God's Leading in Evangelism
Passage: Acts 8:26–40
First, I want to say thank you to Ben for bringing the Word last week on a very tough passage. This week we finish up chapter eight. As we walk through Acts we are going to see the recurring theme of the gospel going out. We have seen the gospel go to Jerusalem, we have seen the gospel go to Samaria, we have seen the gospel go out to hard hearts, and we have seen the gospel received by soft hearts. We have seen the gospel go out to thousands of people at the same time and today we see the first recorded instance of personal evangelism. The gospel going from one person to another person. In this case, the gospel goes from Philip to the Ethiopian eunuch.
Personal evangelism is the main way the gospel is designed to go forward. Paul tells us that the main job of the elders is to equip the saints (that is, all believers) for the work of the ministry. It’s great that we have had Billy Grahams, Matt Chandlers, and Tim Kellers who have led who knows how many people to Jesus, but that isn’t the main way the gospel goes forward. The gospel primarily goes forward from parents to children, from coworker to coworker, from neighbor to neighbor, and from student to student.
I can remember my first baby steps into personal evangelism as a new believer in college. God would tee it up perfectly. People would just walk up to me and say, “Man, your life has really changed. I want what you have. Can you tell me about it?” To which I would say, “I don’t know, you need to go ask this guy with Campus Crusade what happened to me.”
Sharing my faith was scary. When we share our faith we open ourselves up to critique and rejection. And not just any rejection, but rejection of the most important part of our entire life! When we lived in Europe we would go months sharing the gospel almost every day and never see a single person remotely interested. I was so jealous of my missionary friends in China where it sounded like they could just throw gospel tracts off the tops of buildings and churches would started.
Some of you have prayed for and shared the gospel with a certain friend or family member for years and not seen any change in their interest. Maybe you’ve actually seen a hardening of their hearts toward spiritual things and maybe toward you. Well, wherever you are in your own personal evangelism, this story of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch should be encouraging because we see that we are actually not the hero of the story. God is. God’s providence is evident all over this story. Without God guiding this whole process, there would be no story. I just want to walk through this story and see God’s providential circumstances, God’s providential call, and God’s providential gifts.
- God’s providential circumstances
We have this very interesting person, the Ethiopian eunuch. Ethiopia in those days constituted a much larger area than our modern Ethiopia. Today we might do better to refer to it as the whole upper Nile River region. Luke tells us that he was a court official for Candace, queen of the Ethiopians. Candace was not a name, it was a title. Candace was the office of the mother of the queen and this man served as her treasurer. Which explains why he was a eunuch. Men with that much access to power were made eunuchs so they don’t try and at the very least act inappropriately with the King’s family and at worst prevent this kind of a man from trying to seize the royal throne and royal line for himself. Now, I realize that there might be children here who are thinking, “What is a eunuch?” That’s a great question that you should ask your parents about over lunch today.
This man’s access to the royal family explains how he could make such a journey. This would have been a long journey, a dangerous journey, and an expensive journey. But, what’s even more interesting is why he is making this journey. He was coming home from Jerusalem where he was worshipping? You have an African employed by the royal family worshipping in Jerusalem? How did that happen?
We know that he must have either been a Jewish convert or what was called a God fearer. That is someone who meets with Rabbis and prays in the synagogue, but is not permitted to participate in the sacrifices. It seems extremely unlikely that this is a pagan gentile because Luke would have made a big deal out of the first gentile convert. We will see that happen to Cornelius in chapter ten.
So, what had happened that this African would be making this journey? We don’t know for sure, but we can speculate. This area the Ethiopian would be coming from was the area where the Queen of Sheeba lived back in the days of Solomon. So there was already this interesting link between his home and Jerusalem. We know that Sheeba was greatly impressed by Solomon and we can naturally assume that Solomon would have shared the scriptures with her and likely a whole multitude of people. Could it be that some came to faith? Could it be that when the Jews were dispersed, this city would have felt like a safe place to flee to? Did those dispersed Jews bring proselytes into the faith?
We don’t know for sure, but clearly God was organizing some very providential circumstances for this man to want to and be able to take this trip at this time. There are providential circumstances in every conversion. It could be as simple as the home someone is born into. Rarely with adult converts do I see someone who just decides to follow Jesus. Usually, people come to faith through pain points, through losses, or just realizations that the most important things in their lives will not actually satisfy them. Often the right person will ‘randomly’ come into the life of an unbeliever at ‘just the right’ time.
The longer I go, the easier it is to see these kinds of providential circumstances. There are certain people in my life that I just look at all the unique pieces coming together in the puzzle of their life and I can’t help but think, “God what are you doing here?” That’s certainly how I look at this Ethiopian. At the very moment Philip approaches, he’s reading the prophet Isaiah. It was more common in those days to read out loud than it was to read silently, so not only was he reading Isaiah, he’s doing it out loud so Philip can hear what he was reading!!
You can’t make this up! Look at all the crazy providential circumstances coming together and you can’t begin to think that Philip is the hero of this story. God is the one putting the pieces of this puzzle together and if that is the case, should we not be more encouraged in the role we play in evangelism? Might we be more encouraged to be in real relationships with non-Christians and prayerfully look for the marks of God’s providential circumstances and our opportunity to step in and be used?
That’s the first part of God’s providence in personal evangelism here. The second is God’s providential call.
- God’s providential call
I’m specifically talking about God’s call on Philip’s life here. God’s call to go and make disciples. Luke records that an angel of the Lord came to him and said, “Rise and go toward the south to that road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” This is a desert place. - Acts 8:26
Now, just think about that for a moment. Phillip is in the middle of a revival. Miracles are being done and the local magician wants to buy the power of the Holy Spirit. people are repenting of their sin and putting their faith in Jesus. Whole people groups who have been excluded from the people of God are now included. Why would Phillip leave all that? Because God called him to.
God has designed me to think very strategically so this story is challenging for me. Leave this incredibly strategic and fruitful place? And go where? A desert place? Now, I don’t think we should look at this passage and throw out strategy altogether. We are to be shrewd as snakes. That requires strategy. We need to think about what is fruitful, about how to reach the lost, about where churches need to be planted and missionaries need to be sent. But, there is something that always overrides the best strategies: The call of the Holy Spirit.
Now, in our passage an angel is sent first, but look at verse 28 once Phillip arrives at the chariot of the eunuch: And the Spirit said to Philip, “Go over and join this chariot.” The Spirit said….
The Spirit calls in different ways. Sometimes he gives you a passion for a type of ministry or a specific people. The things that look crazy to everyone else don’t seem crazy to you. You’re going to raise your own support? Yep. What about the language barrier? I’ll learn it. Won’t it be dangerous? Everywhere is dangerous. When we moved overseas with 3 kids three and under, everyone thought we were crazy….and they were right!!! But because God had placed a call on our lives to go, we just didn’t see it. We see it now. I can’t believe we did that. And I’m thankful I didn’t see it at the time.
A few weeks ago we celebrated James’ call to Turkey. Today we heard from the Huffmans. Next week we will hear from missionaries who were called away from a very strategic situation. God calls in different ways. His call doesn’t always necessitate changing cities. It may be changing habits or places you go or the people you hang out with. But, to hear clearly, we must be walking in the power of the Holy Spirit the way Phillip was.
Are you walking with Jesus in a way that makes it easy to hear his call? We can make it so much more mystical and complicated than it is. The Christian life is one of repenting of our sin and turning to Jesus. Always. It never stops. But the more we do it, the more we are giving our lives over to the power of his Spirit in our lives. We die to ourselves, that is our worldly and carnal desires, and we let Jesus make us truly alive. I heard a pastor this week say that to the world, dying to yourself is the cardinal. You be whoever you want to be. Don’t die to that, feed it. But the Christian life is dying to yourself that we might live for Christ only then can we hear God’s providential call in our lives.
Now we get to the climax of the story and we see some of God’s providential gifts.
- God’s providential gifts
I say ‘some’ of his gifts because there are many. But here we see the gifts of scripture, teachers, and faith. First, the gift of Scripture. Martin Luther wrote about how God speaks to us through all creation. The trees, mountains, and sea are communicating the beautiful truths of God to us. But, because of sin, we can’t hear it. It’s like the most beautiful symphony ever playing for someone with no sense of hearing.
So, God spoke in an even more clear way: his word. And here we have the Ethiopian reading Isaiah 53. If you are not familiar with Isaiah 53, it is one of the clearest prophecies of the coming messiah we have. Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter and like a lamb before its shearer is silent, so he opens not his mouth.
33 In his vhumiliation justice was denied him. Who can describe his generation? For his life is taken away from the earth.”
The way Luke records this, it sounds like he’s reading from the Greek Old Testament which would make a lot of sense since this man is not a Hebrew. No one at that time was expecting a suffering messiah. Jesus was the one who explained that this is talking about him. He was slaughtered like a sheep, but he did not open his mouth. He could have stopped it all with one word. He could have brought all who oppressed him to justice in a second. But by his own choice, justice was denied him. And Isaiah 53 tells us why. Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all. - Is. 53:4, 5
God had sovereignly led this Ethiopian to open the scriptures to this passage at this time and he’s reading it out loud as Philip approaches! Scripture is a gift from God to all of us and we need to be in it and pointing others to it because God didn't design us to interact with Scripture in a vacuum. He has given both the Ethiopian and us teachers. This is the second providential gift from God. This is how people come into the kingdom and it is how people grow in the kingdom.
The Ethiopian is trying to understand what it is that he is reading and with a humble heart asks Philip if he can explain it to him. It wasn’t that Philip had some unique revelation special to him, it was that he understood how the scriptures pointed to Jesus. That’s what they do. God has designed scripture to be explained by teachers.
The prophet Nehemia records that They read from the book, from the Law of God, clearly,2 and they gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading. - Neh. 8:8 Paul writes to the Ephesians And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, - Eph 4:11. And teaching is something that we can grow in. The author of Hebrews says that For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic principles of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food, - Hebrews 5:12
Our hope is that everyone here would have access to good teaching. This is why we have our Equipping Hour classes. Right now we have a class on Hebrews and one on evangelism in our current context and on October 17th they will switch service times and start over. This is why our student ministry is primarily based on discipleship, not just fun. Although they do have fun. This is why I spend a good portion of my time with younger interns and pastors at this church. I believe it’s a better investment to teach others to teach rather than spending most of my time teaching. Our hope is that this church would be a place that people can find helpful teaching and a place where teachers are developed and sent out because God has designed his gifts of scripture and teaching to pave the way for a third gift: the gift of faith.
Faith is a gift because it isn’t something any of us can find or earn on our own. It’s interesting to me that this Ethiopian did not find Jesus in Jerusalem. Surely people were talking about him. Maybe it’s that this man only spoke Greek and many people were talking in Hebrew or Aramaic. Jim Boice thinks that this man would have been pretty disappointed with what he found in Jerusalem. He likely interacted with the Pharisees, Sadducees, and priests who not only didn’t believe Jesus was the messiah, they would have been more concerned with power and politics than God. He did not find scripture being properly taught and so he did not find Jesus. He was in the academic center of the whole faith, yet could not understand one of the most central passages in the entire Old Testament.
We have to ask the question, is it much different today? Boice says, “It is not much different today. People go to churches hungering and thirsting after God, but instead of finding God they find people who are more concerned about rules and politics.” In our culture the very term evangelical now has more political meaning than it does theological. I know of a church that just took the world evangelical out of their name because of the political barriers it puts up to the world. But here on his trip back home, the eunuch meets someone different. Someone who is concerned about God, not power and politics, and it is here that he receives the gift of faith.
No voyage, no church attendance, no home environment, no moral or spiritual life will earn you faith. Paul says, 8 For zby grace you have been saved athrough faith. And this is bnot your own doing; cit is the gift of God, 9 dnot a result of works, eso that no one may boast. 10 For fwe are his workmanship, gcreated in Christ Jesus hfor good works,iwhich God prepared beforehand, jthat we should walk in them. - Eph 2:8-10.
And some might say that it was the Ethiopian’s soft and humble heart that earned him his faith, but even that is a gift. Paul quotes this to the Romans saying that n“None is righteous, no, not one; 11 no one understands; no one seeks for God. - Rom 3:11 If your heart longs for God that is a gift he is working in you and because that is the case, we should be the most humble of people. The most understanding of different worldviews. The most sympathetic to decisions we disagree with. Because if not for the free gift of faith in our own lives, that would be us.
And with the gift of faith comes baptism. Baptism is the covenantal sign of our unity with Christ. It marks us as God’s people. And the baptism of the Ethiopian is important because it helps us to see the connection to the old sign of circumcision. I do believe that baptism replaces circumcision as the sign that marks the people of God. This is made pretty clear, I think in Colossians 2:11 and 12. In the Old Covenant, how did a Jew become a Jew? Simply by being born. So, the sign was applied to all males who were born a Jew. But, Paul makes it clear that the New Covenant is not for a mixed bag of believers and unbelievers, it is for believers. So, you aren’t born into the people of God, you are born again, exactly like this Ethiopian. And this is when the sign is applied. If we were to baptize babies in the way of the Old Covenant, we have to ask ourselves what then is new about the New Covenant? Nowhere in the New Testament do we see any babies being baptized.
Baptism is a public sign of a miraculous work that God is doing in our hearts and, by God’s grace, we will get to see some people baptized on November 7th at our 30th anniversary and we will all have the opportunity to improve on our baptism as we celebrate theirs. I’ve been asked a few times in the past couple months, when exactly should someone be baptized. Well, this Ethiopian man is a great answer to that question. It should come after a real profession of faith in your life. We don’t want to baptize someone who is doing it for the wrong reasons. But, we don’t want to withhold it either. Since it is the 30th anniversary of Nevermind, in the words of the great theologian, Kurt Cobain, take your time, but hurry up. I’m sure his inspiration was John Calvin who says baptism should be applied without undue haste or undue delay. So, if you are here today and desire the gift of faith, it can be yours today. And if you have received the gift of faith, the next step in your faith is the sacrament of baptism.
As we get to the end of our passage today, there are two quick things that really trip people up. First, in most of your Bibles there is no verse 37. It is in the King James bible, but not in the ESV or the NIV. We have access now to many more ancient Greek manuscripts than the translators of the King James had. We can say with confidence that this line was added later because it isn’t in the oldest manuscripts. Verse 37 actually comes from an early baptismal liturgy that some scribe likely added thinking that Piliip would have surely used it.
Second, verse 39 39 And when they came up out of the water, zthe Spirit of the Lord acarried Philip away, and the eunuch saw him no more, and went on his way rejoicing. It is possible that the Holy Spirit whisked Philip away, but I don’t think this is what happened. I think the Holy Spirit led Philip on after that to other cities and he did not see this Ethiopian man again.
We see Philip altering his approach, but not his message. He is explaining Jesus from scripture to someone who has ears to hear it. We see the loosening of bonds with Jerusalem and the gospel going to the world in both supernatural and ordinary ways.
What stands out to me the most in this passage is that God wants us to be fruitful and the way we are fruitful isn’t by what we know, but who we know. It is possible to be saturated in Scripture (which is a great thing), but still miss Christ. It’s even possible to have a saving relationship with Christ, but not live the abundant life full of the Holy Spirit. Philip is a regularly guy, but he was able to teach this eunuch better than the greatest religious scholars in the world! Why? Because Philip knew Jesus. Because he had the Holy Spirit inside of him. The first step toward being a disciple maker is being a disciple of Jesus yourself. Then, there is this natural overflow of providential circumstances, providential calling, and providential gifts.