Please turn first to Acts 8.6, as we learn from Philip on evangelism, a word which can make everyone feel nervous, but which simply means sharing the best news ever in the power of the Spirit! And although evangelism can seem hard in the UK today, Acts reminds us that: Jesus is risen and reigning, the Holy Spirit is at work, the gospel is powerful as is prayer and nothing is impossible with God - ultimately it's his work, it's God who gives the growth. All that was the perspective of the apostles in Acts. Is it ours? So, then what else do we learn from Philip?
The evangelist, J John, once said to me: 'If there's one thing I would do to get the gospel out more at Christmas it would be to have evangelistic carol services every day in December'. Well, it feels like we've just done that, doesn't it?! And there's certainly a place for crowd evangelism. Next June Franklin Graham, the son of Billy Graham and founder of Samaritan's Purse who runs the Shoebox Appeal – Operation Christmas Child, is coming to lead an evangelistic rally at the Utilita Arena in Newcastle for one night only. And Acts 8.6 tells us that Philip led major rallies in Samaria where the crowds with one accord paid attention to what was being said.
But what about personal evangelism? Not many of us will ever be leading major evangelistic rallies but we're all called to be involved in personal evangelism. Charles Spurgeon once said that there are two types of evangelist – one who does upfront evangelism and the other who perseveres personally with people – and all of us can be involved in the latter. So, I wonder - how does 1 Peter 3.15 make you feel? "Always be prepared to make a defence to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect." Do you look forward to such opportunities knowing that the Spirit will help you? Do you shudder? Do you feel prepared? Well, there's an opportunity to be better prepared both for Franklin's visit and more generally through a Christian Life and Witness Course. It's happening here at JPC on Thursday 27 Feb – so don't miss that. And tonight, from the book of Acts, we're also going to learn how God can use individual Christians in conversation, to spread his gospel, bring more people to faith and so influence society. But first go to verse 8 of Acts 1, where the risen Lord Jesus promises what he's going to do in and through you and me:
"But 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."
So, Jesus will empower us, by his Spirit, to witness to him here on Tyneside or wherever he sends us – e.g. Western Europe, which is such a needy mission field; and to overcome whatever would hold us back in our witness. And if you're willing to be used, God will use you to get his gospel to the end of the earth, whether through medical work, engineering, teaching – Bede Academy in Blyth is currently in need of three Religious Education teachers, or helping in Christianity Explored; through ministry to those suffering from mental health issues, to those who've been abused and trafficked, to internationals, to refugees, to our colleagues, families and friends this Christmas. Who will you be showing hospitality to and inviting to Family Carols and the Christmas Day Family Service? And – and let me underline this - whoever we are, whatever we do vocationally and wherever God calls us, even if he calls us to stay right here on Tyneside, where less than 1% of the population are in Bible-believing churches – we're also to engage in personal evangelism, in response to all Jesus has done for us and to his command. You see none of us is to do nothing – please don't waste your life – all of us are to be Christ's witnesses in the power of his Spirit & take God created gospel opportunities. How? Well, go to Acts 8.26,
1. God Creates the Opportunity (v.26-29)
"Now an angel of the Lord said to Philip, 'Rise and go towards the south, to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.' This is a desert place."
Which seems odd, because Philip's just been preaching to receptive crowds in Samaria (v.6). Yet God sends him to the middle of nowhere. Which reminds us that human wisdom about what's strategic is different from God's wisdom. So, in evangelism, we're to obey God and be willing to be guided and used by him.
"And he rose and went. And there was an Ethiopian a eunuch, a court official of Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, who was in charge of all her treasure… and he was reading the prophet Isaiah."
Wow! Right in the middle of nowhere is Ethiopia's Sajid Javed waiting for someone to explain the gospel to him. Was that a coincidence? No, it was a 'God-incidence'. Acts teaches us to believe that all around us, God is creating opportunities for us to point people to Jesus. Do you believe that? Do you start the day praying for opportunities and for the courage to take them? A recent survey of 20,000 people by the Bible Society reveals that 46% of people in the UK are open to knowing more about the Bible. So, verse 28:
"He was returning seated in his chariot and he was reading the prophet Isaiah."
Now what they called Ethiopia is now Sudan, which was often called 'the end of the earth.' God's promise to reach out to the end of the earth was being fulfilled – but not yet by a missionary going there but rather by a new convert going home to the end of the earth. And today God creates opportunities for us to reach the end of the earth without even moving, whether among international students, NHS workers and refugees. And if, for example, international students, who are discipled here, return home then God wants to use them to reach others, build up the church and change that nation. A guy from India came to my Christianity Explored group here – he then went back to India, taking the Christianity Explored course with him to use there, and invited me to speak at his church in Chennai, which I did!
So the Ethiopian illustrates that there are God-given opportunities even today, the gospel is going out to the end of the earth, but also that the gospel is for all kinds of people from all nations. How does all this encourage us today? Well, one thing that can hold us back in sharing the gospel is thinking that it's not for everyone, that there are some people who are too difficult to reach or too unlikely to respond. I remember one strapping Geordie lad turning up to do Christianity Explored. I wondered what he'd make of it. He ended up taking the gospel around the world! What else do we learn from this Ethiopian?
It's good for Westerners to be reminded that the gospel reached Africa before it ever reached us. The church isn't British, or European, or white. It's multi-racial – in order to show the world that the God of the Bible isn't an ethnic God 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.
Then we're told he was 'a eunuch, a court official of Candace, queen of the Ethiopians in charge of all her treasure.' Court officials working around royal queens were often made eunuchs – ie, made incapable of sex. But he was high-powered, moved in high circles and was highly educated judging by the kind of Greek he was speaking. So he's the kind of person you'd be nervous around. Yet it's easy to forget that the spiritual issues are the same for them as for anyone. Their biggest need is to turn to God and be forgiven through the death of Jesus, before they meet their Maker. But why's he here? Verse 27:
"This man had come to Jerusalem to worship…"
He wasn't a Jew but 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 laws saying those who'd been physically mutilated couldn't come symbolically into God's presence by entering the temple. That was to symbolise that imperfect people like us can't approach and relate to a perfect God without forgiveness. But it must've made this eunuch feel excluded and second class. It's likely that he then asked Philip, 'Can I now be fully accepted through Jesus?' And Philip would've said, 'Yes'. Because whoever you are, whatever you've done, whatever's made you feel excluded or second class – say being divorced – Christ will accept you fully and value you fully.
Look on to verse 29:
"And the Spirit said to Philip, 'Go over and join this chariot.'"
Was that verbally? Or a prompting by the Spirit? From this book of the Bible we know that the Spirit does prompt, lead or compel believers to do things in accordance with God's revealed will in Scripture, such as in going and making disciples of all nations. And that sense of prompting helps us overcome our fear about whether it's the time to speak about Christ. Now some have claimed that the Spirit led them to leave their spouse. But that's rubbish. God's Spirit will never lead us to do anything against God's revealed will. But if we feel a prompting to talk about the gospel, we should trust God and go for it, with gentleness and respect. So, God creates the opportunity. Then
2. Philip Takes the Opportunity (v.30-40)
We've already begun to see his example of taking the opportunity – in his openness to the Spirit's leading. But what else can we learn? Verse 30:
"So Philip ran to him and heard him reading Isaiah the prophet and asked, 'Do you understand what you are reading?' And he said, 'How can I, unless someone guides me?' And he invited Philip to come up and sit with him."
He's reading from Isaiah. So, he's not someone who's never heard anything of the Bible's message. And Philip's a good example of how to talk with folks like that – e.g., someone who came with you to Carols or the recent Women's Craft event. Why not ask them, 'What did you think of what was said from the Bible?' Listen to what they understood and didn't understand, what they agreed with and didn't agree with and go patiently from there. But what about those who've not heard anything or very little? Well Jesus says be salt and light, open to the Spirit's leading, willing to take any opportunity, whether from talking about a mercy ministry, which is a good way in today, or a question on the cross – such as why or so what? Those are the questions of the age. I'll never forget what the first person to become a Christian, through the Christianity Explored Taster Sessions we started back in 2005, said to me. He said the two most helpful things in his journey were: reading the Bible with support and finding friendship from others in the group and in church. We mustn't forget both. We not only share the gospel but our lives as well, says Paul in 1 Thessalonians 2.
And the Ethiopian says, verse 31,
"How can I [understand], unless someone guides me."
I don't know about you, but I didn't understand anything when I first started reading and hearing talks on the Bible! I still don't understand everything! I needed someone to help me. Hands up if a friend or someone else invited you to church etc and helped you? So now, who could you be inviting, say to CE, and helping? Or maybe you've still got questions - you've been reading the Bible but you've got stuck. Why not go along to Christianity Explored in February where you can get help and ask your questions. Look at verses 32 to 35:
"Now the passage of the Scripture that he was reading was this:
'Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter
and like a lamb before its shearer is silent,
so he opens not his mouth.
In his humiliation justice was denied him.
Who can describe his generation?
For his life is taken away from the earth.'
And the eunuch said to Philip, 'About whom, I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?' Then Philip opened his mouth, and beginning with this Scripture he told him the good news about Jesus."
Isaiah 53 prophesied Jesus' death for our sins and 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 has been fulfilled in Jesus. Now explaining the good news also includes how to respond to Jesus. Philip must have done that going by verse 36 and verse 38:
"And as they were going along the road they came to some water, and the eunuch said, 'See, here is water! What prevents me from being baptized?' And he commanded the chariot to stop, and they both went down into the water, Philip and the eunuch, and he baptized him."
Acts tells us what response Jesus is looking for. 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 messed up so far, he will forgive us. And baptism is a sign of what the Lord Jesus does for us as we turn to and trust in him. It's a picture of forgiveness – of the washing clean of my entire record of wrongdoing up to now. And it's a picture of God's Spirit pouring into us new desire and strength to live his way. And if you've accepted Jesus as Lord, you also need to accept baptism as a sign of what you've received from him – which will also make your faith public to others. So, if you're trusting in Christ, but you've not yet been baptised, then you should be. If you were baptised as a child and you drifted away from Christ, you can reaffirm your baptismal vows.
I must conclude. Philip is led to this person reading the Bible. The Spirit's at work and he's open to the gospel and it takes just one conversation for him to respond to Christ. What an amazing God-given opportunity. Are you ready and prepared for such? But remember it didn't happen to Philip every day. Sharing the gospel is often a process, people move from nowhere, to being on the brink of coming to Christ. The Ethiopian was on the brink. But we're surrounded by people at all points along the line, and not every opportunity will be like this. But we pray they will accept the gospel. So finally, verses 39 to 40:
"And when they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord carried Philip away, and the eunuch saw him no more, and went on his way rejoicing. But Philip found himself at Azotus, and as he passed through he preached the gospel to all the towns until he came to Caesarea."
Tradition has it in the Sudan that the eunuch helped others to understand the gospel, start the church and change the nation. And if you're a Christian away from your homeland, that's God's vision for you when you go back. But that's also God's vision for you if your home is here. So remember, one conversation can change a person's life, influence, and eternal destiny. Just one Spirit inspired conversation. Will you take the next God-given opportunity to help turn the world upside down, as the apostles were accused of doing in Acts 17?