To the End of the Earth: Philip Preaching Christ in Samaria

Sermon by Derek Thomas on September 27, 2006

Acts 8:1b-8

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Wednesday Evening

September 27, 2006

Acts 8:1-8
Philip Preaching Christ in Samaria

Dr. Derek W. H. Thomas

Now
turn with me if you would to the Acts of the Apostles. Once again as we
continue to unfold the narrative that Luke provides for us of the spread of the
church from Jerusalem to Judea, to Samaria, and to the ends of the earth And
we’ll see now tonight in Acts 8 that we cross a threshold — it’s like peeling an
onion, the Acts of the Apostles — and no longer is the focus going to be
Jerusalem.

Up until now the focus in the first
seven chapters has entirely been Jerusalem. But something new and fundamentally
new is going to occur in the 8th chapter of Acts. And we see the
beginning of the fulfillment of that mandate that Jesus gave — His final words
before He ascended up into the clouds — that they were to be His disciples and
His witnesses in Jerusalem, in Judea, in Samaria, and in the uttermost parts of
the world.

And the thing that I want us
especially to focus on is the means by which God fulfilled that mandate and I
doubt this evening that it would have been the means that you and I would have
thought God would have used to bring that about.

Before we read the passage and I’m
going to read in Acts 8 following the sentence that Saul was approving the
execution of Stephen and halfway through the first verse of chapter 8.

Let’s pray together.

Father, we thank You again for
the Bible, for the scriptures, Your Holy Book. We thank You for the truth that
men wrote as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit. We thank You that Your
Word is utterly trustworthy because it comes from You and You cannot lie or
deceive and therefore, the Bible cannot lie or deceive. We thank You for all
that it teaches us and pray this evening as we examine it together, come, Holy
Spirit, and shine into our minds and help us once again to read, mark, learn,
and inwardly digest. For Jesus sake. Amen.”


Now hear with me
the Word of God:

“and they were scattered throughout the regions of
Judea and Samaria, except the apostles. Some devout men buried Stephen, and made
loud lamentation over him. But Saul began ravaging the church, entering house
after house; and dragging off men and women, he would put the in prison.
Therefore, those who had been scattered went about preaching the word. Philip
went down to the city of Samaria and began proclaiming Christ to them. The
crowds with one accord were giving attention to what was said by Philip, as they
heard and saw the signs which he was performing. For in the case of many who had
unclean spirits, they were coming out of them shouting with a loud voice; and
many who had been paralyzed and lame were healed. So there was much rejoicing in
that city.”

Amen and may God
bless to us the reading of His Holy and inerrant Word.


I. Great Persecution.

Now one of the great documents from
the early church is a document, an apologia, and apology, written by Tertullian
from North Africa, and the very end of 50 chapters of the apologia, he has this
often quoted statement and I’m just going to read a couple sentences from it.
And he’s speaking about a persecution, not the one in Acts 8, now, but
persecutions that have arisen during his lifetime — imprisonments, the carnage,
the martyrdom of many who have been cast into Roman amphitheaters and fed to
wild animals. And he says in a piece of exquisite rhetoric at the end of the
apologia, “You sacrifice the Christians at their wish. Kill us, torture us,
condemn us, grind us to dust. The oftener we are mown down by you the more in
number we grow.”

And it’s Tertullian throwing the gauntlet down to
bring it on because the more damage they seem to be doing, the more the church
seems to be growing. Well, on a dark night in the winter you want someone to
encourage you, go to Tertullian and read what that great North African leader of
the church said.

Well, here we are in Acts 8. Stephen
has been killed, brutally killed, by stoning. Stephen, of course, has thrown
down the gauntlet. He would have been aware of what he was doing. No longer
would the church be sheltered under the umbrella of Judaism that Rome afforded
protection via a law that went back 150-200 years, the religio licita [a
tolerated religion]

Now that Stephen had categorically
said that the temple was finished and that the law of Moses in all effects was
fulfilled in Jesus Christ. Once Stephen had uttered those words, the Sanhedrin
had heard blasphemy and in the eyes and ears, of course, of the Roman Empire,
Christianity was no longer just a troublesome sect of Judaism, it was something
entirely different.

And so the gauntlet has been thrown
down and further recriminations now come upon the church in Jerusalem, probably
upon a certain section of the church. In all likelihood, it is the Hellenistic
wing of the church. Those, you remember, Diaspora Jews who’ve lived a while in
the far off nations of the Roman Empire, perhaps speak Greek more than they
speak Aramaic or Hebrew. Perhaps less given to some of the ceremonial laws of
Judaism.

You remember the seven men elected in
Acts 6 were all Hellenists. Stephen was one. Philip will be another. And the
church is scattered the same day, the day Stephen died. The mob in Jerusalem now
take it upon themselves to wreak havoc in the church of Jerusalem. And here is
this picture of Saul, the man who had consented to the death of Stephen, here is
Saul and he’s going to house-to-house and dragging men and women and putting
them in prison. And you’ve got this equivalent of a Christian Kristallnacht. You
remember in the Second World War and the Pogroms against the Jews in the German
cities of Dresden and other places, the so-called ‘Kristallnacht’. Well, here is
Saul of Tarsus dragging men and women out of their houses and into prison.

Well, every cloud has a silver lining
they say. And, of course, from a Christian perspective, it does. And this is a
storm cloud. This is a storm cloud of typhoon or tornado or hurricane
proportions coming now all of a sudden on the city of Jerusalem. And thus a
silver lining because at the back of this storm cloud you can hear a voice and
it says, “Ask of Me and I will give you the nations for your inheritance and
the uttermost parts of the earth for your possession.”

And there is the voice of God the
Father in the second Psalm, as it were, echoing above this storm cloud because
in the strange providence of God, through this pogrom in Jerusalem, God is going
to fulfill His promise and expand the church.

Now, I want us to see four things. I
want us to see, first of all continuing what I’ve just been saying, the great
persecution, a great persecution, as devout men are burying Stephen and perhaps
that’s a reference not so much to believers who are burying Stephen, but perhaps
they’re devout Jews who are appalled as to what has happened are burying
Stephen. This persecution breaks out at the hands of Saul of Tarsus.

And you remember when Paul later will
write his epistle to the Galatians and talks about his former life and how he
persecuted the church of God violently and tried to destroy it. There was blood
on Paul’s hands. He had tried to destroy the church of Jesus Christ. Here is
proof positive that Jesus is building His church within site of the very gates
of Hell in enemy occupied territory.

And there is a principle here that
Calvin refers to in a comment that he makes on 1 Peter 1 verse 11 that God has
so ordered the church from the very beginning that the cross is the way to
victory and death is the way to life and that good emerges out of a context of
evil and repression and persecution. It is the Jesus principle of John 12 that
unless a grain of wheat fall to the ground and die, it remains alone. It’s only
as that grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies that fruit comes. It is the
principle that Paul enumerates as he writes to the Corinthian church in 2
Corinthians 4 and he tells them in the context of speaking about trials and
tribulations and sufferings, “Death works in us, but life in you so that the
sufferings of one or the sufferings of a community can in the providence and
overruling of God produce life elsewhere.”

How is the Great Commission going to
be fulfilled? To go and make disciples of all nations because up until this
point, the church is more or less confined to Jerusalem. How is the Matthew 28
Great Commission, how is that going to be fulfilled?

And if you turn in your Bibles just a
couple of chapters, Luke gives a sort of backward glance at what we’re looking
at here. In Acts 11:19, we pick up the story again and he says, “Now those who
scattered because of the persecution that arose over Stephen traveled as far as
Phoenicia and Cyprus and Antioch.” They were scattered as far as Phoenicia and
Cyprus and Antioch up north and Antioch will become a far more important city
than Jerusalem. It’ll become the mission base of the European mission. And in
the purposes of God, the grain of wheat that has to fall to the ground and die
is the Jerusalem church, the men and women who are being dragged from their
houses and being put in prison and as the church scatters as a consequence, out
of that God is fulfilling His purpose.

You want First Presbyterian Church to
be a mission church, a missionary reminded church? Some of you pray that prayer,
“Lord, make First Presbyterian Church a missionary-minded and mission-focused
church.”

Well, be careful when you pray that
prayer because I want to know that my car is full of gas before you pray that
prayer in case I have to leave town. Because how is God going to answer that
prayer? How did God answer the prayer to make the New Testament church a
mission-minded church, an outward-focused church instead of an inward focused
church? — By sending trouble — by sending trouble. Be careful what you pray for
because it seems to me that very often one of the obstacles to mission-focused
churches is the very prosperity that is ours. Because often that very prosperity
can produce in us a dreadful inertia and we spend our time doing the evangelical
and reformed equivalent of counting how many angels there are on the head of a
pin.

So we spend hours and hours
discussing the Reformed philosophy of going to the movies or the Christian view
of flower arranging when a world is dying and souls are passing every second
into a lost eternity — the Great Persecution.

II. Great
Evangelism.

The second thing I want us to see is
great evangelism. I love the way Luke does this and it’s almost shocking the way
he does it. He says they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and
Samaria except the apostles. And he mentions in verses 4 and 5 those who had
been scattered went about preaching the Word. It’s not the apostles he’s
referring to here. He’s talking about ordinary men and women of the Jerusalem
church who have been scattered abroad in Phoenicia and Cyprus and Antioch and
other places. And they went about, now I really don’t understand why Bible
translators insist on saying “preaching” the Word. The word isn’t preaching.
It’s the word for gospel. It’s the word for evangel. And it just confuses things
when Bible translators insist on translating this word by preaching because what
they were doing was witnessing. What they were doing was gospeling. What they
were doing was gossiping the gospel. And it’s every member evangelism. It’s not
the elite few. It’s not just those who had been trained in evangelism. This is
every member evangelism. All those who scattered abroad are going about and
they’re gospeling the gospel, they’re gossiping the gospel.

It’s very interesting. Kenneth
Latourette, the Yale historian, says the chief agents in the expansion of
Christianity appear not to have been those who made it a profession, but men and
women who carried on their livelihood in some secular manner and spoke their
faith to those they met in this natural fashion, that the expansion of the
church at this point didn’t depend upon the apostles, but on the grass roots,
men and women gossiping the gospel as they went.

Now, think about that because these
are men and women who’ve lost their homes, who have been scattered on the same
day, so they probably left much of their belongings behind them. They may even
have left members of their family who have been carried off into prison. And you
might have expected them to lie low and to hide somewhere in caves until the
trouble dies down and it’s astonishing, it’s breathtaking that these men and
women are going about and they’re gossiping the gospel of Jesus Christ.

God uses people in evangelism, people
like you and me, ordinary folk. And the rule of our duty here is not that we are
able to pry into the secret will of God and discern who the elect are. The rule
of duty here is: God has commanded us to do this: ‘Go into all the world. You
are to be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in Judea and Samaria and in the
uttermost parts of the world.’ And that’s you and you and you.


III. The Great Signs
.

The third thing I want us to see are
the great signs. There’s great persecution and there’s great evangelism,
evangelism that God owns and God blesses. And there are great signs because now
Luke folds into the narrative of focus on Philip, one of the seven or perhaps
now we should say one of the six. A man full of the Holy Spirit just as Stephen
was. He’s the first official missionary of the church. Now why, why Samaria?

You know I’ve been reading the Bible
for 35 years as a believer and I don’t think I’ve thought through this issue as
much as I have in the last few days. Why Samaria? Why did Philip go to Samaria?
There was a history, you understand, between the Jews and the Samaritans. This
terrain of land north of Jerusalem in between Jerusalem and Galilee and the Sea
of Galilee, there was a terrain of land. If you drew a straight line from
Jerusalem up north you would go through Samaria.

You remember in John 4, Jesus’
encounter with the woman of Samaria when tired and weary, He stops by the well
at Sychar and engages in evangelism, in conversation with this woman of Samaria.
And you remember the comment that John makes, a parenthetical sort of comment he
makes as he tells us that story; the Jews have no dealings with the Samaritans.
That’s a loaded statement, by the way. The Jews have no dealing with the
Samaritans.

When pilgrims would make their way to
Jerusalem or make their way home from Jerusalem who came from up north, they
would cross over the River Jordan to the east and go down that way rather than
go through Samaria because there was history between the Samaritans and the
Jews. The Jews didn’t like the Samaritans. They thought them half-breeds.
Forgive the expression, but that’s exactly what they were called. Josephus and
his antiquities writing the history [though he’s pro-Jewish, of course, so his
history is slanted] but that’s what he calls them. For a thousand years ever
since the ten tribes had broken away, you remember, and they sat up their rival
kingdom with its capital in Samaria. It was all down hill from then for a
thousand years.

When Assyria invaded Samaria, took
the capital city of Samaria in 722 B.C., carried off the people, repopulated the
city with foreigners so that when the Jews 200 years later came back from
Babylonian captivity, the Samaritans offered to help rebuild the temple, but the
Jews said no, they wouldn’t have it. They didn’t want their help.

In that period of the Maccabean
revolt, a couple hundred years before,150, 160 years before the birth of Jesus,
a high point in Jewish history, when Judas Maccabeus tried to overthrow the
tyrannical rule of the Syrian monarch and king and despot
Antiochus IV Epiphanes.
So great was that revolt that the Jews began to have a feast day in his honor,
the Hanukkah, the feast of candles and lights in honor of Judas Maccabeus.

Well at the same time, the Samaritans
caved in and the rival temple, which they had built in Samaria, was dedicated to
the Greek god, Zeus. You can understand the history between the Jews and the
Samaritans. The Jews didn’t like the Samaritans not one little bit.

So why does Philip go to Samaria as a
Jew? He is a Jew, a Hellenistic Jew, but he’s till a Jew. Why go to the
Samaritans? The Samaritans had long since forsaken the sacred scriptures of the
Jews. All that they had retained were the first five books, the Pentateuch. Why
go to Samaria? Because I think Philip could hear in his ears the final words of
Jesus before His ascension, “You will be my witnesses in Samaria.” — in Samaria
to a race of people that the Jews regarded as hostile and half-breeds. Yes, it
was ethnic and cultural and much else.

And my friends, surely there’s a
lesson there for us when we live in a society that is racially torn apart, that
there’s a message there for us, that here is this godly, spirit-filled man and
he’s taking the gospel to probably one of the most difficult areas imaginable
culturally and ethnically.

As Philip walks in to Samaria,
there’d been hostility-some people had been killed walking through Samaria
according to Josephus, and what did he do? Do you notice in verse 5? He began
proclaiming what? Racial reconciliation, ha! No. That would be a road to
disaster. Did he come with a program? No. He began proclaiming Christ. He took
Jesus to them because they were sinners like he was.

And I imagine, I’ve been trying to
imagine — how do you proclaim the gospel of Jesus to people who only have the
first five books of the Old Testament? Well, very simply, very simply. Because
in the opening pages of the Pentateuch you have the protoevangelium, the first
gospel promise, the seed of the woman who will come and crush the head of Satan.
And as you delve into the belief system of the Samaritans, one of the things
that the Samaritans emphasize more than anything else was that promise in
Deuteronomy 18 of a prophet that will arise like Moses and be their deliverer.

I have a notion that Philip latched
onto that with both hands. And he’s saying to them, “I have seen and heard the
prophet like Moses and His name is Jesus Christ and let me tell you about Him.”
And he preached Jesus to them.

And his preaching is accompanied by
extraordinary signs and miracles, unique, I think to this period of redemptive
history. Now I know that Philip is not an apostle, but in the next section as
we’ll see in a couple of weeks, Peter and John come down to investigate what
Philip is doing as if to say that Philip is there as a plenipotentiary of the
apostles. And the signs that accompany the preaching are as Paul will testify in
2 Corinthians 12:12 signs of the apostle or the plenipotentiaries of the
apostle.

As the gospel moves into new
territory, it’s as though, don’t push this too far, but it’s as though there’s a
recycling of a Pentecost. It’s as if there’s a mini-Pentecost taking place now,
not in Jerusalem, but in Samaria as one of those boundaries is crossed.

IV. Great Joy.

And fourthly, great persecution and
great evangelism and great signs and great joy and great joy, verse 8,
“so there was much rejoicing in that city.”

Now, don’t you think Luke, as he’s
writing this, is saying, “Do you see the contrast?” He begins this part of the
story with great persecution, Saul ravaging the church, and he ends with great
rejoicing. There’s trouble in one city and there’s joy in another city.

It was what Jesus prayed for in the
upper room, “That they might have My joy fulfilled in themselves and that
they might be kept from the evil one who’s a joyless critter for all eternity.”

Do you see my friends what you have here? As these
Samaritans begin to see what I think must have been for them a little glimpse of
what redemption was all about.

As their souls
are saved and their bodies are healed, it must have been a little glimpse of
heaven, of the new earth and the new heavens come down by the power of the Holy
Spirit and there’s great rejoicing and there’s joy!

“Jesus shall reign where ere the sun does its successive journeys run. His
kingdoms stretch from shore to shore ‘til moons shall wax and wane no more.”

In
1949, when the Communists defeated the national government of China, 637
missionaries were evicted from China. In less than five years half of them were
back in Southeast Asia having been redeployed in battle. Today, my friends, some
say the church in China is 40 times the size it was then. Out of trouble, good
comes.

As
Tertullian so eloquently put it, “The more you mow us down, the more we grow.”

Be
careful, my friends, when you pray in this prayer meeting. Make this a
mission-minded church because God’s way of answering that in order to bring joy
to another city may be to bring trouble to you and me. And are you ready for
that?


Father, we thank You for Your Word. Hide it now in our hearts and give us the
boldness and the courage that Philip had to preach Jesus and to see nothing else
in the picture but Jesus. For Jesus’ sake we ask it. Amen.

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