a man from Ethiopia. This is a wonderful illustration of the gospel’s power, not just because of the dramatic nature of this man’s conversion, but because of the nature of the man who was converted. He was, first of all, a high official in the queen’s court, that is to say an important man in his own country. Then, he was an Ethiopian. In New Testament times the territory called Ethiopia referred to Nubia, or the upper Nile region encompassing southern Egypt and northern Sudan. So this man was an African, a member of a different race, and a citizen of another continent. He was also a eunuch, we’re told, and therefore barred by the Old Testament law from entering the temple. Nevertheless, apparently he was a convert to Judaism who had been attracted to Israel’s God, and was eager to learn the Hebrew scriptures of the Old Testament. This Ethiopian man was a serious seeker after truth, and God led him, through Philip’s instruction, to Christ. When Philip encountered this man, they had a very memorable Bible study session together, which ended with the Ethiopian’s confession of faith in Christ and his baptism as a follower of Christ. I can’t imagine a better example of personal evangelism -sharing the gospel, not with a huge crowd but quietly, one-on-one, in private, using the scriptures as a lesson text.
This is an obvious example of the way the gospel can break down racial, cultural, physical and religious barriers between people. It would be difficult to think of two men with more differences than Philip and this Ethiopian. But none of that mattered after the man was baptized; from then on they were brothers in Christ. Luke emphasizes how the Holy Spirit controlled Philip’s movements throughout this whole encounter. It was the Spirit who brought these two men together, the Spirit who used Philip’s words and witness. Salvation is not a matter of chance or accident or human initiative. It’s God’s work, God bringing his plan to fulfillment in individuals’ lives as well as in the larger course of history.
The thing I like best about this story is the way it features the Scriptures. As this Ethiopian headed home from Jerusalem – a major trip that suggests how seriously this man was in wanting to know and worship the true God – he was reading in the prophecy of Isaiah. He could not have chosen a better book. His experience with Isaiah shows what happens when we “seek the Lord while he may be found” and “call upon him while he is near” (Isaiah 55:6).
The Bible, though, is not always enough just by itself. As Philip drew near to this man’s chariot and heard him reading aloud, he asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?” “How can I, unless someone explains it to me,” the man responded. What he needed was a teacher, someone who could open up the scriptures to him, explaining their meaning and showing him how the message applied to his life. This was the ministry Philip was prepared to fulfill. It is still the most important work in the world today.
The passage they were discussing was from Isaiah 53, the “Gospel according to Isaiah.” That magnificent chapter speaks more profoundly about Christ than any other passage in the Old Testament. It describes his humiliation. He didn’t have any beauty or majesty that made us notice him (v. 2, NIrV). It predicts his reception at the hands of the majority of his countrymen: He was despised and rejected, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. It tells how Jesus, God’s Son, became the sin-bearer, the substitute who took upon himself the sins and the guilt of rebellious humanity, accepting the punishment of death and offering his life in our place. He bore our griefs, and carried our sorrows . . . He was wounded for our transgressions, bruised for our iniquities, the chastisement of our peace was upon him, and with his stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray, and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all. “Is the prophet talking about himself or someone else?” the Ethiopian eunuch asked. So Philip began to tell him about Jesus.
Is it possible to miss the fact that this glorious chapte – and for that matter, the whole Old Testament – is all about Jesus Christ? It is. Paul says that whenever the scripture is read a veil covers the minds of unbelievers. And it can only be removed by God (see 2 Corinthians 3:14-16). No one can really understand the Bible and find Christ there except through the work of the Holy Spirit, opening their eyes, illumining their minds. People do need to read God’s Word. They need good preaching and teaching to explain it. But most of all what they need is for God to show them the truth about Christ so that they can recognize him as their Savior and acknowledge him as their Lord.
Have you done that? Do you understand what you’re reading when you read the Bible? Do you accept what you have heard about Christ? Then why not commit yourself, like that Ethiopian believer, to following Christ as a part of his world-wide church?