In Acts 1:8 Jesus, the head of the church had given a commission (which was a repeat of what he had said earlier, eg. Matthew 28:19ff, the Great Commission): ‘you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”.
All those who have been transformed by Jesus and have given the Lordship of their lives to Him, are enlisted to be His witnesses, wherever the Lord leads you: at home, in your own city, your own country or abroad. During the first chapters of Acts we see that the apostles and others did witness about Jesus in Jerusalem: On Pentecost Peter preached to all those who had gathered in Jerusalem for the feast. Then Stephen (who was one of the appointed deacons) preached also in Jerusalem (Acts 7).
The church grew in Jerusalem. But it seems that the church was not in a great hurry to move outside of Jerusalem. Perhaps they thought: there is plenty of work here, why move somewhere else? God had to shake things up a bit: a persecution (Acts 8:1). The result: the Christians had to leave Jerusalem to save their lives. Where did they flee to? To Judea and Samaria: the places God had in mind for them to be His witnesses in the first place. Sometimes when we don’t pay much attention to God’s Word, He may need to shout harder. C.S. Lewis said: “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks to us in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: It is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world”
One of the people God used in a special way during this time of persecution was Philip.
We first hear about Philip in Acts 6. At that time, due to the growing number of Christians the apostles couldn’t handle the growing responsibilities. They decided they should focus on their main responsibilities, which was ‘prayer and the ministry of the word’ and to increase the leadership team with 7 more people: deacons, or administrative helpers, who would be responsible for the day-to-day affairs of the church. By the way, this is a great example of a key characteristic of Christian leadership, namely to
a) recognize what is your core business and your main gifting;
b) realize that you can’t do it all by yourself;
c) understand that God has equipped the church with many more excellent people with great skills and
d) the ability to delegate responsibility to others.
The apostles appointed seven deacons, one of which was Phillip. One of the criteria to be appointed a deacon was: ‘to be known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom’ (Acts 6:3). This meant that Phillip was a man known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. Isn’t this a great aspiration for us to strive for? Which church wouldn’t want to have more men and women full of the Spirit and wisdom? When we are looking to appoint new leaders in our church do we include in our criteria that they are people full of the Spirit and wisdom? When we are sending out missionaries, do we make sure that they are people full of the Spirit and wisdom?
We need the fullness of the Spirit and wisdom not only when we preach or when we are on the platform, but also in doing mundane, practical things in the church.
We don’t know how long Philip worked as a deacon in the church in Jerusalem, but after his deacon –colleague, Stephen, had preached a powerful sermon, which got him killed, a strong persecution started to fall on the Jerusalem church. As I said earlier this persecution might have been God’s megaphone to shout the great commission to His followers.
The believers that were scattered did speak about their faith with the people they met. It’s like a wheat, when the wind blows the seeds to far away places where they fall to the ground and begin to grow into new plants.
One of the more prominent people that had to flee from Jerusalem was Philip. And the spotlight of Acts 8 is put on him.
It turned out that he was not only a good administrator, but also a good evangelist and a pioneer to venture into new kinds of ministries. While the other believers who fled from Jerusalem spoke to their countrymen, the fellow Jews, about Jesus, Phillip was the first one to cross a cultural bridge: he went to the Samaritan area and preached the Gospel to them.
The Samaritans –the foreigners in our country
Who are the Samaritans?
It is clear from the Bible that there was great enmity between the Jews and the Samaritans. We first hear of this in the book of Ezra 4:1-3 when the Samaritans wanted to participate in re-building the temple after the return of the Jews from exile. Their request was denied by Zerubabbel, Joshua and the heads of the tribes of Israel. The result was a complaint by the Samaritans to the kings of Persia and their constant harassment of the Jews in rebuilding the temple in Jerusalem. This enmity grew over the centuries to the extent that if you want to insult someone badly, you would call him a Samaritan. The Jews told our Lord Jesus Christ, “Do we not say rightly that You are a Samaritan and have a demon?” (John 8:48).
To fully understand this deep enmity between these two peoples, we must first understand who the Samaritans really are. In 670 BC, Esarhaddon, king of Assyria, removed the Israelites living in what was the Northern Kingdom. In their place he transplanted peoples from several other nations that they had previously conquered. We can read about this in 2 Kings 17: 24: “Then the king of Assyria brought people from Babylon, Cuthah, Ava, Hamath, and from Sepharvaim, and placed them in the cities of Samaria instead of the children of Israel; and they took possession of Samaria and dwelt in its cities.”
2 Kings 17 also explains that although they did worship the God of Israel in some way, they mixed this with serving other gods. So these nations feared the Lord, yet served their carved images; also their children and their children’s children have continued doing as their fathers did, even to this day” (2 Kings 17:25-41).
Thus, the Samaritans are a mix of several different peoples that worshipped multiple gods. Over time, their worship had taken on a Jewish character but with their own peculiarities. Their primary religious text became the Torah (the Pentateuch) only, but with some variation, and excluded the other Holy Scriptures. At the time of Alexander the Great (322 BC) they build their own temple on Mount Gerizim, which they considered their own holy mountain instead of where Jerusalem was. They were also involved in persecuting the Jews at the time of Antiochus Epiphanes.
Although Jesus had said ‘you shall be my witnesses in Samaria’, it becomes clear that this was not something that came easily to the first believers. As children of their time, the first believers seem to have been full of prejudices and negative stereotypes about these Samaritans. In fact, although they lived in the same country, they had created barriers between the two communities, so much so that we read in John 4:9 ‘Jews do not associate with Samaritans’.
It is hard, if not impossible to share the Gospel with people you do not associate with.
Who are our Samaritans?
Perhaps, it is appropriate to draw parallels between the Samaritans in the time of the first believers and the Muslim immigrants in our country. In many countries across Europe Christian and Muslim communities live side by side, but really do not associate with each other.
Do we have the ‘Phillips’ in our church, our Christian communities willing to build the bridges towards them? Are you willing to be a Philip?
To be a person full of the Spirit and wisdom might mean crossing the cultural, religious, ethnical barriers in order to reach people with the Good News of Jesus Christ.
While the first Christians might have a hard time loving, forgiving, accepting and embracing Samaritans, God loved them, forgave them, accepted them and embraced them and welcomed them graciously into His arms. God loves the people that we can’t stand, even our enemies, even the terrorists, even the Osama bin Ladens of our time and He has poured this same love in our hearts to enable us to love those He loves.
Full of the Spirit means full of the love of God for people, irrespective of who they are and what they have done. Being full of the Spirit and wisdom also means being bold (without being stupid!) about your Christian faith. Phillip started proclaiming the Gospel to Samaritans boldly. Many who heard him and saw the results of the power of the Gospel in liberation, healing and changed lives, committed their lives to the Lord and were baptized. We read that “there was great joy in the city” (Acts 8:8).
Let us be open to be surprised to find faith among people that we don’t expect; to see God at work among those that we thought were opposed to the Gospel.
Hearing the still small voice in the midst of a busy activity
It must have been marvelous to be part of this great work of God in this Samaritan city. Crowds listening to the Gospel; people getting baptized; spectacular manifestations of God’s presence. It was a time of revival. Much was going on and I guess Philip was a busy man: preaching the Gospel, dealing with wrong teaching, discipling new believers, planting a church etc. etc.
Yes, being full of the Spirit means working fruitfully and powerfully. Of course, God’s Spirit is able to perform miracles and spectacular things, but let’s be careful to not equate outward manifestations with inward purity, joy and obedience. And let us be careful to not be so busy doing the Lord’s work that we ignore to sit at the Lord’s feet. Working for the Lord, seeing Him at work in our ministries is no guarantee that we are doing the right thing, or are at the right place.
In the midst of a busy ministry, it seems Philip took time to listen to the Lord, to have his quiet time. And because of that he was able to hear the Lord’s voice. In fact, it was ‘an angel of the Lord’ (appearing in a dream?) that told him to leave his busy work and to move out to a desolate area. (Acts 8:26) It is important to be attentive to the leading of the Lord, even when you are in the midst of great spiritual activity.
Following where the Spirit leads
The Lord made it clear to Philip that he had to go to another location. God didn’t give all the information at once. Philip had to obey before he was given further information. “God’s Word is a lamp unto our feet”. This means, it provides enough light for the next step, but doesn’t always give us the whole way at once. We don’t read that Philip argued with God about this. He didn’t say: “Lord, you see, I’m busy doing this great work here.” “I started it and people are dependent upon me, there is still so much work to do here.” “If I leave, it might stop.”“ Lord, I’m sure that you see that I can’t be missed here.” Nothing of the kind. God called him and he obeyed. This is also a trademark of being full of the Spirit. Obeying the Lord, even if it doesn’t make sense. Often those leaving for missions are the one’s that are active in the local congregation.
From a busy area with lots of people with needs, God lead Philip to a lonely place. But he was not alone there. God had ordained not only his paths but also those of a seeker, an influential African foreigner. God made sure that the two crossed each other’s path. Behind the scenes we see God arranging for the evangelist to meet with a seeker. As God led Philip to meet with this African foreigner, God can lead us to cross paths of those that He wants to bring into His Kingdom. Of course, people might seek God, but what is more important is that God seeks people. Before Philip saw the African, God had his eyes on him. Evangelism and missions is really nothing else than collaboration with God to bring lost people into His salvation. God takes the initiative for the conversion of unbelievers, and we are called upon to be God’s helpers.
Who was this stranger?
The Bible tells us he was from Ethiopia (in those days this probably referred to Northern Sudan). He was a high official, the Minister of Finance. In other words, he was a very influential man, and he must he traveled with servants and other officials. Most likely he was sitting back in a chariot, protected from the sun by a canopy. He had a private chauffeur and was riding in style. We read that he had been to Jerusalem to worship and was now on his way back home. The fact that he made this trip makes clear that he was attracted to the Jewish religion. He probably was a so-called ‘god-fearer’. The Bible also mentions that he is an eunuch (castrated) which was very common for men working in court (where you also had the harem). Although he had been to Jerusalem (presumably) also the temple, it is clear from Scripture that he was not allowed entrance into the temple, because the Bible clearly says: “No one who has been emasculated by crushing or cutting may enter the assembly of the Lord.” (Deut. 23:1)
Probably when he was in Jerusalem he was able to buy a scroll, containing part of the Jewish Scriptures. These must have been expensive.
Philip, as we have seen, was a man full of the Spirit and wisdom. It the Spirit who made it clear to him that he should approach the chariot of this African official. When he came closer he must have been surprised to hear this man read the Bible. This must have been a pleasant surprise. Philip’s wisdom came out when he opened his mouth and asked a polite question: “Do you understand what you are reading?”(Acts 8:30) This was a great first sentence. The Spirit of the Lord not only gives boldness, but also wisdom. Wisdom is knowing when to speak and when not to speak and when opening your mouth to know the right things to say. In Colossians 4: 5,6 we read “Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders; make the most of every opportunity. Let you conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.”
It is clear from all details in this story that Philip was the right man at the right place at the right time. This is something that no man could organize. The African minister was reading a beautiful passage from Isaiah 53 and it took Philip no difficulty to preach Jesus from this passage.
In the Samaritan town Philip performed miracles, healings etc, but here he explained the Scripture. Of course God can make use of supernatural signs, but His most favorite instrument to draw people to Himself is his own Word. Nothing that we say or do is more powerful than Scripture. How important that we know the Scriptures, not just our favorite passages, but all Scripture, so that in case some stranger happens to read a passage from the Bible we can preach Jesus from this.
From this chapter it also become clear that there can be different methods in evangelism (mass-evangelism – Philip with the Samaritans – Acts 8:6-8; or personal evangelism (Philip with the Moor).
Compared to what God has done, the part of Philip was minor, although not insignificant. God could have sent the angel of the Lord to the African eunuch, in stead of to Philip. But God wants to foremost use us, His children, to come alongside others and explain Jesus to them.
Philip met this searching African, who was ready to accept Jesus as His Savior. Philip was the last link in the chain. We don’t know how many others have played a role in this man’s life. (Perhaps a Jewish neighbor had attracted him to Jewish religion, someone sold him a Bible). Bringing someone to Christ is often a team effort, although we don’t always know the other members of the team, but ultimately God is the coach, who assigns each player his/her unique role.
When the African accepted Jesus and was baptized, Philip’s role was finished. Someone else, no doubt, would take care of the follow-up.
We read that after his baptism the eunuch ‘went on his way rejoicing’ (8:39). Perhaps also continuing to read in Isaiah. If so, it didn’t take him long to come to Isaiah 56: 3-5, where he would read:
“Let no foreigner who has bound himself to the Lord say: ‘The Lord will surely exclude me from his people.’ And let not any eunuch complain: ‘I am only a dry tree’. For this is what the Lord says: “To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths, who choose what pleases me and hold fast to my covenant – to them I will give within my temple and its walls a memorial and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that will not be cut off.”
He might have been the first African believer, but from his testimony we can assume that many more came to accept Jesus as their Lord and Savior.
Pray that the Lord make you into a man or woman that is full of the Spirit and wisdom. A person, who is willing to cross borders, even reaching out to those that society rejects or looks at with prejudice. If you do so, you might be surprised to find that the Spirit brings many to accept Jesus as their Lord and Savior. But also learn from Philip to pay attention to the still small voice of the Spirit. Make sure you have enough time with the Lord to hear his voice. Also, be careful to not despise the individual seekers, both nationals or those of foreign origin, that God might bring on your path. Be willing to come alongside them and help them to explain the Word of God to them. If you do you, you might see God using you to bring the despised and rejected into an eternal relationship with God. God wants to save the foreigners in your countries, both citizens and visitors, are you willing to work with Him? AMEN
Bert de Ruiter, Amsterdam