Saturday 22 June 2013

Scripture (Acts 8:26-40)

Have you ever looked at a part of the bible and go, “Hmm, I wonder what that means?” “I wish someone would explain this to me.”

In today’s passage, we meet a man reading his bible and asking that very question - “What does this mean?” The amazing thing is: God sends a Christian across a long distance in order to meet him at that precise moment so that he can answer the man’s question.

In verse 26, God says to Philip, “Go south to the desert road,” and on that road he meets the Ethiopian eunuch. God says to Philip again, “Go to that chariot,” and Philip hears the Ethiopian eunuch reading his bible, and says, “Do you understand what you are reading?”

“How can I,” he said, “unless someone explains it to me?” Verse 35: Then Philip began with that very passage of Scripture and told him the good news about Jesus.

Isn’t it amazing that God sends Philip all this way to answer a question from the bible and to tell him the good news about Jesus? (Notice that right after the encounter, Philip is whisked away to another location, reinforcing the fact that Philip was only meant to be there long enough to speak to that man.)

Well, that makes me think: What about our questions? Should we expect God to do same for us today?

Three points I want us to see in today’s passage:

1. The movement of the Spirit
2. The curiosity of a Seeker
3. The purpose of Scripture

1. The movement of the Spirit

The first thing we see is the movement of the Holy Spirit. By the way, that is something we have seen running right through the book of Acts - the Holy Spirit moving to bring the message of the gospel out to the nations, in fulfilment of what Jesus said about the Holy Spirit at the beginning of Acts, in Chapter 1 verse 8, “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

So we’ve seen Peter filled with the Spirit, preaching to the crowds of thousands, standing up to opposition of the religious council. But here we see something new: The Holy Spirit speaks to Philip giving him clear instructions, “Go to the desert road,” the angel of the Lord says to Philip in verse 26, “The desert road - that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” That’s pretty specific. “Go down Hills Road from the city to Addenbrooke’s.” (“Well, traffic’s bad at this time of day, shall I go though Cherry Hinton instead?” “Nope! Go down Hills Road.”)

Again in verse 29, the Spirit says to Philip, “Go to that chariot and stay near it.”

These are specific, clear directions given to Philip by the Spirit of God. But notice as well that in each instance, Philip immediately obeys.

Verse 27: “So he started out, and on his way he met an Ethiopian eunuch...”
(The ESV is much more straightforward: “And he rose and went.”)

Verse 30: “Then Philip ran up to the chariot and heard the man reading Isaiah the prophet.”

Philip hears God’s voice and obeys. That tells us a lot about how God was leading him. God didn’t give him a supernatural Google Map: “Here’s the lay of the land. Samaria, here. Eunuch, over there. After that, Caesarea, down south. That’s the plan.” Nope, God gave him the spiritual equivalent of a TomTom. “Go here. Turn left. Keeping moving.” And each time God spoke to Philip, Philip obeyed God’s instructions.

Back in Chapter 6, Philip is described as a man full of wisdom and the Holy Spirit. And the way we see that is through his obedience. It doesn’t mean that he spouts wise-sounding words while stroking a long white beard, “The Spirit is strong in you, my young Padawan.” The way that we can see Philip clearly being led by the Spirit is through his obedience.

God speaks to Philip directly and clearly - and from what we see from Acts 8 - quite regularly through the Holy Spirit. And it’s not to give him running commentaries on the events of the world; it is to lead him step-by-step along the path of obedience. (For example, it is obvious from the passage that Philip didn’t know he would meet the eunuch when he went down the road. God said, “Go,” and Philip upped and went.) Here is a man full of wisdom; full of the Holy Spirit. Here is a man full of obedience.

Now, this immediately raises the question: How do we know when the Holy Spirit speaking to us? Isn’t there a danger that Christians will read this text and expect the Holy Spirit to tell them everything they need to do: Whether to have cereal or muesli for breakfast? Do I take the bus to work or cycle to work today? Isn’t there a danger of spiritualising our decisions and not taking responsibility for them. How much should we expect the Holy Spirit to be guiding us in our day-to-day decision-making?

There are two answers to that question. The first is to recognise how the Holy Spirit is sent by Jesus to speak on his behalf. The Holy Spirit is sent to remind us of all that Jesus said when he was on earth.

All this I have spoken while still with you. But the Counsellor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you.
John 14:25-26

How does the Holy Spirit do that in Acts Chapter 8? From the beginning of the chapter, we see a clear movement of the Spirit - beginning in Jerusalem with the church being scattered; into Judea and Samaria where Christians begin to share the gospel with their neighbours; and now on the road to the Gentiles in Caesarea, where Philip meets the Ethiopian eunuch along the way. The movement of the Spirit is the fulfilment of Jesus’ words in Acts 1:8, “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem... in all Judea and Samaria... to the ends of the world.”

So, the first way to recognise the work of the Holy Spirit is to recognise the words of Jesus. The Spirit reminds us of what Jesus said and puts them into action, that is, he calls us to obedience to Jesus’ words.

The second way - not unrelated to the first - but the second way we recognise the Spirit’s prompting is through our relationship with God. That is, we recognise the voice of our heavenly Father.

Don’t you get phone calls from friends whom you instantly recognise without having to ask who is on the line? From the way they say, “Hellloooooo brother!” or sometimes they don’t even bother to say hello and get straight to the point, “Why aren’t you home yet!” (That one might be from your mum!)

God speaks to us out of his relationship with us through Jesus Christ. He isn’t giving us information to memorise which he will test us on later. He is speaking to us as our heavenly Father, guiding us each step of the way to live holy lives for him and like him. He is involving us in his plan and calling us to trust that he loves us and knows what is best for us.

So, we recognise the Spirit’s voice in two ways: by recognising that it is Jesus speaking to us through the Spirit; and by recognising God leading us to trust in him out a relationship of love and obedience.

2. The curiosity of the Seeker

The next thing we see is the curiosity of the Seeker. And the reason why I call this Ethiopian eunuch a seeker is because he is seeking God by coming all this way to Jerusalem but also because he is seeking God through his word; by reading the bible.

In verse 27, we meet an Ethiopian eunuch who is “an important official in charge of all the treasury of Candace, queen of the Ethiopians. This man had gone to Jerusalem to worship.”

So, on the one hand, this guy was important, wealthy and influential. He is Finance Minister. He works for the Queen. He has his own carriage (It’s like having your own Bentley).

Yet at the same time, this man was an outcast. He was the Ethiopian eunuch. Ethiopian - meaning, he was a foreigner; not one of the people of God. Eunuch - meaning, he was physically unacceptable before God. He would have been barred from entering the temple (or at least, from going beyond the outer sections of the temple), the place of worship of God.

Knowing all this, he still came to Jerusalem, it says in verse 28, to worship. He wasn’t a tourist. He came all this way to the temple to worship Yahweh as his God.

On the way back, he reads from the book of Isaiah. It is amazing that he has his own copy of Isaiah - this would have been very rare and very expensive. Imagine the bible today costing a thousand pounds - you wouldn’t have copies lying around on every chair the way we do here in church. This book of Isaiah that the Ethiopian eunuch owned would have been a long scroll hand-written by an expert scribe. He didn’t buy it to put on display in a museum. He was reading it from cover to cover (we know this because the section quoted later in verse 33 is near the end of Isaiah). This man wanted to know God and he was willing to spend his time, his attention and his wealth to seek him.

The question is: Why? Why would he be interested in such a God? We get a clue from verse 34.

The eunuch asked Philip, “Tell me, please, who is the prophet talking about, himself or someone else?”
Acts 8:34

Something he has just read from Isaiah makes him go, “I want to know who this is talking about. I need to know who this person is.” Why? Because the Ethiopian eunuch comes to a section of the bible which talks about a man who is rejected. He comes to a section which talks about a man who is helpless before his enemies and deprived of justice; a man who has no descendants, something the Ethiopian eunuch would have identified with.

But friends, I wonder, he read this passage of Scripture and understood that it God was responsible for this man’s condition. Look at what it says in verse 32:

“He was led like a sheep to the slaughter,
and as a lamb before his shearer is silent,
so he did not open his mouth.
In his humiliation he was deprived of justice.
Who can speak of his descendants?
For his life was taken from the earth.”
Acts 8:32-33

The eunuch read this in the bible and something inside him went, “I need to know who this is talking about. I need to know why such a person is in the bible. Why would God allow such pain and suffering in this man’s life?”

And notice how Philip answers his question in verse 35.

Then beginning with that very passage of Scripture and told him the good news about Jesus.
Acts 8:35

Philip told him about Jesus’ rejection at the cross; how he was humiliated - stripped of his dignity; how he faced injustice at the hands of his enemies. And how he remained silent - like a lamb before the shearer. Jesus was submitting himself to his Father’s plan by going to the cross and taking upon himself the punishment that we deserved. The same passage from Isaiah 53 has these words, “We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each one of us has turned to our own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all.” (Isaiah 53:6)

Friends, this is what makes Christianity so offensive. Christians believe that in order for us to be accepted, Jesus had to be condemned. That’s a statement that offends any good Muslim, who, though they do not believe that Jesus was God but was instead a prophet of God, nonetheless could never believe that God would subject his servant to such humiliation and suffering. Such a statement call into question God’s justice and holiness - How could he condemn an innocent man for the sake of the guilty?

But that is precisely what the bible says happened on the cross, “The LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all.” And we believe that is actually good news. The day that Jesus died is Good Friday. Because his rejection meant our acceptance. His condemnation resulted in our salvation.

And what this says to people who have come to seek God - people like eunuch who have come all the way to Jerusalem to seek and worship God in temple - is, that God sought them while they were still in rebellion against him. “While we were still sinners, Christ died for us,” the bible says (Romans 5:8)

And what spoke so powerfully to the eunuch that made him so curious about Jesus was not his wealth. It was not his status while Jesus was in heaven. It was not his influence before the Father as the Beloved Son. No, it was his submission to the Father’s plan. It was his humility on the cross. It was his rejection before his very own. That was what attracted this seeker to Jesus. Not his wealth but his poverty. Not his status but his submission.

You see, the eunuch was a man who recognised his own poverty before God. He knew he was unacceptable and yet he still approached God, he still came all this way to worship the true God of the bible. And essentially, what Philip told him in the good news about Jesus was the fact that through the cross, the eunuch was accepted, he was whole and he was loved.

If you are here today and you are not yet a Christian, I want to say to you that what happened to the eunuch pretty much needs to happen to you, if you are to be accepted by God. You need to recognise your own unworthiness, your own poverty. And you need to see Jesus in his. Those two things need to happen - recognising your own sin and seeing how Jesus took upon himself your sin. Because when that happens, you see how Jesus exchanges your sin for his righteousness; how Jesus takes your rejection and gives you his stamp of approval. The bible says, “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” (2 Corinthians 5:21)

The Ethiopian eunuch saw that, with the help of Philip, of course, but he saw that for himself and gave his life to follow Jesus, as evident from his baptism. He was so eager to be baptised, that he says to Philip in verse 36, “Look, here is water. Why shouldn’t I be baptised.” All the barriers stopping him from knowing God were instantly removed. It wasn’t like in the temple in Jerusalem where he would have been turned away from approaching God. Now, nothing could stand in his way of being in God’s kingdom as a full citizen. He knew that Jesus died for his sins and understood that he stood before God fully loved and fully acceptable before him.

3. The purpose of Scripture

Finally, we see the purpose of Scripture. We see the reason why it is so important that Christians read this book and understand the bible for themselves. The reason is this: The bible is God’s word to us. God speaks to us through the words of Scripture.

The Ethiopian eunuch reads a passage from Isaiah 53 and asks Philip to explain that passage to him. Notice how “Philip began with that very passage of Scripture” and told him about Jesus. He didn’t change the topic. Philip didn’t go, “Maybe we should begin with something simpler, like the gospel of Mark instead” (also because it hadn’t been written yet!) No, that very passage of Old Testament Scripture written over 700 years ago was God’s word pointing to Jesus and his work on the cross.

Isaiah was written 700 years before Christ and yet it is God’s way of telling us who Jesus is and what he came to do. That principle applies to whole Old Testament. Remember how Jesus appeared to the two travellers on the road to Emmaus after he was raised from the dead (recorded for us in Luke Chapter 24)? Jesus says something very important there in verse 25.

He said to them, “How foolish you are, and how slow to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Did not the Messiah have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?” And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.
Luke 24:25-27

“Moses and all the Prophets” is a neat way of summarising the whole Old Testament. Jesus essentially did a bible overview to show how “all the prophets” (verse 24) and “all the Scriptures” (verse 27) were pointing to him as the Messiah, specifically how the Messiah or king would have to suffer first before entering into his glory (a way of talking about the cross and the resurrection).

That means that we should be confident about our Old Testament. Don’t be afraid of teaching the Old Testament to Sunday School kids, for example. 2 Timothy 3:15, which is a verse about the Old Testament says, “And how from infancy you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.” Paul is talking to Timothy who was taught the Old Testament since he was a kid (from infancy) which had the effect of making him wise for salvation through faith in Christ. Don’t be afraid of the Old Testament, especially if you’re a Sunday School teacher, teaching it to kids!

We should be confident of our Old Testament, but also, we should be careful, especially when applying the bible to our lives today. When the Ethiopian eunuch turns to Philip and asks, “Who is this talking about?” Philip did not reply, “Why of course, the bible is speaking into your situation, identifying with your struggles - but in the end, God will accept you just as you are.” He didn’t say that. I wonder if sometimes we are tempted to apply the bible directly to our own experiences in order to make a connection. No, Philip understood that Scripture is God’s word to us first and foremost about his Son, Jesus. He knew that the cross is a lens by which we are to look at the Old Testament, focussing on the work of Jesus in his death and resurrection, and only through him, do the blessings and applications come to us today.

So, back to the Sunday School teacher, don’t be too quick to apply the battle between David and Goliath to our battles today. Don’t be too eager to connect Daniel’s situation in the lion’s den with our situation in the workplace. But look at the text through the lens of the cross and ask how do the prophets prepare us to recognise Jesus and his faithfulness, his struggles, his victories, his suffering and his glory?

And maybe when you are planning your Sunday School lesson to begin not by saying, “Hmm, I wonder what stories I can use from the bible to entertain the children this weekend?” but by honestly asking yourself, “Do these kids know Jesus?” And to then be encouraged by the fact that God wants us to know him and he does so through his Word. In a sense, when you teach the bible, you are letting the bible speak for itself. Your job is to point in the direction the bible is pointing: Look here to Jesus!

By the way, we began with the Spirit speaking to Philip. Now if God can speak so clearly and directly to a man like Philip, why, do you think, doesn’t he just speak to the Ethiopian eunuch himself? Why send Philip all this way to meet him in the middle of nowhere on the desert road to do a bible study?

The answer is: God was speaking to the eunuch. He did so by his Spirit, though the Scriptures but also - and get this - but also through Philip. Friends, if you are a bible study leader and you faithfully point to Jesus in your leading, do you realise that God is using you to speak his word? If you are a Sunday School teacher, God is using you to speak to the kids his word about Jesus!

I think that should make us extra confident and extra careful when he open our mouths to tell people about Jesus. It should make us prayerful. It should make us humble. It should make us take this book seriously because it is God’s book with God’s words spoken through God’s Spirit pointing us to God’s Son.

Epilogue: God’s mission

We have seen three things. The movement of the Spirit which is the movement of the gospel going out to the nations. We have seen the curiosity of the Seeker, or the sincerity of the Seeker, in the eunuch who seeks after God to worship him at his temple and to know him through his word; but really it is God who first sought him, by sending Philip to tell him the gospel; by sending Jesus to die for his sins on the cross. Thirdly, we have seen the purpose of Scripture, to prepare us to recognise Jesus as the Christ.

But I wanted to end by drawing your attention to the last couple of verses in the chapter because they remind us that all this is happening in the context of mission. Look with me to verse 39. It is a rather strange way to end the account. If you remember, the eunuch is so eager to get baptised, he stops the chariot at a pool of water. Philip baptises him right there and then. Now look at what happens next!

When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord suddenly took Philip away, the eunuch did not see him again, but went on his way rejoicing. Philip, however, appeared in Azotus and travelled about, preaching the gospel in all the towns until he reached Caesarea.
Acts 8:39-40

This has kinda happened before. Chapter 8 begins with Philip preaching to the Samaritans and the whole town become Christians! But when that happens, the Spirit tells Philip, “Go south to the road - the desert road.” God tells Philip to leave. And here, we see it happening again! The Ethiopian eunuch becomes a Christian and he is barely out the water when God sends him off to the next town!

God does mission in such a way that only God would ever think of doing it this way. You see, if we were Philip and we’d just planted a church in Samaria, the natural thing would have been to stay. To try grow the church and send out more missionaries from Samaria. But no, God says to him, “Move on!”

And with the Ethiopian eunuch, do you realise that Philip has just evangelised one of the most influential people on the planet? Imagine David Cameron turned up here at the Chinese Church and became a Christian right after this message! Wouldn’t it be tempting to say to Mr Cameron, “Now, let’s talk about what it means for you to glorify Jesus as a Christian Prime Minister.” Or even to think strategically about planting churches, or in the case of the Ethiopian eunuch, I don’t know, stopping the persecution in Jerusalem?

But you see, God’s mission is carried out in such a way that God’s way is often times, not our way. He doesn’t need to use influential people. He doesn’t need resources and connections. All the God uses in God’s mission are three ingredients: His Word, His Spirit, His people to bring all glory to his Son.

What happens at the end of Acts Chapter 8 is the same thing that happens throughout the whole book of Acts. God sends his Spirit to empower his people so that they will boldly preach his Word. Why? Because when that happens, all glory goes to Jesus. When that happens, God’s mission looks like God’s mission.

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