Story was told of a one-legged school teacher from Scotland who came to J. Hudson Taylor to offer himself for service in China. “With only one leg, why do you think of going as a missionary?” asked Taylor. “Well, I do not see those with two legs going,” replied George Scott. He was accepted. As we examine today’s passage of Scripture from Acts 8:25-40, let us all be encouraged to be about the mission of God – to disciple the nations.
The narrative of today’s passage describes the apostle Philip’s divinely arranged encounter with an Ethiopian eunuch, in which Philip, in obedience to and by the leading of the Spirit, explains a passage of God’s Word which he happened to be reading to him, which leads to his salvation. We see two sets of dynamics at play in this encounter, I call them the dynamic duos of missions:
- The sovereignty of God and the responsibility of man in mission
- The Spirit of God and the Word of God in mission
Let us examine the first dynamic: The sovereignty of God and the responsibility of man in mission.
The hand of God through His Spirit can be seen throughout this episode. It was God who spoke through an angel to Philip leading him on to “the road that descends from Jerusalem to Gaza” (v. 26). It was God who knew beforehand that the Ethiopian eunuch would be travelling through that route at this exact same time and it was certainly no coincidence that he also happened to be “reading the prophet Isaiah” (v.28) then! Again, it was God the Spirit who led Philip to “go up and join this chariot” (v.29) that the Ethiopian eunuch was in.
Would we be surprised that the passage the Ethiopian was reading concerned Jesus, the suffering Servant? “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 judgement was taken away; who will relate His generation?” (v. 32-33) And of course God was ultimately the one who worked in the Ethiopian’s heart to respond to Philip’s explanation of the Messianic text, to believe in Jesus, and to be baptised. Finally, it was surely by divine arrangement and timing that v. 36 happened “As they went along the road they came to some water; and the eunuch said, “Look! Water! What prevents me from being baptized?”” At the precise moment the Ethiopian opened his heart to Jesus, he came upon a place to be baptised. God is sovereign!
There is great encouragement for us in knowing that God is sovereign in missions. He is constantly at work, in miraculous ways, opening doors and opening hearts. At the same time, although God is sovereign in missions, He works in and through our obedience: He deems to reach out and win people to Himself through us, His Church, His people.
We see this illustrated in Philip’s obedience to the Lord’s leading. When the angel of the Lord spoke to him, it was to lead him to go to, as the parenthesis in v. 26 says, “a desert road”. I can imagine all sorts of legitimate objections that one could possibly raise in such a scenario. “Who’s out there? What am I supposed to do? What if I get robbed?” etc. But Philip responded in immediate obedience. And he did the same when the Spirit led him to approach the chariot the Ethiopian was traveling in. Philip might have been tempted to question, “What if I get rejected?” Yet, Philip responded in faith and obedience to God’s leading and he did as he was told. The result was a remarkable salvation story!
Following God in obedience does require us to step out of our comfort zone. It may lead us, as it were, onto a desert road. To the unknown. God may call us to share the gospel to family, friends and strangers. We may face rejection. Or God may call us into the mission field, where we may even face persecution. But our foundation is the sovereignty of God, and where He leads us, He will surely work through us for His redemptive purpose.
Moving on to the second dynamic: The Spirit of God and the Word of God in mission.
It is an indictment on many of our churches that there often is an overemphasis on a certain aspect of our faith to the exclusion of others; and this sometimes even leads to a segregation of the body of Christ where we unconsciously pit ourselves against one another. Perhaps in no other area is this more evident than in the area of the Spirit of God and the Word of God.
The Christian life is meant to be marked by both: being in tune with the Spirit of God and being in touch with the Word of God; and the passage we are considering today marries both together beautifully. We have already seen how the apostle Philip was sensitive to the Spirit of God in approaching the Ethiopian eunuch’s chariot.
And v. 35, this is what it says, “Then Philip opened his mouth, and beginning from this Scripture he preached Jesus to him.” The Ethiopian eunuch had been reading a portion of the Old Testament Scripture from the writings of Isaiah the prophet and did not understand what he was reading. Philip took this opportunity to explain to him the meaning of the text and its relation to and revelation of Jesus Christ. This was the doorway to faith for the Ethiopian eunuch.
There are two points I would like to make with regards to this that we can apply to missions and evangelism. The first is pretty straightforward; that we need to be saturated in the Word and conversant in the Scriptures. Romans 10:17 says it this way, “So faith comes from hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ.” Whenever we have the opportunity to share the Word of God, or to explain the Word of God to someone, therein lies the opportunity for the person who is listening to develop faith. This is a weighty and privileged duty and responsibility we as believers all share.
The second point is we need to be able to pick out the threads in Scripture that point towards Jesus. Jesus is the central figure in all of Scripture. The story of the Bible is the story of Jesus Christ. The Bible is therefore not a series of disconnected stories; rather it is more akin to individual threads that are woven together to form a beautiful tapestry.
For example, the story of David and Goliath is not first and foremost a story about having faith to overcome great odds; rather it is a pointer to the Greater David, Jesus Christ, who battles a mighty giant of Satan (and sin) on our behalf to secure the victory. It’s all about Jesus! The gospel is about what Jesus has done. He lived the perfect life; the life we ought to have lived. He died a sinner’s death; the death we ought to have died due to our sin. He rose again from the dead, proving His power over Satan and sin. He ascended to the right hand of the Father where He now reigns in majesty. He will come again to usher in the new heavens and the new earth, where all those who trust in Him will dwell forever in His presence.
This gospel, as we proclaim it in the leading, anointing and empowering of the Holy Spirit has the power to change lives. I would like to share a personal story that combines elements of today’s sermon. Many years ago in 2003, I did a 3-month missions stint in Japan with OMF (Overseas Missionary Fellowship). One day, I was with a Singaporean team from Woodlands EFC, the home church of the Singaporean missionary I was attached to. We were hanging out at Starbucks hoping to make some contacts. Unfortunately the missionary was not with us then because he had something on. And we were in a dilemma because none of us could speak Japanese fluently.
And then we spotted this guy who was reading an English book! Like sharks we converged on our prey. His name? Yoshinobu. We managed to strike up a really good conversation. Eventually time came for us to leave for Friday evening’s bible study at the missionary’s place. And the Holy Spirit prompted me, “Invite him.”
And I was thinking to myself, “Invite a stranger we just met to a bible study? For real?” But, in obedience, I did. He paused for a moment, then said, “I’m free. Let’s go!” He packed his stuff and followed us. And he kept coming, week after week, for bible study. He was a student then, so I also met him for lunch or dinner just to build on our friendship and to answer his questions about the Bible and about Christianity. Eventually my 3 months in Japan was up and I returned to Singapore. Yoshi and I kept in contact via email.
One morning, I received an email from him. The title of this email was “I have two birthdays”. His english wasn’t great then, so I thought, “ah, what is he trying to say?” So I read the email. And my heart just leapt with joy. Yoshi talked about the first time we met and how he started to get to learn about the bible. He talked about how much sense it made and yet the struggle he had – particularly being Japanese, and his family traditions – conflicted with what he was learning. But he said he finally could not deny it any longer. He had decided to become a Christian and was baptised by our fellow missionary friend. Amazing!
In God’s divine sovereignty, He led the Singaporean mission team and I to connect with Yoshinobu. When the Spirit led me to invite him to bible study, I responded in obedience. The weekly bible study sessions at the missionary’s house and the times I had with Yoshi answering his questions about the bible no doubt shows God’s Word was instrumental in his salvation.
Divine Sovereignty. Obedience. The leading of the Spirit. The Word of God. When these elements coalesce, God’s mighty work of missions proceeds. Knowing this, we seek to grow in the knowledge of God’s Word, we pray that our hearts would be sensitive to the voice of the Holy Spirit directing us to divine opportunities, we respond in obedience when He does, and we trust in His sovereignty to save those whom God would bring along our paths.
I would like to leave us with one final thought and that is the encounter Philip had with the Ethiopian eunuch, is sandwiched between two verses. “So, when they had solemnly testified and spoken the word of the Lord, they started back to Jerusalem, and were preaching the gospel to many villages of the Samaritans.” v. 25 and “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.” v. 40.
The mighty, supernatural, awe-inspiring gospel encounter Philip had with the Ethiopian eunuch is found in the context of regular, missionary activity; that of simply preaching the gospel. In other words, though God would deem it fit to produce miracles that lead to salvation, He often does His saving work in the midst of regular, evangelistic outreaches. We, as New Testament believers, have already received the Great Commission that Jesus gives to us. Let us heed His call to make disciples of all nations! [Let’s pray]