Ananias… laying his hands on him… said, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus who appeared to you on the road by which you came has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” Acts 9:17 There are three accounts in the New Testament...
Then Philip opened his mouth, and beginning with this Scripture he told him the good news about Jesus. Acts 8:35
Please open your Bible at Acts 8. We are looking today at the marvelous story of how one man’s life was changed by Jesus Christ and how, through this man, the gospel reached an entire nation.
The theme of the book of Acts is laid out in Acts 1:8, where our Lord says to his disciples, “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 end of the earth.”
Acts tells the story of how the gospel spread in Jerusalem, then in the surrounding area of Judea, and then to the whole region of Samaria. Now, here in Acts 8, we have the story of how the gospel came to Africa.
We are looking at the story of how a man from Ethiopia came to faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. The Ethiopian Orthodox Church, which numbers between 45-50 million people, traces its origin back to this man and the story we are looking at today.
I have called this series Chosen Instruments because God uses his own people to bring others to faith in Jesus Christ. The phrase is used of Saul of Tarsus after he met the risen Lord, “He is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles…” (Acts 9:15).
Philip was also a chosen instrument, used by God, to bring the Ethiopian to faith in Christ. And the Ethiopian, having come to faith in Christ, was clearly a chosen instrument, used by God, to bring the gospel to his own people and country.
This is a marvelous story that speaks directly to us today. We want to see the gospel run. We long to see people embraced in the love of Christ and lives redeemed for the glory of God. We find ourselves wondering: How can the gospel permeate this community in which we live? What hope is there for the advance of the gospel when secularism has seized the minds and hearts of so many people?
Here we have the story of a life being changed that led to a country being reached. I want you to see how it happened.
God Takes the Initiative
Now an angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Rise and go toward the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” This is a desert place (Acts 8:26).
Here we are being reminded that God takes the initiative by bringing one person who knows him alongside another person who needs to know him. Philip is to go to a particular place – the road that goes from Jerusalem to Gaza. And he is to be there at a particular time – the footnote in the ESV says, “Or go at about noon.”
Don’t you marvel at the intimate and infinite knowledge of God? God knows where every person will be at any and every point in time. And he sends Philip, so that he will be in the right place at the right time to meet with this Ethiopian.
I wonder how Philip felt about this assignment? If you look back to verse 5, you will see that Philip had enjoyed the privilege of ministry in a city: “Philip went down to the city of Samaria and proclaimed to them the Christ. And the crowds with one accord paid attention to what was being said by Philip when they heard him and saw the signs that he did” (8:5-6).
This man had the privilege of speaking to large crowds in the city. He had a huge platform. Then in the middle of this chapter, it seems that Philip’s ministry is getting smaller: “Now when they had testified and spoken the word of the Lord, they returned to Jerusalem, preaching the gospel to many villages of the Samaritans” (8:25).
But by the end of the chapter, we find him out in a desert! Notice, God does not say to Philip, “Go to a desert place because there you will meet a prominent official from the royal household of Ethiopia who you will lead to the Lord, and this will be the beginning of a chain of events that will touch and transform an entire nation.” None of this is known to Philip. All that Philip knows is that God is sending him to a desert place.
Perhaps you know what that is like. You come to a place in your life where opportunities seem less than they were before. Doors that were once open for you now seem closed. You feel that you are on the sidelines. You wonder, What use can I be to God or to anyone else while I am here?
Never underestimate what God can do with you when you are in a desert place. Philip’s greatest work was, without doubt, his ministry to one man who he met in a desert! It was through this man that the gospel would reach an entire country. God always has a purpose in mind, even when he sends you to a desert place.
God took the initiative in this story, first by sending Philip, and second by preparing the man he would meet in the desert. We are not given this man’s name, but we are told a great deal about him. Let me try and describe him to you.
He was “a court official of Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, who was in charge of all her treasure” (8:27). This man was the queen’s treasurer – the chief financial officer for an entire nation. A person who lands a job like this is obviously brilliant.
This man was highly educated, skilled in investments, and a master of fiscal policy. He has all the trappings that come with a successful career, including the opportunity to travel. He even rides first class in his own chariot!
And he was clearly a moral man. When the queen was looking to appoint a person who would take charge over all her treasury, she would have looked for a person of the highest ethical integrity.
And clearly, he was a religious man. “He had come to Jerusalem to worship and was returning, seated in his chariot, and he was reading the prophet Isaiah” (8:27-28). This man had embraced Judaism. He believed in the God of the Bible. He believed that this God had revealed himself to Moses and had directed how we should live in the Ten Commandments and in the other Old Testament Scriptures.
He wanted to know this God and, it is clear from the fact that he travelled hundreds of miles to worship that he was intent on pursuing a good and godly life.
I wonder how that visit to Jerusalem was for him? I suspect that it didn’t go well, and here’s why: This man was a eunuch (8:27), and if you look back in Deuteronomy 23:1, you will see that there was an ancient law that excluded eunuchs from the assembly of the Lord.
So picture this distinguished man arriving at the temple in Jerusalem. He has travelled hundreds of miles. He has come with a desire to worship. But when he arrives, he is denied access to the main courts of the temple and is restricted to the outer edge: “I’m sorry, sir. You can’t come in. But you can sit over there.”
He is not in the inner circle. He feels like an outsider to the grace of God. The reason for his exclusion lies in himself, and there is nothing he can do to change it.
So when we meet this man, he is not happy. There is a hunger in his soul and it has not been satisfied. He is looking for something and he has not yet found it. He has bought a scroll of the prophet Isaiah and he is reading it, but he doesn’t understand it (8:31).
Put the pieces of this picture together. So here is a brilliant man with the best education and a successful career. He has money and he has power. He is a man of the highest integrity and he has a Bible in his hand.
Isn’t that what we all want for our children? Surely this is the path to peace and joy. But coming home from worship, this man is frustrated, perplexed, and burdened – disappointed to the core.
We are surrounded today by thousands of people who know this frustration. Perhaps this is your experience. Perhaps, like this man, when you come to worship you feel you are on the outside looking in on other people’s joy.
This man was bright, successful, prosperous and moral, but as he comes home from worship, he is disappointed. He has no peace and he has no joy. He feels no nearer to God than he did before. This man has God’s Word in his hand, but he does not understand it. He cannot see how it connects with his life. It’s just “words on a page” to him.
Inability to understand the gospel is not a uniquely modern problem. “The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned” (1 Cor. 2:14).
This man was at the point of frustration. But by the end of this story, he is in an entirely different position: He “went on his way rejoicing” (8:39). The hidden hand of God was wonderfully at work in both this man’s success and in his frustration.
Has it ever occurred to you that the reason God might have given you success is so that you would see that success is an idol that cannot possibly satisfy? If this man had not known this success, he might have spent his whole life believing that success would make him happy. But when he was blessed with success he found that he was still not happy.
Could it be that God has allowed you to endure the hurt of feeling excluded to keep you from being satisfied with what cannot bring life? If this man had been embraced in Jerusalem, he might have been content with that and missed out on the blessing God had in store for him.
If God has brought you to a place of being perplexed and frustrated with what you do not understand, it may be so that you will be ready to learn from someone who can teach you the truth. It is not easy for a successful man like this to be brought to the place where he is humble and ready to learn.
At this point, God brought Philip (who he had sent) and the eunuch (who he had prepared) together: “The Spirit said to Philip, ‘Go over and join this chariot’”(8:29). So Philip runs alongside the chariot where the man is reading Isaiah out loud. “Do you understand what you are reading?”he calls out (8:30).
“How can I, unless someone guides me?” (8:31).
This was evangelism on the run! You have to be fit for this kind of ministry. Mercifully, the Ethiopian invited Philip up to join him in the chariot.
They look together at the words he is reading: “Like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearer is silent, so he opened not his mouth” (Isa. 53:7-8). The obvious question is: Who is the prophet speaking about? Who is the “he”?
We Proclaim the Gospel
Then Philip opened his mouth, and beginning with this Scripture he told him the good news about Jesus (Acts 8:35).
Not a long discussion about how we should live. Not a long report of his own testimony and experience. He told him the good news about Jesus.
That would have meant telling him from the beginning who Jesus was – that he had been born in Bethlehem some 35 years earlier, and that his mother, Mary, was a virgin, and so right from the start he was different from anyone else who has ever lived.
When Jesus began his public ministry, what he said was different from anything that had been said by any of the prophets. Prophets like Isaiah all pointed to someone else, but Jesus pointed to himself. He said, “I am the bread of life… I am the light of the world… I am the good shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep” (John 6, 8, 10).
Laying down his life for the sheep is exactly what happened. After three short years of his ministry, there was an outcry against him. People called for his death, and he was crucified.
Jesus is the one that Isaiah was talking about: “Like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep before its shearer is silent, so he opened not his mouth.”
i. The atoning death of Jesus
The Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all (Isaiah 53:6 niv).
The Lord Jesus saves us not by his example or by his teaching, but by his atoning death on the cross. When he died on the cross, God took the guilt of our sin and laid it on Jesus. This is the language of “transfer.” A transfer was made in which Christ, who knew no sin, became sin for us (2 Cor. 5:21).
That brought consequences: “The punishment that brought us peace was upon him” (53:5 niv). God removed our punishment by taking it on himself. Christ endured all the dimensions of hell on the cross so that you would never know what it is like.
I suspect that this transfer language would have made sense to an economist. As treasurer to the queen, this man would have been responsible for balancing the books. He knew that what is used in one place must be supplied from another, what is added to expense must be subtracted from income. What you credit to one account must be debited from an account somewhere else.
If our guilt is to be removed, it must go somewhere else. If we are to be saved from divine wrath, it must be spent somewhere else. If sinners are to be made right before God, then the righteousness that we do not have in ourselves must come from somewhere else.
Then Philip would have proclaimed the resurrection life of Jesus.
ii. The resurrection life of Jesus
Though the Lord makes his life a guilt offering, he will see his offspring, and prolong his days… (Isaiah 53:10 niv).
Death could not hold this savior. He went into it. He came through it. He triumphed over it. He lives, and now the mission of Jesus is to gather “offspring,” men and women from every nation who will come to know him and enjoy him forever.
Then Philip would have told this man about the gracious invitation of Jesus. This is a Christ to whom you can come.
iii. The gracious invitation of Jesus
Let no foreigner who has bound himself to the Lord say, “The Lord will surely exclude me from his people.” And let not any eunuch complain, “I am only a dry tree” (Isaiah 56:3 niv).
Then God gives a marvelous promise: To the eunuch who holds fast to my covenant, I will give a place in my house, and a name better than sons and daughters – an everlasting name that will not be cut off (Isa. 56:4-5). Can you imagine Philip picking up the scroll and reading this? “It’s for you!”
What We Learn from This Story
Jesus is on a mission to seek and to save the lost, and he invites us to join him in it. Every Christian is a chosen instrument to be active in God’s mission throughout the world.
The fact that God takes the initiative is our greatest motive for preaching the gospel. Many people have no interest in the gospel, but some do, and our job is to find them. The only way we can find those who are open to the gospel is by speaking to many who are not.
In the church I served in London, we used to go door-to-door, sharing the gospel and inviting people to come to the church. It wasn’t for the fainthearted, and one evening when we were out, my wife Karen had a particularly discouraging time.
Looking back on it, I have to admit that as the person responsible for the whole thing, it wasn’t very good planning because the World Cup was on. England was playing and people were glued to the television. One door after another – “Not interested. Not interested. Not interested.” – a whole evening and not a single conversation.
The last door she knocked on a woman answered. “Hi, I’m Karen Smith from the church in the town, we are inviting people to come to church.”
She said, “That is exactly what I need!”
It turned out that her husband was severely ill, she had reached her limits in caring for him, and she didn’t know what to do. The church surrounded the family with love and practical support. Over the next weeks, the lady, her husband, her daughter and her daughters’ friend all came to faith in Jesus Christ.
Karen had felt so discouraged, with nobody being interested, that she was ready to pack it in for the evening, and she remembers thinking, I’ll knock on one more door! There are four people in heaven who will forever thank God that she did.
God works by bringing one person who knows him alongside another person who needs to know him. And when you speak about Jesus, Jesus will speak through you. Lives will be changed and communities will be reached as God takes the initiative and as we proclaim the gospel.
© Colin S. Smith
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