I’ve never been to Finland, I know next to nothing about Finland, and I can’t speak Finnish. But today in Finland you could meet a guy called Aku, who is a Christian, humanly speaking, through me. How come? Well, because he came here to study – and in doing so, he saved me all the bother of becoming a missionary – of moving country, learning a language, adjusting to eating reindeer, and so on. All I had to do was have a conversation with him the first night he brought himself along here. That’s where it began. But it needn’t have been me, because it didn’t need a sermon; it just needed a conversation. So it could equally have been you.
And as we continue tonight in the book of Acts, we’re going to look at the classic example of how God can use individual Christians in conversation, to spread his gospel and bring more people to faith. Our title tonight is, ‘International Outreach.’ And would you turn in the Bible to Acts 1:8, where the risen Lord Jesus promises what he’s going to do in us and through us:
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.
Now there are two promises in that. One is that the Lord will empower us, by his Spirit in us, to witness to him and overcome the things that would hold us back in our witness. And the other is that God will use us, if we’re willing to be used, to get his gospel to the ends of the earth. Acts is the story of those promises beginning to be fulfilled, and we’ll see that again tonight. So would you turn on to Acts 8:6. So far in Acts, we’ve seen preaching to the crowds – not the kind of thing we’re all cut out for. But now we come to preaching in conversation – which could be any of us. I’ve got two headings,
Firstly, GOD MAKES THE OPPORTUNITY (vv26-29)
Have a look down to v26:
Now an angel of the Lord said to Philip, "Go south to the road – the desert road – that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza."
Which at first sight looks very odd, because we left Philip last week preaching to receptive crowds in the city of Samaria. Yet here God pulls him from there to the middle of nowhere. Which is a reminder that human wisdom about what’s strategic is different from God’s wisdom. Parish Visiting, for example, is humanly speaking hit and miss, and strategy experts would probably question it. But who are we to doubt or limit what the Lord might do through just a single doorstep conversation? Read on v27:
So he started out, and on his way he met an Ethiopian...
Now the older translations get that better. Eg, the King James says:
And he arose and went, and behold, a man from Ethiopia...
Which sounds old fashioned, but that’s literally what it says – ‘Behold!’, as in, ‘Lo and behold! Would you believe it? Right in the middle of nowhere, here’s Ethiopia’s answer to Alastair Darling just waiting for someone to explain the gospel to him.’ Which is not a coincidence. It’s what you might call a ‘God-incidence’. Because the book of Acts teaches us to believe that all the time, all around us, God is engineering opportunities for us to point people to the Lord Jesus. Which begs the question, ‘Do we really believe that?’ Do we go out into the day thinking, ‘I must keep my eyes open for opportunity’? And do we pray regularly for opportunities, for eyes to see them, and for the wisdom and guts to take them? And can I say: if you’re discouraged by apparent lack of opportunity, pray along those lines daily, until further notice.
So, look at vv27-28 again,
27he started out, and on his way he met an Ethiopian eunuch, an important official in charge of all the treasury of Candace, queen of the Ethiopians. This man had gone to Jerusalem to worship, and on his way home was sitting in his chariot reading the book of Isaiah the prophet.
Now what they called Ethiopia is what we now call northern Sudan. So we’d say he was Sudanese. And in Greek writing at the time, his country was often called ‘the ends of the earth.’ So it’s no wonder that Luke, who wrote Acts, put this in, because it shows God’s promise to reach out to the ends of the earth being fulfilled – but not at this stage by a missionary going off to the ends of the earth. But by a new convert going home to the ends of the earth – like my Finnish friend Aku.
And that’s why we invest so much in the international ministry here. Thousands of internationals come to Newcastle every year. They’ve learned our language and come to our very doorstep – the student halls in our own parish are full of them. Which means God has engineered for us the opportunity to reach the ends of the earth without even moving. And when converted internationals go home, they don’t have the problems we’d have if we went as missionaries. They have permission to enter. They know the language. They know the culture. The challenges for us are: to reach as many internationals as we can with the gospel during their time here; to build up the Christian ones as much as we can before they go home; and after they’ve gone home, to support them in their witness, in their contribution to their churches and, God-willing, even in planting new churches. And we have miles to go in meeting those challenges. And it’s one example, as David’s note in the newsletter this month says, of why the ministry here costs what it does. Because maintenance is cheap. But evangelistic ministry, with world-vision, costs.
So this Ethiopian is ‘exhibit A’ for Luke’s theme of the gospel reaching the ends of the earth – but also for Luke’s theme that the gospel is for all kinds of people. Because one thing that can hold back our sharing of the gospel is the thought that it’s not for everyone, that there are some people who are too different from us, too difficult to reach or too unlikely to respond. Well, let’s think a bit more about this Ethiopian.
For a start, he was black. And it’s good for the White Europeans here to be reminded that the gospel reached black Africans before it ever reached us. The church isn’t British, or European, or white. But nor is it black or yellow. It’s multi-racial – in order to show the world that the God of the Bible isn’t an ethnic God made up by just one group of people – and therefore appealing to just one group of people. No, he’s the one, true Creator of all human beings, and his world-wide multi-racial church is a testimony to that; and the wonderful multi-racial-ness of this church is a testimony to that.
Then we’re told he was ‘a eunuch, an important official in charge of all the treasury of Candace, queen of the Ethiopians.’ Civil servants working around royal queens and harems were often as a precaution made eunuchs – ie, made incapable of sex (so the civil service was less attractive as a graduate option than in our culture). But this guy was high-powered, he moved in high circles and we can assume he was highly educated because Luke records him speaking pretty posh Greek. So he’s the kind of person you’d be intimidated by. You know the kind of people who seem to have everything going for them, who are at the top and for whom life is good. Like the student bloke who’s got superman looks, plays in three uni sports teams, magnetises the girls, is cruising for a first and already has a job lined up in a top city firm.
And it’s easy to forget that the spiritual issues are the same for them as for anyone else. They may not have a felt need in the world. But their biggest need is to turn to God and be forgiven through the death of Jesus, before life is suddenly over, and they have to face God and give an account of why they’ve ignored him for the last 70, 80 – whatever it is – years. And maybe I’ve just been talking about you.
So he’s black, he’s high society. And we’re also told he’s a eunuch. Now that detail can only have come from Philip and it must have come out in this conversation. But why? Well, look again at the end of v27:
This man had gone to Jerusalem to worship…
Now I take it he wasn’t a Jew; he was what the book of Acts calls a ‘God-fearer’. Ie, he knew something about the God of the Bible and believed in him, however inadequately. But when he went to Jerusalem to visit the temple, he’d have found that he couldn’t go in. Because there were Old Testament (OT) laws that those who’d been physically mutilated couldn’t come symbolically into God’s presence by entering the temple. And that was to symbolise that imperfect people like us can’t approach and relate to a perfect God without forgiveness. But it must have made this eunuch feel excluded and second class. And I guess he asked Philip, having heard about Jesus, ‘So can I be fully accepted now through Jesus?’ And Philip would have said, ‘Yes’. Because whoever you are, whatever your history, whatever’s made you feel excluded or second class – maybe your skin colour, or background, or academic record, or being divorced or being a single parent – Christ will accept you fully and value you fully.
So that’s the Ethiopian. He’s ‘exhibit A’ to show that God wants to call to himself all kinds of people from all nations. So, look on to v29:
The Spirit told Philip, "Go to that chariot and stay near it."
Now did the Spirit say that verbally? Or did Philip feel prompted – or as Paul says later in Acts, ‘compelled’ – by the Spirit? We don’t know. What we do know from the Bible and experience is that the Spirit does prompt believers, or lead them (however you want to put it), to do things. Eg, that conversation I mentioned with Aku from Finland. Why, looking out for new faces in general, did I notice him specifically, and feel I ought to speak to him? And what prompted me to ask a very direct question about why he’d come and what he believed? I’d say: the Lord did, by his Spirit.
You see, we know from God’s revealed will in the Bible that in general we’re to go and make disciples of all nations. But one thing his Spirit does is to give us specific promptings in living out that great commission in specific ways. And it’s often that sense of prompting that helps us overcome our fear or reluctance or uncertainty about whether now is the time to speak (I, for one, can always think of reasons why it’s not.) Now in some circles, nonsense gets talked about the Spirit’s leading – eg, the person who says, ‘The Spirit led me to leave my wife.’ God’s Spirit will never lead us to do anything against God’s revealed will. But within God’s revealed will – like the great commission – he does prompt us to do specific things. And if I feel a prompting that I should say something Christian in a conversation, then while half of me will always think, ‘Is now the best time?’ if the prompting persists, I think we need to err on the side of trusting God and launching out. Eg, I was Parish Visiting one time in Windsor Terrace. And a guy in a shared flat let us in and we talked a bit. He said no-one else was in except a Chinese girl who wouldn’t be interested because she was an atheist. So the faithless side of me said, ‘Job done – let’s move on.’ Something else inside of me said, ‘No, talk to her’ – I don’t mean I heard that verbally, but that it was a sense of what I ought to do which, I take it, was the Spirit’s prompting. So I said to the guy, ‘Could we at least knock on her door?’ He said, ‘She won’t be interested, she works round the clock and stops for no-one... but it’s that door.’ She talked for an hour about Jesus.
So, God makes the opportunity. Then
Second, PHILIP TAKES THE OPPORTUNITY (vv30-40)
Actually, we’ve already begun to see his example of taking the opportunity – in his willingness and openness to the Spirit’s leading. But what else can we learn from him? Look down to v30:
30Then Philip ran up to the chariot and heard the man reading Isaiah the prophet. "Do you understand what you are reading?" Philip asked.
31"How can I," he said, "unless someone explains it to me?" So he invited Philip to come up and sit with him.
So he’s reading the OT part of the Bible (at this point, the New Testament (NT) isn’t written). Which means he’s not a totally ‘cold contact’ who’s never heard anything of the Christian message. And Philip is a good example of where to go with those who have heard something – eg, someone who’s come along with you to a service here. Why not ask them on the way home something like v30 – eg, ‘What did you think of what he said?’ Give them the chance to say what they understood and didn’t understand, what they agreed with and didn’t agree with. That can be a good conversation starter.
And the Ethiopian says, v31, "How can I understand unless someone explains it to me?" which is the principle that our Christianity Explored course runs on. You see, if you’re still thinking through whether you believe the Christian message, you could sit down on your own to read Mark’s Gospel. But at some point, you’ll probably get stuck and sit there thinking, ‘What does this mean?’ My own first brush with the Bible was a Gideon’s NT I was given at school, and I remember trying to read Luke’s Gospel and getting stuck. And in the front was all that stuff about ‘Where to find help when... anxious, lonely’, and so on. When what I needed was the ‘Where to find help when... you haven’t got a clue what it means’ section. That’s why ideally you need both the Bible and a Christian to fire questions at – which is basically the format of Christianity Explored groups as they look into Mark’s Gospel together. So if you’re still thinking and questioning, or if you are a Christian but feeling shaky about what you believe, do come and join the next Christianity Explored course. There’s a Taster session this Thursday – details in the leaflet in your service sheet.
Well, look on to v32:
32The eunuch was reading this passage of Scripture:
"He was led like a sheep to the slaughter,
and as a lamb before the 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."
34The eunuch asked Philip, "Tell me, please, who is the prophet talking about, himself or someone else?" 35Then Philip began with that very passage of Scripture and told him the good news about Jesus.
So he was reading Isaiah 53 – which, 700 years in advance, prophesied Jesus’ death for our sins and then his resurrection to be the living Lord and Saviour who can forgive us and change us. And Philip would have explained that what Isaiah had written centuries before had been fulfilled in Jesus. But explaining the good news about Jesus includes explaining how to respond to him – and Philip obviously did that, judging by what happens next. Look at vv36 and 38:
36As they travelled along the road, they came to some water and the eunuch said, "Look, here is water. Why shouldn't I be baptized?" …38And he gave orders to stop the chariot. Then both Philip and the eunuch went down into the water and Philip baptized him.
Now we’ve already seen in Acts what response the Lord Jesus is looking for from us. It’s repentance and faith. Repentance is turning to Jesus as Lord, willing to live his way from now on. Faith is trusting Jesus as Saviour, trusting that for every way we’ve so far failed to live rightly, he will forgive us. And baptism is a sign of what the Lord Jesus does for us as we turn to him and trust in him. It involves being made wet with water, which is a picture of two things. It’s a picture of forgiveness – of the washing clean of my entire track-record of wrongdoing up to the present moment. And it’s a picture of God’s Spirit pouring into us new desire and strength to live his way – just like pouring water onto a dried-out pot plant revives it and gives it new life. So baptism is a sign of what the Lord Jesus does for us. And if you’ve accepted Jesus as Lord, you also need to accept baptism as a sign of what you’ve received from him – and at the same time, that will make your faith public to others. So if you’re someone trusting in Christ, but you’ve not yet been baptised, then you should be. And in four weeks’ time there’s an opportunity for baptism in this evening service – do contact me if you’re interested.
So, let me wrap up: Philip finds this guy reading the Bible, wide open to the gospel and it takes just one conversation for him to respond to Christ. That’s surely the dream opportunity – but it didn’t happen to Philip every day. And having read this, we need to remember that sharing the gospel is a process, and that people move along a line from knowing nothing and having no interest, to being on the brink of coming to Christ. On this occasion, the person was on the brink. But we’re surrounded by people at all points along the line, and not every conversation by any means will be like this. Eg, you or I may have a doorstep conversation in Parish Visiting that goes hardly anywhere, and leaves us wondering whether it achieved anything at all. But next December, that person sees a Carols by Candlelight poster and thinks, ‘That’s the lot that came visiting. I think I’ll go and see what it’s like.’ And they move along the line and come under the sound of the gospel.
So, to end with, look at vv39-40:
39When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord suddenly took Philip away, and the eunuch did not see him again, but went on his way rejoicing [rejoicing in his newfound forgiveness and relationship with Jesus as his Lord]. 40Philip, however, appeared at Azotus and travelled about, preaching the gospel in all the towns until he reached Caesarea.
So we end where we began – with the gospel on its way to the ends of the earth, as this new convert heads home. And maybe he was the forefather of the church in Sudan today. Who knows who else he led to Christ, and what influence he had for Christ back home – how he changed his government’s policy, even his country’s history? And if you’re a Christian away from your home country, that’s God’s vision for you when you go back. And whether we’re home or away from home, let’s remember that one conversation can change a person’s life, a person’s influence, and most important of all, a person’s eternal destiny.