RPM, Volume 17, Number 20, May 10 to May 16, 2015

To the Ends of the Earth
The Great Search

Acts 8:26-40

By Dr. Derek W. H. Thomas

Now we're in The Acts of the Apostles, and we've been following the account that Luke provides for us of this extraordinary godly man, Philip. We're going to have to bid farewell to Philip tonight. We'll catch him one more time — Acts 21 (I'm speaking off the top of my head) — Acts 21...the passage where Paul will be coming back to Jerusalem and he gets off the boat and he will make his way to Caesarea, and will go to Philip's house...and his four unmarried daughters who are prophetesses...and Paul will spend the night there, and that will be the last glimpse we'll have of Philip. It's an extraordinary thing...this man who appears for a season...of immense ability, evangelist, full of faith, full of the Holy Spirit, and now he's going to disappear. He's undoubtedly going to be doing the Lord's work, but he's going to be doing the Lord's work in a corner somewhere and out of the gaze of the spread of the gospel now, as Luke tells us this story.

It reminds me a little of a Welsh minister by the name of David Morgan, in the revival that broke out in Wales following the 1857 revival that broke out in New York. There was a similar revival that broke out in many parts in Scotland, Wales, and other places in 1857-1858, and lasted in Wales up until 1860. And David Morgan wrote in his diary one day that he went to bed one night as a lamb and woke in the morning like a lion. And for a period of about a year, God used him in an extraordinary way, when thousands made professions of faith under his ministry. And then, just as he had woken one morning as a lion, he tells us in about a year's time in his diary, he went to bed as a lion and woke the next morning as a lamb. And it's a little bit like that in the story of Philip.

We come tonight to a wonderful, wonderful section of Acts. It's one of my favorite stories in Acts—I'm sure it's one of yours, those of you who love evangelism, those of you who like to engage in evangelism. But here's an extraordinary tale of how Philip engages in one-to-one evangelism with the Ethiopian eunuch. It's an account that we find in Acts 8, beginning at verse 26. Before we read the passage together, let's pray.

Father, we thank You now again for the Scriptures that holy men of old wrote as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit. We thank You that Your word is quick and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, dividing asunder the joints and marrow, the soul and the spirit. We ask for Your blessing—blessing as we read it, blessing as we seek to understand it, blessing as we take it away with us and meditate on it in the course of the rest of this day. And teach us and instruct us, for Jesus' sake. Amen.

Acts 8, beginning at verse 26:

But an angel of the Lord spoke to Philip saying, "Get up and go south to the road that descends from Jerusalem to Gaza." (This is a desert road.) So he got up and went; and there was an Ethiopian eunuch, a court official of Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, who was in charge of all her treasure; and he had come to Jerusalem to worship. And he was returning and sitting in his chariot, and was reading the prophet Isaiah. Then the Spirit said to Philip, "Go up and join this chariot." Philip ran up and heard him reading Isaiah the prophet, and said, "Do you understand what you are reading?" And he said, "Well, how could I, unless someone guides me?" And he invited Philip to come up and sit with him. Now the passage of Scripture which he was reading was this:

"He was led as a sheep to slaughter;
And as a lamb before its shearer is silent, so He does not open His mouth.
In humiliation His judgment was taken away;
Who will relate His generation?
For His life is removed from the earth."

The eunuch answered Philip and said, "Please tell me, of whom does the prophet say this? Of himself, or of someone else?" And Philip opened his mouth, and beginning from this Scripture he preached Jesus to him. As they went along the road they came to some water; and the eunuch said, "Look! Water! What prevents me from being baptized?" And Philip said, "If you believe with all your heart, you may." And he answered and said, "I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God." And he ordered the chariot to stop; and they both went down into the water, Philip as well as the eunuch; and he baptized him. When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away; and the eunuch no longer saw him, but went on his way rejoicing. But Philip found himself at Azotus; and as he passed through he kept preaching the gospel to all the cities, until he came to Caesarea.

Amen. And may the Lord add His blessing.

We sang that hymn earlier on...both of the hymn selections were mine. I wanted us especially to sing that first one, "I Sought the Lord, and Afterward I Knew He moved my soul, seeking me....It was not I that found, O Savior true; no, I was found of Thee." It's an anonymous hymn written somewhere toward the end of the last century or the nineteenth century. It's more or less, I think, what this passage is about. From one sense, this passage is about a man who is seeking after God. He's gone to Jerusalem to seek after God. He's bought a Bible, a scroll of Isaiah, because he's seeking after God. He asks Philip to explain what it is that he's reading, because he's seeking after God. But you know as well as I do that it is God that has been seeking him; that he is seeking the Lord because God has been seeking after him. And in a sense we could very easily, I suppose, look at this passage from those two perspectives: a man searching for God, and God searching for a man; and that would be a wonderful sermon, I suppose, in and of itself.

It's the great search. It's not just a story about the conversion of one man. It certainly is that, but it's the story of the conversion of a very important man, a man who is in charge of all of the treasury of this queen of the Ethiopians (possibly the reference is to the queen mother of the Ethiopians). It's the story of the conversion of an African, and that's got to be significant. The Samaritans—well, we've looked at the Samaritans, but the Samaritans were half-breeds. They had some connection to the Jewish race. But you remember Jesus' words in Acts 1:8? That they are to go and be His disciples in Jerusalem and Judea, and in Samaria, and the ends of the earth? And you get the sense now that here we are reaching the ends of the earth, as the gospel has spread from Jerusalem to Judea and to the Samaritans, and now to North Africa—to North Africa! This black man, this man who will be the forerunner of some pretty significant African Christians in the centuries to come—Cyprian, and Tertullian, and Augustine, to name but three.

There were two roads that led south from Jerusalem. One led down through Hebron and into Idumea, or what we sometimes read in the Bible as Edom, where the Edomites lived. The other road was the coastal road, the road that would lead to Gaza and eventually to Egypt. And it's on this road, the coastal road, that this Ethiopian is traveling on his chariot, and probably with an entourage of people. It would be a road full of Roman mile markers. Gaza was one of the five principal Philistine cities. Gaza was one of those cities that had resisted the occupation of Israel right down to the Maccabean period when it was razed to the ground, more or less, so that the Gaza that Philip now finds himself in (or at least the road to Gaza) was not the old Gaza which was destroyed, but a new one which the Romans had built.

And so Luke tells us this marvelous account, remarkable for several reasons. Remarkable for, what I want to suggest, at least three reasons. Remarkable, first of all, because it is a remarkable conversion. So far, if we were only to consider Jerusalem, we have been told of somewhere in the region of 20,000 conversions since Pentecost. It's somewhere in than region. Let alone what's happened in Samaria...but on no occasion so far have we been given an example of how an individual has been converted. This is the first time in The Acts of the Apostles where Luke now pauses, as it were, and explains in detail how an individual is brought to saving faith in Jesus Christ.

It's also the first example of one-to-one evangelism, and there are lessons and instruction for us here of the method that Philip employs and the words that he employs, and the obedience and the courage that is his in engaging in this one-to-one evangelism with this Ethiopian.

Three things come to the surface almost all at once. The first, the sense that there has been preparation. This doesn't just happen. You know, once you become a believer, once you become attuned even to a small degree of the ways of God, it's impossible to think of anything without seeing something of the hand of God, and there's something of the hand of God here. God has been preparing this man. God has been unsettling this man, way back in Ethiopia. His quest to find the meaning of life, his quest to have some of his questions answered — the profoundest questions answered. His life has been shaken, and he can't yet find the resolution to the unsettling that has taken place in his heart and mind and soul. So he's made this journey as the treasurer to the Ethiopian queen, or possibly queen mother. He's gone to Jerusalem to the place where the Jews worship God. He's probably a God-fearing Gentile.

And what worship would he have found in Jerusalem? He's gone to Jerusalem, we read in verse 27, in order to worship. What worship would he have found in Jerusalem? As a Gentile, at the very most all he would have experienced would have been the worship of the Court of the Gentiles, the outer court—noisy and a bit like the beginning of prayer meeting, when you were speaking and there were fifty people over there not paying the least bit of attention—the Court of the Gentiles was a bit like that. It was not a worship experience, I don't think.

But he wasn't just a Gentile, and had he owned up to it, which the text seems to suggest that he did, he was a eunuch. I read more than I needed to know about eunuchs in the past few days, and I'll spare you the details. But people made themselves eunuchs in order to get jobs like this, jobs where they could be trusted, especially in the taking care of certain women like the Queen Candace of Ethiopia. And eunuchs were not allowed in the temple. They weren't even allowed in the Court of the Gentiles. So the kind of worship that this man had found in Jerusalem was not a great experience of worship. He may well have gone to the synagogue, maybe even the Synagogue of the Freedmen that we've already looked at in Acts 6. But I suggest to you that it was probably disappointing. He didn't find the answer.

Somehow, some way, somebody urged him in the providence of God to purchase a scroll of the prophet Isaiah. I'm fascinated as to what that looked like, as to how he would go about doing that, as to what size it was. He's in a chariot. I've no idea what kind of suspension chariots had, but I imagine it wasn't great. He's in a chariot reading...and apparently reading aloud. Now maybe we're meant to infer at this point that the chariot had stopped for a while, which I probably think is the case, and he's reading from the prophecy of Isaiah. Of all the books in the Old Testament that you would want a seeking soul to read to find the answer to his quest, wouldn't it be Isaiah? And of all the chapters in the Old Testament that you would want a seeker to place his eyes upon, wouldn't it be Isaiah 53? And don't you get the impression here that there's something of a preparatory hand at work? That the sovereignty of God has been at work?

Because not only is there preparation, because there's providence. What are the chances of a man reading Isaiah 53 and at the same time discovering a man—and you know what Luke has said this place is...it's a desert road.

If Philip thought being sent to Samaria was odd, being sent to a desert road was odder. There's nobody there! He must have stood there for several hours, perhaps longer, wondering what in the world he was supposed to be doing on the desert road, when he spies the dust of a chariot coming towards him. And, lo and behold, it just so happens this man is seeking for God, and he's reading Isaiah 53. And Philip has the presence of mind to ask him, "Do you understand what it is that you read?" What are the chances of a man like that meeting a Philip, full of faith and full of the Holy Spirit, and who understood Isaiah 53, and was able to give him the answer? It's the providence of God. Isn't it wonderful when the providence of God and opportunity for evangelism come together?

Do you notice the profession that this man makes? Well, if you've got the New American Standard, you notice in verse 37 it's in italics. If you're reading from another version, you've got to look somewhere down in the bottom marginal notes of your Bible, because it's not there. It's one of these disputed texts. It's not in some of the most notorious manuscripts. It's missing. It sounds very much like a text that is well known to us from Acts 16 and the Philippian jailer: "What must I do to be saved?" "Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ."

Now, let me pass over the textual issue. What this text is actually saying is 'What is at the heart of the belief of the New Testament church as to how it is that a man or a woman or a boy or a girl is converted?' And they are converted by believing in the Lord Jesus Christ, and the language is very specific. It's to believe into the Lord Jesus Christ...to get right inside Jesus Christ...to get into fellowship with Jesus Christ...to get into union with Jesus Christ. What do we say to a man or a woman who is seeking after Jesus Christ? I venture to say that probably many of us might say something that has become common over the last 40, 50, 60 years. We would say to this Ethiopian, 'You must ask the Lord Jesus into your heart.'

Now please don't get bent out of shape, but you understand that that's not biblical language, and in adopting that language you actually dilute the significance of what it is that the New Testament church and the New Testament itself says is the way we come to faith in Jesus Christ. Because it's not bringing Jesus into my heart so much as empty hands saying 'Nothing in my hands I bring; simply to Thy cross I cling. The only hope I have is to put my faith in Christ, is to rest everything in Christ.' And the change of language, I suspect, is probably significant and indicative of the fact that we've moved away from the emphasis of the New Testament that the gospel comes to those and is designed for those who have absolutely nothing to offer.

What is it that Luther so often said? That the gospel is entirely outside of you. That was Luther's language: that the gospel is entirely outside of you. You don't contribute anything. You don't add Jesus to yourself. You cast yourself upon Jesus. And so we have here a remarkable conversion.

I love to ask people how they were converted. That says a lot about you, and conversion stories will differ from one person to the next. As I'm often fond of citing Cesar Milan, the French hymn writer, some people are awakened like a mother awakens her children from their sleep with a kiss, and it's gentle; and others are awoken like I was awoken, and it was like Saul of Tarsus, and one minute I was a flaming liberal...actually, I was worse than that - I was an atheist...and the next minute, by the grace of Almighty God, I was a believer.

A remarkable conversion, a remarkable expansion is the second reason, because here Luke wants us, as it were, not only to catch the microcosm, but he wants us also to catch something of the macrocosm: that there's a bigger picture here; that here the gospel is flowing forth from Jerusalem in obedience to the command of Jesus to the apostles, and it's going now to the ends of the earth.

If you have a Bible with you (and if you don't, I'm going to read it to you), but if you have a Bible with you, turn with me just for a second to Isaiah and to the very book that this man was reading, this Ethiopian was reading, because had he begun at the beginning, in chapter 11 this is what he would have read:

"In that day the Lord will extend his hand yet a second time to recover the remnant that remains of His people from Assyria, from Egypt, from Pathros, from Cush..."

Cush, of course, is Ethiopia, you understand...the Cushites were the Ethiopians. And here in Isaiah 11:11, this Ethiopian would see a prophecy that one day God would draw His people from Cush, from Ethiopia.

Turn with me to chapter 56, and wouldn't it be altogether extraordinary if he'd gone on reading from Isaiah 53 and into chapter 56, and in verses 3-5:

Let not the foreigner who has joined himself to the Lord say, "The Lord will surely separate me from His people." And let not the eunuch say, "Behold, I am a dry tree." For thus says the Lord, "To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths, who choose the things that please Me and hold fast My covenant, I will give in My house and within My walls a monument and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off."

Do you understand how meaningful that would have been to this eunuch who couldn't have sons and daughters? God has given this extraordinary promise that in the kingdom that God will establish, in the one about whom he's reading in Isaiah 53, there will be place for the broken and the disenfranchised, and the outcasts of the world, of people as far away...and from Jerusalem it was far away from Ethiopia...and eunuchs. And there's a sense that we have here, a remarkable expansion of God's gospel ways in the new covenant, so that this man could very well have said, "Just as I am—just as I am: Ethiopian, black, eunuch, Gentile—O Lamb of God, I come."

That's why we sang, in case you're wondering, "There's a Wideness in God's Mercy like the wideness of the sea." Have you ever been out in a boat, and you can't see land? And all you can see everywhere is sea, and the sky...you know that phrase that we sometimes talk about? We talk about it in Mississippi a lot. The sky is big in Mississippi. And don't you think this man could have sung, "There's a wideness to God's mercy, like the wideness of the sea"?

There's a remarkable conversion here, but there's a remarkable expansion of who it is now that is included in the kingdom of God by faith in Jesus Christ.

But there's a remarkable witness here, too, because I think we are meant to see what it is that Philip said to this man in answer to his question. Philip's evangelism, his personal evangelism, his one-to-one evangelism, his willingness, his courage, his wisdom to say the right things at the right time. He doesn't have to engage in any pre-evangelism here. You know, sometimes you have to go through all sort of contortions and you ask all sorts of silly questions just to get an opportunity, as it were, to get the gospel in. You know, you sort of work hard. You don't speak first of all about sinners going to hell for eternity in the first sentence. You ought to sort of engage in some kind of pre-evangelism. Well, there's no pre-evangelism. This man's reading Isaiah 53. The pre-evangelism has already been done.

There's something about Philip here. Philip is a man who is full of faith, and full of the Holy Spirit. That's how he was introduced to us in chapter 6, and you get the impression that he is willing to go where the Spirit sends him, even to a desert road, because there he's going to meet this man, and his willingness to engage in personal evangelism with this Ethiopian.

I was reading Hudson Taylor's two-volume biography of William Chalmers Burns, the Scottish missionary to China. An extraordinary story of William Chalmers Burns, the missionary to China...and Hudson Taylor describes Burns as a walking prayer. That's how he describes him: "He was a walking prayer." His life was lived in the presence of God. And I get the sense that Philip's life was lived, as we say, Coram Deo: in the face...before the face of God. He lived in the presence of God. He was sensitive to the opportunity and had the courage to take the opportunity of evangelism.

This man is reading Isaiah 53. I remember once...a missionary to the Jews in Manchester in England was telling me this about 15 years ago. It was around Christmastime, and they decided to distribute a tract in this Jewish neighborhood a couple of days before Christmas. And they distributed it to every home...it was a Jewish neighborhood...and the local rabbi wrote a letter to the press, a virulent sort of letter attacking this friend of mine for distributing this tract and claiming in the letter—the words as I recall were that suggesting that this man was mentally ill—and you know what the tract was? It was Isaiah 53! That's all it was. There wasn't even a sort of New Testament text. It was all Isaiah 53:

"Like a sheep He was led to the slaughter, and like a lamb before his shearers is silent, so He opens not His mouth."

And the Ethiopian says, 'Of whom does this speak? Of whom is Isaiah speaking? Is he speaking about himself, or is he speaking about someone else?' Wouldn't you love somebody to ask that question? You know, I really don't think anybody's ever asked me that kind of question. It's like the rich young man who comes up to Jesus asking, "What must I do to inherit eternal life?" Don't you pray for opportunities like that?

And do you see what Philip did? It's a beautiful thing. "Beginning at that Scripture," Luke says, "Beginning at that Scripture, he showed to this man the good news about Jesus." Isn't that a beautiful expression? He showed him the good news. He told him the good news (end of verse 35) about Jesus. I get the sense that Philip could have taken anybody from anywhere in the Old Testament to Jesus. I get that sense. I think he was so full of Jesus, I think he was so in love with Jesus that it didn't really matter where he was in the Old Testament, he'd have got to Jesus. But what a wonderful thing to say about Isaiah 53, where Jesus is at the very surface of the passage, that he told him the good news about Jesus.

And he's baptized. I don't have time now to get controversial. I don't think this is a passage about immersion. We're told that - I'm going to be controversial - both the Ethiopian and Philip are said to have gone down into the water and come up out of the water, so I don't think Luke is giving us here an example of immersion. Certainly he went into the river. That's not what Luke wants us to see. That's not the issue. The issue is that this man becomes a disciple. There's something extraordinary about it. Tertullian and Augustine will comment on this passage that this is not the way the church would do it in the future—they wouldn't immediately baptize somebody on the spur of the moment on the side of the road. There's something extraordinary; there's something preliminary about this. We're on the very cusp here of the expansion. There isn't a church here, and this man wasn't going back to a church, and this man needed to learn something about the claims of discipleship, so he's baptized.

But you see the final thing that Luke wants us to see, if this were a movie. Philip is suddenly taken out of the picture, and he's off to Azotus and eventually to Caesarea. We'll pick him up again in chapter 21. But what's the final little picture, the picture framed as this story comes to an end? It's this man. He went on his way (verse 39) rejoicing.

He starts the story and he's a shaken man, and he doesn't have answers to the greatest questions of life. But he ends the passage and he's found the answer, and the answer is Jesus, because He's the answer to every question, and he's found the One that has made him free, and he's found the One that has given his life meaning and purpose. He's found the One that has filled that God-shaped void in his life, and he's rejoicing.

I like to think, you know, as he's going now in his chariot, bumping along on the road to Egypt and eventually to Ethiopia, that he's singing. What do you think he's singing?

Jesus, the very thought of Thee
With sweetness fills my breast;
But sweeter far Thy face to see
And in Thy presence rest.

Of course it wasn't that, but you get the idea and get the drift. What a beautiful, beautiful story of a genuine, sovereign conversion, solid conversion, of the Ethiopian.

Let's pray together.

Father, we thank You for Your word. Encourage us by it, and do this work in our midst. We want to see conversions. We want to see men and women brought out of darkness and out of nominalism into commitment and zeal and fire for Jesus Christ. So do it, O Lord, for Jesus' sake. Amen.

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