To the End of the Earth: The Great Search

Sermon by Derek Thomas on October 18, 2006

Acts 8:26-40

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Wednesday Evening

October 18,
2006

Acts 8:26-40


“To the Ends of the Earth
The Great Search”

Dr. Derek W. H.
Thomas

Now we’re in The Acts of the Apostles, and we’ve
been following the account that Luke provides for us of this extraordinary godly
man, Philip. We’re going to have to bid farewell to Philip tonight. We’ll catch
him one more time — Acts 21 (I’m speaking off the top of my head) — Acts
21…the passage where Paul will be coming back to Jerusalem and he gets off the
boat and he will make his way to Caesarea, and will go to Philip’s house…and
his four unmarried daughters who are prophetesses…and Paul will spend the
night there, and that will be the last glimpse we’ll have of Philip. It’s an
extraordinary thing…this man who appears for a season…of immense ability,
evangelist, full of faith, full of the Holy Spirit, and now he’s going to
disappear. He’s undoubtedly going to be doing the Lord’s work, but he’s going to
be doing the Lord’s work in a corner somewhere and out of the gaze of the spread
of the gospel now, as Luke tells us this story.

It reminds me a little of a Welsh minister by the
name of David Morgan, in the revival that broke out in Wales following the 1857
revival that broke out in New York. There was a similar revival that broke out
in many parts in Scotland, Wales, and other places in 1857-1858, and lasted in
Wales up until 1860. And David Morgan wrote in his diary one day that he went to
bed one night as a lamb and woke in the morning like a lion. And for a period of
about a year, God used him in an extraordinary way, when thousands made
professions of faith under his ministry. And then, just as he had woken one
morning as a lion, he tells us in about a year’s time in his diary, he went to
bed as a lion and woke the next morning as a lamb. And it’s a little bit like
that in the story of Philip.

We come tonight to a wonderful, wonderful section of
Acts. It’s one of my favorite stories in Acts–I’m sure it’s one of yours, those
of you who love evangelism, those of you who like to engage in evangelism. But
here’s an extraordinary tale of how Philip engages in one-to-one evangelism with
the Ethiopian eunuch. It’s an account that we find in Acts 8, beginning at verse
26. Before we read the passage together, let’s pray.

Father, we thank You now again for the Scriptures
that holy men of old wrote as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit. We
thank You that Your word is quick and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged
sword, dividing asunder the joints and marrow, the soul and the spirit. We ask
for Your blessing–blessing as we read it, blessing as we seek to understand it,
blessing as we take it away with us and meditate on it in the course of the rest
of this day. And teach us and instruct us, for Jesus’ sake. Amen.

Acts 8, beginning at verse 26:

“But an angel of the Lord spoke to Philip saying, ‘Get up and go
south to the road that descends from Jerusalem to Gaza. (This is a desert road.)
So he got up and went; and there was an Ethiopian eunuch, a court official of
Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, who was in charge of all her treasure; and he
had come to Jerusalem to worship. And he was returning and sitting in his
chariot, and was reading the prophet Isaiah. Then the Spirit said to Philip, ‘Go
up and join this chariot.’ Philip ran up and heard him reading Isaiah the
prophet, and said, ‘Do you understand what you are reading?’ And he said, ‘Well,
how could I, unless someone guides me?” And he invited Philip to come up and sit
with him. Now the passage of Scripture which he was reading was this:

‘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 judgment was taken away;

Who will relate His generation?

For His life is removed from the earth.’

The eunuch answered Philip and said, ‘Please tell me, of whom does the prophet
say this? Of himself, or of someone else?’ And Philip opened his mouth, and
beginning from this Scripture he preached Jesus to him. As they went along the
road they came to some water; and the eunuch said, ‘Look! Water! What prevents
me from being baptized?’ And Philip said, ‘If you believe with all your heart,
you may.’ And he answered and said, ‘I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of
God.’ And he ordered the chariot to stop; and they both went down into the
water, Philip as well as the eunuch; and he baptized him. When they came up out
of the water, the Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away; and the eunuch no
longer saw him, but went on his way rejoicing. 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.”

Amen. And may the Lord add His blessing.

We sang that hymn earlier on…both of the hymn
selections were mine. I wanted us especially to sing that first one, “I
Sought the Lord, and Afterward I Knew
He moved my soul, seeking me….It was
not I that found, O Savior true; no, I was found of Thee.” It’s an anonymous
hymn written somewhere toward the end of the last century or the nineteenth
century. It’s more or less, I think, what this passage is about. From one sense,
this passage is about a man who is seeking after God. He’s gone to Jerusalem to
seek after God. He’s bought a Bible, a scroll of Isaiah, because he’s seeking
after God. He asks Philip to explain what it is that he’s reading, because he’s
seeking after God. But you know as well as I do that it is God that has been
seeking him; that he is seeking the Lord because God has been seeking after him.
And in a sense we could very easily, I suppose, look at this passage from those
two perspectives: a man searching for God, and God searching for a man; and that
would be a wonderful sermon, I suppose, in and of itself.

It’s the great search. It’s not just a story about
the conversion of one man. It certainly is that, but it’s the story of the
conversion of a very important man, a man who is in charge of all of the
treasury of this queen of the Ethiopians (possibly the reference is to the queen
mother of the Ethiopians). It’s the story of the conversion of an African, and
that’s got to be significant. The Samaritans–well, we’ve looked at the
Samaritans, but the Samaritans were half-breeds. They had some connection to the
Jewish race. But you remember Jesus’ words in Acts 1:8? That they are to go and
be His disciples in Jerusalem and Judea, and in Samaria, and the ends of the
earth? And you get the sense now that here we are reaching the ends of the
earth, as the gospel has spread from Jerusalem to Judea and to the Samaritans,
and now to North Africa–to North Africa! This black man, this man who will be
the forerunner of some pretty significant African Christians in the centuries to
come–Cyprian, and Tertullian, and Augustine, to name but three.

There were two roads that led south from Jerusalem.
One led down through Hebron and into Idumea, or what we sometimes read in the
Bible as Edom, where the Edomites lived. The other road was the coastal road,
the road that would lead to Gaza and eventually to Egypt. And it’s on this road,
the coastal road, that this Ethiopian is traveling on his chariot, and probably
with an entourage of people. It would be a road full of Roman mile markers. Gaza
was one of the five principal Philistine cities. Gaza was one of those cities
that had resisted the occupation of Israel right down to the Maccabean period
when it was razed to the ground, more or less, so that the Gaza that Philip now
finds himself in (or at least the road to Gaza) was not the old Gaza which was
destroyed, but a new one which the Romans had built.

And so Luke tells us this marvelous account,
remarkable for several reasons. Remarkable for, what I want to suggest, at least
three reasons. Remarkable, first of all, because it is a remarkable conversion.
So far, if we were only to consider Jerusalem, we have been told of
somewhere in the region of 20,000 conversions since Pentecost. It’s somewhere in
than region. Let alone what’s happened in Samaria…but on no occasion so far
have we been given an example of how an individual has been converted. This is
the first time in The Acts of the Apostles where Luke now pauses, as it were,
and explains in detail how an individual is brought to saving faith in Jesus
Christ.

It’s also the first example of one-to-one
evangelism
, and there are lessons and instruction for us here of the method
that Philip employs and the words that he employs, and the obedience and the
courage that is his in engaging in this one-to-one evangelism with this
Ethiopian.

Three things come to the surface almost all at
once. The first, the sense that there has been preparation.
This doesn’t
just happen. You know, once you become a believer, once you become attuned even
to a small degree of the ways of God, it’s impossible to think of anything
without seeing something of the hand of God, and there’s something of the hand
of God here. God has been preparing this man. God has been unsettling this man,
way back in Ethiopia. His quest to find the meaning of life, his quest to have
some of his questions answered — the profoundest questions answered. His life
has been shaken, and he can’t yet find the resolution to the unsettling that has
taken place in his heart and mind and soul. So he’s made this journey as the
treasurer to the Ethiopian queen, or possibly queen mother. He’s gone to
Jerusalem to the place where the Jews worship God. He’s probably a God-fearing
Gentile.

And what worship would he have found in
Jerusalem?
He’s gone to Jerusalem, we read in verse 27, in order to worship.
What worship would he have found in Jerusalem? As a Gentile, at the very most
all he would have experienced would have been the worship of the Court of the
Gentiles, the outer court–noisy and a bit like the beginning of prayer meeting,
when you were speaking and there were fifty people over there not paying the
least bit of attention–the Court of the Gentiles was a bit like that. It was not
a worship experience, I don’t think.

But he wasn’t just a Gentile, and had he owned up
to it, which the text seems to suggest that he did, he was a eunuch.
I read
more than I needed to know about eunuchs in the past few days, and I’ll spare
you the details. But people made themselves eunuchs in order to get jobs like
this, jobs where they could be trusted, especially in the taking care of certain
women like the Queen Candace of Ethiopia. And eunuchs were not allowed in the
temple. They weren’t even allowed in the Court of the Gentiles. So the kind of
worship that this man had found in Jerusalem was not a great experience of
worship. He may well have gone to the synagogue, maybe even the Synagogue of the
Freedmen that we’ve already looked at in Acts 6. But I suggest to you that it
was probably disappointing. He didn’t find the answer.

Somehow, some way, somebody urged him in the
providence of God to purchase a scroll of the prophet Isaiah.
I’m fascinated
as to what that looked like, as to how he would go about doing that, as to what
size it was. He’s in a chariot. I’ve no idea what kind of suspension chariots
had, but I imagine it wasn’t great. He’s in a chariot reading…and apparently
reading aloud. Now maybe we’re meant to infer at this point that the chariot had
stopped for a while, which I probably think is the case, and he’s reading from
the prophecy of Isaiah. Of all the books in the Old Testament that you would
want a seeking soul to read to find the answer to his quest, wouldn’t it be
Isaiah? And of all the chapters in the Old Testament that you would want a
seeker to place his eyes upon, wouldn’t it be Isaiah 53? And don’t you get the
impression here that there’s something of a preparatory hand at work? That the
sovereignty of God has been at work?

Because not only is there preparation, because
there’s providence.
What are the chances of a man reading Isaiah 53 and at
the same time discovering a man–and you know what Luke has said this place
is…it’s a desert road.

If Philip thought being sent to Samaria was odd,
being sent to a desert road was odder. There’s nobody there! He must have stood
there for several hours, perhaps longer, wondering what in the world he was
supposed to be doing on the desert road, when he spies the dust of a chariot
coming towards him. And, lo and behold, it just so happens this man is seeking
for God, and he’s reading Isaiah 53. And Philip has the presence of mind to ask
him, “Do you understand what it is that you read?” What are the chances of a man
like that meeting a Philip, full of faith and full of the Holy Spirit, and who
understood Isaiah 53, and was able to give him the answer? It’s the providence
of God. Isn’t it wonderful when the providence of God and opportunity for
evangelism come together?

Do you notice the profession that this man makes?
Well, if you’ve got the New American Standard, you notice in verse 37 it’s
in italics. If you’re reading from another version, you’ve got to look somewhere
down in the bottom marginal notes of your Bible, because it’s not there. It’s
one of these disputed texts. It’s not in some of the most notorious manuscripts.
It’s missing. It sounds very much like a text that is well known to us from Acts
16 and the Philippian jailer: “What must I do to be saved?” “Believe in the Lord
Jesus Christ.”

Now, let me pass over the textual issue. What this
text is actually saying is ‘What is at the heart of the belief of the New
Testament church as to how it is that a man or a woman or a boy or a girl is
converted?’ And they are converted by believing in the Lord Jesus Christ, and
the language is very specific. It’s to believe into the Lord Jesus
Christ…to get right inside Jesus Christ…to get into fellowship with Jesus
Christ…to get into union with Jesus Christ. What do we say to a man or a woman
who is seeking after Jesus Christ? I venture to say that probably many of us
might say something that has become common over the last 40, 50, 60 years. We
would say to this Ethiopian, ‘You must ask the Lord Jesus into your heart.’

Now please don’t get bent out of shape, but you
understand that that’s not biblical language, and in adopting that
language you actually dilute the significance of what it is that the New
Testament church and the New Testament itself says is the way we come to faith
in Jesus Christ. Because it’s not bringing Jesus into my heart so much as empty
hands saying ‘Nothing in my hands I bring; simply to Thy cross I cling. The only
hope I have is to put my faith in Christ, is to rest everything in Christ.’ And
the change of language, I suspect, is probably significant and indicative of the
fact that we’ve moved away from the emphasis of the New Testament that the
gospel comes to those and is designed for those who have absolutely nothing to
offer.

What is it that Luther so often said? That the
gospel is entirely outside of you. That was Luther’s language: that the gospel
is entirely outside of you. You don’t contribute anything. You don’t add Jesus
to yourself. You cast yourself upon Jesus. And so we have here a remarkable
conversion.

I love to ask people how they were converted. That
says a lot about you, and conversion stories will differ from one person to the
next. As I’m often fond of citing Cesar Milan, the French hymn writer, some
people are awakened like a mother awakens her children from their sleep with a
kiss, and it’s gentle; and others are awoken like I was awoken, and it was like
Saul of Tarsus, and one minute I was a flaming liberal…actually, I was worse
than that – I was an atheist…and the next minute, by the grace of Almighty
God, I was a believer.

A remarkable conversion, a remarkable expansion
is the second reason
, because here Luke wants us, as it were, not only to
catch the microcosm, but he wants us also to catch something of the macrocosm:
that there’s a bigger picture here; that here the gospel is flowing forth from
Jerusalem in obedience to the command of Jesus to the apostles, and it’s going
now to the ends of the earth.

If you have a Bible with you (and if you don’t, I’m
going to read it to you), but if you have a Bible with you, turn with me just
for a second to Isaiah and to the very book that this man was reading, this
Ethiopian was reading, because had he begun at the beginning, in chapter 11 this
is what he would have read:

“In that day the Lord will extend his hand yet a second time to recover the
remnant that remains of His people from Assyria, from Egypt, from Pathros, from
Cush…”

Cush, of course, is Ethiopia, you understand…the
Cushites were the Ethiopians. And here in Isaiah 11:11, this Ethiopian would see
a prophecy that one day God would draw His people from Cush, from Ethiopia.

Turn with me to chapter 56, and wouldn’t it be
altogether extraordinary if he’d gone on reading from Isaiah 53 and into chapter
56, and in verses 3-5:

“Let not the foreigner who has joined himself to the Lord say, ‘The Lord will
surely separate me from His people.’ And let not the eunuch say, ‘Behold, I am a
dry tree.’ For thus says the Lord, ‘To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths, who
choose the things that please Me and hold fast My covenant, I will give in My
house and within My walls a monument and a name better than sons and daughters;
I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off.’”

Do you understand how meaningful that would have
been to this eunuch who couldn’t have sons and daughters? God has given this
extraordinary promise that in the kingdom that God will establish, in the one
about whom he’s reading in Isaiah 53, there will be place for the broken and the
disenfranchised, and the outcasts of the world, of people as far away…and from
Jerusalem it was far away from Ethiopia…and eunuchs. And there’s a sense that
we have here, a remarkable expansion of God’s gospel ways in the new covenant,
so that this man could very well have said, “Just as I am–just as I am:
Ethiopian, black, eunuch, Gentile–O Lamb of God, I come.”

That’s why we sang, in case you’re wondering, “There’s
a Wideness in God’s Mercy
like the wideness of the sea.” Have you ever been
out in a boat, and you can’t see land? And all you can see everywhere is sea,
and the sky…you know that phrase that we sometimes talk about? We talk about
it in Mississippi a lot. The sky is big in Mississippi. And don’t you think this
man could have sung, “There’s a wideness to God’s mercy, like the wideness of
the sea”?

There’s a remarkable conversion here, but there’s a
remarkable expansion of who it is now that is included in the kingdom of God by
faith in Jesus Christ.

But there’s a remarkable witness here, too,
because I think we are meant to see what it is that Philip said to this man in
answer to his question.
Philip’s evangelism, his personal evangelism, his
one-to-one evangelism, his willingness, his courage, his wisdom to say the right
things at the right time. He doesn’t have to engage in any pre-evangelism here.
You know, sometimes you have to go through all sort of contortions and you ask
all sorts of silly questions just to get an opportunity, as it were, to get the
gospel in. You know, you sort of work hard. You don’t speak first of all about
sinners going to hell for eternity in the first sentence. You ought to sort of
engage in some kind of pre-evangelism. Well, there’s no pre-evangelism. This
man’s reading Isaiah 53. The pre-evangelism has already been done.

There’s something about Philip here. Philip
is a man who is full of faith, and full of the Holy Spirit. That’s how he was
introduced to us in chapter 6, and you get the impression that he is willing to
go where the Spirit sends him, even to a desert road, because there he’s going
to meet this man, and his willingness to engage in personal evangelism with this
Ethiopian.

I was reading Hudson Taylor’s two-volume biography
of William Chalmers Burns, the Scottish missionary to China. An extraordinary
story of William Chalmers Burns, the missionary to China…and Hudson Taylor
describes Burns as a walking prayer. That’s how he describes him: “He was a
walking prayer.” His life was lived in the presence of God. And I get the sense
that Philip’s life was lived, as we say, Coram Deo: in the face…before
the face of God. He lived in the presence of God. He was sensitive to the
opportunity and had the courage to take the opportunity of evangelism.

This man is reading Isaiah 53. I remember once…a
missionary to the Jews in Manchester in England was telling me this about 15
years ago. It was around Christmastime, and they decided to distribute a tract
in this Jewish neighborhood a couple of days before Christmas. And they
distributed it to every home…it was a Jewish neighborhood…and the local
rabbi wrote a letter to the press, a virulent sort of letter attacking this
friend of mine for distributing this tract and claiming in the letter–the words
as I recall were that suggesting that this man was mentally ill–and you know
what the tract was? It was Isaiah 53! That’s all it was. There wasn’t even a
sort of New Testament text. It was all Isaiah 53:

“Like a sheep He was led to the slaughter, and like a lamb before his shearers
is silent, so He opens not His mouth.”

And the Ethiopian says, ‘Of whom does this speak? Of
whom is Isaiah speaking? Is he speaking about himself, or is he speaking about
someone else?’ Wouldn’t you love somebody to ask that question? You know, I
really don’t think anybody’s ever asked me that kind of question. It’s like the
rich young man who comes up to Jesus asking, “What must I do to inherit eternal
life?” Don’t you pray for opportunities like that?

And do you see what Philip did? It’s a
beautiful thing. “Beginning at that Scripture,” Luke says, “Beginning at that
Scripture, he showed to this man the good news about Jesus.” Isn’t that a
beautiful expression? He showed him the good news. He told him the good news
(end of verse 35) about Jesus. I get the sense that Philip could have taken
anybody from anywhere in the Old Testament to Jesus. I get that sense. I think
he was so full of Jesus, I think he was so in love with Jesus that it didn’t
really matter where he was in the Old Testament, he’d have got to Jesus. But
what a wonderful thing to say about Isaiah 53, where Jesus is at the very
surface of the passage, that he told him the good news about Jesus.

And he’s baptized. I don’t have time now to
get controversial. I don’t think this is a passage about immersion. We’re told
that – I’m going to be controversial – both the Ethiopian and Philip are said to
have gone down into the water and come up out of the water, so I don’t think
Luke is giving us here an example of immersion. Certainly he went into the
river. That’s not what Luke wants us to see. That’s not the issue. The issue is
that this man becomes a disciple. There’s something extraordinary about it.
Tertullian and Augustine will comment on this passage that this is not the way
the church would do it in the future–they wouldn’t immediately baptize somebody
on the spur of the moment on the side of the road. There’s something
extraordinary; there’s something preliminary about this. We’re on the very cusp
here of the expansion. There isn’t a church here, and this man wasn’t going back
to a church, and this man needed to learn something about the claims of
discipleship, so he’s baptized.

But you see the final thing that Luke wants us to
see, if this were a movie.
Philip is suddenly taken out of the picture, and
he’s off to Azotus and eventually to Caesarea. We’ll pick him up again in
chapter 21. But what’s the final little picture, the picture framed as this
story comes to an end? It’s this man. He went on his way (verse 39)
rejoicing.

He starts the story and he’s a shaken man, and he
doesn’t have answers to the greatest questions of life. But he ends the passage
and he’s found the answer, and the answer is Jesus, because He’s the answer to
every question, and he’s found the One that has made him free, and he’s found
the One that has given his life meaning and purpose. He’s found the One that has
filled that God-shaped void in his life, and he’s rejoicing.

I like to think, you know, as he’s going now in his
chariot, bumping along on the road to Egypt and eventually to Ethiopia, that
he’s singing. What do you think he’s singing?

“Jesus, the very thought of Thee

With sweetness fills my breast;

But sweeter far Thy face to see

And in Thy presence rest.”

Of course it wasn’t that, but you get the idea and
get the drift. What a beautiful, beautiful story of a genuine, sovereign
conversion, solid conversion, of the Ethiopian.

Let’s pray together.

Father, we thank You for Your word. Encourage us
by it, and do this work in our midst. We want to see conversions. We want to see
men and women brought out of darkness and out of nominalism into commitment and
zeal and fire for Jesus Christ. So do it, O Lord, for Jesus’ sake. Amen.

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