The Deacon’s Witness
Text: Acts 8:26-40
Cross-cultural evangelism and mission is a topic of great discussion in church circles and at mission conferences these days. Peter Wagner speaks of people most like ourselves as M-1 people; M-2’s are those who are different but whom we might be able to reach with some adaptation; and M-3’s are those completely different than we are racially, culturally, ethnically, socio-economically and nationally. Today’s lesson is definitely in the M-3 category.
Philip had not been a deacon very long when the Holy Spirit called him to do some cross-cultural evangelism. First he was commanded by an angel of the Lord to go south to the road that leads out of Jerusalem, toward Gaza. Obediently he went, and soon met “an Ethiopian eunuch, a court official of Candace, the queen of the Ethiopians, in charge of her entire treasury.” In other words, a Gentile who is “unclean” in Jewish eyes sexually and definitely well connected as far as this world is concerned. Here, it would appear, was a most unlikely candidate for the Christian faith.
On the other hand we are told that on his own this man had come to Jerusalem to worship and was on his way home to Africa, seated in his chariot and reading from the Jewish Scriptures, the prophet Isaiah. The Holy Spirit commands Philip to go over to his chariot and meet the man, and Philip obeys immediately. “Do you understand what you are reading?” he asks. “How can I, unless someone guides me?” the Ethiopian replies. He invites Philip to step up and join him in the chariot.
Isaiah 53 is the passage before the Ethiopian, and he now asks Philip, “Who is being spoken about here, the prophet himself or someone else?” Then deacon Philip, starting with this passage, begins to tell him the good news about Jesus. Pretty impressive deacon, wouldn’t you say? He definitely had a working knowledge of the Scriptures and knew exactly how to take his inquirer to the foot of the cross. He did such a good job that it wasn’t long before the man asked to be baptized.
At this point Philip must have been surprised at how quickly this unlikely prospect responded to the simple explanation of the gospel. But would it be proper for him to baptize someone so different from himself and the other early Christians? Certainly God must have been at work in the man’s heart, giving him a hunger for the God of Israel, wooing him to worship in the Jewish capital, and probably to purchase a scroll of the prophet Isaiah. Often God goes before us, and we have no idea whom he is preparing for a response to an explanation of the good news of Jesus. That’s why we believe that conversion is the work of God, through the Holy Spirit. Only God can prepare a person for salvation. We can only be the instruments through which he delivers the opportunity. What a privilege!
Philip must have wondered if baptism, at this point, was the “kosher” thing to do. And yet the man was saying, “Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?” And since Philip could not find an answer to that question, he stopped the chariot; they both went down into the water and deacon Philip baptized one of the first cross-cultural new Christians. So as to not draw attention to Philip or cause the Ethiopian eunuch to form a dependency on him, God suddenly takes Philip up, and there stands the newly baptized foreigner, wondering what happened to his new friend. Nevertheless, he “went on his way rejoicing.” We cannot help but wonder whatever happened to him. Did God use him mightily to spread the gospel in Ethiopia?
The book of Acts has been described as the “follow-up” to Christ’s command to go to the whole world. In the first chapter Jesus says, “And you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (v. 8). Already in the chapter-eight story of the Ethiopian eunuch we see the fulfillment of this. What a startling example this man is: he is a foreigner, well educated, a “seeker” in today’s terms, who has been sexually altered to neutralize his presence in the queen’s court. Is this the kind of person Jesus was talking about? Are these the kinds of people that we are to reach out to, beyond Jerusalem , Judea, and even Samaria–to the uttermost parts of the earth?
It is amazing to see who is going to church these days. According to researcher George Barna, the church is growing everywhere in the world except Europe and North America. His research shows that during a recent ten-year period, not one county in the United States showed an increase in the number of people calling themselves Christians. How can this be? It is because the gospel of Jesus Christ is not tied to one ethnic, national, cultural, generational, or racial group. It never has been and it never will be! Way back at the beginning of the expansion of the early church God made it clear that the gospel was for everyone, and the church was going to be made up of people from every tribe and nation. Peter had a hard time believing that, Paul was captive to the idea, and here in Acts an early deacon lives it out in his own personal witness to the gospel.
Notice that God did not tell Philip to simply invite the Ethiopian into the synagogue or the temple for an experience of what we believe. He sent the deacon out to find a “seeker” and when he did God’s Spirit equipped him to share the faith, which lies within him. There is a time to invite and also a time to go out and seek those who are seeking, and even some who are not. Whether they are our type or not!
Who are the people to whom God may be sending us for “cross-cultural evangelism”? The guys and gals in the motorcycle gang? The well-connected political leaders of our city and country? The new immigrants who move into our neighborhoods from Bosnia, Uzbekistan, or Cameroon? Are we content with just reaching out to our own kind, or are we willing to risk ourselves to reach other people from other places in other ways with the good news of Jesus?
Hospitality in the house of God requires us to be converted as much as those we seek to reach with the gospel. Are we willing to change our ideas of whom God desires to make a part of the kingdom he is creating and the church Christ is building? What limits are we placing on the kingdom of God that God has not placed there?
- Who do you identify with in the story, Philip or the Ethiopian?
- If you had been Philip, would you have done what he did? (Be honest.) Why or why not?
- If someone you know at church had told you a story like this out of his or her recent experience, what would your reaction be?
- Who are the “Ethiopian eunuchs” in your world?
- How has your church done in reaching out to M-1s, M-2s, and M-3s? What would be a challenging goal for your church at this time in each of these areas?