My Story: The Gaza Road
1/24/2017 2:44:37 AM
“My Story: The Gaza Road”
January 22, 2017
Rev. David Williams
Scripture: Acts 8:36-40
As you know, we have been talking about Reach One for the past few weeks. Our hope here at Priory is that each of us will have one specific person in mind that we will be praying for and preparing ourselves to share our own story of faith with. We are praying for the Holy Spirit to work in this person and bring this person to saving faith. Along the way, we submit to the Spirit and becoming willing to cooperate with the Spirit to help our “one” person take steps towards faith in Christ. So we are praying for them and for ourselves, submitting to God and being willing to cooperate with His work.
I want you, now, to think about your “Reach One” person. Hopefully you all have one person in mind. Last week, we had the opportunity to write the name of our one on a slip of paper and put it in the box here in the sanctuary. Each time you see that box, be reminded to pray for your one person and recommit yourself to cooperating with the Spirit to help that person take steps towards faith in Christ.
Imagine you see your one person. Maybe you know them from work, or school, maybe they are a family member or neighbour. Imagine seeing them in the normal context in which you see them. Maybe they are at their desk, or sitting in a comfy chair, maybe on their porch. Whatever situation you would find them in. Imagine, now, that in their hand you see a book. Maybe your one loves books. Maybe they never read. But imagine them holding a book, reading it closely. As you get closer, you see the title of the book. You realize that it’s a Christian book! It’s a book about God, or Jesus!
Are you stunned? Is this the kind of thing your one would be found reading normally? Or do they usually not come close to things of religion? What would you say to them if you saw them in that situation? If the Holy Spirit nudged you and asked you to go talk to them about what they were reading, how would you respond? Would you be eager? Would you be hesitant? What is it about the nature of your relationship with your one person that shapes how you would respond seeing them reading a Christian book?
As intimidating as it may seem, would you be willing to speak to them about their book? This is part of what we are talking about when we say we will pray that we are willing to cooperate with the Spirit to help our one person take steps towards faith in Christ! We need to pray that we will be prepared.
Now, imagine that you do, in fact, approach your one person and ask them about the book they are reading. What would you ask? Imagine they said they are interested in Jesus. Then they ask you to tell them what you believe, what your story of faith is. Would you be able to tell them? Or would you panic? Or clam up? Or maybe everything would spill out and you’d be too eager? Would you be too aggressive? What do you think? Again, this is why we pray now that the Spirit will work in that person and say we will cooperate. The longer we agree to cooperate with the Spirit, the more likely we are to listen to Him and follow His lead in the moment.
Our passage today deals with this kind of situation. In the passage we are going to read in a moment, Philip, a Greek speaking Jewish Christian, follows the Spirit, sees a stranger reading a passage of the Bible, and is given the opportunity to share with that stranger the good news about Jesus.
But before we get into our passage today, I want to give a bit of context. First, who is Philip? Philip doesn’t show up a lot in the NT. He was not one of the 12 Apostles. He seemingly never met Jesus in the flesh. Rather, Philip was one of the first generation of Christians in Jerusalem who came to Christ on or shortly after Pentecost.
Although not one of the 12, Philip was one of the 7. What do I mean by that? In Acts 6 there was some conflict brewing in the Jerusalem church over how the food support was being distributed among the Christian widows. It appeared that the Hebrew speaking widows, likely native to Jerusalem or at least the immediate area, were getting preferential treatment over the Greek speaking widows who had likely moved to Jerusalem with their
husbands later in life so their husbands could die in the Holy Land. This was a common occurrence, so there were, in fact, a lot of Greek speaking Jewish widows in Jerusalem who had no family in the area to take care of them.
When the trouble started to grow, the Apostles told the people to choose from among themselves 7 men who would oversee the distribution of food to the widows. These 7, often referred to as the first deacons, were all Jewish Christian men with Greek names. It seems likely they were all Greek-speaking Jews who converted to Christ. Philip was one of these 7 men, along with Stephen whose death is reported in Acts 7.
After Stephen’s death, many of the Christians in Jerusalem fled the city. As they went, they took the news about Jesus’ resurrection with them. Philip himself went to Samaria where he spread the gospel. This is described in the first half of Acts 8. Philip was a man filled with the Holy Spirit and he also had dramatic spiritual gifts, including healing. As he shared the gospel in Samaria, many people came to Christ. So many, in fact, that news reached Jerusalem and the apostles. They sent Peter and John to investigate and they confirmed the good news.
So this is the scene- Philip, a Greek speaking Jewish Christian, is experiencing a powerful movement of the Spirit in Samaria. Today we would call it a revival! The Samaritans are coming to Christ in droves. He is part of a thriving, growing church plant in Samaria. Now we will pick up our text.
Please turn with me to Acts 8:26-40.
What It Says
Let’s highlight a few things in the text that would be clear to the first readers but we are likely to miss today. Our passage begins, “An angel of the Lord said to Philip….” The angel of the Lord is an agent of the Holy Spirit. As the passage develops, the Spirit himself speaks to Philip and at the end whisks him away. Throughout several chapters in Acts it is repeatedly made clear that the Holy Spirit is the agent behind all of what is happening. This passage is no different.
Remember, Philip was involved with a thriving church plant in Samaria. Now the Spirit tells him to “Go south to the desert road from Jerusalem to Gaza.” [William J. Larkin, Acts, p. 132] The term “desert road” indicates how barren it was, making it incredibly unlikely to meet anybody there. [I Howard Marshall, Acts, p. 162] It would be like sending one of us out to one of the rural roads far outside Guelph.
Amazingly, Philip actually meets somebody on this barren stretch of highway! And he doesn’t just meet anybody, but an exotic foreigner. He meets the chief financial officer for Queen Candace of Ethiopia. Candace was a title, or an honourary name, for the mother of the king of that kingdom. The king’s position made him too “holy” to look after the day to day business of the kingdom, so the king’s mother was put in charge of these things.
The stranger Philip met was most likely black, exotically dressed and certainly didn’t look like he fit in around Jerusalem. Furthermore, he was a eunuch, which meant his voice would have sounded high pitched and strange too. This is a most bizarre person to meet on a barren stretch of roadway between Jerusalem and Gaza!
The eunuch was riding in a chariot, likely an oxen-drawn cart with 4 wheels and a roof over top. There would have been the eunuch, a driver and potentially another servant in the chariot. This was not a war chariot but a traveling chariot.
Seeing this vehicle with its remarkable passengers, Philip was told by the Spirit to run up to it and walk alongside it for a time. While doing so, he overheard the eunuch reading out loud. In the ancient world, paper and writing materials were so very precious and expensive that scribes wrote very small and without any spaces between words. This made it almost universally necessary for people to read out loud. So it is not unusual for Philip to be able to overhear the eunuch.
What is unusual is what this strange traveller was reading! Imagine Philip’s surprise walking alongside the vehicle of this foreign dignitary when he heard the words of Isaiah 53 being read! This prompted Philip to ask the man if he understood what he was reading. The Ethiopian said he could not understand this passage unless somebody explained it to him. Take note, though, that the Ethiopian had a very insightful question. He asks if the author of Isaiah was speaking of himself or another? This was a common debate among Jewish scholars at the time. They did not understand that the suffering servant of Isaiah was one and the same Messiah that God had promised for centuries! Jewish scholars had different interpretations of Isaiah 53, some holding that he was
speaking of another one to come who would redeem Israel, others believing Isaiah was writing about his own trials and difficulties as a prophet. So clearly the Ethiopian had studied this text before, he was up to date on the current theological theories surrounding it.
So what, then, do we know about this strange man from Ethiopia? He probably told Philip who he was, which is why Luke was able to record it in Acts. As I mentioned, he would have looked and sounded very different from most people in Jerusalem. He was a well-educated man, entrusted with a very important government position. He was wealthy, too, traveling in a chariot when most people walked. He also had the financial means to buy a scroll of the prophet Isaiah! This is understandable given that he was in charge of all of his Queen’s treasury!
What does the text tell us about his visit to Jerusalem? It tells us that he had come to Jerusalem in order to worship! He wasn’t there on government business. He wasn’t an emissary sent by Queen Candace to open trade talks. He didn’t go to Jerusalem on business and then happen to get interested in Isaiah. Much to the contrary, he was there for personal reasons. He had come to Jerusalem in order to worship God! That means that he had heard about God even as far away as Ethiopia! And he had made a serious commitment to God himself. It was a serious investment of time and money to travel such a great distance to worship God. And it would have been a dangerous journey too. So at no small expense, and with significant risk to himself, the Ethiopian came all the way to Jerusalem on a religious pilgrimage! And when he arrived in Jerusalem, he would not have even been allowed in the temple! Not only was he a Gentile, but he was physically disfigured (being a eunuch)! So having travelled all that distance, he would only have been allowed inside the first gate of the temple, if that.
That first courtyard, that first area in which the Gentiles were allowed to gather, happens to be the very place where the money changers and traders set up their tables. This was where Jesus got so angry and drove them out of the temple! Why? Because Jesus knew this was the only area Gentiles were allowed to go in the temple. And instead of being a place of prayer for people outside Israel seeking God, it had become a noisy market place. We don’t know if the money changers had returned to the court of the Gentiles or not, but that is the very place this Eunuch would have been allowed to go in the temple. It was men like this eunuch that Jesus had in mind when he got so angry that the money changers were interfering with worship in that part of the temple!
Now, having visited Jerusalem, the Ethiopian official was returning home. I wonder what he felt about his trip? I wonder if he was disappointed? I wonder if he was satisfied? There’s no way for us to know from the text. But imagine the coordination of the Holy Spirit in this man’s life. Sometime long before, Jews had made it to his kingdom. The word of God, stories about the God of Israel had penetrated his culture in some way. As this man grew up, he was introduced to the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob at some point along the way. Enough God fearers, or even Jews themselves, influenced this man over the years. He liked what he heard about this God. He liked what he saw in people who worshipped Him. And over time, he committed more and more of his life to Yahweh.
But there was a problem. Even if he had been willing to, he could never become a Jewish convert? Why? Because he was a eunuch. He was forever barred from joining the people of God, even though he was very interested in God and was committed to him.
Finally, having risen to power and becoming a man of great financial resources, he decided to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem to see more of the people of God, to see the temple, to see where David had lived, to worship God directly, offering sacrifices to God in the temple itself! The only place on earth where a sinful human being could offer sacrifices to God.
Then, on the way home, he pulled out his new purchase, the scroll of Isaiah. He began to read it, passing the time on his long journey. Just as he got to a difficult passage about the suffering servant, a Jewish man came jogging alongside the chariot. “Do you understand what you are reading?” the stranger asked. And, as their conversation unfolded, the eunuch learned about Jesus. He learned about the new forgiveness of sin offered by God. He learned that one could be put in a right relationship with God, could be made righteous, through Jesus! What fabulous news!
They come to a point on the journey where there was water by the side of the road. The eunuch, the deformed foreigner, asks Philip, “Can I, even I, be baptized?” And Philip answered, “Yes!” And so the Ethiopian eunuch, the man who wasn’t even allowed in the temple, was baptized and welcomed into God’s
family! Here, at the end of his time in Jerusalem, turning toward home from his pilgrimage, he got the best surprise he could ever imagine. After being rejected at the temple, he was accepted into God’s family! His physical deformity no longer mattered. His ethnicity no longer mattered. He was reconciled to the God he loved whom he had come to worship. And he left on his way home rejoicing and worshipping God in a new, exciting way.
Philip, the man who shared the good news of Jesus with him, was whisked away by the Spirit yet again, taken to new towns and villages to share the good news until he reached Caesarea where he was either from originally or at least settled down for about 20 years. When Luke and Paul are returning to Jerusalem in Acts 21, they stay in Caesarea with Philip and his 3 daughters who all prophesy.
What We Can Learn
So what can we learn from this passage? What can we apply to our series on evangelism? The most important thing to notice is that none of this was Philip’s doing. None if it was the Ethiopian’s doing either. All of this passage was orchestrated by the Holy Spirit. It was the Spirit who told Philip to leave his thriving church plant and head out into a remote area and a lightly travelled road. It was the Spirit who orchestrated this to be perfectly times with the Ethiopian’s journey out of Jerusalem. It was the Spirit who prompted Philip to approach the chariot and just the time that the Eunuch was reading from Isaiah, and in particular a passage about Jesus. You may recall we looked at this passage as part of our Advent series a month ago. This is one of a number of passages in the OT that point forward to Jesus. Of all the parts of Isaiah that the eunuch could have been reading, Philip overheard him reading one about Jesus! [Marshall, p. 163]
The Spirit is in charge of bringing people to Christ. The Spirit had been working in the heart of this foreigner for a long time. Other people, before Philip, had cleared away rubble, planted seeds and watered them in the heart of the eunuch. Philip was the final person brought into the picture to reap the harvest. Philip did his part, but many other people before him had done their parts too!
Second, notice how Philip was willing to listen to and obey the Holy Spirit. If Philip had resisted, he would have stayed in Samaria. He would likely have seen lots of other people come to Christ, he could have worked on building up the believers there. It made sense! What would the Spirit want him to do in the wilderness? But Philip was obedient, even when the Spirit suggested he do something that seemed counter-intuitive. Then, Philip was obedient again when he was told to approach the unclean, strangely dressed foreigner in the chariot. As a Jew, Philip would naturally have recoiled from associating with a man who may make him unclean. Philip was not likely to have been comfortable talking to the Ethiopian, or getting into his chariot, but he was obedient to the Spirit.
Next, I want us to see what God is doing through Philip. In Acts 1:8, Jesus tells his disciples that when the Holy Spirit comes, they will be his witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. When we are first introduced to Philip in Acts 6, he is involved in overseeing the food ministry supporting widows. That was being Jesus’ witness in Jerusalem. Then, when persecution comes, Philip flees to Samaria, where he shares the gospel and has a powerful ministry including casting our demons and healing the sick. This is reported in Acts 8. So he is Jesus’ witness in Judea and Samaria! Now, in the second half of Acts 8, we see Philip witnessing to the eunuch from Ethiopia. The Greeks and Romans spoke of Ethiopia as “the ends of the earth”! [Larkin, p. 131] So here is Philip being Christ’s witness to man from the ends of the earth who then takes that word back to his home!
The Spirit was working in Philip, along with many others, to bring the good news of Jesus to the whole world. It was not just a fluke that this happened. “The church did not ‘stumble upon’ the idea of evangelising the Gentiles; it did so in accordance with God’s deliberate purpose.” [Marshall, p. 161]
So how, then, do we apply this? If God is the one orchestrating this evangelistic work, what is our role?
To begin with, think back on your own personal journey of faith. Remember our picture describing the journey. [pic] Who helped you along the way? Who played their part in your journey of faith? Who was obedient to the Spirit and helped you take steps towards faith in Christ? At the time, you probably didn’t know they were cooperating with the Spirit, but looking back now, who was influential in your journey? Do you appreciate what they did? Aren’t you glad they listened to the Spirit when prompted? Haven’t you benefited
Are you willing to play a similar role in the life of somebody else? Are you willing to help your one person take steps towards faith in Christ? Maybe you will get to be the person who sees them put their faith in Jesus! Or, maybe you will be the one to water seeds planted by others. Perhaps you will just plant seeds. Maybe your task will just be to remove rubble from the soil.
Philip had the opportunity to bring the Ethiopian from 45 to 50 on this scale. By the time he met the Ethiopian, he was already a keen seeker of God. He was very interested in faith. Philip got to harvest the good crop. But others worked in the Ethiopian to bring him to 45! Are you willing to do the less glamorous work of clearing rubble, or planting seeds or watering them in your “one” person?
Notice, too, that Philip didn’t push the gospel. He listened. He listened to the Spirit. He listened to the Eunuch. He asked questions about what the Eunuch was reading, inquiring where the Eunuch was spiritually. When the Eunuch asked for an explanation, Philip gave an answer that tied what he was reading to Jesus.
Now, many of us would not be able to do work from an OT passage to Jesus. But we are all able to share our own story. We are able to tell who Jesus is. We can share our experience of Jesus to those who ask. This is what is required of us. It doesn’t have to involve a carefully prepared presentation of the gospel. It’s not a sales pitch. It isn’t about forcing the person into a moment of decision. It’s about listening to the Spirit, listening to your one person, taking opportunities given.
The Ethiopian’s spiritual journey was likely years in the making. For most people it takes years of exposure to Christians and the gospel before they come to faith. So be patient. Be open. Be responsive to opportunities. Cooperate with the Holy Spirit.
We don’t know the Lord’s plans for each of our “ones.” We do know that he has laid these people on our hearts. We have reason to believe that the Spirit is the one who put them on our hearts.
If you weren’t here last week, please take a moment now to write down the name of your one person on the bottom of your sermon outline. After our closing song, please make your way forward and drop that paper in the box. We are going to keep this box in the sanctuary as a reminder to pray for our one person and pray for a heart willing to cooperate with the Spirit.
For those of us who put our name in last week, let’s take a moment now to pray for our one person and to ask God for a cooperative heart, willing to be prepared to share with them what Jesus has done for us.
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